African American Faith in Islam

By Kennard, Gail | The New Crisis, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

African American Faith in Islam


Kennard, Gail, The New Crisis


Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought

By Edward Curtis (State University of New York Press, $26.95)

Black Pilgrimage to Islam

By Robert Dannin with photographs by Jolie Stahl Oxford University Press)

Many Americans discovered how little we know about Islam after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. There is even less understanding of African Americans who practice Islam. Last year we learned that several African American converts were being investigated for possible involvement with Al-Qaeda. In light of these events, two books published last year may give us a better understanding of Islam among African Americans and put recent news reports in perspective.

Edward E. Curtis IV, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, profiles the lives and writings of five leaders. He begins in the mid-1800s with the career of Edward Wilmot Blyden, an early proponent of using Islam as a vehicle of Black nationalism. He then analyzes Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple, and Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. Both used the mantle of Islamic traditions to further Black nationalism. Finally, he features two figures who attempted to break with the Black nationalism of their predecessors -Malcolm X and Wallace D. Muhammad, who succeeded his father, Elijah Muhammad, as head of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and converted his followers to orthodox Islamic practices and eventually named their community the American Society of Muslims. (The NOI still exists under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan.)

While Curtis defines an organization as "Islamic" if it claims any references to Islam, New York University anthropologist Robert Dannin begins with the premise that scholarship that focuses on the Black nationalists, like Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, presents a "distorted image" of the "religious and historical aspects of normative Islamic worship." Dannin, along with his wife, Jolie Stahl, a photographer, chose to pursue the history of African Americans who converted to orthodox Islam. While Curtis re-examines many issues previously written about by others, Dannin's book represents a closer look at some neglected history.

Dannin and Stahl found small African American communities in Cleveland, New York City and in West Valley, N.Y., near Buffalo, that have been practicing orthodox Islam as far back as the early 1900s The result of their 15-year study is an engrossing account, complemented with photographs by Stahl, of the lifestyle of African American Muslims in urban and rural communities, in prisons and in their schools.

Dannin presents conversion stories -the single sister in New York who seeks refuge from cocaine and her dysfunctional family; the inmate in a New York correctional facility who seeks Islam as a refuge from the hell of prison life; a 1970s political activist who uses Islam as a tool for community development; the jazz musicians who converted during the bebop era. We are also introduced to Sheik Daoud Ahmed Faisal, who, before Malcolm X, was an early proponent of placing the African American struggle into an international context. But the most gripping story, quoted as a first-person account, is that of Shuaib Abdur Raheem, who converted to Islam in the 1970s. His story shows the problems of rivalries among different African American Islamic groups and the failings of the American criminal justice system to understand the nature of these rivalries.

We meet El-Hajj Wali Akram, born Walter Gregg on a farm in East Texas, who migrated to St. Louis in the 1920s.

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