There are many challenges faced by Muslims in general in the West. Principal among them are those falling under the categories of education, economics, nutrition and health, holidays, Islamic “products,” and personal concerns. Many of the challenges faced by Muslims in the West generally are shared by African American Muslims in particular. However, the genesis, history, and current trajectory of African American Islam produces variances in the nature and degree of those challenges for African American Muslims. Also, the challenge of integration with the umma is unique to them.
Challenges faced by Muslims in the West generally
Islamizing the education of their children is important to Muslims in the West, as education in the West is generally ethnocentrically Occidental and Judeo-Christian or secular in nature. The economic concerns of Muslims in the West range from the avoidance of interest to financing mosques and Islamic centers without state support. Muslims in the West face nutrition and health concerns ranging from keeping their dietary restrictions to Islamic practices in health care. Muslims in the West grapple with the question of whether to celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays along with their neighbors and struggle for recognition of their own holidays. The relative scarcity of Islamic “products” in the West such as books, videos, CDs, instructional materials, software, games, puzzles, products that address the Muslim concern of time and direction for prayer, alcohol-free makeup, and Muslim clothing, can be a challenge to Muslims in the West. Other concerns, particularly those of a personal nature, run the gamut from whether to listen to music, praying at work or postponing or skipping prayer, fraternization with non-Muslims, women’s behavior and public participation, and traditional Islamic burial.
African American Muslims
Muslims came to the United States both bond and free. However, a significant number of African slaves brought to America preceding the American Civil War were Muslims. Some were well versed in Islam, while others were more modest practitioners. A few were even members of the upper echelons of their former societies. Most of them had never met a white man. Muslim slaves were generally forced by their masters to convert to Christianity, as were Muslims in Spain during the Reconquista. However, some Muslim slaves continued to practice their Islamic faith in secret.
Once emancipated, former slaves, having been stripped of their original identity by their former masters, found themselves in a veritable identity crisis. Out of this identity crisis arose a series of movements seeking to restore an identity to blacks. These series of movements headed by charismatic leaders, at times allied with each other and at times in competition, varied in their degree of adherence to Islamic orthodoxy. In many cases, these movements were black supremacy movements. Many of their founders claimed prophecy. Over time, some of these movements moved closer to orthodox Islam.
The degree of acceptance of African American Muslims by Muslims in general has perhaps been as varied as the aforementioned movements themselves. Among African Americans there are many who self-identify as Muslims, or who at least identify with certain Islamic practices, yet not all of them are accepted as Muslims by the general Muslim population, including but not limited to the immigrant Muslim population in the U.S. and non-African American converts. Some of theses more orthodox Muslims see African American Muslims as deviant in varying degrees or even heretical.
Challenges faced by African American Muslims
African American Muslims face many of the same concerns as Muslims in the West generally. However, the manner in which these concerns manifest themselves, or the degree to which they are a concern, may vary between African American Muslims and Immigrant Muslims or African American Muslims and Caucasian American converts to Islam. For example, Islamic dietary practices may pose a greater challenge to African American Muslims than to the other two groups, particularly when it comes to abstaining from pork. On the other hand, all converts seeking full integration face equal challenges.
Prognosis for African American Muslims in the short-term future
Considering the genesis and history of African American Islam, African American Muslims may continue to be marginalized by mainstream Muslims in the short-term. However, those African American Muslims who continue in their process of alignment with orthodox Islam, may become more integrated with the U.S. and worldwide umma as that process unfolds. As being Muslim becomes less about black rights and more about Islam, African American Muslims will better integrate with the umma.
Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999): 126–149.
Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999): 76–103.