Throughout her life, Jadayah Muhammad has acquired many impressive titles: Graduate, after completing years of study in the subjects of anthropology, social entrepreneurship and East Asian studies for Mandarin Chinese at New York University; Executive Director, after volunteering for a non-profit dedicated to serving Black youth; and Representative to the United Nations. Throughout the years, she’s also acquired another title—world traveler. At 27 years old, the Brooklyn, N.Y. native has journeyed to five different continents—learning, experiencing and connecting across at least 16 different countries. She can hold conversations in Spanish, Mandarin, and is now learning Japanese, but is aiming to become fluent in 16 languages.
While traveling is an impressive hobby for some, it’s more than that for Jadayah. With a vigorous passion for seeing Black people rise into a better condition, traveling is a tool for her to accomplish that goal. And all of her accomplishments thus far, are just the beginning.
Meet Jadayah Muhammad.
[Note: this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity]
Joshua’s Truth: Can you walk us through the different roles/jobs you currently hold?
Jadayah Muhammad: In a nutshell, I have come to understand myself as just a connector between people and ideas, cultures, organizations, countries, businesses, and things like that. My main work right now is serving as the executive director of the International Youth Leadership Institute (IYLI) here in New York. We’re a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing black youth into leaders that’ll help our people to experience elevation and freedom and justice and equality. We do leadership training and college prep and career exploration for high school and middle school students. One of the things that we’re known for, how I found out about IYLI…because of the international travel program that they have, where they give scholarships for students to travel to countries in the African diaspora. So, back in high school, my Jr. Vanguard sisters who I grew up alongside in the [Nation of Islam], for a whole month in the summer, I suddenly didn’t see them. And then next thing you know, I’m on Facebook scrolling and then I see pictures of them, you know, smiling in front of the pyramids of Giza, in Egypt, and I’m like, what? Were we out to next? Like, when was y’all gonna let me know about Egypt? I want to go! I traveled with IYLI to Tanzania that year and got a scholarship and we were out there for a whole month. It was amazing. We got to learn Swahili, we got to visit several towns, it was heavily academic. So I resolved at that time, in Tanzania, as we were on our way to Zanzibar, that all of us should get to have that opportunity. So I volunteered with IYLI all throughout college. I had started college when I was 16, so it helped to really prepare me as a person who’s younger than the people around me to actually socialize with other people around my age, other young people.
So boom, right after college, as soon as I graduated, I was on the prayer rug asking Allah what my next step should be. I was thinking about grad school and whatnot, but what I heard back on the prayer rug was that I was going to start working for IYLI full time. And so a few months after that, I became the Executive Director of IYLI after my mentor, Michael Webb, who had co-founded the organization all those years ago, had fallen ill.
What I do day-to-day, I’m IYLI’s executive director, but I also represent this organization at the United Nations, because the U.N. works with nonprofits or NGOs all over the world to give and receive information.
So, I do a lot of different things, but what I love to do most is work with young people and connect different cultures and organizations and people and ideas together. We welcomed a delegation of Japanese high school students into Harlem and I got to show them around and we brought the [Muhammad University of Islam] students with them, too. We showed them to different spots of historical significance, took them to historical mosque sites, met up with some students in Harlem, had some really great discussion and it was just a great time. So I’m trying to just paint a picture. So it’s not just one thing I do, but those underlying things like youth leadership, Black people, intercultural exchange, like those things, I think kind of connecting things to solve problems basically, that’s what I try to do.
J.T.: What inspires you to continue international travel and your work in that arena?
J.M.: Travel for me is something that I have always loved. As long as I can remember, no matter what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to do it internationally. But at one point in my life, I wanted to be a doctor. I was gonna be like an international doctor, like an international eye doctor. So that part has always been in me.
What I really love is connecting people, and the amazing things [that] can happen when we do connect, right? There are people all over this world who are working to make this world better and it’s part of what gives me hope for our future because the world is just getting crazier and crazier by the day, but having the opportunity to take a group of young people out to Senegal or to Brazil, and having them see the connections between the issues that we face right at home, and that our people who may look just like us are also facing similar issues elsewhere, but they’re approaching it differently. But now, by virtue of seeing how we get to learn and approach the world, like on another side of the world, how they’re approaching these issues, we get to have a fuller understanding of the issues themselves.
That promise of getting to experience friendships in all walks of life is a very real thing. It’s extremely real, extremely tangible. And I’ve gotten to experience it through traveling. I literally do have friends all over this world, and that’s thanks to The Teachings and that’s thanks to getting to travel and see for myself. I cannot stress that enough. Just seeing the reality of it just makes me want to experience it even more.
J.T.: Are there any experiences from your childhood that cultivated your love for travel?
J.M.: I have a distinct memory of being three and having a dream of being on a beachside and going from one house into another house into another house. And each house was styled differently. I guess the houses had different kinds of international styles in them, but I just remember loving to see how each house was decorated. I just distinctly remember that and that, to me, was like traveling. Just being in a different, new environment and seeing the newness that each house offered, that to me was like, oh, wow.
My parents just always instilled in me a respect for the cultures in the world. My mom one day, she used to just have this habit of throwing books on my bed and be like, hey, read that. She gave me this book called The Big Travel book. Essentially, it’s just this huge, ginormous reference book that has a different country on every page. So I used to flip through the pages and kind of ‘travel’ in that way. I think they just really whetted my curiosity about the world from a very early age, and taught me to appreciate just different kinds of music, especially like living here in New York City. Not just appreciating different kinds of music, but appreciating different aspects of culture that exists. Right where I live, all I have to do is just stand on my balcony. I can hear African drums, I can hear Caribbean music, I can hear hip hop, I can hear Latin music. There’s just so much to appreciate.
J.T.: Out of the countries you’ve visited, what have been your favorites?
J.M.: I definitely did love Japan, like, mad much, and I remember being out there and just saying it out loud. I’ve been to Japan twice now, but every time I go, it’s winter. So it’s like yo, I know that I love this place because I’m choosing to be here in the freaking cold, when I could have chosen to go somewhere warm, like Egypt.
I would say Costa Rica is also up there for sure. The people were so kind and just the vibes in the area were just so peaceful. It’s a country without an army. The whole country is just so beautiful. Boom, you got beach, you got city, you got jungle. You got planes and everything in between. It’s just so wonderful.
Korea is another fave. It’s such a soulful place and their culture mirrors ours a lot.
Italy also—oh my god, the food’s amazing. Views—amazing.
Senegal in West Africa. Senegal is so friendly that you could just knock on the door in a random city or town and be like, “Hi, I’m a stranger. I’m hungry.” And then people would be like, “Yeah, sure, of course, come in, we were just about to have dinner.” Even if they don’t have a lot, they will set a place for you, say feel free to stay over, sleep over, meet my mom. They were so welcoming.
J.T.: How did you become a member of the Nation of Islam?
J.M.: I’m born and raised in the Nation of Islam. I’m a second generation Muslim. My father, he just turned 82 a few weeks ago, he joined the Nation officially in 1960. And he’s from Harlem. He just happened to be walking down the street one day and Malcolm X stopped him and said, “Hey, brother, you should come to hear me speak.” At the time, he cursed him out because he was like, “Well, who are you? Why would I want to hear you speak for?” But he eventually accepted that invitation.
I didn’t write my letter until I was 18. I had always known…that the Nation of Islam in particular was where I wanted to be. It’s the fact that no matter where I go in the world, I just keep finding more evidence of the truth of what we’re taught. I remember seeing things on the news and being like, oh, the Minister said this will happen like 10 years ago.
So, I am in fact in a space where truth is. And in knowing and hearing the Minister say time and time again, that as women we are to learn as much as we can. I remember at the Vanguard Retreat in 2011…it was right before I started college. My school had given a scholarship for me, that’s how I went to Italy in the first place. But my parents were like, no, we don’t want you going to Europe. No, I don’t feel comfortable with it, yada yada… But then the Minister said at that retreat and Mother Tynnetta Muhammad said at that retreat that the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad had wanted women in delegations to travel the world, even as far as China.
J.T.: Can you expound on The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan’s instructions to you?
J.M.: I happened to write [my letter] right before I left to go and live in China. And I happened to get it back and recite maybe four days before I left. But the day before I left, it just so happened that the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan came to town in New York. I got to talk to him and I got to ask him, Brother Minister, how can I be helpful, even though I’m going to be away and abroad for a while? He told me you go and you learn as much as you can, so you could bring it back and help our people. So I took that personally.
Right now, we’re coming off the heels of Saviours’ Day, and the youth summit that carried the theme of ‘We Are At War.’ In that youth summit, I had the honor of getting to share some thoughts about how we as youth in our Nation can take the Nation to the next level. And the Minister, when he spoke, and there were 12 of us who had shared thoughts before him. He had told us that, you said it right, but between saying it right and doing it right is a world. And he said that, the sad thing is that we will be held accountable to what we say. And so he challenged us to get clean, to be clean and to elevate the level of our conversation and he asked the question, what will it take to bring the world to the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad?
These are the things that I’ve been reflecting on since then. At one point, he turned to us who had spoken and [it felt] very much like you know, I’m talking to you. So it is definitely not something I take lightly.
One thing that I would also add is that my desire is just to be helpful however I can. And I find that I really love to see and experience the fact that our Teachings are universal. So our first mandate is to get the mentally dead, the lost sheep, our people…in the wilderness of North America. And in accessing God’s promise, which for me, friendships in all walks of life, it doesn’t mean that you need a passport to access that. At the same time, I do love making friends for our Nation.
So like I said, we just brought a Japanese delegation to Harlem and they asked me to set up a conversation with a local organization that’s already well known, but it just so happened that that place was eight blocks away from Muhammad Mosque #7. So I was like, there’s simply no way that you want to have a conversation about being Black in America and not invite the students of the Muhammed University of Islam. So it was really wonderful like boom, I came through with my headpiece, took them through town. We also had our M.U.I. students looking so beautiful in their headpieces and suits and bow ties and they represented. It just made me so proud because I feel like sometimes we treat our Minister and our Teachings and our words just like rhetoric…like things to just memorize, and not ever actually think about what we’re saying. But what we have in our Teachings is something that is needed everywhere. And the original family is so expansive. So if I can be helpful in any way to make sure that we as a Nation see ourselves as the Nation that we are, and not just a group of people who recite general orders but don’t actually stop to think about what they mean. But wherever Allah wants me to be, that’s where I want to be. Period.
J.T.: How have you seen other cultures around the world express their Islam?
J.M.: Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said that Islam is not to supersede the local culture except in areas where there’s a clash. I’m paraphrasing, but basically Islam as expressed throughout the world tends to be expressed in a way that still has respect for local culture.
Senegal, West Africa
Out in Senegal where people have traditional religions, or some had traditional religions before the current expression of Islam became more well-known, they practice Sufi Islam, which is an Islamic expression that has more emphasis on the mystical aspects of Islam. And so I noticed that in Senegal, a lot of people may talk about the jinn or just energy differently than I had experienced before. But still praying five times a day, still “we don’t eat pork here.” Just a different kind of expression, which was interesting to me.
I did a semester abroad in China. Actually, this year would make 10 years ago. But I remember it was a day I did not even cover my hair, minding my business, walking in a park, and then a woman approached me from the back.
She’s like, “(Jadayah speaks in Chinese).”
I was like, “Huh?”
She had said, “Oh, excuse me, ma’am. Are you Muslim?”
And again, my hair wasn’t even covered. So I was like, “Uh, yes, but how did you know?”
And she’s like, “I can just kind of tell.”
And I was like, “What?”
And she was like, “Well, I’m Muslim, too.”
And I was like, “Whattt?”
Xi’an; Shaanxi Province, China
Chinese halal food is the bomb. I have to say that. It turns out in China, they have a huge Muslim population. Actually, they have huge Muslim populations. And so, in Xi’an, which is the very first city where the Chinese civilization was officially established, as it is now, it’s China’s oldest city.
We went to Xi’an because my friends were interested in the history. The Terracotta Warriors are buried there. The very first Emperor of China, he’s buried there. There’s a lot of historical landmarks that are there.
It’s also home to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, which is [one of] the oldest mosque(s) in China. [It] is [over 600] years old. It’s actually older than the whole United States of America. And they have a whole Muslim community around there.
They be selling different kinds of halal food. But I just remember going into this mosque and getting to pray in that mosque and knowing that everything that I was touching was older than the country that I live in now, which was like, whoa. And then meeting people from there, and then hearing someone say, “Oh, my name is (Chinese name), but my Muslim name is Kareem Abdullah.” I’m like, “What?”
We know and we’re taught, “Oh, there are Muslims all over the world.” There’s like two billion plus of us, but to actually get to see it in real time in front of me and get to have conversations with people. That just goes back to what I was saying: the truth of Allah’s promise. There’s so many situations where, by virtue of me being a Muslim or someone realizing that I’m Muslim or it being physically apparent that I am a Muslim, so many moments where there could have been tension or maybe even danger or just awkwardness. That just turns immediately into opportunities for friendship and laughter and getting to know each other and, yo, instant discounts and help where help might not have come before. I’ve gotten to see that. That whole aspect of Muslim hospitality, I’ve seen that time and time and time again, and just the kinship among Muslims, where it’s like, “Oh, you’re one of us? Oh, yeah, yeah, cool. Great. No problem, no problem.” Oh, my God, just stories that I could tell.
J.T.: As a Muslim in the Nation of Islam, what are some of the different interactions, experiences and conversations you’ve had with other Muslims around the world?
Kyoto; Honshu, Japan
When I was in Japan, the sister that I was traveling with, she traveled every day in her headpiece. We had never discussed, “Oh so, what are you wearing?” We never discussed it.
Boom, there was this moment when we were in Kyoto, and we visited a temple or a shrine, and then they see her and they’re like, “Oh.”
“Yeah, well, we’re about to pay for tickets.”
And they’re like, “Yeah, well, sisters get in for free.”
And what I thought they meant was, “Oh, there’s like a family discount kind of situation.”
And I was like, “Well, yeah, she is my sis.”
And they were like, “No, no, no.” And then they do like a bow. “No, sisters get in for free.” So the message was clear.
They were like, “Yeah, no, no, sisters get in for free.”
And I was trying to say, “(Speaks in Japanese).” I was trying to explain, “I am also squad squad, like I’m with her, too. We’re of the same set.”
Because the message they were giving was clear. They were like, “We see her in her garment. We know what she’s about. You are not wearing the same thing, so are you gang, too? Are you also with it?”
And I was like, “Yes, yes, yes. (Speaks in Japanese). We’re the same.”
And they were like, “A’ight, okay.” They gave us the tickets.
There was like a second inner circle, like an inner sanctum of the temple, where you could get into, but again, you had to pay. They said just tell them that we told you that the sisters get in for free, and sure enough, that’s what happened. And so we had this whole moment, we’re like, “Thank you, Master Fard. Thank you so much. Thank you. We just really appreciate the appreciation, just merely off the strength of her garment.”
I covered my hair basically the whole time we were out there. Wherever I travel now, I basically wear a tam or a chiffon scarf or something. I’ve never actually been abroad in my headpiece. But after seeing that, yo, next time, I’m about to be headpieced out.
Right before the pandemic, I was in Serbia for a conference on education for global citizenship. I had landed. I realized that I foolishly didn’t study any Serbian before I got there. So before I left the airport, I stopped in a little convenience store.
And this lady who was running the convenience store, she didn’t have any customers, so I just stopped and I asked, “Okay, how do I say a couple of things? How do I say nice to meet you? How do I say what’s your name? How do I say my name is?”
“(Woman answers in Serbian).”
Okay, boom. Got it. So I can at least pick those things up. “How do I say this is too expensive?”
I don’t remember those things, now. But okay, this is how I say it, cool, right? Boom. I leave the airport. I hop in a cab to get to the hotel.
The cab driver sees me and he starts a conversation and he’s like, “Oh, so you are American, huh?”
And I’m like, “Oh, well, I have an American passport.”
And he’s like, “Mmm. No, no, no, no, no. I don’t like.”
He explains to me in broken English that he actually speaks six languages. He speaks Serbian, German, French, Russian, some other language and some other language. He’s tried multiple times to try and learn English, but he just can’t get over it. He can’t learn it because he can’t get over the fact that NATO and the United States bombed his country in .
He’s like, “I just cannot. I don’t like it. No, I hate you guys.”
And I tried. I was like, “Oh, well, I get how you feel. I’m Black in America, and don’t you know, the very first bombing, the first domestic bombing that the American government ever carried out was Black Wall Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma.”
But he didn’t understand what I was trying to say. He wasn’t really trying to. He just kind of waved it off. He was like, “Aghhh. I hate you guys.”
And I’m just like, yo. On the inside, I’m like, “Yo, I’m just trying to get to my destination. I just want to get there alive.” I’m like, “Come on, now. This is stressful.”
And then he’s like, “And besides, I’m Muslim and you all think that Muslims are terrorists and we are not terrorists.”
And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” I was like, “You’re Muslim. I’m Muslim.”
And he looked back at me and he was like, “You’re Muslim? I’m Muslim, too.”
And we’re like, “Ayeee, ayeee, As-Salaam Alaikum, ayeee, Walaikum Salaam warahmatullah wabaraktu, yada, yada.”
So now that we’re going back and forth, he was like, “Oh, I did not know that there was Muslims in America.”
And I was like, “Yeah, there’s millions of us. You never heard of the Nation of Islam?”
And he’s like, “Uhh.”
I’m like, “Muhammad Ali?”
He’s like, “Oh, oh, yes, yes.”
I’m like, “And Malcolm X.”
He’s like, “Ohhh.”
I’m like, “Louis Farrakhan.”
He’s like, “Hm?”
I’m like, “Yeah, yeah. Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam. There are millions and millions of Muslims there.”
He was like, “Oh, I didn’t know.”
And I was like, “Yeahhhh.”
I said, “A lot of us are Black. We are there, there’s just not many of us.”
He said, “Ohhhh.”
He asked me my name.
I said, “I’m Jadayah Muhammad.”
And he said, “Ohhhh.”
And I said, “What’s your name?”
He said, “I am Hafiz.”
And I was like, “What?”
Coming from New York, Brother Abdul Hafeez [Muhammad], that’s my godfather. He was our minister, but he was also godfather to many of the children in the mosque.
I was like, “Oh my god, my godfather’s name is Hafeez.”
And he’s like, “Your what?”
And I was like, “Uhhh, my uncle, my uncle. My father’s brother? Yeah, Hafeez.”
And he was like, “Ohh.”
And I was like, “Are you indeed a Hafiz?”
Because ‘hafiz’ means one who has memorized the teachings, the words. Usually, you only get the name Hafiz if you’re born with it or if you memorize the Qur’an, or if you memorize the teachings in some way, and that’s why the Minister gave Brother Hafeez that name, because he could recall word for word, bar for bar, the Supreme Wisdom.
And so he’s like, “Oh, yeah.” And so he starts quoting the Qur’an to me. He’s like, “Do you know any Qur’an, too?”
And I’m like, “Yeah, I know a little Qul Huwa Allahu Ahad, Allahu Samad.” Now we’re just Arabicing at each other.
And then boom, by the time we got to the hotel, he was like, “Ahh, thank you, sister. Salaam Alaikum warahmatullah wabaraktu.”
He got my bags. He pulled it up to the hotel, told me that there was a masjid right on the block of where we were staying. It was like a complete shift in how the conversation started, where it was straight up hatred flat out: “I don’t like y’all at all,” to, “Oh, yes sister. No problem. No problem. Thank you so much. Have a blessed day.”
Everything changed. And so when I tell you, I’ve experienced that so many times, where like I said, Muslim, immediate friendship, immediate discounts, immediate, “Oh, we’re gonna look out for you.”
That spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood in the Ummah around the world is so very real, and you definitely feel so much more safe with that.
J.T.: What are your hopes and prayers for the future?
J.M.: I feel a lot of hope for the future, even though I see that things are just getting more difficult still.
It is such a blessing that we have [the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan] with us in our presence. And someday, we won’t have him in our presence for a while.
I think about the [parable of the talents] all the time.
The master was like, “Here’s some talents” to the guys who worked for him. He’s like, “You get one and you get two and you get five.”
When he comes back, one of them had invested and had doubled his profits, and he’s like, “Good job.” And then the one he gave five to had multiplied it even more, and he’s like, “Great job.”
The one worthy of being hated was the one who took that one talent and then buried it and was like, “Oh, here it is. I buried it, and here it is, just as you left it, because I knew that you were going to try and reap something that you yourself didn’t sow.”
And he [the master] was like, “Literally get out of my face and never come back.”
My prayer is that, one, we take advantage of the time we have with [the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan still in our presence, with that covering over us. And then when he’s eventually not with us physically in this moment, before he returns, that we take that mantle and run with it, so that when he does return, that he can be proud of us and that we’ll have taken our Nation even further; that we’ll have been able to do even more great works, get more of his people, just capture more ground. That’s my sincere prayer. And just with the knowledge that we don’t have to do it by ourselves.
That, for me, is what I would love to see in terms of why I love connecting people. When you put two brains together and everyone’s brain just processes things differently, it’s like an atom. The only difference between a magnetized piece of metal and an unmagnetized piece of metal, it’s not the material that changes but it’s the charge in the atoms, and then that magnetism happens.
What happens when we’re together and how those things that we accomplish in the structure of our sisterhood and of our Nation. We can do so much more together with unity than we can by ourselves. That’s my prayer for what the future will hold.