There seems to be a lacking presence of Black representation within the British Muslim community and this is something that needs to change. Being a black convert myself, I cannot help but feel a little frustrated with the lack of a Black British Muslim presence; a feeling that is shared amongst a number Muslims I know who are working hard towards challenging preconceived notions and bringing about a change in attitude within the wider Muslim community. The cultural make-up of Britain is quite diverse; a fact that is increasingly being reflected amongst converts to Islam. Yet despite the fact that Black Muslims make up a significant proportion of Muslims in Britain, I am still perplexed that throughout the various mosques, Muslim organisations and Islamic educational institutions that we have in the UK, it is a rare occurrence to see Black Muslim teachers, imams, scholars or professionals playing a leading role within them.
From my own observations, it seems there are some key factors that might explain this unfortunate phenomenon, which stem both from within and outside of the Black British Muslim community. Perhaps one of the most worrying problems that many Black Muslims experience is racism from other Muslims. In my personal experience, I know of family members and non-Muslim friends who have been put off the idea of becoming Muslim owing to concerns of underlying prejudice towards the Black community, as Black Muslims blatantly do not get the same opportunities and exposure within the Muslim community as their non-Black counterparts do. What is even more frustrating, is that most Muslims choose to remain in oblivion to this problem, claiming there is no racism in Islam and backing our point using the clichéd example of Bilal (RA). However, underneath this veneer of righteousness we also know the uncomfortable reality; that if, for example, a Black Muslim man came to marry someone’s daughter, it is most likely that he would be turned away on the basis of his skin colour; or that the only way for a Black Muslim to be even remotely accepted within the wider community would be to adopt South Asian or Arab cultural practices. We simply cannot deny that racism still lurks within our community, and the wise words of our beloved Prophet in his last sermon, where he said an Arab is not more superior than a non-Arab, nor is a white man more superior than a black, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Only when we can be honest with ourselves and admit that there is a problem within the Muslim community can we take meaningful steps to try and address the issue.
However, to place the blame for the lack of a Black British Muslim presence solely on the issue of racism is too simplistic, and there needs to be some proactivity from Black Muslims to bring about change. If Black Muslims wish to see change, then they must be the drivers of that change, and I believe the principle way to do this would be if more Black Muslims went down the path of scholarship. There seems to be reluctance amongst Black Muslims to tread down the scholastic path, whether it be acquiring expertise in the Islamic sciences or excelling in Western academia. Even when it comes to small gatherings where religion is being taught, from the local classes in my mosque to weekend course at institutions, I often find myself to be the only Black Muslim female present. If we are to be serious about challenging the stereotypes that many Muslims have about the Black community, pursuing the path of scholarship would most certainly be the most potent way of doing so. Take the example of Dr Sherman Jackson in the US, a very well respected scholar both amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, who is without doubt one of the leading thinkers amongst Muslims in the West. We need more Black Muslims in Britain to follow in his footsteps.
Of course, the power of excelling in the Islamic sciences alongside having a firm foundation in the secular sciences cannot be underestimated. An oft-used example of this potency lies in the example of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X). However, what we fail to acknowledge is that despite his significant contributions to the civil rights movement, most of his activism came at a time when he was part of a heretical sect, which by consensus was not regarded as part of Islam. What he did manage, however, was to popularise the Nation of Islam amongst the masses by illustrating to the Black community that the Nation could relate to their struggles, and they were able to seemingly offer some solutions to them. Although arguably, it was the Nation’s intrusive nature and aberrant views that perhaps hindered its cause for Black rights. Had Malcom X studied Islam in its truest form in his formative years, and combined it with his knowledge in other disciplines, and had he been able to illustrate to the masses how Islam could liberate a community from the shackles of racism, one wonders how much more potent his legacy would have been. Indeed, the thought of this should provide the impetus to Black Muslims to try and achieve what Malcom X failed to.
In many respects, the issues that we see both within the Black Muslim community and the wider Muslim community in Britain, mirror those of society at large; the institutionalised racism that many Black people experience, alongside the lack of Black people pursuing academia. Just as the most significant contribution of Black people seems to have been in the music and entertainment industry, we see a similar phenomenon being mirrored within the British Muslim community, where it seems that all we have to offer are spoken word and nasheed artists, who do little else than provide some ‘halal’ entertainment for Muslims, and some background ‘music’ for those very organisations which would fail in any equal opportunities and diversity assessment. Surely Black Muslims have more to offer than mere entertainment?
The time has come for us to change the status quo, and to start developing a British Muslim community that stays true to orthodoxy, but reflects the diversity that exists within it. Muslims in Britain need to challenge the racial stereotypes they hold, and as Black Muslims, we must establish ourselves and be present, unapologetic and intellectual.