Philadelphia Museum Preserves Story of Islam in Black America
For many Muslims born to immigrant parents in this country, our first encounters with an indigenous American Muslim tradition allowed us to see pieces of ourselves in the cultural life and history of the United States. Whether it was watching slaves carry their religion to Southern plantations in the TV series “Roots,” poring over the prison conversion story in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” sifting through old footage of Muhammad Ali citing his religious beliefs as his rationale for refusing his Vietnam draft notice, or deciphering Islamic references in the lyrics of hip-hop artists such as Lauryn Hill or A Tribe Called Quest, each moment illuminated a rich archive of American Muslim history that we had never been exposed to in our homes, schools, or even in our mosques.
The New Africa Center on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia is a small museum dedicated to preserving what Abdul Rahim Muhammad, the Center’s director, calls the “lost and found history of American Islam.” The Center features items donated largely from Abdul Rahim’s own personal journey as a convert to the Nation of Islam during the 1950s when it was under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad to the Nation’s transformation and transition under Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah’s son.
Ask Abdul Rahim a question and he can go on for quite some time without stopping for a breath, describing at-length his passion to document the African American Muslim experience. For Abdul Rahim, the New Africa Center exists primarily to share the centrality of blackness in this history with African American Muslims who have recently turned to “mainstream, universalist Islam,” where race is seemingly less fundamental.
“America is a capitalist society and Islam has become part of that consumerist impulse,” said Abdul Rahim. “There are a number of shops in the neighborhood that sell clothing, books, and CDs only from the Middle East or from countries like Pakistan, claiming it’s Islam proper. It’s not necessary. Allah said the best dress is the dress of righteousness. Many African Americans still suffer from an identity crisis.”
Inside the museum, there are pieces of clothing, framed photographs newspaper clippings, and old pamphlets leaflets scattered around the space. One photograph is of young Abdul Rahim Muhammad smiling brightly for the camera while holding up the official newspaper of the Nation, “Muhammad Speaks.”
“A lot of people, even Muslims themselves, don’t know about the Muslim experience in America, particularly the African-American Muslim experience,” said Abdul Rahim. “When I grew up, we were the voice of the community. Now we’re barely heard.”
Much of that early history took place on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, where Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad, were appointed to serve in the 1950s.
“Lancaster Avenue was sacred territory for the African-American Muslim community,” said Abdul Rahim. “How many people know that Malcolm and Warith Deen used to teach here?”
Rahim emphasized both the important political and spiritual role that the Nation of Islam played in the lives of African Americans in cities across the United States.
“The Nation of Islam was a movement that tremendously impacted black consciousness.” said Abdul Rahim. “It always taught that Islam was a vehicle for black self-determination, self-development, moral discipline, and community empowerment. People forget these days that’s how American Islam got started: freedom, justice and equality.”
After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, Warith Deen was appointed leader of the Nation and began to institute a number of changes to the organization.
“Warith Deen Muhammad was instrumental in transitioning African-American Muslims to what I like to call ‘Islam proper’ or Islam as practiced by Muslims worldwide,” said Abdul Rahim. “He stopped saying that white people were the devil and adjusted the theology to be more based in the Quran. It sent major shockwaves through the community, but Warith Deen continued to nurture Islam and black freedom in his own way.”
Rahim claims that Warith Deen Muhammad continued to face criticism from Muslim leaders who had recently immigrated to the United States for speaking too much about racial issues and not enough about the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.
“They thought he was trying to create a new Islamic movement. But he was really trying to help black people solve an identity crisis and help us reconnect with our roots as African Muslims and the sunnah of the Prophet and the story of his companion Bilal. But people would tell Warith Deen that he needed to talk more about Abu Bakr and the other main companions. No, he stuck with Bilal because Bilal spoke to us.”
As I began to leave, Abdul Rahim stopped me and asked me if he could ask me a personal question.
“I want you to give me your honest opinion,” said Rahim. “Have I presented myself in such a way that you would consider me a black nationalist or to some degree a racist?”
I was surprised and asked him why he felt he needed to ask the question to begin with. He paused for a few seconds to collect his thoughts before responding.
“Because I address the race issue and condemn white supremacy and people, including Muslims, get uncomfortable about that,” said Rahim. “I would say I’m a black nationalist because it means uplifting the black community and having more economic and political power. People today call that community development or community empowerment. To me that’s black power. I guess it’s all about different languages for different moments.”