African-Americans and Islam: growth and change

In a post-9/11 world, the American face of Islam is most often associated with that of an immigrant, usually from the Middle East or Asia. But American Islam is much more diverse than a single ethnicity or nationality. Today, African-American Muslims are among the fastest-growing segments of Islam, accounting for about 30 percent of all American Muslims.

While limited studies have been published on post-9/11 growth, American imams say conversion among African-Americans is growing, driven by the higher visibility of Islam, the desire of some African-Americans to return to the religion of their pre-slavery ancestors and a high rate of conversions in prisons, where African-American males dominate the population. In 2006, Keith Ellison, an African-American Democrat from Minnesota, became the first Muslim elected to Congress. Edward Curtis, an Indiana-based scholar, says Islam is “now firmly grounded as black America’s ‘second’ faith.”

Background

With growth comes change. W. Deen Mohammed of the American Society of Muslims and The Mosque Cares stepped down from the helm of his movements and died in 2008. Most Muslims consider the Nation, an organization with black separatist roots, to be in conflict with Islam’s teachings. Members of the Nation of Islam consider themselves true Muslims and generally consider Sunni and Shiite Muslims to be their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Why it matters

As more African-Americans become Muslims, the face of Islam in America will change. New relationships between different groups of Muslims – immigrants, their American-born children, African-Americans, Latinos and new converts of all racial backgrounds – will shape the role the world’s second-largest faith will play in this country.

Issues

  • There have been tensions between immigrant Muslim groups and American-born Muslims, including African-American Muslims. African-American Muslims have complained that immigrant Muslims often fail to include them in larger Muslim events and projects. But some immigrant Muslims are beginning to look to African-American Muslims for their experience in winning civil rights, a hot topic with immigrant Muslims since the 9/11 attacks. Still, the American Muslim Society, which is predominantly African-American, and the Islamic Society of North America, which was founded by immigrant Muslims, continue to hold competing annual conventions in the same state on the same weekend each year.
  • The largest number of African-American Muslims is affiliated with the American Society of Muslims, which is led by W. Deen Mohammed. He is the son of Elijah Muhammad, one of the first leaders of the Nation of Islam. When his father died, W.D. Mohammed dissolved the Nation of Islam and led his followers into orthodox Islam. He, too, is aging and in 2003 stepped down from day-to-day control of the society. The society disbanded shortly after Mohammed retired. Mohammed quickly established The Mosque Cares after he left his post.
  • Many African-Americans, especially males, convert to Islam while serving prison sentences. The most famous example is Malcolm X, the militant civil rights leader who was a popular spokesman for the Nation of Islam but later rejected its teachings for more orthodox Islam. He was assassinated in 1965. Some within the African-American Muslim community say Sunni Islam is encouraged in the prison system to the exclusion of other forms.

Numbers

No one agrees on how many Muslims – American-born or immigrant – live in America. “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” a 2001 study sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, puts the number between 6 million and 8 million. The most conservative number is 1.5 million. But scholars agree that approximately 30 percent of American Muslims are African-American. A poll conducted in 2001 by Muslims in the Public Square found that 20 percent of African-American Muslims are converts. The rest – 80 percent – were raised in the faith.

Definitions

Black Muslim is a term that became associated with the Nation of Islam but is now considered derogatory and should be avoided. The preferred term is simply member of the Nation of Islam. Also, because of that association, do not use Black Muslim to describe African-Americans who practice traditional Islam, whose tenets differ markedly from the Nation’s. Instead, say African-American Muslims.

Additional information

National sources

  • Ihsan Bagby

    Ihsan Bagby is an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky and an expert in Islam and its history and practice in North America. He is one of the authors of the research report “The American Mosque 2011.”

  • Edward E. Curtis IV

    Curtis is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. He is the author of Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam: 1960-1975 (2006) and editor of The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States (2008).

  • Michael Gomez

    Michael Gomez is a history professor at New York University with a focus on the African diaspora. He wrote Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas (Cambridge University Press, 2005), which deals in part with Noble Drew Ali, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

  • Sherman Jackson

    Sherman Jackson holds the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, where he is also professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity. He was formerly the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His books include Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihâb al-Dîn al-Qarâfî and Islam & the Problem of Black Suffering.

  • Aminah B. McCloud

    Aminah B. McCloud is a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago and director of the Islamic World Studies Program. She has written about black Muslims. She can also discuss the place of animals in the Muslim world. The notion of animal rights is a new one for Muslim societies, she says.

  • Victor Muhammad

    Victor Muhammad is director of the Prison Reform Program of the Nation of Islam.

  • Martha F. Lee

    Martha F. Lee is an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She wrote The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement (Syracuse University Press, 1996) and can describe the Nation’s history, its role in American Islam and the challenges it  faced as Farrakhan left the helm. She can also discuss his possible successors.

  • Ishmael Muhammad

    Ishmael Muhammad is the national assistant minister of the Nation of Islam. He is widely considered to be a possible successor to Farrakhan.

    Contact: 773-324-6000.
  • Ayesha Mustafaa

    Ayesha Mustafaa is the editor of Muslim Journal, a weekly newspaper affiliated with The Mosque Cares and W. Deen Mohammed. It has about 40,000 subscribers. She also hosts a radio show each Friday through Sound Vision Foundation.

  • Anthony B. Pinn

    Anthony B. Pinn is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University in Houston. He has been critical of the prosperity gospel preached in some black megachurches for its lack of emphasis on community service and charity. He is the author of Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology and editor of Redemptive Suffering: a History of Theodicy in African-American Religious Thought. He also studies African-American religious humanism and is the author of African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod (2004) and By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (2001).

  • Carolyn M. Rouse

    Carolyn Moxley Rouse is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and the author of Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam. She has written about women and Islam and how their religion is expressed in food and other forms of consumption.

  • Siraj Wahhaj

    Siraj Wahhaj is an African-American convert to Islam who is the imam of Masjid Taqwa in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1991 he became the first Muslim to offer the invocation for the U.S. House of Representatives. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Islamic Society of North America.

  • Sofian Zakkout

    Sofian Zakkout is director of the American Muslim Association of North America. It is based in Miami.

  • Akbar S. Ahmed

    Akbar S. Ahmed is a professor of comparative and regional studies and professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., where he holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies. He has advised world leaders on Islam and was formerly High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. He has engaged in public dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in the U.S. and abroad. Ahmed has written widely and is a frequent television commentator on Islam. He is author of Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. He also undertook a yearlong “anthropological journey” across America with a team of students studying American diversity. The journey has been documented via blog.

  • John Esposito

    John Esposito is founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown. He is an expert on global terrorism, Islam and democracy, and international interfaith relations. His publications include Islamaphobia: The Challenges of Pluralism in the 21st Century and Islam: The Straight Path; The Oxford Dictionary of Islam; Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam; What Everyone Needs to Know About IslamWho Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think; and Women in Muslim Family Law.

Organizations

  • The Mosque Cares

    The Mosque Cares is the organization and ministry of Warith Deen Mohammad. It is based in Crest, Ill. and is involved in charitable giving and education.

  • Nation of Islam

    The Nation of Islam is an African-American religious organization that espouses black racial superiority and Islamic beliefs. However, most Muslims do not consider it true Islam. The Nation of Islam was founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930. Scholars estimate its membership at 100,000. It is best known for the Million Man March, which continues as The Millions More Movement. This website has a list of regional and local organizing committees.

    Contact: 773-324-6000.
  • The Moorish Science Temple

    The Moorish Science Temple was founded by Noble Drew Ali in the early 1900s 1913 and is based on the teachings of Islam, although it also incorporates Eastern and Gnostic beliefs. It is based in Hyattsville, Md.

  • The Pluralism Project

    The Pluralism Project at Harvard University lists resources across the country by religious tradition, including interfaith resources. It is aimed at engaging students in studying the new religious diversity in the United States.

  • Louisville Institute

    The Louisville Institute is a seminary that works to enrich the religious life of American Christians and to encourage the revitalization of their institutions, by bringing together those who lead religious institutions with those who study them, so that the work of each might inform and strengthen the other.

  • Americas Society/ Council of the Americas

    The Americas Society/Council of the Americas provides information on diverse cultures in the Americas. It has offices in New York City, Washington D.C., and Miami.

  • SocioWeb: The Sociological Resource Center

    SocioWeb: The Sociological Resource Center an independent guide to sociological resources available online.

  • Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

    The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explores the connection between religion and other aspects of American culture.

Media

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Ernest Allen Jr.

    Ernest Allen Jr. is a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He has written about the evolution of the Nation of Islam from its roots as the Moorish Science Temple to the stepping down of Farrakhan.

  • Jeffrey Ogbonna Green Ogbar

    Jeffrey Ogbonna Green Ogbar is former director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He is currently the Vice Provost for Diversity.

  • Aisha al-Adawiya

    Aisha al-Adawiya is the founder and director of Women in Islam, a human rights organization based in New York, N.Y. She is an expert on African-American Islamic women.

  • Eddie Glaude Jr.

    Eddie Glaude Jr. is a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. He specializes in African-American religious history and is the editor of Is It Nation Time? Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism.

  • James Jones

    James Jones is an associate professor of world religions at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. He wrote a paper titled “Islam, Incarceration and the African American Male.”

  • Craig Keener

    Craig Keener is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He co-authored an article on the Nation of Islam for A Guide to New Religious Movements.  He is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In the South

  • Khalil Akbar

    Khalil Akbar is the resident imam at Masjid Ash-Shaheed, a predominantly African-American mosque in Charlotte, N.C.

    Contact: 704-598-4275.
  • Herbert Berg

    Herbert Berg is professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His area of expertise is Islam.

  • Jamillah Karim

    Karim was an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at Spelman College in Atlanta. She was reared in an African-American Muslim community. Her expertise is on race, gender and Islam; younger Muslims in the U.S.; and connections and tensions among African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslims in the U.S.

  • Ellen McLarney

    Ellen McLarney is an assistant professor of the practice of Asian and African languages and literature at Duke University in Chapel Hill, N.C. She has taught a course called “Local Islams,” in which students study the diversity of Islam practiced in the Chapel Hill area, including interactions and relationships between local African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslims.

  • Felicia Miyakawa

    Felicia Miyakawa is a writer and editor interested in music, hip hop, feminism and gender, labor movements and music, among other related topics. She was formerly in assistant professor of musicology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. She is the author of Five Percenter Rap: God Hop’s Music, Message and Black Muslim Mission (Indiana University Press, 2005).

In the Midwest

  • Curtis Austin

    Curtis Austin is an associate professor of history at Ohio State University. He has written articles about Elijah Muhammad and Wallace Fard Muhammad for Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2004).

  • Kurt Buhring

    Kurt Buhring is an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. He has written about Elijah Muhammad for the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics (Facts on File, 2003).

  • Claude Clegg III

    Claude Clegg III is a history professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. He wrote An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

  • Debra Mubashshir Majeed

    Debra Mubashshir Majeed is an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis. She has written about Clara Muhammad for the Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America (Indiana University Press, 2006).

  • Richard Brent Turner

    Richard Brent Turner is a professor of religious studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he teaches a course titled “African American Islam in International Perspective.” He wrote an article titled “Mainstream Islam in the African American Experience.”

In the West

  • Robert Muhammad

    Robert Muhammad is minister of Muhammad Mosque No. 45 in Houston, an affiliate of the Nation of Islam, and founder of ActionCDC, a nonprofit that works to establish community housing and other programs.

    Contact: 832-236-9956.
  • Frederick Denny

    Frederick Denny is professor emeritus  at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and he has a background in Islamic studies and the history of religions.

  • Megan Reid

    Megan Reid is an assistant professor of Islam in the school of religion at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She researched an article on the first African-American Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 1930s.

  • Zaid Shakir

    Zaid Shakir is an African-American imam who converted to Islam during his service in the Air Force. He has a master’s degree in political science and received classical scholarly training in the Muslim world. He is a writer, speaker, teacher and activist, having founded several Muslim organizations in the eastern U.S. before becoming a resident scholar at Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., which calls him a leader in an emerging indigenous American Muslim tradition. Read his blog at New Islamic Directions.

  • Faheem Shuaibe

    Faheem Shuaibe is the resident imam of Masjidul Waritheen, an affiliate of W. Deen Mohammed’s group, in Oakland, Calif. His website contains his teachings.

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