As our nation reels under the weight of racism and terrorism and seeks traction toward healing, Oliver Muhammad has an interesting perspective: He is a black man and a Muslim.
He says it can be a double-whammy of racial and religious profiling.
“As an African-American Muslim community, we believe we are compelled to do something to address this issue,” said Muhammad, 63, the resident imam at As Salaam Islamic Center of Raleigh.
“We are instructed … ‘If you see something that is wrong, change it first with your hand. If you can’t change it with your hand, speak out against it and, even if you can’t do that, at least be against it in your heart. It is the weakest of faith to have it in your heart and don’t do anything about it.’ ”
Muhammad continued: “We condemn all senseless violence. That’s black-on-black crime, as well as the unjust killing of African-American males, and police officers, too.”
Recently, Muhammad shared his thoughts with me on several topics.
On being a black man: “Talk to any African-American male and they’ll tell you it always causes pause in our minds when we see a police officer,” he said. “Now, black men are being targeted or dying at the hand of law enforcement. So I’m profiled on one level because I’m Muslim, but when you’re an African-American male, it creates a lot of anxiety, on a daily basis.”
On being Muslim: “For Muslims, in general, regardless of ethnic background, we believe our religion has been hijacked by criminals who are violent, evil people,” Muhammad said. “It’s not the first time in Islamic history they’ve shown their face ... not the first time people have used religion to further their political aims. They’re really not considered Muslim at all.”
He said some Islamic concepts and terms are misinterpreted, misplaced and misused.
“It’s a collective struggle for all Muslims,” Muhammad said. “We are not ISIS. We are not al-Qaeda or suicide bombers. Islam does not promote those ideas. Yet Muslims have come under a lot of scrutiny because of people who claim Islam is behind these violent, horrific acts.”
On Raleigh: The African-American Muslim community took root in Raleigh in the mid-1950s, when Kenneth and Margaret Rose Murray relocated from Baltimore.
Their mandate: Use the Islam faith they knew as a tool to uplift African-Americans, believing “Islam was the heritage that people had lost due to slavery,” Muhammad said.
“Islam took hold because it was addressing the overall need to re-establish African-American identity,” Muhammad said, noting some early teachings didn’t mirror the Quran or the life example of Elijah Muhammad. “But it was in response to the racism that existed at that time.”
Upon Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son and successor, Warith Deen Mohammed, shifted the heavy emphasis on race to embrace all humanity through the pure and proper teachings of Islam, Oliver Muhammad said.
“We want people to enjoy us,” he said. “Still, the objective was to re-acclimate the African-American community to its true Islamic heritage.”
Under the Murrays’ influence, about nine African-American mosques were established across eastern North Carolina, Muhammad said.
About 30 mosques have been established statewide by immigrant Muslims, he said. Currently, there are about 3,000 African-American Muslims in Raleigh.
Muhammad said fundraising efforts are under way and preliminary plans are in place to build the As Salaam Islamic Center of Raleigh on Lord Anson Drive. The name means “to be safe and secure,” he said.
“The Quran gives permission for us to be who we are and what we were created to be: ‘I have created you into nations, tribes and families; not to despise each other, but to get to know each other, and the best of you are the ones who are most dutiful to God.’
“If you look at our distinctions, what you’re actually going to find is what’s in common,” Muhammad said. “Getting to know a person doesn’t preclude me valuing who I am.”