Islam in America: From African Slaves to Malcolm X
When we think of Islam-if we do at all-we might summon an image of Denzel Washington playing a stern and passionate Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 film, or maybe we imagine Louis Farrakhan on the speaker's platform at the Million Man March in 1995. Some might have encountered Middle Eastern Muslims on the nightly news, mostly as "fundamentalists" and "terrorists." A few have met immigrant Muslims in their neighborhood. But Muslims are more diverse than popular images allow, and American Muslim history is longer than most might think, extending back to the day that the first slave ship landed on Virginia's coast in 1619. It incorporates two groups-Muslims from other countries who migrated to America by force or by choice, and African Americans who created Muslim sects in the twentieth century. Thus, a consideration of the Islamic presence in America provides a new perspective on several important (and familiar) issues that will be used to organize this essay:
- What is the history of slavery in the United States?
- How have immigrants resisted and accommodated American culture?
- What were African Americans' experiences in the northern cities after the Great Migration?
- How has African-American Islam addressed race relations since the 1960s?
- Is America a Christian nation?
Islam is a diverse and long-standing American religion-one that has had a significant presence in the United States.
There are over one billion Muslims in the world, most of whom live in Asia, not in the Middle East as most Americans presume. As in Christianity and Judaism, Islam (which is second only to Christianity in worldwide adherents) includes a number of communities or branches. The two major groups are Sunni Muslims, who constitute about 85 percent of Muslims, and Shii (or Shiite) Muslims, who account for 15 percent of the world's Islamic population. All traditional groups are represented among the five million Muslims in the United States, along with some new movements that have been cultivated on American soil.
Despite their diversity, Muslims have a good deal in common. They look to the Qu'ran- the sacred book that records the message of Allah [God] as it was revealed to his final prophet, Muhammed (A.D. ca. 570-632), and they seek to follow the example (sunna) of the prophet. All accept the Five Pillars of Islam, the basic beliefs and duties of Muslims:
A profession of faith (shahada). All Muslims must proclaim "There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet." Note here that Muhammed is not God in Muslim theology but rather a spokesperson or mouthpiece for the divine.
Prayer (salat). All Muslims pray five times daily while facing the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Alms (zakat). Faith also means outreach. To give thanks and follow the example of Muhammed, Muslims with the economic means must give alms to those who are less fortunate.
Fasting (sawm or siyam). Muslims who are physically able are to fast from dawn to dusk during the ninth month (Ramadan) of the Islamic calendar.
A pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. At least once in their lives, all Muslims who are able must make a pilgrimage to the Great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, toward which they have knelt while praying five times daily during their lives. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X offers a vivid account of this pilgrimage, which was life-transforming for him. It was on hajj, he recounts, that he first glimpsed the possibility that people of different races could get along.)
Muslim Slaves in America
Inscription on the portrait:
|Inscription on the reverse side of the portrait:
This old man's history was extremely interesting. Born in the region around Timbuctoo and the son of a King or Chief, he was taught to read & write Arabic, & having committed some offence he was banished by his people who were named by some writers Malis, or Melles, and by Stanley, Malais. He was captured and sold into slavery to a ship which brought him to South Carolina, where he was purchased by a young upcountry planter, who treated him harshly, and he ran away, wandered over the line into North Carolina, was found ill at a negro cabin, was arrested as a runaway slave, pit in jail at Fayetteville, and having attracted attention by writing on the walls in Arabic, was released by Gen. James Owen on bond, afterward bought by him from the S. C. planter and treat as a pensioner and friend the remainder of his life. Although a devout Mahometan he became a devout Presbyterian, and lived befriended & respected by everybody until his death in 1864, at the age of about 90 years. He is buried in the family graveyard of the Owens in Bladen County N. C. It was said that he was a Free Mason. He was a short "Mustee" colored man, polite, and dignified in his manners. I remember him very distinctly. AM Waddell. 1905
From The DeRosset Papers, the Southern Historical Collection - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
A small but significant proportion of African slaves, some estimate 10 percent, were Muslim. An interesting story is that of Omar Ibn Said (also "Sayyid," ca. 1770-1864), who was born in Western Africa in the Muslim state of Futa Toro (on the south bank of the Senegal River in present-day Senegal). He was a Muslim scholar and trader who, for reasons historians have not uncovered, found himself captive and enslaved. After a six-week voyage, Omar arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in about 1807. About four years later, he was sold to James Owen of North Carolina's Cape Fear region. In 1819 a white Protestant North Carolinian wrote to Francis Scott Key, the composer of The Star Spangled Banner, to request an Arabic translation of the Bible for Omar, and apparently Key sent one. Historians dispute how much the African Muslim leaned toward Christianity in his final years, but Omar's notations on the Arabic bible, which offer praise to Allah, suggest that he retained much of his Muslim identity, as did some other first-generation slaves whose names have been lost to us. (Omar's Arabic bible, which has recently been restored, is housed in the library of Davidson College in North Carolina.)
Muslims and Immigration, 1878-1924
Most history courses cover the immigrants who changed America's population throughout the nineteenth century. But not all immigrants were European or Christian. Many were Chinese and Japanese migrants who practiced Buddhism and other Asian traditions. Thousands of Muslims came as well, and most of these first Islamic immigrants were Arabs from what was then Greater Syria. These Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese migrants were poorly educated laborers who came seeking greater economic stability. Many returned, disenchanted, to their homeland. Those who stayed suffered isolation, although some managed to establish Islamic communities, often in unlikely places. By 1920, Arab immigrants worshiped in a rented hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and they built a mosque of their own fifteen years later. Lebanese-Syrian communities did the same in Ross, North Dakota, and later in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Michigan City, Indiana. Islam had come to America's heartland.
The first wave of Muslim immigration ended in 1924, when the Asian Exclusion Act and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act allowed only a trickle of "Asians," as Arabs were designated, to enter the nation.
African-American Islam in the Urban North
A Euro-American, Mohammed Alexander Webb (1847-1916), proclaimed himself a Muslim at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, but converts have been more prominent among Americans of African descent, especially those who followed the mass migrations of southern blacks to northern cities beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century. Noble Drew Ali established a Black nationalist Islamic community, the Moorish Science Temple, in Newark, New Jersey in 1913. After his death in 1929, one of the movement's factions found itself drawn to the mysterious Wallace D. Fard, who appeared in Detroit in 1930 preaching black nationalism and Islamic faith. Fard founded the Nation of Islam there in the same year. After Fard's unexplained disappearance in 1934, Elijah Muhammed (1897-1975) took over, and he attracted disenchanted and poor African Americans from the urban north. They converted for a variety of reasons, but, for some, the poverty and racism in those cities made the Nation of Islam's message about "white devils" (and "black superiority") plausible.
Race Relations since the 1960s
|Islamic Cultural Center of New York|
Elijah Muhammed won an important convert when Malcolm Little (1925-1965) joined the faith in a prison cell. Malcolm X, the name he took to signal his lost African heritage, became a public figure during the 1960s, although he separated himself from the Nation of Islam before his death. After Elijah Muhammed's death in 1975, the movement split. One branch, under the leadership of the fifth son of Elijah Muhammed, moved closer to the beliefs and practices of Islam as it is practiced in most of the world. This group, which would later change its name to the American Muslim Mission, is the largest African-American Islamic movement. The much smaller Nation of Islam, which the American Muslim Mission and other Islamic groups condemn as racist and unorthodox, is much more familiar to most Americans. Many American Muslims would claim that the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, is not representative of either immigrant or convert Islam in the United States.
Muslims and the New Immigrants after 1965
|Islamic Center of Long Island|
Post-1965 significant demographic changes related to Muslims took place in America. Palestinian refugees arrived after the creation of Israel in 1948. More important for the history of American Islam, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 relaxed the quota system established in 1924, thereby allowing greater Muslim immigration. The gates opened even more widely after the 1965 revisions of the immigration law. Since then, Muslim migrants have fled oppressive regimes in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria; and South Asian Muslims, as from Pakistan, have sought economic opportunity. By the 1990s, Muslims had established more than six hundred mosques and centers across the United States.
Is America a Christian Nation?
Islam may soon be the second largest American faith after Christianity, if it is not already. Estimates vary widely, and a moderate estimate is five million American Muslims in 1997-more than Episcopalians, Quakers, and Disciples of Christ. As we reflect on Islam in America and recall the history of Muslim slaves and the early debates about the First Amendment, we might ask whether America is a Christian nation as some have proclaimed. Could we elect a Muslim president? If so, would she (while we are imagining, let's get bold!) view this land as a New Jerusalem or take her presidential oath on a Christian Bible, as has been traditional?
Thomas A. Tweed holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and is currently the Zachary Smith Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Tweed is the author of Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (Oxford University Press, 1997) and the editor of Retelling U.S. Religious History (California University Press, 1997). He most recently co-edited, with Stephen Prothero, Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (Oxford University Press, 1999).
Topics: Islam, Malcolm X, Slavery
as salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullah wabarakatuhu!!!!
I have always understood that the 'Nation of Islam' are a misguided community. Initially not out of their wish but because of those who decided to manipulate their communities that didnot have so much information about Islam and that time maybe didnot have means to know more that what was presented to them. Just like the Bible was manipulated by those who sought Authority over others into what it is now.
Reading one of your posts just reminded me of how the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints came into existance. Not to say that Christianity as it is now is what was reveal to Prohet Issah (AS) but it just goes to show you how scripture have been manipulated by Power Hungry Individuals.
May the Almighty Allah keep us among the Righteous and Favored, to leave this world as Believers (Muslims).
NOI followers believe that a mad black scientist created white people. They believe that the Qu'ran was written by black scientists in Africa, not to mention that "God is black." Mecca is not in Africa, and there is not mother ship hovering in space.
There's nothing remotely "honorable" about a charlatan who misrepresented and twisted Islam's teachings. Grow up.
I challenge any nay sayers to prove he isn't the one that the world has been looking for....
Imam Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid
The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, Inc.
Jazakallah, may Allah reward you abundantly.
It is a good article. I am one who came through the ranks of the old Nation of Islam and the metamorphosis into al-Islam. I was in leadership positions in all of stages, due to the application of what we were to study. It would take a book to do justice to the subject matter. A friend of mine, who is the daughter of the former Acting Secretary of State while he was the Undersecretary of State of Agriculture of Egypt, Bro. Yehia Sultan, was the Curator of the Egyptian Archives. She told me when I was over there a few years ago that it is carved in stone, near the pyramids, that they came over here way back then. They state the direction that they took and that they came across some islands. And then they came to a vast expanse of land. There are two books about the Africans travels to the Americas for centuries before Christopher Columbus' "discovering" it. I have read pamphlets put out by Euro-centric scientists claiming that African types had been here and traded with the Native Americans before Columbus. "The Message" magazine's cover of 7/1996 states"RED ROOTS OF ISLAM IN AMERICA SHARING OUR ISLAMIC HERITAGE". It documents the trade and mixing of the Africans, who happened to be Muslims, with them. When I was a child Egypt was known as a part of Africa, there was no Middle East. Read: "They Came Before Columbus", and "Before The Mayflower" to get more details on the subject. Queen Isabella refused to let Christopher Columbus use the "astrolaube" to chart his way here. He knew that the Africans had been coming here and that they had better maps than the Europeans. Queen Isabella wanted to prove that they could do it with their knowledge. 1492 is when King Ferdinand's and Queen Isabella's efforts defeated the African Muslims in Cordoba, Spain. That was the last city that the Muslims held in Europe for almost 700 years. That is partly why the Latino's culture is close to that of how Islam is to be. Study and know for yoursel
The greek here is: http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/words.pl?word=801&page=1
KJV Deuteronomy 32:21 They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
Their "foolishness" in the sense that many are like spoiled children tends to anger the hupocrites yet as Christians we have hope for a better day when all peoples will dwell in harmony, having overcome their "foolishness". We must overcome and come to terms with our personal folly. The greek word for foolishness here is: http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/words.pl?word=3474&page=1
1 Corinthians 1:23-25 23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; 24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Isaiah 65:25 25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad's job was two-fold. He had the hardest job of any messnger or any profit. His teachings gave us some of the finest most intelligent Muslims this country has ever seen. He gave us Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Wallace D. Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan Muhammad.
To lable his teachings as Black Supremacy, smacks of white supremacy. What he gave us was the anicdote given him by Allah, to combat the poison of 400 years of slavery and oppression. When he taught in six words what Allah taught him, "Accept Your Own and Be Yourself". The teacher of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Master W.F. Muhammad(to whom all praise is due forever)told Elijah who his "ownself" was. He said," your ownself is a Righteous Muslim."
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad did not want us desiring to be anybody other than what Allah created us to be. Had he tried to feed us straight Islam back in the 30's, 40, 50's, 60's, we would have been surley taken away with Arab/Middle Eastern culture. Islam does not belong to any peole or group. Islam is the very nature of God himself. That nauture and that essance of God is also in his creation and that's us, "The man that Allah fashioned from "Black Mud". So bringing us back to that original man cleaning off the dross(impurities) of slavery and mis-education and returning us to our own.
To return the black man to his own through Islam, this is the two-fold mission I spoke of. This not Black Supremacy, the Koran bears witness to this.
May Allah bless you with underst
I think the article gives a foundational perspective of the African American historical journey to Islam. I respect and acknowledge all believers regardless of their affiliations. I believe that the Nation of Islam provided a gateway for a revolution of African Americans at the time to formulate and embrace a different pathway which has led many believers to a more fundamental Islamic practice. Our Ummat is diverse as is demonstrated by the various cultures which embrace Islam. May Allah (swt)increase our faith and place love and sincerity between us all. Ameen
that ALLAH ( soub hana wa ta ALLAH) bless you
to say that christianity is the number one religion in followers isnt true...most "christian" countries arent anymore. the 60 million french are counted as such but shouldnt...maybe 10% are still followers of a religion...same for most of europe. Now if we speak of cultural basis then yes about 3 billiob people are influenced by judeo christian morals
he is just as Muslim as any other Muslim. We follow the Sunnah
and Qur'an. We just don't speak alot of Arabic--yet. In fact, the
Hon. Elijah Muhammad taught all of the traditions of Prophet
Muhammad (PBUH). Although you will find lots of "nationalism"
in his writings, Message to the Black Man of America clearly lays
out all five pillars of Islam, including congregational daily and
Friday prayers. He always taught us this. So does Min. Farrakhan.
Let's leave the judgement to Allah. If your heart is pure and you
research, you'll find your sisters and brothers of the Nation of
Islam are bona fide Muslims that have inspired Muslims around
muslims which they are not. they are the nation of infidels at
best. They are a disgrace and embarrasement to Islam and all