For almost 40 years Americans have honored Black History Month through a variety of local and national initiatives. At the core of many of these efforts is the recognition that U.S. history has far too often excluded the cultural, political, economic, scientific, civic, athletic, religious, and artistic contributions of African-Americans. Assigning one month every year to highlight these contributions has therefore become an important practical and symbolic step in the struggle to rearticulate the meaning of American history in a way that is both more inclusive and accurate.
In both the spirit and purpose of Black History Month, The Islamic Monthly has taken a modest but significant step dedicated to promoting a more complete story of the American experience. In Black…Muslim…American, we have prepared a collection of exclusive interviews, all previously unpublished and one posthumous, that highlights the lives of four African-American Muslims in the U.S. Although unique in their
experiences, ideas, and methods, these individuals—a politician, a scholar, an Imam, and a leader—share a common concern with the struggles of African-Americans. They are united by a common vision of an American context in which African-Americans can enjoy the benefits of freedom, equality, and empowerment. But these four individuals are not exclusive to the African-American community. As Muslims, they have also played a critical role in the realization of Islam in the U.S. Thus their stories reveal the often- ignored reality that African-Americans are Muslims who have shaped the experience and expression of Islam within the U.S. in significant ways. They illustrate the diversity both within the African-American community and broader American population more generally.
In our first interview, The Islamic Monthly’s Senior Editor Arsalan Iftikhar speaks with the first Muslim congressman in U.S. history, Keith Ellison. Representing Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, Ellison is the first African-American to hold the position in the state and had the distinct privilege of being sworn into office with a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Holy Quran. Born in Detroit, Ellison converted to Islam during college and has remained an active member of the American Muslim community ever since. In this interview, Iftikhar speaks with Ellison about the connections between Islam and the African-American community, the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, Black political leadership, and the future of the Muslim America. Read the interview
Our second interview in the collection is with Jamillah Karim. Karim received her PhD from Duke University and is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at Spelman College in Georgia. Her recently published book, American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah, demonstrates her unique intellectual abilities and interests. Exploring intra-Muslim relations in Georgia and Illinois, her work is one of the first attempts at systematically examining how African-American Muslims relate to immigrant Muslim communities. Beyond her scholarship, Karim is widely known as a public intellectual speaking regularly on television programs and publishing in a variety of forums including Azizah Magazine. In this interview, we explore Karim’s unique knowledge and insights on issues related to African-American and immigrant Muslim communities. Engaging questions of racism, gender, and the meaning of the Ummah, Karim provides a rich discussion that underscores the important roles played by African- American women in the broader Muslim community. Read the interview
Our third interview was conducted in 2008 and never before published with one of the most important figures in the history of Islam in the United States, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, W.D. Mohammed’s life is a story too rich to be summarized in a few words but several key points should suffice for highlighting the complexity and importance of the Imam, as he was often called. Born in 1933, W.D. Mohammed’s father, Elijah Muhammad, was the founder and first leader of the Nation of Islam, which was one of the most powerful and controversial Muslim movements in the U.S. Mohammed’s mother, Clara Muhammad, was known as the First Lady of the Nation of Islam and was essential for the creation of its educational institutions. Despite his upbringing, W.D. Mohammed cleared his own path eventually inheriting and redefining his father’s organization. In 1976, the Imam charted a new course for the NOI and renamed the institution the World Community of al-Islam in the West. His goal was to move the NOI toward orthodox Sunni Islam. Since then, the Imam gained international recognition traveling throughout the Muslim world. His mission, however, remained firmly rooted in the U.S. For most of his career, the Imam pushed for inter-faith dialogue and black empowerment through economic independence. In this interview, which was to be the last known interview with the Imam before his passing, The Islamic Monthly’s Deputy Editor, Michael Vicente Perez, and Fatima Bahloul draw on his unique insights to explore questions of race, politics, religion, culture, and the future of Islam in the U.S. Read the interview
The final interview, also conducted in 2007 and never before published, is with one of the most controversial and influential Black Muslim leaders in the last 40 years, Minister Louis Farrakhan. Born in New York City, Farrakhan began his career in music signing calypso and playing violin. In 1955, Minister Farrakhan abandoned his musical
profession and joined the Nation of Islam. Committed to the original teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan recreated the NOI after W.D. Mohammed’s push toward Sunni orthodoxy. As the organization’s leader, he emphasized the importance of Black empowerment and, like Elijah Muhammad before him, struggled to build an institution capable of creating an independent economy and education among African-Americans. In the 1980s and 1990s, Farrakhan played a pivotal role in challenging the violence in Black urban communities. His efforts culminated in the Million Man March in 1995, during which one million African-American men convened to lead their communities away from the problems of violence and marginalization in America. Over 70 years old, Farrakhan continues to lead the NOI with a more moderate interpretation of Elijah’s original teachings. In this interview, The Islamic Monthly’s Deputy Editor, Michael Vicente Perez speaks with the minister about his career as a Black Muslim leader, the challenges he’s faced, racial politics, Sunni Islam, and the future of the NOI and Black America. Read the interview