Students Examine History and Evolution of Black Muslims

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Written by Rita McNeil and Sarah Rewers

The USF student body is composed of nearly 10,000 students from about 80 countries around the world. Despite the vast diversity, many students often find their ethnic identity lost in a sea of culture. The USF Muslim Student Association (MSA) sought to help fellow students of all backgrounds conceptualize the history of black Muslims by hosting a discussion on their presence in Western society last Wednesday.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Muslim religion, the concept of black Muslims may be somewhat vague. “We have to understand race as a social construct before we can understand the concept of a black Muslim,” said Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, professor of Islamic Law and Hadith Science at Zaytuna College in Berkeley. Ali argued that race is a societal development rather than a biological fact, which speaks to the notion that Muslims are not solely tied to the religion of Islam, but can be defined based on a number of  factors —  some not so good.

According to Ali, Westerners often view Muslims and associate them with violence, which is in large part due to the events surrounding the 9/11 attack. In addition, these incorrect stereotypes are bolstered perhaps due to the pre-Islamic period when Arabs came in contact with Africans. When Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, not everyone could differentiate them from Muslims who lived in Africa, so they were almost considered one in the same. Ali also said that being black and Muslim in America can be challenging to understand historically because their history is “still being written.”

The MSA hosted this event in honor of Islam Awareness Week, which was March 11-17, and in hopes of clearing some of the misconceptions that surround the Muslim race.

Ali commented that the concept was a controversy in and of itself, due to the implication of the term, “black Muslim.” One can obviously be black and not Muslim, and vice versa, he explained. Ali also analyzed the word “Arab,” noting that to simply define it as ‘one who speaks Arabic’ has had major implications on what it means to be Arab today. “Anyone can become an Arab, but not just anyone can become a White,” he said, touching on his belief that society is divided by race. Questions on this concept are difficult to answer because various members of society have differing views.

However, USF students appear to care less about the answers, and more about getting these questions out into the public discourse. Sara Masoud, a junior international studies major, spoke to the importance of bringing topics like race, language, and culture into consciousness. “Islam Awareness Week is a way to spread awareness about the religion because it is so misunderstood, especially post 9/11,” she said. Masoud added that for Muslims on campus, “It’s a great way for them to learn more about their own religion.”

“I am appreciative for the MSA and all the hard work they are doing for Islam Awareness Week because it’s always important to educate the student body on different cultures present on the USF campus,” said Sophia Revelli, a junior communications studies major who is learning about Muslim culture.

Ali took the rest of the night to provide a historical context, from the very beginning of free life for immigrants with the Naturalization Act of 1790 to the construction of a United Nation of Islam in 1993. He also identified prominent figures in the history of African Americans, including Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., who both supported and practiced social integration. Before Ali joined fellow Muslims in the room for evening prayer, he concluded by stating that all of this history — along with the way society views and defines certain races — reinforces the belief that “race is not just a conception; it is also a perception.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Islam religion or the history of Muslims, consider signing up for one of these classes this fall semester: Introduction to Islam (Theology) offered 3:30-4:35 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; or Islam-ic Empires (History) 6:30-8:15 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday.

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