Student Profile: Precious Muhammad

March 25, 2001
Student Profile: Precious Muhammad

It's probably safe to say there aren't many 25-year-olds who have been responsible for organizing a Harvard-wide conference on a hot topic (Islam in America), creating their own publishing company, and discovering an important scholarly treasure, the 1873 autobiography of an African Muslim ex-slave who spent the last years of his life starting schools for black children in Alabama. Yet a Harvard Divinity School student has done all this and more.

"Frustration leads to creation," explains Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, in 2001, a second-year master of theological studies (MTS) student who impressively embodies her own adage. A third-generation African American Muslim, Muhammad has long been frustrated by the dearth of historical information and adequate coverage of Islam in America in academic circles as well as in the media, especially in regard to Islam and the African American experience. 

Muhammad was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, where she studied religion. She said she was attracted to Harvard Divinity School "for Islamic studies scholars like William Graham and Ali Asani and for the exciting work Diana Eck is doing with the Pluralism Project." Yet she found that even Harvard had paltry offerings in the study of Islam in America. Rather than spend her time complaining, however, Muhammad set to work on an endeavor that would begin to fill this void. She spearheaded a first Harvard-wide conference on Islam in America last year, and followed up with a second such conference last month.

Although Muhammad and the Harvard Divinity School classmates who helped her organize the conferences joke that they stress the qualifier "student-run," the caliber of the conferences has been first-rate, attracting speakers and panelists who represent a range of fields―Islamic and African American studies scholars, judges, authors, editors, documentary filmmakers, and religious and political leaders. This year's participants included Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Affairs Council; Cherrefe Kadri, the first woman president of a mosque in Toledo, Ohio; and Merve Kavakci, a member of the Turkish Parliament who has been prevented from fulfilling her duties because she will not remove her headscarf (hijab).

The success of the events would not have been possible without Muhammad's clear vision. "First and foremost, I wanted to provide an academic forum on Islam in America here at Harvard to address the many critical issues that affect the lives of Muslims in America," she says. "I also wanted to encourage Muslims to take an active part in documenting their own history and to improve communication between the researchers and their subjects. Finally, I want to reach the community at large to promote fellowship, tolerance and understanding."

She points out that the conferences have especially highlighted the enormous diversity among American Muslims, something rarely portrayed in news-media coverage. "At the conferences, there were African Americans, Latinos, Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Sufis, among others," she says.

Muhammad has experienced this diversity among Muslims, and specifically African American Muslims, firsthand. As she was growing up, her family lived in several cities, including Chicago, Boston, and Mobile, and she attended Muslim schools in many of these places. Yet she is not interested in casting American Muslims as a group that should be set apart for its "difference." Although she believes there needs to be greater awareness of the multiplicity of voices and stories among American Muslims, Muhammad is equally as interested in showing the ways they are as much a part of the American fabric as any other religious group. "Statistics say that Islam has become the second largest religion in America after Christianity," she explains. "Above all, it is important for people to understand that Muslims go through the same struggles that other people do and to recognize that there are Muslim heroes in American history."

This is particularly important now that more and more Muslim students are entering American colleges and universities. In an article on just this topic, The New York Times recently reported that the number of Muslims at American colleges and universities has more than doubled over the last decade.

As part of her quest to find historical information about African American Muslims, Muhammad was researching the intriguing story of a nineteenth century African Muslim ex-slave, Mohammad Ali Ben Said (also known as Nicholas Said), when she stumbled upon a rare copy of his 1873 autobiography. (She found the autobiography in more than one library but is reluctant to name the libraries until after she reprints it next month.) After some research, Muhammad recalls, "I realized that no one knew about the book―it had truly been lost to even the top scholars in the field." Most scholars had relied on an article about Said in an 1867 article of The Atlantic Monthly. Muhammad suspects that the book was overlooked because its title―The Autobiography of Nicholas Said: A Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa―contains no mention of North America.

The 224-page book chronicles Said's journey from his abduction by North African Tuareg traders to his time as a slave in several cities in Africa, Asia, and Europe. A prince of Russia freed Said so he could return to West Africa, but he was diverted from his return home by a request to accompany a traveler and his wife to the Americas. Said decided to go to America with the intention of returning to Africa after a brief detour, but instead he ended up living out his last years in the United States, where he was a lecturer and teacher and started schools for black children in Alabama. By the time he made it to America, Said spoke nine languages: Kanouri (his native language), Mandra, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, German, Italian, French, and English.

Although he does not mention it in the book, Said fought in the Civil War, as a corporal and a sergeant in the 55th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Colored Infantry, Company I. "This book is fascinating on so many different levels, from its account of slavery in the Muslim world, to the role Muslims had in the slave trade, to the amazing adventure of his life, and finally to his experience as a freed man starting schools in the American South," Muhammad says. "He may be one of the few figures in all of history who can speak so intimately about the comparative experience of economic and race relations on five continents."

She knew academic publishing houses would be interested in reprinting Said's book, but Muhammad instead elected to put out the autobiography through her own company, The Journal of Islam in America Press. She will reprint both popular and scholarly versions of the autobiography, with the popular version due first. She hopes to publish other scholarly research, memoirs, and journals related to American Muslims as well.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Muhammad is that she herself is part of the world she is encouraging others to explore and understand. As her many accomplishments already indicate, she will almost certainly be among the American Muslim heroes who will be relied upon and honored by future scholars in the field. Those future generations of people interested in Islam in America will be spared some of the frustration that she has felt, precisely because she transformed her own frustration into action.

by Wendy McDowell