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Preserving Heritage: Islamic Archaeology & Malcolm X Museum, Dr. Tareq A. Ramadan

Tareq A. Ramadan is an interdisciplinary professor who teaches in both the Department of Anthropology as well as in the Near Eastern Studies Program in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Since 2007, Tareq has worked across four different departments and has taught several different courses in Middle Eastern and Islamic political history, culture, and contemporary Arab and Muslim society as well as courses in anthropology.

Dr. Ramadan is also the Research Manager and Grant-Writer for the local, Inkster-based community outreach and non-profit organization, Project We, Hope, Dream & Believe, and in July of 2021 was awarded a $380,850 grant to restore the one-time home of social revolutionary and civil rights leader, Malcolm X. The grant will be used to renovate and transform the home into a museum that will showcase and highlight Malcolm’s life and contributions.

We talk to Dr. Ramadan about his journey into anthropology, his experience working in Islamic archaeology and the importance of preserving heritage for future generations.

You work in both the Department of Anthropology and the Near Eastern Studies Program of the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Wayne State University in Detroit. You also work in Anthropology at Henry Ford College in Dearborn. What inspired you to work in this area?

Long before my college days, I had developed a strong, very personal interest in Arab culture and history, which was largely facilitated by childhood trips to my parents’ home country of Jordan. It is there that I marveled at the ancient, enchanting monuments constructed by the Nabataeans and the Romans, and which essentially dictated my passion for the history of what we often refer to as the Middle East.

Later, when I began college, I took classes in Near Eastern history, literature, and language (including Arabic and Hebrew), before majoring in Anthropology, which helped provide a new framework for which to situate my interests. A year after finishing my B.A., I decided to apply to graduate school, but first took a two-month long trip to Jordan, where I re-connected with relatives and traveled to several countries in the region by land and by sea. I wanted to do this before I started my M.A. in Near Eastern Studies to provide me with a bit more perspective. I visited places like Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman, Beirut, and Damascus, and was captivated, in many ways (though I had quite nuanced feelings about what I saw as an observer). During later trips, I also visited Istanbul as well as Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina.

Not long after starting my graduate studies, I was offered an opportunity to teach courses in Arab, Middle Eastern, and Islamic history as a graduate instructor, which I did, and essentially, that launched my foray into academia. A couple years later, I applied for my Ph.D. in Anthropology (at the same school) and started teaching classes in both programs. I found a way to combine my interests of history, archaeology, numismatics, language, culture, and religion, integrating them in my dissertation, which was an archaeolinguistic examination of Umayyad state-building in the 7th century Levant through an analysis of coins, seals, and other inscribed materials. I was fortunate in that my doctoral committee consisted of brilliant scholars who specialized in linguistic anthropology, historical archaeology, Arab and Ottoman history, and Islamic archaeology.

In many ways, my academic life stems from those early overseas adventures. However, before becoming a graduate instructor, I had never really imagined becoming a professor. Now, after teaching ten different classes over the course of fourteen years, it is hard to imagine not working in this field.

What is your experience working in Islamic archaeology?

Fortunately, during my time as a doctoral student, I was able to secure several fellowships and grants to conduct both museum-based research in Jordan as well as participate in two archaeological projects with Brown University, also in Jordan, and all of which, to varying degrees, intersected with or had an Islamic archaeological focus.

In 2012, I was a member of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP) team of students, archaeologists, and other specialists who worked together to survey, excavate, and map a portion of the Petra hinterland during a month-long stay in the Bedouin village of Umm Sayhun. While there, I took an interest in trying to document as many inscriptions as we could find, which included Nabataean, Greek, Thamudic and Arabic texts, including both modern and ancient, often found etched into the sides of the sandstone mountains surrounding Petra. The areas we surveyed yielded a vast array of artifacts spanning multiple historical periods and included Islamic pottery sherds and at least one Islamic coin from the Ayyubid period, the latter of which was of particular importance to me because I am a numismatist who specializes in Islamic coins and seals.

During another field season the following summer, I was part of another, smaller Brown University team that excavated the eighth century Umayyad (but also, multi-period) palace complex near Kerak (in Central Jordan), known as Shuqaiyra al-Gharbiyya. That was a joint project between Brown and Mu’tah University, and the excavations yielded several remarkably well-preserved artifacts from, but not limited to, the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Seljuk periods, and ranged from beautifully preserved, painted pottery sherds from the 8th century to a bronze oil lamp filler from the 12th or 13th century.

I also spent a few summers traversing Jordan’s museums, photographing, analyzing, and documenting early Islamic coins, seals, and weights, which would serve as the basis for my dissertation as well as later publications. Because of modern Jordan’s geographic centrality, connecting, Arabia to Syria, it is rich in Islamic history and remains home to many important and early Islamic structures ranging from what is believed to be one of the oldest, still-standing mosque minarets at al-Qastal, to the desert complexes of Qasr al-Tuba, Qasr Kharraneh, and Qusayr ‘Amra, to name a few. While conducting research at the incredibly welcoming American Center of Research (ACOR) in Amman in 2015, I also spent considerable time, outside the museums, visiting and photographing the numerous Islamic archaeological sites, shrines, mausoleums, desert compounds, and other lesser known, but historically significant places, scattered around the country. Also, as part of my doctoral program, I created a syllabus and entire course curriculum from the ground-up, called “An Introduction to the Archaeology of the Early Islamic Near East: 600-1000 CE”, which I plan on using if I ever teach such a course in the future.

And lastly, my dissertation, titled “Inscribed Administrative Material Culture and The Development of The Umayyad State In Syria-Palestine 661-750 CE” was one of the first archaeologically-focused dissertations that the department had seen over the past few decades, I was told. A year later, I wrote an article that was derived from the thesis, and later published in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Near Eastern Studies, titled “Religious Invocations on Umayyad Lead Seals: Evidence of an Emergent Islamic Lexicon.” I have also published numerous other articles on early Islamic coinage before, and since then.

You are Project Manager for Project We, Hope, Dream & Believe, which was awarded a $380,850 grant to restore the one-time home of social revolutionary and civil rights leader, Malcolm X. What do you hope to achieve from this area of research?

Yes, this is true. I wrote the grant, primarily in late 2020 and by the summer of 2021, we were awarded it. We were absolutely elated and are incredibly thankful for what is the African American Civil Rights Grant, provided to us by the Historic Preservation Fund through the National Parks Service.

What we hope to do, ultimately, is to shed more light on this pivotal period in Malcolm’s life, beginning with his return to Michigan in early August of 1952. Malcolm arrived at this home, the home of his brother Wilfred and his wife Ruth, at 4336 Williams St. in Inkster, which was then a village located west of Detroit, where he was eager to begin his formal relationship with the Nation of Islam, which he did, almost immediately after arriving. The home was not well-known and rarely ever referenced outside of F.B.I. documents from the early to mid-1950s- documents that were part of both federal and local law enforcement efforts to surveil him for his political views at the time. In them, we learn about Malcolm’s early days as a civilian-turned-Nation-of-Islam-minister and his plans and visions for himself and the Nation in and around Detroit, where he was based. The F.B.I. files present a rare, but detailed look at Malcolm’s life in Inkster, a place he acknowledges as his former home, in one of his last speeches (that took place in Detroit in February of 1965, just a week before he was murdered). Additionally, we hope to collect oral stories about his time there and construct a more complete picture of one of the most transformative and exciting, but also challenging periods of his brief but monumental life.

One of the most important historical aspects of the home is that it was here that Malcolm K. Little became Malcolm “X”, after joining the Nation of Islam (NOI) and later becoming an assistant minister at its Detroit Muslim Temple No. 1. The NOI is often described as a quasi-Islamic, Black Nationalist organization and was led for much of its existence (in its initial iteration), by a man his followers refer to as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam, originally known as the “Allah Temple of Islam”, was founded in Detroit during the summer of 1930 by a man known as W.D. Fard (sometimes referred to as W.D. Fard Muhammad). The group was often disparaged and maligned in local newspapers and generally referred to as a “voodoo cult” in 1930s writings, and later, were generally regarded by the media as the “Black Muslims.” Malcolm’s brothers, Wilfred and Philbert, were both instrumental in relaying to him the teachings of Elijah Muhammad which preached Black exceptionalism, alongside an Islamic moral and ethics code, while he was serving prison time in Massachusetts in the 1940s and early 1950s. Malcolm, often characterized as a staunch atheist during upon arriving in prison, took a keen interest in Elijah Muhammad’s teachings and embraced them.

The Detroit area, where the movement was born, had already become a sort of hub for local Muslim groups, though. Nine years before the establishment of the NOI, a dedicated mosque (often regarded as the U.S.’s first) had been built in 1921 by Arab immigrants from Syria, Mohammed and Hussein Karoub, in the city of Highland Park, a small 7.69 km2 city surrounded by Detroit.

Getting back to Malcolm, who also known by his Islamic name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, after completing the customary Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 (his original plans were to perform the hajj in 1959)- what we want is for the home to represent a space where people can come to reflect on Malcolm’s life there, and view photos, newspaper clips/headlines, watch his interviews, hear his speeches, and immerse themselves in all things Malcolm X. To the residents of Inkster, he has really become a hometown hero, and it if were not for Aaron Sims, a former local NAACP leader, as well as co-founder, and executive director of PWHDAB and his long-time friend and fellow board member at PWHDAB, Dawon Lynn, the home would have been demolished, like the two homes next to it were.

Ultimately, the house will be transformed into a museum dedicated to his life, his story, his faith, and his work, and will include a library filled with books about Malcolm as well as some of the books Malcolm, himself read. We also plan to showcase a first edition copy of his autobiography, where in his own words, Malcolm described his religious and spiritual life at the home, in chapter twelve, telling the reader how it was the first place he was able to practice Islam with his brother Wilfred and his family and how meaningful that was for him.

The grant will be used to renovate and transform the home into a museum that will showcase and highlight Malcolm’s life. You will also be leading archaeological excavations at the site in the coming months. Why is this important for the heritage and legacy of Malcolm X?

As the grant-writer and project manager at PWHDAB, I wanted to maintain a pro-active position that kept us looking forward. So, I felt that, given the resources available at Wayne State University in Detroit, where I teach, that maybe we could come together to document every aspect of the house, and the historical setting and physical space it occupies, in order to develop the fullest articulation of Malcolm’s life there. So, ultimately, after some talks with fellow faculty, I formed the Malcolm X Inkster Archaeological Project as a joint, collaborative venture between Wayne State University’s Department of Anthropology and Project We Hope, Dream & Believe. This is fitting, particularly since Malcolm, himself, had ties to Wayne State where he gave a speech in October of 1963.

Our plan is to begin excavations at the home in the spring of 2022 if both the weather and the pandemic permit. Wayne State’s Anthropology Department will provide all of the necessary archaeological resources needed, and will draw from the talents of students, faculty, and other specialists who will join us, and at the same time, members of the local community, in Inkster, including students, will also join in on this historical occasion.

The excavations will serve at least two purposes- one, being that we hope to unearth items tied to the period that Malcolm lived there (1952-1953) to provide us with some additional, material context to local life at that point in time and, secondly, the excavations will provide opportunities for local communities to be involved in the celebration of a hometown hero. The excavations will also provide a great opportunity to educate the wider public about Malcolm X, the writer, the traveler, the social revolutionary, the civil rights leader, the Muslim, the Black, self-taught intellectual, the African American human rights activist- and the larger than life, international figure. We hope, dream, and believe that the work we are doing reaches a national, as well as global audience.

Moreover, as a vocal proponent of civil and human rights, amidst the backdrop of the broad social justice movement in the United States, today, Malcolm’s work, and his speeches, have gained renewed interest across the country. Since breaking news about the upcoming developments regarding his home, there has been extensive interest from academics, television news channels, writers, educators, journalists, educational organizations, and religious institutions- all of whom would like to have some involvement in the curation of Malcolm’s history and legacy. We predict that the home will attract interested people from around the world, especially given Malcolm’s transcendence as well as the fact that this home, in particular, is where he was living when he formally became Malcolm X- the name history knows him best by. In 2016, the home of his sister Ella Little-Collins, and where Malcolm spent considerable time in in the 1940s, was also restored and archaeologically excavated, so there is certainly precedent for this type of historic preservation of Malcolm’s legacy.

Since I am scheduled to teach an introductory archaeology course at Henry Ford College during the upcoming winter semester, the timing could not be more perfect, as I hope to bring my students along to learn about Malcolm and to participate in the excavations around his historic home.

What does this project mean for local Muslim communities?

Local Muslim communities see Malcolm as one of the greatest figures that America produced. His persona elicits rather widespread admiration, as well as adoration for him, which cuts across generational as well as sectarian lines. Many of my students, the bulk of whom are Muslim, contacted me to find out how they could get involved in the project to restore and transform the house, as well as to join the archaeological excavations there. Local Muslim social, cultural, and educational organizations also reached out asking about how to be involve. One of the main, local, Arab American Arabic-language newspapers even picked up the story about the grant we received, so it has certainly led to a buzz across the Greater Detroit Muslim community.

Malcolm is a central and iconic symbol of resistance for many Muslim Americans who have been subjected to pre-and-post-9/11 Islamophobia and who see Malcolm’s robust critique of racism, ethnocentrism, and anti-Muslim sentiments as empowering. Thus, he is viewed as an inspirational social justice trailblazer in the American Muslim imagination, and because he lived so close to the largest concentration of Muslims in a single city outside of the Middle East, in Dearborn, Michigan, it makes Malcolm so much more accessible. So many local Muslims that I spoke to were both astounded and excited over the fact that Malcolm X’s home is, in some cases, existed just a few streets away. In fact, I can relate to those sentiments. I first learned about Malcolm X as a child, after watching the Spike Lee film (1992), only to realize, nearly thirty years later, that I lived only 8 kilometers (5 miles) from where he became Malcolm X.

How can archaeology and public archaeology more widely help to raise awareness of Islamic art and culture?

Archaeology and public archaeology can be wonderful tools to illustrate the diversity of Islamic art and culture, particularly since “Islamic” is often perceived as a term denoting homogeneity in terms of association, style, and meaning. Of course, the reality is that there exists a broad and rich tapestry of distinct Islamic cultures and artistic styles and archaeology has done a great job of revealing this. It is through archaeological survey, excavations, analysis and curation that we are able to see the full range of Islamic material culture, some of which makes its ways to museums, art installations, and other exhibits around the world. Social media has also been absolutely critical to the diffusion and circulation of Islamic art and culture and so, together, they are invaluable tools in raising awareness and drawing attention to this realm of human creativity.

Do you think Muslims are represented in archaeology and what does that mean for our understanding and the visibility of Islamic archaeology?

I think it is important to note, first, that Islamic archaeology is a broad term that really encompasses a wide range of specialists from an array of fields, and is not ideological in its drive, nor it is uniform in its goal. Practitioners come from a wide range of disciplines and often have very different politics and motivations for the work they are doing. In reality, “Islamic archaeology” is really a loose term to describe a diverse community of sometimes disparate scholars interested in better understanding Muslim societies across time and space, through archaeology, numismatics, epigraphy, and other areas of intellectual inquiry.

Nonetheless, there is a growing body of specialists in the Middle East/SWANA region, and elsewhere, that is increasingly utilizing archaeological methods and analyses to better understand the genesis and expansion of Islam as a social, cultural, and religious force in history as well as how Islam shaped the lives of diverse communities (and how they shaped Islam) across the world, diachronically. Within my own network, I am friends with several Muslim (as well as non-Muslim) archaeologists in the Middle East who continue to work at Islamic sites and who publish extensively in both Arabic and English. The Saudi-led “Roads of Arabia” exhibit, for example, is a major testament to the growing popularity of “Islamic archaeology” (even though the exhibit was multi-period, covering the pre-Islamic era as well). In practice, “Islamic Archaeology” is an umbrella term for a wide range of research of the material culture of Muslim communities through history, but which has been rapidly gaining steam over the past few decades, attracting more and more research and scholarship. As a result, we are seeing a rapid increase in publications that focus on the archaeology of “Islamic” lands, peoples, and cultures around the world.

For more information, follow Dr. Ramadan

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