In the 1960s, the term “American Muslim” tended to refer to members of the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group that thrived during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement. But shifting demographics have altered that image, which has been replaced by portrayals of Muslims as immigrants — stereotypes fueled by a new set of politics and national security anxieties.
Now, only about 9 percent of America’s Muslims are black and native-born.
Not so in Philadelphia, where local Muslim leaders say the majority of Muslims are still black.
Washington Post photographer Salwan Georges and I traveled to Philadelphia in conjunction with Thursday’s front page story about a dwindling community of black Muslims — descendants of the Nation of Islam — in rural Mississippi.
Philadelphia was once a Nation of Islam stronghold, home to 12 affiliated temples. After the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, died in 1975, his son Warith Deen (W.D.) Mohammed broke with his father’s theology of black racial superiority and led most of the Nation’s members to embrace orthodox Islam.
In Philadelphia, Salwan and I spent an evening hanging out at Masjidullah, one of the city’s larger mosques, founded by W.D. Mohammed’s followers, and a continued source of community service and political engagement.
W.D. Mohammed, who died in 2008, broke with the Nation, but he too saw American Islam as intertwined with the black experience and maintained some of its cultural practices. Masjidullah and other historically black mosques have thus focused much of their attention on addressing problems of inequality and poverty among black Americans. Masjidullah has a monthly Sadiqa program, in which its members take food to people in need. It has a Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts program, like many other large American mosques, and it attends interfaith gatherings with other mosques, churches and synagogues.
“We also have various cultural programs here in this facility. So from time to time, we have jazz shows, spoken word concerts, plays, dinners and all kinds of educational symposiums, forums for learning Islamic topics,” said Malik Shabazz, a chemical engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency and one of Masjidullah’s imams.
Today, Masjidullah is one of only three mosques out of 37 in Philadelphia that are tied to the W.D. Mohammed tradition. The larger Muslim population has diversified, and some say W.D. Mohammed’s teachings are no longer relevant. But the legacy lives on in the city’s culture and politics and has helped define a modern-day Philadelphia that Muslim leaders say remains a magnet for Muslim immigrants and new converts.
Once dubbed “Muslim Town” in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, Philadelphia is a city that appears uniquely — or at least relatively — at ease with its long-standing Muslim community and identity, even as the United States grapples with a wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and harassment.
“It so happens that even the Christian people are giving their kids Arabic names like Ayesha, Khadija, Khalil,” said Ahmad Nuruddin, a native-born black Philadelphian who converted to Islam in his 20s and now serves as a leader within the city’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community, part of a predominantly South Asian sect.
Nuruddin described his own conversion experience like this: “There were a lot of Muslims in Philadelphia, so I thought: ‘Maybe I should see if it’s something I could use. … Maybe I should see if there is something there for me.'” So one day, he picked up a Koran.
In Philadelphia, there is a plethora of Muslim-owned businesses, an Islamic history museum, and numerous Muslim community organizations and charitable initiatives. There is a Muslim city council member and a Muslim state senator; the chairman of the city Board of Commissioners is Muslim, and there has been a Muslim police chief. The Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Kabir are observed holidays within the Philadelphia school system, and 2017 was the fifth year in a row that City Hall hosted an annual Iftar dinner in celebration of the holy month of Ramadan.
“Everywhere you go, Muslims in the bank, Muslims in the hospital, in the police department,” said Shabazz.