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Black Muslims: Finding community and faith in South LA

Sarah Parvini, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

Although Islam had been practiced in the New World for centuries, a new permutation of African American Islam emerged in the 1930s, when a salesman named Wallace D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit as a Black separatist movement with a doctrine that bears little resemblance to mainstream Islam.

In the socially turbulent decades bracketing World War II, other Black separatist, Black nationalist and Pan-African organizations arose, claiming various degrees of affinity with Islam.

In the 1950s and '60s, under the mentorship of Nation of Islam's new leader, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X helped the organization raise its profile through messages like the one a young Imam Hasan heard, speeches that encouraged Black economic self-reliance, pride and self-determination.

American Islam made a broader cultural and political impact in the '60s, when Malcolm X embraced orthodox Islam, and heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964. A decade later, the Black Muslim community splintered when Imam Warith Deen Mohammed succeeded his father, Elijah, as leader of the Nation of Islam. Mohammed rejected the Nation's more controversial beliefs and founded the Muslim American Society.

As increasing numbers of African and Middle Eastern Muslims immigrated to the United States in recent decades, the makeup of America's Muslim communities changed yet again. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that just 2 of every 100 Black Muslims surveyed identified with the Nation of Islam. Most U.S. Muslims who are Black either identify as Sunni — 52% — or with no particular denomination, the study said.

To Imam Hasan, the move to mainstream Islam under Warith Deen Mohammed represented "evolution" for the community.

"If we had the wrong concept of Islam, I wanted to get the right concept," Hasan says. "I didn't want to go on the same old path because I couldn't learn anything from that."

There were also those who chose not to follow Warith Deen Mohammed. Some broke away to follow the Nation of Islam's new leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, who preached Black pride in speeches he sometimes laced with antisemitic and homophobic comments.

The growing diversity of the U.S. Muslim population has altered societal perceptions of what it means to be Black and Muslim. Su'ad Abdul Khabeer, a Purdue University professor and author of "Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States," said that there is a sense of erasure among many in the community because of "silence in popular discourse around Black Muslims." In her book, Khabeer writes that her research challenges the "racialization of Muslims as foreign and as perpetual threats to the United States."

"Mainstream media generally ignores Black Muslims, even though everyone loves Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali," she says.

It's a feeling that Saafir knows well. At times, Saafir says, to be Black and Muslim can feel like the "invisible man," overlooked during conversations about Islam in the U.S. despite the Black community's contributions to the faith.

"It's the African Americans," he says, "who put Islam in the spotlight."

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An enduring sense of duty to the community also permeates Masjid Bilal, which sprouted from a community first led by other ministers in Muhammad's Temple of Islam #27 on Broadway more than 50 years ago. Imam Hasan took the reins in 1971, and the community purchased Bilal's current property in 1973.

The building that once stood there was demolished in the 1980s due to earthquake damage, and the mosque has been expanding since 1999. The center finished building a charter school on its grounds in 2007. Most of the students are Latino, Hasan says, and the majority are not Muslim.

Bilal doesn't keep count of how many people attend the mosque. Hasan's flock skews older than Saafir's, and worshippers trickle in from the neighborhood and beyond — some driving from as far as Bakersfield for Friday prayers.

 

The masjid is raising funds to add a mixed-use building with businesses and low-income apartments. The new masjid and community center are still under construction, though its new minaret, more than 70 feet tall, towers over the street. When completed, the facility will encompass an entire city block.

Part of the fundraising comes through the pastries that Hasan wakes up around 6 a.m. to bake: bean pies. The pies are symbolic and tasty tether to his days in the Nation of Islam and date back to the 1930s, when Elijah Muhammad told followers to stick to a healthy diet and promoted eating navy beans.

When Nation of Islam members started to open restaurants, the pies were prominently featured. Some young men also sold them on the street.

Hasan's recipe is his own, adapted from an imam he knew in New York (whose recipe, he says, had "too many ingredients"). Every Tuesday, he steps into the kitchen at the masjid, dons a white apron and throws the mini pies into the oven to raise money for the masjid.

He raised $14,444.25 for the Islamic center's construction fund in two years — a figure he shares with as much pride as he has for the pastries themselves.

The pies have earned a reputation in the community. About two years ago, Saafir recalls, Islah held a bean pie contest during a festival. Hasan entered. And won.

"For me, that's a beautiful thing," Saafir says with a laugh. "Imam Hasan has put in a lot of work. When I'm older, I want to make some pies."

The young imam refers to his elder with reverence, affectionately shortening Abdul Karim Hasan to "Imam A.K. Hasan." As he gets older, Saafir says, he has come to appreciate and wonder how someone "can stay in position of power that long."

"I'm interested in what sustained him in that position, after having experience now," he says. "When I see him, it's like my uncle. I have the utmost respect. That is where it all started, right there."

Earlier this summer at a celebration of Eid al-Adha, which honors Ibrahim's obedience to God in being willing to sacrifice his son Ismael, Hasan walks among the congregants who have gathered under white canopies pinned with pink and turquoise balloons in Bilal's parking lot.

"Hasan is valuable to us. He has so much goodwill going for him," says Aadil Naazir, executive director of the Center for Advanced Learning, the school on Bilal's campus.

To Naazir, Hasan "represents our history."

"We were youth when we started with him," says Naazir, 72. "He's a connection to the past and present."

Naazir pauses, then nods in the direction of Islah mosque five miles away. While Hasan links his congregation to the last century's great social justice struggles, he says, Saafir is looking for new ways to carry that faith forward.

"He represents the future over there," Naazir says.

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