AFRICAN MUSLIMS IN AMERICA – Introduction
This paper was delivered during the
First Conference of the Ahle Baite, held in Tehran Iran in 1990.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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