‘Sometimes I Can’t Breathe, So I Write’

April 5, 2017
Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, MTS ’01
2017 Gomes Honoree Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, MTS ’01

Writing is freedom for Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, MTS ’01: freedom from the life-threatening allergies and respiratory problems that have plagued her since she was a child; freedom from the prejudice and misunderstanding she experienced growing up African American and Muslim; freedom from the racism and brutality she often sees in the world today.

When she feels the weight of the world pressing down on her chest, she escapes by putting pen to paper.

“Sometimes I can’t breathe, so I write,” she says. “When I start to feel overwhelmed and anxious about the hatred that I see, writing opens up my airways, it relaxes me, and allows me to take in fresh air: fresh air of information, fresh air of creativity, something to just take me away from the current situation and be part of the change I want to see in the world.”

A self-described “history detective,” Muhammad’s writing and teaching have helped to clear the air of misinformation about the long history of Islam in America. For this work—and for changing the way that students and scholars at HDS understand the experience of Muslims in the United States—Muhammad’s fellow alumni will recognize her this April as a 2017 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

"To receive this award,” Muhammad says, “which pays homage to a man who refused to be seen through a single stereotypical lens, who understood the weight of history and carried it well—I couldn't be more humbled, honored, and grateful."

Muslims on the move

Muhammad, a third generation Muslim, grew up in a community that was very much engaged with religion in America. Her parents came of age at a time when the Nation of Islam was emerging into the public eye thanks to figures like Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Born in 1975, Muhammad grew up at a time of transition, when the Nation was moving from separatism to a more universal perspective on the faith. Still, it was a tight-knit community that included some remarkable people. One, in particular, made a lasting impression on her.

"Muhammad Ali attended my mosque in Chicago when I was a little girl," she says. "He would sit on the floor like everyone else. He played with the children. He was a very unassuming and humble person. I learned early on from observing him that that's how you're supposed to function as a Muslim. You humble yourself no matter how high a station you’ve achieved in life, you pray like everyone else, and you treat every person as if they matter, because they do.”

Muhammad’s family moved from Boston to Chicago and back to Boston, then to Alabama, Chicago again, and Indiana, sometimes in concert with others from the Muslim community. She attended private Islamic school off and on in her early childhood and studied Islam and Arabic alongside math, science, and history. She also developed a fascination for the way that people made sense of their lives through religion. When she graduated from high school and matriculated to the University of Iowa—the first in her immediate family to go to college—she initially wanted to study filmmaking, but she soon returned to the subject that had been so central to her life.

“I had been surrounded by religion, religious discussion, and the evolution of religious communities," she says. "At college, I kept taking more and more religion classes—'Judeo-Christian Tradition,' 'Prophecy in Biblical Israel,' 'Quest for Human Destiny,' 'Living Religions of the East,' and on and on, and I loved it. After a while, I thought, 'Oh my goodness! I have enough to potentially have a major!' "

Changing the way Harvard looks at Islam

Muhammad decided that she wanted to be a scholar of Islam. She applied and was admitted to several different PhD programs, but decided in 1998 to enroll in the master of theological studies program at HDS because of the School’s academic reputation and prestige. She soon discovered, however, that while Harvard’s scholarship on the histories and cultures of Muslims in other parts of the world was extensive, the University had little to offer when it came to Islam in America.

"Much of what I was doing, it was all foreign, it was all past, and it was all classical," she says. “But I also wanted to engage with rich histories of living people the way I had from city to city, state to state, and place to place where I had lived and traveled. I realized I didn't want to be stuck in the library translating. That said, the translating served me well. I came across biographical dictionaries by classical Islamic scholars who wrote about everyone. They didn’t leave out expressions of Islam in practice different from their own. That inspired me. I wanted to do the same with Islam in America.”

As she has done so often since her divinity school days, Muhammad took things into her own hands. She built her own curriculum, with an emphasis on independent study, and sought out faculty who would support her in doing so. Still, she wanted to do more. She wanted to change the way that people at HDS and across Harvard looked at Islam, transforming it from something foreign to something familiar. She determined to hold the first ever Conference on Islam in America and reached out to colleagues across the University to make it happen. 

“We had people from the Business School who volunteered, the Law School, the Kennedy School, just all across Harvard,” she remembers. “The Alumni Council donated the lanyards for the conference. The Pluralism Project helped with printing nametags. Once we showed how it was valuable to Harvard, the members of the community—from departments to student organizations—wrote checks or sent people or supported it however they could. It was beautiful.”

The inaugural conference in 2000 dealt with the growth and development of Islam in this country, covering several historical periods to give attendees a foundation they could build on. During her third and final year at HDS, Muhammad spearheaded another conference that dealt with topics such as Islamic law, women's issues, and sectarianism. With both events, she tried to create an immersive experience that included not only lectures but also exhibits and performances.  

“We brought together the types of people that you wouldn't usually see on a single platform,” she says. “There was food and music and artifacts and things for sale. Instead of it being just academics presenting papers, we enabled the scholars to actually engage with people that they had only written about. It was a great opportunity for them.”

While she learned a lot in class, Muhammad says that organizing and directing a major conference may have been the most valuable part of her HDS experience. As someone from an economically underprivileged background—albeit one with a strong emphasis on self-reliance—she discovered that she could innovate, pursue new ideas, and find the resources to make them happen in a highly competitive environment. And if she could do it at Harvard, she could do it anywhere.

“I grew up below the poverty line,” she says. “My dad didn't even graduate from high school, but he and my mother taught a very strong ‘do-for-self’ ethic. When I came to HDS, I had tremendous access to resources and people. With the ethic taught by my parents and exposure to a new world of possibilities, I learned that I could do just about anything I put my mind to. If I could conceive it, then I could achieve it.”

Building understanding—and community—through history

With new confidence in herself and her abilities, Muhammad decided against going on to doctoral work immediately and set out after her graduation from HDS to be an independent researcher, writer, and educator. Since then, she has lectured and shared her work at internationally renowned institutions including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wellesley, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., as well as Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

In 2005, the Smithsonian featured her work on the ex-slave and Civil War veteran Nicholas Said—whose autobiography she discovered and published while a student at HDS—as a part of its exhibit, “Forgotten Roots: African American Muslims in Early America.” She says that her goal is to dispel the misperception that Islam is somehow “foreign” to the United States and its history.

"Everything from Islam—from the Islamic moral imperative on justice to Islamic culture, to Islamic historical figures and texts—all of those things have been part of the historical landscape since before the founding of the United States,” she says. “The frieze in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court features the Prophet Muhammad as one of the ‘great lawgivers of history.’ People who understand the evolution of law in human civilization understand that you can't have that conversation without including Islam.”

In 2009 she helped plan the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne Australia, where “participants worked with others and within their own traditions to craft faithful responses to indigenous reconciliation, global poverty and global warming, environmental care and degradation, education of the young and the challenges of social disengagement, voluntary and forced migration, and artistic expression and spirituality.”

The project that may have the most long-lasting impact, however, may be the timeline of Islam in America that Muhammad completed for the U.S. Department of State in 2011.

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wanted a historical timeline that they could use in their diplomacy,” she explains. “The one that they had only had a few things on it. I gave them over 100 pages focusing on presidential engagement with Muslim communities. We drilled down for information to use in an exhibit. The rest I gave them for their archives. Afterward, I would hear Secretary Clinton or Kerry give a speech and know that was actually from my research.”

Muhammad, who has recently been the object of racist harassment online, says that she’s concerned that the country has moved into an era of “anti-knowledge.” If that’s so, then her work is more important than ever to counter corrosive stereotypes of Muslims and people of color—and the hostility and divisiveness they engender.

“We're way more connected than we realize,” she says. “Black people were the earliest identifiable Muslims in this country, so when you're telling us to go back to where we came from, well, we've been here longer than a lot of the immigrants who came here after us. If we really dig into the history of our communities, we will see just how much that Muslims are a part of it. That’s why my decades-long motto continues to be ‘building community through history.’ We're all generally very much ignorant about each other, and we're our best selves when we're knowledgeable.”

—by Paul Massari