The Indigenous American-Muslims’ Truth
Three other African American Muslims and I journeyed to Amman, Jordan to join a global conversation around transgenerational trauma and Muslim mental health as a part of a Muslim Life Planning Institute, Inc. (MLPI) delegation. We were going to Jordan not only to represent MLPI, we were going to represent. We were being called to represent a Black American perspective and the voices of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries. We would present Indigenous American-Muslims’ points of views and speak into our collective and individual truths. Our challenge was how to address the topic through our truth in the time allotted. Truth doesn’t just emerge, first it marinates in history and ancestry.
The truth of most African American Muslims stands in being a part of what I call a blended family (a family of Muslims and Christians or members with different cultural understandings of the same religion). Our truth raised up out of a country where you don’t just be a Muslim; you make a conscious effort to be one. As American Muslims we consistently play in our heads, “I am a Muslim” like a chorus of a song. Since we live in blended families and are immersed in American culture, this type of self-talk acts as a reminder that we are Muslims.
The Qur’an tells us “[g]uard strictly your (habit of) prayers, especially the Middle Prayer” (Interpretation of the Qur’an 2:238). We exist as Muslims in a country where the workplace makes no space or time for the daily prayers, making it challenging to perform our Middle Prayer. The Qur’an warns “. . . the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things” (Interpretation of Qur’ an24:30). In our daily lives, there are no shortage of sights that require one to lower his or her gaze. We embrace our duty to raise our children to be Muslim in a world that tells them through music, images and peer pressure not to be Muslim. What imprint does these incongruities between our religion and our surroundings have on our well-being and the mental health of our children?
We traveled to Jordan to address transgenerational trauma and Muslim mental health through our African American story. We were mindful of the limitation of our time to tackle these concerns. It however would be a disserve to jump into the subject without context. We had to set the stage with our truth as African Americans and our truth has a prologue that is its own saga.
Our present-day truth cannot be understood without the story before the story. Our preamble is our journey before the journey to Amman. The middle passage and protracted passage through pre-emancipation slavery drenched our truth. Lynched souls dangled in front of our truth. Our truth was informed by us tirelessly trudging through Jim Crow laws. The fact is that through the years we fought a good fight, but our winnings sadly included a new flavor of institutional racism and tickets to enjoy mass incarceration. We carried our baggage of transgenerational trauma and dysfunctionalism into our future; most of us had no clue what we lugged on our generational trip.
We cheered on Booker T (Washington) and Stokely (Carmichael). We moved through the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Nationalism Movements strapped with trauma. We moved with or behind Malcolm (X), Marcus (Garvey), Martin (Luther King) and the Honorable (Elijah) Muhammad. We joined a Nation named Islam (Nation of Islam) and renamed ourselves Black, and then African – and – we renamed our person. Billy became Bilal, and Nadine became Nadirah. Some of the second-generation Muslims and the new-to-arrive Muslims took us full circle and changed their name from Muhammad to Moe.
We cheered on the outspoken, revved up the rebels, and revered the religious. Some of us followed good guidance, and some were led astray and here we are today – a party of us functioning and others malfunctioning.
Among the Indigenous American Muslims are those that were baptized in the pool to be Christians and emerged from the water as Muslims. This is a part of our complex, but miraculous, story before the story. The pain and the miracles had to be told in Jordan for them to understand our truth and our authority to speak.
Why Must We Speak?
Our credentials to speak were not from the letters behind our names. Our credibility was mostly in our survival of the assorted passages and passed-throughs. Our credibility was anchored by our history. Our evidence-based findings were centered in the reality that we emerged from those waters as Muslims relatively sane. Well, some of us enjoyed “relatively sanity” and others not so much. If we are telling our truth, then we must acknowledge, this is also a part of who we are.
When MLPI was invited to participate in two back-to-back conferences in Ammanthe 7th Annual International Conference on Transgenerational Trauma: Communal Wounds and Victim Identities, andthe International Muslim Mental Health Conference, we accepted. We accepted not knowing how it would be financed and not knowing who the delegation would be. We, however, did what Believers do; we believed.
Although we were not clear on the how we were clear on the why. It was important for us as African American Muslims to be in these crucial conversations. Who better than us to talk about transgenerational trauma? Who better than us to speak about Muslim Mental Health, coping and the road to recovery? We wanted to go to Jordan to serve and to seek knowledge by convening with others that placed importance on the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of Muslims.
Our executive team, Karim Ali, Samuel Shareef, and I selected our lineup. Dr. Jon Yasin, and Imam Earl Al-Amin would travel with Karim and me to Jordan. Samuel and Dr. Hameed El-Amin would join us via zoom. Wakeelah Martinez-Mutazzamil graciously agreed to help shape our presentations by participating in our planning sessions and by sharing scholarly works. We had our team!
We traveled to Jordan on Etihad Airways on different flights, agreeing to meet in Amman, Jordan on October 18th. I was the first to arrive in Jordan. When I arrived, I was the only person of African descent in attendance at the conference. For me, this reinforced the significance of our presence. How do you have a global conversation about transgenerational trauma, mental health, and Muslims without us?
Dr. Yasin, Imam Earl and Karim arrived at the conference location a few hours later. I immediately felt the blessing of us being in Jordan. I don’t know whether I said it to them; I was proud to be there with those three brothers. I felt that collectively, we could represent. That night we enjoyed a great meal together at a Jordanian restaurant, laughed, and discussed, and then retreated to our individual quarters. Tomorrow, we would be presenting Modern Approaches Towards Healing and Transforming Identity for Global Indigenous Populations Experiencing Communal Traumaat the 7th Annual International Conference on Transgenerational Trauma: Communal Wounds and Victim Identities.
Our Saga and Transgenerational Trauma Unfolded
Remember, our story has a prologue. We had to set the stage with it. Karim warmed up the room with an introduction of who is MLPI. “MLPI is an organization founded to address the deep concern for the life journey of Muslims in America. An organization that delivers dynamic educational materials and instruction to interdisciplinary audiences with a focus on Islam and its impact on business, education, culture, and the way we are governed as a nation and society . . .”
Then, Imam Earl came out the gate strong with an image that is frequently put forth as the divine, which was a Caucasian man. When Imam Earl asked did anyone know who the image was, a chorus in the room said “Jesus.” Even in the Middle East that image was known. He clicked to an image of the Last Supper and pointed out that in the painting “not even the busboys were Black.” The room laughed. He brilliantly talked about the effect that these images had on the mental health of the oppressed and the oppressor, and how images like these perpetuated oppression and the inferiority of dark-skinned people. He took the room on a journey, talking about the symptoms of historical trauma and the healing process, and how historical trauma is manifested in African American communities. The room listened intently.
Dr. Yasin dropped wisdom around normal and abnormal processes of socialization, with a focus on the African American experience and he put it all in historical context. Then, he divulged, removing the author’s name, the struggles revealed in a letter. It read:
You see, I was born a Muslim, but due to circumstances beyond my control I grew up apart [from] my family and my cultural heritage, as I was sent to a British-style boarding school . . . But Westernization, my fiery need to assimilate at all costs, and also the last eight years of war in the Middle East have left me totally bereft of an identity or even a stable cultural context in which to express the things that no longer can be expressed. My identity has gradually been replaced by one that is distinctly Western-European and American. And so being a Muslim born in Pakistan was something that I consciously discarded over the years for something entirely new and different, which has manifested itself in a search for a Western identity. This is something that I did, partly out of fear, but also partly out of a palpable need to belong to this society.
We zoomed Dr. El- Amin and Samuel into the room. Dr. El-Amin took us on a clinical excursion through the human brain, genes and the social environment. His section was Communal Trauma: Marshaling the Concepts of Science toward Healing. He addressed Spiritual Sciences (archetypal sensitivities, intuition and revealed knowledge), Social Sciences (psychology and sociology), and Material or Objective Sciences (genetics physiology and biological trauma). He explained gene expression and genetic expression of phenotypic traits and how exposure to trauma leads to changes in phenotype in children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations. He talked about how the brain and the central nervous system processes trauma, and about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). Let’s just say it got scientific, and it got deep.
That was just day one! The prologue was delivered, and our story had begun to unfold, peppered with anecdotes relating our transgenerational trauma to Muslims around the world.
Our Families, Our Grief, Our Healing
The next day, we along with the other attendees of the Transgenerational Trauma conference, convened at the International Muslim Mental Health Conference. ImamEarl and I presented to a full room our session entitled Family Dynamics and the Grieving Process, which was an excerpt from the MLPI curriculum three-hour course. We explained that family makeup and the communities that they live in affects family dynamics. We shared best practices for providing grief counseling to Muslim and how spirituality, or the lack thereof, could affect the grieving process. Lastly, we highlighted the benefits of Islamic rituals to address grief. We concluded,Muslims firmly rooted in Islamic beliefs are better served by counselors with Islamic cultural competency.
It was to my surprise that several people wanted to delve deeper into functioning in a “blended family.” I thought that was an American phenomenon. They shared the challenges of welcoming other cultures into a family that lives in a homogeneous community, pointing out that Americans have more practice with embracing others because of the diversity of America. They were looking for a road map to embrace others without creating disharmony in the family. They wanted to understand more about how we became Muslims and thrive as Muslims in America, notwithstanding our history and our present day reality.
After the session, one sister said to me that she had always believed that African Americans only had a superficial understanding of Islam and now she knows differently after meeting us. We have an invitation to come back to Jordan and to participate in conferences in other countries. Maybe that is an indication that we represented and told our truth well.
I was enriched from the experience of sharing, receiving, and connecting. I believe that the collective and individual truth of these African American Muslims built connections in Jordan. I am grateful to Allah for the blessing and thank all those that contributed financially and in kind to help MLPI participate in building bridges to global healing. I am also appreciative to both conference organizers for the invitations (Steve Olweean, Director of Common Bond Institute and Dr. Farha Abbasi, Department of Psychiatry at Michigan State University and Staff Psychiatrist at the University’s student health center); the Jordanians for their warmth; and my travel companions for sharing the wisdom and the laughs. May Allah reward them all for their efforts and deeds.