Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. According to NBC News, Muslims are projected to be the second-largest U.S. religious group by 2040. Islam is documented as the second-largest religious group in the world and today, Black Muslims account for the largest racial group of Muslims in America, constituting more than a fifth of all Muslim Americans.
Many historians claim that the earliest Muslims come from the Senegambian region of West Africa in the early 14th century.
African-American leaders in the Islamic communities from Elijah Muhammad to present imams would agree that African Muslims left footprints in early Spain and that there is evidence of African Muslims who were enslaved in America.
As great orators or griots do, they have passed downed stories about African Muslims who were on cotton fields in the southern states of this very country. And how those enslaved Africans had a remarkable lineage, full of excellence.
Some leaders in Black Islamic communities say Black people didn’t convert to Islam, but rather reverted to their original roots.
The rise and progression of the Muslims in Black communities is attributed to the work and sacrifices of countless ministers, imams, and some credit the Black Power/Black Panther Party movement.
Akin to the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s agenda, the Islamic leaders in his era and those who came after prioritized uplifting and improving conditions for Blacks.
Most of them didn’t adopt King’s philosophy when it came to nonviolence and turning the other cheek. However, many Muslims respected that he had the courage to stand for truth and push for change, despite the hardships.
African-American Muslim leaders strived to exemplify excellence. They galvanized into action to achieve the level of greatness King dreamed of.
Most notable leaders or influencers include Elijah Muhammad, whose work began in the 1930s; Malcolm X; Louis Farrakhan; Warith Deen Mohammed, son of Elijah Muhammad; and Jamil Al-Amin, a former Black Panthers leader formerly known as H. Rap Brown. All would become household names.
They’ve impacted people across the globe, especially Black folks in urban American cities like Philadelphia.
The Nation of Islam
Elijah Muhammad is known as the prominent leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI). He expanded the movement, which began in Detroit, into building communities with banks, schools, restaurants, and stores across 46 cities in America.
It’s been reported that the NOI owned over 15,000 acres of farmland, truck- and air-transport systems, and a publishing company.
Muhammad mentored Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, his son W. Deen Mohammed, and Farrakhan.
“Farrakhan was the national representative for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in that time and beyond,” said Rodney Muhammad, civil rights activist and minister at Masjid #12 in Philadelphia.
“I’ve been in the Nation of Islam since 1982,” he said. “In 1981, I started making my way to the Nation of Islam in Chicago. I was sent to Philadelphia in the last quarter of 1991 and been the minister for the NOI in the city of Philadelphia coming under the preaching of the Honorable Louis Farrakhan.”
According to Muhammad, Farrakhan was primarily responsible for the restoration or rebuilding of the NOI.
Early in Farrakhan’s career he served as the minister of mosques in Boston and Harlem and was appointed the national representative by Elijah Muhammad.
“He’s made it clear, publicly, that he follows what he learned and is still drawing from the Honorable Muhammad [today]. That leadership that shapes him, shapes us. Central to that shaping is the desire to see our own people in a better condition. We believe that the mission of restoring humanity has to start with us because as Black people in America, we’ve been the most adversely impacted, morally and spiritually destroyed during slavery and the Jim Crow era. So our major focus has been our own people,” Muhammad said.
Sunni or Orthodox Islam
Asim Abdur-Rashid’s journey toward Islam was different.
“I entered into Islam when I was 19 years-old. I wanted to change my life,” said Abdur-Rashid, imam at the Masjid Mujahideen. “I became Muslim in 1971, and prior to that I was just like any other young man on the streets of Philadelphia. I was involved in the street life.”
After growing tired of the everyday issues in his community, Abdur-Rashid dedicated himself to making a difference.
“The drug problem began in our neighborhood and it devastated my community,” he said. “I was attracted to the Black Power movement but recognized a flaw in that movement. I knew that if I was going to rise above and change my life seriously, I was going to have to choose something that didn’t have those flaws.”
“Number one, [it couldn’t include] intoxication, fornication and adultery. We’re talking about changing a society and promoting ourselves. We had to understand that those things were not going to be acceptable in the future for Black people.”
As he sought the best approach to improve the conditions around him, Abdur-Rashid studied Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“Without a doubt I was more attracted to Islam. Then, after studying the history of the people who were influential in the Black Power struggle, Malcolm X was the one that influenced me the most,” he said.
According to Abdur-Rashid, Sunni means those that follow the way the purest.
“At that time, we called it the orthodox Muslim community,” he said. “Coming through the ranks of the community, I was given the responsibility of an imam. It’s not something that you look for, but something that’s given to you.
“We moved from North Philly to West Philly and ultimately people branched out to form other communities,” he said.
Later a movement called Dar-Ul-Islam unfolded. “During that time, we left 52nd and Hazel streets and started a community at 60th [Street] and Osage [Avenue in West Philadelphia].
“In that community I was the next leader, the imam,” Abdur-Rashid said. “We didn’t accept the nonviolence philosophy that brother King believed in, but [the one thing] we had in common was to make a change,” he said.
“The Black Islamic experience is unique in that we were Muslims from American. We went through slavery, Christianity, and returned back to Islam. There were a lot of Muslims that came here on slave ships. Islam was systematically taken away.”
Islamic lifestyle and community building in Philadelphia
Today’s Black Islamic communities are much more diverse. It’s important to note that they were never a monolithic group to begin with.
In Philadelphia the NOI continues to gather, there’s also Black Muslims who identify as Salafi, another group, Ahmadiyyah, is a community nestled in North Philadelphia, and about three generations of Sunni Muslims are spread across the city.
Some imams now are balancing how to incorporate lessons they’ve learned from the ancestors while developing new opportunities to improve the Muslim body, and their neighbors too.
United Muslim Masjid“I see Islam as a lifestyle, not a movement,” said Tahir Wyatt, executive director of the United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia.
“There are movements within Islam, where Muslims have dedicated themselves to a particular cause or ideology that motivates them, perhaps only loosely related to their Muslim identity. But ultimately Islam is a lifestyle,” Wyatt said.
According to Wyatt, Islam governs the way Muslims live and believe.
“It governs what we believe is acceptable and moral and what is not. That is a total way of life, not a movement,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt grew up being influenced by the teachings of both King and Malcolm X.
“People paint them as opposites for one reason or another, but there have always been people trying to divide the leadership in our communities,” he said. “Divide and conquer, it’s a strategy.
“I wasn’t taught that they were at odds. Their strategies and methods were obviously different, especially in the beginning of their movements. But in terms of the objectives that they had for Black people, many of those objectives were aligned.
“You can argue that Malcolm X was a separatist and that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for integration, but even with that there’s a lot of nuance,” he said. “I grew up with a tremendous amount of respect for the both of them. They literally put their lives on the line and knew it.”
Wyatt recalls personally knowing “people who became Muslim almost immediately after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ’68, and then others in ’69 and the early ‘70s.
“We had droves of people accepting Sunni Islam. Many were attracted to Islam because they saw it as a spiritual opposition, spiritual resistance, to what had become an oppressive American culture. They also looked at the social justice element of Islam — justice here on Earth — whereas Christianity’s message at that time was otherworldly, according to them.”
Masjidullah Center for Excellence“I was born Muslim,” said Idris Abdul-Zahir, imam at Masjidullah in Philadelphia.
“My father became Muslim in the late ‘60s and my mother in the early ‘70s through the NOI, under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Imam Warith Deen Mohammad took over after his father’s passing in 1975, essentially changing the belief system. Broadening to what we consider Orthodox Islam or Sunni Islam. I don’t call myself either one of those things I just call myself Muslim,” he said.
Abdul-Zahir’s parents, Imam Murad and Fatimah Abdul-Zahir were among the founders of Masjidullah – The Center for Excellence in Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane section.
“My father is an imam and was an imam at Masjidullah where I’m the current resident imam. I [initially] had no plan to be an imam,” Abdul-Zahir said.
However his interest was sparked by a relationship he was forming with a high school peer.
“Shaykh Tahir Wyatt, helped me spark it,” Abdul-Zahir said. “He’s a good friend and together we got serious about our religion.”
In terms of other influence, there were numerous Muslim leaders who’ve impacted Abdul-Zahir. For one, his parents.
“Anwar Muhaimin at the Quba Institute, Suetwidien Muhammad at Masjid Muhammad in Germantown, and different people who I spent some significant time with over the years,” Abdul-Zahir said.
Moving into 2021, the goal is to educate, empower and elevate.
“I put forth a vision for Masjidullah and our community,” he said. “Education that benefits and not make us slaves to anybody else but God. [The vision includes] putting us in position to have the knowledge that is impactful and empowers us to be able to educate our children and ourselves in ways that are liberating.
“Our first understanding Islam was freedom, justice and equality. We want to empower our community, our women specially, to feel that we have a place for their talents, skills and abilities to flourish.”
Believing that is imperative so that they can share those gifts and talents.
“Now there’s elevation, if you look at the history of Islam. Anywhere from Saudi Arabia to Africa, everywhere Islam went it elevated a society,” Abdul-Zahir said. “What some understand to be Western culture, and innovations believed to originate from Europeans, was ignited by the Moors who went into Europe, basically ruling Spain for about 700 years.
“They established street lights, paved road, hospitals. Those things brought Europe out of the Dark Ages, sparking the Renaissance. We as African people, as Muslims, don’t realize those things came from the influence of Muslims, particularly from the African continent. So for me, the idea is to really claim that heritage.”
Driving home the message that all differences can be respected, approximately 15,000 Muslims gathered in Fairmount Park in 2019 to celebrate Eid-Al-Fitr, a holiday that Muslims celebrate at the close of Ramadan.
An estimated 10 local masjids, numerous sponsors, and various city representatives, including Mayor Jim Kenney, worked together to create this experience.
“I was pursued by a group of local imams to help develop a plan and manage a project which was an effort to unify as many Muslims in the greater Philadelphia area as possible for the Eid-Al-Fitr,” said Salima Suswell, founder and executive director of the Philadelphia Eid Ramadan and Eid Fund.
“I grew up at the Masjid Mujahideen, where my father is an imam, but I’ve also spent a lot of time at Masjidullah,” she said. “There’s so many leaders and pioneers that I value and cherish. They’ve helped me grow as a Muslim and a leader.”
Five years ago, Suswell assisted with a team of folks who appealed to the city of Philadelphia to recognize Eid-Al-Fitr and Eid-Al-Adha.
“I worked with Muslim leaders like Michael Rashid and Muslim elected officials [State] Sen. Sharif Street, [City] Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and state Rep. Jason Dawkins,” Suswell said. “We called ourselves the Philadelphia Eid Coalition. What we worked towards was getting both of the Islamic Eid holidays recognized on the public-school academic calendar. From there I started a nonprofit organization called the Philadelphia Ramadan and Eid Fund.”
Through her organization and personal efforts, Suswell’s top priority is to uplift and help others.