America’s oldest Muslim community; exploring the contributions of African American Muslims
Although Muslims had ventured into the Americas before Columbus and with him in 1492, the arrival of Muslims in mass to the American shores was due to the dreadful saga of American slavery. When the first Africans survived the horrific Atlantic Ocean crossing, stacked upon one another like cargo in the year 1501, Islam had been established in West Africa for over 700 years. The great Islamic and African empires of Songhai, Ghana, and Mali flourished, as did the great city of learning, Timbuktu.
The extensive works of Allen Austin (African Muslims in Antebellum America) and Sylviane Diouf (Servants of Allah — African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas) document the lives of over 100 African Muslims who were subjected to the horrendous American slave system in spite of being literate, urbane, skilled, and religious, in many instances. Of the 3,000,000 kidnapped Africans who survived the 3-4 month Atlantic crossing from 1501 till 1808 and landed on the North American shores, 10% to 20% (300,000-600,000) were Muslims. After arrival, slaves were bred to give birth to slave children to perpetuate generations of victims for the worst kind of servitude.
At first, the Muslim slaves were highly regarded because their shared language, values, and skill sets made them more productive than other slaves in the rigors of collective plantation work. But soon these same traits became regarded as negative attributes that catalyzed and enabled slave revolts and escapes. African Muslims were separated, treated more harshly, tortured, broken, or killed to offset these threats and tendencies. It also became necessary to depict Africans, in general, as savages, beasts, heathens, and even cannibals to depreciate any objections that White abolitionists may have raised.
Although both Austin and Diouf have documented numerous individual African Muslims who amazingly survived and navigated through the inhumanity of American slavery, the adverse circumstances and conditions imposed upon the slaves in general and Muslims in particular, appeared to have eradicated any collective practices of Islamic traditions. Yet, after slavery and Reconstruction, Islamic voices began to be heard and movements arose among the slave descendants such as Edward Blyden, who wrote “Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race” in 1888, Marcus Garvey (United Negro Improvement Association), and Noble Drew Ali (the Moorish Science Movement). Upon their work came Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam, which attracted so many African Americans to its pseudo-Islamic tenets that that religious scholar and author of “Black Muslims in America”, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, argued that all African-Americans had within them “a genetic memory of Islam”.
Upon that “genetic memory” the oldest Muslim community in America evolved to embrace the universal beliefs, practices, and traditions of Islam, while radiating a fresh and vibrant spirit and perspective too often missing in many recent immigrant Muslim communities. This energy is quite observable at almost any of these mosques. The people are smiling; the women are present and involved; there’s a cadre of youth engaged; the sermon (Khutbah) is Islamic and relevant; there’s accessibility; visitors are welcomed; the space is clean; there’s enthusiasm, sincerity, humour, friendship, hospitality, generosity, compassion, and Tauhid (Oneness of God). It is a space where the Prophet (pbuh) would feel right at home.
It is not coincidental that the oldest Muslim American community has impacted America far beyond their numbers and has out-performed the rest of the American Muslim communities in numerous categories: the only two Muslim United States Congressmen, the Hon. Keith Ellison and the Hon. Andre Carson come from this community. Al Hajj Malik al Shabazz, aka Malcolm X, is known and quoted almost as widely as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was quite influential throughout the Civil Rights Movement, as was Imam Jamil Al-Amin, aka H. Rap Brown. Many of the giants responsible for the legacy and international acclaim of America’s only native music, Jazz, are African American Muslims, such as John Coltrane and Art Blakey. Even today’s Hip-Hop genre is a showcase of Muslim talent, such as Mos Def, Ice Cube, Akil, Akon, Rakim, and Native Deen.
Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most well- known and loved person in the world today, is a product of the African American community. Ali sacrificed his fame and fortune in the prime of his career to stand-up for his faith and against war, racism, and hypocrisy. He also opened the door and inspired six other African Muslims to become heavyweight and light heavyweight champions of the world, including Mike Tyson. The list of Olympians, professional basketball and football players, actors, and musicians, from the community is quite extensive.
This legacy of involvement and influence within America is certainly not limited to the famous and high profiled. It is not uncommon to find within the African Muslim community police officers, firefighters, postal workers, lawyers, judges, neighbourhood activists, counsellors, and various types of public servants, with the overwhelming majority of them openly and proudly proclaiming and living their religion. This is another distinguishing factor. The slave experience, the freedom struggle, and the conversion (or reversion) of faith, have each influenced the African American Muslim to consistently live in a single identity, whereas, oftentimes immigrants and minorities tend to cater to the majority’s image and expectations of them at work and in the public, reserving their real selves to the secure confines of home environments.
Imam Warith Deen Mohammed (ra), who passed in 2008 and was responsible for the Islamic transformation of the Nation of Islam, with Allah’s Help, Mercy, and Guidance, and also contributed so much to the growth, development, and balance of Muslim Americans through his 33years of profound leadership. He said: “America cannot belong to those not claiming shares in her, and those who claim shares must be responsible. The United States of America is the property of every citizen. We must have a sense of ownership and get rid of the old slave ghost. “
The African American Muslim community can arguably claim to be amongst the most influential Muslim communities in the world and I’ve found that they have such a unique human and Islamic experience that we would do ourselves a tremendous disservice, as Muslims and as human beings, to not learn from the great gifts Allah, swt, has bestowed upon them.
Muddassar Ahmed is Managing Partner of Unitas Communications, a leading British Public Relations Company working with Governments, NGO and Businesses. .