A History of Black Muslims in America

Allison Keyes offers an overview of the relationship between African Americans and the Islamic religion.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Since the attacks of September 11th, Islamic extremists have regularly occupied the headlines. The news often ignores the millions of peace-loving Muslims living in the United States; of those, the largest number are African-American. Many find themselves struggling with a newly compounded burden: being black in a culture still trying to move past racism and being Muslim while at war with a predominantly Islamic enemy. NPR's Allison Keyes offers this overview of African-Americans' history with Islam.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Howard University African studies professor Sulayman Nyang is a Muslim from Gambia. He's also an expert on the history of Islam in this country. He says there's evidence supporting the belief that Muslims were here before Columbus, but Nyang says the first large influx of black Muslims came during slavery. At least 10 percent of African slaves brought here came from Islamic backgrounds. He says the next wave came in the 1860s.

Professor SULAYMAN NYANG (Howard University): Then you have the coming of the immigrants after the construction of the Suez Canal following the Civil War in America. And, of course, this brought a lot of Arabs, you know, and South Asians, people from southern Europe, central Europe coming into the United States.

KEYES: More Muslims came from Lebanon and Syria in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Arabs moved mostly to the East Coast while South Asians went to the West Coast. They worked in rice fields and at manual labor. Professor Nyang calls the next influx of black Muslims children of the Cold War.

Prof. NYANG: Because of the Cold War, a lot of Africans and Asians and Latin American kids were brought to the United States because America was competing with Russia for the hearts and minds of people around the world. From 1960 to now, over the last 40 years, you now have a growing number of Africans who were born in Africa but now leaving America as citizens or permanent residents.

KEYES: Scholars say by conservative estimates, there are about five million Muslims in the United States right now. African-Americans make up the largest percentage, about one-quarter, of that group. Professor Nyang says blacks used to be closer to 40 percent, but recent immigration by South Asian Muslims have brought the two ethnic groups nearly to equal numbers. Prior to the terror attacks on September 11th, Nyang says when most Americans thought of Muslims they thought of the honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.

Prof. NYANG: So Muslims were basically identified with the black community.

KEYES: But the nation, as run by the honorable Elijah Muhammad, believed that whites were devils. After Muhammad's death in 1975, his son, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, split from that doctrine and moved the organization toward more orthodox Sunni Islam. Minister Louis Farrakhan resurrected the old Nation of Island in 1978 in Chicago. Professor Nyang says the black Muslim community in this country is fragmented.

Prof. NYANG: The overwhelming majority of the followers of Elijah Muhammad went with his son, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, but you have a sizable minority under Minister Louis Farrakhan, and then there are all the smaller splinter groups that are not even known to many African-Americans.

KEYES: The African-American Muslim community in this country is primarily Sunni these days, though the Nation of Islam held the majority during the days of Malcolm X. Although many Muslims were subject to racial profiling in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, some believe that the increased scrutiny has been good for the Islamic community. Again, Professor Nyang.

Prof. NYANG: There is virtually no American small town or even a small hamlet in America, if there is any, where they don't know about Muslims. Now they know that there are Muslims in America. Previously, most Americans were oblivious to the Muslim presence in America.

KEYES: Even though that awareness has often led to negative feelings and fear, at least people in this country are more aware of the diversity of those who believe in Islam. Professor Nyang hopes that leads to a better understanding of his religion.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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