ING Celebrates Black History Month Week 4: Exploring the Roots of American Muslims in the United States

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In this final week of our month long celebration of Black History Month we take a look at the influences that African American Muslims have made on American culture, while also taking a look at some prominent African American Muslims today.

A Piece of Our West African Legacy: Blues and Jazz


          Yusuf Lateef                                                               John Coltrane            

While the enslaved Muslims of pre-Civil War America lost many aspects of their religion and culture because of slavery, they also left some of their culture behind. Many “ethnomusicologists” (people who study the history of music and culture) have concluded that American blues and jazz traditions owe much to West African Muslim folk music.  West African Muslims made distinct contributions to the musical tradition that would come to be known as the blues. They brought knowledge of stringed instruments—such as the kora and the lute—which led to the creation of the banjo. Also, Muslims recited the call to prayer (adhan) and Qur’an in public, both of which sound musical. Prominent scholar Sylviane Diouf has identified many commonalities between the blues and recitation of the Qur’an or calling the adhan. These include elongated sounds, nasal humming, and wavy intonation. Listen to these clips at the bottom of the article for examples of this.

When African Americans began to rediscover their roots in the 20th century, jazz musicians were among the most important groups of people influenced by Islam. Muslim jazz musicians played an important role in the development of “New Jazz,” which combined African and Caribbean themes with the older blues tradition. Yusuf Lateef (pictured on the left), Dakota Staton (Aliyah Dawud), Kenny Clarke (Liaqat Ali Salaam), Ahmad Jamal, Pharaoh Sanders, and John Coltrane (pictured on the right) (“A Love Supreme”) belong to a long and illustrious list of Black musicians who embraced Islam or were very favorably disposed toward it.  The legendary African American poet Langston Hughes alludes to the link between modern jazz and African American Islam in his 1951 poem, “Be-Bop Boys” where he writes: “Imploring Mecca To achieve? six discs? with Decca.”

Prominent African American Muslims Today

Imam Zaid Shakir

Today there are a significant number of popular African American academics, entertainers, athletes, and even politicians who are Muslims.  One of the most prominent American Muslim leaders who is known throughout the world today is Imam Zaid Shakir who was born in Berkeley, California and who earned degrees at prominent American Universities while also studying the Islamic tradition in Egypt, Morocco, and Syria.  Today Imam Zaid is invited to speak about Islam throughout the world, on topics ranging from Islamic spirituality, social justice, and Islamic history.  He is also one of the co-founders of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, which is working to become the United States first fully accredited Muslim liberal arts College.

Dr. Sherman Jackson

Another prominent African American Muslim intellectual is Sherman Jackson, who is the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.  Dr. Jacksons books Islam and the Blackamerican, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering, and his forthcoming book Sufism for Non-Sufis (Oxford University Press) have all created much active debate in both academic circles and amongst American Muslims.

                            Dr. Aminah McCloud                          Intisar Rabb                              Dr. Jamillah Karim                              

Other successful African American university professors include Aminah McCloud (pictured on the left), director of the Islamic World Studies program at DePaul University; Amina Wadud, author of the book Qur’an and Women; Intisar Rabb  (center picture),legal theorist and professor at Boston University; Jamillah Karim (pictured on the right), author of the book American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class and Gender Within the Ummah, and Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Purdue University.

African American Muslim Politicians

Just as African Americans were the first Muslims in the United States, African American Muslims also have become the first American Muslims ever elected to national office in the United States.  Both of these African American Muslim politicians, Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana, were both recently elected.

Keith Ellison

Keith Ellison is a lawyer and the nation’s first American Muslim congressman, first elected in 2006 as a representative of the state of Minnesota. Mr. Ellison has authored legislation, now law, that protects consumers from the unfair lending practice known as “Universal Default” and gives protections to tenants facing eviction from rental homes that are being foreclosed. He was a community activist prior to running for public office as a Minnesota State Representative, and then for United States Congress.

Andre Carson

André D. Carson is the United States Representative for Indiana’s 7th congressional district, serving since the special election in 2008. He is a member of the Democratic Party. He is the grandson of his predecessor, former United States Representative Julia Carson (1938–2007).

African American Muslim influences on Hip Hop Music

Just as Muslims had a great influence on Blues and Jazz, today American Muslims have made a profound impact on Hip Hop, one of the most important elements in contemporary popular culture. Hip Hop shares important elements with jazz, such as its origins in poor Black American communities and its use of improvisation. Also like jazz musicians, many rappers self-identify as Muslim including Yasin Bey (aka Mos Def), Lupe Fiasco, Q-Tip, Brother Ali, and members of Jurassic 5.

                                                                                                             Yasiin Bey (Mos Def)

Yasiin Bey has had notable careers in both Hip Hop and acting. He is known for starting his albums with the universal Muslim invocation bismilahir-rahmanir-raheem, which is commonly translated as “in the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.” Like other openly Muslim rappers, his lyrics are often reflective, morally charged, and politically edgy. He was nominated for an Emmy and the Golden Globe Award for co-starring in the HBO film Something the Lord Made.


                                                                                                          Lupe Fiasco

Another prominent American Muslim rapper is, Lupe Fiasco (also known as Wasalu Muhammad Jaco) who has released three albums since 2006, all of them to critical acclaim and with commercial success. As with Mos Def and many other Muslim rappers, his lyrics often focus on controversial topics, critiquing political and other mainstream trends and realities. Like many successful Hip Hop artists, Lupe has already tried his hand in other business ventures. Within music, he performs with a post-rock band called Japanese Cartoon. Beyond music, he has two clothing lines and sneakers designed for Reebok.

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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