Under Suspicion: Muslims in America

A history of African American Muslims

African American Muslims comprise an often-overlooked part of Islam in America. A sizable minority — 15 to 20 percent — of those brought to the Americas as slaves orginated from the Muslim-dominated nations of West Africa. African American Muslims, often called indigenous Muslims, have navigated “their faith and Americanness without contradiction,” said Columbia University researcher Zaheer Ali, even when that includes a critique of America. Tenets from the Nation of Islam, such as raise your family and set up your own businesses, are also “fundamentally American” ideals, Ali said. Read related article.


The Moorish Science Temple was founded by North Carolinian Timothy Drew, who became Noble Drew Ali. The temple featured Islamic dietary restrictions and greetings.


Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey brought his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which espoused political and economic nationalism throughout the African Diaspora, to Harlem. UNIA meetings often featured Islamic missionaries from the Ahmadiyyah movement (originating from what is now Pakistan), which claimed kinship with African Americans because of their own hardships under British colonialism.


W. Fard Muhammad combined the self-sufficiency doctrines of Garvey and the religious nationlism of Ali to found the Nation of Islam (NOI) in Detroit.


African American Sunni communities were founded in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.


Elijah Poole, a Georgia native, was introduced to the NOI’s “apocalyptic fury” by his wife, Clara, and took over the leadership under the name Elijah Muhammad.


Malcolm X, a former gangster and drug addict converted to the NOI in prison, where Muhammad’s emphasis on moral transformation and racial separation had gained a foothold among the dispossessed. He helped springboard the organization to national prominence and controversy, and became one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures.

Early 1960s

NOI membership surpassed the 100,000 mark, according to Manning Marble, author of “Malcolm X, a Life of Reinvention.”


The lifting of immigration-ban quotas, as part of the 1965 Civil Rights legislation, brought an influx of mostly orthodox Sunni Muslims from South Asia and North Africa who began establishing their own communities, challenging and exchanging information with African American Muslims.


The Dar al-Islam movement of primarily African American Muslims sprang up in New York. Former 1960s radical H. Rap Brown became Jamil Abdullah al-Amin and established an Atlanta-based Sunni Islamic community. Imam Siraj Wahaj, formerly with the NOI, who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia, founded a Brooklyn-based community.


Elijah Muhammad died, and his son, Imam Warith D. Muhammed, embraced a more orthodox form of Islam. Former NOI temples became Masjids (‘mosque’ in Arabic), with Washington’s Temple Number Four becoming the Masjid Muhammed, where Joshua Blackwell worshiped.


The Saudi-sponsored Muslim World League began U.S. missionary work and invited African Americans to study overseas. The result was a strain of ultra-conservative Salafi Islam “began to take root in black communities,” said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va.


In the early 1980s, with black communities experiencing surges in drug use and violence, Louis Farrakhan, a former Malcom X protege, reconstituted the NOI with a strident rearticulaion of black nationalism and often anti-white or anti-Semitic language that sparked national fury and headlines.


Hip-hop was ascendant, and like bebop or jazz artists before them, rap artists converted to or sampled from Islam, which in many quarters, had come to represent “the blackest spot on your black identity card,” said Columbia University researcher Zaheer Ali. Hip-hop artists influenced by Islam include Mos Def, Jill Scott, Lupe Fiasco, The Fugees, Ice Cube and more.


Farrakhan organized and led the Million Man March, evidence of his influence beyond the mosque.


Ali, the Columbia University researcher, said African American Muslim communities have been marginalized in post-9/11 debates about Islamic extremism. As an example he cites last year’s “Islam: Questions & Answers” episode on ABC’C 20/20, which aired during the Ground Zero mosque debate without any African American Muslims.

SOURCE: Lonna O'Neal Parker, Sylviane Diouf, Zaheer Ali, CNN. GRAPHIC: James Buck - The Washington Post. Published Nov 5, 2011.