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August 16, 2002
The Forgotten History of Islam in America
The most recent controversy erupted when the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the country), told several thousand delegates at the group’s annual conference that many of America’s problems were caused by people promoting “religious pluralism.” According to the Washington Post, Vines said, “They would have us believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity.” Then he added: “Christianity was founded by the Virgin-born son of God, Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives, the last one of which was a 9-year-old girl.”
Instead of scorning him, Vines’ evangelical brethren rushed to his aid. The Rev. Jack Graham, newly elected president of the SBC, called Vines’ comments “an accurate statement.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote to subscribers of his newsletter: “If you want to raise the ire of the mainstream press and the swarm of politically correct organizations in this nation, just criticize Islam.” The day following Vines’ comments, President Bush addressed the SBC, praising the group for its “religious tolerance.”
Bush’s reluctance to criticize the group is likely a product of a tightening political bond between the Christian right and the president’s neoconservative brain trust in foreign policy matters. This alliance is busy producing anti-Islamic propaganda, while simultaneously urging the United States to fully embrace Israel as its only ally in the region. Included in this group are Pentagon big-wigs Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, syndicated columnists like Michael Kelly and Charles Krauthammer, and even Watergate conspirator Charles Colson.
Colson, now chairman of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, told the Fox News Channel that, unlike Christianity, Islam is not a “religion of love” but instead is “dedicated toward hatred and violence and resentment.” He was commenting on the recent arrest of Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al Muhajir, the Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican who was arrested on suspicion of plotting to explode a “dirty bomb.” Padilla, a former Chicago street gang member, reportedly converted to Islam while serving time in prison. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Colson wrote, “al Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America’s prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be ‘disenchanted with their country’s policies.’ ” This was a canny move, Colson reasoned, because America’s “alienated, disenfranchised people are prime targets for radical Islamists who preach a religion of violence, of overcoming oppression by jihad.”
Colson’s argument is a twist on Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which posits that Islam and the West are now heading toward an acrimonious face-off. In reality, the tensions between Christianity and Islam are older than the United States itself. And Washington has a long history of antagonism and opposition toward Muslims at home and abroad. However, as illustrated most prominently by Padilla and John Walker Lindh, the U.S. citizen captured fighting for the Taliban, the distinction between indigenous and exogenous Islam can be blurry.
Lindh allegedly was first turned on to Islam by surfing hip-hop Web sites and reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, before visiting a mosque near his California home. Though Lindh was a child of the privileged West, his thirst for a more authentic version of the faith led him to the Middle East. He first went to Yemen, seeking a rigorous education in the Quran, made a stop in Pakistan, and then traveled on to Afghanistan, where he joined the Taliban. Captured near Mazar-e-Sharif, his spiritual quest will culminate with a 20-year sentence in federal prison.
Padilla grew up in Chicago’s gritty Logan Square neighborhood, and his teen-age years were beset with run-ins with the law. But his lengthy criminal record contains no hints of an inclination toward terrorism. The Chicago Tribune reported that he claimed to be a member of the Latin Disciples, one of the city’s most violent gangs. Although Padilla’s parents are Puerto Rican, MSNBC reported, he identified himself as African-American on a marriage license in Florida, where he moved in 1991. He was arrested there that year for aggravated assault and spent 10 months in jail. Justice Department officials say Padilla converted to Islam while imprisoned and got involved with al Qaeda in the late ’90s. He’s now being held in a military brig in South Carolina as an “enemy combatant,” a designation that allows the government to jail him without formal charges.
Both of these men’s notoriety comes from allegedly consorting with the enemy. But it’s worth giving closer scrutiny to the right’s claims of an Islamist infiltration in America. Far too little media coverage since 9/11 has focused on the country’s broader indigenous Islamic constituency. Yet the appeal of Islam in America is undeniable—indeed, it is the country’s fastest-growing religion. The increasing population of immigrant Muslims and the continuing spread of the religion among African-Americans—who comprise approximately 30 percent of the 8 million Muslims living here—as well as those influenced by African-American culture calls for an overdue look at Islam’s long history in this country.
he foundation for Islam’s attraction to black Americans was laid centuries ago. But because scholarly interest typically reflects popular biases, to past generations of American historians the idea that a large number of enslaved Africans were Muslims was unthinkable. Typical was novelist James Michener, who wrote derisively in a New York Times book review of Alex Haley’s Roots that “to have Kunta Kinte, or one of his fellow slaves praying to Allah while chained in the bottom of a Christian ship is an unjustified sop to contemporary events rather than a true reflection of the past.”
But most historians now agree there has been an Islamic presence here from the nation’s earliest years. Muslim evangelists (as conquerors, merchants and scholars) had fanned out across West Africa several hundred years before any Christians arrived. These Muslims converted many Africans in the area between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, a region where vast numbers of Africans were enslaved and shipped west. Sylviane A. Diouf’s book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas estimates that from 10 percent to 25 percent of all enslaved Africans shipped to the Americas from the 17th to 19th century were Muslims.
Many Islamic practices disappeared after that first generation died. But the legends and myths surrounding the religion persisted among both blacks and whites. Enslaved Muslims were reputed to have instigated many of the revolts that occurred on plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean islands. Nothing frightened slave-dependent societies more than the prospect of widespread slave insurrections. Islam’s ability to provoke fear and animosity in slave owners burnished the religion’s rebellious image.
Yet as the descendants of enslaved Africans adopted Christianity, the religion of their captors, their view of Islam was shaped by Christian attitudes and the long history of antagonism between Christians and Muslims. Denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church would develop as a refuge from white supremacist theology that sanctioned chattel slavery. But Islam took on an outlaw stigma in the black community.
That began to change when Edward Wilmot Blyden, an influential Christian minister, began promoting Islam as a nationalist alternative to Christianity. His 1887 book, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, argued that Islam’s racial tolerance and doctrine of brotherhood made it a more appropriate religion for people of African descent than Christianity. He insisted that Christianity, in spite of its eastern origins, had become an ideological tool used by Europeans to help debase Africans and teach them to deny their own heritage.
The link between Islam and black nationalism was drawn tighter when an African-American migrant from North Carolina named Timothy Drew changed his name to Nobel Drew Ali and, in 1913, established the first “Canaanite Temple” in Newark, New Jersey. Ali changed the name of his group to the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1928, and temples dedicated to the notion that Islam was the old-time religion for black folks eventually opened around the country.
Ali’s doctrine was an eccentric mixture of Islamic mysticism, Gnosticism and Masonic lore. As Mattias Gardell points out in his excellent book In the Name of Elijah Muhammad, Ali’s holy text is cribbed almost verbatim from The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, a 1907 book written by Christian mystic Levi H. Dowling. Although Ali’s jerry-built theology was heavily plagiarized, his motive was to provide African-Americans with a religion and identity that transcended the ignoble conditions left in slavery’s wake.
Contemporaneous with Ali was Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had the slogan “One God, One Aim, One Destiny” and pushed a doctrine of Pan-Africanism, racial pride and self-reliance. Garvey sought to unite “all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body to establish a country and government absolutely their own.” At its high point, between 1920 and 1924, the Garvey movement claimed a membership in the millions. UNIA was the first real mass movement among African-Americans and the largest international racial movement in the history of the African diaspora.
According to Richard Brent Turner, author of Islam in the African-American Experience, Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was strongly influenced by Duse Muhammad Ali, a Sudanese-Egyptian Muslim who was “a prominent member of London’s Muslim community and one of the most significant figures in the international Pan-African movement during that time.” Although UNIA wasn’t a religious movement per se, it utilized religious themes in urging black people toward economic self-reliance and cultural independence; Garvey’s professed goal of black repatriation to Africa was suffused with biblical imagery. Elijah Poole, the son of a Baptist preacher from rural Georgia, reportedly was involved with the UNIA’s Detroit chapter before joining the Nation of Islam and becoming Elijah Muhammad (and both of Malcolm X’s parents were members of UNIA).
Along with political insurgents and militants, Islam has appealed to African-American artists, from novelists to rappers. Jazz musicians like Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner and Abbey Lincoln became practicing Muslims, and even Charlie Parker once was rumored to have changed his name to Abdul Karim. Most of these musicians were attracted to the Ahmadiyya movement, an Islamic order with roots in 19th-century India that began proselytizing in the United States during the ’20s. The Ahmadiyya movement was the first established Islamic order that focused its proselytizing efforts on the African-American community.
hmadiyya may have come first, but the Nation of Islam (NOI) soon became the religion’s most visible black expression. The group came into existence in 1930, when a mysterious silk merchant—known variously as W.D. Fard, Wali Farad, Wallace D. Fard or Farad Muhammad—appeared on the streets of Detroit calling himself a “prophet of Allah from the holy city of Mecca.” He preached a message of black divinity and white iniquity (and an ascetic doctrine of moral probity, frugality and sobriety). His message spoke directly to a people who had been utterly debased by America’s white-supremacist society. Historically confined to a segregated and impoverished world for no other reason than their skin color, many African-Americans found it easy to attribute their treatment to demonic influences.
Fard soon developed a large following in the ghettos of Depression-era Detroit. Although he claimed his doctrine was based on Islam, it was a fractured version of the creed. The olive-skinned stranger disappeared, just as mysteriously, in 1934 after designating Elijah Muhammad his head man. Muhammad later deified Fard and dubbed himself God’s messenger. Through Elijah Muhammad’s leadership, the NOI emphasized Fard’s racial teachings. Central were the notions that the black man was the “original man,” divine by nature. White people were created by a scientist named Yakub, who used a eugenics process to “bleach” original people of their color and their humanity. In NOI demonology, whites are referred to as “Yakub’s grafted devils.”
But Turner and others urge a revisionist take on the NOI’s racist dogma. In context, they argue, Fard’s race-based depiction of the Islamic message was made necessary by African-Americans’ peculiar racial history. The mythic ideal that placed blond, blue-eyed northern Europeans at the pinnacle of a racial hierarchy and black people at the nadir was the guiding principle in Western racial thinking. This view of humanity allowed Christians to own “soulless” black slaves while proclaiming their piety. Turner writes: “Before Fard could restore his converts’ knowledge of their ‘true names, history, religion and ethnicity,’ he had to destroy that aspect of the white race’s invincibility that made black inferiority and self-hatred possible on a deep psychological level.”
The NOI reached its greatest prominence with the emergence of Malcolm X. Through his extraordinary charisma and intelligence, Malcolm helped build the organization into a national force, well established in most large U.S. cities. The intensity of Malcolm’s identity quest from when he left the NOI in March 1964—changing his name to Malik Shabazz, denouncing Elijah Muhammad’s eccentric doctrine, and embracing Islamic orthodoxy—until his assassination the following February helped light the fuse for the black power explosion that followed. The Black Panther Party, cultural nationalism, a new Pan-Africanism, black arts and black studies movements, as well as a host of indigenous Islamic groups, were accelerated by his example.
But the tumult of those years took its toll on many ideological warriors. By the early ’70s, the Black Panthers had been virtually wiped out by FBI counter-intelligence programs, and infighting between the “revolutionary” and “cultural” nationalists had poisoned any larger unified efforts. Many black power veterans began taking a second look at the NOI. They discovered that numerous black power groups had cribbed their programs from Elijah Muhammad’s blend of pidgin Islam and black nationalism. If revolution meant a radical change in social conditions and communal outlook, if its result was to create a new people untainted by the socialization of the old, then the NOI surely qualified.
The NOI already had an enviable reputation of rehabilitating substance abusers and other community miscreants with unique efficiency. Tales are legion of inner-city sociopaths magically transformed into sober, reliable workaholics after hearing Elijah’s teaching. Malcolm X’s prison conversion set the mold for thousands of African-American inmates.
What’s more, the call for economic and cultural self-reliance, which became the rallying cry of the black power movement, had been answered by the NOI long before. By the early ’70s, the NOI had utilized its mostly low-income member base to accumulate an impressive portfolio of independent ventures, including grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, dry cleaners and thousands of acres of farmland. Bow-tied NOI members selling newspapers and bean pies with cordial aggression became a familiar sight in the inner city.
Some bitterness remains between black nationalists, who felt a strong affection for Malcolm, and NOI members, who remained faithful to Elijah Muhammad. Many nationalists were convinced that top-level NOI officials ordered Malcolm’s assassination. And until a public reconciliation between Minister Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm’s family in 1995, members of the NOI condemned Malcolm as an apostate, unworthy of his popular acclaim. No longer as public, many remain confirmed Malcolm-haters.
y the time of Elijah Muhammad’s death in February 1975, the group had begun de-emphasizing its anti-white message and attracting a wider range of acolytes. Wallace Delaney Muhammad, Elijah’s rebellious son and seventh child, took over when his father died. Within a year, the younger Muhammad had transformed the NOI from a race-oriented sect into a group professing Islamic orthodoxy according to Sunni tenets. (He later changed the spelling of his name to Mohammed to further distinguish himself from his father’s legacy.) This development wiped away two of the NOI’s basic beliefs: that Allah can be personified (in W.D. Fard) and that Satan can be embodied in a “race” of people.
Mohammed urged his followers to reject black nationalism and proudly embrace American citizenship. His struggle to humanize a doctrine forged by oppression was aided by the civil rights movement, which made the white-devil rhetoric less appealing. His group, now called the Muslim American Society, is by far the largest of all indigenous Muslim groups, with an estimated membership of 2 million.
For those nurtured by the NOI’s militant separatism, however, this was unspeakable blasphemy. Farrakhan initially pledged fealty to Mohammed’s new vision, but soon broke away to begin teaching anew Elijah’s race-based doctrines. Since 1977, Farrakhan has been plugging away at rebuilding Elijah’s NOI. Exact membership numbers are hard to ascertain, but knowledgeable observers estimate Farrakhan’s following at about 50,000.
The NOI’s organizational model, wedding religious and military sensibilities, has an ominous historical resonance with fascism. But Farrakhan’s rhetorical militance has won him admirers throughout black America. That aspect of his appeal largely accounts for the hip-hop generation’s continuing affection for Islam; his name is positively evoked in dozens of rap records. His conflicts with Jewish groups over his dangerous flirtation with anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers provoked a circle-the-wagons response that burnished his appeal to rebellious-minded youth as someone who refuses to bite his tongue. Despite that controversy, his 1995 Million Man March was the largest single gathering (of blacks or whites) in Washington’s history, though pundits remain reluctant to grant him that glory.
But in recent years, Farrakhan too has shifted away from racial demonology to a message more in accord with Mohammed’s inclusive Islamic vision. The two men’s annual rituals of reconciliation since 2000 hint that Farrakhan intends to slowly bring the NOI more in accord with Islamic orthodoxy. The closer Farrakhan gets to Mohammed, the further behind he leaves the NOI’s eugenic doctrine. And his gestures are not just limited to fellow Muslims. Farrakhan joined Mohammed last October at a joint appearance with Christian television minister Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral Church. Billed as an “Evening of Religious Solidarity,” the gathering marked a historic development in the evolution of the NOI, but received sparse media coverage. More ominously, Farrakhan has forged a link with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and has been friendly to Lyndon LaRouche, the eccentric economist known for his conspiracy rhetoric.
espite growing religious links between the two former rivals, Farrakhan and Mohammed struck differing chords in their responses to September 11 and the war on terrorism. “If Mr. Bush wants the world to join him in this war, then prove to the world that [Osama bin Laden] is responsible for this heinous crime,” demanded a skeptical Farrakhan in an October 16 speech. After recounting the dismal record of American interference in the region, he concluded that U.S. action is not based on a quest for justice, but oil, or who “controls the sweet crude.” This summer Farrakhan launched a “peace mission” to a number of Arab countries, including Iraq.
Although Mohammed has expressed misgivings about “innocent Afghans being killed by these U.S. attacks,” he has urged U.S. Muslims “to be more conscious of our [American] citizenship.” Mohammed’s New York representative was even chosen by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to say a prayer at Yankee Stadium during a visit by President Bush. This is all the more remarkable recalling that Mohammed was born into an organization that once demonized the United States just as stridently as bin Laden does today.
Deeply rooted in U.S. culture, Islam has proven its utility as an agent for change and a force for stability. Those who argue that the religion is atavistic or a product of postmodern nihilism must be more careful in their condemnation. Like other religious believers, Muslims often oscillate between precept and practice. But pluralistic cultural pressures are more likely to moderate the excesses of Islamist cults, like al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, than an endless war. The nation has not done enough to mine the wisdom of Muslims—particularly African-Americans—who have successfully reconciled the obligations of Islamic piety with pluralistic democracy. We are in desperate need of such insight.
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