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A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States

A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2, The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975

A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2, The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975 (Muslim Minorities)
  • Book Title:
 A History Of Conversion To Islam In The United States
  • Book Author:
Patrick D. Bowen
  • Total Pages
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  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Abbreviations x
  • Introduction 1
  • part 1
  • The Years 1619–1919
  • 1 African American Religion and Folk Culture before 1920 19
  • part 2
  • The Years 1920–1945
  • A Universal Transformation 81
  • Allah across America 112
  • Noble Drew Ali 159
  • The Moorish Science Temple of America 199
  • W.D. Fard 240
  • The Nation of Islam 277
  • Smaller Sects and Independent Mystics 326
  • Early Sunnis 369
  • viii contents
  • part 3
  • The Years 1945–1975
  • 10 A Nation Reborn 419
  • Non-noi Muslims in the Postwar Period 453
  • New Transformations 488
  • A Nation Divided, a Nation Changed 518
  • A Cultural Revolution 547
  • 15 Islamic Organizations in the Post-Malcolm World 591
  • Conclusion 644
  • Bibliograph 647
  • Index 704

African American Religion and Folk Culture before 1920

African American religious history through the First World War was deeply shaped by two major historical phenomena: slavery and Emancipation. The impacts of both were so profound, so institutionally-changing, that virtually nothing in African American religious culture escaped their influence. The present chapter provides overviews of some of the key religious and cultural de- and reterritorializations created by slavery and Emancipation in order to make two arguments that lay the foundation for the remainder of the book.

The first argument is that many of the fundamental elements that would constitute the religious core of the aair, which will be examined in later chapters, were originally components of African American folk religion and culture.

African American religion and culture emerged from a mix of various African and Christian beliefs and practices during the eras that slavery and Emancipation directly molded black life. And it was because of this specific origin that African American religious currents frequently developed patterns and themes that reflected a desire for liberation from oppression, a strong racial consciousness, and a need to retain shared elements of traditional African religions—all of which are themes that would appear in the aair. Although not every element of black folk religion and culture would later be used by Muslims, several specific traditions were, and these will be highlighted in the present chapter.

The second argument presented here is that despite there being contact between African Americans and Muslims before 1920, the conditions neces-sary to create a widespread Islamic conversion movement did not emerge. Successful new religious movements generally require at least one relatively large preexisting network or market of people who are willing to ‘consume’ the innovative religious teachings, but the forms of Islam and their promoters that appeared in this period were unable to fully tap into any such networks or markets.

This fact helps put into relief the dramatic transformation that African American religious culture would have to go through for the aair to come about.

The Slave Era

Between the years 1619 and 1860, roughly 350,000 human beings were brought in chains from Africa to the land that became the United States.1 Although the vast majority arrived from a single large area—the sub-Saharan western coast of the continent—they represented a wide variety of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds.2 It was because of this great diversity that, when the enslaved began forming a shared religious culture, no single ethnic or religious current dominated.

Muslims, for instance, may have accounted for somewhere between less than five and up to twenty percent of the imported slaves, but because their religion, like other specific religious and ethnic African identities, was eventually subsumed by a unifying black American culture, it is likely that after slave importation was outlawed in 1808, the presence and influence of Muslims rapidly declined.3

By 1860, when there were around four million us slaves, the religious and cultural lives of most African Americans were grounded primarily in the new blended folk culture, and those who consciously identified as Muslims or with other specific religious or cultural identities made up only a tiny fraction of the enslaved population.4

We know relatively little about the religious practices of the slaves prior to the nineteenth century, but what we do know suggests that, for those who followed a religion, it was more than likely an African-based tradition. It seems, first of all, that the vast majority of slaves before 1800 were not Christians,5 and a significant number continued the practice of their traditional religions when they could, either as individuals or within groups of slaves from the same ethnic background.

During the 1730s, for instance, Job Ben Solomon, a Fulbe Muslim living in bondage in Maryland, was known to go off into the woods alone to pray at Islam’s prescribed times,6 while enslaved Igbos on a Virginia plantation were coming together to bury their dead with ‘necessaries’—items such as jewelry and tobacco pipes—a well-established practice in their Nigerian homeland.7

There is also some evidence that in addition to the more ethnically-specific practices, some of the bondspersons had already begun finding religious com-mon ground across ethnic lines. Funerary rites, like the one described above, were probably a prominent venue for this mixing, as West and Central Africans generally greatly valued the ceremony and had similar practices. The ring shout, however, is the most well-known example of an inter ethnically-mixed religious practice to have emerged among North American slaves. The act of shouting and dancing while moving as a group in a counterclockwise direction in order to venerate ancestors was widely-practiced along the western coast of Africa and seems to have served as one of the earliest unifying slave religious rituals.8 Material artifacts were acquiring shared meanings as well, particu-larly objects associated with divination, spells, and charms, which were being exchanged both among the bondspersons and with Europeans, contributing to a new hybrid magical tradition known as conjure.9

Finally, folktales, folk rhymes, and folk proverbs were undoubtedly transmitted between different slave ethnic groups, leading to the development of a shared oral tradition, although, as with most pre-nineteenth-century slave religious practices, we can say relatively little about the specific developments that were taking place with regards to such folk discourse mixing during the colonial and revolutionary eras.10

In the early nineteenth century, with the importation of slaves being out-lawed and the American-born bondspersons already far outnumbering the African-born, the blended traditions began to flourish.11 African-based magic, to take one example, had gained a distinct appearance, being predominantly influenced by West Central African and Protestant practices and beliefs, as opposed to the voodoo (Vodou) of Louisiana and Haiti, both of which were dominated by the Yoruba and Catholic traditions. Later known as ‘hoodoo,’ United States conjure developed a strong affinity for mixing references to Jesus and Moses, spirits with supernatural powers, and, as we will see, a West Cen-tral African sense of spatial-temporal orientation.

Yet, despite its distinctive-ness, because of the contributions of a wide variety of ethnic groups and the slaves’ tendency to blend common spiritual themes, North American conjure still contained elements that could be found in African communities through-out the Americas. One of these was the holding of the color red in especially high esteem. Red was not only the preferred color for the conjurers’ magical bags and, on occasion, their garments, among slaves generally it was frequently used for painting objects and was the favorite color for clothing, especially for their brimless hats and kerchiefs.12

 This widespread preference is thought to be reflective of the high value placed on the color in numerous African cul-tures, where red dye was used for a variety of objects and clothing, not the least of which were the red headpieces and robes of spiritual leaders in multiple African ethnic and religious communities, including some Muslim ones.13

A second area that represented a major blending of beliefs and practices was the emerging North American black folktale tradition. African American folklore, like the folklore of most communities, touched on nearly every topic concerning the human condition, yet it was also distinguished by its proclivity for tales about animals, especially the trickster figure Bre’r Rabbit.

Because conjure was such a prominent feature of the lives of the enslaved, it was frequently intermixed with the folktales as well,14 and stories of traditional African spirits and conjurers controlling the weather—particularly rain—were well-known; Bre’r Rabbit was even said to have had his own red conjure bag.15

There was, it seems, a deep cultural connection between conjure and black folklore’s trickster, a fact belied not only by the widespread use of the term ‘trick’ for conjure spells, but also by the popular trickster folktale ‘Coon in the Box,’ wherein a slave, after his owner mistakenly comes to believe he possesses supernatural powers, cleverly exploits the conjure identity to his advantage.16

‘Tricks,’ however, could be employed by evil figures too. The Devil himself was known in black folklore as a trickster, a liar, and a master conjurer,17 and whites were said to have ‘tricked’ the bondspersons to keep them enslaved.

 On plantations, for instance, African Americans were aware that whites often tried to dissuade stealing by claiming that certain foods they farmed would, if eaten, kill black people, and some even invented ghost stories to instill a fear of the wilderness so that the enslaved would not run away into the woods.18 In fact, an evil ‘trick’ of whites served as the subject of one of the most important tales and hidden transcripts in the black folk tradition. As mentioned in the introduction to this volume, among the enslaved and their descendants was a widespread belief that Africans had been ‘tricked’ into coming to the Americas by white slave traders who presented a red object—in most versions the object was a flag or handkerchief; in some cases the slave boat itself was red; and in others it was a piece of red cloth placed among other nice-looking trinkets that were, in some versions, handed out at a big dance or picnic—that attracted Africans onto their slave ships.19

Because this act was understood as a trap specifically designed to ensnare naïve Africans, this story was regarded not just as a trickster tale, but also as part of another large slave folktale genre wherein Europeans kidnapped—‘stole’—Africans from Africa.20

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