I knew this Brother Zaid during my time in New Haven from mid-80s to the early 90s. I wasn’t too fond of his style then, but he has since matured tremendously after completing his studies in Syria and Morocco.
I found that the journalist Bill Moyers spoke to him recently.
June 22, 2007
BILL MOYERS: It is not easy being a mainstream American Muslim these days. The specter of radicalism hangs in the public mind, and even the most assimilated of believers…those born here or immigrants who now claim America as their own face skepticism wherever they turn. Here’s our account of how one increasingly prominent figure in the community copes with the skepticism – and the scrutiny. His name is Zaid Shakir.
BILL MOYERS: On a recent Saturday at a mosque in Brooklyn, New York, hundreds of Muslims gathered to hear one of the rising stars in their faith.
ZAID SHAKIR: Many people act like this is the worst that the Muslims have ever experienced – you know, in America it’s like: “I can’t take it anymore!” Can’t take what? “People looking at me! You know, that look!” Man, people’s homes are being blown up and you’re worried about that look?! You want to de-fuse that look? Just wave. Seriously, just wave and blow a kiss. And then start running towards them in slow motion. Boom, that look will go away real fast!
BILL MOYERS: Imam Zaid Shakir is one of the most popular Muslim teachers in America today.
ZAID SHAKIR: We all came from somewhere to this room today. Probably five years ago, a good percentage of us wouldn’t be at a similar gathering, this type of gathering. We all have our histories. And for many of us, it was a very involved search. Now, would you like to go back to that confused state that Allah rescued you from? I don’t think many would. Remember where you came from, and remember where you’re trying to go.
BILL MOYERS: I first met Zaid Shakir five years ago when I interviewed him soon after September 11th and the country was scrambling to learn all we could about Islam.
His home is here in California. He’s a scholar-in-residence at the Zaytuna Institute — a Muslim graduate school for students from across the country.
The graduate program is still in its infancy, with a handful of full-time seminary students, and general classes attended by several hundred.
Most Imams working in America are foreign born — enlisted by American mosques to tutor the growing Muslim population in this country.
For most of them, America is a wholly new experience. But not Imam Shakir. He was born Ricky Mitchell, raised by a single mom in a Baptist family.. In inner-city housing projects.
BILL MOYERS: On this expedition toward Islam, were you looking back over your shoulder at that experience in the segregated project?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Not really. More looking ahead. In a sense, let me rephrase that. I think now that I think about it, yes, because a lot of the problems– there are social problems there, I was seeking an answer for. So, the broken homes, the alcoholism, the drug abuse. One of the most powerful experiences for me during that time, I was actually at a party at another project. This project is called Mount Pleasant, which in New Britain. It was probably the– the hardest one. And, there was–
BILL MOYERS: The roughest? The roughest?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: The roughest. The roughest. And, I was leaving, and there– it was really cold. This was pre-global warming Connecticut, so it was real cold. And a young, probably ten year-old little Puerto Rican girl, she ran out of her house screaming in the middle of the night in the cold, “Why doesn’t anyone love me? Why doesn’t anyone love me?” And, that really affected me, and I said, you know, there has to be something we can do to avoid a child reaching this point at ten years old. So, that really, really affected me.
BILL MOYERS: You say in your book, SCATTERED PICTURES, that you once held a bitter contempt for the land of your birth, for America.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Why was that?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Just growing up a so-called ethnic minority in America, seeing how systematically people are placed in a context that does not encourage their success. That tends to make you bitter. Seeing people gunned down by the police and there’s no– not even an investigation into why they were shot. That makes people bitter. And I think it’s the grace of God to be able to transcend that. And I’m sure some of that– some vestiges of that are still in me. I mean, we are a product of our past and our histories.
BILL MOYERS: What did you do with that bitterness?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I had to learn to come– come to grips with it and channel it in constructive ways. I never challenged it in destructive ways. I don’t have a criminal record.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve grown up with your mother raising you and what, six other-
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Six other-
BILL MOYERS: — children. Tell me about your mother, because you talk about her often in your book-
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I think she was a very deep and strong lady. She was a epileptic, which we didn’t know at the time. She hid it from us. And, all of her seizures were nocturnal. So, we never saw it. We would see the effects of it in the morning, and she would just dismiss it. “Oh, I had a bad night. I couldn’t sleep — insomnia.” So, we didn’t know this battle she was waging. She sacrificed and she focused on us and she I think she just was the epitome of the strong black mother who gave her all to her children.
BILL MOYERS: His mother was also a writer, and Shakir and his six brothers and sisters have just published her memoir.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: She was extremely intelligent. She probably under other circumstances would have had a brilliant college career, and could have been any number of things in this society. So that’s where it came from– this intellect, a love for reading, and a very rich and wide literary base.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think she would think –
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: And, a hard life.
BILL MOYERS: And, a hard life. What do you think she would think of what you’re doing now?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I would hope that she would view it favorably.
BILL MOYERS: As a young man, Shakir turned away from Christianity and tried-on various world-views and theologies. Nothing stuck.
Then in 1975, after his mother’s death, he dropped out of community college, and joined The Air Force. There, in uniform, he found Islam.
BILL MOYERS: You moved out of the Baptist frame and you tried transcendental meditation. You tried communism. You tried a lot of things, and finally something happened that attracted you to Islam. What was it?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I think a lot of elements in various systems and theologies that I studied before Islam and found them lacking for one reason or another, Islam addressed all of them– all of those issues and brought them all together. So, it had the–
BILL MOYERS: How so? Help me to understand that. What was it?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: So, I’ll give you an example. It had the spirituality of transcendental meditation through what we call “Dikr” and Koran recitation — things that are very soothing to the soul. But, it also had a social activism component that transcendental meditation didn’t have.
It had the social activism of the communists with God. So, a lot of things that were absent in those things I studied before Islam were present in Islam. And, they were brought together in a very integrated way that led me to believe personally that this is from God.
BILL MOYERS: So there wasn’t a moment an “Ah-ha!” moment, you know, Paul on his horse, knocked off his horse by the blinding light?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: No. I wasn’t on the road to Hartford, not at all. It was definitely just exploration and inquiry, and that led to a certain conclusion.
BILL MOYERS: The scholarly life appealed to him. He graduated with honors from American University, got a masters in political science from Rutgers. And went on to study at some of the most prestigious Islamic schools in the Middle East.
He now lives with his wife and teenage son in Oakland, California, near the Zaytuna Institute. He met Saliah when both were in The Air Force. They studied the faith together.
After morning prayers at six a.m., Shakir drives his son Sayeed to school using the time to remind him to keep the faith.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: He’s a Muslim and he will describe himself as his own Muslim. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t eat pork, he doesn’t do any of those things.
BILL MOYERS: He’s a real un-American, right?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: No, I would say, nowadays, he’s very American.
BILL MOYERS: I’m just teasing. You know, we’re a consumerist culture–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: He’s a consumer.
BILL MOYERS: He’s a consumer.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: He’s a thorough consumer.
ZAID SHAKIR: (with son in car) Who is this?
SAYEED SHAKIR: Tyson.
ZAID SHAKIR: Tyson? Sound good?
SAYEED SHAKIR: Yeah.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: (to Moyers) Nike and Reebok have a good customer in Sayeed. He can open his own sneaker store.
ZAID SHAKIR: (with son in car) Do the right thing.
SAYEED SHAKIR: All right buddy-buddy
ZAID SHAKIR: Be strong. And don’t wear that silly hat. I’m serious!
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: (driving) Definitely a lot of challenges raising a teenager here in the West because there are strong cultural influences that some of them that I think most Muslims wouldn’t see as being the healthiest things. So, you do your best, and you can’t take it too seriously. You can’t get obsessed with perfection. Perfection is for God, and it’s that simple.
BILL MOYERS: Which is stronger in America, culture or faith?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I think as the American Muslim community itself becomes more integrated and more mature, faith will probably trump culture. And, you have a new culture emerging. You have an American Muslim culture emerging, which is very important, because then you can get a unique understanding of the religion that would allow the American Muslim to take his or her rightful place amongst the various Muslim communities of the world.
BILL MOYERS: How do you define that American Muslim community? What’s it’s profile?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: It’s profile is African Americans, increasingly large numbers of Latino Americans and European, Caucasian Americans, and immigrants – South Asians, Pakistanis, Arabs and others. And, collectively I think you’ll see a common American Islamic culture emerge. It’s already happening.
BILL MOYERS: In his teachings, Shakir tries to help his fellow Muslims bridge the gap between the traditions of Islam and the realities of life in America
You can see the challenge he faces most clearly in the questions he gets over the role of women:
ZAID SHAKIR in reading question Brooklyn mosque: “Can you please clarify whether Allah says that women are commanded to stay in the house, or should I quit my job?” See, look at this! Who is teaching this sister Islam? “Am I disobeying the commandment of Allah, please calrify”
BILL MOYERS: It’s a very controversial issue. Popular magazines and books often report on the harsh treatment inflicted on women in some Muslim countries.
BILL MOYERS: Does the Koran approve men beating their wives?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Absolutely not.
BILL MOYERS: What about this scripture, quote, “And as for those women who– whose ill will you have reason to fear, admonish them, then leave them alone in bed, then beat them, and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them, behold God is indeed, most high, great.” I mean, that’s clearly a rule written by men for men, because it does give permission to beat them.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: No, that’s not permission. There, if, if you take that verse out of any meaningful context, especially out of any exegetical context, and it, a person who would do that as a Muslim, and used that to justify beating his wife, he will beat his wife anyway, because he is a pathological lunatic, maniac.
BILL MOYERS: But some men have interpreted it differently.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: And, what I’m saying, those men, that minority of men who would interpret it differently, they don’t need that verse to justify beating their wives. That verse isn’t in the Bible, and there are a lot of men in this society who beat their wives because they have certain pathologies and dysfunctions that will lead them to do that, anyway.
BILL MOYERS: That’s true, but it’s one thing to do it with the sanction of–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Well, if anyone does it, they have no sanction from God or the Koran.
BILL MOYERS: While Shakir believes that there are instances where the interpretation of Islam has been distorted. He’s equally prepared to defend what he says are settled traditions.
BILL MOYERS: I was frankly, surprised, I mean, I know you’ve spent so many years becoming a scholar of the faith, but I was surprised that, as American as you are, you, yourself, conclude that Islamic law does not permit women to lead prayer in a mixed congregation.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: That’s the conclusion that I understand. Prayer leadership, that is part of religious ritual. And so there are certain rituals that have certain forms that a majority of scholars feel should be conducted in certain ways.
BILL MOYERS: But it seems to be logical to conclude, that for Islam to become a truly dynamic religion in American culture, you’re going to have to jettison, in time, the tether to those ancient traditions that grew up in a very paternalistic society 1,000 years ago. Isn’t that right? To become an American religion, in the context of our society, with its Declaration of Independence, and its women’s movement, and its drive toward equality, you’re going to have to say, “We have to work out our own destiny here,” more closely to American dynamics than to 1,000 years ago in the Middle East.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I think the bigger challenge is to work all of that out and more closely in line with our universal human values and beliefs.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: The important thing here is the truth. We are free to pursue the truth. And if our understanding of what we believe to be true is antithetical with a particular set of values or principles, at a particular time and place, then that doesn’t alter what we believe to be true. 100 years ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because the values in American society wouldn’t be conducive to us having this conversation.
BILL MOYERS: Well, the suffragettes were making this case–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Okay.
BILL MOYERS: They were.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: That’s, but, they were, but we probably-
BILL MOYERS: They were still hemmed in, they were tethered, they were barricaded from–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: But Muslim women aren’t hemmed in– hemmed in, tethered and barricaded. Here, in this country, Muslim women are functioning at every level in this society.
BILL MOYERS: I really– I want to send you the e-mails we will get to this conversation.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: The test isn’t what the e-mails we get. I would say you should go out and talk to some Muslim women, and ask them if they feel hemmed in and tethered by their understanding of their religion.
BILL MOYERS: We met with some women at the Zaytuna Institute and they told us they are fully at home in the faith and in America.
UZMA HUSAINI:I think being an American and being a Muslim go hand-in-hand, just like being a person of any faith and being an American. That’s what this country was founded on — the freedom of religion. And I think that’s why a lot of Muslims came here – that’s why my family came here.
SADAF KHAN: With many Muslim countries, and within different cultures, women are subjugated to a certain status and that certain things are forced upon them in a few countries. But we have the same problems here in the US in our own backyard
UZMA HUSAINI: There is oppression of women. I mean, that is a global problem. Women are oppressed. But, I don’t think it’s fair to take a few stories and say, “Well, look, this is what the entire culture is like. You know, all the Muslim women in this country are treated like that.” Because that’s not true.
MARWA ELZANKALY: There are stereotypes on both ends and there are fears on both ends. And– and the fears and stereotypes are exactly the same. As an American Muslim, I feel like I’m an ambassador between the west and the Muslim world
SADAF KHAN: You know, I walk into stores, and you know, people– people look at me. Going to a mall people definitely turn their heads to look at me and look and see, you know, why is she wearing that. Or, you know, I get looks of question.
UZMA HUSAINI: I think what we have to really try to understand is that every culture has parameters for modesty, you know? I mean, we have a sense of modesty in this culture, and there’s a different sense of modesty perhaps in France or, you know, or India or, every different place has a different sense of parameters. And– but for Islam, what it does, is it sets guidelines for what those parameters are.
MARWA ELZANKALY: And– and– and that’s really a very important thing to me as well, in terms of being visibly Muslim is– is to sort of break down some of these stereotypes, even if it’s one person at a time.
SADAF KHAN: We’re all very much Americans, you know we vote, we wake up in the morning and get ready for work just like every other American, we’re concerned about health care in America and we’re concerned about the same thing most other Americans are concerned about and I don’t think we do it a less than any other American does.
BILL MOYERS: Shakir reminds his young students that Islam is a vast and flexible faith. Different societies interpret it in different ways. So his constant refrain to them is: think for yourself.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR (in Brooklyn Mosque): Some societies are more conservative. For example, Saudi society is very conservative, and probably too much so because what it does it breeds a lot of inconsistencies and hypocrisies and dysfunctions in people. So we should really be cognizant of those things and not import other people’s societal dysfunctions — we have enough of our own. Don’t abandon your common sense. Seriously!
BILL MOYERS: What do you tell these young people? When they’re entrusting themselves to you, what do you tell them?
ZAID SHAKIR: Show people the full range of positive Islamic values. Don’t limit yourself to this or that manifestation of Islam that might be truncated, show the full range of values, and people will appreciate that.
BILL MOYERS: How do you tell them to square those values with what they and we all see so often in the last few years of the Imam calling for Jihad, or supporting the suicide bombers. How do you square those two contrasting portraits of Islam in– with them?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: There’s always going to be radical members in any community, and you’re always going to have extremists. And, you know, for a long time this sort of radical message had it’s appeal to me, myself. But, I–
BILL MOYERS: The radical message from Islam?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Right. But I think though, it’s very important to see to what extent that is real, and to what extent it’s exaggerated. So, the radicals have always been there. A lot of the radicals being condemned today are the same radicals that were being praised in the 1980’s — not only praised but lavishly financed by our government, by the CIA, by the American government.
BILL MOYERS: But then they were beheading–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: The Russians.
BILL MOYERS: –the Russians in Afghanistan.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Yeah. Well, I think that again, the point I’m making, you have that– that element and it doesn’t speak for the mainstream of Muslims. So, when politics changes, that element then is transformed from a group of people, who are serving our interests to a group of people who are antithetical to our interests. And, the mainstream is always there, and they’re being bypassed. So, we’re just saying, interests will always change–
BILL MOYERS: But, Zaid, this does seem to–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Represent the mainstream.
BILL MOYERS: But this does seem to me a qualitative difference in extremism and radicalism. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson — all that crowd — they represent a different strain of my faith, but, they’re not calling for people to be beheaded. They’re not calling-
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: But, they’re calling for people to be bombed into the Stone Age. So what’s morally more repugnant? Five or six people being beheaded in some remote corner of the world or Madeline Albright admitting to children being starved and– dying of disease, because we bombed their sewage treatment plants, and they have to drink sewage infested water? What’s more morally repugnant?
I say we have to really look at things for what they are and get beyond the sensationalism of it all. This is what I’m saying. When it’s in our interest to have this radical fringe destabilize the Soviet Union, it’s fine. When it’s in our interest to have this radical fringe represent the whole of Islam, and then present them as the most morally repugnant force on the earth, I think we have to get beyond the headlines, get beyond the sensationalism, and look at these as human problems that need to be addressed collectively, because a lot of people are dying. And, if you do a body count, we’re killing a lot more of them the they’re killing of us.
BILL MOYERS: But, people are going to say, “There, you see, is what we mean. You can never get a moderate Muslim-
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: To do what? To condemn–
BILL MOYERS: To condemn the radical-
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: All right. I hope you– I hope you air this segment. I condemn all of the lunatics that are killing innocent people, be they in pizza houses in Tel Aviv, be they innocent Muslims, Christians or others being slaughtered senselessly in Iraq as strongly as I condemn people getting in the planes flying halfway around the world to bomb innocent people into oblivion for no crime that those people have committed. I condemn all of it.
BILL MOYERS: Though he mostly steers himself away from politics in his talks these days, it’s impossible for him to escape controversy altogether.
Last year, THE NEW YORK TIMES wrote a favorable profile of his leadership in the search for moderation. The article ended with Shakir indicating he hoped America would become a Muslim society, quote “not by violent means, but by persuasion.” The head of The Anti-Defamation League said Shakir’s views were ‘un-American’ and hoped he was an “aberration.”
An article in THE WASHINGTON TIMES implied Shakir was a radical masquerading in moderate’s clothes.
BILL MOYERS: You kicked up a tempest with that remark. I mean, some people say you were arguing for America to become a theocracy ruled by Islam–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I wasn’t– I wasn’t arguing for anything. I was simply making a statement in the context of a very long interview that as a Muslim I’d like to see everyone be a Muslim. And, I– I would hope Christians would like to see everyone be a Christian.
BILL MOYERS: Well, there are people who–
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: But, I respect– I respect the right of people to be whatever they want to be, and to disagree with that and to want people to be whatever they’d like to be.
BILL MOYERS: So, you weren’t calling for a theocracy?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I was not– absolutely not. And, I– I would say further I’ve never challenged the pluralistic basis of American society.
BILL MOYERS: Shakir tells his audiences that they will often be called on to defend their faith.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR in Brooklyn mosque:..in terms of manifesting Islam and letting people see its beauty in this society. At a time when a lot of people are muddying it up. So we have this beautiful stream and its crystal clear water and we’re looking at and we’re enthralled. And then someone runs over with a stick and stirs up all the mud on the bottom says look at it and it’s like Ugh! Gives you the creeps. I wouldn’t drink that if you paid me! And so when people come with sticks and they’re muddying it up, you have to do a lot of work to clear it out.
BILL MOYERS: You seem to be caught right in the middle, people afraid of Islam think you have an agenda of– for turning America into a Muslim country, and the radicals in your own faith, who consider themselves the pious, think you are betraying your faith by moderation. Have you made peace with that conflict?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Well, I think that a person has to pursue the truth, as he or she understands it. And then, let the pieces fall where they may. If a person tries to adjust their values or principles or their positions, based on what other people say, you’re not going to have any positions that are your own, because you’re constantly trying to walk– walk this tightrope or balance between what pleases this person or that person. And where will you end up? And then, what is the possibility of creating an environment where people can begin to think about things a little differently?
If I say yes, you know, the radicals are right, speaking in Arabic then how are Muslims going to be challenged to, to look deeper at the realities of this world that rhetoric and sloganizing aren’t going to do to anything to change. Conversely, if in this country we say “Yes, Muslims are bad, we’re the worst thing since the Bubonic Plague and if you’re not careful, you’re going to catch us and you’re all going to be finished,” then how do we create the climate that allows Americans to deeply reflect on the realities of a defense budget in excess of $500 billion? And the implications of all that, for our foreign policy? How are we going to create some– a space where we begin, can being to look at those issues more objectively, if everyone either capitulates to this side or that side?
BILL MOYERS: Everything you say suggests that you do not feel your faith is incompatible with American democracy.
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: I wouldn’t be here.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
IMAM ZAID SHAKIR: Well if I felt that my faith, and I’m a Muslim– a practicing Muslim, is incompatible, with American democracy, why would I stay here? Because, essentially, I’d be saying, “I can not practice my faith here.” That’s not the question. That’s not the case.
About Zaid Shakir
Born in Berkeley, California and raised in the Atlanta and Hartford projects alongside six other children, Imam Zaid Shakir converted to Islam in 1977, and today is one of the foremost Islamic scholars in the west.He found Islam while in the U.S. Air force, spending time reading and learning about various faiths and practices, from Christianity to Transcendental meditation, but says he chose Islam because of its social aspects:”Transcendental meditation gives you peace of mind…but it didn’t do anything for anybody else, so I had to keep looking,” Shakir explains at a recent lecture at a Brooklyn mosque. “I was literally searching for truth, and I made various stops along the way and I found what I believed was the truth.”
Imam Zaid began his study in the United States, earning a BA with honors in International Relations at American University and an MA in Political Science at Rutgers University, but continued his education in the Middle East, studying Arabic, Islamic law, Quranic studies, and spirituality at Syria’s prestigious Abu Noor University. Yet he returned to the United States seven years later, settling in Connecticut, co-founding Masjid al-Islam, where he served as Imam, the Tri-State Muslim Education Initiative, and the Connecticut Muslim Coordinating Committee.
“You have an American Muslim culture emerging, which is very important, because then you can get a unique understanding of the religion that would allow the American Muslim to take his or her rightful place amongst the various Muslim communities of the world”
In 2003, Shakir moved to Hayward, California to serve as scholar in residence and lecturer at Zaytuna Institute, a non-profit, educational institute focused on Islamic studies and surrounding topics. In 2005, Zaytuna Institute published Shakir’s collection of essays, SCATTERED PICTURES: REFLECTIONS OF AN AMERICAN MUSLIM.