Celebrating the Roots of Islam in America Through Black History Month

February 24, 2012

The contributions to Islam and America by African Americans have been both inspiring and truly eye-opening. Without a doubt, Islam in America, as it stands today, would not be the way it is without African American influence. Sadly, the narrative of Islam in America generally tends to forget about the major impact African Americans made in shaping a Muslim American identity.

More than 200 years ago, our nation was embedded in the gross practice of slavery; by 1800, estimates have shown that at least 15 to 30 percent of slaves were Muslim. Muslim slaves unknowingly contributed to the narrative of Islam in America by continuing to practice their faith in the face of great adversity. Indeed, Muslims have been part of the American framework since its very inception. American society saw its first population of Muslims through the import of African slaves. From that point, there are historical accounts of Muslims fighting in the American Revolutionary War, aiming to assist in the very creation of this nation.

For example, Peter Salem, a former slave of Muslim background from Massachusetts, fought in 1775 in the Battle of Bunker Hill and later fought in the Battle of Saratoga. In the course of our nation’s short history, Muslims have participated and fought in every American war. Further, when the slaves were emancipated, they fought for their nation’s principles of freedom, equality and justice in the Civil War. Forming the Muslim American identity of participation and engagement—even at the military level—was in its infancy stage of being established.

More than 100 years later, Malcolm X was born and established himself as one of the most prolific contributors to America. In his transformation from petty criminal to a member of the Nation of Islam where he espoused powerful rhetoric in defense of black supremacy to his shift to Sunni Islam, Malcolm X proved to be an intellectual force in the formation of identity to be reckoned with. Malcolm’s fascinating change from exclusion in American society to the realization that participation and engagement within the larger fabric of our nation was exemplified, highlighted and emulated during and after his life. From, “we’re not American, we’re Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock- that rock landed on us,” to his famous speech in Cleveland, Ohio, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” in which he stressed the importance of political participation to address political maturity and recognizing that through unity comes action.  

African Americans have certainly established the bedrock of Islam in America; without them, the way we see and experience Islam in America today would not be. In a time when Islam is seen as a suspicious foreign entity existing within the U.S., the centuries old narrative of Islam in America proves otherwise—it has been a thriving, contributing force to the very structure of our nation from the country’s inception.

It would be completely untrue for the African American experience to be left out of the hundreds of years of forming and shaping a Muslim American identity. The narrative exists, and the roots of Islam in America can be dated back to the very formation of this nation on the backs of those whose religion values freedom, justice, human rights and equality.

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