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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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