Q & A: Is African American style unIslamic?

September 4, 2017

Assalam Alaykum Dear Sister,

I pray this email finds you in the best of Iman and health.

I wanted to have your opinion on how can we reconcile the African American experience and the one of the Traditional Black Muslim experience?

The reason why I say this is because I find that whenever African American Muslims talk about their culture and how they wear hijab as African American Muslims, I see a lot of makeup and tight clothes: (I understand that this is an issue in all communities, as Muslim women we struggle with modesty. However, I was asking myself how can we work together to have more Ustadha and Black Muslim female scholars with the proper understanding of modesty and Islam.*

Jazakala Khair



Waalaykum Asalam Dear Sister,

I pray this response reaches you in the best of states. Thank you for such an important question and I pray Allah (SWT) blesses me to advise you and myself in the correct manner. First let me say, I know what you mean. Wanting to be a good Muslim and not wanting to lose one’s culture is something many of us face. And surprisingly it’s not only a convert issue, even Muslims born into Muslim families in Muslim majority countries can struggle to wean out some unIslamic aspects of their culture from purely Islamic practices. But since your question is about the black Muslim community specifically, let’s talk about us.

What is clothing typical of black culture? My mind conjures up images of hoop earrings, bomber jackets, gold teeth, perms, fitted hats, baggy jeans, timberlands, and Nike sneakers —I assume it’s the same for you? I’d also include dashikis, gold chains, head wraps, long weaves, fake nails, braids and more recently —natural hair in a myriad of forms. A few days ago on my commute; I smiled observing the various hairstyles of the black women around me, you’d be hard pressed to find a community that takes more pride in their hair and is so imaginative with style than our community. I’ll also admit that there were times I felt I was missing out on the black experience by covering my hair —with my hair covered, I wasn’t able to be culturally in sync with the women of my community. It’s true that in some significant ways we as African American Muslims have to leave bits of our culture behind if we hope to properly practice our Deen.

But again, that is not exclusive to us, any honest Turkish, Saudi or Pakistani Muslim will tell you there are parts of their culture that are unIslamic and the more devoted to God they are the more they steer clear of those conflicting aspects of their culture. But what unfortunately happens far more often is African Americans being told that our culture is uniquely blasphemous and we must leave it behind. We are told —for example, that rap music is haram in totality by the same people who have no problem listening to the music of their own culture no matter the content. I don’t believe that to be true or fair.

In order to remove ourselves from aspects of our culture that may be in conflict with our faith, we have to first learn something about our faith -let’s look at the example of music for a moment. It’s true that music is considered completely haram in some schools of thought and not so in others, nevertheless listening to “pull the trigger shoot the nigger” music, as my dad would characterize (some) rap music, should obviously not be the theme song of any believer’s life. The same formula applies to clothes –what specifically does God ask of us? Does He ask us to dress like an Arab or say that their clothes are superior? No, not at all. The cultural dress we choose is up to us but the guidelines are clear as to what that dress should be. The prophet (peace to him) tells us to cover everything but our hands and face (and feet according to some), Fiqh further clarifies by telling us this clothing should be loose and opaque. With that being clear in our minds it should be easy for us to figure out how we can fit our style and culture into the confines of God’s law. On the issue of makeup, all I can say is that I’ve been given different opinions (here’s one) on the issue -most of which have not looked upon it favorably. Common sense should tell us there’s a huge difference between a cat eye and red lipstick and more neutral makeup that hides flaws and slightly enhances features.

It’s apparent that nevertheless staying within the confines of God’s law won’t be easy for many —and we all suffer moments of discomfort especially in a society (and within our specific culture) that does not often support or promote modesty. For some covering their hair will be the biggest issue for others covering their chest or their arms or their necks, etc. I’d say to all of us what I said to my Muslim convert students over three years ago; do the best you can. Too many of us see modesty as a zero sum game. Over the years I’ve seen so many women go from being completely modest (covered from head to toe) to being completely immodest (cleavage bearing, arms, and legs showing, etc.) and I’ve thought, maybe if they understood the ruling on modesty more clearly they’d try their best and not give up completely when things get difficult. If a woman feels more comfortable wearing a head wrap than a scarf that drapes over her head and covers her neck and chest, it’s better she do than take off the scarf completely.

I don’t believe we need to abandon our culture, there are beautiful aspects of African American culture including the way we dress that we can and should keep if we choose. But we should remember that Islam overrides any aspect of culture, so when the choice is between the two we should always choose the former.

And God knows best,

Nuriddeen Knight

E.M.’s question was edited slightly for clarity*


[If you’d like to ask me a question or hear my opinion on a particular issue feel free to inbox: m.me/Knight.Nuriddeen]

1 Comment

  • Sabrina

    Modesty, as one understands it, is the key. I’ve seen African women from the continent of Africa,who are Muslims, expose their arms. Some may say this is not modesty but it is hot as h*ll in Africa. Perhaps this is why our Prophet Muhammad reminded all Muslims the world over to maintain our cultures. My good Christian grandmother wore dresses past her knees but not to the ground. Was she not modest? Yes,she was modest and decent and good and clean. Sometime I emulate her dress and no one can tell if I’m Muslim. Esp the elderly will pat my face and ask me, “Baby, which church do you go to?” She believes that I am a modest, decent, good and clean Christian. Sometimes I’ll tell them Im Muslim and sometimes I don’t want to break the peace. When I’m out shopping or running errands I don’t cover my hair but I’m modest. So, one of my dear Muslim sisters asked me “How will anyone know that you are Muslim?” I replied, ” It is not as important to me to have a scarf on or a long dress on to scream I am Muslim. I only care that others see me as a good, decent, and clean human being. My physical dress doesn’t determine my character as a decent Muslim woman”. Notwithstanding, I am a modest dresser but to wear the dressings of other Muslim cultures doesn’t define me. A pair of slacks with a loose shirt to cover my behind or a skirt that covers my knees is good enough for me! I’ve met Muslim women (African Americans ) and others who dress with the elaborate headdress of our African sisters or the headdress of the Arabs yet they don’t have a clue about the true religion of Al-Islam. Their social skills are disrespectful with gossipy overtones and jealous behaviors that don’t elicit a sense of sisterhood. I say, just be yourself and be modest according to YOUR culture in an Islamic way. Remember, we, African American Muslims are just a hop,skip,and a jump from slavery. We have been followers for so long we believe only when we copy the dress, behaviors, beliefs, etc of others. It’s not that complicated, sisters.

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