The First Muslim Americans: Enslaved West Africans

Contrary to the mistaken belief that Islam in America originated with the influx of Arab and Pakistani immigrants in the 1960s, Islam actually originated in this country vis-à-vis West African enslaved Muslims. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned West African enslaved Muslims.

These first Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity and relinquish all components of their Muslim identities. In fact, historians argue that the initial shipping of these individuals while naked served to not only dehumanize and animalize them, but to specifically undermine their Islamic conceptions of modesty, and to thereby initiate the complete erasure of their Muslim identities.

As described in Sylviane Diouf’s acclaimed text, Servants of Allah, there is ample evidence that despite the systematic attempts to erase their Muslim identities, these enslaved Muslims practiced Islam diligently. They not only retained a myriad of components of their Muslim identities, but in some cases, negotiated their identities uniquely to fit their enslaved circumstances. They found ways to covertly pray, fast, read and scribe copies of the Qur’an from memory, and establish underground Islamic learning networks. The impact of these enslaved Muslims is far-reaching and continually being discovered. Modern-day musicologists are learning about how the melody of the blues, a musical product of slavery, may be derived from the tune of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer.

These first Muslims laid a strong foundation for Islam in America. They represent a strong adherence to Islam and the Muslim identity, despite their unimaginably difficult circumstances of being enslaved. They inspire us modern-day Muslim Americans to be unapologetic of our identities, since the first Muslims in this country were unashamed of being Muslim and all that that entailed, despite the aforementioned point of slaveowners’ ubiquitous attempts of erasing all aspects of their Muslim identities.

The Moorish Science Temple and The Nation of Islam

While Islam in America originated vis-a-vis West African slaves, Islam did not sustainably survive through their descendants. However, in more recent decades, black Americans revived Islam. 

The Moorish Science Temple of America was organized in 1925 in Chicago. Noble Drew Ali, born Timothy Drew, was the ultimate authority of the movement. This movement combined Islamic practices with popular spiritual beliefs into a nationalist movement that sought to connect Black Americans to a global Muslim community that transcended skin color and racial identity. 

Subsequently, the Nation of Islam, a related movement, emerged as a way to empower Black Americans in the wake of systematic White supremacy. Leaders of the Nation trained Black American communities in economic independence and self-sufficiency, relinquishing of drug use, and the importance of awareness in local surroundings and politics—the Nation even conducted door-knocking campaigns raising their community’s awareness on local pollution. 

The Nation saw a uniquely Black American liberative potential in Islam; the movement used Islam’s staunch anti-racism stances to position Islam as the modality through which Black Americans could finally free themselves from White supremacy. 

Warith D. Muhammad, the son of the leader of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, eventually left the Nation, and led a mass conversion movement of former Nation members to orthodox Sunni Islam. Today, Black Muslim Americans comprise of the largest demographic of Muslim Americans—and the Nation of Islam played an important role in this.

Emgage’s Commitment to Black Muslim Americans  

Emgage honors and recognizes the critically important role that Black Muslims play in the origins of Islam in America. Today, Emgage seeks to serve African American and African Muslim communities that have been too-often marginalized by Islamophobia, classism, and racism, both within and outside the Muslim community. Black Muslims play a pivotal role in elections, and their votes have had important impacts in key victories, including President Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.

We at Emgage seek to ensure that Black Muslim communities have the resources needed to thrive, be civically engaged, and have their voices represented.

Emgage’s African American Policy Advisory Group

Led by our National Senior Advisor, Salima Suswell, the African American Policy Advisory Group is a collective of African American influencers, academics, policy experts, and community organizers facilitated and supported by Emgage Action for the purpose of forming an official, public policy platform of important issues to the African American community by the African American community. The African American Policy Advisory Group continues to meet bi-monthly throughout the year.

In 2022, the committee started an organizing initiative to hire Black Muslim organizers in key states to build voter outreach in cities with a significant African American population like Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The committee has worked together for the past two years to advance the needs of African American communities that are often overlooked.

Resources

Philadelphia mayoral candidates: Listen to the city’s Muslim community – Salima Suswell

Pay Attention to Muslim Voters – Salima Suswell

Muslim Americans Played Key Role in Biden’s Pennsylvania Win – Wa’el Alzayat

Honoring the Legacy of Black Muslims

Every year during Black History Month, Emgage hosts an event, “Honoring the Legacy of Black Muslims.” This event brings our entire community together with Black Muslim American elected officials, activists, and leaders to celebrate Black Muslim American excellence, and galvanize the community towards civic participation.