Islam and the African American Experience

Published January 31, 2012

By Dr. Sulayman Nyang

Much has been written on the impact of 9/11 on American Muslims. The experience of African-American Muslims in dealing with the anti-Muslim feeling that followed in the aftermath of the tragedy mirrors in most ways the experience of the larger American Muslim community. The history of Islam in this country, though, has a conspicuous trajectory visible through its unfolding — that of Islam as it developed in the African-American community. That development was very much influenced by the ongoing struggle of blacks as they grappled with issues of identity in a white-dominated society. After 9/11, those issues were magnified and brought to the fore as anti-Muslim rhetoric and animosity shook the larger Muslim community and caused greater focus on the issues of social integration of Muslims and their engagement within the American experience.

African-Americans, like human beings everywhere and in all times, have struggled with profound questions such as who am I, where do I belong; they have also had to contend like many others throughout history with the difficult question why must I suffer such oppression and indignity? These are strident questions, however, in a culture that used the African-American’s forced, indentured, then low-paid labor to build prosperity for others, all the while proclaiming against his humanity, intelligence, moral character, and loyalty. Exploring the ontological questions of identity and the nature of existence when one belongs to an oppressed group, we find in the literature two related but distinct narratives of self-definition. Between 1900 and the interwar period in the last century, the black community was adjusting to the challenges of the post Civil War period and the ramifications of migration from the South to the North for better employment and greater engagement with society as free men and women. Unsure about their status and acceptability in the North, African-Americans looked with hope at the many religious organizations emerging in the black community.

These principles spoke to the peculiar challenge of being black in America, what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as “double consciousness.”

Among these were the Nation of Islam and other proto-nationalist black groups. These have been studied and classified by the late Eric C. Lincoln and Essien Udom.  Lincoln coined the now widely-known name Black Muslims; and Udom, from Nigeria, wrote a dissertation on Islam and the Black experience while at the University of Chicago. Navigating between religious and ethnic folkways, many African-Americans came to rally behind the banner of the late Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. In doing so, the black community experienced a change of direction, with a new generation of African-Americans seeking a meaningful and secure-enough place for themselves in American society. What was most significant about the NOI was its advocacy of self-definition and self-discipline.

There was, in fact, a convergence between the sectarian and heterodox ideas of Elijah Muhammad and the political and social activism of Malcolm X (Elhaj Malik Shabazz). The synergy resulted in the NOI becoming a major force in the black community’s endeavoring for social reform; the organization demonstrated a dynamism that emerged from its opposition to racist and colonialist control over the subordinated and disenfranchised black community. The NOI was, not surprisingly, rejected by orthodox Muslims who repudiated the secular and nationalist tendencies of the organization.

Yet orthodox Islam has a quintessential utility as a politico-religious apparatus for shaping the individual and social psychology of its religionists as they view the challenges of daily living through the lens of its theological dogma and metaphysical precepts.  The Nation of Islam, admixing selected Islamic doctrine with its own nationalist creed, was very successful in reforming the lives of its followers, instilling in them the inseparable nature of their “blackness” from the foundation of their self-definition. The NOI also indoctrinated their members with an enduring sense of being American, belonging to and claiming this country as their own, a right borne from the endurance of chattel slavery to the ongoing struggles following emancipation.
These principles spoke to the peculiar challenge of being black in America, what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as “double consciousness.” He wrote that the African-American was caught in “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro, two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

In this ongoing struggle, one cannot, and should not, overlook the contributions made by the Nation of Islam to the advancement and well-being of African-Americans.

This “double-consciousness” still afflicts African-Americans, to varying degrees, despite the passing of time and significant social changes. In fact, it is not so long since the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 by three prominent white men, sought the “return” of African-Americans to Africa. The ACS helped to constitute the colony of Liberia in 1821. While purportedly aiming to provide blacks with a chance for a better life, the society was handily supported by slave-holders who wanted to “repatriate” free blacks as they were looked upon as an incitement to slave rebellions.

Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, statesman, and orator reminded racist and segregationist whites of the 19th century that blacks were here to stay. Douglass and other African-Americans leaders in the fight against slavery saw abolition as an inevitable step toward justice and equality as American citizens. The idea, to them, was outrageous that blacks should be sent back to Africa after their tremendous contributions, extracted through their suffering in chattel slavery, to the building of a prosperous America, as well as the patriotic serving of the country by nearly 200,000 African-American men in the Union army during the Civil War.

It is interesting that African-Americans who convert to Islam are in a very real way embracing a new “double-consciousness.” Especially since 9/11 and the increasing tendency among average Americans to look at Muslims through the lens of Islamophobia, African-American Muslims have to contend with a newly challenging “two-ness.” However, this “two-ness” of being African-American and being Muslim is an identity not thrust upon them by those who aimed to dehumanize and exploit; it is an identity elected in the free searching of the soul. This double-consciousness is a phenomenon that all Muslims living in America experience today. However, by voluntarily choosing to practice the religion of Islam, it becomes an experience of great honor, a demonstration of dedication to Qur’anic principles such as worshipping God and not ascribing any partner to Him, enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong, being witnesses to fair dealing, helping the needy and feeding the hungry, showing kindness and compassion, fulfilling all promises, striving to make peace, living life as a sincere lover of Truth. But the experience is an especially poignant one for the African-American, given the history of slavery, the challenges of defining one’s life within an often hostile cultural environment, and the ongoing struggle for social justice.

The late Imam is gone but his activism has infused a cadre of highly educated, intellectually and politically astute followers who will continue to make forward strides in helping to bring about a just society for all citizens.

In this ongoing struggle, one cannot, and should not, overlook the contributions made by the Nation of Islam to the advancement and well-being of African-Americans. Heterodox tendencies aside, the organization began addressing the horrendous and daunting conditions faced by blacks in their communities. Any Muslim who is a true student of history will look at the doctrinal distortions of the NOI within the larger context of what they accomplished in bringing a sense of dignity to the marginalized, dispossessed African-American community; providing a narrative of honor and pride when their own country denied them that most basic human birthright; actively engaging in community work such as helping drug addicts get clean, feeding the poor and helping the needy; in advocating individual and family responsibility and self-discipline; promoting entrepreneurship and small business ownership, and more. It should also be noted that after the death of Elijah Muhammad, his son W.D. Mohammad disavowed the sectarian and ultra-nationalist doctrine and directed the organization toward a more orthodox Islam. In 1978 Louis Farrakhan split with that organization and revived the original template of the Nation of Islam.

Imam W.D. Mohammad, who died in 2008, spent his later years working with his nonprofit ministry, the Mosque Cares. He was also a vital force in promoting interfaith relations. Many young leaders have followed in his footsteps and are continuing his work, promising individuals such as Imam Talib Sheriff of Masjid Muhammad in Washington D.C.  Among these leaders are graduates from Howard, Spellman, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.  The late Imam is gone but his activism has infused a cadre of highly educated, intellectually and politically astute followers who will continue to make forward strides in helping to bring about a just society for all citizens.

Americans have matured since the days of slavery, and many have shown the capacity to look beyond race in electing Barak Obama as president.  African-Americans have made great strides in their search for full inclusion in the American experience and narrative. And African-American Muslims have demonstrated their spiritual mettle in re-claiming the Islamic faith which was so often opposed by their slave-masters because the Muslim who was forced into enslavement notably refused easy acquiescence to the subjugation, to submission to any other than God. African-American Muslims, along with their other American Muslim brothers and sisters, will continue to work vigorously against religious bigotry and political violation whether here or elsewhere in the world.

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