By Yoginder Sikand
Inspite of the growing demonisation of Muslims and Islam in large sections of the American media, Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the USA today. Besides a large number of Muslim immigrants from countries in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, there is a rapidly expanding Muslim presence among American blacks, also known as African Americans. As in the case of similarly oppressed and marginalised groups in many other parts of the world, blacks in America have found Islam not simply a more spiritually satisfying religion but, equally importantly, a means for a more positive self-identity and dignity in a racially-divided society. Large-scale conversion of blacks to Islam in recent years is, then, both a religious as well as social protest movement at the same time.
Contrary to what is popularly imagined, Islam has had a long history of almost two hundred years among the blacks of the USA. Many slaves brought to the Americas from the West Coast of Africa were themselves Muslims. Over time, however, this Muslim heritage was lost, as the slaves were forced to turn Christians. In a sense, then, the rapid conversion of blacks to Islam in the USA is, as some blacks see it,an effort to revive what they believe are their long-forgotten cultural roots.
Interest in Islam as a means for social emancipation of the blacks dates back to the early years of the present century. Not having access to mainstream Islamic authorities, some of these early efforts resulted in the birth of sects that, although claiming to be Muslim, were greatly at odds with the teachings of Islam itself. The first of these efforts was the ‘Moorish Science Temple’ movement started in New Jersey in 1913 by one Noble Timothy Drew Ali. Ali claimed that he had been commissioned by Allah to restore to African-Americans the knowledge of their true identity which had been stolen from them by their white Christian masters. He contended that the blacks were actually descendants of the Moors of Morocco, a Muslim people who at one time had established a vast and flourishing empire, extending even over Spain. Ali laid out his teachings in a sixty-page booklet which he called the Quran, which is not to be confused with the actual Quran of orthodox Islam. While affirming some traditional Islamic beliefs, it consisted mainly of a variety of non-Islamic sources, including the Bible and the teachings of black nationalists. Although completely heretical from the point of view of orthodox Islam, Ali’s Moorish Science Temple was the first organisation to spread awareness among blacks of an Islamic alternative to the dominant Christian tradition.
Following close on the heels of the Moorish Science Temple, emerged another similar black group that claimed association with Islam, although, like the former, its teachings, too, were actually at great variance with those of orthodox Islam.This was the movement known today as the Nation of Islam, and it emerged in the throes of the Great Depression of the 1930s which hit black Americans particularly harshly. In July 1930, one Wallace Fard appeared in the black ghettos of Detroit, claiming that he had come from the holy city of Makkah, and that he had been appointed by God to prepare the black people for the great battle that would herald the end of the world and to free them from the oppression of the whites, whom he called as ‘blue-eyed devils’. Like Ali before him, Fard maintained that the blacks were actually Muslim Asiatics of an ancient and once-powerful race and that they had been enslaved by what he termed as ‘American trickology’. Accordingly, he instructed his followers not to pay any allegiance to the American flag.
Fard rapidly began making a large number of followers. In a span of a few years, he set up several organisations such as the Temple of Islam, a place of prayer for blacks, and the University of Islam, where young blacks were instructed in the tenets of the new cult. Fard was later succeeded by his close disciple, Elijah Muhammad, as the leader of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad went even further than Fard in claiming that Fard had actually been no less than an incarnation of Allah Himself, and that he, Elijah Muhammad, was his appointed messenger.
In numerous books that he wrote, including The Supreme Wisdom, The Message of the Black Man in America and The Fall of America, Elijah Muhammad taught his followers that the blacks were actually the descendants of the lost tribe of Shabazz, who, he claimed, had founded the city of Makkah. The white people, he argued, had actually been invented as devils through genetic engineering by an evil scientist called Yakub. He claimed that Allah had allowed the ‘white devils’ to rule the world for six thousand years, after which there would be a great war in which the black race would be victorious and would then be appointed by God as rulers on earth.
In the late 1940s Elijah Muhammad found an energetic convert called Malcolm Little, who was then serving a sentence in prison for burglary. Later, adopting the name of Malcolm X, this new convert to the Nation of Islam grew to become one of its foremost leaders and certainly its most popular and powerful orator. It was in 1964, however, that Malcolm X made a clean break with the Nation of Islam and set in motion a process of conversion of tens of thousands of American blacks to orthodox Islam. In that year, Malcolm X made the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah. There he saw for himself Muslims from all over the world, from all races—white, black and brown— both rich as well as poor, rub shoulders as brothers in faith as they circumbulated the Ka’aba. It was this that convinced him that the racial hatred taught by the Nation of Islam group and other similar American black organisations that claimed to be Muslim, actually had no room in true Islam. It was this overpowering spiritual experience in Makkah, where for the first time, as he later wrote in his autobiography, he was treated in a spirit of true brotherhood and equality, that made him distance himself completely from Elijah Muhammad and his cult,and fully embrace orthodox Islam, now taking up the name of Malik al-Shahbaz. Following his return to the USA, where he now emerged as an ardent missionary of orthodox Islam, scores of other blacks followed in his footsteps, a process that continues till this very day.