Celebrating Black History month in February is an excellent opportunity to learn about the struggle and achievement of African Americans, and their creativity and contribution to human civilization, and also to reaffirm the struggle and determination to fight prejudice and racism.
The Quran says: “O people, we created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into tribes and nations so that you may know each other. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is most righteous of you.” (Quran 49:13)
Today, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States; the majority of the populations embracing Islam are African Americans.
Why are African Americans embracing Islam in such large numbers? Is it because of Malcolm X’s pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca or the intrinsic nature of Islamic human equality.
When people think of Africa they think of blacks, civil wars and the AIDS epidemic. The intellectual discourse on topics like African history in the Islamic context is inadequate and absent from the history books.
Today more than 50 percent of the people in Africa are Muslims. And of the Africans brought over to America in the slave trade, many came from Muslim families.
With this spirit in mind, Bilal Ibne Rabah, an Ethiopian slave living in Mecca, became a leading companion of Prophet Muhammad. Very little is known of Bilal.
Bilal was a slave freed by Prophet Muhammad. Who at the time of slavery in Arabia used to buy slaves and then free them? Bilal is associated with a very important decision taken by the Prophet Muhammad concerning the issue of race and color.
Prophet Muhammad chose a black man to perform the Azan — the call of the faithful to prayers. His decision was based on the Quranic teaching against racial discrimination, which explains the rationale behind God’s creation of humanity in different tribes, color, religion and race, so that we know each other.
Prophet Muhammad chose Bilal to be the first Muezzin (caller to prayer) not because of his racial lineage nor his power or wealth, but because Bilal possessed neither.
He was chosen because of his piety, character and honor even though his pronunciation of Arabic was not accurate. Bilal was to become one of the greatest people in the history of Islam. His name adorns the pages of Islamic history as a reminder to all those who incite discord and disunity among people, races and nations — but especially to Muslims — not to transgress the will of God in their behavior and thinking.
Sadly, as we reflect on the current religious practices and social conditions of so many Muslim communities in the United States, we find them divided along artificial lines of nationality, families, ethnic identity and culture.
In celebrating Black History Month, we should be able to include that rich Islamic history that has been hidden from us in the midst of Islamophobia that has marked out Muslims and Islam as “medieval and uncivilized.”
American Muslims need to know that in these times of deliberate misrepresentation and spin, Islamic scholars were the inheritors, keepers and developers of Roman and Greek learning.
Islamic learning and culture first illuminated the Dark Ages in Europe.
Africa and Islam have more in common than we think. Islam entered Africa 100 years before Columbus. The ancient and renowned city of Timbuktu in modern Mali was the crossroads of West African and Islamic civilization and learning.
Timbuktu was a city where Muslim scholars would travel to acquire knowledge. African Americans have been in America for a long time, not as takers but as contributors, and it is worth celebrating this rich heritage, and as an American Muslim, I hold dear to my heart to enlighten both young and old, the black and non-black toward the truth and social justice and pursue the vision of making America not red or blue or black or white states, but rather a better place to live with equal opportunity for all.