3. The African American Muslims

When the Spanish conquered a large part of the New World in the late 15th century, they put the native Indian tribes of South America to work in their mines and fields. The Indians, however, died quickly because of exposure to European diseases and harsh working conditions. To remedy this problem, the Spaniards began importing slaves from Africa in 1517. The Africans were sent first to the West Indies and then to the mainland, where the sugar industry was flourishing. Thus began the harsh institution of black plantation slavery.

It is now a well-established fact that a significant number of black Africans brought to North America during the antebellum slave trade were Muslims. Numbers are impossible to determine, but there may have been several thousand. These men and women seized into slavery came from a variety of areas in sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to Nigeria. Some were highly literate and educated in their religion, while others were more humble practitioners.
Most of these Africans Muslims had never had any contact with whites before being taken into slavery. The account of one of them, Kunta Kinte of Senegambia, is documented in Alex Haley's popular novel Roots. The novel sets the scene of Kinte's Islamic heritage from page 1, on which, Haley describes the Muslim early morning call to prayer, which, as he says, had been offered up as long as any living person there could remember. Haley records other occasions attesting to Kinte's faith, as when he prays to Allah while chained in the bottom of a "Christian" slave ship. Unfortunately for those who would have wished to practice their Muslim faith during the harsh circumstances of slavery in America, their Christian overlords rarely permitted it. Just as Muslims who remained in Spain after 1492 had been forced to convert to Christianity, so American slaves were required to become Christians also.
"The Afro-American people have Islam in their hearts. We have it on our tongues as we struggle to pronounce the Arabic which we have forgotten, but with which perhaps we came as slaves. This was the culture that was stripped from us, along with the language and religion. Most critically, the religion of Islam was taken from us through slavery", says a convert/revert.

Wallace Fard Muhammad

Wallace FardThe movement proper was founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad (also called W.D. Fard, or Wali Farad), believed to have been a Muslim born in Mecca around 1877. He immigrated to the United States in 1930 and established a temple (or mosque) in Detroit a year later.
Most of Fard's initial followers were black migrants from the southern United States who, because of prevailing racial policies and economic conditions, were clustered together in the black ghettos of the great northern industrial cities. They believed Fard to be an incarnation of Allah who had come to liberate what he called the "Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the West." Fard promised that if they would heed his teachings and learn the truth about themselves, they would overcome their white "slave masters" and be restored to a position of dignity and primacy among the peoples of the world.

Indeed, the early decades of the last century was for American blacks a social displacement, economic deprivation, and yearning for some kind of national identity. (Picture Source:

Elijah Muhammad

Elijah MuhammadElijah Poole found Fard's message compelling. As he himself began to pass on the message, he was accorded the status of minister and given the Muslim name of Elijah Muhammad. He was the leader of the first indigenous American movement claiming an affiliation with Islam to gain the attention of the country, namely the Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, both recipients of continuing publicity, were products of the NOI movement. Warith Deen Mohammed, son of Elijah and friend of Malcolm X, has made his own name as one of the most important leaders of Islam in North America.
Many of the teaching of the NOI as developed by Elijah Muhammad were irreconcilable with the tradition of Islam. The NOI teaching that whites are descended from the devil, that Elijah Muhammad's belief that Fard claimed for himself some kind of divine status…dissociated them from the mainstream Muslims.
When Steven Barboza in American Jihad asked Louis Farrakhan, current NOI leader, whether Elijah really was a prophet, he denied that Elijah ever made such a claim, saying "We do not believe that there is any prophet after Prophet Muhammad. But we see that the Qur'an teaches us that every nation has received a messenger". Elijah Muhammad's son Warith Deen, leader of those who broke from the NOI after 1975, has said his father knew that some of his teachings were not in accord with true Islam. They were essential at the time he gave them, however, in order for blacks to pull themselves up from the circumstances of genuine degradation in which many found themselves to a station of pride and self-respect, thrift and discipline and economic stability.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X"If I understand you correctly, number one -- you wanted to know why do we, black people, turn to Islam. The religion that many of our forefathers practised before we were kidnapped and brought to this country by the American white man was the religion of Islam ... So here in America today when you find many of us who are accepting Islam as our religion we are only going back to the religion of our forefathers. Plus, we believe that this is the religion that will do more to reform us of our weaknesses that we've become addicted to here in Western society than any other religion. Secondly, we can see where Christianity has failed us 100 percent. They teach us to turn the other cheek, but they don't turn it." (By Any Means Necessary: 26) Malcom X, Answers to questions at the militant labor forum (April 8, 1964)

Among those most persuaded of the imminent fall of America's white leadership was Malcolm Little. Malcolm was serving a seven-year sentence in the maximum security Massachusetts Norfolk Prison when he first became aware of the Nation of Islam. He was absolutely ripe for the message of black liberation preached by Elijah Muhammad and in 1947, at the age of twenty-two, he became an ardent member of the NOI. Malcolm X's role in the propagation of Nation of Islam ideology in the years succeeding his release from prison in 1952 is a well-known and much discussed part of recent American History. A highly intelligent man, Malcolm submitted wholeheartedly to the discipline as well as the advocacy of the movement. He was to become the National Representative of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad for the next twelve years, speaking nationally and internationally about the circumstances of blacks in American society. His autobiography and other records attest to his friendship with Elijah' s son Wallace, later to be known as Imam Warith Deen, a deeply spiritual and well-trained Muslim who even in the early years had questions about some of his father's doctrines and interpretations.
Probably influenced by Wallace, Malcolm also began to question more seriously some of the doctrines and beliefs of the Nation. His disillusionment with Elijah, the jealousy of his fellow Nation members, and his questioning of basic NOI doctrines, along with his increasingly vocal opposition to American policy in the Vietnam War, were a combination that would ultimately prove deadly to Malcolm. Then he set out for Mecca to participate in the pilgrimage, and visit a number of African Muslim countries. Conversation with Muslim leaders opened his eyes further to the incongruity of separatist Nation of Islam doctrines with the inclusiveness of worldwide Islam. In 1964, he left his once-beloved association and organised a new group called the Muslim Mosque. In February 21, 1965, Malcolm was shot dead and killed while addressing his newly formed Organisation of Afro American Unity (OAAU) in New York City.
The world lost one of the most compelling political and religious leaders of the twentieth century.

Wallace Muhammad (Warith Deen Muhammad)

Warith Deen MuhammadWallace had difficulties with his father's separatist and racially based doctrines. After the death of his father, Elijah Muhammad, a public announcement was made that Wallace was to succeed his father as Supreme Minister of the NOI. He began to rethink publicly the ideology that had characterised the Nation in its earlier days. He made clear that as Fard was not divine, so Elijah was not the unblemished messenger of Allah that so many of his followers believed. Wallace evidenced his obvious interest in Islam as a spiritual force rather than a political tool in his de-emphasis of the nationalism that in different ways had characterised the preaching of both his father and Malcolm. He took the organisation to a more orthodox Islam
In 1985, Warith Deen felt that the decentralisation he had begun some years earlier was complete, and he declared that his followers were no longer to be characterised by any distinguishable name. We are simply Muslims, he affirmed, members of the worldwide body of Islam.

Louis Farrakhan

Louis FarrkhanThe former Nation of Islam, in the meantime, has been resuscitated under the leadership of the fiery Louis Farrakhan, generally following the ideology of Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan soon felt that Elijah's son was leading the group in a direction that would neglect the immediate task of addressing the still unfortunate circumstances of American blacks. In 1978, he publicly felt that he no longer felt welcome within the World Community of Islam in the West (WCIW) of Warith Deen, and that he separated himself from Warith Deen. His plan was to revive the old Nation of Islam. It is basically a black power movement dedicated to the old separatist ideal of establishing an independent nation. It continues to proclaim the injustices visited on the black community by racist white American society. The Nation continues to engage the attention of the American public because of its community efforts to clean up drug-infested areas and otherwise work to improve the lives of inner-city blacks. For the most part, Farrakhan's followers are not former Nation members, most of whom stayed with Wallace, but new converts from within the African American Community.
In the late 80s, he began to redefine the mission of NOI, stressing more elements of the Islamic faith such as prayer and fasting, seemingly wishing to align the NOI more closely with traditional Islam.
Two years ago, during a NOI Saviors' Day, Louis Farrakhan affirmed his will to merge with other Muslim communities and to join the Warith Deen movement.
(Source: Islam in America, Jane Smith)

Finally, it is one of the ironies of history that the slavery barbarism, which brought largely unrecorded suffering to the peoples taken to the new continent, was the direct earliest migration of Muslim peoples to the New continent. They came mostly against their will, forcibly removed from their families and their communities, and with nothing to their names but the cultural elements that they brought with them. One of these elements was the religion of Islam which they tried to keep alive in spite of the hostile environment into which they came. It is thanks to them that Islam, later, was to become one of the important religions of the American country.