Turning to Islam: African-American Conversion Stories. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

I WAS SEARCHING for several years before I became a Muslim," says Abdus Salaam, a marketing specialist from Birmingham, Alabama. "I was baptized during this time in the Church of Christ. But I had questions. What bothered me were the white pictures of Jesus and Mary. In Islam we have no pictures, not even of the Prophet Muhammad. As a child I wondered if black and white people had a separate God!"

Salaam's story is familiar among African-American converts to Islam. While newfound faith is central to their stories, race and personal empowerment are also key parts of the narratives. The indignity of discrimination, unfortunately mirrored in Christian churches, haunts African-Americans.

The freedom that Khalid Abdul Kareem, a native of Washington, D.C., found in Islam feels right to him. "African-Americans have been disconnected and disenfranchised," says Kareem. "At about the age of 171 realized that Islam wasn't racist. It established the nature of who I am, why I am here, and where I am going. I am the Creator's vice-regent; I have no boundaries. I was created by a loving God who has a purpose for me. I can go wherever I choose to take my abilities." Now 48, Kareem says, "Islam contains truth that is dependent only on God. It liberates us from man."

African-Americans make up about a third of the estimated 4 to 8 million Muslims in the U.S.--conservatively, around 1.5 million, nearly 5 percent of all African-Americans. According to a poll conducted in 2001 by Muslims in the American Public Square (MAPS), 20 percent of African-American Muslims are converts while 80 percent were raised Muslim. More detailed information about Islam in the African-American community, however, is relatively scarce.

Robert Dannin has opened a new and fascinating perspective on the subject in his recently published book Black Pilgrimage to Islam. Using the methods of ethnographic research to collect his information, Dannin tells what he calls "conversion sagas"--rich, unvarnished stories about individual African-American's journeys into Islam. He also traces the history of Islam among African-Americans by tying together such key developments as the formation of black fraternal lodges in the 18th and 19th centuries; Noble Drew Ali's 1913 organization of the Moorish Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey; the growth of various Islamic missionary and revivalist movements beginning in the 19th and continuing throughout the 20th centuries; and the conversion to Islam of be-bop jazz musicians who helped raise the faith's profile in the African-American community.

Dannin also introduces what he admits is a "taboo" subject: that a portion of "African-American society has always been unchurched," that African-American lodges have traditionally been centers of "unchurched religious practices and beliefs," and that since the end of the civil rights era unchurched African-Americans "have been moving more rapidly toward Islam." Dannin contends that the "voice of the unchurched" has been repressed by the black church's command of African-American history.

The various movements, organizations and institutions of unchurched African-Americans, Dannin argues, constitute an alternative to and in some cases a subversion of the black church. Even in the post Reconstruction era black fraternal lodges "clearly threatened the African-American church's monopoly of social and civic life." Similarly, Islam, in all of its forms within the black community, has offered an option for those who "thirst for an alternative to the church."

African-American Muslims I spoke with consistently explained Islam's appeal in terms of four benefits: a new sense of personal empowerment; a rigorous call to discipline; an emphasis on family structure and values; and a clear standard of moral behavior. But negative comments about Christianity and its associations with slavery and discrimination regularly accompany their expressions of gratitude to Islam, suggesting that Dannin's "alternative" hypothesis deserves consideration. …