Advocating for Black Muslim Wellness

Advocating for Black Muslim Wellness

Interview With Kameelah Mu'Min Rashad

Image credit: Zamani Feelings Photography

Kameelah Mu'Min Rashad is the founder of Muslim Wellness Foundation and the Black Muslim Psychology Conference. She is a fervent advocate for social justice, activism, and mental wellness in the black Muslim community.

Kameelah Mu'Min Rashad is the founder of Muslim Wellness Foundation and the Black Muslim Psychology Conference. She is a fervent advocate for social justice, activism, and mental wellness in the black Muslim community.

S&H: How would you define spiritual radical? Is that even a relevant topic? Is spiritually radicalism a new thing, or has it always been happening?

Mu'Min Rashad: I feel like I'm not directly answering the question, but it feels like it could be more of a revival of what I consider to be the essence of this and what it means to me. For instance, the prophet Muhammed met his wife when he was 25 and she was 40. She was a very wealthy businesswoman, very well connected. She was basically wealthy, knowledgeable, what you would think of someone who is independent, leading her own business. And he was an illiterate shepherd.

She was the very first person to believe in his message. She comforted him when he said I don't know if I'm losing my mind, but these are the revelations that are coming to me. There’s a tradition that talks about how she basically cradled him and said, no, you have been chosen, this is the message that you have, and I believe in you 100 percent.

She, in sort of 2020 terms, financed his mission. She was his only wife until she died, and there was a 15 year age gap. So if you think about heterosexual gender dynamics now where we're talking about emotional labor, division of labor in the household particularly now, when we're thinking about the impact of it and how that's kind of exposed the level of unequal sort of division in a partnership.

For me, that story of the profit is a model that he was egalitarian, he was very respectful of her intelligence, trusted her without reservations. When I sort of bump up against these notions around what does it mean to be a Muslim woman, are you oppressed? Are you having contradictory feelings or ambivalence about your faith because of your gender? You know, I look back at those stories that tell me there needs to be a revival of what it truly means to honor, to trust, to defer to, and that marriage serves as such a beautiful example.

So I think a spiritual radical is someone who actually, in the African tradition of sankofa, go back, how do I go back and claim those things that actually support this radicalism, that support being unorthodox, that support really pushing the status quo. That is my faith. That is the origin of my faith. Which was that women supported him. You know, one of the first converts to Islam was an enslaved African. So you're thinking about someone who in seventh century Arabia was saying, we cannot bury our daughters alive. There has to be ways for women to protect their wealth. We have to understand this institution of of slavery. All of those things that were true of the seventh century that he was challenging in some ways are still issues that we're challenging.

Have you ever felt like an outsider in your faith? If so, how has that influenced you?

I would say not an outsider in my faith, but facing the exclusion of members of my faith communities. A lot of my work has been challenging anti-black racism within the American Muslim community. It’s really a global phenomenon. I mean, people that I’ve talked to in Canada and UK, experience the same marginalization, this intersectional visibility within their faith community, which is incredibly disheartening. People typically look to faith spaces, spiritual spaces for refuge, for safety.

What I have, in certain periods of time, in my faith community experienced racial microaggressions, condescention, overt and implicit acts of discrimination within my faith community. It's astounding to me how people can reconcile their understanding of Islam, or any faith, with treating human beings that way.

What I've come to just in terms of my own growth, as a black woman, born and raised Muslim, is to think about just the necessity of creating affinity spaces for black Muslims. To just have the space to talk about What does it mean to experience that kind of double marginalization? within American society at large, and then the anti-blackness from your co-religionists, while also pushing back on anti-Muslim bigotry.

I think there's a story there of the experience of collective trauma on multiple levels. But there's also the story of the black Muslim resilience and strength and joy. That's what I've devoted a lot of my sort of professional and personal time towards creating the Black Muslim Psychology Conference, these spaces that allow people to talk about the complexity of their identity, what they need from the community in order to imagine a world in which they're safe in all the spaces that they're in.

Often people will differentiate between spirituality and religion. They may say “I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual.” How do you see that and what is your distinction between the two?

I think within—I can only speak to the American context—the connotation of religion, of a religious person, becomes synonymous with close minded conservative, rigid. Right. All of those actions come to mind. Then when someone says, Well, I'm spiritual, not religious. Then the implication there is, Oh, you're open minded and liberal, understanding, open to other people's opinions and perspectives. So I think when there's that binary that happens people are very reluctant, of course, to identify as religious.

But I think what is sort of missing in that binary is that religion also served a very real function. The rituals that people look to for comfort, to feel grounded, a sense of continuity with their history or their heritage. It's also wrapped in that and I think when folks make that distinction, I always wonder, What was the experience like of growing up in a place that was identified or community or family as religious. Was it devoid of emphasis on developing a relationship with God—not just This is what you're taught, and this is what you do, but am I developing a relationship with God that also allows me to question the existence of God? Just because we have questions doesn't mean that we're sort of rejecting everything in totality.

My eldest daughter is 17, and I remember when she was 12 she wrote me a letter and she said, Could this be the summer I decide whether or not I want to be Muslim? And I on the one hand was like, Okay, I had to call my own dad. I was like, What am I supposed to say? So, because my parents converted, I’m first-generation, raising black Muslim children Children is something that's very important to me. And I wanted to raise them cultivating that love for the religion, but also what it represents for them personally. So when she asked me that, I said, one I should feel good about our relationship where she would even feel comfortable at that age to challenge me in that way and when I asked her why, to help me understand. She said, Well, there's some things that you tell me, but you don't explain it. You just tell me to do it and I want to understand why.

Ironically, she’s now in her senior year. She's in boarding school, and she said it was when I went away that I felt like I had more curiosity, about who I am and what this means, and that led to a lot of our conversations.

So I think when there's emphasis on spirituality, people want to feel unencumbered by what they feel like is religious dogma or strict rigidity, inflexibility, often devoid of love. It's just the rituals of practices, without recognition that over the course of our lives, our relationship with God changes. Just like any relationship, some days, like you’re best buddies, right? Like you're like, You know what? You're my best friend. I love you. And then there are days when even your closest friends get on your nerves. But there's a commitment to that relationship that says, I trust you. I'm always committed to making sure that there's open communication and honesty and respect.

So I would encourage folks to think about religion or being religious in a different way and would encourage those who identify as spiritual to reflect on what maybe were formative religious experiences that were not as healthy.

How do social justice and activism intersect with faith for you?

Social justice and activism is at the core of how I understand my faith. That this was a religion that emphasized, and certainly for my parents that converted … Islam represented the self determination, liberation, reclaiming a lost identity. It represented How can I define myself outside of the context of white supremacy and Christianity? Their understanding of Islam of course influence mine. This idea that there doesn't need to be any intermediary. There's always a direct connection to God. In that space, that commitment to How am I making the world better for God's creation? That's human and animal, alike, all of God’s creations.

There's a duty and a trust that we have, you know, as those who in some ways, may be more privileged. There's a tradition that says you cannot go to sleep with a full belly if your neighbor is hungry. These are like the traditions that certainly were highlighted in my home. So just thinking like it is sort of your moral obligation to your community to

alleviate suffering. What we believe is to alleviate the suffering of human beings in this world, God will alleviate their suffering in the afterlife.

There’s absolutely an emphasis on wherever a Muslim is, that their presence and their impact should be one that people remember. The good that is done right, and that there was progress, there was change, there was growth as a result of the presence of that person.

For me, I could not conceptualize a faith that did not require me to also work towards justice. It's at the heart of what I do. I think it's really what I draw strength from, that there is so much of an emphasis on charity, on justice, on kindness and mercy, and compassion. This is sort of like universal values. But it also requires an implementation of those values, it has to be in your lived experience.

The Muslim Wellness Foundation has a specific interest in mental health advocacy, can you talk a little bit about that?

The perspective that we have really focused on at Muslim Wellness Foundation is looking at the social cultural context and what are those factors contributing to poor health outcomes. Because those poor health outcomes, whether they’re mental or physical, impacts the relationship with the spiritual. So what are the conditions in society and communities that make it difficult for people to find balance? Like mind, body, spirit balance.

When it comes to mental health, it is white supremacy, it’s racial trauma, it’s poverty. All of those inequalities that have a very real psychological impact. My bridge between faith and activism, mental health, is when we're thinking about alleviating suffering, it's the injustices in the environment that exacerbate perhaps personal vulnerabilities that exact experiences of despair and distress. So when we're advocating for access to mental health care, that's a systemic issue. The fact that I might know all of the black Muslims psychologists in the country ... I should not. And by that I mean, there should be more of us. It's like advocating for the whole person means that it's not just the psychological dimension. But does this person have their basic needs met? If they do not, it's gonna be very difficult for them to engage in a process that might be insight-oriented; or asking them to imagine and envision what their life could be, when the reality is so challenging.

Why do you think spiritual radicalism is necessary, especially through the lens of 2020?

There were a few surveys that found that 86% of Americans felt that there was some lesson for humanity as the result of the pandemic. 35% of those 86% of people said that there was some lesson from God or a faith.

At the moment that we're in, this is an election year, this is a census year, a global health crisis. I mean, for me to make meaning or sense of what's happening ... Is this an opportunity for us to clarify our priorities? As individuals, communities, as a nation. In that clarification, we have to challenge what is being co-opted. Even from Evangelical Christianity, the language that people are using to sort of justify oppression and discrimination. Even the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett brought this out, too. How do we talk about religious liberty? Spirituality, religion, is not something as weaponized, but that can actually serve as a source of nourishment for people.

In this time, being able to reach back and say, What is the essence of this message that I believe in and what is it calling me to do? I believe that all of the Abrahamic states call people to address injustice, call people to in their own way to influence in a positive way.

This is a moment that has been incredibly overwhelming. There's been so much grief and loss, there's been so much violence. Yet what I think can emerge from all of those things is a deeper understanding of what we value, who we value, and the relationships that really served to remind us of those values that we espouse, but not always live.

I guess I'm one of those Americans, I think there is a lesson to learn and I think now is an opportunity for those who draw on faith, who are those spiritual radicals, to say this is a moment of clarification, of fortification. A moment that when we look back, say, perhaps 10 years later—if I'm fortunate enough to be alive a decade from now—What did I do when there was so much need for community and relationship building? Understanding that I contributed to that, or did I in some way make that more difficult for members of my communities or of other communities. I think this is gonna be a time that we will all look back and say, What did I do during the pandemic of 2020? What kind of person was I? Did my rhetoric match my actions, online and in-person?

For a spiritual radical, it means that you have to understand your individual influence, and what it means to then live that. I would want someone to say, What I experienced of Kameelah as a Muslim, was what she did. It was her actions. It was how she treated people. They can learn about Islam in a book. But if they want to learn about how I live my faith and they can witness that, witness good work, witness sincerity, witness generosity. That goes such a long way.

So while we're exhausted, I'm exhausted. I think it's time we dig deeper. We ask more questions. Challenge what you might be comfortable with.

What would you say your most radical idea is, religious or otherwise?

I think, to date, the most radical idea I've had is building Black Muslim Psychology—the conference, the fellowship. Being very unapologetic in my creation of a space for healing for black Muslims.

The conference was established in 2015. The first year was maybe about 75 people. It was one day. This is in the shadow of the Baltimore uprising, the murder Freddie Gray. A lot of my friends who are also activists, also black Muslims, were feeling just this heavy burden. Trying to make sense of police brutality and violence.

I said, let's just come together and at the very least, enjoy each other's presence. That can be validating, really affirming. The next year it was 200 people, by the third year, almost 400 people over three days. That really validated for me that there was a critical need for that kind of space where people can be vulnerable. They can see themselves reflected in other people, which doesn't happen so often.

We canceled the conference this past July and it was really difficult. People look forward to it every year. What is also kind of radical about it is that non-Muslims and non-black Muslims who also attend and love it. They say, I've never felt so good about being in a space where we're talking about challenging topics and really kind of pushing the envelope on scholarship and activism, and grassroots organizing. There's so much laughter, people love to just sit and talk with one another. There's safety, there's trust and I had never experienced something like that before.

There were reactions to creating that space. Oh, this is divisive, you're segregating or excluding yourself. And I’m like, the exclusion already happened. That's not something that I'm creating. But, to really be able to articulate the need for rest from harm that people are really craving like refuge from harm. I think that’s something radical.

Read more full interviews with Spiritual Radicals here.

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