AFRICAN MUSLIMS IN AMERICA – Introduction

By: Hajj
Haroon

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This paper was delivered during the First Conference of the Ahle Baite, held in Tehran Iran in 1990.

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Many years ago, as a young boy, copies of The Bustan and The Gullistan of Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz came into my possession, and as a result of this early exposure to the wisdom and imagery of Ancient Persia I began to develop the idea of the writer as a witness, a Shahid.

Saadi’s image of the wreath of grass hanging over the gateway to the city –watching everything and everyone that passed in and out of the city. A simple, plain bunch of twisted grass, bearing witness to the passage of caravans and kings, armies and beggars, wise men and fools.  I had come to realize that the historian is not only required to be an objective witness to events that are selected from the continuum, but to also render an interpretation of these events that are being strung together as so many pieces in a colorful puzzle.

The paper that I have prepared for this occasion will serve a multiple purpose - of unveiling many unknown facts concerning the early history and development of Islam in America.  It is primarily a brief historical glimpse of the African people, who were unwillingly transported to the so-called New World to serve as slaves to build what we know now as North and South America.

This paper is important because it brings to light the painful sojourn of a much-maligned segment of The Muslim World. Not only abused by the non-Muslim Europeans during their periods of global expansion, but have also been the traditional recipients of a rather heavy-handedness by the so-called Muslims who have lived at the center of traditional Islam. A point which lies at the center of the great circle of Dar al Islam –which has been based for the most part on the primacy of the Arabic language and Arab culture.

An attempt has been made to approach this brief history of African Muslims by including the biographical as well as the anecdotal. In hopes of providing an overview of the past fifty some odd years from the standpoint of my own personal experience as a Muslim witness in America.

I was born and raised as a young boy in the City of Boston during the Great depression in the year 1934, and although my parents were not Muslims I had the good fortune to have been exposed to Islam at a very early age. My father had befriended several Somali Seamen who had defected and had “jumped ship” in Boston Harbor.

In my fathers house these men found safe harbor and friendship, and as a result, Islam and meaningful fragments of its culture entered our lives as the natural consequence of this unique exchange. This included not only the lives of these men but the Revolution that they had dedicated their lives to support. It was in my father’s house, in the kitchen that I first heard the strains of “Dhu-Kayaga”, the anthem of the Fighters of Somali Liberation.

“Dhu-Kayaga” roughly translates as: “This is My Home!”  Unknowingly my family and I had been drafted into the service of The Somali Freedom-Fighters, and as a result I became a child of Revolution.

One of these men became my adopted Uncle; his name is Hussein Ali Bin Musa. He was from the tribe called Adam-Madoba, a branch of the great Somali people who were spread over a large portion of Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Arabia. My family adopted him and it was under his influence and tutelage that I came to know and to love Islam. Islam, by osmosis, so to speak. And how appropriate to the title of this paper.

In the America of the 1940’s there were few Muslims actively and openly practicing Islam. Few were involved in the work of proselytizing the religion with the exception of Elijah Muhammad who went on to found The Nation of Islam In America, and Noble Drew Ali the founder of The Moorish Science Temple.

The Ahmadiyyah Movement (Qadiani’s) had made inroads in some of the larger cities. There were also a few immigrant Muslim enclaves in places like Detroit and Lansing Michigan, and New York City, which were mainly Arabs and Middle Easterners.  These small enclaves had come into being after the United States opened its doors to Eastern European and Mediterranean immigration shortly after World War I. Many of these immigrants came from the remnants of the recently dismembered Ottoman Empire. Most of them were classified as Syrians, but came from such diverse areas as Albania, Lebanon, Bosnia, Palestine, Turkey and Armenia. All former states of the Ottoman Empire.

As a young Muslim I watched the development of Islam in America from a unique vantage point. On the one hand I saw the rebirth of Islam within the African Community, which for some was the reclamation of a belief system that had been lost due to the ravages of enslavement and cultural dispossession.  But for many more it was a welcome conversion after decades of segregation and marginal survival status on the outer fringes of a dominant so-called Christian nation.

The close domestic view that I have described, is comparable to a look through a microscope at what might be considered tiny fragments of the Muslim world that were close at hand, but quite diffuse.

The long view however, was comparable to looking through the microscope in reverse, the telescope, and includes a view of the outgoing League of Nations and its successor the infantile United Nations, and the gradual emergence of the African and Middle Eastern nations from the yoke of European Colonialism. The first sigh of relief, after a long and debilitating oppression.

I had begun my search for the Muslims, in both the inner and outer worlds of my experience –and the nagging questions were always there: “Where are They? Why can’t I find them?” Once I began to study history intensely, travel about and ask questions – I began to see through the fog and mist of what one scholar appropriately used in the title of his well known book: “The Mis-Education of The Negro”, this title could also apply to most Americans of all ethnicities.

No sooner than I began to train my eyes to use new tools of analysis and observation, the world picture began to come into focus, my understanding began to grow –and the Muslims began to emerge.

I watched as each country was released from its colonial constraints, and emerge as groggy butterflies in the chill of a Cold War atmosphere. Although fascinated by the long view, my attention was always drawn back to the domestic situation in America. And the question always repeated itself: “Where are the Muslims?”

The close view exposed a unique American phenomenon that led me back to the origins of the Muslim Community via a rigorous Graduate study of American History, particularly the Colonial Era. Some early fragments were found of the original Muslim community in America are traceable to periods preceding European exploration and the Spanish conquests of the Caribbean.

The Africans both Muslim and non-Muslim alike have shared a shadowy but quite remarkably dynamic role in the development of American history.  Both of them have felt the lash of hatred and denial – both literally and figuratively, but in the case of the Black African who was also a Muslim, the lash became a two- headed monster.

All Africans shared the sting of European effrontery, and it manifested as a constant assault on his African-“ness”, his Black-“ness”. All slaves no matter what tribal or cultural background were all deemed both savage and heathen –which resulted in a fanatically zealous attempt to eradicate African belief systems, and in the process produce a culturally vampirized black automaton capable only of unquestioned service to the master.

The one additional burden the African Muslim had to bear was the inherited historical animosity that European Christians held toward the “Saracen” and “The Turk”. The centuries long buildup of resentment that was a result of the European failure to defeat the armies of Islam during the Crusades. Technically the African was not a Saracen, but he was a Muslim and that qualified him as a scapegoat to vent a centuries old animosity.

It must be born in mind that the African captive became the object of the Europeans absolute fascination for things exotic, and their abhorrence for of things both black and non-European. Africans were both exotic and strange, and to many Europeans they were both handsome and ugly.  The African came to represent Black Gold. Ebony liquid assets, that were readily obtainable, easily transportable and quickly replaceable.

All Africans had one thing in common, whether they were free or slave in America, and that commonality hinged around their blackness. The stigma of that original status has followed the African into the twentieth century and continues to be the source of much unrest today on both sides of the Atlantic.

History is fascinating and unpredictable. One is quite unprepared for the identity changes that occur as one turns the pages of the text.

They were Africans while they were in Africa, but once made captives and transported – on arrival in the New World they were shocked to learn that they were no longer Africans, they were now Negroes and Niggers, who would be required not only to adopt a new identity, but to also adopt a new role in life as chattel.

NEGRO was a strange new name for many.  Legislation was enacted that made it a crime for these people to speak their native languages, practice their religions – and in many parts of the American colonies the drum was also forbidden, All access to communication had been legislated against.

Consequently the African found himself under the most extreme form of duress, stripped of all that is meaningful including the freedom to worship his God.

The transition from African to Negro entailed a lengthy process of de-africanization, which usually began by being “Broken”, tamed, and then gradually reconditioned and trained like a horse to accept the harness and then the plough.

What we have inherited as Muslim histories are in many cases great tragedies, very similar in fact to the accepted “Islamic History”.  These tragedies, as we shall see were perpetuated to a great extent by the so-called Muslims themselves.  By their inability to put this simple religion into practice as prescribed by the Qur`an.  This is a hard fact to accept, but if the Muslims continue to ignore their mutual and collective histories and continue along separate ethnic and national tracks they are doomed to continued domination by outside forces. Nothing will change much but the heaviness of the foot that stands on their heads.

Without some sort of internal revision and reassessment, the body of Islam (the Ummat) will suffer the same baneful diseases that have plagued the Ummat for centuries. This discussion of the development of Islam in America via the African experience will teach us all very important lessons: 1. Africa - five hundred years ago, 2. India - four hundred years ago, 3. The Middle East - a hundred years ago, and the list goes on. We must be aware of the fact that certain powers are intent on controlling the world and enslaving the various populations under what might appear to be different banners, Democracy, Communism, Socialism, etc. But these divisive forces are actually one. The spiritual seeker is aware of this, and acts accordingly.

It is a historical fact that the Jews have gone on record as having vowed to never let the world forget the Holocaust. And they are using all of their resources and a great deal of ours to keep this memory alive. They will never let the world forget: “Never Again!” They say, and they say this repeatedly.

The Muslim world which includes most of the so-called Third world, must not allow itself to forget the many holocausts that have occurred in history –and are still occurring under the guise of freedom.  This paper reveals just one of those genocidal holocausts that passed right by the eyes of the world –and very little was done.

It is not a case of who had the greater casualties in this mad scenario of man’s inhumanity to man. But there is an appreciable difference when one has to weigh the estimated 4 to 7 million Jews purported to have been annihilated during Hitler’s regime against the estimated 40 to 70 million Africans lost as a result of the slave trade. It has been estimated that between 35 to 45 percent of the Africans taken out of Africa to the New World and beyond were Muslims. This is a staggering statistic that should bring shame to the heart at the center of ‘Dar Al Islam’ (The traditional home of Islam).

After poring through countless texts and traveling to many Muslim lands I have detected an interesting phenomenon that might serve to measure Muslim sensitivity, or in this case insensitivity.

I have found a shadowy silence, and an almost total lack of empathy and concern in various centers of Islamic learning concerning the events of the African/American Diaspora.  This makes me wonder if there is a relationship between this lack of concern and the current frenzy of ethnic cleansing we are witnessing in different parts of the Muslim world. My point is, I see Muslims standing by –all over the world, watching these veritable horror stories unravel before their very eyes on the TV and through the media and for some strange reason they do nothing.  Both ethnic cleansing and unconcern seems to have become endemic to the so-called Muslim condition.

And if such is the case, it pinpoints a condition that must at all costs be remedied before it gains too much cyclical momentum – and then becomes the spinning cyclone that tears to shreds the already tattered fabric of what is left of the Ummat (Muslim Community worldwide).