Rise of Black Muslims in America
In the modern world, the influence of the religious factor on public life and political processes grows. In the context of globalization, there is the strengthening of interaction between different peoples, cultural communities, and religious systems. Considerable attention is paid to the problem of relations between Christianity and Islam as two of the most influential religions of the world. In this context, the question of the existence and forms of Islam in the United States becomes particularly relevant.
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Significant changes that occur in many areas of life (political, economic, cultural, and religious) of the state, which can be called the leader of the Western world and constantly reiterates its commitment to the principles of democracy, have a significant impact on the whole world. In turn, the changes related to the religious map of the United States are connected with various political and social processes that take place outside the country. These changes often lead to numerous conflicts affecting the interests of almost all American citizens.
Among the industrialized countries, the United States is one of the most religious ones in terms of demographics. The most popular churches are Catholicism and Protestantism. Other religions including Islam are represented in the United States as well. Earlier being the smallest religious group in terms of a number of the representatives, the Muslim community has increased dramatically over the last century. Today, Islam is one of the most popular religions in America as the speed of its propagation in the United States evinces. Despite the fact that the first article of the U.S. Constitution refers to the protection of freedom of conscience, Islam remains the owner of the image of “different” faith. The paper will discuss the origin, features, and effects of the spreading of black Islam in the United States as well as the attitude towards black Muslims.
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History of Islam in the United States
There were several migration waves of Muslims to the United States. The first one was recorded in the early 17th century when the first Muslims came to the territory of the United States with the first slaves from the African continent (Tottoli, 2015). Today, in the country, there are three groups of Muslims. The first one constitutes black Muslims who are African-Americans. People who can be called “white Muslims” represent the second group. It includes Arabs and the representatives of various nations of the Middle East. The third group includes Asians who are mostly Muslims from the region of Southeast Asia. What is more, the followers of Islam in the United States are immigrants from Latin America. The immigrants also contribute to the rapid growth in the number of Muslims in the US.
It is necessary to note that within the African-American culture, there is no single religious tradition. On the contrary, this ethnic group includes representatives of various religions. However, in the era of slavery, the slaves were subjected to total Christianization, which was often conducted in a violent manner. For this reason, today, it is difficult to define the original religion of African slaves, among which, of course, there were the representatives of traditional African beliefs as well as Muslims and, perhaps, Christians. Forced Christianization greatly limited the preservation of the original slaves’ religious affiliation. However, despite the pressure of the slave owners and the practice of forced conversion to Christianity, people continued to practice their traditional religions and maintain the cultural characteristics of their nations on foreign soil. Thus, the religious practices of Africans continued to exist in North America (Tottoli, 2015). The elements of traditional beliefs remained in syncretic cults mingling with each other and complemented various components of Christianity.
In turn, the slaves of the second and third generations developed their own culture, which was formed at the junction of the memories of the native African culture, American realities, and their own aspirations as well as expectations. The essence of the above-mentioned religion lies in the fact that African Americans processed received religious beliefs in accordance with their own interests and opinions. It often formed a new religious tradition. For example, Christianity in African-American communities took quite specific features by accepting the ideas of liberation and self-identification.
The concept of black Muslims is referred to as the common name for a group of Islamic sects, the main supporters of which are the representatives of the Negroid race. The movement of black Muslims or black Islam originates from the United States. “The two first American Muslim movements, the Moorish Science Temple founded by Noble Drew Ali and the Nation of Islam founded by Wali Fard Muhammad and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, sought to reclaim Islamic heritage for African Americans” (Berg, 2005, p. 686). As it was mentioned before, the black Muslims in America appeared in the early 16th century when the slaves who were the members of the Islamic religion were brought to the new continent from Africa (Tottoli, 2015). In the early 20th century, however, the so-called “black Islam” has gained a new feature. It started to represent nationalist ideas. Therefore, Islam has slowly become a religion of resistance.
In the United States, during the census, the questions on religious affiliation have not been set. Therefore, the total number of Muslims and the real rate of the spread of the religion in the United States are unknown and based on indirect evidence or expert opinions: “Estimated at between 5 and 7 million, the Muslim American population is one of the fastest-growing religious minorities in the country” (Jamal, 2005, p. 525). Currently, there are about 10 different groups of black Muslims. The nation of Islam became a quite influential and strong organization in the 1960s; however, the split between the nationalists and supporters of more orthodox forms of Sunni Islam happened (Gibson, 2012).
One of the most famous leaders of African-American Muslims was Malcolm X who replaced his Christian name to Moslem El Hadji Malik El-Shabazz (Tottoli, 2015). He was a brilliant orator and great organizer whose performances were filled with bellicose rhetoric. He advocated the return of the dignity of his race and demanded the punishment of the white race, which was considered guilty of long-term oppression of blacks. What is more, he refused to use the U.S. passport believing that it was contrary to Islam. Earlier, he served as a representative of the Nation of Islam. Later, he intended to leave the organization and join the movement of orthodox Sunnis. However, it has not happened. Muslim Brotherhood that considered him a traitor killed Moslem El Hadji Malik El-Shabazz (Gibson, 2012). After his death and especially after the posthumous publication of his memoirs, Malcolm X became one of the heroes of African-American youth.
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After the death of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, Nation of Islam split. The son of Muhammad headed the adherents of orthodox Sunni Islam whose popularity was growing. The nation of Islam has retained its influence but it is increasingly seen as a marginal group with extremist rhetoric, the backbone of which is former criminals. It is significant that the majority of African Americans accept Islam not in mosques but in prisons while serving their sentences.
Features of Black Islam
The doctrine of all sects of black Muslims is based on the Koran. However, dogmas are often much altered and sometimes even rewritten. Sunnah is accepted only by individual sects. The works of the ideologists of the faith are also recognized. They have a syncretic character. In addition, the black Muslims accept particular scriptures of other religions. The common features of all groups of black Muslims are specific interpretations of the history of Islam and Christianity as well as proclaiming Islam the religion of the black race as opposed to Christianity that is the religion of the whites. A form of racism in reverse characterizes them. The African Americans who support black Islam defined themselves as God's chosen people. Certain sects proclaim the whites unfaithful.
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All groups of black Muslims hold the position of monotheism although they do not recognize or highly distort many Islamic dogmas. Only a few sects, for example, black Hanafi leave them unchanged. A number of sects adopted particular provisions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions. The figures of the founders often considered prophets or even the sons of God who have received the revelation from above play an important role in the creeds of nearly all sects. Dietary restrictions generally correspond to orthodox Muslim but they are significantly expanded in some groups. Black Muslims adhere to the so-called “Sunni mosque.” The influence of Shi'ism and Sufism almost cannot be traced.
Religious practices of black Muslims significantly differ from the orthodox Muslims’ ones. Similarly to the orthodox Muslims, their meetings are held either in mosques or in special areas, usually on Fridays. They commit common prayer and read the Koran or its “corrected” version as well as works by the ideologists of the sects. At the end of the service, there is a sermon. In many sects of black Muslims, there is the likeness of the clergy, to which the responsibility of meetings is given.
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It should be noted that the socio-economic status of American Muslims is higher than that of the Muslims who immigrated to Europe. Muslims living in the U.S. are educated better and focused on career development. Unlike many Muslims in Europe, American Muslims do not feel isolated from political and public life. However, the majority of Muslims arriving in the United States experience considerable difficulties, which are related to the fragmentation of the Muslim community formed mainly along ethnic lines in the country. To smooth the contradictions between various Muslim traditions, the attempts to create general Muslim American organizations, which often were intended to act as the representatives of all the American Muslims in dialogue with American society and government, were repeatedly made.
Image of Black Islam in the United States
The presence of a strong Islamic community, a significant portion of which constitutes African Americans who profess Islam, is one of the catalysts of the conflicts occurring in the country. African Americans made specific religious views, which some people define as a black religion, a part of their culture. The main constituent elements of this religion are striving for the actualization of the idea of independence of the black population of America from the whites as well as sharpening of racial issues, which create the ground for many political, social, and religious conflicts. Thus, due to the significant transformation of Islamic dogmas, African-American Muslims faced the problem of self-identification that actualized the questions of the place and role of the African-American community in the U.S. society and the attitude of Muslim immigrants to the African-American Muslim communities. For African Americans, the adoption of Islam was not just the transition from one religion to another but the protest against the American society and government.
The black Muslims are hostile to the adherents of other religions and sometimes even support their physical elimination. The movement of black Muslims sharply radicalized when Elijah Muhammad, the most intransigent Farad’s pupil, headed it. He proclaimed his teacher the living embodiment of God and declared himself to be a prophet. Muhammad considered the creation of an independent black state inside the United States the main objective of the black Muslims. He designed the messianic doctrine of the exclusivity of the black race. Actually, the Nation of Islam popped to the forefront as its preachers started to work with the outcasts of society: vagrants, drug addicts, thieves, prostitutes, and criminal teenagers. Certainly, it could not have a positive impact on the formation of the ideas of black Islam.
Black Muslims created a terrorist organization called Jamaat ul-Fukra (Jihad Council in North America). Over time, it has extended the impact on Pakistan, which made the organization closely linked with Pakistani intelligence. The organization created isolated settlements in rural areas to practice faith and protect itself from the influence of Western culture. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, in the African-American culture, two opposite socio-political movements were formed. One of them was aimed at the integration of blacks into American society, and other African Americans were in favor of separation. Black Islam is the result of the separation of African-American trends of thought as well as the absence of significant Muslim diaspora in the United States.
These cases lead to the emergence of negative attitudes, stereotypes, and discrimination of Muslims in U.S. society. Perceiving terrorist acts as the consequence of spreading Islam in the United States played a great role in it. “Following September 11, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported a 1,700 percent increase of hate crimes against Muslim Americans between 2000 to 2001” (Khan & Ecklund, 2012). It has shaped the negative perception and image of black Muslims. The events of September 11 have become an important factor in exacerbating intercultural relations and the catalyst of Islamophobia in the United States. It was the moment when Americans began to consider Islam and people who practice it a threat. A major role in this process belongs to mass media.
Despite the increase in negative stereotypes against the Islamic minority in American society, it is important to note that its framework in the United States is greater than in many other countries around the world. The socio-political system provides the ability to protect minorities. This protection is based on the institutions of public control over the activity of bureaucracy on the part of society. It enables public and religious organizations to engage in dialogue with the government and actively participate in the public and political life of the country.
Despite the fact that today the Muslim diaspora in the United States is not united that can be explained through ethnic and religious differences, the U.S. Muslim community is one of the most dynamically developing in quantity and quality terms as well as in terms of organizing its activities on the West. It should also be noted that the United States has rich practical experience in the political and legal regulation of the situations involving ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. The unique American experience lies in the fact that legal measures are combined with the complex of socio-political and economic tools that aim to eliminate discrimination. At the end of the 20th century, the ideas of political correctness, tolerance, and so-called “positive discrimination” became widespread.
The relations in the sphere of religion present a significant part of the public relations in general. They are conducted through a system of interaction at all possible levels ranging from the contact between ordinary people to that between the leaders of various confessions and denominations. At the same time, the relationships in the spiritual realm have a number of very specific properties. Without a doubt, this type of public relations has been extremely important throughout American history and has not lost its relevance even today. In the United States, African Americans formed a special ethnic community with its own culture and religious beliefs. A natural product of the African-American culture was the black religion, which focuses on racial issues and their impact on the fate of black Americans. The nation of Islam is the main representative of the movement of black Muslims. It is a separatist organization, which emphasizes the exclusivity of the African-American ethnic group. Today, in the United States, due to different factors, Islam is considered a “different culture.” It should be noted that in the mass consciousness of Americans, there is marked discrepancy between the declaration and form of Islam with its content that is the base of religious radicalism and extremism.