Take a walk through any Philadelphia neighbourhood, and I can almost guarantee that you will see evidence of Philadelphia’s black Muslim community. Perhaps you will see a group of women wearing full niqab, which is quite common, or Muslim street vendors, known informally as the “akhi’s with the oils,” selling perfumes on the streets of West Philadelphia.
Visitors are often surprised at the prominence of the black Muslim community in Philly. The unique nature of Philadelphia’s religious and cultural landscape became more apparent to me once I left for university and noticed that I could not find the same level of community amongst black Muslims that I’d had in my hometown. Many of my university friends had never met a black Muslim, and only knew of Muslims within the context of the Nation of Islam. I recall one girl in my maths class asking if I knew how to make bean pies*. I became frustrated with the assumptions that I was somehow affiliated with the Nation. To me, it felt like an insult because the Nation of Islam’s ideology is vastly different from Islam, and I felt eager to separate myself from the comparison.
My experiences growing up in a predominantly black, Sunni Muslim community led me to conduct research on the history of black Muslims in America. The more I learned, the more I realised how influential the early Nation of Islam movement was to the prevalence of Sunni Islam in the black community. The most prominent story is of Malcolm X, who began as a Minister for the Nation of Islam, before later rejecting the ideology in favour of Sunni Islam. Before discussing the present-day experience of Black Muslims in America, which I hope to do over the next few months, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the history of the Black American Muslim community. Many early Muslims, including my family members, were first exposed to Islam through the Nation of Islam. My uncle converted to Islam in the 1970s, and the rest of my family quickly followed suit. Initially, people joined the Nation of Islam because it was considered the “cool” and “progressive” thing to do, but over time, they came to appreciate the ideals of the Nation, including its support of black nationalism and self-sufficiency.
The Nation of Islam gained relevance at a time when Black Americans were struggling to maintain community and find their space in the north. Dawn Marie Gibson’s “A History of the Nation of Islam” highlights the lack of a cohesive black community in the north as the primary reason for the acceptance and gradual popularity of the Nation of Islam. There is very little known about W. Fard Muhammad, the founder of the NOI. He is said to have appeared in Detroit in 1930 as a peddler, gradually working his way into the homes of blacks in the Paradise Valley neighbourhood of Detroit. After gaining access to families in Detroit, he began spreading information about the Nation of Islam, the “true” religion of African-Americans. He is said to have introduced himself as the human incarnation of God. He encouraged black people to believe in Allah, and to consider white people as devils. He believed that Christianity was a method being used to enslave black people within coloniser logic, where they would always be in a position of subjugation in an inherently white supremacist social system. Although his ideas were very controversial, his rhetoric inspired black people to view their heritage as a form of strength and pride instead of as a source of shame.
Fard disappeared almost as suddenly as he’d arrived in Detroit, and it is unclear where he travelled next, but his message about this mysterious religion called “Islam” stayed in the hearts and minds of many Detroit residents. Elijah Muhammad, one of the first to hear about W. Fard’s curious religion, later became the leader of the Nation of Islam movement and helped to extend its message outside of the Midwest, most notably to Malcolm X.
It is likely that the Nation of Islam gained traction amongst many black Americans because of the time in which it was introduced. The Great Depression of the 1930’s “created a fertile context in which the Nation of Islam could take root” (Gibson). The lack of meaningful employment, coupled with the persistent occurrence of racial hate crimes, made the idea of a “white devil” plausible in the minds of those who were most influenced by W. Fard’s message. It was not until the movement travelled beyond the Midwest, to cities like New York and Philadelphia, that the Nation of Islam became recognised as a considerable nationwide force with the potential to impact black youth all over the country. It was in Philadelphia that the Nation of Islam inspired a transition previously unseen in the black community, with consequences that can still be seen today. The tenets of self-love and race pride account for the success that the NOI leaders were able to achieve within cities like Philadelphia and New York. The leaders were successful because they could relate to the issues that black youth in Philadelphia were facing. The Nation allowed black youth to engage with their history in a meaningful way and feel that they had a purpose in worship.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, most of the Nation’s followers converted to Sunni Islam, as Warith Deen Mohammed, son of Elijah Muhammad and leader of the Nation after Elijah Muhammad’s death, highlighted the flawed ideology of the Nation of Islam’s religious teachings, and encouraged people to follow Sunni Islam. He denounced the Nation’s anti-white views and promoted Islam as a religion for people of all racial backgrounds, while still maintaining a commitment to the social and economic uplift of the black community. The Nation of Islam is historically significant because of the social and economic opportunities that the movement presented to black Americans. It inspired and directed many blacks to create and sustain their own social, cultural and religious space within the larger context of the northern American landscape. The Black Muslims proved that African Americans could create their own businesses and schools without the presence of white beneficiaries or sponsors to control the dialogue or the scope of these black-owned projects.
Today, remnants of the movement can still be seen: there are several Black Muslim companies that operate with the sole mission of revitalising neighbourhoods and schools in black neighbourhoods. The Nation should be considered as more than a religious “cult” or a “hate group” because it helped to cultivate a sense of ownership and agency within black communities that were typically forgotten by government officials.
The Nation of Islam presents many beliefs that promote shirk and bid’ah, which are incompatible with Islam according to the Qur’an and Sunnah. The religious ideology of the nation is admittedly very problematic, but we cannot ignore the impact that the Nation has had on Black Americans in terms of community and economic development. The Nation has helped to expose Black Americans to a traditional understanding of Islam, and for that reason when the Nation is mentioned now, I no longer regard it with disdain, but I am appreciative that my family, and many others, were able to ultimately find Allah through these means.
I hope you’ll join me for next month’s article where I’ll begin to explore life as a Black American Muslim in the present day. Until then, as salaamu alaykum and thank you for reading!
If you have any suggestions or topics you’d like me to explore, feel free to shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
*bean pies are considered as a symbol of the Nation of Islam. The pie’s origins are unclear. Lance Shabazz, an archivist and historian of the Nation of Islam, told the Chicago Reader that the pie allegedly came from the Nation’s original founder, Wallace D. Fard Muhammad, who supposedly bestowed the recipe upon Elijah Muhammad and his wife, Clara, in the 1930s. This claim, however, has never been fully substantiated (source: https://www.tastecooking.com/the-radical-pie-that-fueled-a-nation/).
Gibson, Dawn-Marie. A History of the Nation of Islam: Race, Islam, and the Quest for Freedom. Praeger, 2012.