In 2018, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that anti-Muslim bias incidents and hate crimes had increased 83 and 21%respectively from April 1 to June 30 of that year compared to the first quarter. Alarmingly, the report found that incidents involving government agencies such as the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, including incidents that involved the denial of religious accommodations, rose by 60% in the same time period.
It’s tempting to blame the presence of Islamophobia in the United States on the Trump administration, or to trace its systemic origins to anti-Muslim sentiment that grew across the nation following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Both are contributing factors, but neither fully laid the groundwork for violence we see today.
The history of Muslims in America extends beyond the creation of an assimilatory “Muslim American” identity or the racialization of Muslims as only non-Black. Enslaved African Muslims fostered revolts throughout the colonies, such as Haiti, and the 1959 documentary The Hate That Hate Produced introduced the Nation of Islam as a domestic threat to the country.
Presently, Black Muslims make up about a fifth of the American Muslim population. About half of those Black Muslims are converts to Islam. Black Muslims are not lost in history, even if their history has been disregarded. Understanding Black Muslims in the U.S. is essential not only to understanding America’s Islamophobia but to understanding pop culture, racial capitalism, surveillance, and more. Black Muslims have existed in the U.S. for centuries and folded themselves into every aspect of resistance within it. If you’re interested in learning more about these identities and experiences, I’ve put together the essential Black Muslim reading list.
1. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf
It’s sometimes assumed that enslaved people lost the religions they brought to the Americas. Award-winning historian Sylviane A. Diouf’s groundbreaking book, originally published in 1998, challenges that assumption by documenting the efforts of enslaved African Muslims throughout the Americas to retain Islam.
“It is sobering to realize that next year, 2001, marks five centuries of ‘almost uninterrupted’ Islamic practices by people of African origin in the Western Hemisphere,” wrote one reviewer of Diouf’s book in 2000.
Diouf’s careful reconstruction highlights perhaps one of the most fundamental things to know about enslaved African Muslims and Islam in America: that even if their religion did not always survive in its “orthodox” form, Islam, and the Muslim, are embedded into the history and cultures of the African diaspora.
2) Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas by Michael A. Gomez
African Muslims were present throughout South America and the Caribbean, too, as the transatlantic slave trade transported forcibly displaced peoples throughout all of the Americas. In fact, those brought to the U.S. made up only about 3.6% of the total number of Africans transported throughout the slave trade.
Gomez’s 2005 book starts in Latin America during the 15th century. The second part looks into the resurrection of Islam in the United States with a focus on notable figures such as Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X.
3) “Du’as of the Enslaved: The Malê Slave Rebellion in Bahía, Brazil” by Margarita Rosa
Margarita Rosa’s article for the Yaqeen Institute offers a detailed retelling of one of the best-recorded rebellions by enslaved people in the Americas. Rosa guides readers through an exploration of Bahían Muslim intellectual society and the role it played within the eventual Malê rebellion. Perhaps most importantly, details of the aftermath of the Malê rebellion tie into [how early models of surveillance formed to target Black Muslims] (https://medium.com/the-establishment/in-surveillances-digital-age-black-muslims-are-hit-the-hardest-68f3a9377af), who posed a threat to social order. Readers can also view images made available by the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia in 2018, including pictures of the Qur’an found in homes or remains of letters written by Muslims.
4) A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said by Omar ibn Said and Ala Alryyes
Omar Ibn Said was born in the late 18th century to a wealthy family in West Africa and later enslaved and brought to the United States. The book’s description notes that he became known by “a prominent North Carolina family after filling the ‘walls of his room with piteous petitions to be released, all written in the Arabic language.’” He wrote the only surviving narrative of an enslaved person written in Arabic text.
Recently, the U.S. Library of Congress uploaded the entire manuscript. The collection consists of 42 documents in both Arabic and English. Ala Alryyes’s book is essential for anyone who wishes to better understand Ibn Said’s manuscript.
“The significance of this lies in the fact that such a biography was not edited by Said’s owner, as those of other slaves written in English were, and is therefore more candid and more authentic,” Mary Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress, said in a press release.
5) African American Islam by Aminah Beverly McCloud
Islam within Black America is often oversimplified or identified using terms that do not belong to it and thus cannot fully capture such a diverse community.
In her book, McCloud introduces readers to different Muslim groups and focuses on tensions between two differing Islamic views of community, as outlined by a 1996 review in The Journal of Religion: asabiyah, solidarity due to kinship relationships or nation-building involving separatism, and ummah, the unifying relationships of the world community of Islam. By looking into the community using its own terms, McCloud’s book offers something entirely unique.
6) Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection by Sherman A. Jackson
According to Sherman A. Jackson, Islam among Blackamericans (a term he outlines and fully explains within his book) owes its prominence to “Black Religion,” an American response that is a form of religion-based protest against anti-Black racism. Within his book, Jackson frames Islam’s extensive history in America as existing within a series of resurrections, almost like waves.
Central to Jackson’s work is an exploration of the necessity for the Black community to become an authoritative agent within Sunni Islam, capable of transcribing and accounting for their own experiences. Jackson identifies the 1965 repeal of the nationals origins quota system, where immigrant Muslims were able to come to the U.S. in larger numbers, as a significant shift of power in the American Muslim community.
The move of Black Muslims as only passive participants of Islam to authorities makes up a key component of Jackson’s third resurrection.
- Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam by Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim
The singular focus on Black male leaders, which has been standard over time, perpetuates the notion that Black American Muslim women are, and have always been, invisible. Through oral histories and interviews, Women of the Nation catalogs the experiences and influences of women in the Nation of Islam.
The book includes those who are still within the Nation now and those who followed its offshoot into Sunni Islam under Imam W.D. Mohammed. Latinx and Native American women within the Nation are included as well.
8) The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
“I believe in action on all fronts by whatever means necessary,” Malcolm X told a 1964 audience during his famous speech known as “The Ballot or the Bullet”. Perhaps one of the best known Muslims in American history, Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” is a continued cry in movements for Black liberation today. The 1965 autobiography outlines Malcolm X’s journey as he rose to prominence as a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
It takes readers through his upbringing, conversion, and departure from the Nation and outlines Malcolm X’s philosophy on politics and more. Alex Haley coauthored the autobiography based on interviews he completed with Malcolm X; after the assassination, Haley wrote the book’s epilogue. Although the book has faced criticism since its publication, Malcolm X’s legacy remains alive long after his death.
9) Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
Hip hop and Islam share a long, complicated history. As a result of not only the contributions of Black Muslims but Islam’s deep presence in the diaspora as a whole, Islam continues to be referenced throughout hip hop — even when the performers aren’t Muslim. As a result, tapping into the juxtaposition of Islam and hip hop makes Muslim Coolone of a kind.
“Muslim Cool is a way of being Muslim that draws on Blackness to challenge white supremacy and the anti-Blackness found in Arab and South Asian U.S. Muslim communities,” Su’ad Abdul Khabeer’s website notes of her study.
Approaching “Black” and “Muslim” as not fundamentally opposed identities, but instead built on intersections, Khabeer is able to challenge the notion of Muslims as foreign.
10) “Towards a Black Muslim Ontology of Resistance” by Muna Mire
“Black Muslim existence as Black resistance is as old as America itself,” Muna Mire wrote in a 2015 article for The New Inquiry, a summarization that holds true. As the previous nine recommendations have outlined, Black Muslims have existed and resisted throughout the Americas since the violent conception of the “New World.”
Mire outlines the position of Black Muslims in America, noting how invisibility through erasure places Black Muslims in a unique position. The article showcases how xenophobia and anti-Black Islamophobia collide not only in forms of surveillance enacted by government agencies but through individual acts of violence. It presents dilemmas of Black Muslim existence and speaks to how Black Muslims must contend with an “economy of unresolved strivings.”