ING Celebrates Black History Month Week 3: Exploring the Roots of American Muslims in the United States

Click here for week 1 and week 2 postings.

As we continue our celebration of Black History Month, we turn now to the transitional era between and the time when African Muslims were enslaved in the Americas and when Black American Muslims would become some of the first American Muslims to become public figures in the United States in the 1960’s. While the majority of the enslaved West African Muslims were not able to pass on their faith to their descendants, Islam re-emerged among African Americans during the Great Migration from the rural South to urban areas in the Midwestern and Northeastern United States. While some formed mainstream Muslim communities, others developed understandings that were quite different from mainstream Islam. The best-known example was the Nation of Islam, which differs with normative Islam in many critical areas. However, after the assumption of leadership by W.D. Muhammad, mainstream understandings of Islam have become the norm among African American Muslims. Today, prominent African American Muslims include members of congress, academics, entertainers, and athletes.

Descendants of Enslaved Africans

Henry Highland an early descendant of African Muslims

The history of African American Islam did not come to a close with the end of slavery.  However, it is not clear if there was any overlap of the descendants of enslaved Muslims who still practiced their faith with the next chapter in African American Muslim history that began in the 20th century. While in places like Brazil and Cuba, remnants of African Muslims could be found as recently as 1920 and 1930, generally the growth of Islam in the northern cities in the early 1900’s was independent of direct influence from the earlier Islam of enslaved African Americans. 

The Islamic Mission of America

Shaykh Daoud and his wife Khadija

One of the earliest manifestations of mainstream Islam in the Black American community was the Islamic Mission of America, founded by Shaykh Daoud Ahmad Faisal and his wife Khadija.  Shaykh Daoud was of Afro-Caribbean descent while his wife was from a mixed Afro-Caribbean/ Pakistani background.  Together they founded a community that was largely African American but also included people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.  Their “State Street Mosque” in Brooklyn became an umbrella for numerous mainstream Muslim affiliate mosques along the East coast. Shaykh Daoud and Mother Khadijah’s work illustrates that the early 20th century path to African American rediscovery also began with mainstream Muslim communities.

The Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam


Moorish Science Temple & its followers

Two of the most popular Black Muslim movements, while having ties to Islam, do not fit within the classical framework of mainstream Islam.  These were the Moorish Science Temple founded by Noble Drew Ali in 1913, and the Nation of Islam was led by Elijah Muhammad, beginning in the 1930’s.

Noble Drew Ali regarded himself—and Black Americans in general—to have Muslim roots and Moorish Muslim ancestry. The term “Moors” generally refers to Muslims in Andalusian Spain (8th to 15th centuries).  The Moorish Science Temple flourished during the “Roaring 20’s.” It was successful in winning African American followers, and the rediscovery of Islamic roots was a cornerstone of its message.

The Nation of Islam was lead by Elijah Muhammad and his wife Clara, and by the 1940’s the Nation was thriving and rapidly expanding under their leadership. As with the Moorish Science Temple, the interpretation of Islam taught by the Nation of Islam diverged greatly from normative Islamic teachings. The Nation of Islam was fundamentally concerned with “nation building”—  creating an African American community that was largely self-sufficient and very self-confident. The Nation rehabilitated the poor and down-trodden, worked towards economic independence, fostered positive social programs, and reversed the sense of shame that slavery and Jim Crow had created in African Americans. Its doctrines aimed at empowering Black people psychologically, politically, economically, and socially.

The Legacy of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali 

Malcolm X was one of the most dynamic figures to undergo an Islamic transformation in the wake of the Great Migration. He became one of the greatest leaders in United States history, and today all Americans recognize his legacy.  In the late 1940’s, Malcolm entered the Nation of Islam and became one of Elijah Muhammad’s most important ministers. But in 1964, Malcolm left the Nation and embraced mainstream Islam. His conversion is extremely important for the history of Islam in the United States. It helped bring about a powerful movement toward mainstream Islam.  Malcolm X modeled resolution and self-esteem for many African Americans, but his greatness went beyond this. He also had the power to change and an enormous capacity for intellectual, moral, and political growth. The same can be said of Muhammad Ali, who is shown in this photograph with Malcolm and his family. Muhammad Ali embraced Islam at the hands of Malcolm X and also made the transition to mainstream Islam later in his life as he became the world’s most recognizable athlete.


The Nation of Islam under Imam W.D. Muhammad

Imam W.D. Muhammad (1933-2008)

Elijah Muhammad began to modify many of the positions of the Nation of Islam during the 1970’s in the wake of the social changes that had taken place in America —especially the Civil Rights Movement.  When Elijah died in 1975, his son, W. D. Muhammad assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam and began to lead it along a remarkable course of change. It was not long before he changed the name of the community, and disbanded the official organization. He founded the American Society of Muslims as a mainstream Muslim organization which grew to over 1 million members.  His success demonstrates a remarkable power to transform—not just on his part—but that of his followers as well. He brought his followers into harmony with the teachings and practices of traditional Islam. He advocated interfaith and religious pluralism in America thus laying the foundation for the work that many Muslim organizations including ING are continuing today.

Many of these early American Muslim stories are discussed in depth in our presentation A History of Muslims in America that ING regularly delivers in high schools supplementing the study of the history of the nation. To request this presentation, write to ING scheduler Henry Millstein at [email protected] or go to Schedule a Presentation and select A History of Muslims in America presentation.

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