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African American Muslim Leadership for the 21st Century

(Part 1: Introduction)

Amir Al-Islam

“You have in the Character of the Prophet Muhammad (s)The Perfect Model of Conduct” (The Holy Qur’an: 33-21)

“We Have Sent You Muhammad (s)as a Mercy to all Creation”(The Holy Qur’an: 21-107)     

The objective of this document is to inspire and provoke civil dialogue which focuses on preparing African American Muslim leaders for 21st century challenges in a post 9-11 milieu. I argue that African American Muslim leadership is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and I remain concerned that we have not grasped the urgency of the challenge that lies before us. It is crucial that in addition to strategies which are currently in use and have proven to be effective, we must devise new modalities and methodologies which reflect the best practices in leadership development. Personal attacks, un-warranted criticisms, and condemnations are neither the focus, nor the intended by-product of this endeavor. It is essential however, that we begin to engage in a constructive critique and analysis of our communities, leaders and institutions in order to lay the foundation for positive change and progress.      

The perspective that I posit here is not based on rigorous empirical research and I am not proposing answers to the myriad questions that I have raised. Rather, my intentions are to express my personal reflections in an effort to create public discourse which generates new thought and perspectives about American Muslim leadership It is evident that the foundational model of leadership that we seek is already outlined in the teachings and practices of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (s), and is expressed in its most articulate form with the Rightly Guided Caliphs, his companions, and the Muslim scholars and leaders who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership across the ages.      

However, we must build on this historical legacy to address the challenges of our time. I am convinced that the answers we seek are in the hearts and minds of Muslims and non-Muslims, in research materials, and archives waiting to be discovered and unearthed. My hope and prayer is that I can serve as a catalyst in this process. Finally, I believe that we are at a critical juncture in our history as a Muslim community and the future is upon us. The urgency is self evident. To paraphrase one of Hip Hop’s clarion calls: let’s get busy. All of the good which comes from this project is from Almighty Allah, and obviously, the mistakes are mine. May Allah guide us all.  

Reflections of anAfrican American Muslim Activist 


This booklet asserts that educating and training Muslim men and women leaders who are capable of effectively navigating the multi-ethnic and multi-religious terrain in America—particularly in the post 9-11 milieu—requires the development of an American Muslim educational paradigm which articulates a new critical Muslim pedagogy. This new pedagogy—centered in Islamic epistemology and ontology—should selectively appropriate the best of traditional Muslim educational paradigms and modalities used over time. However, it is crucial that the traditional Muslim model not be reified, but rather be subjected to a sharp critique which maintains the richness of its spiritual and intellectual legacy but totally rejects teachings and interpretations used to create false dichotomies resulting in binary constructs (us-them), particularly those which pit Muslims against the west. Further, the new critical Muslim pedagogy must facilitate the construction of new optics through which to view the contemporary world we live and interact in, locally and globally. Finally, the new critical Muslim pedagogy must embrace all of the best discursive practices (e.g., pedagogies of Freire and others) that engage us in a critical analysis of the way in which power and privilege, even in religious communities, operate to marginalize and suppress women, minorities and people of color. Thus, this article will place special emphasis on the experiences of African American Muslims (the largest population of Muslims in the U.S.) and how a new critical Muslim pedagogy would address the myriad challenges they face and effectively serve the needs, requirements, and interests of their communities.  


Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with approximately 1.6 billion Muslims according to the United Nations Population Report of 2000. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs, nor do they live in the Middle East. They are in Asia, in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Moreover, within the last 50 years, Islam has gained a significant presence in most western countries, with rapidly expanding Muslim populations in France, England and the United States, due primarily to substantial immigration from Muslim countries over the last century. It is the American landscape which provides the context for this document.      

Currently, it is reported that there are approximately 6 to 7 million Muslims in the United States (Council on American Islamic Relations-CAIR, 2004), comprised of immigrants from over 50 countries and a substantial population of converts to the faith, primarily African Americans. While there are considerable numbers of white Americans (one of the first documented Anglo-American converts to Islam was Muhammad Alexander Webb in 1887, from New York) and a significant population of Latinos who have embraced the faith, African Americans by far constitute the largest group of Muslims in America, nearly 40% of the total Muslim population and they also account for the majority of new converts. It is this population of African American Muslims—who are often overlooked and discounted in scholarly writings and research—upon which this paper places special emphasis.      

During the latter part of the 20th century, American Muslims, both immigrants and converts have established a formidable presence on the American religious, social, and political landscape. They are actively engaged in every sphere of American society and functioning as doctors, lawyers, judges, elected officials, teachers, law enforcement officers, and entrepreneurs. In addition, Muslims in America have established over 4,000 Islamic organizations and institutions, including thousands of Muslim students associations on most university campuses, intellectual and professional organizations, civil rights and political advocacy groups, social service agencies, over 1,500 mosques, and 500 schools in every major city in America. Muslims have also established 6 national umbrella organizations to coordinate their activities and, in varying degrees, to promote Islamic understanding.     

However, the exponential development of Muslim institutions and organizations in the U.S. has not included the establishment of Islamic institutions of higher learning. While there have been a few modest but noteworthy efforts by Muslims to establish Islamic colleges and advanced studies programs within the last few years, (e.g., American Islamic College in Chicago, Islamic Internet University, Hartford Seminary’s Muslim Chaplains Program), currently, there are no accredited Islamic colleges, universities, or seminaries, which focus on educating and training American Muslim leaders.       

Thus, it can be asserted that the present system of educating and training American Muslim leaders (the aforementioned initiatives not withstanding) is woefully inadequate, and does not address the contemporary challenges facing Muslims in 21st century post 9-11 America. And admittedly, while there are a number of American Muslims functioning effectively in leadership positions within Islamic organizations, this is insufficient, and if programs are not developed which articulate new approaches and methodologies to training American Muslim leaders, the community will continue to suffer from a leadership crisis which will only grow progressively worse over time. It is encouraging to note that presently there are some American Muslim scholars who are already in dialogue and debate about the critical need for a new educational paradigm to train American Muslim leaders and have already initiated several projects. But, it is argued that this task calls for a much more comprehensive strategy and approach and should include African American Muslim scholars and intellectuals and as well as  collaborations and partnerships with other scholars and educators (non-Muslims).       

This project, it is argued, requires no less than a radical shift in the way in which Muslims have traditionally approached “Islamic” education, curriculum development, teaching methodologies and pedagogy within the last century. Here, it is significant to note that the on-going debate on the definition of “Islamic” education and the problematic associated with the use and misuse of the term Islamic, while relevant to the premise of this article, is not, however central to its thesis, and therefore beyond its scope.  (Sardar, 1989, Iqbal, 1996 Daud, 1998, Ali, 2000, Panjwani, 2004, Douglas and Shaikh, 2004).  However, I do agree with the argument that there is a tendency to misapply the expression Islamic by using it in its adjectival form (Islamic knowledge, Islamic terrorism etc.) This term is a signifier which should only apply to the faith and its doctrine as an ideal, and should not be used to ascribe divinity to actions and activities that fall squarely within the realm of human agency. This perspective is reflected in this project by a concerted effort to use the terminology in an appropriate fashion, (e.g., critical Muslim pedagogy rather than critical Islamic pedagogy).      The development of a new critical Muslim pedagogy is admittedly daunting, challenging and complex, and raises a number of essential questions:  

 ·         What is a traditional “Islamic” education? What is “Islamic” knowledge and what makes it Islamic? What are its limits and parameters? (this notion continues to be debated)

 ·         What should be the criteria for American Muslim leadership and how do you educate and train American Muslim leaders for the 21st century?

·         What should a critical Muslim pedagogy consist of (i.e. its philosophical approach and conceptual framework etc.) particularly in a post 9-11 environment that is often hostile to Islam and Muslims?

·         What teaching and learning modalities and methodologies should be employed in the critical Muslim pedagogy (research, curriculum, texts etc.)  

·         Should approaches to training and educating immigrant Muslim leaders be developed differently from African American Muslim leaders?     

 Surely, this article does not claim to answer the myriad questions raised by this engaging premise. In fact, by interrogating the complexities and problematics involved in developing a critical Muslim pedagogy, more questions will be raised than answers and more challenges proposed than solutions. The initial objective is therefore to track the contours of American Muslim leadership development in order to identify complexities, raise questions and challenge propositions, which, hopefully, will open new lines of scholarly inquiry and thought. Additionally, articulating the challenges confronting African American Muslim leaders give voice to a community often silenced and adds a perspective often overlooked in the discourse. But before a new critical American Muslim pedagogy can be explored, it is necessary to understand the historical development and functionality of American Muslim leadership and the context in which it evolved.       

So, the primary objectives of this article are: to accentuate the urgent need for the development of this new pedagogy; to highlight some of the critical issues that should be considered in the process of its development; and finally, to add an African American Muslim voice and perspective to the discourse. But before a new critical Muslim pedagogy can be explored, it is necessary to understand the context of its implementation. Therefore, a brief overview of Islam in America will prove useful.  

When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way.

Quran: 2:186
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