To combat racially-divided worship in L.A. mosques, Islamic communities must “move on purpose”
Masjid Al-Shareef’s blue-tiled arches echo an influence of Islamic architecture that began centuries ago and thousands of miles away. But, the building’s pale blue stucco, the squat homes nearby and orange trees hanging low over wrought iron fences all scream SoCal.
Masjid Al-Shareef (MAAS-juhd is Arabic for a Muslim house of worship, colloquially known as a mosque) has been in Long Beach for decades. After the death of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the masjid and community center transitioned from Black separatism to more nonsectarian Islamic beliefs. By then, it was already home to a large and growing Black Muslim community.
As L.A.’s Muslim community grew around the older masajid (plural of masjid), a worrying trend arose. It became increasingly apparent that mosques were divided: Black Muslims and Arab and Southeast Asian Muslims didn’t gather in the same houses of worship.
Imam Tarek Muhammad came to Long Beach from Egypt in 1993, and fondly calls it his hometown. At the time of the Long Beach Islamic Center’s founding in 2006, he said, neighboring congregants at Masjid Al-Shareef were concerned that LBIC was being built so that the influx of mostly Arab Muslims would have an alternative to praying in a Black masjid.
The truth, explained Muhammad, was far less contentious. The community had simply grown so quickly that more masajid were needed, as smaller centers like Masjid Al-Shareef were overflowing on Jummah (congregational prayer held on Fridays). Still, Muhammad acknowledges that initial suspicions of the established community at Masjid Al-Shareef weren’t entirely baseless. Racism exists within the larger Muslim community. As an immigrant, said Muhammad, the treatment of Black people in America is an issue immigrant Muslims must engage with.
“The movement of liberation and freedom of African American brothers and sisters,” said Muhammad, has not been “completed.” “It’s still stuck right there. This has actually been designed to be like that.”
Masjid Al-Shareef’s Imam Abu Ishaq said he and his wife, both Black Muslims, have both faced racism from Arab and Southeast Asian Muslims in the area. “Mostly, you just feel uncomfortable,” he said. “My wife will greet other Muslims at congregational prayer or on holidays only to be met with silence.”
Abdul Hafiz grew up in Gary, Indiana during the 1960s and attended Tuskegee University in Alabama in the early 1970s. “As a young person, I never was a part of the civil rights movement,” said Abdul Hafiz. “I wouldn’t let them spit on me. I wouldn’t let nobody hit me with a rock and turn my cheek.”
Abdul Hafiz has experienced racism firsthand, and unlike recent immigrants, he’s intimately aware of the systemic racism that created the conditions for the first predominantly Black masajid in Los Angeles.
Even after explicit policies against Black property ownership ended, redlining ensured that masajid founded and attended by Black Muslims could only exist in certain neighborhoods. “Black people couldn’t move into Corona or Fontana. All these areas were redlined,” said Abdul Hafiz. “Black people couldn’t take advantage of so many things [other] Muslims who came over could.”
“A lot of [Arab and Southeast Asian people] put that they were white on the paper. That opened up an avenue for them,” said Abdul Hafiz. The imam, in his 70s, explained that these groups were able to assimilate more easily into American society as white, in part, because of how they’re able to identify themselves with the government. The census still lacks Middle Eastern or South Asian options. By choosing to identify as white, these groups immediately benefited from racial ambiguity and the anti-discrimination laws and civil rights hard-fought for by Black Americans. Able to move into better neighborhoods, immigrant Arab and Southeast Asian Muslims set up their own masajid in areas of L.A. still inaccessible to Black people. “It’s like you come in on my shoulders, and yet you ignore me,” said Abdul Hafiz.
When my Palestinian father immigrated to the U.S. in 1983, he was inundated by news reports and mainstream media’s portrayal of Black people as thugs and murderers—the myth of inherent Black criminality—perpetuated by the nation’s overzealous response to the “crack epidemic.” Sweeping crime bills passed in 1984 and 1994 spurred mass incarceration that disproportionately imprisoned Black Americans.
Imam Muhammad cites the wealth gap in America and negative portrayals of Black Americans in the media. However, media coverage of human rights abuses and police brutality are changing the narrative.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Abdul Hafiz said he saw a shift in the Muslim community, and broader Muslim engagement with social justice in the face of racism. “I saw a massive change among Muslims after the Floyd situation in Minnesota,” he said. “There has been a lot of dialogue.”
Atthia Carrim runs the International Institute of Tolerance, a Muslim community center in Carson, with her husband, Imam Qari Ashraf Carrim. They both grew up during Apartheid in South Africa and were designated as Asian under the racial classification system which categorized residents as white, Asian or (Indian), Black (Native) or Colored.
She uses this kind of dialogue with her young students, insisting every moment is a teachable moment. “To combat racism is a discipline,” said Carrim. “But it takes discipline, and it needs a change within you.”
Carrim said taking action against systemic oppression started early in her life. While growing up in Cape Town, she and 800 of 1,200 students at her all-girls grammar school staged a walkout in solidarity with Black South Africans fighting for racial equality.
The students were expelled, but Carrim said she felt a duty to act, as the consequences for a Black person would have much been worse. Other peaceful protests led by Black women and children had ended in bloodshed, with Apartheid police opening fire on crowds.
Though Arab and Southeast Asian immigrant Muslims have benefitted from proximity to whiteness or distance from Blackness, Carrim said she never saw the battle against Apartheid as a fight to put ground between herself and the disenfranchised by way of aspirational caucasity.
“It comes with the central Islamic foundation that we are a family of humanity,” she said.
What Carrim describes is the theological philosophy of ummah. Often used as a stand-in term for “community,” ummah is the idea that all Muslims are of one body, and when one area of the body suffers, the rest feels its pain. This philosophy creates an impetus for every Muslim to address social ills and injustices, rather than attempting to distance themselves and feign indifference.
Margari Hill is the co-founder and director of the Muslim Anti-Racist Collective, known as MuslimARC. The foundation, co-founded by human rights lawyer Namira Islam, was the culmination of not just years of work and study, but facing decades of racism from within the Muslim community, said Hill. MuslimARC offers anti-racism competency trainings nationwide, helps facilitate conversations about equity and inclusion and consults on the development of best practices.
As a Black Muslim, Hill said she felt she was being gaslit as Muslims denied that racism is a problem in Muslim spaces, while Arab students called her abeed, the Arabic word for slave.
“I think the greatest challenge for me was the apathy towards it, and especially given that this [anti-racism] work was so important,” said Hill. “Trying to raise that attention and having people downplaying it was really hard.
Hill said the battle against racism within the Muslim community will only truly begin when Muslims of many races and ethnicities realize that they are not fighting amongst one another for resources, but against systemic white supremacy for their very lives.
“Islamophobia is a pillar of white supremacy,” said Hill.
Abdul Hafiz belives visiting a Black masjid fosters inclusion and brings skills and resources to the table. Inviting Black imams to speak and give sermons is also a way to bridge the gap between segregated masajid. Abdul Hafiz describes his masjid as a diverse, welcoming and thriving community. There’s ample proof in the masjid’s annual Eid-Al-Fitr gathering: the takbir, or joyous chanting of Allahu Akbar (“God is greatest” in Arabic); the short, happy sermon and even shorter congregational prayers; worshippers in their best attire, exchanging smiles, food and gifts. However, systemic racism isn’t conquered with a single Eid festival.
Abdul Hafiz, Muhammad, Carrim and Hill all agree that while combating white supremacy is complicated and multifaceted, there are simple solutions every Muslim can apply in daily life to practice anti-racism and make every Muslim worship space accessible and welcoming.
Imam Tarek Muhammad advocates apologizing when one has caused harm. He references one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions who insulted Bilal, a formerly enslaved Abyssinian and the first man to give the Muslim call to prayer, and apologized by lowering himself before Bilal. Humility is essential to an apology.
Carrim advises that people watch what they say around children. We should make a point to eliminate racism from what we say, like refraining from racist jokes, as children are “not passive recipients,” but learn racism from their surroundings and their parents.
Hill said creating a welcoming environment and ensuring masajid are more accessible to women will shift masjid culture. “Create that culture of saying hi and smiling,” she says. In addition, understanding white supremacy and ceasing to define their culture by internalized racism and proximity to whiteness will allow non-Black Muslims to embrace others.
Ultimately, Hill said, the goal needs to be to form non-transactional multiracial coalitions in which Muslims, regardless of race, show up with their time, energy and resources to support one another against white supremacy. “If you learn to embrace who you are fully and understand the harms of white supremacy…if we embrace ourselves with our fullness, we can embrace other people.”
Noah Seifullah has been attending Long Beach Islamic Center for 10 years. Black American, he was born in Michigan and moved to California 20 years ago. His father converted to Islam, he was raised Muslim and now has nearly-grown children of his own.
Seifullah said he worries that many masajid start as the result of one ethnic group or another seeking to create a space where they can feel comfortable. As a result, such masajid function more like community centers that revolve around a shared culture, rather than houses of worship united in religious practice.
In order to bridge the divide between communities, Seifullah said Muslims need to remember the reason masajid exist in the first place, and return to uniting for the sake of Allah.
Seifullah also said Muslims need to “move on purpose,” to act with intention. Racial division and prejudice don’t fix themselves when we ignore them. He said we need to talk about the problem, and work actively to engage with one another culturally. Rather than having only Arab or Southeast Asian food at Iftar, the post-fast meal at sundown, he attends another masjid that serves a variety of cultural cuisines, including soul food. Including Black culture in celebrations and everyday masjid gatherings shows sensitivity and acceptance.
“You should see the crowds that this brings up,” said Seifullah. “You know, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said say Salaams (gesture of greeting or respect) to people you know, and say Salaams to people that you don’t know. Share food with people you know, and share food with people that you don’t know.”
“There needs to be a conscious effort in order to do this,” said Seifullah. “It’s not stepping out of the box and saying, ‘We’re going to move purposely to include our Black brothers and sisters who are here for the first time.’”
Seifullah heads the Southern California branch of Embrace, an organization that helps welcome recent converts to Islam and ensure they feel welcome in masajid. He stressed that while it may be a survival instinct for non-Black immigrant groups to gain proximity to white privilege and distance from the hardships suffered by Black people in America, it’s un-Islamic.
Seifullah recalled a part in the Quran which denounces those who pray but refuse to aid in the struggles of their fellow human beings as hypocrites. Rather than allowing influences like media and social media to set the agenda and inform our opinions on Black people in America, Muslims must return to the example of Prophet Muhammad’s anti-racist teachings.
We’re in a society where there are so many different people to follow, so many different entities to follow, so many different companies. And most of us, we follow all of these things,” explained Seifullah. What space is left for the Prophet?
Imrahim Dyfan is on the board of Masjid Al-Shareef alongside Abdul Hafiz. Born in Sierra Leone, Dyfan said his experience of Blackness in America differs from those who are born here, and he says the only time he was made to feel self-conscious about being Black was after arriving in America.
“America was the first place I got looked at for being Black. America was the first place that I got pulled over for driving while Black. America is the first place that I got [stopped] waiting at a bus stop [because] I fit the description of somebody that just went and robbed a Taco Bell,” said Dyfan.
He said Masjid Al-Shareef is a diverse masjid, especially when compared to some of the other Southern California masajid he’s seen in his travels. He credits conscious efforts to encourage communication.
“You can tell it’s not necessarily a Black mosque. It’s a mosque of what our Prophet was talking about,” said Dyfan, referencing Prophet Muhammad goal of a truly diverse masjid, where people of all tribes gather to worship.
Dyfan said he has felt unwelcome and been met with coldness in masajid, like Imam Abdul Hafiz’s wife. Dyfan said his own wife faces ostracism more than he does.
“It is subtle…I mean, usually most people won’t explicitly say something,” said Dyfan.
Dyfan said the mission of Masjid Al-Shareef is not only to create a diverse and welcoming masjid for those who will experience it once or a few times, but to create a masjid where people stay and help it grow to better serve the community.
Building a masjid, Dyfan said, is considered a great deed, but what about maintaining one?
As some people move up the socioeconomic ladder, they decide to head to wealthier neighborhoods and build new masajid, rather than maintaining Masjid Al-Shareef or using their resources and skills to uplift the surrounding community.
“Imagine if we..,put all those investments together and create an actual area that the whole community can [benefit from]?” Dyfan said. “We create a community consistently improving on what we have and make sure that we create that community feeling so that everybody stays.”