During the Slavery Years
Muslims have been part of American history since pre-Columbus times. Indeed, early explorers used maps that were derived from the work of Muslims, with their advanced geographical and navigational information of the time.
Some scholars estimate that 10-20 percent of the slaves brought over from Africa were Muslims. The film “Amistad” alluded to this fact, portraying Muslims aboard this slave vessel trying to perform their prayers, while chained together on deck as they crossed the Atlantic. Personal narratives and histories are harder to find, but some stories have been passed on from reliable sources:
— Omar Ibn Said (ca. 1770-1864) was born in the Muslim state of Futa Toro in Western Africa, in present-day Senegal. He was a Muslim scholar and trader who was captured and enslaved. He arrived in South Carolina in 1807, and was sold to James Owen of North Carolina.
–Sali-Bul Ali was a slave on a plantation. His owner James Cooper wrote: “He is a strict Mahometan (sic); abstains from spirituous liquors, and keeps various fasts, particularly that of the Ramadan…”
— Lamen Kebe was a slave who used to be a school teacher in Africa. He shared information about the texts and teaching methods used in the Islamic schools of his country.
— Abdul Rahman Ibrahim Sori spent 40 years in slavery before he returned to Africa to die. He wrote two autobiographies, and signed a charcoal sketch of himself by Henry Inman, which was featured on the cover of “Freedman’s Journal” and is on display in the Library of Congress.
Many of the Muslim slaves were encouraged or forced to convert to Christianity. Many of the first-generation slaves retained much of their Muslim identity, but under the harsh slavery conditions this identity was largely lost to later generations.
During the Civil Rights Era
Most people, when they think of African-American Muslims, think of the “Nation of Islam.” Certainly, there is an historical importance to how Islam took hold among African-Americans, but we will see how this initial introduction transformed in modern times.
Among the reasons why African-Americans have been and continue to be drawn to Islam are 1) the Islamic heritage of West Africa from where many of their ancestors had come; and 2) the absence of racism in Islam in contrast to the brutal and racist enslavement they had endured.
In the early 1900s, a few black leaders strived to help the recently-freed African slaves regain a sense of self-esteem and reclaim their heritage. Noble Drew Ali started a black nationalist community, the Moorish Science Temple, in New Jersey in 1913. After his death, some of his followers turned to Wallace Fard, who founded the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930. Fard was a mysterious figure who declared that Islam is the natural religion for Africans, but did not emphasize the orthodox teachings of the faith. Instead, he preached black nationalism, with a revisionist mythology explaining the historical oppression of the black people. Many of his teachings directly contradicted the true faith of Islam.
In 1934, Fard disappeared and Elijah Muhammed took over the leadership of the Nation of Islam. Fard became a “Savior” figure, and followers believed that he was Allah in the flesh on earth. The poverty and racism rampant in the urban northern states made his message about black superiority and “white devils” more widely accepted. His follower Malcolm X became a public figure during the 1960s, although he separated himself from the Nation of Islam before his death in 1965.
Muslims look to Malcolm X (later known as Al-Hajj Malik Shabaaz) as an example of one who, at the end of his life, rejected the racially-divisive teachings of the Nation of Islam and embraced the true brotherhood of Islam. His letter from Mecca, written during his pilgrimage, shows the transformation that had taken place. As we shall see shortly, most African-Americans have made this transition as well, leaving behind the “black nationalist” Islamic organizations to enter the worldwide brotherhood of Islam.
The number of Muslims in the United States today is estimated to be between 6-8 million. According to several surveys commissioned between 2006-2008, African-Americans make up about 25% of the Muslim population of the U.S.
The vast majority of African-American Muslims have embraced orthodox Islam and have rejected the racially-divisive teachings of the Nation of Islam. Warith Deen Mohammed, a son of Elijah Mohammed, helped lead the community through a transition away from his father’s black nationalist teachings, to join the mainstream Islamic faith.
The number of Muslim immigrants to the United States has increased in recent years, as has the number of native-born converts to the faith. Among immigrants, Muslims come largely from Arab and South Asian countries. A major study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2007 found that American Muslims are mostly middle-class, well-educated, and “decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes.”
Today, Muslims in America represent a colorful mosaic that is unique in the world. African-Americans, Southeast Asians, North Africans, Arabs, and Europeans come together daily for prayer and support, united in faith, with the understanding that they are all equal before God.
— Islam in America – Three-Part Series
by Huda, About.com