The Quran and Sunnah (authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) are clear in articulating the purpose of revelation as being the liberation of human beings from the false worship of anything other than the Creator and the establishment of justice for all creation, including the human and natural worlds. The message of all of the Prophets was that of worshipping the One God only and establishing the inherent dignity and humanity of all human beings. As a result, the first and largest group to affirmatively respond to the call of a prophet were the poor and oppressed.
Slavery in History, Arab Society, and Islamic Practice
Slavery, one of the oldest human practices of oppression, evolved to be the most repugnant institution in human history. Although it was not until the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that race became the exclusive criterion for subjugation in chattel slavery, pre-Islamic Arabs similarly associated the worst forms of enslaved labor as being the sole domain of blacks. The number of sub-Saharan African blacks enslaved by Arabs during the trans-Saharan slave trade is commonly believed to be approximately equal to the number of black Africans enslaved during the 376 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not completely eliminate slavery from Arab society, but the economic and social incentives to keep slaves were removed by Islam. Abu Dharr, one of the illustrious companions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, when asked why one of his slaves dressed in clothing like his, responded that he heard the Messenger of God (pbuh) say, “Your slaves are your brothers whom Allah has placed in your hands. He who has his brother in his hands must feed him what he eats; clothe him with that which he wears. He should not burden him with that which is beyond his capacity, but if he entrusts him with that, he should lend him a hand.” In his Farewell Sermon, delivered on the occasion of Hajj, Prophet Muhammad warned, “…Neither does an Arab have excellence over a non-Arab. Neither does (one with) white skin excel over (one with) black. But, of course, excellence is only on the basis of righteousness.”
Great dignity was conferred upon luminary companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) such as Bilal ibn Rabah, a former Abyssinian (Ethiopian) slave who became Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) caller to prayer, close companion, and treasurer of the Islamic state; Umm Ayman, the African woman referred to by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as “My Mother” and a “Woman of Paradise”; the unnamed Black woman who chose to be patient with her epileptic condition and was told by the Prophet (pbuh) that she would gain Paradise — such dignity decries the humiliations and affronts systematically meted out to African Muslim slaves in the United States.
Of the untold millions forcibly extracted from their homelands during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, historical evidence suggests that one of every third African enslaved in the United States was a Muslim. As a matter of fact, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the patrons for the voyages of Christopher Columbus, issued a royal edict in the early 1500s making it a crime to transport African Muslims into the Western Hemisphere, a crime that could be punishable by death. Indeed, British and Spanish slavers attempted to eradicate the practice of Islam or Arabic speech among slaves even before the unfortunate humans reached western shores.
Slaves who exhibited unrelenting resistance to their new state of dehumanizing servitude were typically taken to various Caribbean islands for “seasoning,” a process of breaking the slaves’ will and craving for freedom. Seasoning involved unspeakable acts of barbarity against the slaves in an attempt to break their spirit. Muslim slaves, strong in their faith and uncompromising in their refusal to submit body or soul to any master but God, were often identified by their enslavers as being more rebellious and inclined to attempt escape. Yet, again probably due to their religion and its emphasis on self-governance and industriousness, they were also seen as very competent when assuming responsibilities on the plantations.
Slave Rebellions, Revolts, and Conspiracies
Runaway slave advertisements during the colonial period frequently mentioned slaves with obvious Muslim names such as Osman, Amir, and Samba, a common Muslim name in West Africa. Contrary to the popular American narrative that depicts slaves as contented, happy, child-like figures, historians like Herbert Aptheker document over 200 known slave rebellions, revolts, and conspiracies, the largest of which was the Black Seminole Rebellion from 1835 through 1838. Runaway slaves from Georgia and Alabama found refuge with the proud, independent Seminole Indians of Florida, intermarrying and fighting alongside them against the U.S. Army. The Seminoles, the only native nation that was not forced to sign a debasing treaty with the United States government, incorporated African Muslim styles of dress and numerous Muslim practices into their culture, strongly indicating the presence of escaped Muslim slaves in their ranks.
According to research done by the Islamic History Project Group and compiled in the book A History of Muslim African Americans, “…in 1742, a group of Moors (code for African Muslims) was accused of starting a riot in New York City. Twenty-one of the accused were killed or lynched and 23 were banned from New York… In the 1700s, a group of Muslims lived among the Mohican in Connecticut… One of the children of Uncas, immortalized as the Last of the Mohicans, had a son named Mohamet.”
In 1839, a ship transporting 53 West Africans destined to be sold as slaves, docked in the port of Havana, Cuba. After being sold, the West Africans were placed as human cargo on the slave ship Amistad. After enduring inadequate food rations, merciless beatings, and disgrace by the ship’s captain and crew, one of the slaves, a young African by the name of Cinque, secretly plotted with the other slaves to take over the ship and sail back to Africa. Taking advantage of stormy seas, Cinque and the other slaves seized control of the ship and demanded to be returned to Africa. Unfortunately, they were tricked into sailing straight for America by the two ship’s officers who survived the rebellion, and were then captured by a United States naval vessel. Tried in a court of law, the slaves were granted their freedom, and returned to the African continent. Cinque was reportedly not a Muslim, but the Steven Spielberg film, Amistad, in highlighting the historical fact that Muslims were on board the ship, showed them collectively praying, notwithstanding that they were chained together.
Attempts to Eradicate Islam Amongst Slaves
American enslavers and plantation owners were far more inclined than their European counterparts to punish slaves for practicing any visible remnants of Islam. For example, the Muslim slaves in Bahia, Brazil, were in such sufficient numbers and social proximity to each other that they were able to wage war and successfully, although for a short period of time, declare an Islamic state in 1835. Contemporary research shows that the revolt emerged from a profound conviction of Islamic belief and principle in establishing a just social order, this encompassing and subsuming the motive to free themselves and others who were enslaved.
Countless African Muslim slaves maintained their faith throughout their horrific sojourn in captivity in a foreign land. The bloody conflict known as the Civil War resulted in the legal dissolution of the system of chattel slavery in the United States. Muslims, such as Muhammad Ali ibn Said, distinguished themselves in battle fighting on the side of Union forces against Confederate troops. Said was a member of the 55th All Colored Regiment of the State of Massachusetts, formed after the 54th All Colored Regiment which was immortalized in the dramatic film, Glory, starring Denzel Washington. With the end of legalized slavery in the United States in 1865, and during Reconstruction, a relatively brief period from 1865 until 1877, the nation flirted with more liberal political and social involvement for freedmen. However, the United States reverted to virulently anti-black, exclusionary laws, policies, and practices first euphemistically called Black Codes and later labeled Jim Crow.
Jim Crow and Institutional Racism
The racial apartheid practices of Jim Crow would remain the law of the land for almost another century until the U.S. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. From 1890 to 1920, it is conservatively estimated that approximately 5,000 African Americans were lynched by white supremacists, mostly in the South. African Americans desperately yearned for respite from pain, suffering, and systematic denial of the most basic freedoms extended to even the most recent immigrants.
Toward Universal Rights: Garvey to Malcolm X and Beyond
At the turn of the 20th century, arguably the largest ever membership organization of African people was formed by the native Jamaican, Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Even though Garvey was Christian, he acquainted Africans throughout the Diaspora, especially the United States, with Islamic concepts and activist Muslims. Garvey was highly influenced by Duse Muhammad Ali, an Egyptian/Sudanese Muslim who was founder and editor of the journal African Times and Orient Review, whom he met in London. The slogan of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Garvey, was “One God, One Land, One Destiny,” a theme that Garvey attributed to the Muslim, Ali.
A number of proto-Islamic or even pseudo-Islamic organizations, such as Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America and Elijah Muhammad’s Lost Found Nation of Islam attempted to mobilize African Americans to reclaim their identity and glorious history by casting off the cultural and religious imperiousness emanating from the White church, and identifying with their “original religion,” Islam. These efforts were made more attractive to African Americans when the crimes against black people by the “White Man’s Religion” were catalogued, and the racism-free accounts of the practice of West and North African Muslims were highlighted.
The disseminations by these groups, as well as subsequent authentic Islamic efforts in the African American community, highlighted Islam as a cornerstone for the social and religious redemption of the Black community, as well as for America in general. Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik Shabazz, was undoubtedly the foremost exponent of the social justice gospel of Islamic activism and principled struggle against all manifestations of oppression, particularly against the “Dark World.”
He also provided an ideological foundation for the globalization of Black activism in the 1960s by broadening the objectives of the civil rights movement to include that of human rights, and Pan-Africanism and Pan-Islam. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., despite his life being tragically cut down at the age of 39, had realized and begun to articulate the idea that the civil rights movement was actually a universal human rights struggle. African American college students, intellectuals and scholars, and social activists—including former Black Panther Party leader Dhoruba bin Wahad; former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman (SNCC) H. Rap Brown (Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin); revolutionary poet Askia Muhammad Toure; Revolutionary Action Movement founder, Max Stanford; Black Panther martyr Zayd Shakur— embraced Islam as a social change vehicle. This, in part or in full, was due to the dynamic influence of Malcolm X. Others like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, co-founders of the Black Panther Party, Howard Fuller, the founder of Malcolm X University in Durham, North Carolina, and many activists for social change in the African American community were profoundly influenced by Malcolm X.
During the decades of the mid to late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, African American Muslims were the dominant force on the American Muslim landscape. During this period, immigrant Muslims were typically absent from public discourse and community action on domestic social justice issues, remaining socially inconsequential during this turbulent era. Hence, the mantle of Muslim activism was borne virtually alone by African American Muslims, a phenomenon that attracted large numbers of African American university students and other activists.
As the number of African American Muslims grew, prison inmates began to embrace orthodox Islam, where once the prisons were almost the exclusive recruiting ground for the Nation of Islam. The decade of the 1980s ushered in an explosion in the number of large Islamic Centers founded and run by immigrant Muslims, located primarily in suburban America. Far from the urban centers where African American mosques and Muslims were principally located, these centers facilitated an exodus from the urban core of immigrant, and even some African American, Muslims.
The social dysfunction and oppression that once provided some of the impetus for inner city dawah (inviting to Islam) and relief activities, gave way to an out-of sight, out-of-mind mentality. While these suburban Islamic Centers accommodated the growth of the Muslim population, both immigrant and African American, in countless locations across the country, they nonetheless failed to understand or address many of the unique challenges and complexities confronting African American Muslims particularly, and the inner city population in general. Many African American Muslim professionals and other skilled, highly-motivated individuals were assimilated into these suburban Centers so that the affiliation with, and financial support of, a great number of urban mosques dwindled and they were closed down. African Americans witnessed a similar co-opting of affiliation or patronage in the aftermath of the civil rights movement when newly-passed legislation made it possible for Blacks to give their business to what had been Whites Only establishments, resulting in the closure of a vast majority of Black businesses when the more highly capitalized White-owned commercial options were available.
Uniting to Champion Social Justice Issues
The combination of the closure of inner city mosques, African American Muslims moving on from inner city issues to more global ones as addressed by suburban Centers, and the neglect of issues of urgent concern to African American Muslims, have all contributed to a virtual abandonment of hot-button issues affecting African Americans and this country.
One such issue is the more than 2.4 million human beings who are incarcerated in the United States, a number not seen in any other country in the world. The majority of those incarcerated are African Americans and, to an increasing degree, Hispanic. The Prison Industrial Complex in America has the financial incentive to keep expanding this industry of servitude. Michelle Alexander asserts in her scathing condemnation of the Prison Industrial Complex and criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Color Blindness, that more African Americans are incarcerated in federal penitentiaries, state prisons, and local jails than the number of slaves in the U.S. in 1850, 15 years before Emancipation.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery and indentured servitude except when persons have been convicted of a crime. Muslims as well are increasingly being incarcerated as a direct result of entrapment and targeted prosecution, but except for the extraordinary efforts of a handful of individuals and organizations, Muslims in America seldom expend resources for the reform of these issues related to the criminal justice system.
It is, however, the opportune time for a unified effort by Muslim individuals and organizations to champion social justice issues in a thoughtful, systematic, and balanced way. The future of Islam in the United States will be determined by how resolute we are in crossing all false lines of division, for the betterment of Muslims and all the citizens of this land. And Allah knows best.
Adapted from an article published in Message Magazine.