There are an estimated six to eight million Muslims in America today and about 30 percent of them are African Americans. The Muslim American community has a rich history of black leaders, activists, educators and scholars. In honor of Black History Month, the Chicago Crescent’s Meha Ahmad researched the struggle and achievements of several black Muslims who have helped shape our history in America.
A spotlight on prominent Black Muslims in history
Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori (1762-1829):
Known as the “prince among slaves,” Ibn Sori was captured when he was just 26 years old in present-day New Guinea and enslaved in Mississippi. In 1828, after the Sultan of Morocco requested his release, he was freed by the order of President John Adams, after having been enslaved for 40 years. During his decades-long enslavement, Abdul Rahman held onto his Muslim faith and identity.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773):
Born in present-day Senegal, Diallo came from an aristocratic and prominent family of Muslim leaders. In 1730, he was captured and sold into slavery and eventually sent to work in Maryland. There, he would often sneak off into the woods to pray.
After being humiliated by a white child while praying, Diallo ran away only to be captured by local authorities. In custody, he met lawyer Thomas Bluett, who with help from British MP and philanthropist James Oglethorpe, would secure his freedom.
Born in Africa in 1707, Mamout was enslaved and shipped to Maryland to work as a slave. He was later emancipated and known for being a successful businessman. He grew to prominence because he was a free Black Muslim who owned his home. Living to be well over 100 years old, Mamout became one of the first shareholders of the Columbia Bank.
Malcolm X (1925-1965):
Also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and arguably the most famous Black Muslim in recent history, Malcolm X was a civil rights activist and public speaker. This month marks the 46th anniversary of his death.
Once a member of the Nation of Islam and a promoter of the Black Power movement, Malcolm X became a Sunni Muslim in 1964, left the Nation and performed the Hajj where he said he was transformed. At Hajj he had seen Muslims from all races and backgrounds coming together and believed that Islam’s teaching of racial equality could be the means that would overcome racism in America.
“I believe that Islam is the best religion for our people, because it creates unity, and it gives one dignity and racial confidence and all things that are necessary to make a complete human being,” said Malcolm X.”
Betty Shabazz is famously known as the wife of Malcolm X and for being a civil rights advocate and leader. Her life can be considered an example of triumphing over tragedy. After her husband’s death, she raised six daughters by herself, earned her Ph.D. and ran her own department at Medgar Evers College while staying committed to volunteer work for organizations like the NAACP. She also became a Sunni Muslim in 1964, and performed the Hajj a year after her husband’s death.
“I really don’t know where I’d be today if I had not gone to Mecca to make Hajj shortly after Malcolm was assassinated,” she said. “That is what helped put me back on track. Making Hajj was very good for me.”
Famous modern-day Black Muslims
The greatest boxing champion the world has ever known, Ali became a Sunni Muslim in 1975, and since then has been one of the most prominent black sports figures and recognizable Muslims in American history. He is a three-time World Heavyweight Champion and Olympic Gold medalist.
In 2006, Ellison, a democrat from Minnesota, became the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He made history when he took the oath on a Quran instead of the traditionally used Bible. Today, he continues to uphold his duties to his country and has been an advocate for Muslim Americans.
Carson became the second Muslim to be elected to Congress in 2008, as a representative from Indiana. He too is an advocate for Muslim Americans.
Imam Zaid Shakir
One of the most influential and well-recognized imams in the United States today, Imam Shakir became a Muslim in 1977, and has spent the last three decades committed to community activism and imparting knowledge to Muslim youth. He is also the co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim college in America.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj
Imam Wahhaj was the first Muslim to offer an opening prayer in Congress. Through Masjid Al-Taqwa, a masjid he founded in Brooklyn, Imam Wahhaj led an anti-drug patrol to clean up the streets of his community. His efforts (which led 15 drug houses to close) were recognized and praised by the city of New York. He is also the leader of the Muslim Alliance in North America.
Imam Mohamed Magid
Committed to public service, Imam Magid has spent years working to foster interfaith dialogue and increase understanding of Islam and Muslims in America. He was elected President of the Islamic Society of North America in September 2010, and is the current executive director of the ADAMS Center in Virginia.
Places to visit: Learning about African American history
This February, no place in Chicago would be a better place to visit and learn about Black history in America than the DuSable Museum of African American History, the first and oldest museum of its kind in the U.S., located at 740 E. 56th Place.
Current exhibits include “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits,” “Red, White, Blue & Black: A History of Blacks in the Armed Services” and “A Slow Walk to Greatness: The Harold Washington Story” about Chicago’s first black mayor, among other worthwhile exhibits.
We recommend seeing visiting DuSable’s “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” an exhibit comprised of over 250 visual items (posters, photos, graphic art, publications, toys, films and newsreels, etc.). “For All The World To See” is the first comprehensive museum exhibition to explore the historical role played by visual images in shaping, influencing, and transforming the fight for civil rights in the United States.
Here are some other special Black History Month-related events taking place around the city:
Now until Feb 28: 40 Years of Black Creativity (1971-2011) – The Museum of Science and Industry offers an exhibition that will be highlighting 40 years of Black Creativity exhibits. This exhibit will showcase photographs, memorabilia, video and feature hands-on activities and 100 original pieces of art from African American artists from around the country. The event is suitable for all ages and it is free with the purchase of a general admission ticket.
February 19: Union Park Black History Celebration – A free community-based celebration featuring games for children of all ages. The event is being held at Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph St. from noon to 2 p.m. and admission is free. For more details, call 312.746.5494.
February 22: Radio Golf (theater event) – Enjoy an evening watching Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s drama about the African American experience. Radio Golf is about an Ivy League entrepreneur who must examine his values when his plans to develop a blighted urban area into a commercial complex are met with resistance. 8 p.m., Raven Theater, 6157 N. Clark St. $30 admission, $25 for students. Call 773.338.2177.
February 27: Walking to Success: An Anthology of Black History. Enjoy readings, music, African doll making, mask making, quilting and a community meal. Noon to 4 p.m. Free. Loyola Park, 1230 W. Greenleaf Ave. For more details, call 773.262.8605.