Black Muslims Step Into Spotlight Black Muslims in America are reclaiming and highlighting their traditions. In Los Angeles, Jihad Saafir is converting his father's storefront mosque into a vibrant community center and school.

Black Muslims Step Into Spotlight

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Black Muslims are a third of U.S.-born Muslims, but they often feel overshadowed by the immigrant Muslim story. So a younger generation stepping forward to try to reclaim and retain their rich and diverse traditions is part of NPR's series on American Muslims. NPR's Leila Fadel brings us the story of one prayer leader who's continuing what his father started.


LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thirty-seven-year-old Imam Jihad Saafir unlocks the gate at the Islamic center he leads. Nearby is an auto repair shop and some boarded up homes. At a Islah LA, Saafir does the things a lot of faith leaders do - marriage counseling...

JIHAD SAAFIR: I'll give you guys, like, a sample of some conditions that one person put in their marriage contract.

FADEL: ...Teaching Arabic and religion classes at the Islamic school...

SAAFIR: (Speaking Arabic).


SAAFIR: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Islah Academy is in its fourth year. And Saafir says he opened it to empower young, black children and others who may benefit. It serves both Muslim and non-Muslim kids whose parents are looking for an affordable alternative to public schools.

SAAFIR: These schools are terrible. Your child's going to end up gangbanging. I made it out. And a couple of other people made it out but only a few.

FADEL: Saafir tapped into a network of Muslim donors in the broader community and started an expansion of his father's storefront mosque into something more ambitious.

SAAFIR: The model for the urban culture in regards to the mosque is the storefront mosque. But it's not real community life. Now people need to see something else, that Islam can go beyond Friday. Islam can be fun for the children. Islam can be a weekend program. Islam can be an entire school.

FADEL: In part, he modeled his new center off the sprawling campuses he was seeing in more affluent Muslim communities.

SAAFIR: Suburban environment - they got the youth director. I went to one masjid. They have little separate quarters for the youth.

FADEL: Masjid is the Arabic word for mosque.

He shows me around the school, the library, the community food pantry, classrooms and prayer rooms. For now, it's all housed in one building. But across the lot, they're building the mosque. Saafir named the Islamic center Islah, the Arabic word for reform, to improve. He wants to build on what his father began, starting with the school.

SAAFIR: So we deal with what has happened historically in the African-American community and in the African community. So we make sure that the children are aware of who they are, their identity.

SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: The idea of creating spaces that are going to sort of enrich and empower black children has always been a part of the black Muslim community. But the actual physical spaces have come and gone, depending on how the communities have shifted and changed.

FADEL: That's Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, a professor at the University of Michigan and the author of "Muslim Cool: Race, Religion And Hip Hop In American Culture." We meet in Chicago where she's based. She says for black Muslims, choosing Islam was seen as a reassertion of their own identity and faith stripped from them under slavery. It started with groups like the Nation of Islam. Many but not all black Muslims first came to Islam through that group and groups like it. They were attracted to the empowering message of black-run schools and black-owned businesses.

ABDUL KHABEER: Self-determination has always been a critical key part of what it means to be black and Muslim in the United States.

FADEL: About 15 percent of slaves were Muslim. Abdul Khabeer says trying to hold on to their faith tradition was one of their only acts of self-determination.

ABDUL KHABEER: And likewise, in the 20th century, you know, you also find this - people sort of saying - choosing Islam for themselves as a form of their self-determination, as a form of sort of getting up, you know, from under white supremacy and these kinds of things.

FADEL: But after Elijah Muhammad, the prominent leader of the Nation of Islam died, his son W.D. Mohammed abandoned black separatism and turned to a more traditional and global practice of Islam. And he brought much of the community with him. Today, about a third of U.S.-born Muslims are black Muslims. And the parents and grandparents who brought Islam to their communities are dying.

ABDUL KHABEER: Not only are we losing the generation before us in their leadership, but we're also being sort of erased.

FADEL: Abdul Khabeer says that in part that erasure comes from the focus - negative or positive - on Muslim immigrant communities and this depiction of Islam as only a foreign faith. And despite the number of black Muslims and their history, she says when parts of her parents generation started to integrate with the waves of Muslim immigrants in America, they often felt like a marginalized community within a marginalized community. Now that's changing among the children of immigrants.

ABDUL KHABEER: Black Muslims as a whole are reclaiming their identities as opposed to defining them.

FADEL: So her generation and the next are highlighting their own diverse communities and traditions. Khabeer runs a site, Sapelo Square, a resource for an about black Muslims. On religious holidays, people post pictures of their celebrations on social media with the hashtag #blackouteid. And then there are the institutions that her parents' generation built, that the next generation is retaining or transforming - places like Islah in LA. The Imam Jihad Saafir says while anti-Muslim prejudice may have spiked in the last few years, it isn't at the top of the list of concerns at the center. They're prioritizing other traumas.

SAAFIR: Poverty, low self-esteem, mass incarceration, all of these things. So we have to figure out a curriculum tailor-made to build up someone who's in that position.


FADEL: One way is the Quran competition that the kids compared to a Bible bowl. They practice reciting from memory and then compete over who knows more. The last person standing wins.


FADEL: One of the middle school winners, Layla Waller, and her friend Attallah Muhammad try to convince their moms to let them use Layla's prize money to go to a K-pop concert. The girls are best friends. And they like being in a place where they don't feel like outsiders because of their religion or their race, especially now when Attallah says that strangers stare at them because of their headscarves.

ATTALLAH MUHAMMAD: Sometimes they'll, like, smile. And others will, like, sneer at you, like you shouldn't be here, basically. It's just kind of weird because not only are we Muslims in America, but we're also African-American. And there are a lot of African-Americans in America. So it's kind of sad that they look at us like that.

FADEL: They say they're tired of people asking where they're from. Being black and Muslim is American. It's who they are, who their parents are and who they hope their kids will be. Leila Fadel, NPR News.


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