Brief history of Black Muslim Americans

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 6:25pm

The American stigma around Islam often recognizes Muslim Americans as a recent addition to the nation, failing to recognize Black Muslims arrived with the first slave ship to reach Virginia’s coast in 1619. 

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

The first large influx of Muslim Americans were Black Muslims captured from Africa and enslaved upon arrival to America. An estimated 30 percent of the African slaves brought to the U.S. from West and Central African countries were Muslim. The conditions of slavery were not only physically inhumane, these people were targeted for their faith and forcefully oppressed into different belief systems. Many enslaved people were forced to convert to Christianity in an attempt to “civilize” them. In an effort to reject the assimilation of American culture forced upon them, enslaved Muslims turned to creative outlets such as music to preserve their religion and culture. 

Following the legal abolition of slavery in 1865, many Black Americans experienced sentiments of displacement and lack of identity and culture, seeing as their enslavers had also stripped them of their heritages. Historian Sally Howell explains how the 1920s were essential to the reshaping of the Black American identity. Howell claims, “ [Black Americans] began to embrace Islam in the 1920s and 30s partially in response to the radical dislocations and racism they experienced prior to and during the Great Migration (the movement of disenfranchised southerners to industrial regions in the North)." This American embracement of Islam initiated a movement that would advocate for Islam as one of the lost elements of African heritage. 

The link between Pan-Africanism and Islam is first shown in Marcus Garvey’s Negro World. In conjunction with the popularity of this newspaper, other Black-American Muslim organizations began to form. Arguably, the most notable of these organizations is The Nation of Islam. The NOI was founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace fard Muhammad, and helped lay the groundwork for Islam’s influential role in the Black Power movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The NOI, along with other Black Nationalist Muslim movements at the time, centralized the belief that Christianity was a “white man’s religion.” In this sense, Islam was acknowledged as a liberating ideology that could separate Black America from their Christian slaveowners. The NOI is currently led by Louis Farrakhan, but does not have nearly as much influence in Black American communities as it once did.

The encouragement of Black racial superiority was later denounced by some former leaders of the NOI, such as Malcolm X, but the impact of these movements were monumental in the spread of Islam throughout Black communities in the 50s and 60s.

Following the spread of Islam in Black communities, more and more Black Muslims began overtaking key roles in American politics and society. The two first Muslim Americans sworn into Congress also happened to be Black American Muslims—Keith Ellison and Andre Carson. Muhammad Ali was a Black Muslim American who is regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time. Ibtihaj Muhammad is a professional fencer who was the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal competing for the United States. As a result of Muhammad’s numerous accolades and awards in her field, she was honored by Mattel with a Barbie doll in her likeness —the first Barbie doll to wear a hijab. Halima Aden is an American Fashion model who has also had many firsts as a Black visibly-Muslim woman in the fashion industry. Aden was the first Muslim woman to appear on a cover of Sports Illustrated magazine wearing a burkini and among many other accomplishments, Aden was recently named this year’s Daily Front Row “Breakthrough Model.” 

The far-reaching spread of Islam in Black communities is also heavily reflected in hip-hop and rap music. Prominent artists such as Rakim, Busta Rhymes and Mos Def reference Islam throughout many of their songs. The teachings of the Five Percent Nation are also shown throughout these two genres. One of the most recent examples being Jay Electronica’s “A Written Testimony.” This album, similar to work from other Black Muslim musicians, is evidence of the early influence Islamic groups such as the NOI had on Black Americans.

As for the current demographics of Muslim Americans, Sulayman Nyang, Howard University African studies professor, claimed in 2005 that of the five million Muslims in America, Black Americans make up the largest percentage of that group — about 25 percent. 

This column does not encapsulate the entire complex history of Black Muslim Americans, but is rather a starting point in which one can educate themsleves on this powerful element of Black History in America. The history of Black Muslims — as well as of all Black Americans — though erased by centuries of slavery, segregation and systemic racism, is remarkable. The triumphs of Black American history are worth celebrating year-round and the inhumane and unjust treatment of Black Americans since its foundation are to be forever acknowledged and condemned.

Noor Moughni can be contacted at nmoughni@umich.edu