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Color Photograph of Muslims at Mecca

African Americans and Islam

African Americans have practiced Islam since their arrival in North America and are an integral part of the world community of Muslims.

The Qur’an: The Sacred Text of Islam

Islam has influenced the way many African Americans interpret the world and express their faith in the Unseen. As a spiritual path and way of life, it represents a radical departure from the ideological and theological foundation of Christianity, embraced by the majority of African Americans. While Islam shares with Christianity the fundamental belief in monotheism—the concept of one God—its vibrant material culture reveals a way of life aligned with traditions of the faith established since its inception in 7th century Arabia. The rituals of prayer, for example, and the practices of charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca have gone largely unchanged over time and place. As the sacred text of Muslims, the Qur’an engenders this sense of historical continuity and unity among Muslims. The text also functions as the fundamental source of ideas and guidance on matters of liberation from all forms of oppression.

This Qur'an is a thick hard-backed book with a black cloth cover imprinted with gold inked letters and designs.

The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, 1975

Image of Wooden Qur’an Stand

Wooden Qur’an Stand, 1975

Amina Wadud interview

Dr. Amina Wadud Interview at Guilford College, 2014

Islamic scholar Dr. Amina Wadud speaks about studying the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, as a personal and intellectual pursuit. Dr. Wadud is Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, with a focus on gender equality and Qur’anic studies.

African American Muslim Communities: The Formative Years and Now

Beginning in the late 19th century, in response to white supremacy and pervasive racial violence, African Americans formed new religious communities that were both spiritual sanctuaries and hubs of social and political activism. Viewing Christianity as the “slave master’s religion,” some African Americans turned to Islam as a viable alternative toward achieving liberation. The formative years of African American Muslim communities were characterized by a blending of Black nationalism, Pan Africanism, and varied interpretive traditions of Islamic thought. The social reform work of the Ahmadiyya Movement (est. 1889), the Moorish Science Temple (est. 1913), and the Nation of Islam (est. 1930) as forerunners, or “proto-Islamic” organizations, would help lay the foundation for the practice of Islamic orthodoxy in North America among both indigenous and immigrant Muslims. Today roughly 2% of African Americans are Muslims—Sunni, Sufi, and others. Some are high-profile musicians, athletes, and Hip-Hop artists. Islam is a way of life that reflects their beliefs, aspirations, and cultural identities.

Black Star record album by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli pictured on cover

Black Star record album by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli pictured on cover, 1998

Color photograph of woman in fencing uniform

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait at the Fencers Club on July 7, 2016 in New York City. Muhammad was the first Muslim women to represent the United States while wearing a hijab at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

A black-and-white photograph of jazz musician and bandleader Art Blakey playing drums during a 1980 performance. Blakey is photographed in left-profile through his drumkit, with a cymbal partly obscuring his face. His eyes are closed and he wears a striped dress shirt and dark tie.

Jazz musician and band leader Art Blakey playing drums during a 1980 performance.

African American Muslim Communities: The Formative Years and Now

A black-and-white photograph of jazz musician and bandleader Art Blakey playing drums during a 1980 performance. Blakey is photographed in left-profile through his drumkit, with a cymbal partly obscuring his face. His eyes are closed and he wears a striped dress shirt and dark tie.

Jazz musician and band leader Art Blakey playing drums during a 1980 performance.

Color photograph of woman in fencing uniform

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait at the Fencers Club on July 7, 2016 in New York City. Muhammad was the first Muslim women to represent the United States while wearing a hijab at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Black Star record album by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli pictured on cover

Black Star record album by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli pictured on cover, 1998

Beginning in the late 19th century, in response to white supremacy and pervasive racial violence, African Americans formed new religious communities that were both spiritual sanctuaries and hubs of social and political activism. Viewing Christianity as the “slave master’s religion,” some African Americans turned to Islam as a viable alternative toward achieving liberation. The formative years of African American Muslim communities were characterized by a blending of Black nationalism, Pan Africanism, and varied interpretive traditions of Islamic thought. The social reform work of the Ahmadiyya Movement (est. 1889), the Moorish Science Temple (est. 1913), and the Nation of Islam (est. 1930) as forerunners, or “proto-Islamic” organizations, would help lay the foundation for the practice of Islamic orthodoxy in North America among both indigenous and immigrant Muslims. Today roughly 2% of African Americans are Muslims—Sunni, Sufi, and others. Some are high-profile musicians, athletes, and Hip-Hop artists. Islam is a way of life that reflects their beliefs, aspirations, and cultural identities.

A black-and-white photograph of jazz musician and bandleader Art Blakey playing drums during a 1980 performance. Blakey is photographed in left-profile through his drumkit, with a cymbal partly obscuring his face. His eyes are closed and he wears a striped dress shirt and dark tie.

Jazz musician and band leader Art Blakey playing drums during a 1980 performance.

Color photograph of woman in fencing uniform

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait at the Fencers Club on July 7, 2016 in New York City. Muhammad was the first Muslim women to represent the United States while wearing a hijab at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Black Star record album by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli pictured on cover

Black Star record album by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli pictured on cover, 1998

Image of Return of the Mecca video

"Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop"

The Nation of Islam

This cardboard record sleeve features a portrait of Elijah Muhammad at the center of the front cover. Muhammad wears a fez decorated with the Islamic star and crescent symbol and he also wears a black bow tie. Muhammad looks off camera to the right, his eyes on something in the distance. There are four lines of large black text across the top of the cover which read [MUHAMMAD SPEAKS/The Judgment of the World is/NOW!]. To the bottom left of Muhammad's portrait is a line of diagonal black script which reads [Elijah Muhammad/Messenger of Allah]. To the bottom right of his portrait there is a block of black text which reads [THERE ARE/3 VOLUMES/THIS IS/VOL. 1/PLEASE/PURCHASE/ALL THREE]. This cardboard sleeve is water damaged and tearing along one of its sides.

The Judgment of the World is Now! by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, 1966

A black-and-white photograph of Louis Farrakhan speaking at a podium and gesturing with a pointed finger. The photograph is stamped and inscribed on the back.

Minister Louis Farrakhan giving a speech in 1978, the year he became leader of the Nation of Islam

For over forty years, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) led the Nation of Islam (NOI), which served as a spiritual sanctuary and self-help organization for millions of African Americans. Its religious, educational, and economic institutions promoted unity, pride, and moral discipline and helped its members overcome poverty and other social ills. After Elijah Muhammad’s death, many NOI members converted to mainstream Islam and abandoned their belief that God came in the person of Fard Muhammad, the organization’s founder. This belief represents a radical theological departure from the Qur’an as the sacred text of Islam. Other members, led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, continued to follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Today, Minister Farrakhan advances the same social reform ideas and practices as the historic NOI, including its economic and educational programs. NOI members are guided by traditions associated with the Islamic faith as taught by Elijah Muhammad and Minister Farrakhan.

This cardboard record sleeve features a portrait of Elijah Muhammad at the center of the front cover. Muhammad wears a fez decorated with the Islamic star and crescent symbol and he also wears a black bow tie. Muhammad looks off camera to the right, his eyes on something in the distance. There are four lines of large black text across the top of the cover which read [MUHAMMAD SPEAKS/The Judgment of the World is/NOW!]. To the bottom left of Muhammad's portrait is a line of diagonal black script which reads [Elijah Muhammad/Messenger of Allah]. To the bottom right of his portrait there is a block of black text which reads [THERE ARE/3 VOLUMES/THIS IS/VOL. 1/PLEASE/PURCHASE/ALL THREE]. This cardboard sleeve is water damaged and tearing along one of its sides.

The Judgment of the World is Now! by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, 1966

A black-and-white photograph of Louis Farrakhan speaking at a podium and gesturing with a pointed finger. The photograph is stamped and inscribed on the back.

Minister Louis Farrakhan giving a speech in 1978, the year he became leader of the Nation of Islam

Claiming a National Identity

Photograph of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed carries American flag as a symbol of the nation’s obligation to promote equality for all its citizens.

Imam Warith Deen Mohammed carries American flag as a symbol of the nation’s obligation to promote equality for all its citizens.

During the 20th century, a growing number of African Americans converted from Christianity to Islam. The largest number of converts were members of the Nation of Islam (est. 1930), of which Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were prominent members. After the death of leader Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his son Wallace Muhammad led the organization toward a Qur’anic based understanding of Islam, practiced within an American context. Changing his name from Wallace to Warith and assuming the title of Imam, Warith Deen Mohammed (1933–2008) encouraged Muslim communities to study the Qur’an and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad Ibn Abdullah and to participate fully in all major areas of American life. Through public appearances, such as serving as the first Muslim to deliver the invocation in the U.S. Senate, he established a new visibility and identity for Muslim Americans as patriotic citizens and promoted interfaith dialogues and an understanding of Islam nationally and globally.

Photograph of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed carries American flag as a symbol of the nation’s obligation to promote equality for all its citizens.

Imam Warith Deen Mohammed carries American flag as a symbol of the nation’s obligation to promote equality for all its citizens.

It’s not the color of the physical body that makes a man a devil … God looks at our minds, our actions, and our deeds. So we have white Muslims, brown Muslims, red Muslims, yellow Muslims, all colors … We now recognize all men as brothers, and we look at them according to their works.

Muhammad Ali, 1976

Black and White photograph of three men at Mecca

Flanked by fellow pilgrims, Muhammad Ali prays inside the Holy Mosque in Mecca during his New Year's pilgrimage, 1972.

The Muslim Presence in Early America

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819, created by Charles Willson Peale

Photograph of Bilali Mohammed Manuscript

Bilali Mohammed Manuscript or “Ben Ali (Bilali) Manuscript”

The presence of African American Muslims in the United States is longstanding. Their history began in the 1500s with colonial expeditions, continued with the arrival of captured Africans in the 1600s, persisted through the Revolutionary War, gave rise to various expressions in the 20th century, and is apparent today. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of the Africans who arrived in North America during slavery were Muslims. They arrived with distinct Islamic beliefs and cultural expressions, and many used their ability to read and write Arabic to form communities, resist slavery, and eventually to earn a living and purchase property. The evolution of new traditions shaped by their cultural experiences during enslavement would ultimately replace a tradition of Islam practiced in West Africa. The number of Muslims in early America dwindled over time, but their letters, diaries, and autobiographies offer an authentic glimpse into their lives.

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819, created by Charles Willson Peale

Photograph of Bilali Mohammed Manuscript

Bilali Mohammed Manuscript or “Ben Ali (Bilali) Manuscript”

Yarrow owns a House and lotts and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown … he professes to be a mahometan [Muslim] and is often seen and heard in the Streets singing Praises to God.

Charles Willson Peale, 1818