Local Imams and the Islamic Association of Raleigh tackle Race

Muslim Women For would like to spotlight community work related to racial tensions and political education efforts. Oftentimes, work done in this area, by mosques, isn’t well publicized. Many of our mosques are doing exciting work in this area and we recognize that sharing these stories and reflections is part of documenting our history and our collective resistance to racism. We talked to one of the instructors of this course, Imam Shaheed, after the series concluded to get his reflections (“imam” is Arabic for an Islamic religious leader). 

This year, the pandemic has catalyzed the impending crisis of our reckoning with race as a country. No one should have been surprised by the injustices that occurred in 2020 and that continue til the present day. Those issues forced three community members, in partnership with the IAR (Islamic Association of Raleigh), to take action. 

Earlier this year, Imam Shaheed and Imam Waheed taught a course on racism, religion, and reconciliation at NC State University in a program for retirees to continuously learn. Ronald B. Shaheed received his Master of Education degree from Florida A&M University and has all but his dissertation completed for a Doctorate in Education. He converted to Islam in 1973 in Tampa, Florida and has been an Imam (Islamic religious leader) in the community of Muslim American leader, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, for 41 years. He is Imam Emeritus of Masjid Sultan Muhammad in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

For the last 43 years, Imam Abdul Hafeez Waheed has been an active member of the Muslim American community in association with leader and thinker Imam W. Deen Mohammed. Imam Waheed was the first Muslim Chaplain at Duke University and has been serving on the Religious Life staff at Duke for over 20 years. Presently, he is the Program Associate for the Center for Muslim Life (CML) at Duke University.

Imam Waheed and Imam Shaheed decided to first host their course following the national uprising that was prompted by the murder of George Floyd and the long-term historical police violence perpetuated in Black communities. After teaching the course at NC State, Zainab Baloch, the chair of the EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) committee at IAR, invited the imams to teach the course for the IAR community.

The course examined religious racism and the concepts and beliefs that people use in religion to justify racism. Through the course, the imams discussed many concepts including the causes of racism and its psychological effects on community life. One of these discussions was about how image depictions showed Jesus and other people in religion as white. In his reflection, Imam Shaheed was surprised there wasn’t pushback during the discussion of the racial depictions of religious figures, as it was common to find religious figures as white. 

While teaching the course, the instructors didn’t want to appear to put down other religions and elevate their own religion, as that was not the goal of the course. Thankfully, the course was well-received by participants who were deeply interested in the reconciliation piece which will be expanded on in future courses.

Imam Shaheed was surprised by the openness of the participants. One participant reaction that stood out, was a retiree in the NC State course stating the course’s teachings on race made them understand why Prophet Muhammad said not to have images of religious figures. Imam Shaheed expected debates and problems to arise. Zainab noticed that during the courses, the imams were able to reach both Muslims and non-Muslims, as they focused on Muslim identities and American identities. 

Both of the presenters for the course were African American and Muslim, which made Shaheed anticipate that there might possibly be a perception that the presenters are not “real” Muslims. This concern stemmed from an experience he had several years ago as a guest on a talk radio program, when one caller (a white Christian woman) asked when the other Muslims would show up and questioned where African-American Muslims were from. She asked when would “the real Muslims show up?” Of course, this has not been the case during these courses thus far, but Shaheed’s anticipation does highlight the erasure of Black Muslims in the broader media portrayal of Muslims. People associate Islam with something that is foreign to the United States, even though the first “Muslim Americans” were brought here from Africa through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. 

It would be remiss not to mention the fact that this Race Series is a classic example of the oppressed group doing the labor of educating those with privilege. Long ago, if you mentioned “Muslims,” the first identity that would come to mind would be black practitioners of the Nation of Islam, who were known for their grassroots organizing initiatives, many that were closely linked with Black liberation politics. The events of 9/11 showed non-Black Muslims were “othered” in a way that directly impacted their livelihoods and safety in ways that Black American Muslims understood far too well. It is for that reason that these imams, both folks who still experience the fight for civil rights, know this topic all too well.

When asked about his reflections from the course, Imam Shaheed noted that he is happy to assist in the race education of our communities to achieve racial justice. He recognizes, however, that all Muslim Americans are going to have to play a part in dismantling the systems that oppress us all. 

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