In 2006, U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison was elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th district, becoming the state’s first African American representative and the first Muslim to serve in Congress.
To both praise and controversy, Ellison was sworn into office on a copy of the Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson, a reminder of the religious tolerance the nation was founded upon. Ellison’s faith journey was founded on that same principle.
Raised by devout Catholic parents, Ellison, the third of five sons, remembers respect, tolerance and social justice being constant topics in his household, and he was given the right to choose his path at a young age. As a kid, when Ellison became disinterested in Catholicism, seeing the faith as “just rules and regulations, orthodox dogma,” he stopped attending services.
“I think I was an atheist or agnostic at some point, as well,” he tells EBONY.com.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year of college at Wayne State University that a 19-year-old Ellison made a true connection with Islam and chose the faith for himself.
“I was studying for a calculus test with a friend of mine from Libya when he said he had to leave and go to Jum’ah and I asked, ‘What’s that?’ He thought I should come and see for myself. I was curious, so I went with him and I saw all these shoes out in the hallway in the student center at Wayne State and men and women were sitting in there on sheets and there was a speaker talking about things that were interesting to me. I was working on anti-apartheid activities at the time and I was active on racial justice and fairness issues, so I liked what the speaker was saying. I went back the week after that and started reading more on the Qur’an and started reading other books on Islam.”
As Ellison’s interest grew, he sought out a deeper connection to the Muslim community off-campus. “I was driving on the highway in one of the major arteries in Detroit called Davidson and saw a sign that said ‘Muslim Center.’ I met the guys at the Davidson Muslim Center and they welcomed me in. After going there for a month, I took the Shahada, which is the first pillar of Islam, ‘There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his messenger.’ It was Islam’s message of social justice and equality that affected me the most and satisfied my spiritual yearning and wondering about God, man, nature, and humanity.”
Though his family was initially surprised by his conversion to Islam, Ellison, who has a Baptist minister for a brother, says his family has “always been pretty accepting.” Ellison took that example with him as he started his own family with former wife, high school sweetheart Kim Ellison, who was not a Muslim, though their four children were raised in the faith. Respect and humility, he says, are key in healing the divide that differences in religion can create between loved ones, especially concerning the afterlife.
“While there are corporal descriptions of what the afterlife is like in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, what's going on there is the finite trying to describe the infinite. If God knows everything, started everything and is the only one who knows how it's going to end, how can any human know what God wants?
“I believe that scriptures give us insight. You approach faith with humility. You can have some idea but it boils down to: Do you see religion as a club or do you see religion as a path? Do you see it as a wall that separates you or do you see it as a bridge that connects you to God and other people? When you see it as a bridge, you aren’t so worried about bringing others over to your side.”
When confronted with members of his faith who do not share this view, Ellison says, “I try to remind people of what the Book says. I try to talk about the tolerance of Mohammed. I do not believe that it's proper or right to impose my religion in any way and in the Qur’an it specifically says not to impose religion [e.g. “You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion”]. There are things that I don't partake in. I don't drink, I don’t gamble, because Islam says not to, but for those who want to, that's their choice.
“Whatever religion [people] profess and what their religion says to do are often very divergent. People will politicize religion; we see it in every faith, in every religion. We see it with Pat Robertson, in my opinion, and we see it with the Taliban.
“People appropriate religious beliefs and advance their own agenda. People get turned off by that and may become atheists, but Stalin was an atheist. So the real question isn't religion or not religion or which religion, it’s: Are you willing to kill people or deprive people of freedom in order to force religion upon them?”
Ellison’s support for freedom of choice extends well beyond religion. Motivated by his faith, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been at the forefront of human and civil rights issues, consistently voting pro-choice and most recently co-sponsoring legislation to protect the voting rights of the disenfranchised.
“I try to live tolerance in my own way, which is why, as a politician one of my key priorities is to stand up for human rights. So, you'll find me working on racial justice, gender justice, immigration and LGBT issues.
“Some Muslims wonder why I work for LGBT rights, but it's not for us to judge people. We trust God to decide what's right and what's right. So, yeah, I do find people in Islam who are intolerant and sometimes even violently so, but ultimately our purpose is to demonstrate tolerance, live it, show it, and speak up for it.”
Brooke Obie writes the column, “The Spiritual Life,” and is an EBONY.com contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.