Below is a letter that I would like to send to a Masjid that I have frequented for several years. I wrote this post right after last year’s Eid Al-Adha because my experiences at a particular Masjid have become so frustrating. For the sake of privacy I have blocked out those areas of the letter that would give any indication of the Masjid I’m referring to. This particular Masjid has done lots of good work. They provide a house of worship for Muslims, Eid, Taraweeh, Arabic classes for children and adults, not to mention do lots of charity. They have done many good works (fisabilillah), but have unfortunately come up short in binding the congregants together across ethnic and or racial lines. Although this letter was spawned from my experiences at this Masjid, this is a problem at many Masjids. Whether the Masjid is in the U.S. or abroad. I hope that this letter reaches as many people as possible (inshallah), especially those leaders (Imams) of certain Masjids. As believing Muslims we cannot choose to ignore this problem as being silent on this issue is akin to being an enabler of this problem of cultural nepotism.


As Salaam Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah.

It is with great sadness and frustration that I write these words. I have been frequenting this Masjid at

As a person of African descent (African American/West Indian) I have never felt completely welcome at this Masjid. I realize that the majority ethnicity is Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and this monolithic South Asian community has intentionally or unintentionally created a wall of “ethnic Islam” that does not bode well for those individuals who are of a different ethnicity. I’ll explain.

Several times during the closing of the Eid Khutbah and many brothers are giving their well wishes, I have found myself completely by myself and somewhat ignored. I have had congregants look away from me and bypass me to give their well wishes to others. I have also observed this ill-loving behavior towards other brothers of African descent. This might seem trivial at first glance, but I have experienced this behavioral phenomenon in this center for several years. In addition, many times during the closing prayer and the Khateeb is rattling off countries of concern, I’ve yet to hear the Khateeb mention Africa. You hear Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, Middle Eastern countries etc, but never Africa. You know where one of the largest populations of Muslims are? Africa. Over 30% of the global Muslim population lives in Africa. And considering all the issues that are going on in Africa (with such a large Muslim population), this continent should be on our Islamic radar.

Not that this is merely a numbers game, but I’m bringing this to your attention because there are many brothers and sisters of African descent (whether born in America or abroad) who feel ostracized and this cognitive dissonance towards ethnicities outside of your own needs to be addressed. Ignoring the problem will deepen the cultural fault lines in the Masjid. Even a simple As Salaam Alaikum to many other brothers is often ignored. The salaam rebuttal is robotic at best. I want to make it clear that this monolithic cultural problem is an issue at many Masjids. A very good and dear family member of mine who runs several Masjids in NY) frequented a Pakistani Masjid this past Eid (Eid Al ““Adha 2010) and was given the same ill-loving treatment. After the Eid Khutbah not one member gave him and his brother well wishing nor shook his hand. No Salaams and no Eid Mubarak whatsoever. Completely ignored as if he and his brothers were the invisible men in the Masjid.

The Messenger of Allah [s] further guides us by saying:

“Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should be hospitable with his or her guests.”

This monolithic cultural problem is not exclusive to just South Asian or Middle Eastern dominated Masjids. I have many close friends of mine who are of Pakistani and Middle Eastern descent who have frequented majority African Masids and have been given the same cold treatment. This is a problem in many Masjids, not just yours. Several years ago I visited Dubai and attended a Khutbah were the Khateebs’s main focus of the lecture was this same ethnicity issue. Although Islam makes it clear that we are all brothers and sisters in Islam, irrespective of ethnicity, I don’t believe that many people take this important message to heart, not to mention carry it out in their day-to-day lives. I want to be very clear on this issue, I’m not looking for some type of “charity love” from this Masjid. Patronizing me or others, with guilt driven acts, condescension, or empty or contrived intentions is just as dangerous. This is an issue that has to be fixed over time. Here are a couple of suggestions. These suggestions are based on successes from other Masjids that have had this problem:

  1. Do more Khutbahs on the roots of racism and indifference. By not highlighting the problem this will not build awareness among the Ummah. Hear no evil, see no evil.
  2. You should seek a more diverse group of Khateebs for your Khutbahs. Get groups from every walk of life. Young, old, converts to Islam, different ethnicities (especially those ethnicities that the congregants seldom see or talk to), etc so the congregants can see the Masjid demonstrating a core part of Islam, diversity.
  3. Participate in helping countries that are outside of your culture and make it clear to the congregants that the Masjid is apart of this effort. One of the Masjids I volunteer at not only help countries in Bangladesh and India, but they do a lot of work in Africa too. Keep in mind that the Masjid is not run by Africans or South Asians. Yes, there are floods in Pakistan, but there are also floods in Dakar and Benin too. We need to step out of our comfort zone and lend a hand to all in need, not just those that have the same cultural background.
  4. Get the congregants of the Masjid to meet up with other Masjids that are of a completely different ethnicity and/or Madhab and utilize the common ground that all Muslims have, the Quran and related Hadiths. There is no doubt this will help to melt away some of the perceived cultural differences.

Very similar to your point in the Khutbah you did for this past Eid-Al-Adha, we have to do more than just talk. Just like our children will be watching our actions, so will the congregants monitor the actions of the Masjid. With the Masjid being a central part of the community, it is critical that we remove this oppressive disease from our hearts (Allahualim). There is a perverse level of otherness and xenophobia that exists in our Masjids. This type of behavior would be unacceptable during the days of the Prophet (PBUH), and it is unacceptable today.

Before I bring this letter to a close, I will leave you with a reminder from our glorious Quran, a paragraph from the Prophets Last Sermon and related Hadiths which specifically touches on this subject:

Surat Al-Hujurat:
“O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you” (Quran 49:13).

From the Prophets Last Sermon:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

Remember, one day you will appear before ALLAH and answer your deeds. So beware, do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.”

This is a very eye-opening Hadith on the evils of discrimination, prejudice and racism. The explanation below is pulled from a lecture by Shaykh Muhammad Hannini from his lecture Loss of an Ummah by the An-Nahda Institute.
It was also transmitted, in two different versions, by Ibn al-Mubarak in his two books, Al-Birr and As-Salah, that a disagreement occurred between Abu Dharr and Bilal. The context of this hadith is Abu Dharr and Bilal were having a discussion among the other companions about the war. Abu Dharr mentioned something and Bilal corrected Abu Dharr. Abu Dharr got extremely upset and said “Even YOU, son of a black woman is going to tell me that I am wrong?” After hearing this Bilal was extremely upset and said to Abu Dharr, “By Allah, I will complain to Rasulullah (PBUH) to tell him about what you said.” Bilal went to Rasulullah (PBUH) and said Rasulullah, “Did you hear what Abu Dharr said?”. The Prophet responded, “What did he say about you?”. Bilal then explained the incident between him and Abu Dharr. Rasulullah (PBUH). After hearing this, the honorable face of Rasulullah (PBUH) changed. With Abu Dharr using skin color he was threatening the bond of the brother’s and sisters.

The identity of emaan is being threatened. When you call someone the son of a black woman, this is not something light. After the news had spread about the incident, he went to the Rasulullah (PBUH) in the Masjid and said to The Messenger (PBUH) The Messenger (PBUH), “As Salaam Alaikum”. Abu Dharr later reported that he wasn’t sure if the The Messenger (PBUH) answered him back. The Messenger (PBUH) of Allah (saw) was extremely upset by Abu Dharr’s comment, so he (saw) rebuked him by saying, “That is too much, Abu Dharr. He who has a white mother has no advantage which makes him better than the son of a black mother.” In addition to this he said to Abu Dharr, “Did you tell him (Bilal) about his mother ? Did you put him down because of the color of his mother? You are a man who has jahiliyyah (kuffur) [disbelief] in him”. Abu Dharr cried. He went to Rasulullah (PBUH), “Forgive me, and ask Allah (SWT) to forgive me.” He left the Masjid weeping with tears. This rebuke had a profound effect on Abu Dharr, who then put his head on the ground (dirt) swearing that he would not raise it until Bilal had put his foot on his face. He said to Bilal, “You are the honorable person, and I am the humiliated person”. Bilal cried, and then came close to the cheek of Abu Dharr and hugged him, then said “Abu Dharr, a forehead that does sujud to Allah, does not get stepped on, but rather gets kissed”.

As quoted in Islam The Natural Way by Abdul Wahid Hamid p. 125

A man once visited the Prophet’s Masjid in Madinah. There he saw a group of people sitting and discussing their faith together. Among them were Salman (who came from Persia), Suhayb who grew up in the Eastern Roman empire and was regarded as a Greek, and Bilal who was an African. The man then said:

“If the (Madinan) tribes of Aws and Khazraj support Muhammad, they are his people (that is, Arabs like him). But what are these people doing here?”

The Prophet became very angry when this was reported to him. Straightaway, he went to the mosque and summoned people to a Salat. He then addressed them saying:

“O people, know that the Lord and Sustainer is One. Your ancestor is one, your faith is one. The Arabism of anyone of you is not from your mother or father. It is no more than a tongue (language). Whoever speaks Arabic is an Arab.”

These proofs and evidences demonstrate that tribal ties, exclusive ethnic allegiances and blind nationalism have no place in Islam. Muslims are commanded to stick together and not disassociate themselves from each other because they come from different ethnicities. I’m not naïve to believe that JUST one cultural center is the core problem, it’s the lack of good manners, etiquette, and a need to reinforce a lovingly brotherhood/sisterhood which seems to breed in certain Masjids. The cultural polarization that is created from this behavior is like acid being poured on the bonds of the believers.


With much sincerity and respect,
Malik

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7 Responses

  1. Sam Olayan

    I absolutely concur and thank you for writing the piece. At the very core of Islam’s strength is this practicing of fraternity and equality 5 times a day where rich and poor, black and white, old and young, and big and small all stand side by side equal in front of god in humility. That is one of the areas where Islam manifests the power of its values and message. Our prophet PBUH has been a good teacher and has set a great example for all of us to follow. Lets all follow it.

    Reply
    • Malik Abdul Rasheed

      Thank you. Yes, one of many beautiful principles of Islam is unification based on one solid principle, the oneness of Allah. If we could shed these tribal/ethnic/national alliances we would see progress move at light speed. (inshallah). This is what Allah wanted for humanity. Our intent is directly tied to our worship, Our ibadah and tawbah is all interconnected. I welcome the the day when such posts will become unnecessary.

      Reply
  2. Un Mosqued

    Very poignant. As a revert to Islam, in my “home” community where I took shahada, I did not really experience this astigmatism in cultural manners among muslims, but I heard about it. However in the town where I grew up and consequently live now, the community is more as you describe and my experience is very much as you describe.

    They have ignored me so much that I felt uncomfortable to attend anymore. When I did attend, I also had my children in the Sunday school. Not only were the adults noninclusive of me, they also mistreated my children, even trying not to pass my daughter on to next level Sunday school when everyone else in the class moved up. They cited that my child had missed a few classes and probably wasn’t ready and didn’t know enough. I had them test her, and they found that she was beyond many of those whom they were passing on. In truth, they basically ignored my daughter in class. And while it is true that she missed a few classes, it is also true that they never let me know of the scheduled days that no classes would meet. There were so many times we arrived to an empty building. They never gave me a contact phone number, or told me what they are working on or expect. My dear daughter often complained that the teachers don’t like her, never call her when she raises her hand, and that the other children did not want to play with her. Sometimes, I just didn’t force her to go. Eventually I too lost all interest. When I would go to pick her up from Sunday school, it became so painful to watch the teachers yamming it up with all the kids talking about their plans for the day with each other or visiting each other’s homes while my children and I were perfectly ignored by ALL.

    In this very small masjd, I could literally sit in a seat for an hour, and never be approached or afforded a salam as tens of people passed me by both female and male. I remember once a brother did talk to me. I was so surprised. He came to ask me about the new black family that had been coming around; where they were from, and so on. Of course I didn’t even know them.

    This is an article I read recently about the “un-mosqued.” You will find many parallels in it with your article. http://ifyokoye.com/2011/02/28/un-mosqued-leaving-the-mosque-behind/

    Umm Dawood

    Reply
  3. Ify

    The story of Bilal and Abu Dharr is so powerful, forgiveness towards those who have wronged us by their racism or some other injustice is among the beautiful manners taught to us in Islam. Not easy but with sincere dua, all things are possible. Thanks for the shoutout Umm Dawood.

    Reply
    • Malik Abdul Rasheed

      Salaam,

      My initial intention was to send the letter directly to the Masjid mentioned in the post. I asked a very close spiritual mentor for some advice and he advised me to keep it open to the public, but not send it directly to the mosque. He felt I might risk creating a situation in the mosque. However, this post has been shared by many and it will get to who ever Allah allows to receive it.

      This post is probably years in the making as I had encountered so many situations I felt compelled to put my frustrations on paper. My intent is to get people to open their mind and be cognizant of their nepotistic behavior, which can contribute to reinforcing more cultural barriers in the Masjid.

      BTW, your Elucidated Perspectives blog is awesome. Very insightful and intellectually engaging.

      Ma Salaam

      Reply

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