African American Religions: Muslim Movements

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The organization of African Americans into movements that identified themselves as Muslim began in 1913, but the history of Islam among black Americans is much older. Indeed, the case has been made that black Muslims, "Moors" in the company of Spanish explorers, were the first to introduce Islam to America. Muslims from Islamized areas of Africa were enslaved in British North America, and a few left narratives of their experiences. Several of these, written in Arabic, are still extant. Missionaries remarked that Muslim slaves in antebellum Georgia and South Carolina blended Islam and Christianity by identifying God with Allāh and Jesus with Muammad. In the 1930s descendants of these slaves still remembered how their grandparents used to pray five times daily, facing east toward Mecca. Islam was not widespread, however, among slaves in the United States, the vast majority of whom followed the traditional religions of Africa and adopted some form of Christianity.

Muslim emigration from the Middle East in the nineteenth century did not lead to extensive contact, much less religious proselytizing, between Arab Muslims and African Americans. The potential appeal of Islam for black Americans was enunciated most effectively by Edward Wilmot Blyden (18321912), minister for the government of Liberia, who lectured widely in the United States. In his book Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (1888) Blyden compared the racial attitudes of Christian and Muslim missionaries in Africa and came to the conclusion that Islam had a much better record of racial equality than did Christianity.

Moorish Science

In the late nineteenth century, black intellectuals became increasingly critical of white Christians for supporting racial segregation in America and colonialism in Africa. Europeans and Americans, they charged, were in danger of turning Christianity into a "white man's religion." After the turn of the century, Timothy Drew (18861929), a black delivery man from North Carolina, began teaching that Christianity was a religion for whites. The true religion of black people, he announced, was Islam. In 1913, the Noble Drew Ali, as his followers called him, founded the first Moorish Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey. Knowledge of self was the key to salvation, according to Ali, and he claimed that he had been sent by Allāh to restore to African Americans the knowledge of their true identity, stolen from them by Christian Europeans. African Americans were not Negroes; they were "Asiatics." Their original home was Morocco and their true identity was Moorish-American. Possessed of their own identity and their own religion, Moorish-Americans were empowered to overcome racial and economic oppression. The doctrines of Moorish Science were explained in The Holy Koran, a sixty-page booklet that bore no resemblance to the Qurʾān of Islam. By 1925, Ali had founded several temples and moved his headquarters to Chicago. There he died under mysterious circumstances in 1929. His movement split into several factions, but it survived, as various groups claimed allegiance to several rivals who claimed to be "reincarnations" of Noble Drew Ali. Though heretical in the view of orthodox Muslims, the Moorish Science Temple was the first organization to spread awareness of Islam as an alternative to Christianity among black Americans.

The first missionaries of worldwide Islam to attempt to convert African Americans came from the Amadiyah movement which originated in India in 1889. The Amadiyah, who regarded their founder, Mirza Ghulām Amad, as a reformer of Islam, sent their first missionary to the United States in 1920. During the next decade a significant proportion of his converts were black. The Amadiyah influence was far exceeded, however, by a second indigenous group of black Muslims, known as the Nation of Islam.

Nation of Islam

In 1930, a peddler named Wallace D. Fard (later known as Walli Farrad, Professor Ford, Farrad Mohammed, and numerous other aliases) appeared in the black community of Detroit. Fard claimed that he had come from Mecca to reveal to black Americans their true identity as Muslims of the "lost-found tribe of Shabbazz." Like the Noble Drew Ali, Fard taught that salvation for black people lay in self-knowledge. Within a few years, he organized a Temple of Islam, a "university" (actually an elementary and secondary school), a Muslim girls' training class, and a paramilitary group, the Fruit of Islam. In 1934, Fard disappeared as mysteriously as he had come. The leadership of the Nation of Islam was taken up by Fard's chief minister, Elijah Poole (18971975), a black laborer from Georgia, whom Fard had renamed Elijah Muhammad.

Elijah Muhammad announced to the members of the Nation that Wallace D. Fard was actually the incarnation of Allāh and that he, Elijah, was his messenger. For the next forty years, he was regarded as such by his followers, who came to be known as the Black Muslims. According to the teachings of Messenger Muhammad, as he was called, humankind was originally black, until an evil scientist created a race of white people through genetic engineering. The whites he created turned out to be devils. Their religion is Christianity, while that of the original black people is Islam. Allāh has allowed the race of white devils to rule the world for six thousand years, a period about to end with the destruction of the world, after which a new world will be ruled by a nation of righteous blacks. Instead of striving for integration, then, blacks should separate themselves from white society which is corrupt and doomed.

Elijah Muhammad elaborated a detailed program for the Nation that included establishing Black Muslim businesses in order to achieve economic independence and demanding that the federal government set aside separate land for African Americans in reparation for slavery. Black Muslims refused to vote, to participate in the armed services, or to salute the flag. The separate identity of members of the Nation of Islam was reinforced by a strict ethical code. Alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sports, movies, and cosmetics were forbidden, along with pork and other foods identified as unclean or unhealthy.

In the 1950s, Malcolm Little (19251965), who had converted to the Nation of Islam in prison, rose to prominence as chief spokesman for Elijah Muhammad. As Malcolm X he became one of the most articulate critics of racial injustice in the country during the civil rights period. Rejecting the nonviolent approach of Martin Luther King, Jr., he argued that separatism and self-determination were necessary if blacks were to achieve full equality. During his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, however, he observed the racial cosmopolitanism of Islam and concluded that the doctrine of the Nation of Islam was incompatible with his new understanding of the religion. Breaking with Elijah Muhammad, he founded his own organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., in New York City. Shortly thereafter, he was assassinated. The life and death of Malcolm X helped to increase interest in Islam among black Americans.

In 1975, Elijah Muhammad died, and his son Warithuddin (Wallace Deen) Muhammad succeeded to the leadership of the Nation of Islam. Rapidly, he began to move the members of the Nation of Islam toward embracing orthodox Islam. He explained that the teachings of Wallace D. Fard and his father were to be understood allegorically, not literally. He opened the Nation of Islam to white membership and encouraged his followers to participate in the civic and political life of the country. These radical changes were symbolized by changes in name, as the Nation of Islam became the World Community of Islam in the West and then the American Muslim Mission. This last name signified the close connection that Imam Warithuddin Muhammad sought to develop between African American Muslims and the worldwide community of Islam. These changes were rejected by some Black Muslims. Under the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan, this faction has broken with the American Muslim Mission, returned to the original teachings and ideals of Elijah Muhammad, and readopted the old name, the Nation of Islam.

Although the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam have excited the most interest in the popular and the scholarly press, increasing numbers of black Americans have converted to Islam without having gone through the channels of these heterodox movements, as orthodox Muslim societies and associations have placed them in direct contact with the Qurʾān and with the history of Muslim culture and spirituality.

See Also

Elijah Muhammad; Malcolm X; Nation of Islam.


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Fauset, Arthur Huff. Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults in the Urban North. Philadelphia, 1944.

Lincoln, Charles Eric. The Black Muslims in America. Boston, 1961.

Malcolm X, with Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, 1965.

Waugh, Earle H., Baha Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi, eds. The Muslim Community in North America. Edmonton, 1983.

New Sources

Austin, Allan D., ed., African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York, 1997.

Curtis, Edward D., IV. Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation and Difference in African American Islamic Thought. Albany, N.Y., 2002.

Dannin, Robert. Black Pilgrimage to Islam. New York, 2002.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York, 1998.

McCloud, Aminah Beverly. African American Islam. New York, 1995.

Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African American Experience. 2d ed. Bloomington, Ind., 2003.

Albert J. Raboteau (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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African American Religions: Muslim Movements

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African American Religions: Muslim Movements