Collective Agency in Impossible Situations

Reflections on Prof. Sylviane Diouf’s article, “Enslaved Philanthropists: Charity, Community, and Freedom in the Americas

“Anything can happen, child.

Anything can be.” 

– Shel Silverstein


A note about ancestry: If I read about Omar Mukhtar, for example, I claim his courageous acts as part of my Muslim heritage. I’m not Libyan, but I claim this aspect of history as an example. When I use the word “ancestor” here, I don’t mean that we’re necessarily direct descendants of the enslaved African Muslims who lived here on the land that we call America. (Although many of us may be!) What I mean is that I claim cultural/spiritual/heart-centered heritage or ancestry from Muslim heroes throughout history, and I think you should, too.

In the context of our enslaved African Muslim ancestors, practicing Islam was about reclaiming ownership of yourself through surrender to Allah. These Muslim American ancestors were incredible, spectacular role models that we should both take pride in and emulate today. Here’s just one amazing thing they were able to do – they crowdfunded freedom:

They contributed to a common fund and used it to redeem their coreligionists, including those who had just arrived. When a slave ship landed, they went on board and redeemed the Muslims” (26).

I believe that the teachings of Islam inspired them to this ingenuity and impactful collective action. These people are my heroes. When we use MLFA’s legal and human power to set people free or keep people out of prison, we’re trying to live up to the example of the incredibly brave and generous Muslims who were here on this land before us.

“Examples of Muslims’ continued observance of their religious obligations can be found in several countries. Among these requirements, charity may seem the most impracticable given the terrible deprivation the Africans endured. Yet the two most important categories of charity, zakat and sadaqa, have been documented in the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean and, given the Third Pillar of Islam’s significance, they were likely part of the Muslims’ practices wherever they landed” (Diouf, 25)

Enslaved African Muslims found a way to reclaim agency of themselves in an impossible and dehumanizing context. Looking back, despair seems a perfectly reasonable response to the conditions under which they lived and died. Obligations of Islam, like fasting or zakat – they could very easily have found exemptions to these obligations. Instead people chose to impose further discipline on their own bodies, on their own meager resources. Allah’s path gave them back their own selves, preserved in some way their humanity and dignity, allowing them to accomplish heroic achievements.

“… the freeing of coreligionists through zakat was the embodiment of collective agency” (35)

Even enslaved under truly brutal conditions, our proud Muslim American ancestors understood the power of collective agency. May Allah show us how to honor their generosity in all that we do.

Their example reveals that charity itself can be a subversive or revolutionary act. They used their agency as legal non-persons, searching for the in-between spaces to set people free. Here’s another example – let’s say you want to get across the wall to reach someone you love. Officially, it’s impossible. But let’s say you’re patient. You pay attention. You spend a lot of time watching, gathering information. Eventually, you’ll start to see a small break in the wood or stone, a gap where the wall is starting to crumble, just an inch. Or maybe you notice that one of the guards falls asleep at a particular time of the afternoon – that’s your gap. And if you remain open to the gap, you can find a way across.

There is space around things and between things, as long as we don’t get tricked by fear, by helplessness, or by despair.

After 9/11, certain government authorities named Muslims as the new enemy of the state. If we believe that this wall is completely solid, then we may as well give up, accept our new role. If we know that there are always possibilities around the edges, then maybe we’ll be willing to sit quietly and pay attention. We’ll start to see that the Constitution still has protections that we can use to defend those who are unfairly targeted. We’ll notice laws that may help us make space for ourselves or for struggling brothers and sisters. Over time, we’ll build strength and use our collective power to change the story. That’s my hope for you, and that’s my hope for the impact of the Muslim Legal Fund of America.

by Jeannine Sherman – Thursday, August 25, 2022



Diouf, Sylviane A. “Enslaved Philanthropists: Charity, Community, and Freedom in the

Americas.” Journal of Muslim Philanthropy and Civil Society. Volume VI, Number 1,

Spring 2022.

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Prof. Sylviane Diouf