As a Muslim in the United States, it wasn’t unusual for me to feel like I didn’t belong here. As if I was taking up space that wasn’t mine to occupy. I’ve spent too much of my life trying to convince people that I’m American enough, while at the same time almost doubting it myself. As a South Asian Muslim, I didn’t expect to see myself in any of the exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and yet, as I walked through rows of artifacts, one, in particular, caught my eye. It looked like Arabic calligraphy. I took a step closer and realized that it was a verse from the Quran. In fact, it was one that I had learned as a small child and I said it out loud to myself as I read the description — a slave had written this Surah and their Arabic-illiterate owner thought it was a sign they had successfully converted the slave out of Islam. This was one of many moments at the museum where I was suddenly overcome with emotion — as I blinked rapidly and tried to focus, I thought about what it must be like to be forced to stop engaging with one’s faith.
Though my own circumstances are vastly different, and the ways in which my family suppresses our engagement with Islam are drastically less, in that brief moment I felt extremely touched by the story behind this artifact. My family avoids running errands before or after attending Masjid because we never know if someone will refuse us service because we’re dressed differently. My dad introduces himself by a stereotypical European name at work because his real name, Husain, combined with his long, dark beard remind people too much of terrorism. I don’t like telling new people I’m Muslim — the inevitable questions about “my thoughts” on the latest act of terrorism are too exhausting to keep answering. Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture reminded me that the problem wasn’t me — my feelings of not belonging in the United States stemmed from other people’s perception of me and my identities, not my identities themselves.
To clarify, I have not been enslaved, forced to convert from my religion or experienced oppression at the scale that the slave who wrote the Surah had, and yet, I reacted to this particular artifact in such an unexpected way. It was a reminder that the South Asian Muslim community can do better. We cannot simply value Black Americans for their contributions to sports and the entertainment industry; we must also recognize the contributions that Black people have made to advance society, including fighting for the rights of other minority groups in the United States. Despite a history of anti-Blackness within the South Asian community, the Black community has always stood in solidarity with us. We must recognize the ways in which we benefit from the civil rights work the Black community has done — all of our oppression is tied together and standing up for Black Muslims is also standing up for ourselves. As Fannie Lou Hamer said, “… nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” We cannot be free if we continue to exclude our Black siblings from practicing our faith together.
The experiences of Muslims in America were unpleasant (to say the least) from the very start. In the past, we can safely assume this oppression stemmed from colonizers — the people who enslaved other human beings and treated them like property. However, in the present day, we must acknowledge that the oppression of Black Muslims also comes from other Muslims. To my fellow South Asians, I implore you to think critically about whether we are truly making Black Muslims feel welcome in our Masjids, our communities and our lives. The Muslim diaspora in the United States has continuously erased the voices of Black Muslims in our community. I’ve seen fellow South Asian Muslims supporting various movements across the world, and yet, when it comes to supporting Black Muslims, the silence is deafening.
The Muslim community as a whole has a lot of work to do to make sure all Muslims feel included, including our Black siblings. We must realize that though it seems the South Asian and Black communities are distinct, there are many ways in which we are also connected. The artifact from the museum is proof that some of these connections go back to long before the founding of this country. The overlap between the Black and South Asian communities are numerous, and exhibits like the one at the National Museum of African American History and Culture are important not only to showcase the history of Black Americans, but to remind non-Black Americans that the link between our communities is built into our country’s history.