Discussing the Rapidly Growing Tradition of Islam in the United States

During the past four decades, the religious landscape of the United States has undergone radical changes. In the 1950s, sociologist Will Herberg claimed that “the three religious communities – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish – are America.” Today there are over 1,313 different religious groups in the U.S. (Melton 1985). Christianity, until very recently, was considered the only significant religion with which African Americans generally identified. The story is now changing. Today, Islam is a rapidly growing religious tradition in America. In 1980, the number of Muslims in the United States was estimated at 3.3 million; by 1986, that number rose to four million. More recently, estimates range from anywhere between five and eight million. African Americans account for about 42 percent of the Muslim population in the U.S., which is somewhere between four and six million people. Islam is indeed presenting a challenge to the African American communities and the African American Protestant Churches want to know why?

The current rapid growth rate of Islam through conversion in North America is staggering. Dudley Woodberry, in Islam and Protestant African-American Churches – Responses and Challenges to Religious Pluralism, says the numerical growth of Islam is far more biological than the result of conversions. He says, “while in fact more people are becoming Christians each year, they are not enough to maintain the same percentage difference by the turn of the century” (March 1994). The fact of the matter is, Islam is on the rise. The growth of Islam among African Americans is a phenomena that calls for more research and understanding from the Christian community. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya were correct in their significant observation in 1990. “The Black Church…must not underestimate the Islamic challenge on the horizon. Islam is a proven universal religion that is undergoing a worldwide fundamental resurgence and the Muslims in the black community have proven themselves to be highly motivated evangelists” (1990:397). In addition, it is not only within the U.S. that African Americans are embracing Islam. African Americans serving in predominantly Somalia have also converted to Islam; however because the Department of Defense does not keep track of such conversions, the number of converts is not known (Alexander 1993:4).

We see that one reason for Muslims success is their strategy to evangelize. The most successful of the mission minded religious faith is Islam. In theory, Muslims proclaim that “all” people are created Muslims by nature. As Muslims actively engage in mission and ministry within the African American communities, Islam and Muslims present challenges and obstacles that must be faced by the Church. The Nation motto of the American Muslim Society is, “Bringing Humanity Together in Moral Excellence with Truth and Understanding”. This motto captures the themes of life emphasized in the presentation of the Islamic faith; unity of humanity (under one God, known as Allah); the need for a program of moral excellency; and the quest for truth and reason. Muslims are attempting to make a difference based on growing religious convictions and emphasizing solutions for relevant living.

Before we move into reasons why Islam is so appealing to African Americans, let us first explore the origin of Islam. Mecca during the time of Muhammad was culturally diverse with “animistic polytheism.” Jews, Christians and nomads inhabited its social landscape. Tribal feuds were commonplace, “however with the divine revelation given to an unlikely character this situation was destined to change.” Muhammad was born into the leading tribe of Mecca, the Koreish (Quraysh) in approximately 570 A.D. Much of his early life was filled with tragedy. Experiences such as the death of his mother, father, and grandfather at an early age resulted in living with his uncle and attending to his flock. Pure-hearted and beloved in his circle, he was it is said, of sweet gentle disposition. His bereavements having made him sensitive to human suffering in every form, he was always ready to help others, especially the poor and the weak. His sense of honor, duty and fidelity won him, as he grew older, the high and honorable title of al-Amin, “The True, The Upright, and The Trustworthy one. Hence, the making of a prophet.

Spending much of his personal time in solitude Muhammad, was said to have received a divine revelation in the form of an Angel. Subsequently, he received the “call,” “recite” hence, preach. The first to accept the new faith were the prophet’s wife Khadijah, his cousin, son in-law, slave – whom he freed and adopted, and his faithful companion Abu Bakr. Slowly a band of believers, consisting of slaves and the poor of society, began to form. Initially, to avoid the problems that monotheism could encounter in this polytheistic society, submission to God was done secretly until the tiny community’s habit of daily prayer became known to Meccans. Muhammad was met with much resistance in Mecca, and it was clear that he became a threat to the socio-political and religious order. Eventually, he took his followers and the message of one God to Medina. Muhammad’s teachings were less offensive to those in Medina because this place was familiar with monotheism through its contact with Judaism. Muhammad followed the path taken by Christian preaching six centuries earlier when he addressed his message to those who had been prepared for monotheism by Jewish teaching. However, he went further: by denying the divinity of Jesus he brought peace to Arabian Christian lands, which had suffered bitterly from Christological disputes. But the price was the unconditional surrender of the essence of Christianity.

Continued friction between Muslims in Medina and the Meccans fueled by Muhammad’s desire to see the holy city of Mecca surrender to God. Muhammad returned to Mecca, removed the images and idols from the Holy City and established the Ka’bah as the center of Islamic faith. As a result of this victory, Muhammad was recognized as the prophet of God. It is from the Qur’an Muslims draw Islamic theology complete with cosmological structure. Islam’s structure is clear and lacking in “gray areas. There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is its prophet. From Abraham to the final revelation given to Muhammad, this line of sacred writings reaches its fullness with the Qur’an.”

Islam flourished throughout all of Arabia. However, after Muhammad’s death in 632, two distinct groups emerged, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. Abu Bkr, who followed Muhammad as leader of the community, fought against those who believed that their allegiance to Islam died with Muhammad. What resulted was the movement of Islam outside its native home with areas of conquest including portions of African continents such as Egypt. By the nineteenth century (C.E.) Islam had spread through much of the eastern portion of Africa by means of Arab and Berber trade and nomads moving across the continent. From the western portion of the North, Islam spread through the central region of West Africa. Islamic culture developed and thrived in the Western portion of Africa. Islamic influence would continue to increase during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because its association with anticolonia feelings. In terms of cultural consideration, Muslims moved from the Middle East - recognized that Islam needed to adapt to the existing religious sensibilities of African traditional religious ethnic groups - maintained the beliefs of indigenous practices and often combined these elements with Islam in a way that promoted health and well being.

Islam in the United States
Records report that many Muslims arrived on the shores of the “promised land” against their will. For them America was not a land of promise, but of bondage. These were the Muslims brought in a slave trade of colonial and post-colonial America. A significant number of black Africans brought to North America during the antebellum slave trade were Muslims. Some have postulated that as many as 20 percent of African slaves were Muslims. These men and women seized into slavery came from a variety of areas in Sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to Nigeria. Some were highly literate and educated in their religion, while others were more humble and practitioners. A few, such as the well-documented Prince Ayub Ibn Sulayman Diallo, who was abducted in 1731, even came from the ruling elements of their societies.

Although the Muslims free expression of their religion was prohibited and suppressed during centuries of servitude, the fire of their faith was never snuffed out. Just as Muslims who remained in Spain after 1492 had been forced to convert to Christianity, so American slaves were required to become Christians also. In spite of these conditions, some Muslims managed to maintain their Islamic faith, continuing as practicing Muslims until the early part of this century. Generally, they had to maintain their practice in secret. According to one account, a Muslim slave while pretending to write the Lord’s prayer in Arabic was actually writing the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an. It was not uncommon for the Muslims to combine Christian and Islamic beliefs, by associating the Christian’s God with Allah and Jesus with Muhammad.

A number of families now living on the coast of Georgia are said to be descendants of slaves, some of them reportedly Muslim. Best known perhaps, is one Bilali Mahomet, who was probably taken into slavery around 1725. His Bilali Diary, written in a West African Arabic script, is now located in the rare books library of the University of Georgia. Other African Muslim slaves in historical literature are Job ben Solomon, a Maryland slave of Fulani Muslim origins who lived from about 1700 to about 1773; Yarrow Mamout, a slave from Georgetown, Virginia, who was close to 100 years old when his portrait was painted in 1819 by American artist Charles willson Peale.

Records from South Carolina contain reports of slaves who refused to eat pork and who prayed to a god named Allah. For many African American Muslims today, the presence of these Muslims in early American history, and their achievements have added a great deal to the sense of pride in being a Muslim and of sharing in the long struggle for freedom that has characterized the black experience in America from its earliest days. “The Afro-American people have Islam in their hearts,” says a recent convert. “We have it on our tongues as we struggle to pronounce the Arabic which we have forgotten, but with which perhaps we came as slaves. This was the culture that was stripped from us, along with the language and religion. Most critically, the religion of Islam was taken from us through slavery”.

Most emancipated slaves, having had their original identity taken away by white masters, found themselves in a desperate quest for a place in American society. It was an extremely difficult time for blacks in an overwhelmingly white culture, with economic and social problems compounded by the desperation of having no sense of belonging. Immigrants from Europe resented blacks migrating north who competed for the same jobs. Those blacks remaining in the South occasionally found themselves victims of lynchings and even burnings.

Not surprisingly, a series of Movements arose geared to helping blacks for their identity. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association advocated a return to Liberia in the African motherland. Garvey’s movement strongly influenced several black leaders, who associated themselves with Islam. One was Noble Drew Ali, among the first to adopt certain symbols of the Islamic faith. He wanted to unite a people who had been oppressed, to provide a means for them to contribute both individually to their own well being and collectively to the larger American society. To do so, he said that Americans of African descent were by their heritage Asiatic, or Moorish. Thus the community he founded was known as the Moorish National and Divine Movement, later changed to Moorish Science Temple of America. He declared that only by leaving the distorted white religion of Christianity could African Americans be free.

Drew Ali’s followers divided into several groups when he died in 1920. Despite problems, the Moorish American Movement has continued in a number of urban areas of the eastern and Midwestern United States and its membership maintains to be essentially African Americans. Neither Garvey nor Drew Ali was an effective as Elijah Poole, later to be called Elijah Muhammad. He was an ardent follower of Wallace D. Fard (Ali’s successor) and considered to be the first prophet of the indigenous American movement claiming an affiliation with Islam, and gaining the attention of the country, namely the Nation of Islam. This indigenous socioreligious, even political, movement played a unique role in meeting the needs of significant numbers of African Americans. That it advocated a doctrine of human origin far from the ideals of an egalitarian Islam mattered little and, in fact, was scarcely realized by those who found in it a means of recapturing personal identity through a standard of performance that was strict, clean and economically viable.

The precise beginnings of the Nation of Islam are unclear. According to Poole’s account, William Fard made his appearance in Detroit on July 4, 1930, identifying himself as having come from the holy Muslim city of Mecca. He identified blacks as the lost, and now found, ancient tribe of Shabazz. Poole believed that Fard’s mission was to redeem and restore this lost tribe. Poole later came to understand that Fard was the personification of the promised mahdi, the guided one whose return is expected to initiate the final period before the Day of Resurrection and Judgment. Fard himself encouraged the interpretation that he was indeed a Christ-figure, to displace the white Christ that Christians tried to give to blacks. Master Fard disappeared in 1934 leaving Elijah Muhammad in charge of the movement. A split occurred between those who understood Master Fard to be God incarnate and those who did not abide by this thinking. However, Islam continued to grow as African Americans found solutions to American racism and a belief that justice, equality and freedom was theirs to have in life.

With the death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad on February 25, 1975, there were several splits in the Nation of Islam; two are of primary importance. His heir, son Wallace Deen Muhammad, dismantled the Nation’s structure and theology that was not in line with orthodox Islam as practiced elsewhere in the Islamic world. Wallace Deen Muhammad’s goal was to de-emphasize the “divine” status of Fard Muhammad. In 1976 he changed the organization’s name to the World Community of Islam in the West. The change in name was accompanied by a shift toward traditional Islamic personal names and the renaming of the “so-called Negroes” to Bilalians after an African Muslim close to the prophet Muhammad. In 1982, the organization went under another name change, becoming the American Muslim Mission. This was accompanied by further decentralization and increased conversation with Christian churches. Even with these radical changes, many initially followed Wallace Muhammad’s program because he had been selected by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad; among them was Louis X (formerly Louis Walcott). Louis X, whose name was changed by Muhammad to Louis Farrakhan, remained loyal until the Nation itself, under Elijah Muhammad’s son began a radical shift away from the original teachings.

As friction between Louis Farrakhan and Wallace Muhammad grew, Wallace sought to bring Farrakhan under control by transferring him out of the prestigious New York mosque and sent him to Chicago to a small and struggling mosque. Under the leadership of Farrakhan, the “New” Nation of Islam grew and has continued to grow and his lectures are heard on various radio and television stations. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam embraced the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, but the praxis of the new Nation differed in significant ways. In addition to active political involvement, the socioeconomic agenda outlined by Farrakhan betrays the middle-class values and capitalist learnings that were present but understated, in the Nation from its earliest years. In other words, the Nation’s denouncement of white supremacy and its trappings did not preclude an embrace of the “American Dream”, the basic principle of democracy approved of by a growing mainstream audience.The Nation of Islam Muslims do not believe in Christianity. As a matter of fact, Farrakhan is most adamant when it comes to Christianity. He attributes the fear of Whites by African Americans to the visual representation of Jesus that was given to people of African descent during the period of the enslavement.
Farrakhan reports:
You know White people came to Africa with the Bible and the so-called message of Jesus Christ. When it ended up we had the Bible and Jesus and they had the land and the mineral wealth. They came here to my brother, the American Indian and now the Indian is on a reservation. He got the Bible. He got Jesus. He got the reservation. In Mexico, Central and South America, look at the people. They live in abject poverty, squalor, filth, and disease. They got the Bible. They got Jesus Christ. White folks got the country (McFadden 1986:115).

Marsha Snulligan Haney, an ethnographer researcher and author of Islam and Protestant African-American Churches: Responses and Challenges to Religious Pluralism, conducted a study to identify key factors responsible for the continued growth of Islam. Her study was limited to the county of Los Angeles. She felt that Los Angeles represented a typical and natural setting where multi-religious activities are being carried out nationwide. The primary focus for her study was to comprehend the nature of the development and expansion of Islam within the African-American communities. Marsha’s study shows that Islamic appeal is four-fold to African American. The study reveals that the search for an authentic relationship with God through religious expression, coupled with a violent historic past of racism and discrimination and an influx of Muslim immigrants who have found community and common goals with the African-American Muslim community, is the most crucial factor explaining why African Americans are attracted to Islam today. Factors both internal and external to the church are contributing to the rise in the number of former Christians and non-Christians who are seeking spiritual solutions in Islam.

Four primary interrelated factors concerning the Islamic appeal as perceived through Muslim religious beliefs and practices are: truth, reasoning, the perception of the Islamic community as united, and the cultural appeal for historical knowledge. A brief explanation of each follows:

Truth: The first factor is that the African-American Muslims have found that the American Muslims Society has conformed to their concept of religion. Islam represents an authentic relationship with God, based on the assumption that the truth is really in the Qur’an. The religiously educated are able to maintain the conviction that they have found in the Qur’an. The new converts contribution to the growth of Islam is the result of both an international acceptance of a totally new way of religious thinking and doing and of the holistic worldview of Islam, which does not make distinctions between the religious and non-religious aspects of life.

Reasoning: By appealing to reasoning, Muslims consider their community as intrinsically superior to Christianity. They feel they have within themselves the moral power needed to live in submission to God. According to Islam, the history of Christianity itself is an obvious demonstration that it lacks moral power. The violent historic past of racism and discrimination, which has been undergirded by the use of Christian theological beliefs and practices, is consistently mistaken for biblical Christianity.

Islamic Community perceived as one: The long, deep struggle of African Americans has been to retrieve their full humanity. Muslims reject the idea of individual effort, for an allegiance through an affirming communal theology and ideology. While the Muslims of southern California, or Nationwide, present themselves as a unity, the Christian community, because of its many denominations and divisions cannot. The third appeal is the perception of the Islamic community as a united religious body with a common belief and practice. The perceived model of unity, as witnessed in the hajj, made possible across racial and ethic lines in the name of religion is attractive to many.

Identity: Knowledge concerning the presence and contribution of Africa, and Islam, throughout the history of civilization that usually accompanies the Islamic presentation is alluring. The Bible, like the Qur’an, is understandable as people realize the importance of issues of identity, both historical and social. And yet, while the aim of Scripture is relationship, at this particular juncture in history, the quest for knowledge has a tendency to over power the quest of relationship. Therefore, the quest for identity, which often accompanies Qur’anic presentation is appealing to many.

Brian J. Walsh and J. R. Middleton in Islam and Protestant African-American Churches, make an observation that helps to elucidate why many African-American Christians convert to Islam. “When one day they come to realize that our worldview is not the worldview of the Scriptures, we see that it is not consistent with our confession that Jesus is Lord. Then we need to either deny our confession and look elsewhere, or to begin our basic way of looking at life and living it. Many African-American Muslims today represent those who saw inconsistencies related to a so-called Christian worldview, and rather than begin to engage in a whole process of re-learning, they chose simply to reject Christianity and look at Islam”.

For African Americans, Islam is a simple religion to follow because it provides guidance for all (every aspect) of life. The Qur’an teaches that the purpose of human beings is to submit to God and it provides for daily life (spiritual, social, economic, political, and moral). It reminds people of their duty while on earth to themselves, to their family members and relatives, to the community at large, to others outside the community, and of course to God, Allah. Haney concludes with these strong suggestions for the African American Churches: The churches must rise to the occasion in its missions and develop a theology of wholeness for the total person, and not just for religious or spiritual aspects of life. She goes on to say, too often Christian congregations located in the African-American communities do not identify with or relate to the felt needs of the people in that particular community. Too often church polity and denominational agendas, and unresolved issues of classism and gender prevent the churches from being as sensitive as it could be to the pains, hurts and spiritual confusion of many outside the doors of the church.

As a result, local people tend to view Christianity as irrelevant, lacking integrity, or not contributing to the progress of African Americans. The church must become an Incarnational ministry, representing the liberating, compassionate, healing, prophetic and saving power of God meeting human needs. An incarnational ministry must take seriously the African-American worldview and develop a corrected analysis of the conditions that oppress people, such as injustices and poverty. This incarnational ministry must continue today with a new sense of urgency, and a new sense of community devoted to the mission of God.