In 1976, with the permission of Allah, I accepted Islam as my new way of life. Although it was the core belief of Tawheed (the oneness, indivisibility, and uniqueness of Allah) that compelled me to convert, at the time, I had slight reservations about the lifestyle attached to Islam. I didn’t know much about the religion and I didn’t know many Muslims. My impressions of Muslims were based on my knowledge of fictional characters, culturally homogenized images, and a few murky personal encounters. Muslims, in my mind, seemed exotic. They were different. Muslims, especially the women, dressed in flowy, Bohemian clothes and had unpronounceable names. They looked like they were from another era.
Also in 1976, the movie The Message (originally known as Mohammad, Messenger of God) was released. The movie depicted the life experiences of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Although the film never showed the actual character of the Prophet, it did depict many of the sahabah, including the Prophet’s paternal uncle Hamza. Subliminally, the mold for the image of the Prophet was cast: If you could see what the relatives of the Prophet looked like, then it did not take a stretch of the imagination to visualize what the Prophet may have looked like, and he did not look like me.
The film was a remarkable, epic production, featuring hordes of actors reenacting scenes from Islamic history. In a cinematic sea of people with light complexions that seemed to have been untouched by the harsh Arabian sun, one figure stood out for me. Bilal, the formerly enslaved Abyssinian, caught my attention. I could relate to Bilal. Portrayed in the movie by the ebony-colored Johnny Sekka, I saw someone who represented Africa, blackness, and freedom. I also saw someone who had a noble status. I saw someone who mattered.
What I didn’t see, however, were any other sahabah who were people of color.
And even though the creation of realistic images of Prophet Muhammad was forbidden in Islam, the Western art to which I was exposed still depicted him, his family members, and companions, with very European features.
Diversity in the Islamic Experience
Humanity is diverse and so is Islam. Allah has not only affirmed our human diversity, but He has also encouraged us to learn from it. In Surah Hujurat, He says:
“O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.”
(Surah Hujurat, 49:13)
Scholars such as Abul Ala Maududi have shared insights about the meanings of this verse. In Tafhim al-Quran, Maududi writes:
“[In this verse ]... the whole of mankind has been addressed to reform it of the great evil that has always been causing universal disruption in the world, that is, the prejudices due to race, color, language, country, and nationality. On account of these prejudices, man, in every age, has generally been discarding humanity and drawing around himself some small circles and regarding those born within those circles as his own people and those outside them as “others.” These circles have been drawn on the basis of accidental birth and not on rational and moral grounds.
… The discrimination between one's own people and others is not only confined to this (that those who are looked upon as one's own people are shown greater love and cooperation than others) but this discrimination has assumed the worst forms of hatred, enmity, contempt, and tyranny.”1
Maududi further explains that in this short verse, Allah draws attention to three truths:
- "The origin of all of you is one and the same: your whole species has sprung up from one man and one woman. All your races in the world today are, in fact, the branches of one initial race that started with one mother and one father.
- In spite of being one in origin …, it was inevitable that after settling in different regions of the earth, there should be differences in colors, features, languages, and ways of living among the people; it was also natural that those living in the same region should be closer in affinity and those living in remote regions not so close, but this natural difference never demanded that distinctions of inequality (of high and low, of noble and mean) should be established on its basis, that one race should claim superiority over the other, the people of one color should look down upon the people of other colors, and that one nation should take preference over the other without any reason. The Creator had divided the human communities into nations and tribes for that was a natural way of cooperation and distinction between them.
- The only basis of superiority and excellence that there is, or can be, between man and man is that of moral excellence.”2
Our Muslim communities are often microcosms of the larger societies in which they reside. Many social scientists describe Western, industrialized society as one where people are divided into polarized groups. Consequently, many of our communities are homogenous silos. We flock toward and socialize with people who are like us. We don’t know the “others” and, we cannot, therefore, cooperate with one another.
Change and growth naturally occur through the cultural osmosis of interaction and participation in one another’s traditions. Through those interactions, we learn from one another, especially when we diminish the social pressures that compel one group to assimilate into another.
Addressing Preconceptions and Misconceptions
As I continued to study Islam, I also learned the stories of the prophets and personalities who peopled history prior to the time of Muhammad. Many of them bore similarities to those Biblical characters I had learned about in my youth. Adam, Nuh, and Musa, peace be upon them, I found out, were prophets in Islam. I had been taught that Adam, Noah, and Moses were prophets in Christianity, and Isa ibn Maryam was a prophet in Islam born of a virgin mother. Conversely, Jesus, according to Christian belief, was God Himself, although also born of a virgin mother. At times, the new truths and old fictions were comingled and confused.
I did not consciously attach the reality of skin color to the personalities mentioned in the Quran, but that did not mean that the issue of race was not on my mind as I read about them. Although I was not reading any physical descriptions of these people, I had come into Islam with many preconceptions and misconceptions about who they were. These images were based on their media representations. In my psyche, Adam was the European man of the Sistine whom Michelangelo had painted, Moses/Musa looked like the white actor Charlton Heston, and Jesus/Isa resembled the Renaissance painter Leonardo DaVinci’s Italian cousin. These commonly accepted images belied anthropological and historical realities.
Why Representation Matters
During the early years of my conversion, if you had asked me to visualize the community of Muslims, I couldn't really see myself as a natural part of that image. Muslims were the strange “other” with whom I was now privileged to be around. Muslims ate different types of food and spoke different words. Back then, when I thought of Muslim leaders, I did not consider the possibility that the image could include me or someone who looked like me. When I pictured Muslim scholars, they, too, were not Black or women or from the West. They were not from urban areas nor were they young. My visions were confined to what I saw as probable, given what I believed existed. They were based upon a monolithic view of Islam.
Representation is essential to how we define our reality. British Sociologist Stuart Hall first described cultural representation as “the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture and through the use of language, signs, and images which stand for or represent things.”3 His contention was that meaning is not constructed outside or after the reality of the event, person, or idea. How a phenomenon is represented is part and parcel of the phenomenon itself, which Hall believes has no inherent meaning until someone attaches meaning to it.
In the context of Islam, cultural representation refers to how Muslims represent their own Islamic institutions, personalities, and traditions to themselves and to non-Muslims. For some people, it is a question of power. Who decides that the traditional white thobe worn in Saudi Arabia is Muslim dress, but a hoodie boldly emblazoned with an Islamic slogan and baggy jeans are not? Who gets to designate falafel and briyani as Muslim foods, but the traditional bean soup of many Black American Muslims is not? To what extent does it matter if members of the early Muslim communities were people of color or women or able-bodied or non-Arab? What “facts” are deemed necessary enough to be referenced in history?
For representation to be accurate, it must include the diversity of culture and experience. It is only valid as a vehicle for constructing meaning to the degree that it reflects reality.
Dr. Tru Leverette, Director of Africana Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Florida, shared her ideas about how cultural representation matters. She asserts, “Cultural representation is important because people feel seen and validated when they see characters like themselves.”4
Muslims are historically a very diverse group of people, but the images of Muslims have not always been portrayed as such. The cultural representation of Muslims was generally white-washed and andro-centric. Without exposure to diverse representation, I was left to assume that the truth of Islam had been only revealed to a specific group of people who had the privilege of choosing to share it or not share it. They controlled entré to the community of Muslims. Moreover, when I superimposed my observations with the popular narrative of the Nation of Islam – that Black people had to be “cleaned up” as a people before they could benefit from Islam – my understanding of my place and potential in Islam was subliminally shaped for many years. Basically, since I did not see myself in the images of orthodox Islam, I saw it as something another group was sharing with me, and I incorrectly believed that it did not (and had never) belonged to, Black people or women. It was something that was being shared with us.
The lack of diversity was not necessarily conspiratorial or deliberate. It was a reflection of the times and of which Muslim groups took up the task of propagating Islam in the West. Since 1962, the Saudi Arabia-funded Muslim World League (MWL), a major international organization founded to propagate the global understanding of Islam, has been instrumental in cultivating perceptions of the religion. Many of the Islamic books that were published in English in the 1960s and 1970s came out of the Indian subcontinent and had a naturally Desi-centric cultural perspective. In addition, some of the most active proselytizers of Islam in the West were, at that time, members of the Ahmadiyya Movement, a Muslim group that also came out of the Indian subcontinent. These groups, while doing important work, nevertheless, did not reflect the practice of Islam in places like Sub-Saharan Africa or China. Yet, they laid a foundation for how Islam was perceived for decades.
Diversity Representation in Muslim Spaces
As parents and caretakers, we must promote diverse representation in Muslim spaces, and we must see that diversity as being beneficial for ourselves and our progeny. The future will present challenges that previous generations of Muslims have never seen, and the diversity of problem-solving approaches will trump any singular cultural experience, inshaAllah or God-wililng.
Diverse representation helps to dismantle stereotypes. When we witness diversity in images and traditions, we realize that Islam and Muslims are not a monolith. There is no singular Muslim voice or experience. Our collective voices and experiences contribute to the quilt of Islam.
Diverse representation facilitates the creation of safe spaces for minority groups within the greater Muslim community. When we see ourselves in the community and its institutions, we tend to feel welcomed and included. We have a more profound engagement with the community and we will work harder to ensure its success.
Diverse representation fosters aspirations of scholarship and leadership. When we see people who look and act like us in exemplary roles, we are more likely to aspire to reach those heights. We are no longer the “other.” We can visualize becoming the best of the best, inshaAllah.
3 Hall, S. ed. (2003) “The spectacle of the ‘other’: Contesting a racialized regime of representation.” Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices: Culture, Media and Identities Series. 1st Ed. Sage Publications in assoc with The Open University.
4 Feliciano, E. (2020) The importance of cultural representation in video games. UNF Spinnaker. September 29, 2020.
Candice “Sister Islaah” Abd’al-Rahim reverted to Islam in 1976 and considers herself a student of knowledge. She has deep education credentials which include an M.A. in Teaching, a Certificate of Advanced Studies (Post-Masters) in Administration and Supervision, a B.S. in English, and experiences as a principal (in fact the first hijab public school principal in Maryland!), curriculum and staff developer, mentor, and classroom teacher of grades pre-K through 12. She is a former adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate School of Education and is a doctoral candidate in Islamic Sciences at the International Online University. Islaah’s contributions to the field have earned her honors in the Who’s Who of Distinguished JHU Alumni. She is wife, daughter, mother, and grandmother and is an active member of several Muslim communities in the Baltimore area.