Scholars, Artists Discuss African American Muslim Experience

Scholars, artists, and community activists convened this weekend at the fourth annual Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program Conference to discuss the experience of African American Muslims and approaches to uniting indigenous and immigrant Muslim communities.

“We don’t have a set agenda. We’re just trying to foster a dialogue,” said professor Ali S. Asani ’77, the director of the Islamic Studies Program and one of the organizers of the conference. “This is such an important part of the history of the U.S. and the history of Islam.”

The two-day conference showcased perspectives of scholars and artists, including a panel about the role of art in the African American Muslim community and a screening of the film “The Wayward Son,” about a professional skateboarder who embraces Islam.

“We deliberately made it about more than academics,” said Krystina R. Friedlander, a program assistant at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program. “[We] tried to be as inclusive as possible.”

Among the artists invited to speak at the conference was Amir Sulaiman, a Muslim spoken word poet who said the conference provided a “safe place” for discussions within the Muslim community.

The conference attracted undergraduate and graduate students, members of the local Muslim community, and members of the public for interactive discussions about the divisions between indigenous and immigrant Muslims and the challenges involved in organizing the Muslim community.

Khalil Abdur-Rashid, an Imam and a religious life adviser to students at Columbia University, spoke on the evolving nature of Muslim leadership.

“We are now seeing the emergence of a new form of leadership called Muslim chaplaincy,” Abdur-Rashid said, noting a transition from the traditional, “monolithic” community leader to more integrated power structures that are better able to bridge the gender divide and address the concerns of many voices.

Katherine R. Merriman, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, traveled from New York to attend the conference.

“[The conference] is a concentration of this really important and embarrassingly neglected field,” she said. “Professor Asani is really incredible because he takes into account non-academic perspectives.”

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations professor Malika Zeghal echoed these sentiments.

“It’s almost dizzying because so much has been said in a day and a half,” she said.

—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at nkansra01@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Sabrina A. Mohamed can be reached at smohamed@college.harvard.edu.

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