Islam in the African American Community: Negotiating between Black Nationalism and Historical Islam

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper traces the trajectory of the African American Muslim community in the US by analyzing the various strands of the community's make-up and exploring the dialectic of immigrant-indigenous Islam. It raises questions regarding, for instance, the failure of the community to create a group of qualified scholars in three decades. Such scholars, it is argued, are the instrument through which new forms of religious expressions can emerge and new and different voices can be heard as more conceptual and even gender spaces open up. Finally, the paper discusses the challenges facing the Ummah/Muslim community from within - the cultural, racial and class-based divides - and from without - the impact of 9/11 against which a beleaguered community must now, to some extent, define its faith.

Introduction

This paper will examine the development of Islam within the African American community to highlight some of the most recent trends, challenges and prospects for the future. The intention is to delineate the paths that American Islam is navigating, especially in the post-Malcolm X (d. 1965) and Elijah Muhammad (d. 1975) eras. Collective identities are being negotiated and choices being made between Islam as an inherited identity (the immigrant experience) and Islam as an expression of empowerment (the African American experience). African American Muslims have engaged historical Islam to articulate religious positions as they reflect on the needs of their communities. Their choices are in part informed by the black experience and in part shaped by the immigrant tradition of Islamic scholarship and connections to Islamic heartlands. This has brought forth different expectations as immigrant Muslims (like most immigrants to the US) gravitate toward assimilation and the good life of wealth and success, whereas many of the African American converts seek, among other things, closer encounters with Islamic "authenticity" (by taking on Muslims names, dress code, etc.). This has led some to part company with aspects of mainstream American culture. It is within these broad contours that this paper posits its analysis of issues.

The Genesis of Islam in the Americas

Islam's origin in the Americas goes back to the period of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade especially in the 17th-18th centuries when a number of Muslims from West Africa were sold into slavery in America.1 We know about some of these Muslim slaves, including those from the ruling classes (for instance, Ibrahima Jallo [d. 1828] from Guinea) who was sent back to Africa only to die upon arrival.2 Prior to this the first recorded Muslim presence was in 1527 when Estevan (d. 1539), a black Moroccan guide and interpreter, arrived in Florida from Spain.3 He came with the Panfilo de Narvaez (d. 1528) expedition and for over a decade explored the areas of the southwest before venturing into present-day New Mexico and Arizona in 1539.4 It was apparently there that he died at the hands of the Zuni Indians. Further south in South America the Muslim presence was strongly felt in the 19th century in Bahia, Brazil when Hausa Muslims took part in slave revolts.5

For obvious reasons it was difficult for these Muslim slaves in the regions of the African diaspora to maintain their faith and pass it on to the next generation. Nevertheless, new infusions of Islam on American soil took place later but did not much affect African Americans. In other words, a slow trickle of immigrant Muslims from Ottoman areas began to arrive in the country in the late 19th century although their number then was not significant. In the meantime, within the African American community, Islamic presence faded though it is possible that memories of Islam may have remained, even if just as faint echoes of the past. Through the self-improvement associations (expressions of Black nationalism) such as that of the Marcus Garvey [d. 1940] movement6 of the 1920s, proto-Islam would eventually find a medium within which to express, if not to reinvent itself. …