Imam talks about being black and Muslim in America

Published June 20, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Amid concerns about the Islamic State and its recruitment of young people in the United States, Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, a leader in St. Petersburg's Muslim community and interfaith circles, acknowledges the challenges of being a Muslim in America.

Aquil, 68, is African-American, as well. The St. Petersburg native, who grew up attending the historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 912 Third Ave. N, and whose wife is Christian, converted to Islam in 1971.

He is the chair of the founding board of the newly organized Collective Empowerment Group of the Tampa Bay area, a collaborative of church leaders, faith-based groups, nonprofit developers and business people. It wants to help people buy, build and bank collectively to meet their goals.

This week, with the start of Ramadan —- the Muslim holy month of fasting, charity, repentance and introspection — Aquil spoke about his faith, commitment to interfaith relationships and the difficulties of being both black and Muslim.

You were a student at the University of South Florida when you began studying Islam; what attracted you to the faith?

A sequence of events that included insights I gained from a comparative religions course, Dr. King's assassination and the interfaith social activism it triggered on and off the campus, the courage and fearless, outspoken attitude of the members of the Nation of Islam, followed by relationships I developed with Muslim students during that period from Tunisia, Morocco and Somalia.

It's obvious that you are Muslim from the way you dress. How does that affect your daily life? Do you feel that people make assumptions about who you are?

Frankly, I don't think so. I don't recall ever being questioned about my attire, which varies, including about the kufis, or African-style caps, I usually wear. Remember, I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For me, my African roots and heritage have always mattered. In fact, I know several men who are Christians who regularly wear similar headgear.

Is there a double strike against you, being both black and Muslim, in an America increasingly scared of radical Muslims and still struggling with race?

I have personally experienced racism and discrimination in different scenarios since I was a child, and I have studied its history in America and abroad. Therefore, I recognize it and am not surprised when it is manifested. I live by faith, not by fear, however. I know that there are many more fair-minded, good-hearted people in the world. Besides, God has shown that good can come from even the worst situations and incidents if you believe and see the glass as half full, rather than half empty. I try my best to treat everybody right and forgive, regardless of how they might treat me. My parents and teachers, as well as my faith, instilled that in me.

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What myths would you like to dispel about Islam?

First, I wish people would consider that there are more men and women in Florida prisons than there are so-called terrorists on every continent in the world. We have to keep events in proper perspective and not fall for the sensationalism and media hype. Second, our scripture speaks powerfully, directly and more frequently to people of faith — to believers — about the compelling need to band together, work for the greater good and respect our common humanity. That message satisfies my soul and keeps my mind at peace in multifaith, multiethnic and multicultural settings.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.