Have you ever wondered about the diverse stories and history of Islam among African Americans? This article introduces 5 books that unpack this rich history.
Spanning from slavery to the present day, these books reveal the trials and triumphs of Black Americans who found solace, activism, and identity in Islam. They illuminate topics like:
- How some enslaved Africans maintained their Islamic faith despite unimaginable hardship
- The appeal of the teachings of Islam in confronting racism
- The challenges facing young Black American Muslims in a post-9/11 society rife with suspicion of Islam
Together, these books prompt reflection on important questions about the links between Black and Islamic identity within the American experience. Each book contributes unique insights into this centuries-long story of struggle and belonging.
As conversations around religious and cultural diversity in America intensify, these books further our understanding of how Islam has indelibly shaped Black communities and the nation’s identity. They unpack the rich history behind a multifaceted American Muslim reality.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Alex Haley, is a key work in the exploration of Islam within the African American context. This classic autobiography traces the life of Malcolm X, from his early struggles to his transformation into a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam. The narrative is a compelling journey of self-discovery, social activism, and spiritual awakening. Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam and his role in the Nation of Islam shed light on the intersections of race, religion, and identity. The book not only serves as a personal memoir but also as a historical document, capturing the dynamism of the civil rights era and the influence of Islam in shaping the African American experience. The life of Malcolm X and this book have inspired many to learn about Islam and how it can reform someone to be a legendary figure like Malcolm X.
Servants of Allah provides a historical journey of African Muslims, tracing their path from West Africa to the Americas. Contrary to the assumption that their Muslim faith was quickly absorbed into the Christian milieu of the Americas, Sylviane A. Diouf’s meticulously-researched book shows that Islam not only persisted during slavery but flourished on a significant scale. Despite the challenges of enslavement, many Muslims managed to adhere to the precepts of their religion. Diouf portrays them as literate, urban, and well-traveled individuals who, drawing on their organization and the strength of their beliefs, played a crucial role in prominent slave uprisings. Despite their notable contributions to the African Diaspora’s history and cultures, the Muslims have been largely overlooked.
Servants of Allah sheds light on the impact of Islam on both individual practitioners and communities. While the religion did not survive in its orthodox form in the Americas, its influence is discernible in certain religions, traditions, and artistic creations among people of African descent. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the history of Islam in America, especially as it relates to African Americans.
In this seminal work, Sherman Jackson provides profound insights into this phenomenon by analyzing how Islam uniquely spread among black Americans as a theology of black protest against racial injustice and as a means to redefine black identity in the face of white supremacy. Jackson traces the history of Islam among African Americans and explores the shifting perceptions after an influx of immigrant Muslims in the 1960s. He advocates for preserving the distinct “Black American Muslim” spiritual tradition that organically developed out of the black struggle in America, while also reforming and enhancing this tradition to meet the needs of black Americans. Furthermore, Jackson stresses the importance of confronting systemic racism in the public sphere while nurturing a personal spiritual tradition deeply rooted in the black American experience.
Omar ibn Said (1770–1863) was an educated Muslim scholar from West Africa who was enslaved in North Carolina for over 50 years, serving in the household of James Owen. In 1831, he wrote a brief autobiography in Arabic – the only known autobiographical narrative written in Arabic by an enslaved person in North America. Although his enslavers gave him an Arabic Bible and claimed he converted to Christianity, Omar continued writing extensively in Arabic on Islamic theology. However, for over two centuries, amateur scholars failed to accurately understand his writings, instead propagating distortions.
In this book, Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst provide the first authoritative translations of Omar’s surviving works, identifying his quotes from Islamic texts and clarifying misconceptions. They emphasize that Omar maintained his Islamic faith and theology despite enslavement, evidenced by his sophisticated engagement with complex religious ideas in his writings. By restoring Omar’s suppressed voice and agency as an author, Lo and Ernst recenter his role within 19th century literary and religious thought networks, challenging contemporary notions of slave experiences. Overall, this book crucially reconstructs the life and intellectual contributions of an enslaved Muslim scholar in America whose voice was silenced for too long.
Muslims in America have been an integral part of the nation’s history since the 16th century, as revealed in this comprehensive exploration by an expert historian. The book, “Muslims in America,” uncovers the diverse lives of individuals, including African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, European, black, white, Hispanic, and others who have embraced Islam. Starting with the narrative of Job Ben Solomon, an 18th-century African American Muslim slave, the author traces the narratives of Muslims in various contexts, such as North Dakota sodbusters, African American converts in the 1920s, Muslim barkeepers in Toledo, and post-1965 professional immigrants from Asia and Africa.
The book skillfully portrays the richness of Islamic theology, ethics, and rituals in the United States, emphasizing how the Islamic faith has been woven into the fabric of everyday life for countless individuals. “Muslims in America” not only recovers the place of Muslims in the broader American narrative but also explores their active participation and influence in key historical movements, from the abolition movement to the Great Migration of African Americans, urbanization, religious revivalism, and the contemporary war on terror. This single-author history addresses a significant gap, providing essential background on one of the least understood groups in the United States, showcasing the dynamic and enduring presence of Muslims throughout American history.