The Muslim American of African descent has a cultural and religious identity that has survived in spite of external and internal assaults.
Indeed, no other socio-ethno-religious minority in America has had its sense of ‘being’ so challenged. The African American Muslim nonetheless managed to carve out an identity and culture that is unique and specific only to African American Muslims.
Truly the African American Muslim cultural distinctiveness is found through name choice and spellings, dress of men and women, artistic development, marriage rites and practices, politics and spirituality. Even something as simple as ‘the bean pie’ is distinct and unique to the African American Muslim.
The influence of African American Muslims in the outer society is often seen in attempts at Islamic names in the Black community, music and spoken word with political and uplifting messages, Afro-centric clothing like kufi caps or turbans and even slang as inner city youths refer to their friends as their ‘sahaab’.
Not An Easy Task
But this was no easy task as the assault on the development of a nation of American Muslims from within the American society has been a steady stream of challenges.
Over a 600 year period, the three strategic events that have produced the most severe and lasting challenges to maintaining and defining the African American Muslim identity were the transatlantic slave trade, the early nationalist Islamic movements, and then the massive immigration of Muslims from the developing world and their impact on the outer society.
Historically, those Americans of African descent which are now known as Black or African Americans were involuntary immigrants to the Americas. This forced displacement through the slave trade resulted in a systematic and conscious attempt by the aggressor to remove those remnants that would make the new people they were enslaving more human and worthy of dignity and respect.
However, even with government authorized institutions in place to destroy the cultural and religious identity of the Africans; these Muslims still left little bread crumbs or pebbles for future generations.
This included tomb stones with the forefinger raised to symbolize the Oneness of Allah, writings in Arabic that although at the time were thought to be Biblical verses, were in fact Quranic quotes and verses, folk tale stories passed down to children, architectural design that reflected Islamic geometrical patterns and even names like Bailey for Bilal, or Salem for Saleem.
But the greatest maintenance of any semblance of Muslim identity from these Africans was the constant influx of new Muslims from Africa that could tell those who were in bondage information about their true self.
With the abolition of slavery in the late 1800’s the newly freed slaves attempted to maintain themselves in a nation that held them in disdain rather than offer a nationwide or indeed worldwide apology or remorse for inflicting a three continent atrocity and genocide upon them as a people.
A Nation Within a Nation
The new free African Americans found freedom was difficult without an education, land, money, human and social rights and most importantly protection. The wholesale lynching and murder of African American people was the norm and even today many middle age and older African Americans can relate a story of the horrible death of a distant family member.
So in the early 1900’s African Americans developed two distinct reactions to their generations of mistreatment at the hands of so-called civilized ‘Christian’ white men – fear and acceptance of their situation or resentment and anger of the situation.
Struggling to survive, African Americans began to build their own nation within a nation. They banded together without government assistance and bought lands, started ‘freedom’ schools to teach their own young, opened what is today known as ‘historically black colleges’ and formed their own banks, businesses, beauty products and all black towns.
It was in this environment of the larger African American community establishing itself that Islam re-emerged. Many of the early Islamic movements in the U.S. have been characterized as pseudo-Islamic because of their blatant nationalistic overtones.
But, most African American Muslim early Islamic movements were by nature militant and nationalistic because the people embracing Islam were categorically rejecting America, its racist institutions, culture, politics and Christian religion which was seen as the catalyst for institutionalized slavery.
They were overwhelming those who resented the injustices inflicted upon their own. It was the rejection of such that drove African Americans to even embrace or examine other religions after generations of such extreme Christian indoctrination.
By this time, there were Muslim immigrants from Europe, Asia and the Middle East who were out of necessity isolationists and thus made no attempt to introduce Islam to African Americans even though they might have had businesses in the Black community.
Those few movements that did capture African American attention usually worked with the premise that Islam could change the condition of Black Americans.
These Islamic movements of the 1900’s produced the largest lasting African American Muslim cultural and religious identity that overflows into today. That identity was that one was voluntarily a Muslim, indeed as one nationalist group declared ‘a righteous Muslim’. This was in sharp contrast to a nationwide identity of Black Americans at the time as ex-slaves or victims.
The early Islamic movements reiterated that an injustice had been done to the “so-called Negro” and it was not rooted in the Bible as a descendant of Ham, but rather the jinn like character of man to oppress and subjugate another.
During this time from the early 1900s to the 1970s, the African American Muslim became visible to the outer society in their politics, civic engagement, dress, marriage habits and mannerisms.
First published: February 2013