In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful. All praise be to the one who created us from a single pair, a male, and a female. All praise be to him who made us into nations and tribes so that we may come to know each other in mutual peace and love, and praise be to He that judges not by our national or tribal affiliation, but by our devotion and obedience to him. May His peace and blessings be on all his prophets and messengers from Adam to Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.
As many may know, Febuary is considered "Black History Month" here in the US and Canada. Of course many of us remember learning about brave human beings like Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, during this month back in our elementary and secondary school days. However one aspect of the African American experience that is unfortunately not as talked about in the public school system, is the influence of Islam. As I have said in other blog entries Islam has been a part of the United States from the very beginning, in it's existence amongst early African American slaves. However in this blog I'd like to mention a few more details surrounding that and also leading up into our modern history.
There have been estimates, ranging from 10% to 40%, of the early generations of African American slaves were Muslim. One of these men was Omar Ibn Said. Omar Ibn Said (ca. 1770-1864) was born in the Muslim state of Futa Toro in Western Africa, in present-day Senegal. He was a Muslim scholar and trader who was captured and enslaved. He arrived in North Carolina in 1807 after escaping a cruel master in Charlestown South Carolina, and was sold to James Owen. He was considered a Muslim scholar and had been educated in Islamic law and Arabic language. Some of his Arabic manuscripts, including an autobiography and several hand written copies of chapters of the Qur'an, are kept today in the North Carolina Collection in the Wilson Library at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is reported that he was still a slave when he died in 1864.
Another man by the name of Bilali (Ben Ali) Muhammad, was also a famous Muslim slave living in Georgia. He was well known for being a Muslim scholar and served as an Imam for approximately 80 Muslim men living on his plantation. He regularly observed the salat (prayers), the Ramadan fast, and the Eids, and was also known to wear a fez and thobe. He had also written manuscripts including a work on Islamic law and conduct.
Over time, during the 19th century however, many African American slaves lost their Islamic roots due to either forced conversion to Christianity, or simple ignorance and lack of access to Islamic education.
For much of the 2nd half of the 19th century and early 20th century, the practice of Islam lay dormant in America. In 1913 a "suto-Muslim" organization was formed called the "Moorish Science Temple of America", founded by Noble Drew Ali. While this organization was an African American one, it was not a truly Islamic organization and should not be confused with Islam.
In 1930 a man by the name of Wallace Fard founded the "Nation of Islam". Fard dissapeared in 1934 and Elijah Muhammad became the leader. It was under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad that the NOI grew to the status it is today. However, while members of the NOI did believe in the "five pillars of Islam" and believed in the Qur'an and in the prophethood of Muhammad (sws), they still were not really an Islamic organization. Elijah Muhammad taught that Wallace Fard was "Allah in human form", and had come as a savior to the black peoples of America. This notion alone is, in my mind, is grounds to disqualify them as Muslims. They also were a racist organization, and preached black supremecy, which is not in any way shape or form, an Islamic ideology. However, many folks who were formally members of the NOI went on to become some of the most influencial leaders of "true Islam" in America, leading us into the modern era of African American Islam.
Al Hajj Malik Al Sabazz, or better known as Malcolm X, was one of the greatest leaders and spokesmen to come out of the NOI. While he spent most of his life preaching the extreme racist teachings of the NOI, he later left the NOI, made the Hajj to Mecca, and became a mainstream, orthodox Muslim. It was at this point that he became a shining voice for Islam in America. He said in a letter he wrote from Mecca,
"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors."I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca, I have made my seven circuits around the Ka'ba, led by a young Mutawaf named Muhammad, I drank water from the well of the Zam Zam. I ran seven times back and forth between the hills of Mt. Al-Safa and Al Marwah. I have prayed in the ancient city of Mina, and I have prayed on Mt. Arafat."There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white - but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color."You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth."During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana."We were truly all the same (brothers) - because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude."I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man - and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their 'differences' in color."With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called 'Christian' white American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem. Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster - the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventually destroyed the Germans themselves."Each hour here in the Holy Land enables me to have greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white. The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities - he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites. But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth - the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to."Never have I been so highly honored. Never have I been made to feel more humble and unworthy. Who would believe the blessings that have been heaped upon an American Negro? A few nights ago, a man who would be called in America a white man, a United Nations diplomat, an ambassador, a companion of kings, gave me his hotel suite, his bed. Never would I have even thought of dreaming that I would ever be a recipient of such honors - honors that in America would be bestowed upon a King - not a Negro."All praise is due to God, the Lord of all the Worlds."
It was with these words that true Islam was really reintroduced to the African American people. It was his denouncation of the doctrine of racism, and hate that had been promoted by the Nation of Islam. However, only approximately a year later, he was assinated, and thus his shining voice, silenced.
However, after the death of Elijah Muhammad, his son Warith Deen Muhammad ended the racist organization's life and reformed it under a mainstream, orthodox Muslim ideology. Today W. D. Muhammad is one of the leading Muslim leaders in the United States.
In recent history, real mainstream Islam has seen a revival amongst African Americans. Scholars and Imams like Imam Zaid Shakir and Imam Siraj Wahhaj just to name a couple, have become highly respected leaders in the African American Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Islam has undoubtedly had a huge influence on the African American experience in this country, and thus indirectly also has had a huge influence on all of America. As a musician I have to mention that a great deal of the great jazz musicians of the be-bop era were Muslim, including one of my all-time favorite drummers " Abdullah ibn Buhaina" or "Art Blakey". It is theorized that much of the traditional singing of slaves was influenced by their Islamic roots, thus meaning that jazz, blues, and subsiquently almost all American music was influenced by Islam.
However, despite the great achievements of the African American community, I believe there are still huge challenges. While there is still most certainly racism amongst white America, it isn't what it used to be. However many African Americans still blame most of the problems they face on that. I most certainly understand the historical plight of the African Americans, however I believe that many of the problems facing them today are partially on their own heads. Most certainly the popular culture that currently dominates BET, and MTV are not good for the African American community, but I don't want to criticize too much because there are plenty of African American leaders who do a much better job of that than I can. Insha'Allah during this "Black History Month" I wanted to express the importance of remembering the influence of Islam in America, whether you are a Muslim or not, and how Islamic roots have shaped the evolution of the African American experience.
...And Allah Knows Best...