This article offers an updated assessment of the literature on black Muslims examining recent developments related to black Muslim religious practice, gender equality, opportunities for women, women’s empowerment, challenges facing black Muslim family life, and demographic shifts. During the 1950s the words black Muslims would become synonymous with the Nation of Islam (NOI) movement founded in Detroit by Elijah Muhammad in 1930. The name (and proper noun) Black Muslim would be coined by CBS news reporter Mike Wallace in the 1959 television documentary “The Hate that Hate Produced” introducing the NOI to the American public. Most Americans, including most immigrant Muslims, would know little about black Muslims. But with the passing away of NOI founder Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the media-driven “Black Muslim” image would undergo a transformation under the leadership of W. D. Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad. Although the vast majority of NOI members would embrace mainstream Sunni Islam in what Marsh 1984 (cited under Reference Works) and others would label “the change,” considerably smaller groups of original NOI members, including the minister Louis Farrakhan, would break with W. D. Muhammad by 1978. Unlike many Muslim societies abroad where opportunities for women are limited, African American Muslim women and the community as a whole have benefited from universal compulsory education for all in the United States, including young women and girls. In addition to this, the black Muslim community would benefit from the enlightened leadership of leaders who include Sister Claire Muhammad and Malcolm X (Al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz), who once said “show me a backward woman and I’ll show you a backward community; show me a progressive woman and I’ll show you a progressive community.” A study of religion in the United States by the Pew Research Center would release findings in April 2015 showing how the black immigrant population in the United States has quadrupled since 1980. From 2000 to 2013 alone, the number of black immigrants to the United States from Africa would increase by 137 percent. Black immigrants primarily from Africa and the Caribbean would self-identify based on their country (and religion) of origin rather than on an assimilated or hyphenated American identity as seen in the case of Europeans of earlier periods, who would routinely identity themselves, for example, as German American or Polish American. This plus continued record-high “conversion” rates to Sunni Islam among African Americans helps explain why the term black Muslim is no longer synonymous with the NOI. Instead, black Muslims among immigrant and “indigenous” African American Muslims alike would combine to help make Islam the fastest-growing and second-largest religion in the United States. Indeed, black Muslims would occupy the ranks of elected members of Congress, academia, and entertainment. One black Muslim immigrant from Kenya would arrive in the United States in the 1960s from Kenya to study economics at Harvard and later along with his white American wife produce a son who would become president of the United States. Some 1.8 million black immigrants would arrive in the United States by 2013. The number of black immigrants is projected to rise from 9 percent of the current black population in 2015 to 16 percent of the black US population by 2060. Black immigrants are 25 times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree and are less likely to live in poverty than their American counterparts. Not included in the 2015 Pew study results are the growing number of black Muslims in the United States from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf on student visas. These shifts undoubtedly create new challenges and help expand the role of black Muslims in the Untied States. But beyond this, the challenge of racism remains, as seen in the tragic murder of nine blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. A 25 June 2015 New York Times report notes that since 9/11 nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims to challenge the idea of post-racialism and add support to the simple mantra that “black lives matter.”
Scholarship on black Muslims has not always kept pace with new developments. Turner 2003 describes how some scholars would become stuck “on a treadmill” for a time, repeating the same information while falling to keep abreast of important new developments, leading Dannin 2002 to conclude that public ignorance of black Muslims in the United States has led some to overlook an important chapter in American history. The transformation of the original NOI would be joined by a worldwide Islamic revival (tajdid) after 1979, examined by Voll that would hasten a return to strict Islamic observance, a rise in militant Islamism, and violent encounters culminating in the tragedy of 9/11. A substantial literature on Islam and Muslims would emerge that includes studies of black Muslim militancy as a byproduct of prisoner radicalization in the evolving post–9/11 terrorist threat. Others like GhaneaBassiri 2010 (cited under Textbooks and Related Materials), Rashid 2013, and Curtis 2002 would challenge the “one size fits all” narrative of the “Islam in America” (and more accurately Islam in the United States) paradigm governing “Islam in America” studies that argues that the Islam first brought to the Americas by black and brown Muslims first from Spain and later more massively from West Africa would fail to survive the rigors of slavery. But as GhaneaBassiri notes, the origins of Islam in the United States cannot be reduced to a single narrative, as many cultures have contributed to its establishment in the United States and the Americas. In a 2015 interview with BBC HardTalk moderated by Steven Sacker, Cornel West would assert that in “the age of Obama” for the past six years a black youth would be shot every twenty-eight hours by police. Days before the tragic shootings of nine innocent black churchgoers in June 2015 during bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME church of Charleston, South Carolina, police would shoot and kill black Muslim Usaama Rahim, twenty-six, of Boston, son of a well-known Muslim imam, for allegedly purchasing a hunting knife online and vowing to attack “boys in blue,” according to police officials. Like other black families, including those in Charleston, South Carolina, black Muslim families remain vulnerable to higher than average rates of joblessness, almost daily police shootings, random gun violence, and mass incarceration. Since the tragedy of 9/11 no other group has been more victimized by violence and death in the US-led War on Terror than Muslims.
Curtis, Edward E. IV. Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought. New York: State University of New York, 2002.
An overview of Islamic thought among African Americans. It includes chapters devoted to Edward Wilmot Blyden (b. 1832–d. 1912), Noble Drew Ali (b. 1886–d. 1929), Elijah Muhammad (b. 1897–d. 1975), Malcolm X (b. 1925–d. 1965), W. D. Muhammad (b. 1933–d. 2003), and Louis Farrakhan.
Dannin, Robert. Black Pilgrimage to Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
An overview primarily devoted to contemporary mainstream Sunni Islam among African Americans based on hundreds of interviews. This study offers evidence of an Islamic presence among African Americans by exploring one of the oldest Muslim communities based in Cleveland, Ohio. Its founder and patriarch had been active in Islam since the early 20th century.
Jackson, Sherman. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
A major work on mainstream Sunni Islam among African Americans. This richly informative study is authored by one of the foremost Arabic language and classical Islamic scholars in the United States.
Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. Boston: Beacon, 1961.
The first book ever published on black Muslims in the United States. This is a pioneering work devoted to the original NOI. It is widely cited and is the most authoritative treatment of the historical foundations of the original NOI. It remains a classic in the study of black Muslims in the United States.
McCloud, Aminah Beverly. Transnational Muslims in American Society. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.
An important study by a pioneering author and activist among Muslims in the United States. This study is an important transitional investigation that attempts to examine the impact of major demographic shifts under way in the United States and their impact on the US Muslim population.
Rashid, Samory. Black Muslims in the US: History, Politics, and the Struggle of a Community. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013.
Examines mainstream Sunni Islam among black Muslims in the Untied States from their arrival in the Americas to the present. Historically informed and theoretically grounded, this study challenges the Waves of Immigration theory (WOI) associated with the dominant paradigm governing “Islam in America” studies and offers an alternative approach to the study of Islam among blacks.
Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African American Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
This detailed and historically rich study remains a valuable resource for scholars, students, and collectors. It is theoretically intriguing and at the time of its first edition in 1997 would bring new impetus and insights to the study of Islam among African Americans. No collection of the historical works of Islam among African Americans is complete without this book.
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