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Scholar Speaks on Influence of African American Muslims

Zaheer Ali ’94, scholar and former vice president of the Harvard Islamic Society and the Black Students Association, spoke about the increasing influence of African American Muslims on American culture at a talk at the Barker Center Thursday evening.

The talk, sponsored by the Harvard Islamic Society, marked the beginning of the “Islam in America” series, which Lana A. Idris ’16, the director of internal relations for HIS, characterized as an “attempt to express our own Muslim American narrative.”

Following an introduction from Idris, Ali began his talk with a juxtaposition of the song “We Made It,” by Drake, and a remix of the song produced by Jay Z and Jay Electronica. He argued that while the original serves as “a celebration of consumerism and consumption,” the remix alludes to aspects of the Islamic religion, such as the shahada, a declaration of faith.

He then compared the changed message of the remixed song to the influence of Islam in America more broadly.

“African American Muslims have altered and remixed the meaning of American freedom and the story of America,” he said.

Ali presented the ways in which he said African American Muslims have remixed America across four categories: history, identity, justice, and spirituality.

He spoke about the connection between slavery in America and Islam, as many of the slaves brought to America were Muslim. Ali encouraged the audience to “rethink the meaning and story of that American history,” and also discussed the significance of the Nation of Islam in defining social justice.

Ali also took questions from the audience. When asked about ways to improve the quality of Muslim student life at Harvard, he advised students to work for parity across cultural groups in terms of access to resources and administrators.

“Do not be afraid to ask important questions,” he said, adding that it is “important for people to know that you are thinking about these issues.”

After the talk, HIS vice president Saheela O. Ibraheem ’15 said she appreciated the comparison that Ali drew between the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, and slave work songs.

“Bringing up things like that I think was not only useful to non-Muslims, who aren’t African American, but also to African American Muslims who might not know about these stories, who may also want to look back into that history,” Ibraheem said.

—Staff writer Yasmin Moreno can be reached at ymoreno@college.harvard.edu.

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