Islam in America: The Middle Period 1900-1950

By Shakur, Amadou | Islamic Horizons, May 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Islam in America: The Middle Period 1900-1950


Shakur, Amadou, Islamic Horizons


PRIOR TO THE CIVIL WAR, THE FACE OF ISLAM IN AMERica was West African. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, slavers kidnapped and brought literate Muslims, former teachers from prestigious centers of learning and students trained in Islamic scholarship to this land. Despite these realities, these non-whites were seen in colonial America simply as slaves. By the nineteenth century, America forced Muslims to transition from societies shaped by various ethnicities to an American architype based upon race. Regrettably, under Christian coercion their descendants neither inherited their Islamic faith nor received an Islamic education. The generational disconnect curtailed Islam's existence in America.

The North's military defeat of the South implied an era of change surrounded by a transcontinental exchange that birthed the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world. The trade necessitated racial and ethnic diversity, but the aftermath failed to integrate the newly emancipated African Americans into the national identity.

After the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), dynamic social factors surfaced and industrialization replaced agriculture. Both led to the rise of the voluntary migrant "outsider" who embraced a burgeoning America without any religious rivalry from the indigenous community. However, by 1910 some 45,000 to 50,000 Muslims lived somewhere in America. Conversely, because of low numbers and a non-European immigrant status within a society shaped around race and religion, they lived on the threshold of social transition.

For this discreet and far-flung community, the middle period was a time of mass relocation, mental readjustment and cultural concessions. The damage done by the First World War, Middle Eastern instability and the abolition of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 compelled refugees to settle in unforeseen locations throughout America. Late nineteenth-century Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was the home of the "Mother Mosque." During this transition, they reoriented their cultures and formed a synthesis, which gave birth to unique American identities. This process could only have taken place in America, where they lived with fluid distinctiveness and incorporated religion. However, their reasons for doing so differed markedly from the expectations that twentieth-century African Americans had of Islam.

Islam's history of civilizing climaxed in the middle period with African Americans empowered by the Moorish Science Temple (MST) and the Nation of Islam (NOI), both of which were intent upon changing America's religious and racial landscape. Strategically, Muslim leaders knew that the community would never rise to a level of pride comparable to Euro-Americans unless they claimed a flourishing, innovative African civilization founded by Islam. By the second decade of this period, like the phoenix, Islam was resuscitated. And as the 1920s opened, a vision emerged in a destitute African American Baltimore neighborhood and began to be spread by one Noble Drew Ali (1886-1929).

Shortly after, Ali established the Moorish Science Temple and, in its charter, proclaimed: "Islam is a very simple faith. It requires man to recognize his duties toward God Allah, his Creator and his fellow creatures. It teaches the supreme duty of living at peace with one's surroundings..."

Born in North Carolina as Timothy Drew, little is known of his youth. However, as Noble Drew Ali he reinvigorated African American optimism for social change through promises made by his mythological version of Islam. He said, "Teach people [that] calling themselves Black, Negro, Colored, or Nigger, even Ethiopian etc. that they should NOT call themselves those names."

Trapped by a race-based America, Ali sought a solution to the African Americans' destitution through a religion that would redeem the original dignity that the Black Man had in North Africa, digress from a discriminatory Christianity and embrace a philosophy that informed and directed the Black Man. …

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