The recent killing of George Floyd, an African-American man murdered by police, has once again brought to light the grave injustices and systemic racism which exists, particularly in the United States of America. There have since been many protests and calls for an end to the injustice and inequality at all levels. Dr. Rasheeda Ahmad is one such advocate, who has committed her life’s work to the cause of social justice, specifically in the critical analysis of how the institution of schooling practices in the United States reflect and reproduce inequalities in wider society. She holds a Masters Degree in Special Education and a Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. Among her various publications is her most recent book, A Paradise to Regain: Post-Obama Insights from Women Educators of the Black Diaspora, which seeks to reimagine traditional views of black male identity in school settings that hinder or act as barriers to achievement. The Review of Religions had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Rashida on the topics of race and the current situation in America. The following is a transcript of a conversation between Dr. Rasheeda Ahmad and the Review of Religions’ Sarah Waseem and Farhat Mahmood.
SW: Dr. Ahmad, can I start off by asking you what you think are the most pressing issues today that need to be addressed about racism and what do you think society is missing?
RA: Absolutely, yes. Before I start, I just want to revisit the horrific murder of George Floyd – those eight minutes and 46 seconds that we watched, it was just horrific and as he cried out for his dead mother, our hearts were really broken. Just to watch this officer with his knee on his neck, and George Floyd is crying out, “Officer, please, I can’t breathe,” and no mercy was shown to him. I can’t emphasise enough how painful that is for all of us, but in particular for African Americans, and so it just reopens a wound of the racial oppression and systematic oppression that we experience in the United States. It’s been a very painful period in our history today.
So, one of the things that I want to also mention is that there have been 70 cases of black women who have been killed at the hands of the police in the last three years, and this is a longstanding problem with media coverage. There’s this lack of attention to crimes committed against black women, so it’s very difficult to educate the public about the violence against them. But as we remember George Floyd, we also need to remember and pray for those women, those 70 women who have been killed in the last three years at the hands of the police.
SW: Can I interject, because you made a very important point – we tend to hear about young black men, African American men, and that’s really interesting. I wonder if there’s been enough attention on the deaths of African American women?
RA: Absolutely not. There is some scholarly work about this: Michelle S.Jacobs is a professor of Law at the University of Florida and she addresses this disconnect in a paper, The Violent State: Black Women’s Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence. We have to keep in mind that the media tends to present stories in a way that they get the most viewers, that people will click on, and black women generally are devalued in society and so we actually see that their cases, these cases of brutality have not really been publicised. InshAllah the struggles of these women will come to light and I just wanted to make sure that I highlighted that before we proceed.
So your question was, what do you think are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed about racism and what do I think society is missing? I want to start with some sort of analogy of building a house, and it’s so important that that foundation is erected properly. So you could have this beautiful house, with lovely furniture and all the things in the house that would make it so beautiful and wonderful for a family to live in, but if the foundation is not constructed in the proper way, that house could crumble. And so, when we’re talking about or discussing issues of racism in the United States – and I’m specifically addressing the US context – it’s important that we look at the foundation.
So, the foundation of racism in America is actually built on this myth of race. It’s a sort of mythological tale created by society, which really has no biological basis. So I would say that in the foundation of our understanding, this problematic issue of racism, we first need to look at this idea of race that is really a myth. What we see is that this creation of racial categories are simply there to divide the human family and serves as the foundation of systemic racism, which I had mentioned before. It was created to support and justify the enslavement of Africans and colonial exploitation and domination of non-Europeans.
All of this really occurred for greed and economic control of resources, so the myth of race really is a tool of oppression. It’s this tool that keeps the foundation of this systemic oppression in place. It’s the tool that tightens any cracks. You want to think of it as a myth of races that sort of belongs to this exclusive country club, in which the white members have these exclusive rights, and brown people get to become members occasionally, and blacks are never allowed.
And if whites try to argue for social justice to really transform the systems, they’re sort of reminded: ‘Look, you enjoy these privileges of being white,’ and so this is why you see, so often, working-class whites in America who are really, really struggling and pretty much in the same boat with the working-class African Americans and the underclass – they’re dealing with some of the same issues but they don’t come together. Why? Because they say, ‘Well, atleast I’m white, and somehow that makes me superior,’ so it’s really a myth.
SW: So they’ve bought into that, they’ve bought into the idea that there is some kind of inherent racial dominance – “Even though we’re in the same situation, we’re still better”?
RA: Exactly. There was a brilliant Harvard professor, his name is Noel Ignatiev; he’s no longer with us, but he states that there’s Irish culture, Italian culture – and if I may add these are in his words, not mine – there’s British culture, there is French culture, but Ignatiev states that Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and it has everything to do with social position. It’s nothing but a reflection of privilege and it exists for no other reason than to defend it. So, without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist. And the white skin would have no more social significance than big feet. So that’s a pretty powerful statement but it’s certainly relevant.
Then there’s the scientific evidence that really supports this, but before I even glance at the scientific evidence, let’s look at what Allah tells us in Chapter: 4, Verse: 2 [of the Qur’an]. Bismillahirahma niraheem, ‘O ye people! fear your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and created therefrom its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women; and fear Allah, in Whose name you appeal to one another, and fear Him particularly respecting ties of relationship. Verily, Allah watches over you.’
It’s so extraordinary that 1400+ years ago, this knowledge had been revealed that we’re created from this single soul and that humankind has been dispersed all over the world. So there really is no biological basis for race, there’s only one human race and as humans we share 99.9% of our DNA. So who are we? We’re those tribes and subtribes that Allah instructs us in the Holy Quran; people have their ancestry and their ethnic groups, and cultural groups, and language, and so when I focus on this notion that there are no different, separate races, this is not mean in any way that I’m saying is there’s no such thing as culture and that we don’t have differences in our appearances. Obviously we do. But the amount of melanin, which determines how dark your skin is, is determined by those adaptations based on the environment, how people were just dispersed in the environment, and this sort of intermarriage of various groups based on trade, living patterns, and so forth.
There’s a wonderful video – I don’t know if you are familiar with Rashida Tlaib who is an Arab American – and she’s asking one of the political figures in this conversation why Arab Americans have been excluded from a census? And so she asked the question, ‘Do I look white?’ It is such a powerful statement, because I’m thinking to myself, well yeah, maybe you do. I certainly might see folks who were white who may look like her but what she’s saying is, she is an Arab American and her identity is not being recognised in the census – I think it’s called the Middle Eastern North African group of people, or MENA. What they want to do is take that group – the only choice that she has is to check white, she’s not African so she can’t check that, and her only choice would be to check white.
So the whole notion of how we construct races is very politicised and it’s really related to this history of slavery, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
I also wanted to just refer the audience to an excellent resource, which is Jane Elliott, who is an elder white teacher, who created what we call the blue-eyed brown-eyed experiment. So in 1968, right after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, she wanted to find a way to teach her children how there really wasn’t any basis for race. So she conducted this experiment where she told the children one day, that all the brown-eyed children were the smart children and they were on top – so she gave the brown eyed children all these privileges, and then she said the blue-eyed children weren’t very smart, and they didn’t get to have the extra recess and so, you see the breakdown of these children. They start fighting against each other and bullying each other, and you really see what happens in society when you have these mythological social categories; people actually do bully each other based on this false notion that they think they’re better than each other. Well, to make a long story short, then she flips the groups and she said, ‘Remember when we said the brown group was on top? Well today they’re on the bottom,’ and then they go through that whole process again and finally we find out that the children who had been in the lower group, their achievement scores started to fall down and they started to achieve less and it actually affected their learning. So it’s just a very powerful experiment. I encourage the listeners to look up Jane Elliott.
In terms of the science, I would recommend to our listeners an excellent article – and this was shared with me by our Lajna Tarbiyyat Secretary in Philadelphia – How Science and Genetics are Reshaping the Race Debate of the 21st Century. The research in the article supports what the Holy Qur’an teaches us. It goes back about 18 years – so this is nothing new that I’m sharing, that there’s no biological basis for race – in this article the authors cite a groundbreaking Stanford study titled: The Genetic Structure of Human Populations, and then that’s followed by the 2003 Human Genome Project, which really examines human ancestry with genetics.
So those of you who want to really go into the science of it, and I really encourage people to do it and I’m hoping that young people will really study this information. If I may quote from the article, before we move on to look at other areas of racism, to sum up, ‘In the biological and social sciences, the consensus is clear: race is a social construct, not a biological attribute. Today scientists prefer to use the term ‘ancestry’ to describe human diversity. Ancestry reflects that human variations do have a connection to the geographic origins of our ancestors and so with enough information about a person’s DNA, scientists can make a reasonable guess about their ancestry. However, unlike the term race, it focuses on understanding how a person’s history unfolded, not how they fit into one category or another. In a clinical setting for instance, scientists would say that diseases such as Sickle Cell and Cystic Fibrosis are common in those of Sub-Saharan Africa or northern European descent respectively, rather than in those who are ‘black’ or ‘white”. It’s a lot to digest for the listeners, but I have to say that this particular topic meets a lot of resistance. People do not want to give up their position in the social hierarchy. It’s very real to be able to say, ‘I’m white and I’m at the top so therefore I’m better,’ and then if you’re brown in the middle, somehow you’re still better than the black people who are descendants of the Africans who were enslaved in America.
SW: That was a really comprehensive review of the complexity of the situation regarding race. So what do you think we are missing in society in discussing this issue?
RA: In addition to debunking this mythical race construct, it’s really important that we recognise the true complex nature of racism.
Racism in the US is not something that can be understood in a little short workshop, it can’t be understood in a 10-minute presentation. It’s really quite complex and very deep in terms of understanding how the structures of racism really impact the United States and the descendants of the Africans who were enslaved. So we have the storytelling, and that helps us to empathise with the degrees of the horror of racism, but I would say that there’s this urgent need for a deep dive into the research of how systemic racism operates.
Systemic racism – you have layers upon layers of oppression, and these systems are sort of supported by deception and lies – I give you the example of even the social construct of race – and so we need informed individuals to do this work. It definitely is a challenge, so let me just give you some examples of systemic racism.
This is not an inclusive list but just to help our listeners understand how systemic racism works, we have something called environmental racism. So at the national, state and local level, we find that the exposure of African Americans and others of colour, particularly Latinos, tend to live closer to polluters. We breathe this polluted air and we also know that in Flint, Michigan, this has been a recent problematic issue where we see that the water contamination has existed there a while and we don’t know what the long-term effect will be on the children, as they’ve been drinking this water and how that might affect them cognitively. So environmental racism, where you have many African Americans in poor areas living near polluters and at risk for many diseases to develop, even cancer, as a result of that.
Another example of systemic racism would be the justice systems, where the courts and the prison system that disproportionately affect African Americans. Right now, as a result of the murder of Mr. Floyd, there’s a flurry of activities trying to address policies and come up with legislation and laws to address police brutality. My question is, what about the African American males who were incarcerated in state prison, at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites? In five states, the disparity is more than 10:1, and in 12 states more than half the prison population is black.
SW: That’s incredibly high. That’s a very, very high figure. You may go on to talk about this but I’m also thinking about, certainly in the UK, the high rates of young black men who get detained undersection, when they are detained against their will in mental health institutions, so there are parallels going on with this disproportionate number.
RA: Absolutely Sarah, it’s extraordinary to see the parallels in another country, but we have to ask ourselves, what’s the impact on the families when you have this disproportionate number of black males incarcerated in the prison system? And then when they actually come out of the prison system, they’re not able to vote, they have difficulty finding jobs, they may not have the skills and the education. What that means to the family structure, in African American life, is certainly quite profound. Believe it or not, there are some states that actually have 72% African American males in terms of their populations, and keep in mind, most of the men are in jail for non-violent offenses.
SW: So that’s something I think we want to come back to. You’ve highlighted some really important issues and there is more to talk about with systemic racism. I think Farhat, when we were planning this, you had an interesting question from a historical context?
FM: Yes, Assalamualaikum Rasheeda. When we speak about this, we sort of want to find out, how did we get here? It sounds like the history of slavery in America seems to have a great link with the racism that we see today in America and my question is, how is that link stronger here in America, when we’ve had slavery all over the world? Why are the effects of that passed on from generation to generation here?
RA: Oh, that’s such a wonderful question! I would say, in one instance, it’s because the persistence of the problems that we have in society are related historically to what happened to us during slavery. How slavery in the Americas was different from the rest of the world and in other societies, is the brutality and the dehumanisation that occurred. Essentially what you have is a system that engages in cultural genocide. You have people who have no connection to their home countries, their language, their customs, and even our spiritual traditions. Historians are telling us about a third of Africans who were brought to the Americas who were enslaved were actually Muslim.
One of the things that happened, even during slavery, is that no two people or group of people who spoke the same language were allowed to congregate. They could not be together. It’s about destruction, about destroying the human psyche of these Africans. You can’t speak with another African who speaks your language, you are treated less than human, and even the whole process of the transportation through the dreaded middle passage, where the human beings, the Africans, were on the slave ships and imagine, they’re laying in their own waste, and people are vomiting, and there are dead bodies, and that whole process is just horrific. Even the bodies, they would cut the ears off of the Africans just so that they can claim that this is ‘our slave’, or what have you.
So we now get to the slavery period. During slavery, one of the laws that is so compelling, is that you couldn’t teach an African how to read or write. If a white person would teach the descendants of the African slaves to read or write, that person could actually be hung or face very severe punishment in society. So, it’s been an investment in destroying the psyche of the African people, in terms of their identity, their spiritual makeup.
They didn’t even allow the family to exist. The Africans did try to create some sort of marriage ceremony – they would have the jumping of the broom, but that night, the white slave master could come in and rape the mother, and the next day the children could be sold off. So, it’s just destruction and destruction. In other forms of slavery around the world, a human being knew where he or she came from, they knew their family, their identity was still in place, and that human being could eventually work their way out of slavery and then be free. With the chattel slavery in the US, you could never be free, your children were sold off, there was this level of destruction and I would venture to say that there’s no other system of slavery in America in any place in the world.
FM: You said even after the emancipation of the slaves there was a form of slavery that continued, could you elaborate on that?
RA: Absolutely. So imagine, the wealth of the country of the United States really was built on the sweat and the labour of the African. So you have this free labor that really generates the wealth in America.When the African slaves were emancipated, they were not given any reparations. They were supposed to get these 40 acres and a mule and that never happened. So what you had is the people continued to work on the plantations and they were sharecroppers. The system was so debilitating that at the end of the period of the crops being sold in all of that, because they would get to work a piece of land of the former slave owner, they would actually owe the slave owner. So they never could get ahead. They literally were in a quasistate of slavery – quasi is even being too nice, they literally were still in slavery, and there were no laws to protect the Africans.
So you have a system whereby people are still bound to that slavery structure; there’s no reparations, there’s no money, there’s no support, and there have been always those whites of conscience: the Quakers and benefactors who helped to establish schools for the descendants and there was some support but generally speaking, those descendants of the African slaves did not receive any reparations. They were left to struggle, and they struggled on for a hundred years. There was the short period of reconstruction where there were some adjustments to be made, there was an effort to make some changes in the laws and open up society, but that was a very short period. Then the South began these sort of draconian laws where blacks didn’t have any rights at all – they could be captured, murdered, lynched.
You would see black men being lynched for even the smallest so-called offense, and they had no rights protected under the laws of the whites. The whites had all of the protection, so you would see the descendant of the African slave lynched and burned, and they would have picnics and whole families would come out to watch a body being burned. It’s just appalling and it speaks to this idea that Africans, descendants of Africans, were not really seen as human beings. This horror and this terror really continued on and lynching became a huge issue in the early part of the 20th century, the first couple of decades. You have thousands of black people lynched for absolutely no reason, and so economically, educationally, in all spheres of life after slavery, the descendants of the slaves really truly suffered and we won’t see, until maybe 1968, the efforts to address that.
SW: I was thinking as you were speaking about how much that contrasts with the teachings of Islam, and in the times of the Holy Prophet (sa), when the injunction came to free slaves. In society, active steps were taken for the integration of freed slaves into society – so it wasn’t just that they were freed, they were given the means to look after themselves, marriage to freed slaves was encouraged – so you integrated slaves into society. And of course, Hazrat Bilal (ra) was one of the Abyssinian slaves, freed slaves, that we as Muslims have great respect for, and the status of freed slaves was one that was respected.
I’m thinking about what you’re telling us, about what was going on in the US even after emancipation– and then some slaves were repatriated to countries like Liberia, which didn’t really have any infrastructure at all, so they were shipped back from one country back to West Africa, having had no experience or connection with that country, so real hardship all around.
RA: Yes and I certainly appreciate you really highlighting the beauty of Islamic teachings on how slavery is dealt with and this idea of integrating people back into society, and really trying to create that equity and justice in society. If that had occurred in America, certainly we wouldn’t see the descendants of the slaves still occupying the lowest strata and stratum of society today.
SW: You talked about systemic racism, about how there was a higher number of African American males incarcerated. Your background is in education, so I’m particularly interested in that, because you have done a lot of work about how educational systems currently continue that systemic racism, if I’m correct?
RA: Yes, absolutely. As I mentioned, I was just listing out some of the examples of systemic racism, environmental racism, the justice courts, and the prison system. You also have health disparities where African Americans who are subject to trauma-induced stressors associated with racism, their bodies start to sort of decompose. A public health expert that actually uses the term ‘weathering’ for this way that the body just can’t withstand the racism, day to day. The biggest piece that we won’t have time to really go into today, is economic injustice.
Economic injustice is so critical to understand how racism operates. For example, on average, white households have nearly 6.5 times the wealth of black households. Slavery had a huge impact on the accumulation of wealth, post-slavery and the oppression that occurred up until about the 1960s, and there’s some research showing that from the 1960s on, what you see is wage inequality happening. So even if you have an African American who has a university degree or college degree, they’re still making less than a white person who has the same degree. You compound that over time, it has an impact on the sort of economic equality that occurs in society, but economic inequality drives pretty much everything. If you don’t have access to a job that can give you a viable income, then you’re going to live in a certain community, and when you’re living in a certain impoverished community, you’re not going to have access to public education in the same way that predominantly white families who live in the suburbs do.
So, what we have now is – I’m moving on to education reform – is a public education system that is built on property taxes. However, if you live in a poor urban area, the property taxes don’t generate the property taxes at the level that a middle class and upper middle-class community might generate. Even within the public education system, you have two tiers: you have the children who attend schools in suburban middle class or upper middle-class families, and then you have the children –predominantly African American and Latino – who attend these poor schools. The schools are segregated. What’s fascinating is that we had a Supreme Court decision in 1954 that outlawed segregated schools and one of the basic premises is that separate schools tend to be unequal. It reinforces an inferiority complex amongst black children.
They had a very famous psychologist who conducted this black-doll, white-doll experiment and it was determined that black children always preferred the white doll, which was then used to argue that black children do have feelings of inferiority when they’re separate and segregated from the general population or the dominant group.
So today in America, what we have is two tiers: a segregated system whereby African Americans, for the most part, attend segregated schools, in which the teachers aren’t as qualified and the resources aren’t there. One particular area that is really quite problematic is special education and also school suspension. What you have is, in 1954 when segregated schools were outlawed, whites really rejected the notion of integration. If you watch any of the civil rights movies or documentaries from that era, you’ll see people being angry and in Boston – we always think of racism as being in the South, but in Boston and places in the Midwest, people are just so angry, they don’t want their children to attend schools with black children.
So how can you create a system within a system to still separate African-American and brown children? One way is through this special education system. Since 1968, it’s been this persistent problem where African Americans are over-represented in the special education categories, particularly what we call intellectual disabilities, which is formally mental retardation and emotional behavioral disorders. But what’s really problematic is that if we look at disability categories such as blindness, deaf and blindness, multiple disabilities, or low vision, all of those kind of categories that are more scientific or you can document the losses, the deficits, in a more concrete fashion, African American children are not overrepresented in those categories. But in what we call those invisible categories, where there is some subjectivity and how these students are classified, we find this overrepresentation.
SW: It’s such an interesting point that those categories that we might label as, or think about as disabilities – in the sense of sight, maybe hearing, physical disabilities – African American children aren’t overrepresented there, but they are in more loosely termed, special needs. In this country, we use the term ‘special needs’, which kind of is a catchall for a variety of different issues. Is that what you’re saying?
RA: Yes absolutely. We use the term in America ‘visible disabilities’. We have a high incidence disability category, and in that high incidence disability category – we have about two-thirds of students that have been identified in those categories – and as students, they’re not as involved as the other categories that I mentioned, like sensory and pyramids.
I want to move on to focus on this one particular category is emotional disturbance, where you have predominantly African American males, boys, who are placed in this category. As that’s happening, we also have African American boys who are expelled or suspended from school at least three times higher than all of the other racial groups. There’s this notion that school has almost become a prison pipeline. We segregate the boys who we label with this emotional disturbance category – and might I add, our teaching population in America is predominantly female, white, and middle class – and they’re teaching these boys who are predominantly from single-parent homes, from poor families, who are very vulnerable and at risk. These teachers don’t really understand the challenges that these boys are faced with. They’re vulnerable, they get this classification, they’re expelled from school quite a bit – three times more than other children – and so now they’re becoming at risk to now move into the prison system, which we know that African American males are overrepresented in.This is how systemic racism really works. It’s such a well-oiled machine that it just grinds on and onand again,and it’s quite problematic.
I wanted to share this scenario, for example: we have a low-income child who is African American, and that child struggles academically in this poorly-resourced district, the child hasn’t had access to preschool services, and so they are actually in a school with a high percentage of first and second-year teachers, so what you need for these children who may be from single-parent homes or vulnerable types of communities, is the best teachers, the most experienced teachers. But typically, they get the most inexperienced teachers and so our children in these systems really struggle academically. We have this idea of the achievement gap so also, not only our children in these special education categories, but also there is a gap between the achievement of African-American and brown children, and those of white children as well.
SW: So the odds are completely stacked up from the get-go.
FM: A question that I think other people might have is – people looking out to America might think there are other groups that are also not as privileged, or they are in poverty, and maybe – groups like the Latino community – they’re living in poverty in many places, how are those groups different? How are they facing racism differently than African Americans?
RA: In general, the Latino community is experiencing some of the same challenges that African Americans have, but they’re slightly, a little bit better off in terms of when we look at statistics and numbers. One of the things that I would really stress here is that Latino communities have a culture, they have a family structure, and for African Americans, that cultural genocide really has broken down the family structure, and it took centuries for that to happen.
But today we are seeing families really in distress – now we have the pandemic and just a lot of economic crises going on – and you have a lot of female heads of households, and we have about two-thirds of African American children that are born out of wedlock and we don’t see that disproportionality in terms of Latino families. So they still have their language, their customs, and family still means a lot to them, and so you don’t see that destruction because the Latino community wasn’t enslaved like the Africans, so they didn’t experience cultural genocide. That’s the beauty of culture – that it can be a way to uplift a group of people, it’s something that people can value when it supports and helps them.
We know in Islam that Islamic culture is the culture. But if we’re practicing our culture, and it doesn’t contradict or go against Islamic teachings, we certainly can practice it. Allah created us and then we were dispersed, and He certainly recognises these different cultures. I would say that the key to understanding this is that the difference between Latino communities and African American communities is the fact that they do have culture and that their family structure is still a lot stronger.
FM: Absolutely, and this ties with something that I was reading – it was from the keynote address of the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, that he gave in the European Parliament in Brussels, where he said, ‘I should also mention that there are multiple aspects of peace and security, as every individual facet is important in its own right. At the same time, the way each aspect interlinks is also extremely important. For example, the basic building block for peace in society is tranquility and harmony within the family home. The situation within a home is not limited, but has a knock-on effect on the peace of the local area, which in turn affects the peace of the wider town or city. If there is disturbance in the home, it will negatively affect the local area and that will affect the town or city. In the same way, the state of the town or city affects the peace of the entire country and ultimately the state of the nation affects the peace and harmony of the region or the entire world.’
So it seems the impact of these issues has an impact on the core family unit, and it is disseminating both ways. It’s going back in history, those things that are contributing to broken families now, and then how those broken families are now causing more problems going forward for these communities.
RA: Yes absolutely, Farhat. I really appreciate you sharing those wise words of Huzoor (may Allah strengthen his hand) and it so beautifully lays out how important the family unit is.
For African American communities, the family unit really needs to be addressed, and the way to do that obviously is through Islam, because Islam does stress marriage. So those are certainly steps that we need to take and the question would be how do we bring these communities into Islam? We know that Islam is growing very fast amongst the Latino community and they’re coming with their culture and their food, that doesn’t sort of disconnect from Islam – we’re allowed to enjoy our culture as long as it doesn’t take away from our practise as Muslims. And so we want African Americans to embrace Islam, to come to Islam, because it’s through Islam and the wise teachings of Allah and through how we understand the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (sa), and how, for us, as Ahmadis, we’ve accepted the Promised Messiah (as).
I just want to quote his message where he says: ‘Allah desires to make all of mankind as if they were one person. This could be called a democratic singularity, but under this concept the diversity of mankind could be considered as one individual. So the purpose of religion is also that the human race can be united in the form of beads of a tasbeeh or rosary, through one thread.’ It’s such a beautiful message of, we’re all humankind and that if we can move to Allah, we could – certainly for African Americans – address a lot of the challenges that we face.
SW: You’ve spoken about the historical context, and in Islam we have historical precedents of how slavery was dealt with and eradicated, and systems were put in place to prevent slavery in the future. We also have, in Islam, means to address some of the issues that you have raised under the banner of justice and tolerance, because what you’ve spoken about is injustice. The systems that are in place are based on injustice and intolerance – the the idea that that one race is superior to another, the idea that one peoples can be treated in a particular way and others don’t have to be or others are placed on a pedestal, the idea that you can eat while your neighbour is starving. And it comes back to justice, a lot of what you’re saying.
Also I was thinking about how much Hazrat Khalifatul Masih the fifth, has spoken about peace in the home and that if you get your building blocks right – and you started off talking about buildings when you started this – those building blocks are so key. The building blocks in the family, in the home. Having that structure then translates to the building blocks in education, which again in turn goes on to those other things that we value like jobs and security.
RA: Absolutely. There’s been this sort of myth that’s been perpetrated that somehow a single mother, a single black woman, can do it all and it’s very challenging and almost impossible to be frank, if there is not a strong support system. In some instances, a mother may sadly lose her husband to maybe disease or the husband would die or they may be divorced, but there is a family unit, an extended family around that mother and the children, that can support the family and maybe their uncles or cousins or other family members that can step up into this father role. But in the family structure for many African Americans, in some instances, maybe the uncles or the big brothers might even be incarcerated or the role models that they see may not necessarily be problematic – and obviously there are exceptions to this rule. There are wonderful African American families in existence, I want to make that disclaimer – I’m not trying to show this bleak picture that everything is 100% terrible within our communities, but I’m looking at the big picture, like what if we look statistically at the numbers, what do we see? Yes, there are obviously exceptions to all of this, but Islam is the one place– the teachings of Islam are so beautiful.
As you’ve outlined, you talked about how even with slavery there are ways that Islam addresses how slaves should be treated after slavery, and that never occurred in America. Islam places a great emphasis on the family as well, and so the destruction of the family, which took centuries to happen – right up until the 1960s – African Americans did have families intact. So this is a relatively new phenomena, that most of our families are not intact and that our children don’t necessarily see their father. And part of that is that fathers can’t necessarily find the employment that they need or there’s a whole host of complex reasons, but we started off talking about racism and the artificial categories that create this unjust society.
I advocate that we should really try to study more the ways that these structures operate. I’m always reminded of Chapter 20, Verse 115, where Allah says, ‘Oh Lord, increase me in knowledge’, and I would say that that’s a challenge that I’m presenting to the listeners, that we really have to study even more about these structures so that we can really be strong advocates for transforming society.
Islam is the only way that we can really transform society, in terms of these deeply embedded structures that oppress people. I did mention and talk about the social construct of race, but I’m not in any way denying the existence of culture. And certainly in the Holy Qur’an, Chapter 30, Verse 23, Allah says, ‘And among His signs is a creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. And in that surely are signs for those who possess knowledge.’ Chapter 49, Verse 14, ‘O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-knowing, All-Aware.’ So we have diversity and we can respect diversity, but we need social justice in society.
SW: And the theme of justice is something that Hazur has constantly spoken about at these various addresses to parliamentarians, he spoke at the US houses of representatives, he’s spoken to European leaders – this concept of justice is so important in today’s society.
You mentioned not all African American families are disjointed or broken up, and there is quite a strong tradition of Christianity in the South, if I understand rightly, and I wondered what your thoughts about that were?
RA: Well actually, it’s not just in the South but Christianity is very central to the African American experience. The African experience in America, as we talked about earlier, how it was a very important that the Africans be stripped of their religious identity and in its place during slavery, this sort of Christianity is specifically devised for slaves, believe it or not, was sort of taught to the slaves.
SW: Christianity devised for slaves?
RA: Yes absolutely, they had a certain Bible just for the slaves, in which they reinforced this notion that they were inferior. But the beauty of it is that the slaves did find a way to take the religion that they were using to oppress them and it was uplifting to them. They developed these songs and they found ways to sort of praise and worship Allah in the best way that they could, given that they were given this so-called ‘slave religion’.
But the the challenge is that in Christianity today, not the pure Christianity or the Christianity of Prophet Esah (as), but the Christianity of today which really focuses on the vision of the Creator, and also sort of supports racial categories. If you believe that your creator is divided, then you can certainly believe that as human beings we’re divided and we belong to these different categories. Christianity is really another tool of oppression and that would be a whole other conversation for religious scholars to address that, but the version of Christianity that African Americans are so attached to has actually been a tool of oppression.
You find that we don’t have that within the African American church, you don’t have that tradition of really studying different religions or even having this sort of interfaith dialogue. I notice often we have interfaith dialogue with more white churches than we do with African Americans. My first cousin – he’s a very prominent person in his church – and I asked him one day, ‘Do you ever have interfaith dialogue with other religious groups?’ and it was just long pots of silence and he said ‘No’. I’m not saying that that doesn’t occur, but generally speaking, African Americans are very locked into Christianity and it’s a challenge to sort of get them to think or look at other religions because of this connection with Christianity. They felt like that was their salvation, you look at slavery, post-slavery, the Civil Rights movement, the church was so central–
SW: Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King now comes to mind immediately–
RA: Yes absolutely. I was born into Islam and I just remember listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches and I just found them so fascinating because I wasn’t used to that style of oratory, but certainly he was one of the best orators of the 20th century. African Americans, on one hand, are attracted to Islam – we do have a group that is attracted – but we also have many of the upper middle-class wealthy African Americans who really want to hold on to this form of Christianity, in which the Creator is divided – you still feel like you have the three in one, and then it also sort of reinforces these categories of humankind being divided.
SW: That is absolutely fascinating. I think you know I’ve got a lot more questions I could ask you, but I think that is perhaps for another day, and I think that the issues you’ve raised about the role of faith, particularly Christianity, in all of this is fascinating. I want to thank you so much for being with us on today’s podcast and I think it’s been enormously educational.
I do hope that our listeners will be able to benefit from the enormous insights that you have given us so I really want to thank you Dr. Rashida Ahmad for this and I really appreciate you giving us this time.
RA: JazakAllah, Allhumdullillah, I really appreciate the invitation, it’s been so interesting having this conversation with you, thank you so much.
SW: Thank you so much. You’ve been listening to the Review of Religions podcast. To find out more about us, please do go to our website www.reviewreligions.org or follow us on Twitter or Instagram @reviewofreligions. JazakAllah and thank you very much. Assalamualaikumwa rahmatullahai wa barakatahoo.