Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion in the West

By Karin Van Nieuwkerk | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
African American Islam as an Expression
of Converts' Religious Faith and Nationalist
Dreams and Ambitions

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

When we look at Islamic conversion amongst African Americans, it is important to contextualize this phenomenon within the history of African American religion, which has traditionally been a response to the group's peculiar history and particular circumstances in the United States of America. “From the very beginning,” Charles Long writes,

[Africans] were brought here in chains and this country has attempted to keep them
in this condition in one way or another. Their presence here as
human beings in the
United States has always constituted a threat to the majority population. From the
point of view of the majority population, [Africans] have been simply andpurely legal
persons, first as slaves defined in terms of property, and then after the abolition [of]
slavery as chattel property, [and] as citizens who had to seek legal redress before they
could use the common facilities of the country—water fountains, public accommoda-
tions, restaurants, schools, etc. (1997, 27)

It was in this situation that African Americans had to retain their humanity and their sanity. One of the main ways in which they did this was through the development of various religious institutions, invisible and visible. At the heart of this development of African American religious traditions has been the effort, at both the individual and collective levels through social action, rituals, or political militancy, to counter the twin insults of white racism and economic exploitation. As Manning Marable, a well-known political scientist and social activist, asserts, “the totality of the black religious experience cannot be understood outside of the development of white racism and capitalist exploitation” and the African American response to these twin evils (1981, 34).

Scholars from numerous disciplines have all affirmed the significance of religion in African American life and what many believe was its indispensable role in the survival of this group. For African Americans, says the noted black historian E. Franklin Frazier, religion has historically functioned as a “refuge in a hostile white world” (in Baer and Singer 1992, ix). People of

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