by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary with NAZEEH ABDUL-HAKEEM on NOVEMBER 16, 2015:
In 1981, a Durham city planner, Nazeeh Zul-Kifl Abdul-Hakeem, helped found the Durham, North Carolina-based Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman Inc. (an Islamic center). He served as its president from 1983 until 1994 and continues to be actively involved through the present day.
This summer he self-published a book — “The Athaan in the Bull City: Building Durham’s Islamic Community” — which Duke Asian & Middle Eastern studies professor Mbaye Bashir Lo has called “a welcome entry into the local stories of Islam in America.”
“Nazeeh Abdul-Hakeem’s personal stories of transformation and ongoing struggle to establish a Muslim community in the Bull City are a must read for anyone who is interested in the local discourse on Americanizing Islam and/or Islamizing America,” wrote Lo in a review.
Nazeeh estimates that about one-quarter to one-third of the more than 5,000 Muslims living in Durham County today are black. (A documentary produced by local WRAL-TV in 2012 estimated that there were around 26,000 total Muslims in North Carolina, or less than 1% of the state’s population.)
From the 1880s to the 1940s Durham was known as the “Black Capital of the South,” and blacks in Durham have been politically active since the Civil Rights Movement. Against this backdrop, Nazeeh writes, the Nation of Islam developed “a very strong presence” in Durham. This was during the time of Elijah Muhammad (the founder of NOI) and of Malcolm X, who came to Durham in 1963 to debate “the future of the Negro” with Floyd B. McKissick Sr. For a long time the Nation of Islam was the very face of Islam in America.
One of the major objectives of the Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman community, however, was to provide Islamic education for black Muslims in Durham that Nazeeh and others felt was lacking.
“Having escaped the woefully lacking Islamic understanding of the Nation of Islam and the World Community of Islam in the West, black American Muslims were faced with the onslaught of propagators of foreign Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat Islami, Jamaat Tabligh, and Sufism, along with Shee’ah Islam, which had a false standing among some black American Muslims as a result of the Iranian Revolution,” Nazeeh writes in his book. “Many of us found ourselves longing for the time when American Muslims would have their own scholars to help us follow the right way and focus on specific issues that Muslims faced in our country.”
The Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman community registered with and joined international organizations including the Islamic Affairs Section of the Saudi Arabian Embassy, the World Muslim League, and the Continental Council of Masajid of North America “to avail the community of Hajj programs, dawah materials, and financial assistance.”
For six years they rented space in a commercial building, then purchased a larger failed mixed-used space that had once been the Durham College student union. It was there that they were able to make the call to prayer or athaan, publicly from loudspeakers—the first mosque to do so in North Carolina.
Born and raised in Goldsboro, NC as Ezekiel Louis Becton, Nazeeh earned a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central University and in 1979, a masters in regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was hired by the city of Durham following graduation as a city planner and later that year converted to Islam and changed his name.
Below is a Q & A that I did with Nazeeh about his personal journey, his community’s journey, and what he hopes readers will take away from his book.
QUESTION: How did you personally come to Islam?
NAZEEH: I described how I came to Islam in my book because it is important for readers to know why I became a Muslim and understand what motivated me in my work to help build an Islamic community in Durham. It all began with my desire to understand why I existed or why man existed. That required me to look for answers to many questions, like: What am I supposed to do with my life?; What does life mean? ; Why am I here?; and What happens after I die?
I was raised as a Christian, but I never had firm belief that God had a son. I accepted it because it was taught to me, but I never really believed it or proclaimed it. I really started searching for answers when I was in the army stationed in Germany. American soldiers were placed on alert for possible war with the Soviet Union because of the war between Israel and the Arabs in 1973. I wanted to know the reasons behind the war and it led me to learning about Islam. I did not have any contacts with Muslims until I entered graduate school at UNC for a master’s degree in regional planning. That was after my younger brother became a Muslim and started inviting me to become one. He gave me a Qur’aan and I started reading it. Soon I became tired of my life of partying and getting high and I became disillusioned with the belief that my life was about pursuing the so-called American Dream.
As a planner, I began to see that the world in which we lived was created and did not come into existence on its own. I rejected the idea of the big bang theory and evolution, and I began to believe wholeheartedly in the Qur’aan. As I continued reading it and examining life around me, I became convinced that it was indeed the word of God and could no longer resist becoming a Muslim.
I have made several major and minor pilgrimages to Makkah and Madinah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and has visited Masjid Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. I have also visited many Muslim countries and numerous destinations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. Shortly after I retired, I spent nearly two years in Cairo, Egypt studying Arabic. I have been happily married to Olaiya Abdul-Hakeem, formally known as Catherine Johnson of Brooklyn, NY, since October 29, 1982.
QUESTION: In the preface to the book you write: “Just like when Negro Americans were second-class citizens in the past, some black American Muslims are now feeling like second-class Muslims in their own homeland. Many feel that they no longer have any impact on the way Islam is viewed and practiced in many communities across the country.” Has this been your experience as an African American Muslim in Durham?
NAZEEH: No. I neither put myself above people nor accept being put below others. I had hoped that the book made it clear that I do not feel like I’m a second-class Muslim and that I refuse to be viewed as such and treated that way. I have confronted Muslims who have tried to marginalize me or other black American Muslims, not with violence, but by standing up to such acts and challenging ideas contrary to Islam. I have learned to do this from my life experiences attending junior high school with whites, serving in the military, attending graduate school and working with various groups and individuals in local government. Islam has added strength to my resolve to stand up for justice.
Although some immigrant Muslims and individuals have tried to put me in places where they would like for me to be, I have managed to thwart them successfully, especially if they happen in public. Due to my record of being a committed Muslim and for leading the effort to build Durham’s Islamic community, I have earned the respect of most Muslims and my opinions, views and advice are sought after.
The community we were trying to build was not for black Americans. It was for Sunni Muslims. Any Sunni Muslim, no matter where he or she was from, is welcomed to join us in building the community. I believe this approach has led to much progress in Durham’s Islamic community.
QUESTION: How did your community’s relationship with other Muslims evolve from the 80s to today?
NAZEEH: I described its relationships with others, to some degree, from pages 51 to 56. However, the entire book is about how the community has evolved from a struggling group of Muslims with little knowledge and means to an organized body that has provided several basic facilities necessary to support a good life for Durham Muslims.
The community of Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman provided an alternative to the World Community of Islam in the West, which was run by Imam WD Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad. Having evolved from the Nation of Islam, many black American Muslims went to the Durham Masjid Muhammad, which was operated by this organization, because there was no other masjid or mosque for Muslims in Durham. Not satisfied with the ideology and worship services this group provided, some Muslims comprised of black Americans, foreign students and immigrants, decided to start a new organization that would help Durham Muslims practice Islam better according to the Qur’aan and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. As Islam requires, the masjid is open to all Muslims who follow the Qur’aan and the Sunnah. Therefore, Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman was established for all Sunni Muslims and not just black American Muslims.
However, the responsibility of building the organization was initially in the hands of black Americans and this eventually led to the organization being run by them and focusing on matters that they were concerned about, like where to establish a masjid and a full-time school for their children. Immigrant Muslims, who had a different focus, started organizing their own activities away from the masjid. As time passed, black American Muslims became more associated with the Salafee Way of practicing Islam that was being propagated by some zealous young and inexperienced leaders in the West. This further alienated many immigrant Muslims and the Salafees tried to take over the organization. However, the attempt failed and many black Americans associated with the Salafees left the organization, leaving it in the hands of the immigrants. Since then, the organization has established a second masjid, a cemetery, and it supports a private Islamic school not under its management. Both masjids are experiencing increased attendance and there is a need for more facilities and services to address this new growth.
QUESTION: Are the mosque communities in Durham mixed (African American Muslims, other American Muslims, and recent immigrants?) or have the communities self-segregated?
NAZEEH: Muslims are free to associate and work with whomever they please. Almost everyone finds it easiest to work with others who share common values and experiences. However, a great deal of our efforts are aimed at working through some of these values and experiences that tend to cause people to self-segregate, and to narrow our focus on Islamic values that promote unity. Self-segregation tends to happen as the numbers of some groups increase and differences among them arise, causing some to choose their own way. The only real instance of this is the case of black American Salafees leaving to establish their own masjid called Tawheed wa Sunnah. Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman is a mixed community comprised of black Americans, Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians, Africans and a few white Americans and Latinos. Some of our former members and current members living in the northern part of the city and county have established the North Durham Masjid and it also serves a small group of Muslims.
QUESTION: What about the communities in Raleigh and Chapel Hill?
NAZEEH: Chapel Hill has a relatively small community and it is mixed. Raleigh, however, has a very large, mixed community, but its growth has caused some fracturing and self-segregation along ideological lines. Geography plays a significant role as well as national identity. When a new masjid or center is established in other areas, the nationality of the group is a major factor.
QUESTION: In your book you wrote about the history of your community’s interactions with Muslim students. Did you also interact with Islamic scholars at Duke? Do those connections exist today?
NAZEEH: In the beginning, we were dependent on Muslim students in the Islamic Association at Duke for education and other Islamic activities, but there were never any scholars or individual formally tied to the university that we worked with. Today, our Imam has relations with Dr. Abdullah Antepli and others, like Dr. Lo, and some classes visit us for Islamic activities. But we hardly ever conduct joint activities and get involved in each others affairs. For example, when the situation erupted around making the Athaan (call to prayer) from Duke Chapel, our imam refused to make any public comments to the media and directed them to contact Duke officials because it had its own personnel in charge of its religious affairs.
QUESTION: How exactly would you characterize your community’s interactions with Duke University’s Muslim community? Did you pray with them? When did this end?
NAZEEH: As I point out in my book, there were a few Muslim students that formed the Islamic Association at Duke. It sponsored Islamic education classes and Salaatul Jumu’ah (prayer services). Many Muslims who did not want to worship or associate with the Muslims at Masjid Muhammad on Chapel Hill Street, took advantage of the services provided by this student organization. Although these services were valuable, they were quite limited in their scope and impact on Muslim residents. Eventually, as the number of Muslim students dwindled, resident Muslims assumed the responsibility of conducting the education classes and Salaatul Jumu’ah. There came a point when no Muslim Duke students were involved and the residents realized that they must find their own place away from Duke to conduct them. This is the point when a formal role in developing our Islamic community by Muslim students at Duke ended.
(Members of the community also attended Islam-related lectures at North Carolina State University and UNC-Chapel Hill and sometimes Muslim guest speakers visiting those campuses also visited his community and gave advice.)
QUESTION: Nationally do you feel that African American Muslims are part of the conversations about Islam in America?
NAZEEH: Black American Muslims are part of the conversations about Islam in America, but not like in the past. Before there was a significant body of immigrant Muslims — perhaps between the sixties and eighties — black American Muslims dealt with issues of racism and other matters of American life. However, the great influx of immigrant Muslims changed the Islamic focus to international matters affecting Muslim countries. It is hard for many black American Muslims to accept a minor role after having been the leaders, as it would be with most people, and it is hard to accept international matters as our primary concern. However, I believe that we can still benefit the conversation, even if we are only adding two cents. We cannot withdraw from it or we will be abandoning an important responsibility.
QUESTION: Can you elaborate more on this important responsibility?
NAZEEH: Muslims in this country and elsewhere have the important responsibility of inviting mankind to Islam. This does not mean by forcing anyone to become a Muslim, but it means that Muslims must live their lives according to Islam and invite others to do likewise. While it is true that Islam seeks to call attention to injustice and other acts of wrongdoing, its call always begins with inviting people to worship Allaah and to follow the Messenger of Allaah, the Prophet Muhammad. This call usually becomes subordinate to international matters as immigrant Muslims try to deal with matters “back home,” causing some black American Muslims to form their own organizations and masaajid (mosques).
QUESTION: What do you want readers of your book to take away from the book? What do you want them to have learned from it?
NAZEEH: First of all, I want readers to understand some of the history of Islam in Durham as it relates to the accomplishments of Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman, Inc., which is the largest Islamic organization in the city.
For Durham Muslims, it has provided two masjids (mosques), a funeral home and a cemetery. Despite the number of Muslims in Durham, relative to other larger cities like Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro, this organization had several significant achievements regarding the practice of Islam in the state of North Carolina. Among them are: it was the first community to make the Athaan for the five daily prayers publicly from loudspeakers; it had a state certified, private Islamic school that was the first to produce high school graduates; and it was the first to have a Muslim funeral home.
Second, I want readers to see some of the dynamics surrounding the relationships of those involved in the organization. It is important to know the different groups and what motivated them to be a part of the organization and how they impacted the development and growth of the Islamic community here.
And third, I would like for readers to see something about its future needs. What are some of the other important facilities that are required to address the needs of the Islamic community? What are some other services that are needed to relieve conditions facing the growing Muslim population?
ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).
Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary.