Islam in North America

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Islam in North America

Originating in the seventh century ce through the revelations, visions, and messages received by the prophet Muhammad in Arabia, Islam spread rapidly throughout North Africa. Black African converts to Islam were called Moors and not only helped conquer southern Spain but also gained a reputation as skilled navigators and sailors. The Moors who accompanied the Spanish explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were among the first to introduce the Islamic religion to the Americas. However, the greater impact of Islam in British North America occurred with the arrival of African Muslims (adherents of Islam) from the Islamized parts of West Africa who had been captured in warfare and sold to the European traders of the Atlantic slave trade.

Muslim Slaves in North America

The presence of Muslim slaves has been ignored by most historians, who have tended to focus on the conversion of Africans to Christianity or on the attempts to preserve aspects of traditional African religions. Yet their presence has been attested to by narrative and documentary accounts, some of which were written in Arabic. Yarrow Mamout, Job Ben Solomon, and Lamine Jay arrived in colonial Maryland in the 1730s. Abdul Rahaman, Mohammed Kaba, Bilali, Salih Bilali, and "Benjamin Cochrane" were enslaved in the late eighteenth century. Omar Ibn Said, Kebe, and Abu Bakr were brought to southern plantations in the early 1800s; two others, Mahommah Baquaqua and Mohammed Ali ben Said, came to the United States as freemen about 1850. Abdul Rahaman, a Muslim prince of the Fula people in Timbo, Fouta Djallon, became a slave for close to twenty years in Natchez, Mississippi, before he was freed; he eventually returned to Africa through the aid of abolitionist groups.

Court records in South Carolina described African slaves who prayed to Allah and refused to eat pork. Missionaries in Georgia and South Carolina observed that some Muslim slaves attempted to blend Islam and Christianity by identifying God with Allah and Muhammad with Jesus. A conservative estimate is that close to 30,000 Muslim slaves came from Islamic-dominated ethnic groups such as the Mandingo, Fula, Gambians, Senegambians, Senegalese, Cape Verdians, and Sierra Leoneans in West Africa. Although the African Muslim presence in North America was much larger than previously believed, Islamic influence did not survive the impact of the slave period. Except for the documents left by the Muslims named above, only scattered traces and family memories of Islam remained among African Americans. In his novel Roots, Alex Haley's ancestral Muslim character, Kunta Kinte of the Senegambia, exemplifies these survivals.

Loss and Rediscovery

By the late nineteenth century, black Christian churches had become so dominant in the religious and social life of black communities that only a few African-American leaders who had traveled to Africa knew anything about Islam. Contacts between immigrant Arab groups and African Americans were almost nonexistent at this time. After touring Liberia and South Africa, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal church recognized the "dignity, majesty, and consciousness of worth of Muslims" (Austin, p. 24; Hill and Kilson, p. 63). But it was Edward Wilmot Blyden, the West Indian educator, Christian missionary, and minister for the government of Liberia, who became the most enthusiastic supporter of Islam for African Americans. Blyden, who began teaching Arabic in Liberia in 1867, wrote a book, Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (1888), in which he concluded that Islam had a much better record of racial equality than Christianity dida conclusion that struck him especially strongly after he compared the racial attitudes of Christian and Muslim missionaries whom he had encountered in Africa. Islam, he felt, could also be a positive force in improving conditions for African Americans in the United States. Although he lectured extensively, Blyden did not become a leader of a social movement that could establish Islam effectively in America. That task awaited the prophets and forceful personalities of the next century.

The massive rural-to-urban migrations by more than four million African Americans during the first decades of the twentieth century provided the conditions for the rise of a number of black militant and separatist movements, including a few that had a tangential relationship to Islam. These proto-Islamic movements combined the religious trappings of Islama few rituals, symbols, or items of dresswith a core message of black nationalism.

In 1913 Timothy Drew, a black deliveryman and street-corner preacher from North Carolina, founded the first Moorish Holy Temple of Science in Newark, New Jersey. Rejecting Christianity as the white man's religion, Drew took advantage of widespread discontent among the newly arrived black migrants and rapidly established temples in Detroit, Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and cities across the South. Calling himself Prophet Noble Drew Ali, he constructed a message aimed at the confusion about names, national origins, and self-identity among black people. He declared that they were not "Negroes" but "Asiatics," or "Moors," or "Moorish Americans" whose true home was Morocco, and that their true religion was Moorish Science, whose doctrines were elaborated in a sixty-page book, written by Ali, called the Holy Koran (which should not be confused with the Qur'an of orthodox Islam).

Prophet Ali issued "Nationality and Identification Cards" stamped with the Islamic symbol of the star and crescent. There was a belief that these identity cards would prevent harm from the white man, or European, who was in any case soon to be destroyed, with "Asiatics" then in control. As the movement spread from the East Coast to the Midwest, Ali's followers in Chicago practiced "bumping days," on which aggressive male members would accost whites on the sidewalks and surreptitiously bump them out of the waya practice that reversed the Jim Crow custom of southern whites forcing blacks off the sidewalks. After numerous complaints to the police, Noble Drew Ali ordered a halt to the disorders and urged his followers to exercise restraint. "Stop flashing your cards before Europeans," he said, "as this only causes confusion. We did not come to cause confusion; our work is to uplift the nation" (Lincoln, p. 54). The headquarters of the movement was moved to Chicago in 1925.

The growth of the Moorish Science movement was accelerated during the postWorld War I years by the recruitment of better educated but less dedicated members who quickly assumed leadership positions. These new leaders began to grow rich by exploiting the less educated membership of the movement and selling them herbs, magical charms, potions, and literature. When Ali intervened to prevent further exploitation, he was pushed aside, and this interference eventually led to his mysterious death in 1929. Noble Drew Ali died of a beating; whether it was done by the police when he was in their custody or by dissident members of the movement is not known. After his death, the movement split into numerous smaller factions, with rival leaders claiming to be reincarnations of Noble Drew Ali.

The Moorish Science Temple movement has survived, with active temples in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and a few other cities. In present-day Moorish temples, membership is restricted to "Asiatics," or non-Caucasians, who have rejected their former identities as "colored" or "Negro." The term el or bey is attached to the name of each member as a sign of his or her Asiatic status and inward transformation. Friday is the Sabbath for the Moors, and they have adopted a mixture of Islamic and Christian rituals in worship. They face Mecca when they pray, three times a day, but they have also incorporated Jesus and the singing of transposed hymns into their services. The Moorish Science Temple movement was the first proto-Islamic group of African Americans and helped to pave the way for more orthodox Islamic practices and beliefs. Many Moors were among the earliest converts to the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslim movement.

Islamic Missionaries

While the Moors were introducing aspects of Islam to black communities, sometime around 1920 the Ahmadiyyah movement sent missionaries to the United States, who began to proselytize among African Americans. Founded in India in 1889 by Mizra Ghulam Ahmad, a self-proclaimed Madhi, or Muslim messiah, the Ahmadiyyahs were a heterodox sect of Islam that was concerned with interpretations of the Christian gospel, including the Second Coming. The Ahmadiyyahs also emphasized some of the subtle criticisms of Christianity that were found in the Qur'an, such as the view that Jesus did not really die on the cross (Surah 4:157159).

As an energetic missionary movement, the Ahmadiyyah first sent missionaries to West Africa, then later to the diaspora in the United States. Sheik Deen of the Ahmadiyyah mission was influential in converting Walter Gregg, who became one of the first African-American converts to Islam and changed his name to Wali Akram. After a period of studying the Qur'an and Arabic with the sheik, Akram founded the First Cleveland Mosque in 1933. He taught Islam to several generations of Midwesterners, including many African Americans. He also worked as a missionary in India. Although it was relatively unknown and unnoticed, the Ahmadiyyah mission movement is significant in that it provided one of the first contacts for African Americans with a worldwide sectarian Islamic group, whose traditions were more orthodox than the proto-Islamic black-nationalist movements.

About the same time that the Ahmadiyyah movement began its missionary work in the United States, another small group of orthodox Muslims, led by a West Indian named Sheik Dawud Hamed Faisal, established the Islamic Mission to America in 1923 on State Street in Brooklyn. At the State Street Mosque, Sheik Dawud taught a more authentic version of Islam than the Ahmadiyyahs because he followed the Sunna (practices) of the prophet Muhammad; whereas the Ahmadiyyahs believed in the tradition of the Mahdi, or Islamic messianism, Dawud belonged to the tradition of Sunni orthodoxy. The sheik welcomed black Americans to mingle with immigrant Muslims. He taught Arabic, the Qur'an, the Sunna-Hadith tradition, and sharia, or Islamic law, emphasizing the five pillars of Islam: the credo (shahadah ) of Islam that emphasizes belief in one God and Muhammad as the messenger of Allah; prayer (salat ) five times a day facing Mecca; charity tax (zakat ); fasting (saum ) during the month of Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj ) if it is possible. Sheik Dawud's work was concentrated mainly in New York and New England. He became responsible for converting a number of African-American Muslims.

A smaller group and third source of African-American Sunni Muslims was the community in Buffalo, New York, that was taught orthodox Islam and Arabic by an immigrant Muslim, Professor Muhammad EzalDeen, in 1933. EzalDeen formed several organizations, including a national one, Uniting Islamic Societies of America, in the early 1940s.

Orthodox Islam

The work of the Ahmadiyyah movement, Sheik Dawud's Islamic Mission to America and the State Street Mosque, Imam Wali Akram's First Cleveland Mosque, and Professor EzalDeen's Islamic Societies of America was important in establishing a beachhead for a more orthodox and universal Sunni Islam in African-American communities.

During the turmoil of the 1960s, young African Americans traveled abroad and made contact with international Muslim movements such as the Tablighi Jamaat. The Darul Islam movement began in 1968 among dissatisfied African-American members of Sheik Dawud's State Street Mosque in Brooklyn and was led by a charismatic black leader, Imam Yahya Abdul Karim. Sensing the disenchantment with the lack of leadership, organization, and community programs in Sheik Dawud's movement, Imam Karim instituted the Darul Islam, the call to establish the kingdom of Allah. The movement spread to Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. A network of over forty mosques was developed between 1968 and 1982. After a schism in 1982, the Darul Islam movement declined in influence, but it has since been revived under the charismatic leadership of Imam Jamin al-Amin of Atlanta (the former H. Rap Brown of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Other smaller Sunni organizations also came into existence during the 1960s, such as the Islamic Party and the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood. It is ironic, however, that the greatest impact and influence of Islam among black people were exerted by another proto-Islamic movement called the Nation of Islam.

Nation of Islam

In 1930 a mysterious peddler of sundry goods who called himself Wali Fard Muhammad began to spread the word of a new religion, designed for the "Asiatic black man." He soon developed a following of several hundred people and

established Temple No. 1 of the Nation of Islam. Focusing on knowledge of self as the path to individual and collective salvation, Master Fard explained that black people were members of the lost-found tribe of Shabazz and owed no allegiance to a white-dominated country, which had enslaved and continuously persecuted them. When Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934, his chief lieutenantthe former Robert Poole, now called Elijah Muhammadled a segment of followers to Chicago, where he established Muhammad's Temple No. 2 as the headquarters for the fledgling movement.

Elijah Muhammad deified Master Fard as Allah, or God incarnated in a black man, and called himself the Prophet or Apostle of Allah, frequently using the title the honorable as a designation of his special status. Although the basic credo of the Nation of Islam stood in direct contradiction to the tenets of orthodox Islam, the movement's main interests were to spread the message of black nationalism and to develop a separate black nation. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad emphasized two basic principles: to know oneself (a development of true self-knowledge based on the teachings of the Nation of Islam); and to do for self (an encouragement to become economically independent). He also advocated a strict ascetic lifestyle, which included one meal per day and a ban on tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and pork. From 1934 until his death in 1975, Muhammad and his followers established more than one hundred temples and Clara Muhammad schools, and innumerable grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and other small businesses. During this period, the Nation of Islam owned farms in several states, a bank, a fleet of trailer trucks for its fish and grocery businesses, and an ultra-modern printing plant. Muhammad's empire was estimated to be worth more than eighty million dollars.

Elijah Muhammad's message of a radical black nationalism, which included the belief that whites were devils, was brought to the American public by a charismatic young minister who had converted to the Nation of Islam after his incarceration in a Boston prison in 1946 for armed robbery. Upon his release from prison in 1952 and until his assassination in 1965, Minister Malcolm X, the former Malcolm Little, had an enormous impact on the growth of the movement.

Extremely intelligent and articulate, Malcolm x was an indefatigable proselytizer for the Nation of Islam, founding temples throughout the country and establishing the newspaper Muhammad Speaks. For his efforts, he was awarded the prestigious post of minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem and appointed the national representative by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm x led the Nation of Islam's attack on the word negro as a reflection of a slave mentality and successfully laid the ideological basis for the emergence of the black consciousness and Black Power movements of the late 1960s. However, a dispute with Elijah Muhammad about future directions and personal moral conduct led Malcolm x to leave the Nation of Islam in 1964. Louis Farrakhan, another charismatic speaker, took Malcolm's place as the national representative and head minister of Temple No. 7. On a hajj to Mecca, Malcolm x became convinced that orthodox Sunni Islam was a solution to the racism and discrimination that plagued American society. On February 21, 1965, the renamed el Hajj Malik el Shabazz was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem while delivering a lecture for his newly formed Organization for Afro-American Unity.

Schism and Unity

When Elijah Muhammad died a decade later, in February 1975, the fifth of his six sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad, was chosen as his father's successor as supreme minister of the Nation of Islam. In April 1975, Wallace Muhammad shocked the movement by announcing an end to its racial doctrines and black nationalist teachings. He disbanded the Fruit of Islam and the Muslim Girls Training, the elite internal organizations, and gradually moved his followers toward orthodox Sunni Islam. His moves led to a number of schisms, which produced several competing black nationalist groups: Louis Farrakhan's resurrected Nation of Islam in Chicago, the largest and best known of the groups; Silas Muhammad's Nation of Islam in Atlanta; and a Nation of Islam led by John Muhammad, brother of Elijah Muhammad, in Detroit.

In the evolution of his movement, Wallace Muhammad took the Muslim title and name Imam Warith Deen Muhammad (in 1991 the spelling of his surname was changed to the British Mohammed). The movement's name and the name of its newspaper also changed several times: from the World Community of Al-Islam in the West (Bilalian News ) in 1976 to the American Muslim Mission (American Muslim Mission Journal ) in 1980; then in 1985 Warith Deen Muhammad decentralized the movement into independent masjids, which means "place of prayer"(Muslim Journal ). Farrakhan's Nation of Islam also published its own newspaper, the Final Call. With several hundred thousand followerspredominantly African Americanswho identify with his teachings, Mohammed has continued to deepen their knowledge of the Arabic language, the Qur'an, and the Sunna, or practices of the Prophet. Immigrant Muslims from Africa, Pakistan, and Middle Eastern countries also participate in the Friday Jum'ah prayer services.

Although it adheres to the basic tenets of orthodox Sunni Islam, the movement has not yet settled on a particular school of theological thought to follow. Since every significant culture in Islamic history has produced its own school of thought, it is Mohammed's conviction that eventually an American school of Islamic thought will emerge in the United States, comprising the views of African-American and immigrant Muslims. Imam Warith Deen Mohammed has been accepted by the World Muslim Council as a representative of Muslims in the United States and has been given the responsibility of certifying Americans who want to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. In 2000, Imam Mohammed again dissolved his movement, the Muslim American Society, because he wanted to shake up his followers who were becoming too complacent. However, the major African-American Muslim leaders and their masjids have chosen to support Imam Mohammed's Mosque Cares Ministry, so his movement continues to exist but under a different name.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the leaders of the two largest African-American Muslim movements, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed and the Honorable Louis Farrakhan, have made a rapprochement by holding joint prayer services in Chicago during the last weekend of February, the traditional time of the Nation of Islam's Savior's Day celebration. Imam Mohammed has accepted Farrakhan as a true Muslim because he led his movement to hold the formal Friday Jum'ah prayer service and to adhere to other practices of orthodox Islam, such as following the lunar calendar for the Ramadan celebration and reciting the formal prayers in Arabic. Although both leaders are friendly, they have agreed to keep their movements separate rather than merge them.

In its varying forms, Islam has had a much longer history in the United States, particularly among African Americans, than is commonly known. In the last decade of the twentieth century, about one million African Americans belonged to proto-Islamic and orthodox Islamic groups. Islam has become the fourth major religious tradition in American society, alongside Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. In black communities, Islam has reemerged as the dominant religious alternative to Christianity.

See also Al-Amin, Jamil Abdullah (Brown, H. "Rap"); Fard, Wallace D.; Farrakhan, Louis; Islam in the Caribbean; Malcolm X; Muhammad, Elijah; Muslims in the Americas; Nation of Islam; Noble Drew Ali


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lawrence h. mamiya (1996)
Updated by author 2005