African Muslims in America
This paper was delivered during the First Conference of the Ahle Baite, held in Tehran Iran in 1990. It was originally written in 1967 as a Sociology term paper while I was enrolled as a student at The Borough of Manhattan Community College and was originally titled Black Muslims in America 1500-1900?
It has been rewritten several times. The first revision came about as a result of an invitation to attend the First Conference of The Ahle Baite, which took place in Tehran, Iran in 1990. The second revision came about at the request of an old friend Professor Charlotte (Charshee) McIntyre, PhD, now deceased. And the third revision came about at the suggestion of Sheikh Rashid Hassan, PhD, Anthropologist and BBC (Somali) News Broadcaster.
A vintage pre-Civil War Abolitionist article, circa: 1815 was added as an appendix. It will not be included in this version that has been specially prepared for the Nuradeen website. It may however be included in the near future.
This paper was dedicated to the memory of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali National Poet, Musician, Philosopher and Educator (1861-1941). Author GITANJALI (Song Offerings) in 1913. For which he (the first non-European) won the Nobel Prize in 1913.
Many years ago, as a young boy, copies of The Bustan and The Gullistan of Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz came into my possession, and as a result of this early exposure to the wisdom and imagery of Ancient Persia I began to develop the idea of the writer as a witness, a Shahid.
Saadi’s image of the wreath of grass hanging over the gateway to the city –watching everything and everyone that passed in and out of the city. A simple, plain bunch of twisted grass, bearing witness to the passage of caravans and kings, armies and beggars, wise men and fools. I had come to realize that the historian is not only required to be an objective witness to events that are selected from the continuum, but to also render an interpretation of these events that are being strung together as so many pieces in a colorful puzzle.
The paper that I have prepared for this occasion will serve a multiple purpose – of unveiling many unknown facts concerning the early history and development of Islam in America. It is primarily a brief historical glimpse of the African people, who were unwillingly transported to the so-called New World to serve as slaves to build what we know now as North and South America.
This paper is important because it brings to light the painful sojourn of a much-maligned segment of The Muslim World. Not only abused by the non-Muslim Europeans during their periods of global expansion, but have also been the traditional recipients of a rather heavy-handedness by the so-called Muslims who have lived at the center of traditional Islam. A point which lies at the center of the great circle of Dar al Islam –which has been based for the most part on the primacy of the Arabic language and Arab culture.
An attempt has been made to approach this brief history of African Muslims by including the biographical as well as the anecdotal. In hopes of providing an overview of the past fifty some odd years from the standpoint of my own personal experience as a Muslim witness in America.
I was born and raised as a young boy in the City of Boston during the Great depression in the year 1934, and although my parents were not Muslims I had the good fortune to have been exposed to Islam at a very early age. My father had befriended several Somali Seamen who had defected and had “jumped ship” in Boston Harbor.
In my fathers house these men found safe harbor and friendship, and as a result, Islam and meaningful fragments of its culture entered our lives as the natural consequence of this unique exchange. This included not only the lives of these men but the Revolution that they had dedicated their lives to support. It was in my father’s house, in the kitchen that I first heard the strains of “Dhu-Kayaga”, the anthem of the Fighters of Somali Liberation.
“Dhu-Kayaga” roughly translates as: “This is My Home!” Unknowingly my family and I had been drafted into the service of The Somali Freedom-Fighters, and as a result I became a child of Revolution.
One of these men became my adopted Uncle; his name is Hussein Ali Bin Musa. He was from the tribe called Adam-Madoba, a branch of the great Somali people who were spread over a large portion of Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Arabia. My family adopted him and it was under his influence and tutelage that I came to know and to love Islam. Islam, by osmosis, so to speak. And how appropriate to the title of this paper.
In the America of the 1940’s there were few Muslims actively and openly practicing Islam. Few were involved in the work of proselytizing the religion with the exception of Elijah Muhammad who went on to found The Nation of Islam In America, and Noble Drew Ali the founder of The Moorish Science Temple. The Ahmadiyyah Movement (Qadiani’s) had made inroads in some of the larger cities.
There were also a few immigrant Muslim enclaves in places like Detroit and Lansing Michigan, and New York City, which were mainly Arabs and Middle Easterners. These small enclaves had come into being after the United States opened its doors to Eastern European and Mediterranean immigration shortly after World War I. Many of these immigrants came from the remnants of the recently dismembered Ottoman Empire. Most of them were classified as Syrians, but came from such diverse areas as Albania, Lebanon, Bosnia, Palestine, Turkey and Armenia. All former states of the Ottoman Empire.
As a young Muslim I watched the development of Islam in America from a unique vantage point. On the one hand I saw the rebirth of Islam within the African Community, which for some was the reclamation of a belief system that had been lost due to the ravages of enslavement and cultural dispossession. But for many more it was a welcome conversion after decades of segregation and marginal survival status on the outer fringes of a dominant so-called Christian nation.
The close domestic view that I have described, is comparable to a look through a microscope at what might be considered tiny fragments of the Muslim world that were close at hand, but quite diffuse.
The long view however, was comparable to looking through the microscope in reverse, the telescope, and includes a view of the outgoing League of Nations and its successor the infantile United Nations, and the gradual emergence of the African and Middle Eastern nations from the yoke of European Colonialism. The first sigh of relief, after a long and debilitating oppression.
I had begun my search for the Muslims, in both the inner and outer worlds of my experience –and the nagging questions were always there: “Where are They? Why can’t I find them?” Once I began to study history intensely, travel about and ask questions – I began to see through the fog and mist of what one scholar appropriately used in the title of his well known book: “The Mis-Education of The Negro”, this title could also apply to most Americans of all ethnicities.
No sooner than I began to train my eyes to use new tools of analysis and observation, the world picture began to come into focus, my understanding began to grow –and the Muslims began to emerge. I watched as each country was released from its colonial