I was 13 years old in 1992 when Spike Lee released “Malcolm X.” My father, an Egyptian American immigrant, insisted we all go see it as a family. That signaled to me that this must be a big event, because I had only seen my father go to the movie theater once in my life when we begged him to take us to see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
As I sat and watched the story of Malcolm X unfold through Lee’s lens, I knew I was receiving transformative information. Yes, I was a young Egyptian American, the daughter of immigrants, but this story of an African American, son of a Pan-African activist, who was orphaned and split up from his mother and siblings, moved up the ranks of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Nationalist organization, become a national civil rights leader, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and became an international symbol of American Islam, spoke to my own sense of identity.
I learned a crucial bit of history; I was given context about the country I was growing up in, the people and events who shaped it, the role my religion of Islam played in it and what place I had in it.
What resonated with me so vividly at a young age, besides the clear resilience of a people who had fought to overcome government-sanctioned dehumanization, was the role Islam had in helping them overcome their adversity and in advancing their station in the American landscape.
As a young Muslim American, it made me feel that I had something special, something practical that could be used to empower myself and to improve the conditions of the community around me.
Almost 20 years later, I am still engaged with the idea of Islam as a vehicle for positive social change. This is certainly not a novel idea in the global scheme, but how it was used by African American leaders to elevate the African American Muslim community is certainly something special and deserves close examination, especially now. Too few mainstream resources have explored the African American Muslim journey, in detail. That is until now.
This past month, the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau co-hosted “African American Islam,” a screening at the University of Southern California of two new and revealing documentaries that recount the history and evolution of the African American Muslim journey.
MPAC's Hollywood Bureau serves as a bridge between the Muslim community and the entertainment industry. The Bureau is responsible for advancing Muslim American perspectives in the entertainment industry by serving as an information clearinghouse in Islam for the Hollywood community. The Bureau also works with the Muslim American community to nurture creative talent and connect aspiring Muslim filmmakers, writers and actors with Hollywood professionals.
The first film shown, “Lost Found: The African American's Journey to Al-Islam,” was written, directed and produced by Shareef Nasir and Mizan Studios. It chronicles the creation, rise and evolution of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam to when his son Imam Warith Deen Mohammed became the new leader and stripped the Nation of its internal structure and ushered in a new thinking.
I recently sat with producer/director Shareef Nasir to discuss his project. Nasir told me he was inspired to make this film because he saw an important story of a people who had been through a unique transformation. The traumatic history of slavery and unrelenting racist climate posed an extreme challenge. Nasir argues that the only real way to effectively eradicate the symptoms of racism was with an ideology that was equally extreme.
That was what Muhammad was offering. He preached a radical philosophy of separatism and self-reliance; he was a master psychologist who reached the heart of the problem African American’s were facing at that time. He identified a lack of self-love and a lack of self-confidence, and he knew exactly how to effectively eliminate the problem.
Muhammad took core Islamic ideas and fashioned a message to address the immediate needs of his people. To rebuild confidence and self-reliance in his community, he emphasized Quranic principles of discipline, morality, personal decorum, modesty and respect for self and others. He discouraged the consumption of drugs, tobacco and alcohol, while stressing the importance of physical fitness and a healthy diet.
“Lost-Found” makes a compelling case for Muhammad’s unconventional methodology while revealing that while Muhammad may have digressed from the traditional interpretation of Islam, he was effective in applying the spirit of Islam. He achieved indisputable results, evidenced by a beautiful and continually expanding, upstanding and self-sufficient community that would eventually make an additional transformation when they embraced mainstream Islam under the guidance of Muhammad’s, Arabic-educated son, Imam Mohammed.
“I did not want to make him something he was not and I did not want to take away from what he was,” Nasir said. “He never claimed to be a man of religion. He said, ‘I came to clean you up, the one after me will teach you religion.’ I try not to judge how we got here, we went through the back door, down the creek up the alley way but we got here. It was all a part of Allah’s divine plan.”
The second film, Baitcal Production’s, “The Legacy of Iman W. Deen Mohammed,” follows the life of Imam Mohammed, and it picks it up where “Lost-Found” leaves off, featuring rare footage of 33 years of his life and legacy. The film explores the transition the Imam took the Nation through and the journey from his father’s teachings to the teachings of the Quran.
Father and son duo, Samir and Lon Muqaddam embarked on a project with Imam Mohammed in 1975 to document the transition of the Nation of Islam. “My father and I followed the Imam for a total of 33 years around the globe,” said Lon Muqaddam. “We accompanied him in Palestine, at the Vatican and all over the nation, wherever he spoke, in an effort to record this vital piece of history.”
Both films have been released at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise and few of Muslim Americans feel equipped to face the new and escalating challenges that come with this negative attention.
May Alhassen, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Southern California’s American Studies and Ethnicity program, recently organized a film screening and panel discussion of the two films in Los Angeles.
“Post 9/11 the Muslim communities’ visibility has increased and the narrative have been largely shaped by immigrant Muslims,” Alhassen said, adding that this is the prime time for these stories to be told. “Well, the African American narrative steps in and says ‘Hey, we have been here and this is our story and history and you could learn from it.’ It’s more than just coincidence that a good amount of stories are starting to come out now.”
“African American Muslim history is also the history Islam in this country and beyond that it’s American history,” she said.
Her intention in organizing the screening was to show the films to Muslim youth, particularly children of immigrants.
“I feel like it is a really comprehensive way of understanding our own history,” Alhassen said. “To watch the journey and mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of people under the leadership of W. Deen Mohammed in the face of all the social unrest of the civil rights era and to see how they overcame their struggles, really puts into perspective the challenges that Muslims are facing in this country today.”
I am personally re-energized and re-inspired by these documentaries, in much the same way that I was 20 years ago, in that theater with my family. Both films reveal previously untold history about the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and the not so coincidental position that Imam Mohammed inherited.
Many young Muslims do not know our history in the United States, and many of us struggle because we have not placed ourselves in our proper historical context. How many of our youth know who Imam Mohammed was or the fact that he was responsible for the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims?
“I remember his dedication to creating a respect for Islam in America that was always the essence of what he was trying to say,” said Lon Muqaddam. “Muslim Americans can make a difference not just in America but in the world. He wanted to see the community give what it had to offer. He loved being a Muslim. He loved the Prophet (PBUH), and he loved the message that Islam had to offer to humanity. He felt proud to be a Muslim, and he made you feel like God gave you something special.”
To me, that is the value of looking back and understanding how those who paved a way for us used Islam as a vehicle to better themselves, their community and all of humanity.