By Judge David A. Shaheed
It is most appropriate that the Pontifical Urbaniana University host this conversation on the Americas as two extraordinary Italians were instrumental in their discovery and exploration.
The Italian, Christopher Columbus, who was looking for a shorter route to Asia, is given credit for discovering the Americas.
Amerigo (Americus) Vespucci, also an Italian of that vintage, clarified the actual discovery of his fellow countryman as the New World.
It is also recorded that Muslims were a part of that original exploration of the New World. It is reported that a book written by a Portuguese Muslim, who had come to the New World in the 12th century, provided navigational help to Christopher Columbus in his exploration of the Americas.
Following the period of exploration by Europeans came the Colonial period, which began in the 15th century.
Africa, Asia as well as the two continents in the western hemisphere, North and South America, were populated by colonists from home countries in Europe.
After these colonies were established, the struggle for independence from the colonial powers lasted into the 20th century. The initial colonists in North America were Pilgrims from England.
They were seeking land and freedoms not present in their home countries and they embraced this new territory with all of its challenges. Ironically, Amerigo (Americus) Vespucci became the inspiration figure for naming the new world, North and South America.
The 13 original colonies, which soon declared their independence from England eventually, became the United States of America, which shall be called America for this discussion.
The New World, as it was commonly called was colonized and developed by four dominant countries, i.e. France, England, Spain and Portugal. Spain and Portugal were the dominant countries colonizing and extracting the treasures from South America.
The 13 original colonies, which formed the embryonic nucleus for the United States, were connected to England.
Canada, though part of North America, took a different path from the beginning largely due to the influence of France.
The immigration which followed over the next 200 years included two groups of Muslims voluntary immigrants, who have come more recently from Asia and the Middle East and the forced immigrants from Africa who were brought to America to tame and help build the infrastructure in this New World.
This paper will discuss Islams Response to the American Man from the perspective of a Muslim American of African descent.
This focus on enslaved Muslims and their lineage should not overshadow the other streams of Muslims that complete the current tapestry of Muslims in America. But due to the constraints of time, I hope to share a contemporary and unlikely collaboration between a Muslim American leader of this lineage and a spiritually gifted Italian woman.
The early settlers came to the New World seeking to escape England and the tyranny of Englands monarch, King George.
They viewed England as a repressive government that left the land and the rights of the people under the arbitrary gentry, lords and dukes who held the land as worthy noblemen loyal to their king or queen.
These early settlers also sought a freedom of worship which they were denied in England. In the New World there was an abundance of land and no established government, giving them a blank canvas on which to chart a new course for themselves.
But to capture the opportunities that existed in this immense landscape, begging to be conquered and tamed, cheap labor was an essential commodity.
The common denominator for the three or four waves of migrants, who settled in North America and specifically the United States of America, was the demand for cheap labor.
The forced migration of enslaved persons from Africa began in the 1600s and continued until slavery officially ended with the Civil War in 1865.
Within that human cargo, chained in the belly of slave ships were Muslims from West Africa. One of the first accounts of enslaved Muslims was on the slave ship the Amistad.
In 1839, enslaved persons on a Spanish ship moving around Cuba revolted and killed the captain of the ship and most of the crew. Sengbe Pieh, a Muslim, was one of the leaders of the slave revolt on the Amistad.
There are other reports of enslaved Muslims in America. One book entitled, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles, provides detailed accounts of Muslims captured as part of the slave trade.
One of the more compelling stories details the life of Abd ar-Rahman, often referred to as the Prince. Another enslaved Muslim discussed in the book is Umar Ibn Said, who was fluent in Arabic and wrote letters in his own hand about his life and other subjects.
It should be noted that scholarship and learning among those enslaved was not only rare, but it was illegal before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. While some debate the extent of the brutality associated with slavery in the United States and South America, the simple fact is that enslaved persons were treated as property.
They were property and regarded as nothing more than livestock. Therefore, they were prohibited from enjoying any semblance of family life. All cultural norms and traditions including language, religion and family hierarchy were eliminated.
The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas and Celia, A Slave: A True Story both give context to the circumstances of the lives of enslaved persons in early America. Enslaved persons had no control over their own lives and were forbidden to even learn to read.
Yet, Abd ar-Rahman, Umar ibn Said and other enslaved Muslims were recognized for their intellect and cultural maturity. Solomon Northrup, whose autobiography became the basis for the award-winning movie, Twelve Years a Slave, must be mentioned as well.
I would strongly encourage everyone, who has not seen this movie, to view it to gain a better appreciation of the conditions which form the background for my narrative today.
The American Man has had different meanings over the years since Americas birth in 1776. If there is one document, which points to the aspirations of the American man, it is the Declaration of Independence.
Specifically the following words capture this ideal: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
These words capture the essence of the experiment with the democracy found in the American experience from its inception, i.e. the acknowledgment of a Creator, a Supreme Being governing all earthly affairs; the inherent equality of all human beings which entitled all people to certain God-given rights life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (which was interpreted to mean the right to own property.)
It is particularly ironic that when these words were penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, a vast number of people living in America were not considered the men contemplated by the Declaration of Independence.
Specifically, women and enslaved persons were excluded from this lofty goal. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and many others who signed the Declaration of Independence owned people as slaves and denied them the humanity and freedoms they were willing to fight against England to attain for themselves.
In addition, they considered the enslaved persons their property along with livestock, farm implements and land which was a distinct privilege in the Americas.
In December 2013 the world mourned and celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela. Of the many comments that have been made about Mandelas life and legacy, one word seems to capture his spirit and message to humanity forgiveness.
Most of us are familiar with the oppressive regime of apartheid and the harsh realities imposed upon the people of color in South Africa and upon Nelson Mandela, in particular.
After spending 27 years of his life in prison as a punishment for advocating and fighting for the rights of his people, the black majority, he emerged from prison urging forgiveness for his enemies and reconciliation for the sake of all South Africans citizens, both black and white.
Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994 after being released from prison and served one term as President.
One needs to look no further than South Africas neighbor, Zimbabwe, and its economic stagnation and corruption to appreciate the wisdom of Mandelas actions.
In short, where the world anticipated and would have understood reprisals and score-settling following years of abuse at the hands of a white minority in South Africa, Mandela demonstrated the compassion and forgiveness associated with spiritual leaders found in scripture.
I mention Nelson Mandela and the experience of the South African people to help the audience understand the strikingly similar conditions of African Americans after American slavery ended following the Civil War in 1865.
Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa and Jim Crow was its counterpart in America. Jim Crow was loosely translated as the law of separate but equal. In reality, Jim Crow established separate and unequal treatment for African Americans.
It was during the worst days of the Jim Crow system in America, that the Nation of Islam (Nation of Islam) was born in the 1930s.
A national news correspondent for CBS television described the Nation of Islam, As the Hate that Hate Produced.
Although the Nation of Islam did not advocate the violent destruction of the America, the Nation of Islam referred to all white people as devils, and taught that the white race was going to be destroyed, and urged the separation of black and white people. W. Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad, founder and spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam, was raised and reared under this rhetoric from 1930 until his fathers death in 1975.
Just as apartheid had its abuses and deaths associated with the struggle for human rights and dignity, Jim Crow, was equally oppressive. Under Jim Crow, lynchings (public hangings of black men and women) were a common tool of White extremists.
As one can imagine, the mistreatment of Black people became a recruitment tool used by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.
The simple logic of the recruitment message was this, Only the devil incarnate could treat human beings in such a way. Therefore, why not support the building of your own Nation. Malcolm X, (El Hajj Malik Al Shabazz), gained national attention for his strong critique of the U.S. government's treatment of black people.
In the 1960s, the Nation of Islam was seen as a powerful and threatening alternative to the non-violent message of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam had a temple (place of worship) in every major city in the United States from Harlem, New York, where Malcolm X was the local minister to Los Angeles, California.
The leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, was based in Chicago, and there was a Nation of Islam presence in major cities across the South from Miami to Houston, Texas.
American leaders became very concerned about the direction of this movement of anti-white, anti-government Black people who had a militant and Black Nationalist orientation. Some social scientists predicted a race war.
Few anticipated what transpired on the passing of Elijah Muhammad in February, 1975.
Wallace D. Mohammed (Warithul Deen Mohammed or W. Deen Mohammed), Elijah Muhammads seventh son, was chosen to succeed his father as the leader of the Nation of Islam on February 26, 1975.
W. Deen Muhammad immediately began to dismantle the architecture of social division and race-based nationalistic thinking. Members of the Nation of Islam were introduced to the true principles of the religion of Al-Islam and the life-example of Prophet Muhammed.
Imam W. Deen Mohammed also encouraged the members of his community to embrace the democratic principles found in the United States Constitution which protected the rights of Muslims and other faiths to practice their religion openly.
Muslims under Imam Mohammeds leadership were encouraged to compete for a share of the American dream through educational advancement, business and politics.
In addition, the Muslims of this reformed community were encouraged to get involved with interfaith dialogue so our neighbors would know what Muslims believe and that there was no reason to fear the Muslims of this reformed community.
Although there was some resistance in the ranks of the Nation of Islam to this monumental shift in focus and emphasis, these new teachings were almost universally accepted. Over the next 20 years, a militant, Black-nationalist organization was peacefully transformed into a mainstream Islamic community respected by local, national and international leaders.
So it was not surprising that in September, 1997, Imam W. Deen Mohammed received the Luminosa Award from the Focolare Community, led by Chiara Lubich.
That was the beginning of an extraordinary partnership that has a unique spiritual dimension. It defies common logic that the son of the leader of a militant, Black Nationalist organization would join hands with the woman leader of a charismatic movement of the Catholic Church to make a bold statement about forgiveness and the unity of the human family.
After Imam Mohammed and Chiara Lubich met in 1997, they decided that their communities should get to know each other.
At the local level across the United States, Muslims associated with the leadership of Imam W. Deen Mohammed began to meet with the Focolare in their cities for lunches, dinners, picnics, service projects and Muslim/Focolare gatherings, which came to be known as Encounters in the Spirit of Universal Brotherhood.
However, the crowning achievement of this unity was the historic address by Chiara Lubich at the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in Harlem, New York in 1997. In retrospect many had reservations about this event.
Masjid Malcolm Shabazz was named after the legendary Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X, who at one time was the most outspoken minister for Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam rhetoric during the 1950s and 1960s.
Although Malcolm moderated his militant stance before he was killed and the Muslim community in Harlem, N.Y., had similarly been reformed, the symbolism still remained a looming presence that might overshadow the aspirational goals of the event. In addition, Islamic leadership across the world is still struggling with the idea of a womans voice in leadership in a mosque or masjid.
Therefore, the notion that a European, White Catholic woman from Italy was going to be speaking to Muslims at the historic mosque in Harlem, New York, created a discussion, which reverberated around the Islamic world.
This was just the effect that Imam Mohammed and Chiara Lubich were looking for.
Imam Mohammed wanted to send the message to all who would hear of this historic address that the organization that was once best known for its resentment of White people because of their treatment of African Americans had transcended that identity to the point where a White Catholic woman could be embraced in the historic Masjid Malcolm Shabazz and respected for the message that she was to deliver. In addition, it was a message to the Islamic world and others, that it was time for the spiritual voice of the woman to be heard and respected.
In conclusion, we pray that you can appreciate why we chose to share the special journey of this Muslim American community.
First, there was their journey from physicsal slavery to freedom. But the second part of the journey, freedom for the human soul and spirit, was a grace that came from learning the lessons of love for those who oppress us and forgiveness from blessed lady, Chiara Lubich and the Focolare community.