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An Islamic Scholar With the Dual Role of Activist


January 17, 2004

An Islamic Scholar With the Dual Role of Activist


CHICAGO — Aminah McCloud exchanged a hearty "Assalamu alaikum" ("Peace be upon you") with the two smiling young men guarding the entrance to Muhammad University, which, despite its name, is a private school for children on the South Side of Chicago run by Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.

A heavyset woman in a black leather jacket and black wire-framed glasses, her graying hair squashed under a black wool hat, the 56-year-old Ms. McCloud has been a frequent visitor to the quiet, orderly school in the last eight years. She has volunteered as an academic consultant and has stopped by most recently as a researcher, gathering material for her forthcoming books on the Nation of Islam and black American Muslims.

As she walked the halls, the principal, a tiny woman swathed in an elegant head scarf and long skirt, as well as other teachers greeted her warmly, like a visiting dignitary.

Ms. McCloud, a professor of Islamic studies at De Paul University here who helped establish an archive for American Muslims there 10 years ago, has been gaining national prominence since 9/11 for talking about Islam in America. She has been quoted in newspapers from The Chicago Tribune to The Los Angeles Times, sparred with television talk hosts like Bill Maher and Bill O'Reilly and been featured on a PBS special on Islam in America.

Yet even more than her news media appearances, Ms. McCloud is known for being an energetic activist among American Muslims. She is a fixture at any number of community meetings and a board member of the American Muslim Council and of the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She is also proud of the legal work she has done as a consultant for cases of capital murder, divorce and wrongful death in which Islam is an issue.

Many Islamic scholars have been called upon by community groups and the news media to explain or even defend Islam, and Ms. McCloud's double role as activist and academic raises old questions about how to mix scholarship and social struggle. Scholars in disciplines like women's studies and black studies have argued about such dual allegiances and about whether it is possible to avoid scholarship that has what Henry Louis Gates Jr. once referred to as a "thumb on the scale."

"Scholars of Islam are in a special position, especially after 9/11 but even before 9/11," said Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and culture at Harvard. On one hand there is such overwhelming "ignorance about Islam in the public sphere," he said, that scholars are often called upon for very basic public education. On the other hand, he said, their objectivity is sometimes challenged by those who fear they might be cultural cheerleaders.

"One of the contentions Muslim scholars have had for years is that it was taught largely by non-Muslim scholars," Mr. Asani said. "I was asked point-blank at a major university if, as a Muslim, I would be objective about Muslims. The irony is that I was asked by a Jewish man who taught Jewish studies."

As for Ms. McCloud, she has "done some remarkable work" in her studies unraveling the complexities of blacks and Islam, Mr. Asani said. She is very much in the tradition of scholar-activists, he said. But she really sticks out in the field, he said, because she is African-American and a woman.

Over breakfast at a South Side pancake house, Ms. McCloud complained that "the onus put on Muslims is not put on any other group." She acknowledged that "there is always the tendency to want to defend the religion, but we fight that tendency to report what is out there."

In Ms. McCloud's view, most Americans don't understand how politically and socially diverse American Muslims are. She said the government estimated that 46 percent of the country's six million Muslims are black. There is often tension between African-Americans and other ethnic groups that practice Islam, she said. And African-American Muslims often experience friction with non-Muslim African-Americans, most of whom are Christian. Ms. McCloud said pointedly: "After 9/11, white Protestant churches invited Muslims in to speak. African-American churches did not."

"The media has always largely determined who speaks for Islam, so they focus on immigrants," she said. "I set out to give an indigenous voice to Islam in America." With a book on Muslim immigrants due out soon and contracts to produce three more books this year, including one on Muslim women, that voice could get a much larger hearing.

"African-Americans always lament going to an immigrant mosque and being told how to pray or being ignored," Ms. McCloud said, which is why she works to improve relations among various Muslim communities who often get caught up in the old debate about whose version of the religion is most authentic.

Ali Mirkiani, a member of the Chicago-area Muslim-Catholic Dialogue Group, which meets monthly, said, "She is getting people to talk and to see similarities as well as differences, to talk about the image of Islam." He added that "she is overwhelmed by the immigrant Muslim community relying on her."

Besides the books and her community work, Ms. McCloud teaches seven courses each year and is busy with a proposal to create an Islamic world studies interdisciplinary major for undergraduates at De Paul, the largest Catholic university in the nation. She writes at night, she said, from about 9:30 to morning prayer, usually around 4 or 4:30 a.m., and then sleeps four hours.

One of her books will focus on the Nation of Islam. Ms. McCloud has spent a great deal of time with Mr. Farrakhan and finds him an intelligent, charismatic man. She believes the public view of him as a social and religious leader is distorted because of the focus on his incendiary statements.

"He has been talking abut inequities and injustices among black Americans for a long time," Ms. McCloud said. "To distill his views down to one sentence to what he utters about Jews is an utter negation of what he has done, in the same way that no one has written off Thomas Jefferson because he raped a slave woman."

One major question, she said, is in what direction the Nation will take its brand of Islam. The Nation has always been evolving, she noted, from its inception during the segregated 1930's to the prominent stage it occupied in the 60's, when Malcolm X dominated, to this new century.

Now, she argues, it has been moving toward traditional Islam while still focusing on using Islamic law to raise the status of blacks in society.

But most black Muslims are not members of Mr. Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, she stressed. She has found at least five groups that call themselves the Nation of Islam, with different leaders and different focuses. Most of the communities seem to be in big cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit and Los Angeles. Some have descendants of original Nation members, others are young adults who joined in the last 10 to 15 years. Some were attracted by spiritual and philosophical concerns, others by the message of social uplift.

As for Ms. McCloud, she was a freshman at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1966 when she first met large numbers of African Muslims and was attracted to their spiritual and political vitality. She became a Muslim, too, coming from a family background of no particular religious affiliation.

"Muslims saw the issues of race in global terms, and they let me know that American racism and separatism were also a kind of apartheid," she recalled. "From my perspective as a young adult, the tactics used by the civil rights movement were wrong. You don't put women and children out to fight white men with dogs. The goal of being a citizen should not be to get people to let you eat in their restaurant."

She moved to Philadelphia and worked as a pharmacist, but after repeated holdups at gunpoint where she worked, her nerves were raw. She was reminded by a Muslim friend of the paucity of Muslim scholars. Although she was the divorced mother of three young children, she went back to school at Temple University and majored in Islamic studies, finishing her doctorate in 1993. "I did it as a commitment to the community," she said. She is now married to Frederick Thaufeer al-Deen, a former federal prison chaplain,

In her case, says Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the combination of activism and scholarship complement each other: "She was one of the first people to designate Islamic studies in America as a discipline and to introduce it as a field of study in the academy."

Ms. McCloud said she hoped her work showed that "Islam in America is here to stay." She added, "They can assault the leaders, they can call everyone a terrorist, they can restrict people's movements, but Americans as a whole will not tolerate that."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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