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Wed, 03.22.2023

American Black History and Islam, a story

*This date celebrates the beginning of Ramadan 2023. Because of this, the Registry looks briefly at 7th-century Islam and Black history.

Though most people think Black Muslims are a recent observable fact associated only with the Nation of Islam, Africans in the Americas have long been supporters of Islam. The religion first came to the United States with Spanish explorers, whose crews included Black Islamic slaves, independent contractors, mercenaries, and seamen. Omar Ibn Sa'id was a slave from Senegal, brought to America during the Middle Passage.  He was an author and scholar his Muslim community and faith.

It is estimated that at least twenty percent of the slaves brought to the U. S. were Muslim believers of Islam. The founder of the Muslim faith of Islam was Muhammad, born about A.D. 570 in Mecca, a city in western Arabia. Muhammad believed he was chosen to be the last and most important of God's great prophets, which included Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses.

According to the faith, The Qur'an (also spelled Koran) is the Holy book of Islam, which is the word of God as given directly to Muhammad in the 7th century. As with all religions, Islam expects followers to adhere to certain duties, known as the Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars of the Islamic faith are: bearing witness to the faith; daily prayer five times a day; one pilgrimage to Mecca; fasting during Ramadan; and giving money to the poor. Women are taught to wear a hajib (cloth covering the head and neck in public), and males and females are not allowed to marry outside their faith. Believers follow a prescribed diet and avoid alcohol. The Islamic year operates on a lunar calendar and includes several important holidays such as Ramadan (which lasts for a month) and requires believers to take no food, drink or tobacco until sunset and abstain from sexual relations; Id al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan; Haij, the first day of a pilgrimage to Mecca; and Hijra, which celebrates the New Year.

The term "Black Muslims" used to be a common name for members of the Nation of Islam, one of many Islamic faiths. However, the first actual African American Muslim sect was the Moorish Science Temple Divine, founded in Newark, New Jersey, by Timothy Drew (Noble Drew Ali) in 1913. In 1925, the name of the faith was changed to the Moorish Temple of Science. When Noble Drew Ali died in 1929, two of his protégés split the sect into separate groups the Moorish Temple of Science, led by Sheik Timothy Givins El in Chicago, and the Temple of Islam, led by Wali D. Fard (known as Wali Fard Muhammad), a white man in Detroit, Michigan. Between 1930 and 1933, Fard recruited approximately 8,000 followers among Blacks in Detroit. Due to the faith's rapid growth, Fard decided to train several ministers to help him. Among these was an autoworker named Robert Poole (Elijah Muhammad), who became the leader of the Temple of Islam, which later became the Nation of Islam (NOI). Almost instantly, Elijah Muhammad's teachings drew criticism as they veered from orthodox Islam.

While teaching that Wali Fard was Allah himself, Elijah Muhammad taught that Black people created and owned the universe and founded the city of Mecca. Under his leadership, the NOI grew tremendously but in the 1960s, tension developed between Elijah Muhammad and one of his most devoted ministers, Malcolm Little (Malcolm X). With the support and activism of Malcolm X, ten new Temples were established in North America, and membership in the NOI increased to 40,000. Because of ideological issues with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X was suspended from being a Minister of the faith and, in 1964, announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam to form his organization.  As a result, Malcolm X founded Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). MMI was a branch of Islam based upon orthodox principles, OAAU was a political and social organization dedicated to creating a society where Blacks and whites could live in brotherhood.

When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, a debate began in the NOI. When Muhammad died in 1975, his son Wallace D. Muhammad (later Warith Deen Mohammed) became the leader, preaching a much more inclusive message. He joined the organization with the global Islamic community. He opened the group (renamed the World Community of Islam in the West and later the American Muslim Mission) to individuals of all races. In 1977, however, a group of Black Muslims, led by Louis Farrakhan, split off from Warith Mohammed's organization and named themselves the Nation of Islam. Minister Farrakhan sought to follow in the footsteps of Elijah Muhammad. Although he often drew criticism for his anti-Semitic and anti-white statements, his beliefs grew in popularity among Blacks. Though the NOI has gathered much attention, most Black Muslims do not follow Minister Farrakhan. With approximately 1.3 million Black Muslims in the U. S., more than 1 million follow orthodox Islamic principles, and many do not regard Farrakhan as a true Muslim. Of the remaining Black Muslims, only approximately 30,000 are members of the Nation of Islam.

In addition, other Black Islamic groups arose without being part of the original Moorish Temple of Science. The Ahmadiyya Movement was started in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and was brought to America in 1921 by Dr. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq. This branch of Islam has gained success among Blacks but is not regarded as truly Islamic by most orthodox sects. Muhammad Ahmed ibn Abdullah, a Sudanese, founded the Nubian Islamic Hebrews in New York City in 1970. This branch of Islam believes the origin of the black race goes back to Adam and Eve and considers their faith to be a mix of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish beliefs. Some feel the NOI has gained strength among Blacks, especially Black men, because of the emphasis the faith places on male leadership. As most congregations in Black churches tend to be mostly female, with males only in the pulpit, many men do not feel at home in the church environment.

Also, many Black Christians converted to Islam because of racism. Believing Christianity is a white man's religion, used to manipulate Black people (beginning with Black slaves), some Blacks refuse to worship God through a religion that supported their oppression. Some Black Muslims, however, are not open to the evidence that Arab Muslims also enslaved Blacks. Some studies indicate that Arabia was the first nation to target Blacks exclusively for slavery and that Europeans might have adopted the practice from Arab Muslims. Many have also suggested that many Black Africans converted to Islam to win favoritism from invading Arabs, as, under Islamic law, it was illegal for a true Muslim to hold another Muslim in slavery. (Researchers have suggested that African slaves converted to Christianity to gain approval from their masters.)

History shows no denying the influence, popularity and strength of Black Muslims in the Black community. Some estimates say more than twenty-five percent of all American mosques are predominantly Black. In addition, the number of Muslims in the U. S. is expected to reach 6 million soon, and, by 2010, Islam is projected to be the second-largest religion in the nation.


National Humanities

The Koran Interpreted: a translation
by A. J. Arberry,
ISBN 0684825074

The Challenge of Fundamentalism:
Political Islam and the New World Disorder,
by Tibi Bassam
Univ. of California Press, 1998

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