Beyond Black History Month

Black History Month may be coming to a close, but the year-round efforts of Pillars grantee partners, including Sapelo Square, will continue to honor Black history and culture long after February is over.

Watch our video with Latasha Rouseau, Sapelo Square’s executive director, to learn how their digital multimedia platform highlights, celebrates, and preserves the narratives of Black Muslims in the U.S.

“Allah created human beings differently, different races, different cultures, in order to learn from one another,” Latasha says. “When you exclude Black Muslim voices, Black voices, communities of color, or any voice that’s different from your own, then you don’t allow anyone to benefit from others’ cultures, perspectives, and experiences.”

Since its founding in 2015, Sapelo’s squad of professional artists, activists, and academics has provided informed and thought-provoking content that captures the richness, complexity, and resilience of Black Muslim life. Sapelo’s innovative programming includes essays, podcast episodes, digital photo narrative exhibits, online courses taught by Black Muslim scholars, Quranic reflections, and so much more.

Watch our video with Latasha to learn how Sapelo Square documents and preserves Black Muslim experiences, and visit sapelosquare.com to browse their offerings.

Georgia Muslim Voters Are Challenging the Status Quo

Civic engagement can take many forms: peacefully protesting, calling your representatives, or voting during elections. Pillars grantee partner Georgia Muslim Voter Project (GAMVP) is ensuring that Muslim communities in Georgia are using all the tools in their toolbox to build civic power.

As Georgia primary voters prepare to turn up to the ballot box on March 12 and May 2, GAMVP is educating residents on the importance of local elections and mobilizing civic engagement across Muslim communities in Georgia.

“If our voices aren’t heard, our communities aren’t going to get the resources they need in order to flourish and thrive,” says Shafina Khabani, executive director of GAMVP.

Since 2015, GAMVP has mobilized more than 100,000 Muslim voters across Georgia. This number is a testament to our collective strength, proving that Muslims in the United States have the power to ensure that elected leaders address the issues we care about.

“Muslim communities have often been overlooked when it comes to politics and political representation,” Shafina shares. Watch our video with Shafina to learn how GAMVP is challenging that status quo and visit gamvp.org to learn more.

A Look Back on 2023

As I look back on 2023, it’s been abundantly clear that Pillars’ work is needed now more than ever. I see the need for Muslim leaders to hold our elected officials accountable for their policies and rhetoric, the need for community-based mental health care that addresses our trauma and creates space for healing, the need for advocates to protect us from increased hate and intolerance, and the need for stories told by and for our communities. I’m honored and forever grateful that Pillars’ grantee partners, fellows, board members, and trustees are stepping into these roles to advocate for our communities.

For a more comprehensive look at Pillars’ year, we’ve compiled a 2023 annual report, filled with key milestones and stories of impact.

READ THE REPORT

This year:

  • We were thrilled to distribute $2 million to our 31 Catalyze Fund grantee partners, who are working relentlessly to help those affected by the criminal justice system, shift attitudes on mental health, disrupt anti-refugee policies, and other vital efforts.
  • Our first cohort of Pillars Artist Fellows graduated from our program for Muslim directors and screenwriters and are already joining prestigious writers’ rooms, selling their work to major companies, and winning awards at competitive festivals. We opened up applications for our fellowship this year and are excited to announce our next cohort in 2024.
  • We gathered our fellows, grantee partners, staff, and supporters for the first time since the pandemic, connecting in Atlanta for a national convening filled with inspiration and learning.

As we encounter the inevitable challenges ahead of us, I’m filled with gratitude that our community is here to carry and sustain us. And I’m honored that the work at Pillars is helping us move toward the collective liberation we strive for.

Black Jerusalem: Pillars in Palestine

We are overcome by sorrow and horror over the collective loss of life this week in Palestine and Israel. The deplorable death and destruction—through Hamas’s targeted attacks, Israel’s widespread bombings, and the denial of basic human needs—are reprehensible and unjustifiable. The images of carnage are horrific, but Palestine, the villages around it, and its people are full of beauty and resilience. We witnessed this firsthand during the inaugural Black Jerusalem journey, an initiative by IMAN and Bayan Claremont. Our journey began with awe and appreciation and ended with a harrowing escape from deadly violence.

Black Jerusalem gathered travelers from Abrahamic faiths to tour the holy land through the lens of African Palestinians and Black Diaspora communities. Palestinian people graciously hosted us, sharing their family legacies, histories of struggle, and the storytelling traditions that keep their cultures and communities alive.

A group photo in front of a huge, iron A photo of a woman sitting at a table as a part of a larger group, holding a plate and serving herself Palestinian food.

A photo of a plate with a Palestinian dish featuring eggplant and pomegranateA photo of a joyful woman holding up her phone, capturing a selfie moment with a group of smiling Palestinian kids in the background.

We confronted the realities of living under military occupation, daily police brutality, mass displacement, surveillance, and collective punishment. At Pillars Fund, we are working to end systemic oppression in the United States. The parallels were unmistakable, but we were stunned by the extreme dehumanization and relentlessness.

As we traveled freely to and from Jerusalem across Palestine, it was not lost on us that many Palestinians cannot do the same. This journey has strengthened our commitment to building a just society that honors the dignity of all people, facilitates liberation and self-determination, and ensures people can tell their own stories.

A photo of Kashif Shaikh and Rami Nashashibi walking through an alleyway in PalestineA photo of a man speaking into a microphone addresses an attentive group of people, with a view of Jerusalem in the background

A photo of Rami Nashashibi engaging in a conversation, speaking to an attentive group during a dinner eventA photo of Rami Nashashibi with his family members in Palestine

We are angered by the disregard for the 2 million people trapped in Gaza without food, water, or electricity, under siege and active fire. Our deepest prayer is for an end to the bloodshed and the beginning of a lasting peace that honors the humanity of all people. A lasting resolution that ushers in a future brimming with freedom, justice, and a joyful existence for people across the holy land. A flourishing vibrant Palestinian society so that everyone—especially Palestinians—can experience its beauty.

— Kashif and Kalia, with the entire Pillars team

Gathering in Atlanta: Meet Pillars Host Committee

This September, Pillars Fund will gather in Atlanta with our grantee partners, fellows, partners, and supporters for the Pillars 2023 National Convening. This convening was created to bring together Muslim leaders and artists to feel rooted in a larger movement, equipped to confront the challenges ahead, and energized to work toward a collective future. In the process, we hope to celebrate the vitality of our iconic host city.

For generations, organizers and activists in the South have boldly led our country’s movement for civil and human rights. Atlanta in particular has a special place in that story, past and present. This city’s Black civil rights legends have passed the torch to contemporary organizers and activists who are countering attacks on voting rights, advocating for immigrants in detention, pushing back against policing, and championing climate and reproductive justice.

The Atlanta region is also known as a vibrant center for culture and art. Immigrant communities have transformed Buford Highway into a culinary destination, and in Clarkston east of Atlanta, generations of refugees have resulted in the most ethnically diverse square mile in the country. Not to mention Atlanta’s dynamic, world-renowned Black music scene, integral to the evolution of blues, hip-hop, and Trap.

Most of all, Atlanta is known for its warmth: not just from the sun but from its people, the lifeblood of this place.

Pillars wanted our convening to reflect and honor these histories, qualities, and people; however, we could not create this type of space without our brilliant host committee, local leaders graciously welcoming us to their city and infusing our gathering with rootedness and presence. They have connected us with local artists, facilitators, speakers, session topics, and dining options and provided context about Atlanta’s organizing legacy to ground us in this space.

 

Meet Pillars’ Atlanta host committee:

Headshot of Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, Pillars board memberSaleemah Abdul-Ghafur moved to Atlanta from New Jersey and deeply values the community she has cultivated in her chosen home. She is a Pillars board member and Director of the Office of the CCO and Chief of Staff at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Before joining the foundation, Saleemah was Associate Director of Corporate Volunteerism at Hands on Atlanta and Founding Director of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance. She has a strong commitment to civic engagement through activism, volunteerism, and advocating for gender equality in Muslim communities in the U.S. and abroad.

Headshot of Shafina Khabani, executive director of Georgia Muslim Voter Project

Shafina Khabani is the Executive Director of Pillars grantee partner Georgia Muslim Voter Project, an organization that activates Muslim voters in Georgia, challenges efforts to build barriers to the ballot box, and galvanizes their community’s collective power. The daughter of refugee immigrants, Shafina moved to Atlanta from Omaha in 2010, and since then has built strong ties with her faith and social justice communities. She has worked on various voter advocacy teams, organizing individuals for collective action and strategizing to make sure that all voices in Georgia are heard.

Headshot of Aseelah Rashid, director of IMAN Atlanta

Aseelah Rashid is the newly appointed Director of IMAN Atlanta, a Pillars grantee partner, where she works to bring access, education, and revitalization to the southwest community of Atlanta. Aseelah is Co-founder of The Muslim Mix, a social organization cultivating leadership and connection among young adult Muslims. Alongside her mother, Okolo Rashid, and a circle of dynamic Muslim women, Aseelah also co-founded Era of Woman as a convening and call to action for women dedicated to amplifying the voices and leadership of African American Muslim Women for justice and social change.

Headshot of Latasha Rouseau, executive director of Sapelo Square

Born and raised in Atlanta, Latasha Rouseau is the Executive Director of Pillars grantee partner Sapelo Square, a digital media and education collective that provides informed and thought-provoking content on key issues facing Black Muslims and communities of color in the U.S. Latasha has a desire to be of service to others and is deeply passionate about the carceral state. For more than 17 years, she strived to empower and support the most vulnerable groups in our communities by assisting youth and their families within the juvenile justice system.

Headshot of Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South

Azadeh Shahshahani is the Legal and Advocacy Director at Pillars grantee partner Project South, a movement-building organization rooted in the Black Radical Traditions of the U.S. South. Azadeh advances a practice of movement lawyering, focused on confronting state repression and dismantling systems of surveillance, incarceration, and deportation. An internationally renowned human rights attorney and author and speaker for more than 15 years, Azadeh has organized to protect migrants and Muslim communities from lslamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Black racism. She also provides support to social justice movements in the Global South, from Brazil to Palestine.

Appellate Courts Are Overwhelmingly White and Male — That Needs to Change

This op-ed was originally written for Teen Vogue by Juvaria Khan, the founder of Pillars grantee partner The Appellate Project.

I have the privilege of working with future lawyers every day. After the United States Supreme Court gutted affirmative action, I knew they’d have something to say. “Only 5% of lawyers are Hispanic,” one of my Latina law students shared. This ruling “means that communities that need lawyers that look like them, think like them, and understand them will be scarce.”

She’s right — and as the leader of an organization changing the composition of our highest courts, I know that empowering students like her is more important now than ever.

This June, the Supreme Court released landmark rulings on affirmative action, criminal justice, and tribal rights. All of these cases disproportionately affect communities of color. Yet a group of mostly straight, white, and male attorneys and judges are arguing and deciding these cases — and most appellate cases — despite often having no lived experience with the issues before them.

Continue reading the full article here.

Meet a Muslim Artist: Alaa Saeed

Artist Alaa Saeed (@its_meee_alaa on Instagram) is a Muslim pediatric resident based in New York City. When she’s not sketching or practicing medicine, you might find her hiking somewhere in the wilderness.

Alaa collaborated with Pillars Fund to design an illustration celebrating the brilliance and versatility of Muslim creatives. Her beautiful art was featured on the cover of Khayál: A Multimedia Collection by Muslim Creatives, co-authored by Pillars’ Muslim Narrative Change (MNC) Fellows. These fellows are poets, writers, activists, scholars, historians, and artists who are developing a roadmap for telling authentic Muslim stories.

A colorful illustration shows a bird’s-eye view of four sets of hands working at a square table covered with mugs of tea and a bowl of mangos in the center. The set of hands at the top of the table is using a pen to write a letter. A podcast microphone sits next to them. The set of hands at the right of the table is holding a camera. The set of hands at the bottom of the table is holding over-the-ear headphones while making adjustments on an audio board. The set of hands at the left of the table is using a paint palette and a set of brushes to paint a map.

Alaa’s illustration for Pillars’ multimedia collection Khayál

Pillars asked Alaa about how her identity informs her art and the importance of supporting Muslim creatives. Below are edited excerpts from our email exchange.

 

How did you arrive at your artistic style?
I was a sketcher before becoming a comic artist (if I can say that about myself). Before having the convenience of a portable iPad, carrying around a sketchbook and sketching on the go was what I did on the regular.

A few years back, you created a webcomic called “Dailies of a Junior Doc.” How much of the series was based on your own experiences? And more generally, how does your art complement your work as a doctor?
That comic was a very realistic venting diary documenting my life as a pediatric intern. I illustrated strange things I saw while working that were seemingly normal to others, and I believe that I wasn’t close to scratching the surface. A fun fact is that none of my colleagues back then knew that I drew. Art provided an escape, a source of wellness to me as a doctor, and a source of income as well since I was barely paid for my years as a doctor in Sudan.

How does your identity inform your art in today’s world?
My art is a strong and powerful voice enabling me to show the world my true identity through a different light compared to how I would be perceived otherwise from the influence of media or ingrained biases. This realization made me move towards pursuing art that represents me as a Black Muslim woman rather than a Western or an Asian or Japanese style or identity, which was how I originally started as an artist.

Why do you think it is important to support Muslim artists more broadly?
I jumped at this opportunity to represent other Muslim artists with my art because, in this day and age, it is important for us as Muslims to be as visible as we can and to support one another. We have a lot to give to the world, and we should let the world see the beauty in our art, religion, and culture.

The Black Stone of Mecca | Audio Transcripts

Click through to access the audio transcripts for “The Black Stone of Mecca: Malcolm X, Prison Letters, Tasawwuf Poetry, and Ethical Texts,” published as a chapter in Khayál: A Multimedia Collection by Muslim Creatives.

Zaheer Ali: Malcolm as a Poet (Excerpt)
Maytha Alhassen: Malcolm’s Writing as Poetic
Zaheer Ali: Black People of America + the Black Stone
Hussein Rashid: The East
Maytha Alhassen: No Pork + No Cigarettes
Maytha Alhassen: Uncovering Sourcing for Poetry
Zaheer Ali: Malcolm’s Demonstration of “Literary-ness”
Omid Safi: Hafiz + Translations
Maytha Alhassen: Malcolm’s Writings as Poetic
Zaheer Ali: Malcolm as a Poet
Zaheer Ali: Even Malcolm’s Name is Poetic
Zaheer Ali: First Revelation
Omid Safi: Sa’di + The Rose Garden—The Text Whereby People Learn to Read and Write
Zaheer Ali: IYKYK
Omid Safi: Adab Tradition
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: Learning from Incarcerated Muslims
Hussein Rashid: Ethical Poetry
Omid Safi: Omar Khayyam
Maytha Alhassen: Multiple Literacy Exploration
Omid Safi: Poetry—A Way of Imagination
Maytha Alhassen: “Prison, Thanks to Islam, Has Ceased to Be a Prison”
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: The Power of Signs
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: In the Name Of
Zaheer Ali, Maytha Alhassen: Medina Letter—Seeking Refuge

 

Zaheer Ali, Malcolm as a Poet (Excerpt)

There is a kind of structure to Malcolm’s most famous addresses. So like we think of “Message to the Grassroots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet.” And even fast forward to like why I think Malcolm is sampled so much in hip hop. I never thought of Malcolm as a poet, and I wonder what kind of space that opens up if we think about Malcolm as a poet. He certainly understood alliteration, right? So like the ballot or the bullet and the idea of repetition. I think there’s something rich here to see the growing mind of Malcolm as a poet and his appreciation of the power of not just words but how those words could be arranged.

Maytha Alhassen, Malcolm’s Writing as Poetic

That analysis had me thinking throughout the trajectory of Malcolm’s writings and the way poetry, not just functioned for him. It made me see his writing in terms of being poetic.

Zaheer Ali, Black People of America + the Black Stone

I think first we should think about what is the story of the Black Stone in Mecca that Malcolm is thinking about when he asks this question. For people who don’t know, the Black Stone is something that was used by Abraham to build the first house of worship that Abraham built. You go back further, it is believed to have been, you know, some particle of an asteroid or a meteorite that fell from the sky, right? Like there’s this theory that that’s what it is. Like how did this particular stone become so special? And that’s because it came from the sky. It was a meteorite or something like that. But then there’s the story of Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, who is because of the trust that he is given by the community is given the task of carrying the stone in the rebuilding. And he’s the one that places the stone in the corner of the rebuilt house.

He receives his prophetic mission, right? Like this is when this community of rebuilding the house. And then you think about how Malcolm at this point in time understands Elijah Muhammad’s role and history and the idea of that a or the Muhammad will use or build the house of God or the next house of God or the foundational house of God by taking the Black Stone and putting it in its proper place as the cornerstone of that house. So when Malcolm’s asking this question, he’s referencing this framework that sees Black people of America as the essential cornerstone to the reestablishment or establishment of Islam in North America. That Black people are that stone that had been displaced from its proper place and had to be restored to its proper place in order for that house to be built. And that the person to do it would be a Muhammad or the Muhammad. With this line in 1950, we are all already getting into the figurative engagement with poetics essential to Malcolm’s way of understanding and explaining Black people and Black people’s role and relationship to Islam.

Hussein Rashid, The East

If you look at the language and the text that somebody like Noble Drew Ali, for example, is referencing—the knowledge that Elijah Muhammad had as he talks about in the early Nation of Islam, right? It does seem like this is part of the zeitgeist. Now, I don’t wanna make a direct line between Elijah Muhammad and Noble Drew Ali and the Theosophical Society. I think the Theosophical Society is simply representative of this larger interest in, you know, what Noble Drew Ali calls the Moorish world, where somebody like Elijah Muhammad is looking outside of the United States. And this is coming out of slightly earlier, where you have a group like the Shriners, who post Civil War were also very actively looking towards the East and the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions. That sets up the sort of Turkish zone that, you know, Americans are sort of fascinated with. It’s very clearly part of the American discourse in the early part of the twentieth century, and it feels like that is a natural growth, right? I mean, particularly for Malcolm, who’s very interested in knowledge, in literacy, both before and after becoming Muslim, and really participating and partaking of what is considered good literature from across the world at this point, particularly in English.

Maytha Alhassen, No Pork + No Cigarettes

That letter to his brother Philbert in 1950 is during this time he’s in a place called the Norfolk Prison Colony, which Garrett Felber, who is a colleague of Zaheer’s and I’s and from the Malcolm X project. He wrote this excellent book about Black Muslims and the carceral state. And he delves deep into what Norfolk in Massachusetts was trying to present itself as, which was this liberal approach to prison as this community prison. They didn’t call cells “cells,” they called them dormitories. There was more time, and Malcolm brings this up in his diaries, outside of the prison walls to be outside. And then the really important point in this moment is that Malcolm gets access to an excellent library. And so we’re gonna see what comes out of that.

Malcolm is incarcerated in February 1946, a sentence of 8 to 10 years for breaking, entering, and larceny. Four counts served concurrently with his friend Malcolm Jarvis, known as Shorty. They initially go to Charleston, which is a state prison, and they’re put into solitary confinement for 24 hours in the beginning of that term. And he writes when he learns about Norfolk, requesting a transfer. He gets transferred to Concord, which is in West Concord, Massachusetts. And then eventually in 1948, March 31, 1948, with the help of his older sister Ella, gets transferred to Norfolk. So this is all 1949, and as I mentioned, he moves to Norfolk. The year prior, Philbert is hardcore preaching to Malcolm of the teachings of the NOI, and it kind of turns Malcolm off actually. And then his brother Reginald tries a softer approach. Hey, just stop eating pork and taking in tobacco. And he does. And then his sister Hilda suggests that he starts corresponding with Elijah Muhammad. And then towards the end of the year, this is what’s happening. So as we see this is the beginning of 1949, there’s something different brewing for him. And as he says in one of these letters from these two in February, he apologizes because in this new prison scenario, he’s been able to be outside more often and access the library. So he hasn’t been corresponding as much, and it’s in these winter months that he
s reaching out to his family.

Maytha Alhassen, Uncovering Sourcing for Poetry

“O time of broken vows that none would mend!
The bitter foe was once a faithful friend.
So to the skirts of solitude I cling,
Lest friendship lure me to the evil end.”

Now, what’s interesting about this is there’s no citation, right? And when I read this as I was sitting, and some of you here know the process of going through microfilm and microfiche and you’re wondering like, okay, this looks like it could be a pretty famous poem. And then I was able to identify that this is actually from Hafiz.

Zaheer Ali, Malcolm’s Demonstration of “Literary-ness”

Malcolm’s desire to be literary. It’s not just writing a letter. There is a demonstration of literacy in writing the letter. But there’s also a demonstration of not just literate-ness but, and I don’t know if this is a word, but literary-ness, like there’s a demonstration of being familiar with the literature or of the literature. Someone said to him or wrote to him, his siblings wrote to him or even when he encountered the visitor, I think it was an Ahmadiyya visitor that visited him and Shorty. So he hears this word Islam and he’s like, I gotta go find everything I can find about this thing, right? Wherever I can find it. And even if it’s being translated through the kind of texts that would have been available in a prison library in 1949. This is a demonstration of his capaciousness, of his expansiveness with which he is embracing this idea. And this way of sharing it is not overly didactic.

He isn’t like, here y’all, I want y’all to read this cause I found this thing and this is what it means. He is putting it there to, I think, practice, model, and demonstrate his literacy with, and I put in quotes “Islam,” because I know that that’s a construction. But he’s doing that in this way. And he’s doing that with an assumption that his readers know that’s what he’s doing. He’s doing that with an assumption that this will be another thing. You know, it’s kind of like if he were to open a letter with “In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” or greetings of peace, there is an assumption that his readers, in this case his siblings, would automatically know where that’s coming from. There’s a sort of telegraphing that’s happening here. And he doesn’t know what they know or don’t know. He’s just assuming they are also diving into this Islam thing as much as he is. And hey, here’s this thing I found, and this is why I think he opens, or you know, starts his letter with this.

Omid Safi, Hafiz + Translations

Hafiz, in particular, there’s a really amazing quote about him that is in the book of Shahab Ahmed, the late Shahab Ahmed, called What is Islam? And he calls Hafiz the most widely copied, widely circulated, widely read, widely memorized, widely recited, widely invoked, and widely proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history. He is someone who is simultaneously spiritual, sensual, erotic, mystical. And of course, his name means someone who’s memorized the whole Qur’an. It’s fascinating that, you know, someone like Malcolm, Brother Malcolm, would have been quoting him because Hafiz in so many ways disrupts our ideas about what Islam is and has been historically. And there are a whole lot of really juicy and wonderful debates about how Muslim really was he? How Sufi was he really? But none of that challenges his extraordinary popularity in South Asia, in Iran, in the Ottoman Empire, right until today.

The places that Malcolm is getting his quotations of Hafiz from, which is the writings of someone named Syed Abdul-Majid. It’s very interesting if you read the introduction, he spends pages and pages discussing where Islamic mysticism or Sufism comes from. Is it Greek? Is it Christian? Is it Indian? And then of course, he ends up by saying, no, no, no, it actually comes from Islam. But the very fact that he has to spend all that time answering this question tells you a little bit about the Orientalist context of early twentieth century, where many people simply couldn’t bring themselves to believe that something so beautiful could have arisen out of what they had already deemed to be the dry, barren desert of Islam. There’s a book that is published in 1912 called The Ruba’iyat of Hafiz, and this translation seems to have come from there. It’s translated and introduced by Syed Abdul-Majid. It says, rendered into English verse by L. Cranmer-Byng. It’s published in London in 1912. That seems to be as early of a way that I can trace it to.

Maytha Alhassen, Malcolm’s Writings as Poetic

Malcolm X is transcribing from what appears to be shared in Charles Sylvester’s The Writings of Mankind, volume two, Arabia, Persia, Egypt, the Near East, Hebrew literature, and the excerpt goes:

“Allah did not forget thee in that term
When thou wast but the buried, senseless germ:
He gave thee soul, perception, intellect,
Beauty and speech and reason circumspect:
By him five fingers to thy fist were strung,
And thy two arms upon thy shoulders hung.
O graceless one! what cause has thou to dread
Lest he remember not thy daily bread?”

Malcolm continues in this letter to Philbert with a philosophical revelation about poetry, and he says, “I’m a real bug for poetry. When you think back over all of our past lives, only poetry could best fit into the vast emptiness created by man.”

Again, that’s a letter to Philbert, February 4, 1949, and that analysis had me thinking through the trajectory of Malcolm X’s writing, speeches, commentary, and how poetry not just functioned for him, but it made me see these discursive interventions made by him as poetic.

Zaheer Ali, Malcolm as a Poet

There is a kind of structure to Malcolm’s most famous addresses. So like we think of “Message to the Grassroots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet,” and even like fast forward to why I think Malcolm is sampled so much in hip hop. And it’s partly because, I’ve never thought about it this way until this conversation, but I think Malcolm, when he’s like, “I have a real, bug for poetry, when you think back over all of our past lives, only poetry could best fit into the vast emptiness created by man.” I never thought of Malcolm as a poet. And I wonder what that, what kind of space that opens up if we think about Malcolm as a poet.

He certainly understood alliteration, right? So like the ballot or the bullet and the idea of repetition. So throughout that speech, for example, he’s like “that’s why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet.” And he goes, he goes on, he goes and he comes back and he’s like “that’s why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet.” And there’s a rhythm in his lecture or in his talks or in his speeches. There is the construction of a slogan or a phrase that has stickiness to it that could be a refrain that you kind of come back. In “Message of the Grassroots,” he’s like “the Negro revolution versus the Black revolution.” He’s like “the house slave and the field slave.” There’s this playing with duality, this playing of tension, this playing of parallels, and the idea that when you’re giving a talk, it’s not just a straight line. You kind of do have to circle back, and you do have to bring, it’s almost like you have to introduce a tension into the ideas that your audience are considering, and then you have to introduce a way to resolve that tension. You bring it to a peak, and then you have to leave your audience in a kind of place.

And I say all of that to say, I’ve often thought of what it would be like if Malcolm was a musician. And I know that Manning Marable talks about Malcolm taking on this persona of Jack Carlton as a drummer, a short-lived drummer, but that Malcolm was very fond we know of music and paid very close attention to music and paid very close attention to the movements and shifts that were taking place in jazz. And that jazz artists also reciprocated that attention when you look at someone like Max Roach or Abbey Lincoln and the ways that they would appear at rallies and stuff that Malcolm spoke at.

And so there is, I think here, I think there’s something rich here to see the growing mind of Malcolm as a poet and his appreciation of the power of not just words but how those words could be arranged, right? To convey ideas both directly and indirectly. And how there’s a play with suspense and tension. I’m just thinking about some of his famous clips that have stuck in my head over the years. And the reason why they stick in my head is not only because of the power of the ideas that he’s conveying, but because of the way he does it. That can be at times funny. That can be at times inspiring. That could be at times empowering. That can be at times, you know, depressing. That could be at times enraging. But you know, someone who understands it’s not just the power of the ideas. It is the words as containers of those ideas. And I think what we see here is Malcolm practicing that containment. I mean, when he is saying like “poetry could best fit into the vast emptiness created by man,” he’s thinking about what can carry these ideas. And I think that’s why he’s drawn to these poems and using them as introductions, as bridges, as carriers to get from one point to the next.

Zaheer Ali, Even Malcolm’s Name is Poetic

He understood the power of symbols. And you know, I think whether it is, I mean even, and we know that the concept of taking on the “X” is not something that he originated. We know that that comes from the Nation of Islam’s tradition. But that Malcolm is drawn to it, that Malcolm is drawn to the power of naming, that Malcolm is drawn to what information is carried in a name. It has me thinking of Ruha Benjamin’s notion of “the name as a code” and what does the name encode, right? What history is carried by a name? And so I think even, you know, even “Malcolm X” is poetry. Like that name is poetic, right? And whether or not he intended it this way, the choice of Malik as his Arabic name. I don’t know that etymologically, Malcolm and Malik are related, but in sound they are, right?

Because they have those three consonants, the M, L, and K, right? And we know in Arabic that the trilateral roots, you know, convey the meaning. And so it’s almost that Malcolm is in that name being given or chosen by him or given to him. It’s that that name is sonically related to Malcolm. And just even that’s like a poetic thing, right? Because the thing with poetry is that it’s not always literal. It’s like word play. And then the word helps shift the meaning, right? So we go from Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm, to Malik, right? And that’s the bridge. It’s a sound bridge, right? Sometimes it’s not an ideas bridge. And so thinking of like, even how he’s using these poems in his letters.

They have different kinds of functions. And sometimes it’s not just about literary continuity. Sometimes it’s about, oh, you ended with this letter, you start with that letter. And that’s no less significant, right? But it is an art. It’s a sort of constructive art. And so I think even his name as, I mean, and there’s like a whole thing, it’s also just a wonderful coincidence that the name that Malcolm chooses sonically is related to Malcolm in Malik. And then of course, Malik, the trilateral roots of Malik are, you know, mim, lam, kaf. And so it’s M, L, K and that’s Martin Luther King, and who’s king? And it’s just like [laugh], for someone who is an artist who is looking at this moment, it’s just like, beautiful. You know? And I don’t even think that can be intentionally created completely, but that’s what a poet would do, right? Like a poet is, they’re gonna, there’s a kind of poetry that’s gonna make associations that may not necessarily be obvious or may not even make literal sense or ideological sense, but in their arrangement together invites us to think about something more differently and more profoundly. And this comes back to when Malcolm is like, so we’re the Black Stone, we are the East. Outside of understanding that framework, it’s like, what is he talking about? But if you allow yourself to be engaged by that, what does it invite you to think about? What if we are the Black Stone? What does that mean? What does it invite us to think? And so I think just that kind of, I feel like Malcolm’s engagement with poetry invited that, right?

It’s why, you know, in his speeches, whether or not the word negro actually is etymologically related to the word necro. Whether or not that is the case, that association invites us to think about the ways that quote unquote negro was rendered social death, right? You have all these like Afro-pessimists right now talking about the social death in the afterlives of slavery. And Malcolm introduced this idea of negro and necro. And whether or not it was etymologically correct, that wasn’t the point. The point was, let me do this poetry here of bringing these two words together, and you will remember these two words together because of their sonic relationship, because of their visual relationship. And the point that I want you to walk away from is to never call yourself by a name that you yourself did not create or was given to you, right? And a name that has socially come to mean social death. So that I think is what I think about when I think about what does it mean to think about Malcolm as a poet.

Zaheer Ali, First Revelation

When I read this passage that Malcolm has quoted in this letter that talks about the creation of the human being, the two things that resonate with me are the first revelation in the Qur’an. Chapter 96, The Clot, or Surah al-‘Alaq, which you know, starts with “read in the name of your Lord, who created you from a clot.” And then there’s another section in the Qur’an, Surah al-Muʼminun, or The Believers, which is Chapter 23, which gets into even more detail. “We placed in him as a drop of sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then we made it into a clot. Then from that clot, a lump.” And there’s like this whole evolution of the human life that God is governing. So that’s what I’m thinking about when Malcolm uses this passage or quotes this passage.

And again, I think from the poetic mind, we have to think about what these associations mean and what do they invite us to think about. And you know, certainly Malcolm’s growing literacy with the pen is being encouraged and guided in part through his encounter with Islam, right? And it’s almost that he is responding to that first revelation of “read in the name of your Lord who created you.” That’s this, that’s what we see happening here. Malcolm is reading, Malcolm is using the pen. Malcolm is understanding that he is a being in evolution. And I think, you know, even with the Chapter 23, The Believers, Malcolm is in the process of becoming a believer or understanding himself as a believer. And that is what I see here, why he uses this passage or why this passage speaks to him.

He doesn’t quote the Qur’an, but the Qur’an is the reference for this, right? The Qur’an is the source of this. It is the framework for this understanding, and it’s why he’s drawn to it. Because he would have, by this point in time, I’m almost certain, and we know that he was given a Qur’an. And so knowing that Malcolm is now engaged in this really intense, dedicated devotional study inspired by his siblings calling him to Islam, you know, it makes perfect sense that he is now looking and going through the world, drawing and identifying and picking on and picking out the things that echo that Islam. We see this in his activism in 1950, where, and the years following, where he’s requiring or requesting a pork-free diet, where he wants a space where he can face the east to pray. That even though there are all of these ways that people see the Nation of Islam as different from how they understand Sunni Islam, that that is not relevant to Malcolm. In this stage, Malcolm is in the process of becoming a believer. And everything that he sees, that’s gonna be his touch point, his touchstone. And I think that whether, anything that Malcolm encounters of Islam, he is going to process through his experience, life, and identity as a Black man in America. And anything that he encounters as a Black man in America, he is now processing through his encounter with Islam. And that’s what we see here.

Omid Safi, Sa’di + The Rose Garden—The Text Whereby People Learn to Read and Write

Sa’di simply is the author of the single most important work of prose in, again, the Eastern, the Persianate half of Islamic civilization. It’s a work called The Gulistan, The Rose Garden. And The Rose Garden, which is written in the late 1200s, right up until today, is the text whereby people learn how to read and write. We really have no analogies to its influence in the English-speaking world. I sometimes tell people it’s not even like teaching second graders Shakespeare. It would really be much more akin to teaching second graders Chaucer. The Rose Garden, which is Sa’di’s masterpiece. He’s also an extraordinary writer of love poetry. And fascinating again that Malcolm would be quoting from him because Sa’di becomes the epitome of what you could call a humanistic tradition in Islam. His most iconic line, which is sometimes used a lot by human rights organizations, is a paraphrase of a hadith of the Prophet, which interestingly enough, is actually much more well known in Sa’di’s retelling than it is actually as a hadith of the Prophet, in which he says that, you know, human beings are like members of one body. And if any parts of the body hurt, the whole body experiences pain. And that if you’re not moved by the suffering of others, you are maybe unworthy of the name human.

So Sa’di really becomes the paradigm of this kind of ethical voice that transcends narrow religious and national kind of considerations. And the quote that he has for Sa’di that comes out of Charles Sylvester, The Writings of Mankind. This is the sort of great Orientalist effort to catalog all the great literature of humanity. It’s kind of that evolutionary Darwinian tradition applied to literature. And so let us catalog the great writings of the Africans and the Indians and the Persians and the Arabs. Oh, my! So Sylvester’s book seems to be, what is, I’m guessing given the fact that he’s narrating these kind of verbatim, I would guess, that he somehow had gotten access to this 1924 book by Charles Herbert Sylvester. The Sa’di translation comes from, these are really great Orientalist works. They don’t give us a way of going back to the original, but the book is called The Writings of Mankind in 20 Volumes. Volume two deals with Arabia, Persia, Egypt, the Near East, and Hebrew Literature.

Zaheer Ali, IYKYK

Even though he says in this letter “and most of the time I put down poetry to take up space, so it will look like I’ve written a long letter so I can receive a long letter in return.” Like even as he says that, and there is, I guess, a way to diminish the meaning and intentionality of this, right, of his use of poetry. He ain’t quoting Robert Frost. [Laugh] There is still a very intentional selection here. We could look at this as like, I don’t know, like you think of sampling. And I know that we’ve talked, other conversations we’ve had about Malcolm as a sampler, as a remixer. You think of people who are hip hop artists who sample, they are looking for something that’s gonna carry the song, right? So they’re looking for a beat. And sometimes they find the beat in the most unexpected of places.

At the height of hip hop sampling, there was this thing that everyone sampled, but then there was an art where people were trying to find the most obscure thing to sample, and then sample it in a way that you couldn’t recognize where it came from. And it wasn’t an attempt to steal or be a thief of authorship. It wasn’t an attempt to not cite your sources. It was an attempt to, I bet you don’t know where this came from. And it was a test too of your own musical literacy, that you could hear that and be like, oh, I hear James Brown, or I hear Parliament-Funkadelic, or I hear like something even more rare. And so it was this ability to create a different kind of literacy. And so, you know, as we think about Malcolm quoting these poems but not saying who the writers are, there’s this kind of, creation of a, it’s like he’s sub-tweeting.

There’s a way of “if you know you know.” A reliance on your knowledge, a reliance on your intimate knowledge of this thing. That if you don’t, you’re like, okay, cool, this is poetry that’s just taking up space. But if you do, you’re like, what we just did, you’re like, oh, I hear the Qur’an in that. Or I hear this concept of what Malcolm is trying to do, or I hear Malcolm growing in his own kind of word usage. Or I hear Malcolm, you know, looking at questions of beauty and existence and brotherhood and friendship. And that’s what I hear because I know something different. And I think Malcolm is relying on his siblings to do some of that as well.

And for the people who don’t, he’s just like taking up space, right? And so you think about the work of sampling. Yeah, there was sort of like meaningless sample of, oh, this does this, this is a good beat. But sometimes the sampling was done to recreate a different kind of world. A world that was accessible to people who shared something with you, right? And when you think about, you know, the work of art or culture creation or artistic creation, some of the best art has these multiple meanings. And so everyone isn’t going to get everything and that’s okay cause they still get something. And maybe if they come back to it, they’ll come back to it with a different set of resources that they’ll get something more, right? Or something different. And I think that’s one of the lessons I take away from this.

I’m not saying that that’s what this letter is, but I do think as an archive, if you come to this with very little knowledge of Malcolm, you’re gonna walk away with something. If you come to this with a better understanding of Malcolm, you’re gonna get something else. If you come to this with an understanding of Malcolm and maybe some Islamic history, you’re gonna be like, oh, I see something else happening here. If you come to this with an understanding of Malcolm and Islamic history and what’s happening in prison activism, you’re gonna be like, oh, this is how we understand this and the books that were available. And if you come to this with Malcolm and Islam and Black America and the Nation of Islam and their theologies, then you’re like, oh, I see all this is happening here. And I think that’s what you get when you have a rich archive that has mixed in all of these different elements.

Omid Safi, Adab Tradition

The people that you’re kind of asking about: Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, and Sa’di. I mean these are in different ways, some of the really great giants of the adab tradition, the fine tradition of literature. And they’ve kind of been really the marker, particularly Hafiz and Sa’di, of what it has meant to be a literate Muslim in the eastern half of the Islamic world. So really everything from Bangladesh to Bosnia, if you wanna think of it that way. Loosely speaking, the Persianate world. In Hafiz, we’ve got the sort of supreme ambiguous, sensual, erotic, mystical Muslim poet. And in Sa’di, we’ve got the ethical, humanistic work of poetry. And even though they write in Persian, their influence is not restricted to modern-day Iran because at this time Persian is really the literary high culture language of the majority of the Islamic world.

Almost all the great empires and dynasties—the Ottomans, the Safavids, the Mughals, and others—they have Arabic as the obviously religious language for Qur’an and prayer and certain religious discourses like law and theology. But it’s really Persian that is the language of literature and high culture in a way that far transcends contemporary national boundaries. So there’s a lot more Persian being composed in India, for example, than there is in modern-day Iran at this time. And the Ottoman Sultans are composing poetry in the Persian language. All of which is kind of saying that, you know, I find it fascinating that these lines of poetry, poorly perhaps translated, maybe not very poetically translated, hard sometimes to track down. But they’re still showing up in Malcolm, and I think that’s significant.

Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, Learning from Incarcerated Muslims

Maytha: We see people mining through his archive of books and other references. Why hasn’t this been of scholarly interest or intrigue? Or maybe, I don’t know.

Zaheer: Well, one, I don’t think people would have even recognized the poems without citation, right? If you don’t know, you don’t know. And we know that there has been a lot done on Malcolm by people who really understand Black history and the Black experience. There’s been less, but some, done on Malcolm by people who understand Islam, but don’t understand the Black experience and are not, you know, I don’t think are looking this far. I don’t think, you know, for people who think about Malcolm as a Muslim, many of them because they are coming to their study of Malcolm from the perspective of Sunni Islam, they’re not interested in a Malcolm before he is, in their minds, having satisfied the requirements of their understanding of Islam. Which is in 1964 when he announces he’s leaving the Nation of Islam and makes the Hajj. That is for them when he is a person worth looking at as a Muslim.

And so for people who have looked at Malcolm while he is in prison, and maybe reading his letters, they would not have been able to identify. Like the way you said about that first passage, you were like, “I know this was,” or “this reminded me of.” I wouldn’t have even known that, because that’s not what I’m steeped in, right? That’s not my reference. It’s like if you’re listening to a hip hop song, if you don’t have the knowledge of the samples and where they come from, you might think this is a new production, right? You might be like, oh, this is a jam. And then somebody’s like, oh, that’s actually from 30 years ago, or that’s actually from, you know, 50 years ago. And you’re like, oh wow. I didn’t even know that, right? So I think, you know, that is part of it, is that people don’t have that literacy. But I think the other part of it is that people don’t have that curiosity. They don’t have those questions guiding them. And I think this is uncharted and new, and so I don’t know that people would even think to ask these kinds of questions about Malcolm. I think people also just narrowly constrain Malcolm to a certain kind of intellect that would not allow for him to be a writer or to be interested in poetry or to be interested in beauty or to be interested in the kinds of things that they don’t see directly tied to a really narrow idea of Islam and/or liberation.

Maytha: And as you were speaking about that, thinking if people are coming in from a semi-orthodox lens, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re familiar with Sufi poetry, tasawwuf poetry.

Zaheer: That’s right.

Maytha: Or the ethical treatises that we just read. But also a Malcolm that’s incarcerated as a Muslim, right? Or seeking out Islam. And there’s something that feels like too much tension to explore what that means to think about people within the ummah incarcerated as people we learn from.

Zaheer: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

Hussein Rashid, Ethical Poetry

At the time Malcolm was writing the letters that you shared with me is sort of this time in amongst American belles lettres that they’re looking to the East, right? People like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who obviously is a little bit earlier, but, you know, people would be reading his material. People like Ralph Waldo Emerson are fascinated with this Urdu poet Ghalib or this Persian poet Hafiz, and are translating his work. You know, there are these translations that are circulating in this time period in English of really important Persian works. I’ve seen works by Razi that are being translated in this period, who is this important philosophical thinker. Shabestari, who’s this monumental Persian poet slash philosopher, and he’s writing things that, you know, we consider ethical guidance.

And I think what I would be cautious of is trying to distinguish between poetic and ethical traditions, right? These poets saw themselves often when they were writing in a religious vein, which many of them were, or at least the ones who were being translated to English at this time, were. They saw themselves as transmitting and participating in an ethical worldview. So their poetry is deeply ethical in this process. You know, we look at somebody like Sa’di Shirazi, who writes this text The Gulistan, The Rose Garden, which is, you know, in the genre in English, it’s called the Mirror for Princes. You know, if you’re a ruler, you should behave like this. And then it intersperses prose and poetry as sort of giving this ethical guidance. And that’s probably one of the more explicit points where you see somebody walking into this and saying, I am giving you an ethical document, or a guidance document. But oftentimes the poets didn’t feel the need to make that statement. What they were doing was an ethical act and ethically edifying. So I just wanna be cautious about trying to make that distinction.

Omid Safi, Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam is sort of a fascinating case scenario because it really shows you that even when we think we’re talking about great Muslim figures, we’re never entirely free to do so on our own. And there’s always the watchful gaze of the West that is kind of present with us, and it’s just a matter of how we negotiate it. So Omar Khayyam was historically not known as a poet. He wrote poetry because that’s what every literate Muslim did. [Laugh] Poetry was the Muslim imagination. And up until the twentieth century, the vast, vast, vast majority of our literature is poetry. It’s not prose. Prose was seen as too didactic, and even when someone like al-Sa’di writes prose, to a certain extent it’s an imitation. It’s an echo of the Qur’an, in the sense that the Qur’an itself insists that it’s not poetry per se, but it’s saj’. It’s rhymed prose. So it’s a kind of prose text that has these internal rhyme and meter. And that’s what the prose tradition in Islam often has been.

To come back to Omar Khayyam, he’s a mathematician, and he’s an astronomer. The calendar that much of the Islamic world used was one that he revised in the late 1090s. And he worked at a great astronomical facility. The knowledge of the stars was, of course, something that every Muslim ruler was interested in. They wanted to do things that were auspicious. And so he’s a mathematician, he’s an astronomer. There was no line between being an astronomer and an astrologer. And he wrote poetry because that’s what all the great gentlemen did. And then in the nineteenth century, poetry attributed to him, as we say wallahu a’lam, becomes translated quite beautifully by Edward FitzGerald. And by some accounts it becomes the bestselling literature, poetry of English language in the nineteenth century. So that has a lot more to do with the inner dynamics of Victorian society, 1860s, and after, their fascination with something that is skeptical, humanistic, erotic, sensual, than it necessarily tells us anything about the historical Omar Khayyam. And not only do we see Omar Khayyam showing up in Malcolm. Omar Khayyam shows up in Dr. King’s writings as well.

Maytha Alhassen, Multiple Literacy Exploration

This is where we’re looking at the shift from the sampling to him being the writer, the poet. And being inspired by the poetry he’s written and the poetics of the faith that he is unearthed or uncovered in this multiple literacy exploration that he’s undertaken.

Omid Safi, Poetry—A Way of Imagination

The important thing to remember about poetry in Islam is that ultimately, ultimately, even though our poets are extraordinary masters of rhyme and meter, imagine someone like a Rumi writing 60,000 lines of poetry following a certain meter of dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah. And it’s almost, you know, similar in that sense to iambic pentameter, and, you know, these kinds of meters that you find in a Western tradition as well. But what makes poetry poetry is not the rhyme and it’s not the meter. It’s actually a way of imagination.

It’s not for nothing that the word for poetry, shi’er (شعر), in Arabic and Persian, in Urdu, in Turkish has something to do with sha’oor, which is consciousness. So I think it’s more useful to think about poetics as a different way of talking about God and a different way of talking about humanity and a different way of talking about love and reality that it’s not theology and it’s not restricted by theological ways of reading it. But it’s a suggestive language. It hints rather than spell out. And it leaves so much to the imagination. And it’s daring and bold and willing to push the boundaries far beyond what conventional philosophy and theology of the ulama’ would allow. And of course, what’s so interesting is that many of the scholars themselves are writing this kind of poetry. So imagine someone like a Rumi who in a daytime is teaching classes on hadith and on law, and then at nighttime he’s singing and composing poetry. Another reminder that our civilization was never characterized by dichotomy of something that we could call quote unquote orthodox and something that we could call mystical poetry. Things are much more interwoven, interconnected, fluid.

Maytha Alhassen, “Prison, Thanks to Islam, Has Ceased to Be a Prison”

You kind of see this change in the prose of Malcolm’s letters as he’s encountering the poetry. And you can see this melding of his poetics and of the way he uses it to have an analysis around the prison condition and faith. He actually gets transferred from Norfolk to another prison. And what he has basically communicated the reason behind that is he actually wants to practice kind of prison ministry and spread the faith and also change the conditions of folks in those prisons in Charleston that don’t have access to the material that he was given. And so he says “in this prison, thanks to Islam, has ceased to be prison… for I have learned to love the pricelessness of pure solitude.” He makes this reference point when he’s in Medina to this moment to the kind of solitude he was offered.

Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, The Power of Signs

Maytha: Well, and there’s this, that’s why I’m calling it “Poetics of Faith.” At the end of this letter, he’s, as you said, digesting the poetry and the Qur’an as exploration, talks about people outside hearing the thunder, not taking heed, getting wet, relating it to the signs of what he calls the final disaster. And wondering if people will see and bear the signs that are inevitable around them, but not take heed. This feels like a really poignant moment of him thinking about what it takes to make the signs to make it plain, right?

Zaheer: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Again, I think about the Qur’an, right? We know that ayat means sign, right? And so much of the Qur’an is like: Did you read the sign? Did you see the sign? Did you see the sign we sent you? These are all signs to those who know, right? So Malcolm, he wants to be one of the people who can read the signs, right? And so here’s that. He’s looking at the thunder, and he’s like that’s a sign for those who know. That is straight out of the Qur’an, right? That sort of thinking and formulation is like, this is a sign for those who know. There’s so many times where that’s said in the Qur’an. It’ll tell you this story, and it’ll be like, this is a sign for those who know, right? And you think about what signs are and signifiers are and language and the word as a sign and symbolism. And even semaphores and just the basis of language as a sign. I think that’s how Malcolm, I think one of the ways why he was so effective is because he understood the power of signs.

Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, In the Name Of

Zaheer: This particular opening and this style of opening would be really common in the Nation of Islam, of how ministers would open up their talk or their lecture. And it’s an introduction, right? And it’s an introduction of a kind of… I don’t wanna say traditional, I don’t wanna say archaic, but, and I’m not trying to be funny. But you know how the Game of Thrones, the person is introduced with all of their titles? So this is an introduction with all of the titles, right?

So it’s introducing God, “the All-Wise God, the Almighty Lord and Savior of the Black Nation, the Merciful Master of this Final Day of Judgment.” And so all of these different names. And then “In the Name of His Last and Greatest Prophet, the First Begotten of the Dead, Our Guiding Light in this wretched darkness of hell, the Door by Whom we must all Pass to Enter the Complete paradise, the Most Meek and Humble of the Faithful.” Right? Yes, this is poetic. This is like, let me find all of the different ways to lift up and even just the ways that some of this is coming from the Bible, some of this is coming from the Qur’an, some of this is coming from, you know, a Black poetic tradition of naming. And some of this is that, right? You see the ways that these words are put together to build on this introduction. So I think, you know, all of that just to “I’m happy to greet you in Their Great Name… As-Salaam-Alaikum.” And this becomes an opening song or opening line for every speech.

And sometimes it would get so long that by the time the person has completed the introduction, they have to remind you, oh, this is who I’m talking about. Because they’ve added so many accolades to it. And so, you know, that’s why he says I’m happy to greet you once again cause you already said as salaam alaikum, but you done like, built this whole opening into it. You done gotta bring us back. And so this becomes the building of that common introduction of how much praise can we give? And of course, again, there’s a Qur’anic model for this, right? The bismillah, the “In the name of Allah,” and it’s not just in the name of Allah, right? It’s “Bismillah, al-rahman al-rahim in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful,” and then in Sura Fatiha, it’s like “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, all praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the world, the Beneficent, the Merciful, the Master of the Day of Judgment.” You know, all of the accolades. This is the opening, this is Malcolm’s opening. I’m not gonna say it’s Malcolm’s Fatiha and get people all bent outta shape, but it is his opening.

Maytha: This reminds me of how Goodie Mob basically rapped or spoke the translation of the Fatiha. Where it could have been unmistakable for a series of monikers, right?

Zaheer: Yes, yes, yes. If you don’t know that’s what it is, you’re like, oh, okay, all right. [Laugh] And then what’s interesting is that, of course, the Goodie Mob’s version is a Nation of Islam version. So that line where it says “nor upon those who go astray,” that’s the Qur’an. After hearing your teachings, that’s the Nation of Islam, right?

Maytha: It is, and there’s that remix in this preamble, right?

Zaheer: Yes, yes, yes. This is…

Maytha: Because there’s the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is in there as well.

Zaheer: Yes, yes. This is a remix, if we wanna call it that. This is the remix of Al-Fatiha.

Maytha: I mean, you can use a better word. I don’t wanna impose.

Zaheer: No, no, no. I like that. But this is the remix of the Al-Fatiha. This is that, this is that opening, right? Where you can see that here. This is someone who’s been digesting the Qur’an. This… when were the other, okay, so the other letter.

Maytha: So this comes after.

Zaheer: So okay.

Maytha: Those were in February. So this is August.

Zaheer: So this is clear that Malcolm’s reading of that poetry and his writing of that poetry, which is a kind of embodiment, right? To rewrite something in your own hand is a kind of internalizing of that, right? So it’s his reading of that poetry, it’s his reading of the Qur’an. His exposure to the particular rhythms of the Nation of Islam’s language and, you know, the ways that the Nation was formulating these ideas and these words. So like “all-wise,” that’s a Black Muslim thing. That’s an NOI thing, right? The all-wise. Another one, which doesn’t appear here, but you will hear often is “the true and living,” right? That’s a community-rooted thing. But “Wisdom, Knowledge and Understanding,” those three things together, that’s a very, you know, Black Muslim thing.

But you see the poetics here, and I think the genealogy also comes through the translations, right? Whoever’s translating the Qur’an has provided, you know, here’s the palette with which you’re going to color with, right? Because whoever said it was “merciful” and whoever… “Beneficent” was not a word in circulation, right? Until we read that as part of the Qur’an. We read that in the translation, right? So whoever the translator was, whether it’s, you know—at that time probably Maulana Muhammad Ali or Yusuf Ali or Muhammad Pickthall—the choice of words are shaping the framing here, right? So you’re getting words being introduced into the language or introduced into usage because of their showing up in these translations, right? Mercy, merciful, beneficent, all-wise, right? These are things that are coming out of that encounter with Islam. And I think shows that Malcolm is taking it in, right? And he’s taking it in, and he’s formulating it as someone who has read those earlier poems, right? The poems that he quoted earlier.

Zaheer Ali and Maytha Alhassen, Medina Letter—Seeking Refuge

Zaheer: When he says my prison years in quotes, it’s like I know I’m using a shorthand, but I don’t want to give prison that power. Like it isn’t prison that, he said “prison thanks to Islam has ceased to be a prison,” right? So it isn’t that prison did these things for him. It is Islam that did these things for him. So I think that he wants to be really clear that he’s not crediting prison, right? Because we know Malcolm’s use of quotations are very intentional. Like in his Letter from Mecca, he is like “white” in quotes, right? So I think like that’s what’s really important here is like I haven’t felt like this since quote: “my prison years when I would spend days upon days in solitude, hours upon hours studying and praying. There is no greater serenity of mind than when one can shut the hectic noise and pace of the materialistic outside world and seek inner peace within one’s self.”

If we didn’t have this letter, we would just say, he’s like for lack of a better term, we’re gonna call it my prison years. But that’s not really what it is. But just cause that’s what we’re gonna call it. And then we have this letter where he’s like, “prison thanks to Islam has ceased to be prison.” Like he’s really talking about Islam here, right? And how Islam transformed that experience. That’s the thread, right? It’s Islam that connects that experience of pure solitude with this experience of pure solitude.

Maytha: Exactly. And then here, of course, we noticed a lot as he’s traveling around the Muslim world, some of his great pains are seeing the materialism and not connecting back to the first explorations he started to have around Islam providing that solitude, that break from industrial urbanity.

Zaheer: And that’s why I think those quotes are so important. Cause he’s like, don’t get it twisted, I don’t want to go back to prison. And I don’t think prison is a place for any human being to be. But I do want us to go to Islam.

Maytha: As a refuge. And that’s the refuge within the prison. And that’s the refuge within America. And that’s the refuge within this dunya.

Zaheer: And, you know, in the Nation, they often didn’t just open up with the bismillah, they opened up with the auzubillah. They would open up with “say: I seek refuge in Allah from the cursed Satan.” And of course that has all kinds of meanings in Nation of Islam theology, right? But this idea of Islam or Allah being a source of refuge is something that Malcolm first articulated in 1950 and is revisiting 14 years later. This… it doesn’t work, right? It doesn’t work if it can’t reach the human condition. And that is why the Qur’an is revealed through a form of poetry, right? Like God’s revelation comes in the form of poetry because it’s not just instructive, it’s beautiful. Right? And that Malcolm, when he taught, wasn’t just instructive. He was funny. He was moving. He was beautiful. He made people feel beautiful. He moved people. And that’s the poetics, right?

It’s a handful of scholars who will sit around the table and be moved by just ideas, right? But the masses of the people, your politics have to have a poetry to it. It has to have a beauty to it. It has to have, you know, a joy. It has to have imagery, it has to have rhythm. It has to have, you know, play with words. It has to be interesting. And I think that’s what you see in these early letters. Malcolm is looking at, and again, he’s very intentional about what kind of poetry he’s paying attention to. But he’s looking at how these poets are doing what they’re doing. And he, I don’t know that he would ever say that he himself was a poet, but he absolutely used the poetics of language. And that’s why he’s an effective speaker. He wouldn’t have been otherwise. And so, no, it’s not a jump at all.

Khayál: A Multimedia Collection by Muslim Creatives

It starts with imagination. To build a more beautiful world, we need the creativity to look beyond what is and envision what could be.

While the dominant cultural narratives about Muslims are tired, inaccurate, and downright dangerous, we believe our people have what it takes to get to a better place. And Pillars Muslim Narrative Change (MNC) Fellows are guiding the way.

In January 2020, Pillars assembled a group of brilliant Muslim thinkers to use their unique experiences and expertise to develop a roadmap for telling authentic Muslim stories: enter the MNC Fellows.

These fellows are poets, writers, activists, scholars, historians, and artists who deeply understand the power of stories to shape our lives. For more than three years, they’ve taken on the big questions: How are Muslims represented in the media? How can we challenge damaging stereotypes? How do we empower Muslims to tell our own stories? The MNC Fellows have been thought partners, helping Pillars build our Culture Change program from the ground up, and offered valuable mentorship (fondly nicknamed “Muslim Artist Therapy”) to the emerging directors and writers in our Pillars Artist Fellowship.

To honor the MNC Fellows’ contributions to Pillars, we’ve assembled a collection of essays and meditations that gave our fellows the freedom to explore whatever they find interesting. No restrictions, no limits. The result: Khayál: A Multimedia Collection by Muslim Creatives, a collection co-authored by the brilliant minds of the MNC.

READ THE COLLECTION

The title Khayál nods to a rich conversation in Islamic cultures of interpreting and discussing imagination. This Eid al-Adha, we offer this digital, multimedia collection as a gift from Pillars to our community.

Page through to learn about the creative inhale with Zaheer Ali, examine Malcolm X’s letters with Maytha Alhassen, dive into philosophy with Hussein Rashid, explore Su’ad Abdul Khabeer’s memories of ’90s Brooklyn, go behind the scenes of Omar Offendum’s hip hopera Little Syria, and experience Asad Ali Jafri’s comic from the future.

We hope this collection sparks your imagination as it did ours.

We want to extend a special thank you to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support and collaboration on this project and to Pillars Program Manager Aya Nimer for shepherding this project from its inception to its final form. We could not have done it without you!

Meet a Muslim Artist: Hanifa F. Abdul Hameed

Artist Hanifa F. Abdul Hameed was born in the birthplace of Islam (Saudi Arabia), relocated to her native country (India), and moved to winter wonderland (Canada) before finally settling in her home country (USA). After exploring the world in only a few years, Hanifa decided to pursue a career in the arts, fighting every obstacle in her way to express what is going on in her mind.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Hanifa collaborated with Pillars Fund to design an illustration to celebrate the leadership, resistance, and sisterhood of Muslim women.

Illustration of a diverse group of five Muslim women:Illustration of a diverse group of five Muslim women: A hijabi activist, wearing an orange scarf and a red jacket with her fist up, looking confidently straight ahead. A singer with afro hair wearing a blue floral dress and passionately singing while holding a mic up. A hijabi activist wearing a blue scarf and speaking into a megaphone. A hijabi woman wearing a red scarf and looking confidently ahead with crossed hands. A woman with short black hair, wearing glasses and nose piercings, with her hands on the shoulders of the woman to her right, smiling while looking ahead. A hijabi activist, wearing an orange scarf and a red jacket with her fist up, looking confidently straight ahead. A singer with afro hair wearing a blue floral dress and passionately singing while holding a mic up. A hijabi activist wearing a blue scarf and speaking into a megaphone. A hijabi woman wearing a red scarf and looking confidently ahead with crossed hands. A woman with short black hair, wearing glasses and nose piercings, with her hands on the shoulders of the woman to her right, smiling while looking ahead.

Hanifa x Pillars Fund Women’s History Month Illustration

Pillars spoke with Hanifa about her journey as a Muslim artist and the topics that inspire her illustrations. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

As a little kid, I always loved drawing, sketching, art in general. And one day I was watching Oprah, and this fashion designer Valentino came on. I was super inspired by his designs, the wearable art that he created. From there, I wanted to be a fashion designer, and I sketched every single day and even learned to sew. I really liked illustrating and took art classes throughout high school, and then I studied graphic design in college.

I ended up working as a UI/UX (User Interface/User Experience) designer, so I’m still kind of in the art field. But I really wanted to use more creativity in terms of color—when you work as a UI/UX designer, especially for a large corporation, you have to stick within the guidelines that they’ve set. Everything has a purpose. But you get a lot more freedom from illustrating.

Many of your illustrations include bold colors and interesting textures. What is an artistic style/technique that you’ve been excited about recently?

I’ve been really into pottery recently, and so I’ve been looking at ways I can use colors to illustrate on pots. I’m trying to be a plant mom, but I’ve killed all my plants, so that’s why I’m trying art on my pots—maybe they’ll encourage me to actually water and put my plants in the sun.

In general, I really gravitate toward illustrations with a lot of color and patterns. I love maximalism—I’m in no way a minimalist, which differs from my day job because we’re supposed to make everything simple, not too cluttered. My illustrations are completely different.

South Asian women, and South Asians in general, use a lot of colors and prints in their textiles and clothing. You see a lot of different types of block prints, embroidery. So I want to bring those elements to my art. Whenever I would travel to India and go shopping, it would make me really excited.

In that sense, my identity informs the type of style I use: the colors, the patterns. And then in most cases, I try to show some form of my identity in art: whether that be a South Asian woman, a Muslim woman, or a woman that likes fashion or traveling.

What is the throughline in all of your work?

​​As much as possible, I try to show empowered women. I started my Instagram page during the pandemic. I had so much time to work on things outside of my day job, using the time that I would otherwise just be on Netflix. I wanted to be productive in some way, and I missed creating work I could call my own. My family, my cousins, all knew how strongly I felt about feminism and women’s empowerment, especially within the South Asian community. They said, “Why don’t you illustrate something around these topics? You’re so passionate about it.” That’s why I started this Instagram page—I started writing my thoughts out. I was scared to put that out there for everyone to know instead of just my close family members, but then a lot of people resonated with it.

To me, Women’s History Month means talking about important topics that still affect women today, especially women of color: bodily autonomy, Orientalism, objectification, to name a few. We’ve come so far, which is great, but there’s still a lot more to do. It’s also about talking about the accomplishments that women have made because usually those are pushed down and others’ accomplishments are talked about more often.

Conversations with Grantees: Meet Ghida Dagher

At the age of 9, Ghida Dagher and her family immigrated to the United States seeking asylum. Now as the president of New American Leaders, she works to empower immigrant communities like her own to engage in civil society. New American Leaders’ programs train first- and second-generation Americans to run, win, and lead in elected office all across the country. Ghida is a true believer that her immigrant background roots her and her American experience propels her, and she brings those convictions to her work.

Recently, we had the pleasure of bringing together three Pillars grantee-partners, including Ghida, at a roundtable to talk about their stories and the importance of their work. Ghida shared the secret sauce that powers New American Leaders’ work, why Muslim leaders in government are important catalysts for change, and the deep meaning she finds in community.

This is the third of three excerpts from our conversation with Pillars grantee-partners. What follows are responses from Ghida, edited for length and clarity.

 

Nonprofit work can be challenging at times, especially when change is slow and progress is hard to see. Can you tell us about a win, a time when you felt encouraged and reassured by the power of your work?

Listen, the work is definitely challenging, and there are times when it feels like you’re getting nothing but discouraging news, unfortunately. It’s easy to get focused on that when you see headline after headline that continues to marginalize specific people. But there are wins. And that’s the beautiful thing about the work.

We’ve seen some key races around the country of Muslim Americans winning their elections and doing things in a way that is completely untraditional. It’s not what people usually expect electoral races to look like, to campaign, to knock on doors. There’s been this template that we’ve been told is successful in politics, but that template only works for certain types of people that look a certain type of way.

And so for us at New American Leaders, we are all about breaking that and saying, actually, what gets the work done is you being authentically yourself and showing up in the community that you come from and knocking the doors and having those conversations. And what we have proven in the last 12 years is that our way of doing campaigns actually works. And the way that we talk about ourselves is resonating with voters, regardless of whether they share an identity with us or not. So there’s been a lot of wins that are popping up around the country. It’s the message that resonates.

Somebody said to me, “Oh my God, new Americans are having a moment.” And the reality is, it’s not a moment. This is a movement, and it’s here to stay. And it’s only gonna get built more and more with time.

 

In a democracy, everyone’s voice should matter; but in reality, that’s not how the electoral system in the U.S. plays out. How does New American Leaders create more opportunities for marginalized communities to engage in civil society?

New American Leaders is the only national organization that’s dedicated to training new Americans—so immigrants, refugees, and those who identify with the immigrant experience—to run, win, and lead in our American democracy. So what does that mean? “Run” is our suite of programs that train leaders, community-centered leaders to be very specific, to know what it looks like to become a candidate and to manage campaigns. So it’s two tracks. It’s really big. But it is so critical for us that campaigns, not just candidates but also campaigns’ staff, are reflective of communities that they are seeking to represent. And then the “win” part of our work is getting people to understand what civic participation looks like, what it takes to actually build a voter base and to not just to engage in an existing base, but what it means to expand a base. Because often we’re not counted as part of a base because we’re not seen as traditional voters.

So when you put in the work a little bit differently, you’re redefining what voter looks like. So that’s the “win” side. And then the “lead” is once you’re elected in office, what does being a good public servant look like? We don’t have a lot of practice in being in these leadership positions because the system has always left us out of it. It’s created barriers for us to be in these positions, whether it’s party barriers and systems, whether it’s the fundraising and money in politics. So what it looks like for us is also engaging in leadership and in governance work. So that’s the run, win, and lead of the New American Leaders.

What does that actually look like when we’re talking about Muslim American leadership in our politics, in our democracy? We’re talking about people like Shahana Hanif, the first Muslim city council member in New York City ever. She was just elected the last election cycle. Shahana is one of 10 members of city council who are New American Leaders alum or affiliated with our networks. That’s 20% of city council. Shahana ran her campaign in an area that is Bangladeshi heavy, Bengali heavy in terms of language. There’s a lot of Bangala speakers, and none of them had ever seen a campaign that reflected or engaged them in that way. And Shahana did that and it made a huge difference. That’s what gave her the win at the end of the day.

It looks like City Council Member Pious Ali in Portland in Maine. It looks like Dearborn, that previously had [a mayor with] the motto of keep Dearborn clean—and we’re not talking about trash, we’re talking about people of a different skin color—now has its first Muslim and Arab mayor. It’s Aisha Wahab in California; it’s Varisha Khan in Washington; it’s Iman Jodeh in Colorado. It’s Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in Congress. That’s what it looks like to engage people.

And yes, they might be Muslim leaders, but what they bring to the table is their lived experience. And that is an experience that all of us can relate to as mothers, as neighbors, as leaders in the community, all of that is brought forward. And when you bring new Americans to leadership, it changes the entire dialogue of when an issue is discussed, what perspective is brought in, what the application of a proposed policy looks like.

 

How did you get involved in social justice-related work?

I moved to the United States when I was 10 years old. I am Lebanese, but I’m also third generation Sierra Leonean. West Africa, Sierra Leone in particular, had several instances of civil war. And my parents were just fed up and wanted us to have a stable upbringing. And so they moved us here to Dearborn, neighboring Detroit.

I was super aware and conscious of my surroundings and what it was to be an immigrant in this country and what it was to be economically disadvantaged or not to know certain things. You learn that very quickly that certain people know things that you don’t because you’re not from that system. And they have an advantage right away. And so often growing up throughout my education years, it was how do I cut that window and make it smaller about the things that I don’t know, so that I can get ahead.

I actually thought I was gonna become a doctor because that’s a secure and stable career. And very quickly, first semester of college, I was like, yeah, this is not it for me. I care about the world around me, how it functions, and what I could do to really play a part in making people feel more comfortable wherever they’re at and feeling like they have an equal shot.

 

What role does spirituality play in your approach to your work?

When you talk about Islam, you talk about justice, you talk about community. For me in particular, I reference the word community a lot and everybody defines that a little bit differently. But for me, it’s having each other’s backs. It’s doing something that puts our collective public good ahead of our individual. I think there’s an element of self-awareness when it comes to those values and that comes through our faith. It’s self-awareness of how we fit in the picture, how we can improve ourselves, how we are contributing or not contributing. And at the end of the day, we’re taught that all of us, whether we are from the same faith or not, we’re brothers and sisters in humanity, and that comes first.

I think that’s why a lot of the work has always resonated for me at New American Leaders. I’m an alum of our program. I did the program in 2015; it was actually then-State Representative Rashida [Tlaib] who pulled me into it and said, “You should do this.” Now, of course, the Congresswoman, one of two first Muslim Congresswomen.

I said, “Rashida, I’m not interested in this.” She’s like, “No, you’re gonna find community in this space. You need to do this.” And I did. And it was beautiful and it was wonderful. And I found my organizational home through New American Leaders. It was the first place that I stepped in and I was like, these are my people. This is my tribe. I left other opportunities to do this because I felt so strongly in continuing the organization and the work that it does and talking about all of it from our values at the end of the day.

 

At Pillars, we believe our communities deserve not simply equality but also the right to a joyful existence. In the spirit of that value, where do you find your joy?

I find my joy in two things. One is in my family. I adore spending time with my parents and my siblings and our loved ones. It’s just something about being in that love that brings me so much joy. And the other is I really enjoy watching people step into whatever space it is fully authentically as themselves and not feeling ashamed of, in particular, their immigrant background. Things like when people correct others on how to pronounce their name properly or making a joke that for some is ethnic specific and it might be perceived as an insider joke and not having any shame around that. It’s really embracing the culture, your culture, whatever it is, and bringing it to mainstream spaces that we talk about. To me that is really, really beautiful and brings me so much joy because for me, it invites me to be a part of it, even if it’s not mine. It just builds on that idea of brotherhood and sisterhood in our community.

Conversations with Grantees: Meet Khalid Alexander

A proud resident of Southeast San Diego, Khalid Alexander is the founder and president of Pillars grantee-partner Pillars of the Community, where he works to challenge police harassment, gang documentation, racial profiling, felony voter disenfranchisement, and cruel and unusual punishment in sentencing. Pillars of the Community puts pressure on local San Diego elected officials, boards, and commissions to be accountable to the communities they serve and decrease unjust criminalization; they also teach those closest to the pain how to become community leaders and create sustainable change.

Khalid recently joined our roundtable of three Pillars grantee-partners to share his story. Khalid took us back to the moments that inspired his journey to nonprofit leadership, explained why incarceration is an essential issue for Muslims to address, and explored how Islam informs his work.

This is the second of three excerpts from our conversation with Pillars grantee-partners. What follows are responses from Khalid, edited for length and clarity.

 

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration—there are nearly 2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails. Why is it important, especially for Muslim communities, to address this criminalization?

If you study those things in the Quran and the hadith and pious people from the history of Islam, there’s consistently an emphasis on the poor and helping the poor. There’s a consistent emphasis on helping those people who are oppressed. I think what most people in this country don’t understand is that those are exactly the people that the criminal justice system is set towards punishing.

If you look and you ask your DA, or if you ask a police officer, how many people have you arrested this week for wage theft? The answer is gonna be zero. But if you ask how many people have you arrested for being vagrant in front of a business, the answer is going to go up. So I think the first key is to understand who’s incarcerated and why, and who avoids incarceration and how are they able to avoid it.

The second thing is once we actually see what happens after someone is incarcerated, I think there’s very little Islamic rulings that can support the incarceration system that we have today. I think it’s more haram than a double bacon cheeseburger that you rinse down with a bottle of beer.

Some of these cages, for example, in San Quentin: If any of us were to stand up, and we’re all different heights, and you were to spread your arm, you wouldn’t be able to completely spread your arms out. That’s how narrow these cells are. And those cells have two people in them, two bunks in them, a small desk, and a toilet, all in the same area. These are conditions where Americans would never be able to accept placing animals in.

The fact that we, as Muslims, aren’t aware of these [things], I think is extremely important, but I also think that we have the best tools to be able to address it. I really do view that the alternative worldview and the same thing that others us in the eyes and the light of other communities is exactly the thing that’s going to enable us to help lead other people to a more liberated and free world where people are actually treated as human beings.

 

How did you get involved in social justice-related work?

There were three major incidents that happened to get me more involved in social justice issues. One of them, I was teaching at the time, and I had a brilliant student, formerly incarcerated, who was always participating in class. Two weeks before finals, he ended up being incarcerated. A parole officer had visited his house and found a blue shirt on the ground of his closet. And because he was a documented gang member, used that to violate his parole and send him back to prison. As a result, he ended up dropping out of school.

Also at the same time, I had moved to an area of San Diego called Southeast San Diego. I was pulled over three times in a period of two weeks, and there were two questions that stood out to me that I was being asked. One of those is “Are you a fourth waiver?” Which is, many people who after release from prison are forced to sign away their fourth amendment rights. And so you can be stopped, hassled, searched. And the other question was “Are you a gang member?” At first, I thought that these questions were meant to figure out who I was and whether or not I posed a threat, but quickly found out that really these questions were being asked to find out how many of my rights they could get away with violating.

And then the third major thing that happened is about seven years before, I was a voluntary imam in one of the local jails. And a lot of the brothers were just getting home after six, seven, eight years of incarceration and were facing all of the obstacles to re-entry. Initially, we started off as a service provider thinking, hey, let’s just get people into jobs. Let’s help them with their resumes. Let’s help them find housing. But [we] quickly realized if you’re not addressing the cracks that led to incarceration in the first place, essentially the work that we are doing was like filling a bucket up that had holes at the bottom. No matter how much water you put into it, it’s impossible to fill it. So we quickly transitioned from being a service-oriented organization to an organization that really looked out for systemic issues and the policies that led to incarceration.

Nonprofit work can be challenging at times, especially when change is slow and progress is hard to see. Can you tell us about a win, a time when you felt encouraged and reassured by the power of your work?

My political growth and understanding of the work continues to expand on a daily basis. Around 2014, in the work we were doing around racial profiling, we were putting a CD together with local gang members who were also recognized for some of their rap skills. And we found out that one of the artists was incarcerated.

So rather than just give up on him, we were like, well, maybe we can give him a beat and give him something that he can rap over the phone. So when I went to visit him in jail and asked him why he was incarcerated, he said he didn’t know why. And that the lawyers didn’t seem to understand what he was being charged with either. Come to find out that then District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis had rounded up 33 African American men, some of whom weren’t even living in the state of California, and charged them with 50 years to life based off an obscure penal code 182.5, which passed in 2000. Under this penal code in court, she said that she can charge anybody who is part of an alleged gang that has allegedly committed a crime. Most of the defendants ended up taking plea deals; two of them, Aaron Harvey and Brandon Duncan, the rapper that I mentioned earlier, actually fought the case. Because we were able to get a number of the community members involved in this case, both Brandon and Aaron’s case ended up being thrown out.

From those efforts, we began doing a lot of work around what it means to be a gang member and whether or not people should be charged with it. We were able to do an audit of the California gang database. In that audit, I think they found something like 40 infants who were also documented as gang members. Until that time, people weren’t able to find out whether they were in the database until they were standing in front of a judge or being charged with a crime. We were able to pass a law that made it so that you can find out that and that you would be able to actually challenge whether you were on the gang database or not.

Although I’m proud of the policies that came about from the work, what I’m more proud about is we’re actually beginning to address this narrative around gang membership and whether or not somebody based off the way they dress, how they talk, or where they live should be incarcerated. And so in the process of pushing for this policy, we’ve actually been able to build a strong community power that’s able to address issues as they come up.

 

What role does spirituality play in your approach to your work?

All of the work that we do is very spiritual work for me. It’s difficult work. I don’t think i would be able to do it if I were not Muslim. I don’t think I would be able to do it if I didn’t have a deep understanding that Allah is the one who’s in control. That what we are going to be questioned about on the day of judgment isn’t What did you accomplish? but What did you try to do?

Every once in a while we have a win, but the results aren’t really in our control. The results are in the hands of Allah. So that’s the spirituality that gets me through all of the really frightening times that we’re living in and that people like African Americans and Native Americans have had to deal with from the time that Europeans came to the country or that Africans who were brought here as slaves and chattel.

 

At Pillars, we believe our communities deserve not simply equality but also the right to a joyful existence. In the spirit of that value, where do you find your joy?

Absolutely family, spending time with my kids, and coffee. Those are my obvious points of joy.

A huge part of what drives me is this realization that if we were to ask most people what have Muslims done for you, or how have Muslims helped your own lives, and the realization that most people probably wouldn’t be able to answer that in the affirmative is something that causes me as somebody who loves Islam and somebody whose life has been transformed by being Muslim and by being around other Muslims, it causes me a deep kind of pain knowing that most people haven’t been able to benefit in the same way that we have. And so in the same way, when I do see Muslims that are doing actually trying to make effort to make the communities they’re a part of better, to actually make oppression and pain and hurt less for other people, not necessarily because they’re Muslim but because they’re creations of Allah and that they’re a part of our larger family of Allah’s creation, that really does bring me a lot of joy.

Conversations with Grantees: Meet Dr. Ingrid Mattson

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies, is the founder and director of Pillars grantee-partner Hurma Project, where she illuminates the special responsibilities of those holding power and educates Muslim communities about their God-given dignity and rights. Hurma Project is committed to upholding the sacred inviolability of each person who is present in our sacred spaces and addresses predatory behavior, abuse of religious authority, neglect of duty to protect, and other related harmful behaviors in Muslim communities.

Recently, we had the pleasure of bringing together three Pillars grantee-partners, including Dr. Mattson, at a roundtable to talk about their stories and the importance of their work. Dr. Mattson imparted so much wisdom as she explored her journey to social justice work, the role spirituality plays in her approach to Hurma Project, and why she’s careful not to confuse failing to live up to a value with hypocrisy.

This is the first of three excerpts from our conversation with Pillars grantee-partners. What follows are responses from Dr. Mattson, edited for length and clarity.

 

Nonprofit work can be challenging at times, especially when change is slow and progress is hard to see. Can you tell us about a win, a time when you felt encouraged and reassured by the power of your work?

Hurma means sacred inviolability. And what it speaks to is the sacredness of the human person.

What’s the most upsetting is not only when we don’t all react against the disrespect and the abuse of other humans and other Muslims, but when certain individuals have been socialized to the point where they themselves are wondering, do I even have any value?

So the times that I’ve been most happy, and when I feel that we have done something meaningful is when I get a message, just a very simple message from someone who says, “I listened to the last episode of the podcast” or “I was at your conference, I heard someone affiliated with the Hurma Project say this thing and it made me feel like I had value. It reminded me that I have worth. It reminded me that what happened to me and what people justified having done to me was wrong.”

It’s people who have survived abuse, gaslighting, and marginalization reclaiming their confidence in their own value. And to me, that’s the most important thing. If we can achieve that, then I’ll consider what we’re doing successful.

What role does spirituality play in your approach to your work?

Spirituality is not just about what’s in your head or what’s in your heart, but it’s how you relate to people. And it’s how you create community in this world. And that’s such an important part of being a Muslim in my mind, or being a spiritual person in general. Really overcoming this false dichotomy between matter and spirit or between this world and the next.

I would say that like so many others, spirituality is the thing that keeps me hopeful and is a reminder that this world is not in my hands. That I have a certain responsibility to try to understand how to change things for the better, to do that best I can, and to take it seriously. Not just to make a half-hearted attempt, but to make a serious attempt at understanding what’s happening, where the gaps are, and changing that. And at the same time, realizing I’m not in control of this world.

How has your work at Hurma Project informed your own spiritual growth?

​​At the Hurma Project, we’re looking at how people who hold some religious power, authority, knowledge, status, or position might use that power or authority or status in a way that is a violation of trust, that is abusive to others. And having spent almost five years trying to understand this, I realized it’s so much more complicated than I had initially thought. I think at the heart of it, we realize deep down that we really aren’t in control and we’re always looking for some way to have some control. And all too often, that is by controlling others.

And for me, it’s really been a very deep spiritual lesson because I’ve seen people who apparently seem to be on the right track really go off the rails. People who had a promising start in a position of leadership or authority end up in a place where they’re really taking advantage of other people. That’s very sobering.

And that goes back to the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), where he said “Help your brother, whether he’s being oppressed or is an oppressor.” And this is a very confusing statement when you look at the first part, but when the companions asked the Prophet, “how can we help our brother if he’s being an oppressor?” And the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said “stop him.” So when you stop someone from oppressing another, you are really helping him.

How did you get involved in social justice-related work?

In a way, it’s not so much a choice, but it’s who we are. We’re shaped by our history, our family histories and journeys, and our circumstances. We have to be so grateful, first to God for bringing us along this path and to all of those people who influenced us.

I’m a professor of Islamic studies, and I know there are some other academics who just maybe have their heads buried in books. And there’s a lot of benefit in that. But to me, I can’t help but see that when I’m reading about these values and principles, and then I lift my head up and I’m like, wait, there’s a gap. We have these beautiful things, but why is there a gap in our behavior, my own behavior, my community’s behavior? And that’s the curiosity that really fuels me.

My dad was a criminal defense lawyer here in Canada. We had seven kids in our family, but we often had many more who were juvenile clients of my father or people who he had defended and been released from prison. And somehow they ended up on a family vacation or living with us for a few years. Whatever had happened to them, it was part of our responsibility to make sure that they were supported in continuing to to be able to realize their potential, whatever that might be. At least we could do our part with trying to provide some support. So I think that’s the way I saw the world. And I don’t think I can unsee that.

The Hurma Project hosts a podcast where you and your colleague Professor Mihad Fahmy interview imams, chaplains, therapists, and other experts about how to prevent and respond to violations of trust and spiritual abuse. Can you tell us about a conversation for the podcast that was particularly meaningful for you?

It’s been such an honor and privilege to have these extended conversations with chaplains and imams and teachers and social workers and others. I think, maybe because it’s one of the most recent, what comes to mind is a conversation we had with Imam Mohamed Magid, who’s the spiritual director and leader of the ADAMS Center in Virginia, and with Sister Magda Saleh, who’s a long-term educator in Muslim schools, a principal. And we were talking about children and about the treatment of children in our Muslim institutions, whether those are schools or youth camps or mosques.

What they were talking about was too commonly seeing some kind of belittlement of children. I mean, children are little people. But belittling them, like putting them down in their dignity or not allowing them to really express themselves, limiting them in their full potential. Sometimes under the excuse of respect for elders is a real silencing of children. You would never justify just belittling, insulting, shutting up an adult human, but somehow all of these things that are wrong when it comes to how we treat other adults, the adab that we think about, this etiquette, the manners that should happen between people, somehow there’s a human power trip.

It’s just so important because if we can’t get that right, how are we going to get other things right? I mean, we all say children are our future and the next generation and all of this. This is beautiful rhetoric, and we probably mean it.

Hypocrisy is a really strong term, and to me, hypocrisy has an element of intention in it. I’m saying this, but I really don’t believe it and I know I don’t believe it. So we like to say at the Hurma Project that what we’re trying to do is to close the gap between our Islamic values and our Muslim community practice.

There’s the communal reality of an American Muslim community that has been under attack, surveilled, misunderstood. So we’re in this reactive mode, we have this trauma. And to hear another criticism very often it just immediately triggers us. So we have to have compassion for that as well.

It’s not that there’s this good part of the community and bad part of the community. It’s that as human beings, we’re very complicated and there are a lot of factors that feature into why we react the way we do. Let’s really explore that together. And I have a lot of hope and faith that we can improve, God willing, little by little.

At Pillars, we believe our communities deserve not simply equality but also the right to a joyful existence. In the spirit of that value, where do you find your joy?

First—and anyone who might glance at my Twitter can see that I post far too many pictures of tomatoes, frogs, fish, birds, and other things—I just love being in nature. I spend a couple months a year with my family on an island where we don’t have running water. We live in the river and alongside the river and do a lot of living off the land. So I love being outside all the time.

And the second thing is, I don’t love traveling, but I love going to visit friends. And soaking up that beautiful opportunity to just be with someone who knows you, with whom you have a history, and, not really to do anything very exciting, but to be together. And I guess, especially after a couple years of the pandemic, just being each other’s physical presence, being able to hug them, sitting beside them on the couch, looking at them in their face. It just makes me so happy.

Statement on Albuquerque Shootings

Everyone deserves to feel safe in their homes, schools, places of worship, and beyond.

Last night, a Muslim man was charged with killing two Muslim men in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he is suspected in the killing of two others. The New York Times also reports that the shooter may have been acting based on anti-Shi’a hatred.

As we await more details, our hearts are with Shi’a communities in the U.S. and our Shi’a grantees, fellows, partners, staff, and board members. As an organization that supports Muslim organizations and leaders across the U.S., we are devastated to hear about this violence. We reaffirm our commitment to the many Muslim organizers and community servants who are working to make our country safer for us all.

Kitchen Table Philanthropy in the Time of Ramadan

By Dilnaz Waraich

This April, Muslims around the world are observing the holiday of Ramadan—a month-long period of fasting from dawn to sundown, and of thinking of others, and of giving back. Philanthropy is deeply rooted in the Muslim faith, as well as my own.

When I was a child, the month before Ramadan, my immigrant parents would sit at the kitchen table with my sister and me to discuss how our family could give back. They would tell us about a family relative back in India who could use our help. Maybe it was for something critical, like surgery; or something invaluable, like education; or something practical, like a sewing machine!

My working class family’s support was not extravagant, but we did what we could. This experience taught my sister and me that, even as kids, we had the power to make a transformational difference in others’ lives.

My husband and I are fortunate to continue the tradition of sitting at the kitchen table with our two sons to discuss our family values and the organizations we want to support in our community.

During one of those conversations a few years ago, we realized we weren’t prioritizing Muslim American-led nonprofits in our philanthropic giving—so we decided to change that.

Wanting to understand the challenges those organizations faced, I reached out to our grantees. From our discussions, I could see the resilience and humility these organizations possessed. Without connection to the broader philanthropic community and funding support, these organizations were caught in a mindset of scarcity.

My family was curious if these Muslim led nonprofits could be supported in a way that could help them move away from a scarcity mindset to a mindset of abundance. Read the rest of Dilnaz’s reflections here

 

Dilnaz Waraich, a Pillars Trustee and President of the Waraich Family Fund, has over 25 years of experience in education, community organizing, and interfaith engagement. This essay was originally published by the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

The Muslim List: Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Muslim List?

For the second year in a row, The Black List has partnered with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and Pillars Fund to create The Muslim List, highlighting the very best unproduced scripts written by at least one Muslim writer.

Filmmakers and content creators are invited to submit a script for consideration by uploading it to The Black List website during winter 2021/2022. Submissions will be accepted until February 28, 2022. Feature film, one-hour, and half-hour original pilot submissions will be considered for this opportunity (no webseries, please.) Scripts from any genre are eligible for this partnership. 

Writers selected for the Muslim List will be notified of their placement in summer 2022 with a public announcement to follow.

 

Who reads my application/screenplays/pilots?

Readers from Pillars Fund and the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Hollywood Bureau will read all applications. Applicants who pay the additional $100 evaluation fee will also be guaranteed to be read by Black List readers and be scored on the site.

 

Who from The Black List community is reading? 

If you choose to pay for an evaluation, you will be read by one of The Black List’s corps of script readers. Industry members will also be able to download and read your script on the site and provide ratings, but industry members do not provide evaluations, just numerical scores, and there is no requirement for industry members to provide a score once they have read a script, it is up to their personal discretion. 

 

How will I know that my application was received? 

You will receive an email confirming your Muslim List submission, please wait up to 48 hours and check your spam folder to make sure you’ve received the email. If not, you can always confirm your submission with The Black List support team: support@blcklst.com

 

How often will I hear from The Black List about where they are in the process? 

Your submission will be noted via a response email to you, and The Black List will notify you when the shortlist has been selected to let you know if your script has moved on. 

 

Will I get feedback about my submission from Pillars Fund or MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau? 

No, due to the number of submissions we will not be able to provide feedback on scripts.

 

Are we allowed to submit a new draft from the time we first submit to the time the selections are being made? 

No, we will not accept new drafts after the submission deadline.

 

What criteria do Pillars Fund and MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau have when choosing the scripts? 

Our readers are looking for scripts that tell nuanced stories by Muslim creators. We are looking for scripts that are technically well-written and communicate a fresh perspective.

 

How much does it cost to have my script on the site?

To host a script on The Black List website is $30/month and to ensure a Black List reader reads the script is $100/evaluation. The $30 is a monthly hosting fee and will be renewed monthly if not cancelled. You are only required to host your script on the website until the deadline for submission closes (date) to be considered for The Muslim List. 

 

What support is available if I cannot afford the submission fee?

Pillars Fund and MPAC are able to provide waivers for applicants who cannot afford the submission fee. If you are in need of a waiver, please contact Pillars Fund and MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau at culturechange@pillarsfund.org or Hollywooddirector@mpac.org, respectively.

 

What is the timeline for submissions?

The submission window is open from December 1, 2021 to February 28, 2022. Writers selected for The Muslim List will be notified of their placement in July 2022, with a public announcement to follow.

 

What submissions are accepted?

Feature film, one-hour, and half-hour original pilot submissions will be considered for this opportunity (no webseries, please.) Scripts from any genre are eligible for this partnership. 

 

 Who is eligible to apply?

  • Writers should identify as Muslim. While writers can be from any country of origin, they must currently reside in the U.S.
  • Writing teams are eligible as long as one member of the team identifies as Muslim.
  • Scripts can be multilingual as long as they are written primarily in English.
  • Feature films and original television pilots will be accepted, no webseries.

Muslim Narrative Change (MNC) Cohort Lays Groundwork for Culture Change

In January 2020, Pillars Fund assembled a diverse group of brilliant Muslim artists, academics, and thinkers to form our Muslim Narrative Change (MNC) Cohort with support from the Pop Culture Collaborative and Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Our MNC fellows used their unique experiences and expertise to develop a roadmap for telling authentic Muslim stories and catalyzing social change.

The MNC program was designed for fellows to learn and discuss the latest research in the narrative change and cultural strategy fields, cultivate collaborative relationships through team-building exercises and experiences, and produce a report with recommendations for culture change in the entertainment industry.

The first phase of the MNC fellowship covered significant ground. MNC members examined research and literature written on narrative change and cultural strategy. Fellows also researched how storylines about religious and ethnic groups form in popular culture and how those storylines impact social change. Understanding these storylines allowed for reflections on how Muslims are represented in the media and how an organization such as Pillars can change damaging dominant stereotypes of Muslims.

These reflections evolved from a question posed by MNC fellow Rashid Shabazz: “What does not happen in America without Muslims?” In thinking through this question, the cohort moved beyond representation and toward empowering Muslim creatives to tell their own stories outside of the Western gaze. The cohort determined that by giving artists the space to authentically express themselves, we move toward collective liberation rooted in our humanity. Given that Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., the cohort also concluded that we have the opportunity to model a truly pluralist “beloved community” for the larger population. This entails two strategies: a grasstops approach to transform institutions (modeled by The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, a comprehensive set of recommendations for film and television industry leaders on how to best support Muslim stories and storytellers) and a grassroots approach that encourages and prepares critics, culture change strategists, and artists within Muslim communities to tell and champion authentic stories.

MNC Fellows Today

In addition to formulating a strategic plan, our fellows used the MNC cohort as a launchpad for the next steps of their careers and as a space to explore new facets of their careers or professional interests.

  • Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is continuing to work on and develop Umi’s Archive, which currently has an open digital exhibition called al-Mujadilah.
  • Maytha Alhassen was promoted to co-executive producer on the award-winning Hulu show Ramy and is leading several community education initiatives including a class at the Slow Factory.
  • Zaheer Ali was appointed the Inaugural Executive Director of the Hutchins Center for Race and Social Justice at The Lawrenceville School. He also co-wrote an article with Maytha Alhassen on critical media literacy in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
  • Asad Ali Jafri is launching a new collaborative initiative titled SpaceShift and is curating and producing a preview of Salaam Festival at Manchester International Festival.
  • Dalia Mogahed is piloting new cutting-edge research on media representation of Muslims in TV at Pillars grantee-partner, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
  • Omar Offendum joined Race Forward’s Butterfly Lab, a lab built to develop, test and scale immigration narratives to meet our current political moment, and is ready to put his historical hip hopera documenting life in New York’s Little Syria on stage.
  • Hussein Rashid was named Project Director of The Arts of Devotion exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.
  • Maytha Alhassen, Zaheer Ali, and Hussein Rashid joined the upcoming series American Muslim as executive producers.

Looking Forward

Phase Two of the MNC will focus on narrative design and infrastructure development for emerging Muslim creatives that have the potential to become champions for Muslims in the storytelling industry long term. In 2022, Pillars will pair MNC fellows with Pillars Artist Fellows, working directly with them to develop knowledge, skills, and mindsets about storytelling for culture change. By focusing on uncovering and writing deep narratives, we aim to support emerging Muslim storytelling talent and build a growing group of champion storytellers.

 

2016 Time Machine

When I was growing up, my parents showed me how expansive and nuanced being Muslim could be. My mom taught me the beauty of surrendering yourself to ideas that are bigger than you and that you may not always understand. My dad taught me that you can hold onto a fierce skepticism of life as long as you stay grounded, humble, and grateful for all of your privileges. I think about them often whenever I share our mission here at Pillars Fund, which has always been to gather Muslims of all kinds to give and support our leaders and organizations as a community, together.

Five years ago this month, I took on the role of executive director, marking the beginning of Pillars as a full-time organization. It feels like yesterday: I had left my job as a program officer at the McCormick Foundation to pursue a dream my co-founders and I had passionately worked on since 2010. We had been laboring over an idea that we realized was much more than just a philanthropic organization. Our goal was to be an institution that supported and amplified the breadth of talent, narratives, and leaders in our communities. On day one, I stared at the new work laptop in my tiny coworking office. I was filled with excitement, anticipation, and a feeling that often haunts you when you make a life-changing decision: anxious uncertainty. “What does this mean?” I had no way of knowing what was ahead.

I have to acknowledge the incredible support I received from so many, including and especially from my co-founder Shakeeb Alam, whose role was crucial during this pivotal moment. His vision, leadership, and guidance provided the foundation of this organization and allowed us to dream bigger than we could have ever imagined.

2016 was a turning point in Pillars history—and, as we all know now, it was a turning point for our country as well. As we were launching Pillars as a public organization with full-time employees and seed funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the presidential election was in full swing. The events of the next few years would ensure that many things would never be the same: the rise of Trump, #MeToo, the Muslim Ban, a global pandemic, and a long overdue reckoning with police violence. In the face of these challenges, Muslim leadership has been more necessary than ever before, and I’m so grateful and honored that Pillars has been able to play a role in supporting the grantee partners and fellows who are leading the change our country continues to need.

It’s 2021 now, but the challenges we face haven’t gone away, even as they’ve faded from public discourse. We are, however, stronger and more empowered to take on these challenges.

This year marks another new era for Pillars. 

  • We’re now a full-time team of seven and hiring two new staff members to grow our team’s capacity.
  • We’re accepting grant applications for 2022 until August 3 and preparing to distribute more than $2 million to inspiring Muslim-led organizations, the single largest amount we will have ever granted.
  • We recently co-launched a groundbreaking study on Muslim representation on screen, and later this month, we’ll open our application process for our new Pillars Artist Fellowship to support emerging Muslim screenwriters and directors on their paths to success.
  • And we’re working on archiving more of Pillars’ origin story online so we remember and honor where we came from.

This letter is the first in a new series of quarterly newsletters from Pillars. The author of these letters may change, but our purpose is the same as it’s always been: building and supporting Muslim communities. Some of you have been with us for years and I’m sure you have your own Pillars memories like mine. I want to acknowledge my co-founders in particular: Pillars has always been a labor of love, but it was the five of them who not only believed in this effort but put their resources and credibility on the line to make this happen.

Regardless of when you’ve joined us, we are honored to have you as part of our community. Pillars has always been about people coming together to build something with love. Insha’allah we’ll continue to do that with you for many years to come.

Kashif Shaikh
Co-founder and President
Pillars Fund

Connect

Keep up with the latest Pillars news:

Get Involved

Invest in amplifying the leadership, narratives, and talents of Muslims in the United States.

Donate

@pillars_fund