A new book shares the stories of 50 Black Muslim elders from across the world.
The book, entitled “At Their Feet: 50 Black Muslim Elders Share Stories of Faith and Community Life,” is a collection of oral histories, essays and interviews from prominent older Muslims in the African American community — many who are from Detroit.
Zarinah El-Amin, a cultural anthropologist and founder of Book Power Publishing, says the book symbolizes the practice of learning from elders.
“Each of our elders is a wealth of experience and knowledge. In the old days, you would come and literally sit at the feet of your elders and listen to their stories, listen to them give you experience, and listen to them giving you advice about different things of life,” says El-Amin.
Losing her mother Cheryl to cancer made El-Amin realize that it’s important to create a collection of stories from older adults in the community. Her father, Imam Abdullah El-Amin, the Imam Emeritus at the Muslim Center in Detroit, also asked her to interview him and his friends.
“Being in publishing, I was like, ‘Maybe we should actually expand this and make it a much broader type of project and have other people because there are so many individuals to have knowledge and experiences and things that we can all learn from.'”
El-Amin teamed up with Dr. Alisa Perkins, an associate professor at Western Michigan University in the Department of comparative Religion, who works with Dream of Detroit’s Detroit Muslim Storytelling Project. Perkins was working to gather oral histories of Detroiters when El-Amin embarked on her project. They decided to merge the efforts to collect 50 stories.
“I was so thrilled and honored when the executive director of Dream of Detroit asked me to work with him on an application for a storytelling project that was very much in line with the ‘at their feet’ vision,” says Perkins.
The storytelling project matched youth to elders in the community and taught them how to video record interviews.
“So as you see, these were parallel visions that sort of manifested at an interesting time because it was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Perkins explains.
She says the pandemic propelled the urgency of this project. Ten of the oral histories were part of the larger collection in the book.
“People were very reflective at that point, reflective about death, reflective about losing their elders, reflective about trying to maintain traditions. There were many times where people virtually sat ‘at the feet’ of the elders in both projects.”
El-Amin says people wrote their own essays, some family members wrote stories on behalf of their elders and others were interviewed by Ayah Rashid, a contributor to the book. The collection of stories is a unique population of first-generation Muslims.
The book covers themes like the Nation of Islam, the conversion to Sunni Muslim, city wide initiatives, women-led movements, and Detroit mosques. Other topics cover entrepreneurship, organizations and cultural movements.
“Many people just automatically assume that when you say ‘Black’ and ‘Muslim’ together, that means the Nation of Islam,” says El-Amin. She went on to explain that while many of the subjects in her book became Muslims through the Nation of Islam, others converted to Sunni Orthodox Islam later on.
El-Amin is inspired by the people featured in “At Their Feet.”
“Their tenacity and their community-building skills with small budgets and the things that they did were just dynamic,” says El-Amin.
Perkins says the stories shed a unique light on Muslim communities.
“Our book is kind of presenting a nexus point or hub for many different stories to come together globally, locally, involving people reflecting on their lives across all ages, and reflecting the voices of young people as they tell the stories of their elders in some very special cases across the book.”