Welcome to Muslim Voices Rise Up, a month-long project taking place during Ramadan where Muslim authors and bloggers share their experiences on various topics. This project is dedicated to centering Muslim experiences and showcasing the diversity within our own narratives. You can find more info, along with other blog posts for this project, on the introduction post. Today on the blog, we’ve invited three people to talk about their experiences being Muslim and Black and hopefully start a very needed conversation in our community.
“You can’t be Muslim, you’re black.”
That was what a boy said to me in the 10th grade. He wasn’t being malicious; he just couldn’t believe that someone who looked like me, someone with frizzy curls and dark skin, could be Muslim. Unfortunately, this encounter is something I’ve grown used to throughout the years. To some, blackness and Islam are two diametrically opposed concepts.
While unfortunately there are still too many instances where Muslims are depicted in the media as raving terrorists. Writers such as S.K Ali and comedians such as Hasan Minhaj, help to show the greater public that there is more to Muslims than what is shown on the evening news. They show that Muslims go through the ups and downs of adolescence, that we fall in love, that we can be funny. Yes, Muslim representation has made some incremental progress, but there has been a glaring element missing in this positive wave; black Muslims. When Muslims are depicted in popular media, they are usually Arab or South Asian. While I am obviously happy to see my non-black brothers and sisters getting their due, it’s hard not to feel excluded.
The exclusion of black Muslims in media is part of a larger problem in the Muslim community. Unfortunately, anti-blackness is a disease that knows no religious barrier and throughout the years I have dealt with racism within the Ummah. I had to hear my non-black Muslim peers casually throw the n-word, I saw countless Muslims refer to black people as “abeed” (the Arabic word for slaves) on social media, and I was told by many close friends that their families would never accept them marrying a black person. These are just some of the prejudices that I’ve seen within my own community and I’m sure other black Muslims have had similar experiences as well.
When I was younger, I knew that these comments and actions were wrong, but I let them slide with uncomfortable laughter. I grew up with this notion that the Muslim community was “one Ummah” so the last thing I wanted to do was cause division. But, as I grew older, I realized that by not talking about race, we are creating division in our community. We are allowing this unspoken hierarchy that puts the Arab and south Asian experiences in the forefront and that leaves black people behind.
Now, when I witness racial microaggressions, I speak out. Usually perpetrators feign ignorance or state that there is no possible way they could be racist since they face islamophobia. This goes to show that there needs to be a wider conversation about intersectionality within the Muslim community, and it cannot just be on the onus of black people like myself to tackle these issues. By no means am I saying that every non-black Muslim is racist, but what I am saying is that non-black Muslims need to be better allies to their black brothers and sister, and we all need to get better at calling out racist behaviour.
I also believe that we should open the door and support black Muslim creators. When black Muslims are excluded in popular media, it promotes this notion that we don’t exist, that our stories don’t matter. Islam isn’t a monolith. We need to show the world that yes, it is possible be both Muslim and Black.
When I was a preteen, reading was one of my only outlets. One particular time, I remember walking into the library and browsing the shelves, eager for anything to pick up and I came across a popular book with a Muslim girl in a hijab on the cover. I was ecstatic because I had never seen a book in my library centered on a Muslim girl, a covered Muslim girl at that. I happily started reading it on the bus ride home and by the end of the day, I had finished it.
I absolutely hated it. I couldn’t relate at all. I felt no connection whatsoever. If anything I felt ostracized. I spent the next couple of days scouring the internet for books with Muslim characters that I could relate to, books that were for people like me. My little google searches didn’t bring up much and seething with anger, I marched my little self to the library to search for more books about Muslims. I found nothing. My surrounding libraries also brought up more of nothing. So, I simply gave up. There was nothing that seemed accessible to me so I sadly accepted it and moved on. This is a pronounced memory that comes up anytime someone mentions that initial book with the hijabi on the cover. It was the first memory that stood out as a stark moment where a creeping realization came that my identity was being overlooked.
As I got older, I was able to do more in-depth research and I would find obscure websites containing mentions of Umm Juwayriyah’s book The Size of A Mustard Seed. I eventually read it in my early teens but this was after years of searching and after a friend let me borrow it. The next book I read about black Muslim characters was If I Should Speak by Umm Zakiyyah. By that time I was in my late teens and I read it aloud at night with my younger sister and we cried at some parts. We cried because the story was an emotional one and we cried a little bit because we had finally read something that we felt some connection to.
With these memories in mind, years later when I decided to start my book blog I wanted a space where I could highlight every aspect of myself through literature. Every single aspect of my black American self and my Muslim self. However, just like black American Muslims are pushed aside in the religious and social world, we are in the fictional literature world as well.
Don’t get me wrong, there are black Muslim authors, however they get nowhere near the support or exposure that other Muslim authors get. Through making connections on social media, I’ve come across amazing black Muslim authors who write everything from romance to fantasy but the market still has all the potential to be blown open.
A lot of black Muslim authors are self-publishing which has its benefits but also has its pitfalls. Some of the benefits being that they are telling their own stories but some of the pitfalls being that they are not getting the important attention that other Muslim authors are getting. They aren’t getting the same marketing tips, teams, or budgets. And hint, it’s not because they aren’t working as hard for exposure.
While Muslims who aren’t black are blooming in the mainstream publishing world, black authors who have long been writing stories about Muslim characters are not. Mainstream publishers love stories about Muslim youth who struggle to distance themselves from their oppressive immigrant parents with their “backward” religion. They love pushing stories about the girl with the immigrant parents and the religion that won’t let her love the popular non-Muslim white guy at school, or the girl with the immigrant parents who no longer wants to wear an oppressive scarf on her head. But why haven’t they pushed the stories of the African American Muslim boys who play basketball inside the park on Ramadan nights?
They aren’t fans of the stories of the black Muslim boys who grow up in run down, underfunded, and misrepresented neighborhoods. They don’t want to speak about the black Muslim boy growing up in the affluent neighborhood and struggling with his identity. They overlook the stories about the black Muslim girl whose grandmother isn’t Muslim and keeps telling her she should take off her hijab or whose grandmother is Muslim and keeps telling her she should put on her hijab. Where are the stories about Imran dealing with police brutality or the Muslim version of The Hate U Give? Or even in the stories where the main Muslim character is not black, is it so far fetched that the Desi or Arab main character’s love interest is a black Muslim or even just black? Our black bodies and black stories aren’t even deemed worthy to show up as supporting characters. And it isn’t for lack of these stories being written. In so many of the mainstream Muslim fictions, black Muslims and black “western” Muslims in particular simply do not exist.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see Muslims progressing, no matter the race. It’s amazing to see POC stories being told. However, everyone’s story is different and black Muslim’s stories are STILL being hushed by mainstream publications. I understand that Muslims, in general, are just being able to tell broader aspects of their stories through mainstream publishing, but we can all do our part.
Authors and Muslim authors in particular, while advocating that your story is told, please advocate for black Muslim authors too. Advocate for the young black Muslim girl and boy who reads about Muslims but who still feels out of place, because people are still ignorant to the stories unique to them.
Readers, for every book you read that tells the story of Saima of a Desi background in Oregon, make sure you read one about Sajdah of a black background in Brooklyn. While reading about Asmaa in a Moroccan inspired fantasy, make your next read about Aishatou in a Nigerian inspired fantasy.
Follow and seek out the black Muslim authors who deserve recognition. And publishers who truly wish to be allies should make sure that Muslim voices are amplified in every difference. Everyone can do their part to let the #ownvoices hashtag encompass ALL own voices.
A lot of people don’t know this, but 50% of Nigeria is made up of Muslim’s, 40% Christians and 10% other. Yet, all my life the question I have received the most was how I could be Muslim. When I tell them I just am, they give me looks of indignation, their next question, surely you were not born a Muslim, why would you choose such a religion? To that I say, of course I was born a Muslim. Is there anything wrong with that? Apparently so.
Being black and Muslim is an interesting intersection. It’s like being hated twice as much by the entire world, having to push yourself up constantly, feeling out of place in so many spaces made for you. In black crowds, I face Islamophobia, in Muslim crowds – those made up of mostly brown people – I face anti-blackness. It’s truly a lonely existence – unless you find other black Muslims.
I distinctly remember a time in school where I was sitting in a maths class when a girl randomly said “black Muslims are the scariest.” That comment was met with laughter, and then realisation that I was sat right there with them. Then the person turned to me and said “No offence.” Like it was a difference of opinion. At the time I was wildly unpopular, I got bullied and I was painfully shy and so I said nothing.
I think about this moment a lot, wanting to relive it just to have the chance to stick up for myself and other black Muslims. I relive that moment over and over. The reason she’d said that was because that week a black Muslim pair had killed someone in London, and it was all over the news for days.
I hated them for doing that. Not only killing someone but using Islam to do so, being black while doing so. Being black and Muslim while doing so.
There’s scene in the comedy show Black-ish where the family are watching the news, worry on their faces as the news reporter discusses a report on the TV. At first glance, you think they are just for empathetic for the victim, but as the scene progresses, you realise they are waiting for the description of the criminal. When the reporter says “White male” they jump up in happiness, and while this scene was for comedic effect it is a very real feeling. The feeling of dread that fills me up when someone that shares my identity has done evil is incomparable to any other feeling. I feel sick. I know that this one incident is going to follow me for a while. I know people are going to be even more weary of me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
When those black Muslims killed that guy, I felt that feeling, for weeks. Scared every time I go out, scared someone will hurt me or worse.
Being a black woman in this world is soul sucking, add Muslim to that equation and you feel like you’re drowning constantly. I hope that in the near future, black Muslims growing up don’t experience what I’ve had to. I think that, that future becomes more and more achievable with the more voices people hear from Muslims. We’re often a silenced people, others speaking on what we do and don’t believe. I think taking back control of our narratives will be what makes life better for the new generation of Muslim kids.
That’s it for today’s Muslim Voices Rise up post, friends! This one means a lot to me and brought tears to my eyes because it reflected a lot of my own experiences, thoughts and fears. They put them in better words than I could have ever come up with.
A million thanks to Aimal for the graphic!
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.