The Wilson Quarterly

America's Other Muslims

On Labor Day weekend 2004, more than a thousand African-American men and women gathered at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago for a Saturday afternoon fashion show. Black women of various shapes and sizes glided down the runway in eye-catching African prints fashioned into stylish but loose-fitting dresses. There were even a few male models, sporting similarly colorful tunics and leisure suits. The patter of the announcers was accompanied by an African-American version of Muzak—understated funk punctuated with the occasional unobtrusive rap number. Every so often audience members were reminded to “write those checks and spend that money.”

The “head-wrap,” usually some kind of turban, worn by every woman on the runway was a sign that this was no ordinary fashion show, as was the way the clothes were described to the audience. Though the emcee occasionally noted how a particular dress “accentuated” the figure of the model sashaying down the runway, the most frequently heard word was “modest,” as in “This outfit would be good for a night on the town when you want to look stylish and modest” or “This is for the sister who wants to be modest a n d strut her stuff.”

The fashion show had begun with a reading from the Qur’an—in Arabic, by a woman. Once again, highly unusual. The occasion was the annual convention of Imam Warith Deen (W. D.) Mohammed’s organization, The Mosque Cares. The three-day event had begun the day before, Friday (J u m m a h), the Muslim day of prayer, with a two-and-a-half-hour service attended by about 3,000 worshipers. These were middle- to lower-middle-class husbands, wives, and children, a few of whom were surely not Muslim. They were also, as Imam Mohammed later put it to me, “folks who want to get past resentment and who want to be one with humanity.”

Again, the service was not typical of Muslim prayer services around the world. There was little kneeling and prostration. Indeed, there was little actual praying, and not much Arabic was spoken. (The overwhelming majority of those present would not have understood a whole lot.) The session was taken up mostly with a rambling but low-key sermon (k h u t b a) by Imam Mohammed, who emphasized the importance of taking “conscious, rational responsibility” for one’s self, toward the goal of taking advantage of the opportunities available in the United States. At the concluding session on Sunday afternoon, the dominant topics were community economic empowerment and Muslim education and schools.