When I first began my research for this blog, I wanted to investigate how it is that black Muslim identity has and continues to inform Islam in America today. Drawing from David Chidster, D.V. Kumar, and Tomoko Masuzawa’s works on the effects of colonialism, the implications of modernity, and the racialization of Islam, as well as my own assumptions about how I thought I could thoroughly address and answer this question appeared, at an oblivious first glance, doable and linear. I learned quickly, however, that this was not the case. In the slightest.
I hadn’t gotten far in my research when I realized that I had entered into a literary world where little had been published and what had been posed more questions and avenues of thought rather than answers. What became increasingly clear to me was that the scholarly framework in place to explore the relationship between being black and being Muslim in America today was basically absent. This lack of scholarly work also implied the erasure of black Muslim experiences from the broader conversation regarding Islam in America today. The lived experiences of those who are black and Muslim and adequate analysis and research pertaining to their narratives had fallen through the cracks of America’s social, political, and religious paradigms. Why was this?
Frustrated, I continued to read. African American and immigrant relations, conversion to Islam as a protest to white supremacy, and the racialization of Muslims at large were some topics that had briefly touched on this question, although not completely. It was at this point in my research that I had unknowingly begun to uncover a larger and arguably more pertinent reality: namely, that the evaluation on what it means to be black and Muslim in America is largely incomplete.
I took this opportunity to think about the ways in which the narrative and discussion regarding Islam in American could be more inclusive of African American Muslims. My hope was to interrogate various resources, historical and contemporary, in order to formulate a way of thinking that would be inclusive of the black Muslim population in America today. The research thus far has produced models of what it means to be black in America and what it means to be Muslim in America but there has been little to no recognition of their intersectional experience. I had assumed that I would come upon a space made for discussions and analyses about the lived experiences of these people with concise data lying next to it, and I was embarrassed and angered at my blind assumption and the overall absence of conversation. There is writing out there, however, that could be instrumental to push us in the right direction of developing our understanding of the complex narratives and experiences that function beneath being both black and Muslim. With this in mind, there are various sources that may be helpful in merging common notions of what it means to be black and what it means to be Muslim to show that the two are not mutually exclusive.
In order to begin the conversation regarding what it means to be black and Muslim in America, it is important to first talk about colonialism and the heaviest shape it took in America: slavery. The mass enslavement of Africans in the early 1500s as a part of North American colonial expansion is imperative to understanding the construction of black identities. The capturing of Africans, some of whom were Muslim as Islam was (and continues to be) one of Africa’s most dominant religions, thus facilitated the introduction of Islam to “The New World”. At the time, European colonizers were armed with a theological requirement of inviting those to convert freely to Christianity. This, however, was not an option and was violently imposed on Native Americans as well as those who were enslaved. It is important to note here that freedom to publicly practice non-Christian religions was nonexistent at this point. This, however, does not mean that African Muslims of the time ceased to practice. What is known about black Muslims in regards to Islamic practice in America at this point is miniscule, however, the simultaneous construction of identity for what it means to be black in America was underway while Islam remained covert.
Intertwined with this conversation on the effects colonialism and slavery lies the subject of modernity. At this point in American history, development was accompanied by the praise of Christianity through which the vehicle of modernity made a relentless entry into every aspect off society. As mentioned above, this meant rejecting other forms of religious practice and ways of life, specifically among Native Americans and enslaved Africans, which colonizers characterized as being “backwards.” The conceptualization of modernity as being born alongside colonialism as its descriptive counterpart is relevant to the implications of being Muslim in America. The word “modernity” signifies, most often, what we as Westerners would consider to be “good.” “Modernity,” in turn, has many implications and can be employed in various ways. What is not “modern” in character is simultaneously deemed as an “outdated” obstacle (Kumar, 241). This characterization illustrates the historically negative view of Islam held by the West. Because of this, Islam in America has gone from being largely unseen, to tacitly approved, to being employed as a mechanism for social change for some, to demonized and threatening at large. This has led (many white) Americans to abandon social paradigms for seeing the diversity of Islamic practice as many people do not envision it as being socially, politically, and religiously “progressive.” The relevancy of modernity here in furthering our understanding of what it means to be black and Muslim in America is that the “better-than-before” comparativeness implied by modernity simultaneously constructs opposing identities for people who are not deemed to be as such (Kumar, 242). Since America is the emblem of “modernity” as a result of colonialism, how have these bedfellows effected the construction of identities of being both black and Muslim?
The enduring effects of colonialism and America’s obsession becoming all things “modern” has had an enduring effect on the formation of people’s identity, especially those who are both racially and religiously marginalized. So too has the process of racialization, an extension of both colonialism and modernity, in the way that it ascribes ethnic or racial identities to groups and practices to which they don’t belong in order to make easier the categorization of peoples. Colonialism, “modernity,” and racialization all illustrate how those in power have the ability to choose, rename, and reclaim unfamiliar ideas and people in terms of their familiar. In trying to explore what it means to be black and Muslim in America, one must take into account the intersectional identities that operate beneath these repressive processes (Khabeer, 79). Although America preaches diversity and inclusivity, there has yet to be a space for the legitimization of those who are black or African American and Muslim at the same time.
Taking into account these historically complex and lasting processes of power and imposition offers a helpful starting point from which a more in depth study of what it means to be black and Muslim and American can prosper. With this in mind, we must also acknowledge instances throughout American time and space where we can and have seen black Muslim Identity operate. Although I am admittedly limited in my resources and knowledge, I hope I am able to convey a way of thought and space that allows the identities of black Muslims to be at the forefront. We can even start by engaging with and asking questions about a figure many of us may be familiar with: Malcolm X.
Malcolm X, distinguished leader of the Nation of Islam as well as one of the many faces of the Civil Right Movement, was a prominent black Muslim figure during one of the most pivotal periods in American history. X captures one way in which being African American and Muslim has been expressed and popularly seen within and throughout the American context, as an instrument of social justice and a protest to white supremacy. Although Malcolm X does not and should not represent the lived experiences of all African American Muslims, his mere appearance may challenge common notions about what being black and Muslim in America can look like.
Although there is still more to do be done in gathering and evaluating this group of people and their many narratives existing within the American landscape, there are various areas where black Muslim identity has and continues to challenge common (mostly white) notions of being both black and Muslim. These places show that these two identities, contrary to popular belief, do not exist as separate from one another, however, they are confronted with a distinct experience. It is here that I hope to offer some ways of thinking about where we can see this intersectional identity operating, in hopes of broadening the analysis and resisting social constructs that have informed this country since its conception.
Looking at African American and immigration relations regarding Muslim identity politics is in and of itself a huge avenue in regards to thinking about black Muslim identity. Asking questions about and evaluating the effects of race, class, and residence is applicable to understanding the lived experiences of any person and is therefore necessary to consider (Karim, 27). The issue of assimilation and isolation are two components in this discourse due to the fact that African American Muslims struggle with not being authoritative enough to non-Muslims nor representative enough to be thought off as Muslim in American popular vision (Karim, 42). These tensions exist where South Asian and Arab Muslims obtain a certain privilege by being “authentic” Muslims where as black Muslims are ignored and delegitimized because of long lasting historical prejudice embedded in the American framework. Here we can ask questions such as how do the competing notions of Islam influence what “American” Islam discourses look like and how have these tensions informed space and a sense of belonging?
Another and equally important avenue to which exploration of this topic is needed is at the junction of Islam and forms of performance and expression such as Hip Hop. A hugely important and contemporary way of expression that pervades all aspects of American society, specifically the African American community, Hip Hop is a crucial site where African Americans draw upon their blackness to construct their identity of being Muslim. Hip Hop, a historically important location for the illustration of the struggle of being black in America faces the “erasure of Africa from the archive [as a] critical deletion that enables the categorization of Black music as un-Islamic” (Khabeer, 97). Hip Hop then has the ability to become another location where questions regarding protest, assimilation, and isolation in regards to black Muslim identity can be posed (Khabeer, 36). Similarly, faith as a form of rebellion could also contribute greatly in pushing forward yet another category of thought that confronts deeply engrained social paradigms within the American context.
Gender must also be included in the quest for a better understanding of what it means to be black and Muslim in America. The intersection of gender to race and class vary not only depending on location and context, but have informed popular understanding of what it means to be a “model citizen,” specifically throughout the United States. African American females as well as non-binary Muslims are forced into the need to navigate race, class, and gender within a context that deems South Asian and Arab Muslims as the “model minority” (Khabeer, 92). Here, America’s exclusive nature should once again be interrogated by asking questions about the specific discomfort and prejudice that manifests when considering the intersectional experiences specifically of those who are female and black. What does this experience look like when Islam is added and is of equal importance? In a place like America where Islamophobia is at its highest levels, anti-blackness is pervasive, and sexism is the norm, a look into the various narratives of those who are female, black, and Muslim is necessary.
There is a lot to be said about what it means to be both black and Muslim in America. A multiplicity of narratives and experiences are alive and living every day. The absence of standard conversation as well as scholarly analysis is indicative of the problematic way in which many (mostly white) Americans tend to categorize people with unfamiliar identities in terms of what is familiar to them. If you are not recognized, then you don’t have access nor space to esteem who you are, if you’re not legitimized because of who you are, you are not invited to the table of legitimate “diversity” that although has been preached by America since day one, has and continues to be perverted. I hope that by offering some historical analyses shedding light onto various ways in which we can see black Muslim identity functioning throughout America today that the conversation about how and why Islam is racialized can continue. There are stories that need to be told, voices to be heard, and normative ways of thinking that need to be confronted.
Chidester, David, “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1853-1860. Gale Virtual Reference Library
Curtis, Edward E. Muslims in America: a Short History. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Feddes, David. “Islam Among African American Prisoners.” Sociology: SAGE Journals , vol. 36, 1 Oct. 2008, pp. 505–521.
Karim, Jamillah Ashira. American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah. New York University Press, 2009.
Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in America. New York University Press, 2016
Kumar, D.V., “Engaging with Modernity: Need for a Critical Negotiation,” Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 2 (May-August 2008), pp. 240-254
Masuzawa, Tomoko. “Islam, a Semitic religion,” ch. 6 in The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2005), 179-206
Wheeler, Kayla. “It’s ‘Been’ Cool to Cover: Why Ayana Ife Matters.” Sapelo Square, 21 Nov. 2017.