July 11, 2020

Preserving the Voices of Black Muslim Elders During the COVID-19 Crisis

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By Layla Abdullah-Poulos

For many African American Muslims, having access to our preserved heritage is extremely important, because so much of our history has been stripped from us. I once wrote in an article for Patheos:

We have interrupted lineages, with only bills of sale and livestock books to mark our ancestry. Instead of human beings, black bodies were treated like chattel and traded as components of white husbandry, which robbed them and their descendants of the cultural ties that could make them fully aware of who they were and are. Thus, blemishes of ambiguity stain the histories of millions of African-Americans, confusing people from other cultures.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit American Black communities especially hard. Studies show that Black (non-Hispanic) Americans comprise 22 percent of cases and deaths from the virus. Forty-five percent of cases and deaths involve people age 65 and over, which includes Black Muslims. Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative’s Margari Aziz said in an article for About Islam, “Taking the shahada does not make Black Muslims immune to all the things that harm Black people in America.”

So, the devastating losses impact Black Muslim communities especially considering the potentially ruinous effect on our heritage as our elders die from COVID-19. (Image: Dr. Kameelah Rashad; image source: Muslim Wellness Foundation)

To preserve important historical voices of Black Muslims, Dr. Kameelah Rashad, founder and president of the Muslim Wellness Foundation, created the Wisdom of the Elders project as part of the Black Muslim COVID Coalition initiative launched by MWF and MuslimARC. The project’s main objective is conserving precious voices of the African American and Black Muslim experiences by having young Muslims interview volunteers to record their life’s stories.

“We think about all of the ways that the virus impacts communities,” says Dr. Rashad. ”We [must consider] the kinds of disruptions to our social networks and community that, for some of us, might be irreparable. The loss of elders is one of those kinds of irreparable losses that we may not understand the ramifications of for years to come.”

Dr. Rashad told Haute Hijab that the Wisdom of the Elders project provides a means for Muslim elders to stay connected to the community and avoid the negative effects of self-quarantine isolation. “In our efforts to keep elders safe, we are also opening up the possibility that their lives will be [affected] in a detrimental way because of those precautions. If we want [our elders] to be safe and engaged, we have to think about creative ways [for them] to stay connected.”

Black Muslim elder

The Elders

Muslims can not underestimate the significance of the elderly to our culture. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said:

“No youth honors his elders but that Allah will appoint someone to honor him in his old age.” Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2022

Appreciating the value of the elders has always been an important part of Islamic, African American and Black culture. Dr. Rashad emphasizes the essential need to collect and safeguard elder Muslim experiences. “For us, our wealth is in our elders. If we’re not thinking about how we can preserve that treasure, we will lose it. There is no way to reclaim it once it’s lost. The Wisdom of the Elders project is a way to holistically capture our efforts to preserve life and our social capital. We extend our collective lifespan when we connect youth with elders.”

She also describes how the project benefits older volunteers who share their stories. “Many efforts [are] geared towards elders’ [concerns like] food service and making sure they have their medication. While that is important, these are folks who also lived through many different circumstances and can teach us from their experiences.

“The project respects and honors those experiences and their dignity so they don’t start to believe that they’re a drain on the community,” she says. “It [affords them a chance] to contribute to collective wellness by sharing their resources and wisdom. It’s reciprocal. It’s not just that we’re caring for them. They’re caring for us as well.”

Black Muslim woman

The Youth

Dr. Rashad also describes the vital role Muslim youth play in the Wisdom of the Elders project: “Young Muslims play essential parts in the Wisdom of the Elders project through their work as record keepers. The connection between youth and elders is very significant. The elders can provide context and foundation for what has passed, conveying to folks who have the likelihood to establish the kind of future that our elders hope for. All the reasons that they’ve worked so hard, inspired, taught and endured is so that our youth can build the future we imagine, where we’re whole, caring for each other and respected.

“What better way to carry that message forward than to pair someone who is 75 with someone who is 20, [combining] almost a century of perspective and pragmatism from the elder and optimism from the younger? There’s reciprocity there,” she says, adding, “The young person feels like they can benefit from what the elder has experienced and provides a sense of hope that the work they have done in their life will not be in vain.”

The Work

While a noble endeavor, the Wisdom of the Elders project is also a significant historical data collection venture with its own set of potential issues and obstacles to procuring oral histories as well as supportive protocols: “Sharing and collecting experiences presents challenges for the sharer and the recorder. We will recruit people who are willing, a self-selecting population of elders who want to share,” says Dr. Rashad. “The preface of the conversations is that they will be difficult, potentially, and that we’re committed to making sure that the interview is not the only point of contact. It won’t be a one-off conversation. We will be connected in an ongoing way.”

MWF fellows make up the core of record keepers for the project. Dr. Rashad explains how their background training through the fellowship makes them qualified candidates. “It will require patience [for the youth] to understand why and what [the elders] don’t share. The wisdom they have acquired often came at a great cost. We have to tread carefully on this journey with them, because we do not know what question may be a trigger.

“Our criteria during the recruitment process for the fellowship seeks people who can be vulnerable, engage in a process of self-reflection, and be receptive to guidance. Outside of the fellows, we [would like to] enlist young people to conduct family interviews.”

Dr. Rashad encourages Muslims of all backgrounds to actively preserve their family histories. “Talk about the family story you want to create. Begin with the eldest member and also ask the little ones what they want to be written. It’s a way of strengthening the connectivity that white supremacy erodes.”

For more information about the Wisdom of the Elders project, visit the Black Muslim COVID Coalition’s website.

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