The History of Black Muslims in America

From Slavery to the Post-9/11 Era

Malcolm X
African-American Muslim minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X (1925 - 1965, centre, left), giving a sermon at Temple 7 in Harlem, New York City, August 1963. Richard Saunders/Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

The long history of Black Muslims in America goes far beyond the legacy of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Understanding the complete history gives valuable insight into black American religious traditions and the development of Islamophobia.

Enslaved Muslims in America

Historians estimate that between 15 and 30 percent (as many as 600,000 to 1.2 million) of enslaved Africans brought to North America were Muslim.

Many of these Muslims were literate, able to read and write in Arabic. In order to preserve the new development of race in which “Negroes” were classified as barbaric and uncivilized, some African Muslims (primarily those with lighter skin, slimmer features or looser hair textures) were categorized as “Moors,” creating a level of stratification amongst enslaved populations.

White slaveholders often forced Christianity onto slave populations through forced assimilation, and Muslim slaves reacted to this in a variety of ways. Some became pseudo-converts to Christianity, utilizing what is known as taqiyah: the practice of denying one’s religion when faced with persecution. Within Islam, taqiyah is permissible when used to protect religious beliefs. Others, like Muhammad Bilali, author of the Bilali Document/The Ben Ali Diary, attempted to hold onto their Islamic roots without converting. In the early 1800s, Bilali started a community of African Muslims in Georgia called Sapelo Square.

Others were not able to successfully circumnavigate forced conversion and instead brought aspects of Islam into their new religion. The Gullah-Geechee people, for example, developed a tradition known as a “Ring Shout,” which mimics the ritual counter-clockwise circling (tawaf) of the Kaaba in Mecca.

Others continued practicing forms of sadaqah (charity), which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Descendants from Sapelo Square like Katie Brown, great grand-daughter of Salih Bilali, recall that some would make flat rice cakes called “saraka”. These rice cakes would be blessed using “Amiin,” the Arabic word for “Amen.” Other congregations took to praying in the east, with their backs facing the west because that was the way the devil sat. And, further still, they took to offering part of their prayers on rugs while on their knees.

The Moorish Science Temple and Nation of Islam

While the horrors of slavery and forced conversion were largely successful in silencing enslaved African Muslims, Islam continued to exist within the conscience of a people. Most notably, this historical memory led to the development of proto-Islamic institutions, which borrowed from and re-imagined Islamic tradition to answer specifically to the reality of black Americans. The first of these institutions was the Moorish Science Temple, founded in 1913. The second, and most well known, was the Nation of Islam (NOI), founded in 1930.

There were Black Muslims practicing outside these institutions, like the Black American Ahmadiyya Muslims in the 1920s and the Dar al-Islam movement.

However, proto-Islamic institutions, namely the NOI, gave way to the development of “Muslim” as a political identity rooted in black politics.

Black Muslim Culture

During the 1960s, Black Muslims were perceived as radical, as the NOI and figures such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali grew in prominence. The media focused on developing a narrative of fear, characterizing Black Muslims as dangerous outsiders in a country built on white, Christian ethics. Muhammad Ali captured the fear of the greater public perfectly when he said, “I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

Black Muslim identity also developed outside of the political sphere. Black American Muslims have contributed to a variety of musical genres, including the blues and jazz.

Songs such as “Levee Camp Holler” utilized singing styles reminiscent of the adhan, or the call to prayer. In “A Love Supreme”, jazz musician John Coltrane uses a prayer format which mimics the semantics of the opening chapter of the Quran. Black Muslim artistry has also played a role in hip-hop and rap. Groups like The Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, the Wu-Tang Clan, and A Tribe Called Quest all had multiple Muslim members.

Islamophobia

Historically, the FBI has claimed that Islam is the greatest enabler of black radicalism and it continues to follow that line of thought today. In August 2017, an FBI report cited a new terroristic threat, “Black Identity Extremists”, in which Islam was singled out as a radicalizing factor. Programs such as Countering Violent Extremism couple with xenophobia to promote entrapment and cultures of surveillance, following past FBI programs such as the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPro). These programs target Black Muslims through the very specific nature of America’s anti-black Islamophobia.