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African-Americans are a significant group among American Muslims


When reporting on Islam in America, the media often focus on immigrant communities, either from the Middle East or from Southeast Asia. But as many as 40% of the Muslims in this country were born here, and their families have been living in America for generations. By some estimates, African Americans are the largest single ethnic group within America's diverse Muslim population. And until recently, black Muslims felt somewhat alienated from their immigrant religious brethren.

It should be stated from the outset that the overwhelming majority of African-American Muslims are Sunni Muslims. They do not subscribe to the racist ideology of the Nation of Islam, which says white people were created by the Devil to test black people. It is a common misconception that all African-American Muslims belong to this controversial group, when in fact most practice a racially inclusive form of Islam that -- theologically, at least -- is just like the Islam practiced in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. That does not mean, though, that African-American Muslims are exactly like the immigrants with whom they share a faith.

"My generation of Islamic reverts came out of a social movement here in the United States, says Muhaimina Abdul-Hakim, who has belonged to the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, New York, sine 1972. "The Civil Rights movement and Black Nationalism. So we had a different political ideology about America in the first place."

Ms. Abdul-Hakim very consciously refers to herself as a "re-vert," rather than a "convert," because she sees her conversion to Islam as a return to the faith of her ancestors. The first Muslims in America were slaves, brought here from Africa in the 17th century. Like so many other black Muslims her age, she converted at a time of great social change in the United States. And because of this, there is still a strong desire within the African-American Muslim community to change America's socio-economic structure.

That desire is not necessarily shared by the immigrant Muslim community. According to , Richard Turner, who teaches Religious Studies at the University of Iowa the two groups come from different economic classes. "Immigrant Muslims, who came to the United States in their largest numbers after some very unfair immigration laws were rescinded around 1965 are, for the most part, very well educated," he says. "They are for the most part members of the middle class and the upper class. You know, they're not poor people. And certainly African-American Muslims have always had a social justice agenda."

That agenda that involves challenging the status quo-rather than simply working to succeed within it. It is this different attitude about life in America that has led to some tensions between the two different communities of Muslims. Many black Muslims believe their immigrant counterparts came to the United States with a negative impression of African-Americans, and that until very recently, they had little interest in changing that impression. "You know, what people basically know about each other is what they see on television," says Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, who oversees the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. "And many of the (19)70s and '80s television shows that project buffoon-like imagery, or 'pimp-daddy' type imagery of African-Americans -- those television programs are all overseas. So people, as far as they know, that's what African-Americans are like."

It is a problem that Imam Abdur-Rashid says was not always acknowledged on the immigrant side until after September 11th, 2001, when many innocent immigrant Muslims were targeted as terrorists, either by the U.S. government or by average, native-born citizens. Since then, immigrants have been turning to their African-American religious brethren for guidance, according to Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, a predominantly immigrant group. "Immigrant Muslims have learned a lot from the African-American experience," he says. "The struggle through [the] Civil Rights movement has given us a rich experience that African-Americans had in this country. And we are proud of that, and we are learning from that."

What many immigrant Muslims and their children are learning is that collective protest can be powerful. Recalling a rally he attended at an immigration center a couple of years ago, Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid says he was struck by how familiar the speeches were. "I marveled as I stood listening to young people -- Muslims who are of Southern Asian and Arab descent -- they were giving speeches and what have you. And their cadence, their method of delivery was African-American," he says. "I watched a young lady of Pakistani descent who stood up and led the crowd in chants of 'No Justice, No Peace,' and yes, that only comes about as a result of this unique social dynamic."

Both Imam Talib Abur-Rashid and Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America say that 'unique social dynamic' between native-born and immigrant Muslims is creating a new, progressive, and multi-cultural American approach to Islam that is unlike anything found in the Middle East or Asia.

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