“You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly- if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” (Qur’an, 4.135)
Muslims who carry American passports or Green Cards often worry about the erosion of our distinctive Muslim identity. We worry that we will have to take off our hijabs at the DMV or shave our beards to get a good job. We worry that our children will choose to drink alcohol in college, or marry someone who is not a Muslim. But hardly ever do we connect that worry to an awareness that entire cultures have been forcibly obliterated by the government of the United States. Take a look at the following picture:
This Native American (or “Indian,” as many Natives choose to refer to themselves) was taken from his family and forced into a boarding school that was built for the sole purpose of turning him into “an American.” He did not have a choice – he was considered a problem by the United States government that had to be fixed.
We often forget that we are living on land was once inhabited solely by Native American tribes. The Europeans who came here, such as my ancestors, had a choice to make: live with the Indians on their land, or get rid of them and divide up the land amongst the white people. Unfortunately, they chose to get rid of them. The expansion of the United States, so that it could exist from the coast of the Atlantic to the coast of the Pacific (and also include Hawaii and Alaska), was only possible through a continual assault on the Natives. Sometimes that assault involved wars. Sometimes it involved deceptive and ill-intentioned political treaties and private real estate transactions. Sometimes it involved attacks on Native families and culture. Take a look at this map, which shows how Indian land was systematically taken over by the United States:
Next, ask yourself if you know any Native people. Perhaps if you live in Oklahoma or Arizona you do. But chances are, wherever you are at the time you read this, there were once Indians there also. Where did they go? The short answer is that they were killed, converted, enslaved, assimilated, removed, and/or suppressed.
I did not commit any of these atrocities, and neither did you. But we live in the world that was built on this injustice, and we have to confront that fact. Our struggle for a place in the American narrative cannot ignore this history. Otherwise, we are helping the settler colonialists to achieve their goal: to make us forget that other people lived here first. At the very least, learn about Native American history. I discussed this with a Native activist and Ethnic Studies professor at Brown University, and she recommended the following book: “First Peoples” by Colin G. Calloway. It is a textbook designed for use in semester or multi-semester courses. It is scholarly and persuasive without being polemical, yet it is also easy to read and has many helpful visual aids. I highly recommend that it be incorporated into the curriculum of American Muslim educational institutions. In addition, it should also be purchased and read by American Muslims in general. If you cannot afford the new fourth edition, you can buy a used copy of previous editions and still have access to a lot of important knowledge. It is a small step to take in the right direction.
This short post is meant for one purpose: to make this a bigger and more central conversation within the American Muslim community. Enormous amounts of work have to be done, and this is one, tiny piece of the puzzle. The more American Muslim scholars talk about Native concerns, the better. The more American Muslims who study Native history, the better. The more that Muslims and Indians interact and work together, the better. Our struggle is linked, whether we want it to be or not, and so part of our spiritual progress is dependent on facing this deep and complex historical injustice. Where this will lead, I do not know, but we must move forward down this path, fearing the justice of the Just (al-‘Adl), hoping in the mercy of the Merciful (al-Raḥmān), and reflecting on the words of Black Elk: “Any man who is attached to things of this world is one who lives in ignorance and is being consumed by the snakes of his own passions.”
A few other web resources to keep the conversation going
*Disclaimer: It is reported that the Prophet (upon him peace) said, “Go at the pace of the slowest amongst you (sīrū sayra ḍu‘afā’ikum).” This article is crafted for readers who have had no prior exposure to the ideas herein. If you don’t find my politics cutting edge enough, please employ a hermeneutics of charity, which is a religious virtue in Arabo-Islamic discourse known as ḥusn al-dhann.