By the second half of the twentieth century, Islam re-emerged as an ideological tool for African Americans fighting within civil rights and Black Power movements. Ironically, the proliferation of Black Islamic organizations in twentieth-century United States—most famously the Nation of Islam—often masks the gradual, centuries-long formation of said organizations, their ideologies, and their influence on modern Afro-diasporic identity.
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In the early seventh century, an Ethiopian man named Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ was born into slavery in Mecca to a man named Umayya bin Khalaf. Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ was among the first to accept Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and he endured severe persecution for his conversion to Islam. Bilāl was purchased and manumitted by Abu Bakr, ‘another of the Prophet’s earliest followers and the man who would become the first caliph of Islam after [Prophet] Muhammad’s death’. In his 2014 book, The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora, historian Edward E. Curtis describes Bilāl as one of Prophet Muhammad’s closest companions, most famously recognized as the first Mu’adhdhin, or the one who summons the faithful to prayer (adhan). Curtis writes that Bilāl’s significance is manifest as an emblem and proof of the Black world’s ‘legitimate role as moral leaders for Muslims worldwide.’
‘According to Islamic tradition,’ writes Curtis, ‘Bilāl was “gifted with a deep, melodious, resonant, and vibrant voice.”’ This voice was invoked by Prophet Muhammad himself, as he ‘decided that Muslims needed some sort of announcement that the prayers were about to begin. Many methods were considered—lighting a fire, blowing a horn, raising a flag, and using a bell or clapper,’ but all the methods were eventually rejected. In the Islamic tradition, Abdullah ibn Zayd, another of Prophet Muhammad’s companions, had a dream in which the adhan was made. The Prophet thus called upon Bilāl to learn from ibn Zayd and perform the first call in which he ‘climbed to the roof of the tallest house around the mosque in Medina,’ and from there issued the call.
‘Perhaps the greatest of these recitations was in 630 C.E.,’ writes Curtis, ‘from the top of the Kaʿba, the sacred house of worship that was, according to Islamic tradition, originally built by Ibrahim. After conquering Mecca without a battle, Prophet Muhammad entered the sacred house and then, emerging from the inside, asked Bilāl to issue the call to prayer.’ Quite significantly, in becoming Prophet Muhammad’s constant companion, Bilāl accompanied him ‘into every battle he fought,’ eventually tracking down and killing his own former enslaver, Umayya.
Bilāl’s life would continue to be evoked by African Muslims across the continent as Islam began expanding throughout the medieval period. One of the most famous invocations is found in the Epic of Sundiata Keita, the thirteenth-century founder and first ruler of the Mali empire. The significance of the call to Bilāl in the epic is not in the amount of time spent discussing him, but in its positionality. Within the first few sentences, Balla Fasséké, the speaker in the narrative, or Sundiata’s jeli, more commonly known as ‘griot’, begins:
Right at the beginning then…Bilali Bounama, ancestor of the Keitas, was the faithful servant of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). Bilali Bounama had seven sons of whom the eldest, Lawalo, left the Holy City and came to settle in Mali.
Bilāl’s name appears only twice more in the entire narrative. The former of these final two declarations gives insight to Malinké consciousness of their social status as an emerging regional power in a Muslim and West African context. Fasséké, at a feast meant to boost morale among Sundiata’s army striving to defeat the oppressive Sumaoro Kante and establish what would soon become the Mali empire, assures his audience that ‘the kingship of Sosso is but the growth of yesterday, whereas that of Mali dates from the time of Bilali.’ Fasséké is not only claiming that the kingship of Mali has greater chronological longevity, but also that through lineage to Bilāl, the emergence of Mali was in direct connection with the emergence of Islam. Thus, he asserts Mali as a progenitor of the powerful social and economic force that was developing across Africa.
MANSA MUSA I AND THE WEST AFRICAN ISLAMIC UNIFICATION
Though the Mali empire by far was not the first West African Muslim empire—the Senegambian kingdom of Takrur is believed to be the first to fully integrate the religion—Islam being an integral element of Mali’s very founding positioned Mali to become another emblem of Africans’ essentiality to Islam. Mansa Musa I, the fourteenth-century ruler of the Mali empire, has been heralded as one of the richest men in history and recognized in particular for his illustrious pilgrimage to Mecca—a requirement for all Muslims.
Though estimates range, it is believed that Mansa Musa I brought with him an entourage of 60,000 people, as well as enough gold to have inflated Arabian markets for at least 12 years. Upon his return, he built and renovated existing mosques and masjids within the empire. Under Mansa Musa I, Timbuktu became the famous city which officials, scholars, merchants and travellers from all over the Muslim world came to visit.
Mansa Musa I’s rule over Mali at its zenith also pre-empted another critical moment in African Islamic history. In African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa, historian Michael A. Gomez writes that Mansa Musa I realized the ‘unification of the Niger, Senegal and Gambia valleys,’ under Islam. Thus, Hausaland, to Mali’s east, or present-day northern Nigeria, saw an influx of Fulani/Fulbe people, descendants of the Torodbe from the already Islamized Senegambia, by way of Mali. These groups are the ancestors of ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, the Fulani Islamic scholar who led the effort in enforcing orthodox Islam in the region during the nineteenth century. As a result, Nigeria now represents Africa as the fifth country in the world with the highest Muslim population.
However, this interconnectedness of Islam in Africa extended into the diaspora centuries before the jihad of Dan Fodio. In fact, the Senegambian region, from which Dan Fodio’s ancestors hail, was the source of the very first Africans who landed in the Atlantic world. In Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, historian Sylviane A. Diouf writes that by 1447, a century after Mansa Musa’s I rule, Arab slave traders were no longer intermediaries for European slave markets, and that enslaved Senegambians were being brought directly from Africa to Spanish and Portuguese markets in particular.
By 1501, these Senegambians in Iberia ‘were the first to be introduced into the New World,’ Diouf explains. The indirect route from the Senegambia to the Atlantic world was purposeful, ‘direct trade with the African coast was forbidden for fear that with Africans coming straight from Africa, Islam would find its way in the colonies,’ she notes. Instead, Africans from the Senegambia, particularly from the Wolof empire, were brought to Iberia to receive ‘a simulacrum of Christian conversion, coupled with nominal religious instruction,’ giving them the title ladinos. Spanish and Portuguese aversion to Muslim influence emerged as a result of Moorish rule over the Iberian Peninsula for almost eight centuries.
Nevertheless, the trade in ladinos could not meet the demand, and shortly after, the trade in Africans brought directly from the coast, or bozales, began. Within 50 years, Diouf discusses, five royal decrees were passed to forbid the importation of African Muslims to the Spanish colonies, suggesting that, ‘the insistent reissuing of the prohibition shows that Muslims nevertheless continued to be imported and to cause concerns and problems in the New World.’
Though the first recorded slave rebellions noted by both Gomez and Diouf began in 1503 with the influx of bozales into the Atlantic, one key ‘problem’ was represented by the 1522 slave revolt in Hispaniola which was largely composed of Senegambians. In Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas, Gomez refers to this as the ‘first collective insurrection of Africans in the Americas.’ He also discusses how by the seventeenth century, Mande-speaking Africans known as Mandingas, the ethno-linguistic group responsible for the founding of the Mali empire, took the place of Wolof-descended Africans as the main group being brought to the Americas, indicating the ‘demise of the West African kingdom of Jolof’. Thus, both Gomez and Diouf stress the interconnectedness between history on the African continent and the types of Africans being brought to the Americas.
AFRICA’S ENSLAVED ELITE
Diouf also writes that though there is ‘no doubt that uneducated, poorly educated, semi-literate and illiterate men and women were among the Muslims of the Americas,’ evidence ‘strongly indicates that a large proportion of the deported Africans came from the intellectual elite.’ One such figure was Omar Ibn Said.
Ibn Said, Gomez writes, was Fulbe—the same ethnic group as Dan Fodio’s—and was ‘born in Futa Toro, along the middle Senegal River, and… captured and sold in the beginning of the nineteenth century,’ at the age of 31. From that point on, Omar became known as ‘Prince Moro’ or ‘Moreau’, and was brought to Charleston, South Carolina. Fully written in Arabic in 1831, Said’s autobiography was a further indication of his life in West Africa, where, as Gomez writes, ‘it was more common than not that West African Muslims were recipients of Islamic education and were therefore literate,’ and where Ibn Said boasted of owning ‘seventy slaves’. Though Ibn Said perhaps remains the most widely studied, other autobiographies by other free and enslaved African Muslims in the Atlantic world also include Ibrahima abd al-Raman (1828), Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (1834), Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua (1854), and Mohammed Ali ben Said (1867).
However, Ibn Said’s story as a quintessential Southern American, enslaved, African who also happened to be Muslim is in many ways reflective of the migration and slave-trading patterns of African Muslims in South America and the Caribbean with the North American South. Gomez writes that the ‘data concerning Muslims in the American South,’ indicate that the number of African Muslims there reached ‘into the thousands’ and that ‘certain aspects of twentieth-century Islamic movements among African Americans are arguably directly related to the experiences of these pioneers.’
ISHMAELITES AND THE NATION OF ISLAM
Though much is not known about the movement in its entirety, a late nineteenth-century group known as the Ishmaelites, which was led by Ben and Jennie Ishmael, was according to Gomez composed of ‘African, Native American and, “poor whites” and emerged to have a population of around 10,000 at the end of the 19th century.’ While the origins of the Ishmaelites are inexact, scholarship suggests they were ‘fugitives from slavery’ from various points in Tennessee, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky. This latter destination served as their first settlement sometime between 1785 and 1790.
The Ishmaelites took their name from Ishmael, a Biblical figure and the first son born to Abraham from his supposed extra-marital relationship with Hajar, his Egyptian servant who has also been described as the daughter of a pharaoh gifted to Abraham as a wife. Sarah, Abraham’s wife who was failing to become pregnant (presumably due to her old age) and fulfil the prophecy given to Abraham by God in which he would father nations, implored him to conceive with Hajar, who gave birth to Ishmael. Regretful of her choice, and after finally giving birth to her own son, Isaac, Sarah forced Hajar to flee into the desert with Ishmael. After much turmoil, the Bible declares that God appears to Hajar and Ishmael in the desert, giving them much needed water and promising that Ishmael would raise his own nations, settling them at what is now Mecca. It is suggested in religious literature that the Muslims are thus descended from Ishmael, son of Hajar, and it is often a point of contention in discussion around inheritance and the rights of the first-born.
Within a few decades, Ben and Jennie’s eldest son, John, led the community across the Ohio river, where they then settled in Indiana. Gomez writes that, ‘the Ishmaelites engaged in a collective behaviour out of the ordinary for most in the Northeast territory.’ They followed an ‘annual, triangular pattern of migration,’ between Indiana and Illinois, which was ‘marked by towns near each end of the triangular route that carried Islamic names.’ This was perhaps their imitation of the holy pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims, or Hajj. The concentration of African Muslims, Ishmaelites, and their supposed pilgrimage is within the American northeast and southeast making this region geographically foundational to modern conceptions of Islam among African Americans in the twentieth century.
Though some arguments within the global Black community have rejected Islam as another external interruption to African history and culture, Sheikh Mustafa Briggs, a scholar of African and Afro-diasporic Islamic history, emphasizes the interconnectedness of Blackness and Islam. In an interview with Sheikh Briggs, he explained the importance of understanding Mecca and pilgrimage as just one site and example of Blackness’ instrumentality to the development of the religion,
From the founding of the city of Mecca by a Black African Ancestor Hajar; to the call to prayer being called on top of the holiest site in Mecca by another Black African ancestor, Bilāl; to one of the wealthiest African rulers and human beings in history, Mansa Musa I, being heralded for his pilgrimage to Mecca, to the valiant martyr and freedom fighter Malcolm X also being transformed through following Mansa Musa I’s footsteps by completing his own pilgrimage to Mecca; all these events demonstrate the reality that ties the Black race to the black-covered Holy House in a very profound way.
Communities like the Ishmaelites were similarly reproducing centuries-old Islamic practices that were already embedded in the collective consciousness of many free and enslaved Africans who drew their ancestry from localities, regions, and empires deeply intertwined with Islam.
Nineteenth-century migration patterns from the American south to the American north on its eastern board prompted by war, industrialization, and desires for emancipation are connected to the migrations of southern African Americans to the American north in search of work in the 1930s. Curiously, it is these African American from the American south, particularly those who migrated to Detroit, who found themselves accepting the teachings of Fard Muhammad, the predecessor of Elijah Muhammad, and therefore the earliest progenitor of the Nation of Islam.
However, Gomez discusses how, before the rise of the Nation of Islam, Noble Drew Ali, the founder of Moorish Science Temple of America, became the true bridge between earlier African Muslim history in the diaspora and the twentieth-century associations of Islam with Black Power and civil rights movements. Due to the mythic dimensions that shroud his early life, it is only confirmed that Ali was born in what is now North Carolina in 1886 and according to Gomez, ‘achieved adolescence in a part of the South in close proximity to coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the gravitational centre of the antebellum Muslim community in North America.’
Much else about his life is unconfirmed until his establishment of Canaan Temple in Newark either in 1912 or 1913. Noble Drew Ali’s rise came at a time where many spiritual and religious philosophies were competing to reign among the new African American consciousness that had emerged after World War I, bringing figures like Marcus Garvey to the forefront. Over the next decade, Noble Drew Ali’s following was approximated to have reached 30,000 people, with temples all over the northeast and southeast, and most significantly, as Gomez writes, in Detroit, ‘the site of Elijah Muhammad’s initial encounter with W.D. Fard Muhammad around 1930.’
In line with both Noble Drew Ali and Fard Muhammad’s mysterious history, there is unconfirmed speculation which suggests that these two leaders encountered one another during the former’s rise. Gomez discusses that this encounter is also speculated to have helped Noble Drew Ali to refine and solidify his philosophy. He expounded on this philosophy in the Circle Seven Koran after relocating his temple to from Newark to Chicago in 1925. He also renamed the temple the Moorish Holy Temple of Science.
In the Circle Seven Koran, Noble Drew Ali draws on the Moorish history of African Muslims occupying the Iberian Peninsula, beginning with the premise that the ‘Moors of Morocco’ were the ‘founders of the Holy City of Mecca’, and that the Arabs were ‘the seed of Hagar’, (and therefore Ishmael) the Egyptian servant or wife of Ibrahim. The philosophy continues to draw on Biblical/Qur’anic history and Pangea-rooted geography, asserting that all ethnicities and cultures were once all Muslims, but are now separated by continents and oceans.
By the time Fard Muhammad emerged as a powerful ideological leader, Gomez writes, Noble Drew Ali had already died. Similar to Noble Drew Ali, Fard Muhammad’s earlier years are shrouded in lore and mystery, but recent scholarship and discovery have led to some breakthroughs. Gomez writes that Fard Muhammad was ‘born Wali Dodd Fard on February 25, 1891, in New Zealand,’ to a Pakistani father and a white Englishwoman, and moved to the United States around the same time that Noble Drew Ali established his Canaanite Temple in Newark. However, Fard Muhammad would present himself teaching in the streets of Detroit as born and coming from ‘the Holy City of Mecca’. Additional evidence regarding his numerous aliases suggests that Fard Muhammad was a UNIA member while living in San Francisco for a number of years, and thus it is further speculated that he was introduced to the teachings of Marcus Garvey and Noble Drew Ali ‘very formally’. From the confluence of these ideologies emerged the philosophy that drove the Nation of Islam which Fard Muhammad established.
Fard Muhammad began his teachings as a ‘street merchant…selling wares from house to house in a fashion similar to other “Arab and Syrian peddlers” in Detroit.’ His teachings, Gomez continues, were ‘beginning to address a fundamental need in the collective consciousness of the African-descended population, a deep desire to know something of their days before their humiliation and degradation.’
At first, Fard Muhammad used the Bible for the basis of his teachings, as did Noble Drew Ali, because that was the religious text most of his followers were familiar with; but not long after, he became critical of the text and used these criticisms to denunciate ‘Caucasians’, thus introducing the Qur’an as an alternative. Though some people began to break away from Fard Muhammad’s teachings at this juncture, his following consisted of 5,000 to 8,000 members by 1938. His followers included many families who were recent migrants to the American north from places like Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina—all within the earlier discussed geography of concentrated African Muslims. The rise of the ‘Nation’ came with material improvement: ‘dietary laws, the avoidance of intoxicants, and the rejection of certain beauty aids and sumptuary extravagance helped Muslims to rechannel their resources into homes and other property.’
ELIJAH MUHAMMAD, BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS AND CIVIL RIGHTS
Honourable Elijah Muhammad joined the Nation in its nascent years, and by 1932, he became a leading official. Elijah Muhammad breaks the chain of a mysterious past, though still shrouded in prescient lore, in which it is described that he was born in 1897 in George, growing up with ‘mulatto parents’ and, in particular, a Christian father and preacher. According to Gomez, Elijah Muhammad nevertheless was ‘convinced that the teachings of the church were in error, and as a protest against the “hypocrisy” of its members…refused to become a member until apparently forced to do so at age fourteen.’
In his young adult years, Elijah Muhammad faced economic struggles as did many Blacks who immigrated from the American south in search of work. However, it was one Spring in 1931 that Elijah Muhammad attended his first sermon of Fard Muhammad in Detroit, and according to Gomez, it ‘was after this sermon, in the greeting line’ that the former shook the hand of the latter, asking him, ‘you are the one we read in the Bible that he would come on the last day under the name of Jesus…you are that one?’ It must be mentioned here that Islam comes as the ‘final revelation’, confirming everything in both the Hebrew Torah and the Christian Bible. However, Islamic thought departs on the divinity of Jesus, confirming his status as a prophet but rejecting him as the son or manifestation of God.
Elijah Muhammad would continue to rise through the ranks of the Nation after this first encounter until Fard Muhammad’s mysterious arrest and alleged deportation for murder, with their last known encounter in Chicago in June of 1934. Elijah Muhammad would thus relocate the Nation’s headquarters in Chicago as the ‘Allah temple of Islam’. The Nation’s rise would therefore correspond with the emerging Black consciousness that came to a head in the 1960s, and with Elijah Muhammad’s philosophies which would increasingly become independent from Fard Muhmmad.
A pillar of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings was that ‘Blacks in North America were actually the scions of members of the lost tribe of Shabazz, who had been stolen from Mecca itself by slave traders approximately 400 years ago.’ Though it considerably departed from the teachings of those Noble Drew Ali and Fard Muhammad, the attention to Black people’s origins in Mecca, and thus imploring a ‘return to their religion and native tongue, Islam and Arabic,’ all fell in line with the idea that ‘Blacks in North America were in need of recovering a culture based on astronomy and advanced mathematics, and acquiring a lifestyle in which their homes were kept clean and their bodies free of all intoxicants and devoid of such toxic meats as duck, goose, possum, catfish, and, above all, swine.’
BETWEEN ISLAM, AFRICA AND THE BLACK DIASPORA
The Nation of Islam would continue to rise throughout the second half of the twentieth century as a driver of this goal. The Nation of Islam emerged during the Civil Rights era, and eventually became embedded in Black Power movements. The desire to better oneself, and the perhaps distinctly African American urge to reconnect to a lost past made the Nation of Islam an attractive prospect. Malcolm X, for example, came from a disquieted past of crime before dedicating himself to the ideologies of the Nation of Islam.
After his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1963, Malcolm X broke from the Nation and adopted the traditional practice of Islam. Despite this break, the Nation acted as a gateway to the centuries old practice of Islam. Through the Nation, Islam remerged and was transformed in the twentieth century as an ultimate self-help, heightening the Black consciousness of Malcolm X and Black people across the world, as it did in earlier moments in world history.
The emergence of Islam in the Black community was thus not just a response to the racism and desperation African Americans faced in the twentieth century. In the same interview, Sheikh Briggs reflects on the ‘beautiful and interesting relationship between Islam, Africa and the diaspora, beginning with Islam being used as a tool to free and empower Bilāl in early Arabian society, to it being used as a means to preserve and spread culture, history and legacy in Medieval West Africa.’ Alongside increased calls for abolition, emancipation, and civil rights in the Atlantic world, Sheikh Briggs continues, Islam remained ‘a tool of liberation and resistance in the post-Columbian Americas, holding steadily as a tool for cultural renaissance for Black people during the Civil Rights era until the present day.’
Thus, Black Islam in the Americas has a long, interconnected history that spans both time and geography, beginning with the story of Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ. Bilāl’s fateful role as a companion of Prophet Muhammad, which reverberated across medieval Africa with the early sparks of racial consciousness, and remained with those Africans forcibly migrated into the Atlantic. South American and Caribbean geography later interlocked with the geography of the American South, concentrating African Muslims there—thereupon beginning the contemporary history of the multiplicitous repurposing of Islam in line with economic and social struggles of the era⎈
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