More Black Americans Finding Peace,
Freedom through living the life of Islam
By Dinah Wisenberg Brin, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Saturday, November 2, 1996
Posters of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali adorn the walls at Hakim's Bookstore, a shop in a black neighborhood in west Philadelphia. The books have titles such as The Blessed Women of Islam. The greeting cards feature ebony faces.
Shop owner Dawud Hakim exchanges a customary Islamic greeting with a customer wearing a ``Property of Allah'' T-shirt:
``As salaam alaikum,'' Arabic for ``peace be unto you.''
Behind the counter, Safia Muhammad, her face hidden by the traditional Muslim veil, takes a call from her 15-year-old son, a top student at a mostly black Islamic school.
Muhammad, 49, has a quick response when asked how, as a single mother for the past dozen years, she has raised three successful children. ``Islam, girl!''
From bookstores to Muslim vendors to mosques to women on the streets wearing veils, the Islamic presence in black urban communities across the nation is growing.
There are a variety of reasons, ranging from the religion's African roots to a perception among some blacks that Christianity is the slaveholder's religion.
``You can just walk down the street and see that there are more Muslims,'' says Rafiq K. Iddin, assistant educational director of the Sister Clara Muhammad School in Philadelphia. ``Once upon a time I knew all the Muslims. Now I don't.''
While precise figures are difficult to obtain, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World estimates that 90 percent of the converts to Islam in the United States are blacks and that blacks comprise an estimated one-third of all the 3 million to 4 million American Muslims.
Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary-general of the Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America, cites higher numbers. He estimates blacks comprise half of the nation's 8 million Muslims, with members of the vocal and controversial Nation of Islam -- perhaps the best-known group of Muslim blacks -- constituting a small minority.
``It's growing. There's no question it's growing,'' says Khalid Abdullah Tariq Al-Mansour of San Antonio, a black lawyer and orthodox Islamic lecturer.
``More and more inner-city Islamic centers are emerging,'' Syeed says. ``That's a new phenomenon.''
Muslims see their religion as the fulfillment of the Judaism and Christianity that it followed. The seventh-century prophet Mohammed is revered as Allah's final messenger.
Muslims pray five times a day -- a requirement that has created challenges for urban schools -- and follow a strict code that prohibits alcohol, pork and gambling.
Traditional Islam also emphasizes racial equality, a facet that appeals to American blacks.
``The fact is that for some African-Americans, the sense was very much that the Christianity they were raised with was very much the Christianity of the oppressor, the Christianity of the slaveholder,'' says John Esposito, religion professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., director of its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia.
Imam Darnell Karim, 60, a lifelong Muslim and religious leader at the Harvey Islamic Center in a middle-class Chicago suburb, attributes Islam's popularity to a need for identity and the recovery from slavery.
``We had a history of civilization, a history of culture, a history of refinement, a history of science, a history of business,'' Karim says, ``and these things had been taken from us.''
Hakim, the 65-year-old owner of the Philadelphia bookstore, heard those ideas when a friend took him to a Nation of Islam lecture more than 30 years ago.
``That lecture began to open my eyes,'' says Hakim, who first joined the Nation of Islam and later, following the example of Malcolm X, became an orthodox Muslim.
Habibullah Moody, a Philadelphia street vendor and a former Methodist minister, heard the call from Allah 15 years ago.
``Christianity doesn't satisfy the black man,'' Moody says. Citing centuries of slavery under white Christians, he asks, ``Now why would the black man want to keep that?''
Islam has a special appeal for black men in contemporary society, according to Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and African studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
'`Islam provided for them an alternative to the Christian church and it also provided an affirmation of their own manhood, gave them leadership positions,'' Mamiya says. ``Islam does sort of emphasize the male role a lot.
``Women have been willing to convert partly because Islam also emphasizes a stable family, and that appeals to them.''
The famous boxer Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, is among the celebrities who changed their names when they converted to Islam. NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was Lew Alcindor. Former student militant H. Rap Brown is now Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, leader of an Atlanta mosque.
One who didn't change his name is WBA heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, who became a Muslim while serving three years in an Indiana prison on a rape conviction.
Sami-Aman Khalifah, the Muslim chaplin at the Auburn, N.Y., state prison, who was born Samuel Joseph Robinson Jr., says changing your name is a matter of personal choice, not a requirement.
``One reason could be they may have a name which may not have a good meaning [like Hawk or Hogg] or they may want to identify more with Islam by their name,'' Khalifah says.
John Voll, deputy director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, explains that Muslim converts throughout history have changed their names.
``It is not unique to African-American Muslims,'' he says.
The religion gives blacks a feeling of control over their circumstances at a time they feel abandoned by the government and their leaders, says Yvonne Haddad, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
``African-Americans are fed up with the violence, fed up with the terrible situation in the ghetto area, and they want to do something about it,'' she says.
Blacks point to the Islamic faith of their slave ancestors. Scholars estimate that as many as 20 percent of slaves brought to America were Muslims. But Muslim movements truly started to take hold in America's black communities in the early part of this century with the emergence of charismatic leaders.
``There has been a steady growth of Islam in the black community and it really surged in the 1960s and 1970s,'' Mamiya says. ``That's when we saw a number of African-American-led Muslim movements emerge.''
While most Muslim blacks identify with the traditional Sunni Islam practiced worldwide, the community's history is entwined with the Nation of Islam, founded about 1930.
Mainstream Muslims reject the Nation's doctrines of racial separatism, as well as its teaching that founder W.D. Fard was Allah and his successor, Elijah Muhammad, was Allah's messenger. But many blacks have turned to Sunni through the Nation -- Malcolm X, in the 1960s, among the first.
Malcolm X, a pre-eminent minister, split with the Nation of Islam shortly before his assassination at the hands of two members in 1965.
``He did, in my opinion, more than anyone in recent years to make the black community aware of Islam,'' says Al-Mansour, who also credits boxer Muhammad Ali and, more recently, rap artists.
After the death of the Nation's longtime leader, Elijah Muhammad, in 1975, his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, led his followers toward Sunni Islam.
Warith Deen Muhammad's followers, estimated at several hundred-thousand, constitute the largest group of black orthodox Muslims in the country, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia.
Today, orthodox Muslim leaders say, the Nation, under fiery leader Louis Farrakhan, continues to draw new black converts to orthodox Islam by bringing attention to the religion.
But basketball great Abdul-Jabbar is among those who have little use for Farrakhan's rhetoric.
``He uses racist demagoguery instead of trying deal with real problems that need real solutions,'' Abdul-Jabbar said in a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine.
``And I don't respect his constant attempts to make people angry at each other. Besides, what [the Nation of Islam] is talking about is not Islam. I don't take them very seriously.''
Iddin, of the Sister Clara Muhammad School in Philadelphia, is among those who started with the Nation of Islam, then accepted Sunni Islam.
``I saw the way of helping my people, helping African Americans,'' he says.
Iddin helps run elementary and secondary school, where the disciplined look of the boys' white shirts and dress pants and the girls' scarves contrast with the surrounding graffiti-marred neighborhood.
Islam, he says, provides a strong moral structure, allows blacks to get away from racism, and offers them career paths beyond sports and entertainment.
``Islam allows us to get involved in other areas of life,'' Iddin says. ``There's no slave stigma attached to it.''
In Harvey, Ill., Imam Karim says his 4-year-old mosque is composed about half-and-half of new converts and longtime followers of Warith Deen Muhammad, his childhood friend.
''People become converted to Islam by example,'' Karim says. ``We go out into communities and try to be problem-solvers.''
With an estimated one-third of all young black men incarcerated, according to some estimates, many also exposed to Islam through an active prison ministry.
In his nine years as chaplain at the maximum-security prison in Auburn, N.Y., Khalifah estimates he has overseen more than 100 conversions. About half the inmates continue practicing Islam when they leave, leading a life free of crime, Khalifah says.
``The criminal cycle is broken with Islam,'' says Syeed, of the Islamic Society.