Most African American Muslims today are Sunni Muslims who pray to the formless Supreme Being they call Allah - God. They are not members of the Nation of Islam, but follow the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, son of Elijah Muhammed, the Nation of Islam's founder.
African Americans have been converting to Islam in significant numbers since the 1960s, when black consciousness called for a break from the Christianity forced upon them during slavery. Many converted after reading Malcolm X's autobiography. Some note that as many as 20% of Africans enslaved in North America were Muslims; conversion to them represents a return to their African spiritual roots. Still others say that orthodox Islam gives them a sense of self-worth and clear proscriptions for how to live. It is a full-time, disciplined way of life that requires prayer five times a day, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and taking care of one's family. A 1995 Newsweek article states that up to a third of black men in the federal prison system are Muslim, and that most converted after being imprisoned.
Some journalists point to a possible religious gender gap in the African American community, with more men converting to Islam while women remain in the Church. Still, significant numbers of black women do convert to Islam and, despite stereotypes that Islamic dress and gender roles may be oppressive, they, within their relationship to Allah, gain the strength to achieve great things in the world. Islamic scholar Aminah Beverly McCloud notes that African American women appreciate Islam's emphasis on social justice and the affinity they find with Muslim women from countries around the world. In many cases, Muslim women serve as leaders and organizers in their communities.
In some American mosques, African American Muslims and immigrant Muslims worship side-by-side. The melting pot of Islam that drew Malcolm X and Warith Deen Mohammed, however, remains elusive. Sixty-four percent of mosques have a dominant ethnic group (usually African American or South Asian). African Americans and immigrants tend to live in separate neighborhoods, and so build mosques in their own communities. Immigrant Muslims are often professionals and sometimes have tensions with African American Muslims living in poorer communities. Lastly, some immigrants criticize blacks for past affiliation with the Nation of Islam and for not being able to read the Quran in Arabic. Despite these occasional divisions, Islamic scholar Yvonne Haddad notes that African American converts consistently cite brotherhood among Muslims as one of their main reasons for joining the religion.
Mohammed encourages individual mosques to work closely with other local organizations and to create programs to fit the needs of their community, which may be anything from economic development to building schools, from housing homeless members to rehabilitating criminals.
A 1996 article published by Center for Neighborhood Technology detailed examples of organizing and economic development by predominantly African American mosques in urban communities. One example they cite is that of Imam Yahya Abdullah and Fahim Minkah, a former Black Panther, who in 1987 started African American Men Against Narcotics, a community policing project in Dallas that cleaned up abandoned buildings and worked with police to apprehend drug dealers. This program spread to other cities, including Raleigh, NC, Rochester, NY, Richmond, VA, St. Paul, MN, and Little Rock, AR. In Brooklyn, NY, the Masjid Al-Jamiyah shares resources with the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Tenant Association, and together they manage more than 1,200 low and moderate income housing units, employ 300 people, and put millions of dollars earned in rent back into the community. Although there is no centralized Muslim organization that oversees prison work, many imams (either individually or as chaplains paid by prison administrations) minister to convicts.
Warith Mohammed's loosely affiliated group of African American Muslims has been known as the Muslim American Society since 1997. Through orthodox Islam, thousands of African Americans are forging ties with Muslims of all nationalities, both at home and abroad, and continuing to provide meaningful service - spiritual, social, and economic - to African American communities. "Islam is a religious experience appropriate for those who need it the most: those in the African American community who are confronted with violence, unemployment, family breakdown and a feeling of hopelessness," said Imam Taalib Mahdee, spiritual leader of Masjid Al-Quran, Boston, to the Boston Globe. "Islam provides the tools to deal with life, the power to overcome the negative that is inside of us if we abide by the message of Allah and his prophet Muhammad."
Read an interview with Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad (PDF).