This article was originally published online in August 2009. The writer agreed to its being re-published here, with some edits.
It is about time that the news is passed on: There is a growing trend in inner-city neighborhoods across DC. Its momentum has not subsided; rather, it has only increased. What is the trend? Islam.
In inner-cities across America, and in the African-American community in particular, Islam has long been known as an uplifting force. In previous decades and generations, Islam was embraced as part of an evolutionary growth process. Seekers of social justice would embrace Islam after finding the gaps or shortcomings in various ideologies such as Black nationalism, socialism, and communism. Embracing Islam was attaching oneself to a universal and all-encompassing way of life; it was viewed by pioneer homegrown Islamic movements (the Islamic Party, Dar al-Islam, etc.) as a vehicle for spiritual, social, economic, and political progress; it was also akin to returning to one’s roots, as many of the enslaved Africans who arrived on American and Caribbean shores from the 1500s to the 1800s arrived as practicing Muslims.
It seems that none of these earlier motivations, however, can be accurately ascribed 100% to the current shahadah wave in DC.
In Southeast DC, we saw the first sign of this trend in the fall of 2007. At that time, it was only a trickle. One brother, or two, or three–all under the age of 20–would take their shahadahs each or every other week. It was a curious sight. Many of us were not quite sure what to make of it. Of course, we welcomed these fresh new faces, but we were also puzzled. For years, Muslims had lived in the neighborhoods of Southeast. For years, we had given various forms of da’wah; every few weeks, or months, there would be a new shahadah. But now, it had become a weekly phenomenon. Upon being asked what had motivated them to take their shahadahs, various responses were given. The most common one: “I want to change my life.”
In that first year, many of the new shahadahs were coming from a Southeast neighborhood known as Simple City. Simple City has been an area notoriously known for its concentration of drugs, crimes, and violence. Nevertheless, out of this chaotic environment emerged an unabated flow of young people interested in Islam. Requests were being made regularly for literature, books, prayer calendars, CDs, etc. The Intro to Islam class at the local masjid (Masjid Al-Islam) that seemed to exist since time immemorial came to life with a sudden influx of fresh young students, from middle school ages on up to just past high school.
The trend is still very much alive today, and it seems to have spread all across DC. As strange as it may sound to the suburbanite believer, it has now become en vogue in inner-city DC to be a Muslim; it is “cool” to sport a colorful kufi or Palestinian-style keffiyeh. Young brothers in thobes are becoming an increasingly common sight. Scented oils are in high demand. It is not uncommon to hear the greeting of “As-salamu ‘alaikum” while walking down the street (that is, if you are obviously a Muslim). I recently witnessed an argument between 9- and 10-year old neighborhood kids centered around who really did or did not take their shahadahs between them. There is a string of popular debates and questions being raised: Does Yellow #5 have pork in it? Must dreadlocks be shaved off? How can Muslim brothers and sisters marry each other if they don’t date? In Islam, when are fights allowed? There are other questions a bit more solemn and unique to the inner-city scene, such as this one: What becomes of a young Muslim brother who receives a non-Islamic burial?
To address this incredible (and curious) phenomenon, we have steadily served up a wholesome and balanced picture of Islam: one that does not dwell solely on the “look” and external practice of a Muslim, but also deals with the improvement of self and the building of character, morals, and values; one that addresses not only personal issues, but pertinent and relevant societal issues as well. We are emphasizing the building-block process of Islam: to learn the fundamentals, practice them, become consistent, and then keep building a step at a time; to prioritize first what is important so as to not be overwhelmed by the details that new Muslims are often bombarded with.
Unfortunately, as with any trend, there are some who seem to be entering the fold of Islam “just because”. But even for those whose sincerity is seemingly questionable, we are confident that with their constant exposure to the message (Jumu’ah khutbahs are hardly missed), some of it is bound to sink in and take root, whether sooner or later. It is important to understand that many of these young people have had no regular exposure to religious beliefs and values; they come from neighborhoods in which all kinds of social ills run rampant. Now, with their connection to this Deen, if and when life throws them big challenges, they will have an Islamic framework and foundation to turn back to. This is invaluable. Insha’Allah, many will mature into their practice.
Eclipsing the skepticism that surrounds the current DC shahadah wave, and overshadowing the questionable sincerity demonstrated by some, there is a weighty fact: this “trend” has led an oft-ignored portion of humanity–even if it is a few out of the many–to the immeasurable satisfaction and reward of learning the Truth, knowing Allah (swt), and being aligned with the true purpose of life.