For a while now, we have heard that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the modern day world. For millions around the globe, it’s a way of life, with some very serious in their practice, and others making baby steps. Although there is no official count of how many Muslims live in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center there are about 3.5 million Muslim Americans. Many non-Muslims believe that the majority of Muslims are Arabs. This, in fact, is not correct. In America, African Americans make up a majority of Muslims — and despite this statistic, many don’t know much about them.
Although many forced over from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade were Muslim, slave owners forbade any practice of a religion other than Christianity. Forced to decide between practicing Islam or survival, the practice of Islam in America among African Americans began to dwindle over the generations to come. Islam was re-introduced in 1930 in a much different form to African Americans through the Nation of Islam (NOI), established by Elijah Mohammed in Detroit, Michigan. The NOI started a movement towards getting African Americans off the street and into a better way of life.
The NOI taught a life of discipline, spirituality, and wholesomeness. Years later, the leadership transitioned with Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammed, turning to mainstream Islam and taking a large following of African Americans with him. Today, many African American Muslims have this background of being introduced to Islam through the teachings of the NOI — but what about their children? What are their stories, their struggles, how did they decide that Islam was right for them?
With parents coming from the Nation of Islam or converting at a young age, the next generation were the first Muslims brought up from birth in a religion that was different than the rest of their family. Those who are the first generation of “born Muslims” — those born into in Islam because it is the religion of their parents — in the family arguably have the harder job — to actively choose Islam for themselves after being born into the religion. For them, practicing Islam can mean everything from being politically active to being the best Islamic example in their communities. One of the most attractive aspects of the African American Muslim society is how much community life and family life is emphasized. I spoke with four African American Muslims who discussed their journey into Islam, and it was intriguing.
“My experience with Islam was a daily way of life,” stated Na’Aisha Austin (35), who lives in Atlanta but is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. “As a child, we attended Clara Mohammed [Schools] for Kindergarten and Sunday School. Later on I taught as a teen mentor to the younger children. We were active in our small community which was tight knit and seemed to be bursting with life at the time. Islam was always a part of my identity – how we dressed, the prayers we said, how we studied, what we ate and beyond.” This desire to be an active part of community life was passed on from parents who had to create a community in order to thrive as new Muslims. For many first generation African American Muslims this emphasis on community life and Islamic education is what keeps them grounded.
“I grew up Salafi, [which is] very strict and extremist. It almost made me not want to be Muslim,” admitted Amirah Witten (21), who lives in Atlanta. “Honestly, moving to Atlanta and going to Warith Deen Mohammed High school saved my deen. I [was] exposed to a whole new way to practice. I never knew there were so many Black Muslims until I moved to Atlanta.” Because the parents of first generation Muslims didn’t have access to Islamic education growing up, there were efforts to establish a strong foundation in faith and the fundamentals of Islam. The next generation then became more knowledgeable than the last, and sometimes first generation African American Muslims know more about Islam’s history and practices than people who have been Muslim for several generations. However, occasionally when interacting with Muslims from other cultures there remains a sense of wonder and disbelief about African Americans being Muslim.
Austin remembers her high school experience, where she attended a predominately White school with a large South Asian and Arab population and a small percentage of African Americans. Only she, her sister, and one other student were African American Muslims. She recalls, “[I] always [had] to prove and reassert my Islam. I’m just as Muslim… why am I being judged? [It was] because I was Black and didn’t fit the image.”
Even growing up, the idea of what a good, practicing Muslim looked like was not one of African Americans. “[I] grew up thinking [being] Muslim meant [being] Pakistani or Arab and if you were Black you were Salafi,” admitted Witten.
Quran Abdul-Khaaliq, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, recalled a moment with a co-worker as she was leaving for Jummah (Friday prayer) that turned into a teaching moment. “Once, when I worked for the local government agency, when I was leaving each Friday to go to Jummah and come back to work, one of my Turkish co-workers who was Muslim told our supervisor that I wasn’t going to Jumuah. When I asked him why he said that, he said because women don’t go to Jummah. When I asked him to show it to me in the Qur’an that women should not go to Jummah, of course, he could not, and the new conversation became on living Islam out loud through the lens of the Qur’an,” she said. What is crucial for first generation Muslims is learning as much as possible about Islam in order to be resolute in their religion.
Atallah Mohammed (22), who lived in Georgia all her life, explained that her maternal grandparents came into Islam through the NOI, and her father converted to Islam in college. Being educated in Islam meant learning Arabic, an unfamiliar but beautiful language. “My siblings and I spent a lot of time at Sunday school, taleem, and Arabic classes offered at different masjids. I spent a few months in Turkey when I was 16. In Turkey I spent a lot of time reflecting, praying and asking Allah to strengthen my iman and to help me believe in my heart that Islam is right for me, and He did just that! Being Muslim is a huge part of who I am today,” Mohammed stated.
Being inquisitive about your religion and learning more about its intricacies is a tradition that first generation African American Muslims come from. Their parents wouldn’t have accepted Islam without doing all their research, and this drive to know more was passed on. It leads them to making different decisions. Some choose to accept Islam fully, some choose not to practice, and for some the constant searching and learning helps them better understand for themselves certain rules, like if wearing hijab is necessary.
When discussing her hijab journey, Austin noted that, “Growing up I always saw and admired the beauty of my mother in her various styles of hijab: regal head wraps, vibrant khimars, silky shaylas draped and more… I moved to Atlanta with a huge community of Muslimahs from all walks of life and it seemed at the time easy to embrace with more confidence and joy. Over the years, with research and introspection and prayer, I began to wear it less, though it is still a huge part of my Islamic identity.”
For many African American first generation Muslims, wearing hijab is a choice, one that takes a lot of thought and consideration. For Abdul-Khaaliq, who grew up in the Nation, and then transitioned as a teen to mainstream Islam with her parents, hijab was something she grew into.
“My religion and love of Allah is not in a piece of cloth,” Abdul-Khaaliq asserts. “That is a hard message to get across. There are so many that believe that my ‘righteousness’ hinges on my covering of my hair. I believe in modesty and dressing to please Allah, Most Gracious; and that has been my approach.” She explained that when she was in college and did not have her hair covered, she remembered Muslim men approaching her questioning her lack of hijab. “When I was seeking a mate, one of the main questions I asked to see where a man’s head was at was, ‘How do you feel about a woman that does not cover her hair?’”
Regardless of how they feel about certain parts of Islam, these African American Muslims born into Islam have grown to understand the essence of the religion and have a desire to pass on these teachings to their children. Although they struggled each in their own way to accept Islam for themselves, they establish Islam more firmly in their families and future generations to come because of the foundation their parents built for them.
“First and foremost, I am more confident in what I believe,” said Muhammad. “I look forward to wearing my hijab everyday to the point where 9 times out of 10 I plan my outfit around which hijab I’m planning to wear the next day. When I am out and about and a non-Muslim approaches me with questions about Islam it makes my day. I can answer their questions with no hesitation or doubt in my heart.” This kind of confidence and peace is what Abdul-Khaaliq wants to pass on to the next generation of Muslims in her family.
At the end of the day, the fundamental spirit of Islam will be preserved from first generation of Muslims to the second, third, and onward. “The most important thing I learned about Islam from watching my parents is the idea of peace,” said Abdul-Khaaliq. “We must be peaceful people in everything we do. Peace doesn’t come easy, especially in a world that is full of chaos, fitnah, and trial after trial…We need stronger families, stronger communities, and strength that builds more strength. One will naturally live and be a Muslim. It won’t feel forced, superficial, or unnatural. It will be a heavenly joy. That is what must be passed on generation after generation.”