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date: 30 March 2017

African American Islam

Summary and Keywords

The first Muslims arrived in the American colonies and later in the United States as African slaves. Although a few and noteworthy Muslim American slaves left written records of their lives, Islam was largely extinguished by the white slave owners. Sectarian and racial forms of Islam were introduced into the United States, particularly within urban African American communities, by Ahmadiyya missionaries and the Moorish Science Temple. The rise of the Nation of Islam under Wali Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad and its bifurcation under the latter’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan deserve special attention, as do the initial appeal of the Nation of Islam’s racial formulation of Islam and, decades later, the willingness of most of its members to move to Sunni orthodoxy after Elijah Muhammad’s death. The second major, though not entirely separate, strand of Islam in the United States, though often interacting or competing with the first, comes from Muslim immigrants. This group brings unique issues, such as living in a largely Christian society, competing with the Nation of Islam, refuting stereotypes in the media and popular culture, finding a political voice, and coping with post-9/11 Islamophobia, all leading to the consideration of the prospects for a uniquely “American Islam” that reflects U.S. pluralism and (supposed) separation of “church and state.”

Keywords: Nation of Islam, immigrants, Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, Warith Deen Mohammed, converts

Islam in the United States differs from Islam in other countries because of the two, initially largely distinct, ways that Islam arrived and developed. First, it was brought to the United States from outside by immigrants who came from all over the Muslim world and were not only subjected to the American melting pot, but also to a Muslim melting pot. To avoid assimilating with the Christian or secular majority, Muslims from different regional and ethnic origins, whose only shared characteristic might have been that they self-identified as Muslim, cooperated and formed organizations in a manner not likely to be experienced in their original home. Second, many formulations of Islam continue to have a racial ethos, due less to the fact that many Africans brought to the colonies and to the United States were Muslim, and more to the reemergence of Islam in the early 20th century among African Americans, in part as a protest against racism. The Nation of Islam (NOI) was the most well known, due in large part to its forceful message during the fight for African American civil rights and its charismatic spokesmen and leaders, including Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. But the NOI was hardly alone or the first to combine issues of race and Islam in the United States; the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) had earlier declared Islam as the only natural religion for African Americans. Most Muslim immigrants to the United States did not initially know of these various African American movements, and if they did, did not consider them Islamic. Although there were points of intersection between these groups, they developed largely independently of each other. Only with the reorientation of the NOI starting in the mid-1970s toward a more traditional form of Sunni Islam, did African American Muslims and the various immigrant Muslim communities begin to merge.

In the American context, especially with the diversity of the Muslim immigrants and Muslims in various African American movements, one must be careful not to advocate, explicitly or implicitly, a particular normative formulation of Islam. Usage of terms such as “orthodox Islam,” “real Islam,” “unIslamic,” and perhaps even “traditional Islam” assumes that there is an easily identifiable set of characteristics or, more problematic, a continuous essence of Islam that runs from Muhammad to present Muslims. Rather, there appear to be many formulations of Islam, or “Islams,” that are products of both their sociocultural context and their historical roots. Not even one of the basic beliefs and practices of so-called “traditional Islam” (even if minimally defined as the five principles and five pillars of Islam) can be said to have been shared by all people calling themselves Muslims during the last fourteen hundred years. Such assumptions about Islam are, however, sometimes made by those participating in the theological, intra-Muslim debate about authenticity, such as that between Muslims inside and outside the uniquely African American formulations of Islam.

Muslim African Slaves

Stephen the Moor or Estevan (d. 1539), originally a Moroccan Muslim, came to North America as a slave and a guide with a Spanish fleet in 1527. A year after landing on the Florida peninsula, he was one of a handful of survivors. Eight years later, the three other survivors returned to Europe, but Estevan stayed, traveling to Mexico and eventually to the region that is today New Mexico where he was killed by some Native Americans. Whether he continued to practice Islam is unclear, but he left no Islamic influence. That influence came when the half million Africans were forcibly transported to the North American colonies and later the United States to be sold as slaves.

Half of these Africans were abducted from West Africa, a region where as much as 15 percent of the population was Muslim. Runaway notices and ledgers of the slave owners, which recorded the names of slaves and often their ethnic and religious backgrounds, confirm that many of these slaves were Muslims. Of these, many actively sought to preserve their culture and religion despite concerted efforts to strip them of their original names, language, culture, and of course religion. In these efforts over many generations, Christian slave owners were largely successful.

There were, however, some very noteworthy exceptions who managed to preserve much of what others had lost. A common characteristic of these men was their literacy and a strong desire for freedom and to return to Africa. Hyuba boon Salumena boon Hibrahema (or Ayyub b. Sulayman b. Ibrahim or Job Ben Solomon, d. 1773) was captured in the region that is now part of Senegal. This son of an imam was sold as a slave in colonial America and ended up in Maryland, but soon ran away. When captured and imprisoned, he came to the attention of a man, who impressed with his religiosity and knowledge of Arabic, purchased and manumitted him. Job was able to write out the Qurʾan from memory, traveled to England, and returned to Africa in 1734. Abd ar-Rahman (d. 1829) endured slavery in Mississippi much longer, forty years. The son of a king in modern Guinea, he was captured during battle and sold into slavery. He too attempted to run away, but to no avail. He was only manumitted when his letter to the king of Morocco prompted him to intervene. Afterwards, when he earned enough money lecturing in the northeastern United States to free his children, he and his wife returned to Africa. He had promised to preach Christianity in Liberia, but died shortly after arriving. Lamine Kebe (d. after 1837) came from a family of clerics and scholars. After having received an elite education in the Qurʾan, hadith, theology, and law, he became a teacher. He was captured in his mid-twenties and spent three decades as a slave in Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. He too convinced white philanthropists that he would serve as a Christian missionary and returned to Africa in 1835. The most famous Muslim slave was Umar b. Said. He also came from what is now Senegal, was trained as a scholar, captured during war, enslaved (in South Carolina and North Carolina), sought to escape, and came to the attention of the man who freed him because of his ability to write. He wrote an autobiography and many of his Arabic manuscripts are extant. Although he converted to Christianity, evidence in his manuscripts, such as including references to Muhammad and paraphrasing Qurʾan 110 when asked to translate the Lord’s Prayer, suggest he remained a Muslim. It is not known how many other slaves also struggled hard to preserve their religion, even feigning being Christian to do so. Not all were literate, and even if they were, those writings likely have not survived. Certainly, there must have been many more Muslims like Job, Abd ar-Rahman, Lamine, and Umar, but the vast majority of Muslim slaves and especially their descendants were not able to preserve Islam in the United States.

Racial Islam

Slavery as practiced in the United States erased these many African ethnicities and religious identities including Islam. They were replaced with a single racial identity, “the Negro.” And by the time of the early 20th century, most African Americans were Christians. Conversion had not been a priority in the American colonies, and most slaves were not yet Christians in 1800. But with the spread of Evangelical Protestant Christianity, particularly with the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th century, most became Christians, at least nominally. With black Christianity, churches became the center of black communities often leading slaves to demand freedom and later to protest against white supremacy and anti-black racism. African American clergymen such as the pan-Africanist Edward Wilmot Blyden (d. 1912) and Henry McNeal Turner (d. 1915), who proclaimed “God is a Negro,” exemplify that protest. Yet Christianity was also the religion of the slave owners and, after slavery was abolished, of the white racists who attacked and repressed African Americans.

Although Islam had all but disappeared among African Americans, it was well suited to make a return. In the cultural rhetoric of white America, adherents of Islam had since the 17th century been idealized as the antithesis of an America.1 More importantly, it was a religion that was associated with Africa and a tradition that not merely appeared independent of Europeans and their white American descendants, but also one that resisted its hegemony. Islam could claim a great, non-European civilization, a straightforward theology at least compared with Christian trinitarianism, a conservative social ethic, a retributive system of justice from the Qurʾan, and a lack of an ecclesiastical hierarchy in Sunni Islam. It also provoked the fear of white Christian Americans.2

The first new Muslims in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were immigrants, mostly from the Levant. Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb (d. 1916) was a white American who had converted to Islam while the United States Consul to the Philippines in 1888 after reading Ahmadiyya Muslim literature. Back in the United States, Webb became an apologist for Islam, founding an organization and publishing literature explaining Islam to Americans. The first missionary was the Ahmadi Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, who came to the United States in 1920. He had some success, with several hundred converts, particularly after he began to focus on African Americans. Significantly, he preached that Islam had been the religion of their African ancestors—though he emphasized Islam taught racial integration. Perhaps more influential was the Ahmadiyya literature and the movement’s 1917 translation of the Qurʾan by the Mawlana Muhammad Ali, for it is the one Elijah Muhammad would later employ for four decades. But Islam was reappearing in many cities with large African American populations where the NOI would do well in a few short years. For example, Shaykh Daoud Ahmed Faisal, a Muslim from Morocco, established the first Sunni African American organization, the Islamic Mission to America, in New York City in 1924; and Duse Mohammed Ali, a Sudanese-Egyptian, who had mentored Marcus Garvey established the Universal Islamic Society in Detroit in 1926.

Predating these Muslim immigrants by a few years was the first uniquely American form of Islam. Timothy Drew, whose youth is clouded in hagiography, is said to have founded the Canaanite Temple in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913. Yet even this simple fact cannot be confirmed since no evidence for it exists before 1923.3 He claimed to descend from slaves and Cherokee Indians and, after a calling from Allah, to have passed a test in the Pyramid of Cheops, after which he received the name Sharif Abdul Ali or Noble Drew Ali. He employed the term “Moslem” for his followers, but that soon provoked opposition from an Arab Muslim immigrant, Satti Majid, who successfully had fatwas issued against Drew Ali in Egypt. Drew Ali’s group split with those following him becoming the Moabite Temple of the World, and after he moved to Chicago in 1919, the Moorish Divine National Movement and later the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) in 1928. He claimed the MSTA was founded in 1913, suggesting he at least saw all these groups as the same. It may be, however, that Drew Ali was himself influenced by a movement begun by Abdul Hamid Suleiman who let an African-American Islamic-themed Shriner or Masonry movement known as the Mecca Medina Temple that was established in 1910.4 If Abdul Hamid Suleiman was African American, then it is with him that the rebirth of African American Islam lies; if he was an immigrant as seems likely, then immigrant Islam and African American Islam were far more intimately connected than usually suggested.

What proved so problematic for Majid and other Muslims was Drew Ali’s claim to be a prophet and his publication of The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America—more commonly known as the Circle Seven Koran because of the symbol on its cover. This Koran contained nothing from the Qurʾan and focused on Jesus, not Muhammad; it consisted of lightly (and racially) edited selections from Levi H. Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ published in 1908 and Sri Ramatherio’s 1925 edition of Unto Thee I Grant. Nor did Drew Ali’s racial reformulation of Islam seem to owe much to the Islam(s) of immigrant Muslims. He taught that African Americans were Moors or Asiatics, who were exempt from slavery according to the Black Laws of Virginia of 1682. But the Founding Fathers of the United States had obscured their true origins and renamed them “Negroes” so as to enslave them. Had they only retained their true identity as Moors and Muslims, the centuries of slavery would not have been possible. They must readopt that identity. All would live in peace once everyone worshipped “under his own vine and fig tree”—Europeans and their descendants with Christianity and Moors and their descendants with Islam. Drew Ali died in 1929 under suspicious circumstances after having been apparently falsely charged with murder. He was released on bond before the trial and killed, perhaps by police, perhaps by rivals. His movement peaked with some thirty thousand members in the 1930s, then fractured and was eclipsed by the NOI. Numerous competing branches of the movement survive. Contemporary Moorish Americans or “Moslems” (as they still identify themselves) continue to employ the Circle Seven Koran as scripture and to view Drew Ali as a prophet.

The Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam (NOI) and Elijah Muhammad owe much to these precursors, especially Drew Ali. His concepts of all non-whites as Asiatics, who were Muslims by nature, of Jesus as a black man, and of Islam as the chronologically prior and epistemologically superior religion, and his opposition to racial integration and miscegenation would all become key concepts in the NOI. Some scholars have suggested that the founder of the NOI, Wali Fard Muhammad, was a member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)5 and of the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA).

Disentangling the mysteries that surround the origins of Fard Muhammad continues to prove difficult. In the 1960s, newspapers using information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) identified him as Wallace Dodd Ford. FBI files, police records, and scholars suggest that he was British and Polynesian (from New Zealand), Jamaican, Palestinian, Syrian, Indian, Turko-Persian, or Afghani, and that his birthdate was 1874, 1877, or 1900. Police and prison records list him a Caucasian or white, married, and a father. If these government records are to be believed, Ford came to Los Angeles and was arrested in 1918 and released, and then arrested again in 1926 for violating Prohibition and possession of narcotics for which he was imprisoned. Upon his release he moved to Chicago where he may have become involved with the UNIA and the MSTA. Such an involvement would have been short, for in 1930 he began his own movement in Detroit.

There Fard (pronounced as “Farrad”) Muhammad worked as a door-to-door salesman, but began teaching an Islam that emphasized the evils of alcohol and pork and attacked the Bible and Christianity on racial grounds. Soon he was renting a hall for formal meetings that drew hundreds of African Americans several times a week. In 1937 the sociologist Erdmann Doane Beynon described the early message as follows:

The black men in North America are not Negroes, but members of the lost tribe of Shebazz, stolen by traders from the Holy City of Mecca 379 years ago. The prophet came to America to find and to bring back to life his long lost brethren, from whom the Caucasians had taken away their language, their nation and their religion. Here in America they were living other than themselves. They must learn that they are the original people, noblest of the nations of the earth. The Caucasians are the colored people, since they have lost their original color. The original people must regain their religion, which is Islam, their language, which is Arabic, and their culture, which is astronomy and higher mathematics, especially calculus. They must live according to the law of Allah, avoiding all meat of “poisonous animals,” hogs, ducks, geese, ‘possums and catfish. They must give up completely the use of stimulants, especially liquor. They must clean themselves up—both their bodies and their houses. If in this way they obeyed Allah, he would take them back to the Paradise from which they had been stolen—the Holy City of Mecca.6

It is noteworthy that at this early stage, Fard Muhammad is only identified as a prophet—a fact that The Final Call, a NOI publication from 1934 also confirms. He amassed several thousand followers in his three-and-half-year ministry, founded a second temple in Chicago, and established a school known as the University of Islam. It is the latter that caused him legal problems, for his followers sent their children to it rather than to the public schools. He was arrested in May 1933, and according to the police report, he was Arabian, a minister, Caucasian, and admitted that the movement was “just a racket” to extract money from his followers. The police ordered him to leave Detroit, so he traveled to Chicago, where he was soon arrested again. Once released he met with some of his followers and then disappeared. According to Wallace Ford’s wife, he left for New Zealand, though Elijah Muhammad claimed to have received a letter from Fard Muhammad from Mexico in 1934.

The disappearance initiated a power struggle within the movement, but within a couple of years Elijah Muhammad would emerge as its sole leader. He had been born Elijah Poole in 1897. He and his family were poor sharecroppers, and his father was a lay Christian minister. As a young boy and man, he also witnessed some of the worst of the poverty and racism of the post–Civil War South, including lynchings. In 1923 as part of the Great Migration he moved to Detroit with his wife Clara and their first two children. But there too he experienced racism and with the Great Depression poverty after he was laid off in 1929. He continued to struggle with Christianity, and even explored the Masonic movement. But his life took a new direction when he discovered Fard Muhammad. He converted immediately and was soon given permission to teach Islam. He rose rapidly in the movement and in the eyes of Fard Muhammad, who appointed him Supreme Minister, which provoked some jealousy given his limited education and recent conversion. But it seems he was personally instructed by Fard Muhammad, renamed first Elijah Karriem, then Elijah Muhammad. Although his mentor only used the term Master and Mahdi, Elijah Muhammad came to see him as not only a prophet, but also as the second coming of Jesus and sometime later as Allah himself. According to Elijah Muhammad he was also given two Qurʾans and a list of 104 books to read, and after Fard Muhammad’s disappearance he remained in communication by letters and then later through inspiration—for he would hear his voice (but not have visions) at least once a year.

When Fard Muhammad disappeared, Elijah Muhammad soon had to leave Detroit too, and its Temple No. 1 broke away. He went to Chicago but left, fleeing for his life, after his own brother led a rebellion in Temple No. 2. He traveled to Milwaukee’s Temple No. 3 and then to Washington and established Temple No. 4. For seven years he traveled up and down the east coast cities proselytizing. In 1942 he was arrested and imprisoned for draft dodging. Although he opposed fighting a “white war,” his fourth-grade education and age—just one year short of the upper limit of forty-five for the draft—suggest that the FBI had other motives. For three and half years, his wife Clara served as his liaison with his followers. By the time of his release after the war, the other claimants to leadership of the NOI had disappeared, and he had proven his commitment to his followers.

For the next twenty years, the NOI grew rapidly establishing over fifty temples, its own newspaper, the University of Islam schools, and successful businesses including restaurants, bakeries, stores, and farms. In the late 1950s his Black Muslims had come to the attention of the American media. Much of this success and attention was due to his dutiful and charismatic convert, Malcolm X. But the NOI also came to the attention of other Muslims, both immigrants and African American converts who objected strongly to the movement’s use of the term “Islam.” Elijah Muhammad taught his followers to submit to Allah and his messenger and to read the Qurʾan, the reality of the devil, the mission of prophets such as Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and the rewards and punishments of Judgment Day. But each of these characteristics that seem typical of Islam was understood in radically racialist ways that other Muslims did not normally recognize as “Islamic.” Allah was Fard Muhammad and his apostle was Elijah Muhammad. The latter was the sole interpreter of the Qurʾan which he read primarily as a prophecy about the racial situation in the contemporary United States. The white race was the devil, bred six thousand years ago out of the original black humanity. Moses’, Jesus’, and Muhammad’s roles were reinterpreted as largely failed efforts to reform the evil white race—though statements about Jesus in the Bible and Qurʾan were also read as prophecies about Fard Muhammad. The end times described in these two scriptures were prophecies about the destruction of the white race (along with blacks who had not religiously, socially, and economically separated themselves from whites), and resurrection was the mental transformation that came with accepting Islam. Elijah Muhammad showed how all this was hidden and foretold within the Bible and the Qurʾan.

This rapid growth and newfound attention brought difficulties too. Elijah Muhammad could now afford to travel the world, visiting predominantly Muslim countries and experiencing other and older forms of Islam. For the first time he was confronted by the fact that most Muslims in other parts of the world did not understand Islam as he did and that their societies were not as wealthy, peaceful, or utopian as he had imagined. His sons, particularly Wallace and Akbar, had learned Arabic and could read the Qurʾan, and Akbar attended al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni “orthodoxy” in Egypt. Both sons began questioning their father’s teachings of Islam. Elijah Muhammad made some superficial concessions such as briefly referring to the temples as mosques, but when real opposition came from other Muslims, he went on the attack.

The first serious criticisms of the NOI came from a few prominent African American converts to Sunni Islam, such as Talib Ahmad Dawud, leader of an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood USA, and Jamil Daib, a Palestinian Arab who had once taught Arabic at the University of Islam in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the criticisms focused on the belief that Fard Muhammad was Allah and on the claim that race was at the core of Islam. Dawud and Daib argued that “Islam” and “Muslim” should not be used when speaking of the NOI. Elijah Muhammad responded with personal attacks, suggesting that Dawud was jealous and highlighting the moral failings of his wife, a blues singer. Elijah Muhammad brooked no opposition from other African American Muslims and tolerated no dissent within his ranks.

Akbar Muhammad studied at al-Azhar in Cairo during the early 1960s. Of the leading members of the Nation of Islam, his was by far the most personal and in-depth experience of Sunni Islam. By the time he returned in 1964, his changing views led to him being publicly excommunicated and labeled a hypocrite—the term favored by Elijah Muhammad for all followers who deviated from his teachings. He considered one hypocrite worse than one hundred disbelievers and the most hated of all people. The infamous break between Elijah Muhammad and his protégé, Malcolm X, in 1964 may have begun because of the circulation of rumors about Elijah Muhammad’s affairs and illegitimate children, the jealousy of high-ranking officials of Malcolm X’s rapid rise in the organization, and the political conservatism of his erstwhile mentor, but Malcolm X’s move to Sunni Islam (albeit still a very racially active one) shows it was also about the tension between Elijah Muhammad’s Islam and Malcolm X’s growing awareness of the Islam of immigrant Muslims. For this he became labeled as the “chief hypocrite.”

Some of that awareness came from Wallace D. Muhammad. He was the last of Elijah Muhammad’s children born before Fard Muhammad’s disappearance, and he was named after him. Wallace Muhammad had had doubts about his father’s teachings for many years. Like his father, he was imprisoned for draft dodging and used the time to read the Qurʾan. He began to gradually moved toward what he described as the “Islam of the Qurʾan” and “Orthodox Islam.” He spoke to Malcolm X about his doubts and about the rumors of his father’s infidelities. For his part in the scandal or his beliefs, he was excommunicated from the NOI. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Wallace Muhammad made amends with his father and was reinstated, though he would be expelled twice more, reinstated twice, only regaining his position as a minister in 1974—a mere year before his father’s death in 1975. What may appear to be weakness or compromise seems to have been the wiser course in the long run.

In the midst of this internal turmoil, came external challenges from Muslims outside the United States. In the late 1950s, Elijah Muhammad still believed that “Muslims in the East” lived in peace in the richest part of the world. He also assumed that he and his followers would be accepted by their “light-skinned or copper-colored Arab brother.”7 Any differences when it came to Islam were dismissed. They had not experienced slavery and prejudice that African Americans, so “I cannot, therefore, blame them if they differ with me in certain interpretations of the Message of Islam. In fact, I do not even expect them to understand some of the things I say unto my people here.”8 But when challenged directly, he claimed that Muslim scholars knew that the Qurʾan supported his teaching about the races.

Perhaps after witnessing the impact of “Eastern Muslims” on Akbar, Wallace, and Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad became less conciliatory and far more combative. They were “old-world” Muslims following an “old Islam led by Whites.” They were “spooky-minded” for believing in an immaterial god. By the 1970s, he no longer saw them as merely mistaken for having befriended the “white devil.” Rather, “the Old Islam was led by white people, white Muslims, but this one will not be. This Islam will be established and led by Black Muslims only,” and their Islam was no better than the devil’s Christianity.9 Thus when it was clear that his Islam and the Islam of his critics could not be reconciled, he opted to reject their Islam completely.

The last decade of Elijah Muhammad’s life was filled with problems. Earlier he had been plagued by bronchial asthma and high blood pressure, but now he had to contend with diabetes as well. He often handed the running of the NOI to his inner circle. This may have contributed to the power struggles from within the NOI, and even violent feuds with other African American Muslim groups. When Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975, the three leading contenders to the NOI’s leadership were Wallace D. Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, and Raymond Sharrieff. Farrakhan, who had rapidly risen to prominence following Malcolm X’s departure, was the National Representative of Elijah Muhammad and two of his children had married into the Muhammad family. Sharrieff, the Supreme Captain, was a son-in-law. But most of the immediate family saw both as outsiders and supported his son Wallace Muhammad. Three days after his father’s death, he was proclaimed the new Supreme Minister.

The Death and Resurrection of the NOI

As the new Supreme Minister, Wallace Muhammad began to radically reshape the organization that his father had struggled for four decades to build and perpetuate. He sold off business to pay taxes and creditors, but more importantly the racial teachings of his father were abandoned or reinterpreted. Whites might be devilish in their thinking, but not devils. Anti-American and anti-Christian slogans and teachings were dropped. The nationality of NOI members was changed to Bilalians, after Bilal the African slave who converted to Islam in the time of Muhammad the Prophet. His father was spoken of as Master (not Messenger or Apostle) and Fard Muhammad as a “wise man.” The renaming included himself and the movement. He became Warith Deen Mohammed, changing the spelling to emphasize that he was making no claim to be a messenger. The NOI became World Community of al-Islam in the West, then the American Muslim Mission, and then the American Society of Muslims, which disbanded after his retirement in 2003. This had been no superficial reinvention of the NOI. He sought to move all his father’s followers toward his “Islam of the Qurʾan.” He saw the NOI as merely a temporary ploy used by Fard Muhammad to free the minds of African Americans so that later they could embrace “orthodox Islam” when the time was right. He even believed his father came to this realization at the end of his life and died a Muslim. It is more likely that Elijah Muhammad’s own emphasis on the Qurʾan as the most important scriptural authority and his success in building a movement that brought it to the attention of other Muslims both in the United States and abroad, made the shift to a more compatible form of Islam inevitable.10 And thus, the movement followed where Akbar, Wallace, and Malcolm X (and many others) had gone.

Not all of Elijah Muhammad’s followers were convinced by Warith Deen Mohammed. For some more conservative members the essence of the NOI had been the racial teachings. The main champion of this group was Louis Farrakhan. Initially he supported Warith Deen Mohammed’s succession, albeit grudgingly. But he could not countenance all the radical changes and the death of the NOI. In 1977 he resurrected the NOI with all of Elijah Muhammad’s original teachings. Louis Wolcott, later Louis X, had been a well-educated and a musician before converting in the mid-1950s. He had been trained by Malcolm X and was in many ways like his mentor: a natural leader and a charismatic speaker. He was among those who accused Malcolm X of spreading rumors and after his expulsion, one of his most ardent critics afterwards. He also filled many of the positions formerly held by Malcolm X within the NOI, and many thought he should have succeeded Elijah Muhammad in 1975.

Louis Farrakhan has now led the resurrected NOI for almost as long as Elijah Muhammad led the original, though the movement is now much smaller. He has tried to introduce some Sunni practices, reach out to other Muslims, and even reconcile with Warith Deen Mohammed before his death in 2008, though conservative elements within the NOI seem to have thwarted him. Louis Farrakhan, however, is known less for his teachings about Islam than for a series of controversies. He has been accused of anti-Semitism because of impertinent remarks and the NOI’s publication of The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews that argued for the prominent role of Jews in the slave trade. He has been accused of sexism because of his conservative views on the roles for women in the family. For similar reasons The Million Man March which he called and help organize in Washington in 1995, which sought to promote African American male unity and family values, provoked criticism. More recently, although stating that he is not a Scientologist, in 2010 he embraced of the Church of Scientology’s Dianetics and many thousands of NOI members have followed his encouragement to take part in its auditing. That is likely to make other Muslims look on the NOI even less favorably.

The status of the NOI vis-à-vis Islam (or better, other forms of Islam) remains problematic. Often how one tells the history reflects one’s position. If one begins the history African American Islam with Estavan, the Moroccan Muslim slave who arrived in 1527 (or with the absurd claim that Muslims discovered America in 1178), or even with the Africans brought as slaves, then the NOI is usually depicted as a reappropriation of a lost Islamic heritage that may have temporally overemphasized the racial issues of the United States. It may be heretical and on the margins, but it stands inside the Islamic tradition. To begin with Fard Muhammad, or worse with Wallace D. Ford, then the NOI merely had a Muslim façade to hide its nationalist and a racist agenda, cleverly exploiting African American’s religiosity and ignorance of Islam. Where one ends the history of African American Islam is equally problematic: with Louis Farrakhan it highlights the unreformed differences between the NOI and other older or more traditional forms of Islam; with Malcolm X or Warith Deen Muhammad it suggests the NOI was a necessary, but temporary stepping stone toward Sunni orthodoxy.

Immigrant Islam

A 2011 Pew Research report estimated that there were 1.8 million Muslim adults and 2.75 million including children under the age of eighteen in the United States. (The U.S. Census does not ask about religious affiliation so some estimates place the number of Muslims in the United States as being closer to 7 million.) Despite their relatively small numbers, Muslim Americans are a very diverse group. According to the same report 37 percent of adult Muslim Americans were born in the United States and only 22 percent are third, fourth, or later generation Americans. Thus, 63 percent are first-generation immigrants and another 15 percent second-generation Americans. Most Muslims are therefore relatively new to the country, with 25 percent arriving since 2000. Unlike many other countries that have large Muslim immigrant populations, the United States has no one dominant ethnic group (apart from African Americans), nor do the immigrants share a common origin. Muslim immigrants come from at least seventy-seven different countries with the largest single country of origin being Pakistan, with 14 percent of first-generation immigrants. In terms of region, however, the Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa account for 41 percent of foreign-born Muslims or 26 percent of all Muslim Americans. South Asia accounts for 26 percent of foreign-born Muslims. Muslim Americans are also racially diverse: 30 percent described themselves as white, 23 percent as black, 21 percent as Asian, 6 percent as Hispanic, and 19 percent as other or mixed race. The presence of African American Islam is also obvious from these ratios; of the 23 percent who describe themselves as black, 14 percent of Muslim immigrants do so and 40 percent of U.S.-born Muslims do so. Muslims are also geographically diverse within the United States, with mosques in every state.

Muslim immigrants came to the United States in distinct waves. Apart from Africans brought as slaves, immigration began between 1875 and 1913. Middle Eastern Arabs (mostly from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine) who came to the United States were mostly Christian, but there were some Muslims too. Exact numbers cannot be ascertained and may be higher than previously thought since many Muslim immigrants may not have been very observant or may have hid their religious beliefs in their largely Christian communities into which they settled. Like many immigrants, they tended to be poorly uneducated, and came in hopes of sending remittances home. Most hoped to return home, and some did, while others married American wives and were completely assimilated. World War I interrupted immigration, but with the war’s end and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire a second wave of immigrants, often relatives of the earlier wave, arrived between 1918 and 1922. Immigration laws passed in 1921 and tightened in 1924 put quotas on immigration based on countries of birth. The former act sought to maintain the ethnic portions of the United States recorded in the 1910 census and the latter of the 1890 census—a means of retaining the predominance of those of northern European descent, which therefore significantly limited the numbers of Muslims allowed to enter the United States. Thus the third wave of Muslim immigrants between 1930 and 1938 were again mostly relatives of those who were already U.S. citizens. Then once again war interrupted any significant immigration. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 abolished the racial restrictions, though national quotas were retained based on the 1920 census and so still favored Europeans. The fourth wave of Muslim immigrants from 1947 to 1960 saw few from the Middle East, but increasing numbers of Eastern Europeans including Muslims from Albania and Yugoslavia, from Pakistan and India after Partition in 1947, and from the Soviet Union. After World War II, America’s leadership role in the world had changed markedly, and it became a destination for displaced or persecuted refugees or those fleeing Communism. The national origin quotas were abolished in 1965 (and more refugees allowed), and in 1990 significant emphasis was placed on employment related immigration. From 1966 to 2000, 22.8 million immigrants entered the United States and for the first time included groups such as Asian and African Muslims. Although many Muslim immigrants came as students to American universities or as educated professionals, many were also refugees. Their origins depended very much on the locations of turmoil in the world. These immigrants included Palestinians after the 1967 war, Iranians after the revolution in 1979, Ahmadiyyas after sectarian strife in Pakistan, Muslim Indians after anti-Muslim pogroms, Lebanese during the Civil War, Afghanis with the coup, the Russian occupation, and then the civil war in Afghanistan, Indo-Pakistanis from Africa starting in 1972, Somalis after the civil war, Sudanese with their nation’s conservative military regime, and Bosnians during the Yugoslavian civil wars.11

Each group brought with it its particular forms of Islam. The branches of Islam present in the United States reflect those of Islam in general, though their proportion often differs due to immigration patterns. According to a Pew Report in 2008, “Half of the Muslims in the U.S. identify as Sunni and 16 percent are Shia; one-in-three, however, either say they are affiliated with a different Muslim group or describe themselves as ‘just a Muslim.’”12 Of course, the situation is much more complex; for example within the Shiʿi groups there are Imami (or Ithnaʿasharis or Twelvers); Ismaʿilis, which consist of two main groups Mustalis (or Boharas) and the more numerous Nizaris (whose religious leader is the Aga Khan); the Druze, a movement that broke away from Shiism almost millennium ago; and others. In addition to the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and their offshoots, and the Sufi organizations that do not emphasize Islam, there are additional uniquely American forms of Islam. The Quranic Muslims were founded by Rashad Khalifa, an Egyptian-born immigrant who argued that the sole basis of Islam is the Qurʾan, epitomized by the slogan “The Qurʾan, the whole Qurʾan, and nothing but the Qurʾan.” Therefore Khalifa rejected the Sunna and its hadith, which are a source of law in all major schools of law in both Sunni and Shiʿi Islam and which outlines much of Muslim practice. These Qurʾanists are called “hadith rejecters” by opponents and are considered apostates by some more traditional Muslims.

As noted above, the estimates of Muslims in America vary significantly, but the number of mosques less so. The first mosque was established by Albanian Muslims in 1915 in Biddeford, Maine (though the first building built specifically to be a mosque was in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1921). A century later the number of mosques and Islamic centers had grown to over 2,300, most being establish after the immigration policy change of the mid-1960s, when the number increased from 1,209 to 2,106, an increase of 74 percent. Like the American Muslim population, these mosques are quite diverse: only 3 percent of mosques are attended by only one ethnic group.13

Converts to Islam

African slaves and early immigrants to the United States were in no position to attempt to convert the colonists in America or after 1776 the Americans. The first such Anglo-American convert of note, the aforementioned Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, came into contact with Islam while abroad. He was serving as the United States Consul to the Philippines, where in 1888 he converted to Islam after reading the works of, and corresponding with, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Mirza (d. 1908), the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement. Later, he visited India, Egypt, and Turkey in 1892, to study Islam. In 1893 he was the representative of Islam at the first Parliament for the World’s Religions. Webb was not a missionary per se, but established a short-lived journal, Moslem World, dedicated “to spread[ing] the light of Islam in America.” His book, Islam in America, explained why he became a Muslim and sought to dispel the negative stereotypes Americans had of Islam rather than to convert Americans to Islam. Perhaps most significant was his assertion that his Muslim identity and his American identity were not at odds.

The most successful movement to convert Americans to Islam remains, of course, the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Muhammad. But among African Americans there were other groups in addition to the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and the NOI that actively proselytized, such as the Hanafis, the Islamic Party, Ansaaru Allah, the Five Percenters, Dar ul-Islam Movement (which came from the 1924 Islamic Mission of America founded by Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal), among others. All of these movements have offshoots or were offshoots of earlier movements. Several African American Shiʿi Islam mosques have also been established. Thus the African American Muslim communities are just as diverse as that of immigrant communities. To refer to them as “Black Islam” suggests a unity that seriously obscures the individuality of these movements.

White American conversions to Islam are estimated to be between fifty and ninety thousand. Many of these converts are conservative and evangelical and adopt traditional attire that even immigrants often shed in favor of American clothing. Some men and women convert because of marriage, but according to Yvonne Haddad:

The majority are women who find Islam appealing because they believe they will be treated with respect and not as sex objects. Many indicate that they find Christian doctrines of incarnation and trinity implausible. A significant number are attracted to groups formed by around Sufi masters”14

Sufi orders in the United States date back to the Hazrat Inayat Khan’s founding of the Sufi Order in the West (later, Sufi Order International) in 1910, though Sufi ideas and literature had been introduced a century earlier by members of the Transcendentalist movement such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and by orientalists such as Reynold A. Nicholson. The countercultural movement of the 1960s sought out non-Western spiritual philosophies and practices, including for some hippies, those of Sufism. The Sufi groups that formed in the 1960s and 1970s varied greatly. Some adopted the Islam that came with traditional Sufism, and some just selected those Sufi practices and beliefs that suited their needs such as the Dances of Universal Peace (or “Sufi Dances”) and so might be best termed non-Islamic Sufi movements. The Sufi Order International is often categorized thus. Others are “quasi-Islamic” in that the tenets of Islam are not mandatory, such as with the Bawa Muhayiadden Fellowship in Philadelphia, the largest such organization. “Quasi-Islamic” is somewhat inaccurate since it reflects the group’s origins. The movement now has a mosque and, as it has been joined by Muslim immigrants, has moved toward more traditional Sufi and Islamic practices. With the large-scale immigration after 1965, most Sufi organizations in the United States became branches of the well-established Sufi orders: the Naqshbandi, Chishti, Nimatullahi, Mevlevi, Shadhili, Jerrahi, Qadiriya, Tijani, and so forth.

As noted above, 6 percent of American Muslims identify as Hispanic. There does not appear to be any early movement that sought specifically to convert Hispanic Americans to Islam. Puerto Ricans in New York City, however, were first drawn into African American mosques in the early 1970s. Since then other American Muslims and immigrant Muslims recognized the need to address Latino populations by providing Islamic materials, including the Qurʾan, in Spanish. These missionary efforts have been somewhat successful, and led to several Spanish-language organizations.15

Review of the Literature

Scholarship on African American Islam began early but was sparse for decades. Of particular note for the Nation of Islam are Erdmann D. Beynon’s article from 1937 and Hatim A. Sahib’s master’s thesis in 1951. But apart from these sources, contemporary scholars remain dependent on literature produced by the movement itself and other primary sources such as newspaper reports, the autobiography of Malcolm X, and extensive F.B.I. files. In the early 1960s, C. Eric Lincoln and E.U. Essien-Udom produced monographs on the Nation of Islam that saw the movement as a socio-religious protest movement and an expression of black nationalism, respectively. Malcolm X received growing scholarly attention, but African American Islam less so in the 1970s and 1980s, with notable exceptions such as Clifton E. Marsh’s historical and sociological study in 1984 of Warith Deen Mohammed’s efforts. In the 1990s and 2000s many studies appeared that focused on early African Muslims, the Nation of Islam as a religion, gender issues, African American prisoners, and so forth. Of particular note were Martha F. Lee’s The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement in 1996, Richard Brent Turner’s Islam in the African American Experience in 1997, Claude Andrew Clegg III’s An Original Man in 1997, Robert Dannin, Black Pilgrimage to Islam in 2002, Sherman A. Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican in 2005, Edward E. Curtis IV’s Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975 in 2006, and Herbert Berg, Elijah Muhammad and Islam in 2009.

Scholarship on Islam in the United States generally focused on particular immigrant groups or communities in the late 1970s and 1980s, and were most of these were article- or chapter-length studies. In the 1990s the growing interest in American Islam was spearheaded by Yvonne H. Haddad’s edited volume The Muslims of America in 1991 and Haddad and Jane I. Smith’s edited volume Muslim Communities in North America in 1994. Both highlighted the diversity of Islam, including African American Islam. Since then the study of Islam in the United States has flourished. There are scholars examining almost every aspect of American Islam, from architecture to zakat. The growing maturity of the study of Islam in the United States is highlighted by the publication by both Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press of a Companion and Handbook (respectively) on American Islam. These collections, along with Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s A History of Islam in America in 2010, demonstrate that the two strands of the American Islam (the African American and the immigrant) are far more entwined than previously thought.

Further Reading

Ahmed, Gutbi Ahmed. “Muslim Organizations in the United States.” In The Muslims of America, edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, 3–24. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

“Allah’s Last Messenger Answers Questions You Have Always Wanted to Ask! Muhammad Meets the Press!” Muhammad Speaks (February 4, 1972): 3–4.Find this resource:

Bagby, Ihsan. The American Mosque 2011: Report Number 1 from the US Mosque Study 2011: Basic Characteristics of the American Mosque Attitudes of Mosque Leaders. Washington, DC: Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2011.Find this resource:

Berg, Herbert. Elijah Muhammad and Islam. New York: New York University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Beynon, Erdmann Doane. “The Voodoo Cult among Negro Migrants in Detroit.” The American Journal of Sociology 43 (1937–1938): 894–907.Find this resource:

Bowen, Patrick D. “Abdul Hamid Suleiman and the Origins of the Moorish Science Temple.” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion 2 (2011): 1–54.Find this resource:

Clegg III, Claude Andrew. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Curtis IV, Edward E. Muslims in America: A Short History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Dannin, Robert. Black Pilgrimage to Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Esposito, John L., and Ibrahim Kalin, eds. Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for an Identity in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.Find this resource:

GhaneaBassiri, Kambiz. A History of Islam in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Gibson, Dawn-Marie. A History of the Nation of Islam: Race, Islam, and the Quest for Freedom. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012.Find this resource:

Haddad, Yvonne Y, ed. The Muslims of America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “Make Room for the Muslims?” In Religious Diversity and American Religious History, edited by Walter H. Conser and Sumner B. Twiss, 218–261. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Haddad, Yvonne Y., and Jane I. Smith, eds. Muslim Communities in North America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Haddad, Yvonne Y., and Jane I. Smith, eds. The Oxford Handbook of American Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Hammer, Juliane, and Omid Safi, eds. The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Howell, Sally. Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Jackson, Sherman A. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Lee, Martha F. The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. 3d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994.Find this resource:

Marr, Timothy. The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Marsh, Clifton E. From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Transition from Separation to Islam, 1930–1980. Metuchen, MA: Scarecrow, 1984.Find this resource:

Muhammad, Elijah. The Supreme Wisdom: The Solution to the So-Called Negroes’ Problem. Newport News, VA: The National Newport News and Commentator, 1957.Find this resource:

Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2011.Find this resource:

Sahib, Hatim A. The Nation of Islam. M.A. diss., University of Chicago, 1951. Published as “The Nation of Islam,” Contributions in Black Studies 13.3 (1995): 1–113.Find this resource:

Smith, Jane I. Islam in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African-American Experience. 2d ed. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew Research Center, 2008.Find this resource:

The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew Research Center, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(2.) Sherman A. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 44.

(3.) Patrick D. Bowen, “ Abdul Hamid Suleiman and the Origins of the Moorish Science Temple.Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion 2 (2011): 1–54.

(5.) Dawn-Marie Gibson, A History of the Nation of Islam: Race, Islam, and the Quest for Freedom (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012), 16.

(6.) Erdmann Doane Beynon, “The Voodoo Cult among Negro Migrants in Detroit,” The American Journal of Sociology 43 (1937–1938): 899–901.

(7.) Elijah Muhammad, The Supreme Wisdom: The Solution to the So-Called Negroes’ Problem (Newport News, VA: The National Newport News and Commentator, 1957), 37.

(8.) Muhammad, The Supreme Wisdom, 4.

(9.) “Allah’s Last Messenger Answers Questions You Have Always Wanted to Ask! Muhammad Meets the Press!” Muhammad Speaks (February 4, 1972): 4.

(10.) Herbert Berg, Elijah Muhammad and Islam (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 141–143.

(11.) Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 51–53.

(12.) U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic. (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew Research Center, 2008), 21.

(13.) Ihsan Bagby, The American Mosque 2011: Report Number 1 from the US Mosque Study 2011: Basic Characteristics of the American Mosque Attitudes of Mosque Leaders (Washington, DC: Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2011), 4.

(14.) Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, “Make Room for the Muslims?” in Religious Diversity and American Religious History, ed. Walter H. Conser and Sumner B. Twiss (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 221–222.

(15.) Jane I Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 66–68.