This Far by Faith




About the Series

1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW
1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER
African American Muslims Since 1975 TODAY: The Journey Continues

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Timeline: 1967-TODAY View Detailed Timeline
TODAY: The Journey Continues
TODAY: The Journey Continues

African American Muslims Since 1975

"For me, Islam is a religion that says more than 'you are a heavenly being created in a garden of paradise.' It says that your true nature is beautiful and excellent. And if you respond to the best whispers and biddings coming from your true nature, your excellent human nature, you will go far." --Imam Warith Deen Mohammed

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.

Wallace Mohammed and group of African Americans on the Hajj

Wallace Mohammed and group of African Americans on the Hajj

The faith of these converts rests on an interpretation of the Quran that emphasizes interfaith cooperation and international brotherhood with those who consider themselves children of God. "When I was in the Nation of Islam," says Ni'mat Samad, "I hardly thought about the Quran. Now, not only do I think about it, I am in it."

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.

Imam Wallace Mohammed leading mosque in orthodox prayer.

Imam Wallace Mohammed leading mosque in orthodox prayer.

In a huge shift from the tight control and strict hierarchy of the Nation of Islam, Warith Mohammed in 1985 called upon his supporters to attend any mosque, regardless of race - a return to his grandfather's Baptist inclinations. Although an estimated 70% of black Muslims still look to Imam Mohammed for spiritual guidance, he stresses the importance of following the Quran and the deeds of the Prophet Mohammed and de-emphasizes his role as a leader.

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).

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Ni'mat Abdus Samad, member of the Muslim American Society, on how she came to Islam

People of Faith

 Warith Deen Mohammed
Warith Deen Mohammed

Did You Know?

There are many varieties of African American Muslims.

There is no consensus on the number of Muslims in America.

Though most American Muslims are African American or Arabic, many other ethnicities are represented as well.

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