Zain Abdullah


Dr. Zain Abdullah teaches religion and society and Islamic studies at Temple University, and he is the author of Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem. Abdullah is working with film crews for a three-part PBS special on Muslim Americans and a six-part series on Malcolm X for Netflix. “New York is filled with energy,” he says. “When I was a graduate student living on 33rd and 3rd, after studying all night, the morning energy would pull me, like, ‘All right, let’s go!’” As an anthropologist studying cities, Abdullah is inspired by the stories he finds in New York. His 93-year-old father, Bobby Lewis, is a rock-n-roll singer whose 1961 song Tossin’ and Turnin’ made history on both the Billboard and R&B charts. “About three years ago at BB King’s in Times Square, we went to his show, and all these rock-n-roll legends were coming up to him. We were like, ‘To Dad?!’ Growing up, we would see him on television, on American Bandstand, and were like, ‘Okay, that’s just Dad.’” The incident reminded Abdullah how little we know about our own families and how crucial it is to capture their stories before it’s too late. “I’ve been interviewing him, but I remember hanging out with him in New York as a little boy and everyone would wave and greet him. It was magical. I guess I imagine New York through these early memories with my father, and that has shaped my consciousness of the City. He is a wonderful storyteller and a consummate artist. As a writer, that’s a marvelous gift to inherit. I write stories about the Black experience and the human condition, and storytelling is what makes us most human. It is also what makes us both Muslim and incredible New Yorkers.”