On February 21, 2015, it will be fifty years since Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. As the controversy over Manning Marable’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2011 biography of the leader showed, there is little chance that the memory of this civil rights era figure will recede anytime soon in the American imagination. Malcolm X has only grown in popularity since his death, remembered as a black power saint and a Muslim hero.
But I wonder what Malcolm X himself would think of his own framing as an American icon. A thoroughly international-minded leader, he would likely wince at the ongoing association of the term “Black Muslims” with the U.S.-based Muslims such as himself and Muhammad Ali.
Who are the “Black Muslims”? For most Americans, the term refers to the Nation of Islam, the African American organization founded in 1930s Detroit by the mysterious W.D. Fard and led by Elijah Muhammad until his death in 1975. After Muhammad’s death, the movement split into two major factions: one led by Muhammad’s son, W. D. Muhammad (also Warith Deen Mohammed), and one led by Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad’s former National Spokesman.
This association of black Muslims with the Nation of Islam reflects a remarkably myopic way of defining Muslims who happen to be black—and black people who happen to be Muslim. Most black Muslims live in Africa, of course, and there are millions more black Muslims who live in Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. To be sure, the meaning of black identity in all of these places is dynamic and contentious, but that is no reason to exclude them from our understanding of the black Muslim world.
Black Muslims have played an irreplaceable role in establishing and developing Islam into what is now the world’s second most popular religion. African-born or African-descended Muslims were there from the very beginning—they were considered dark-skinned, but not yet black in the modern racial sense. The Prophet Muhammad’s prayer-caller, sometime treasurer, and constant companion was Bilal ibn Rabah, a man of Ethiopian lineage. He was one of many African-descended people who helped to lead the nascent community of Muslims in both war and peace.
Islam may have come to Africa in the seventh century CE with the Arabic-speaking warriors who established military garrisons in Egypt, but it became part of African societies in the northern, western, and later eastern parts of the continent largely because of the efforts of Africans themselves.
A sizeable diaspora of African Muslim traders, pilgrims, teachers, healers, sailors, religious scholars, laborers, princes, and slaves became part of the medieval Muslim civilization that stretched from Granada to Ahmednagar, from Samarqand to Timbuktu. Then, perhaps over a million enslaved African Muslims were transported across the Atlantic, especially to the Caribbean and South America.
Today, the descendants of these African Muslim ancestors in Asia, Europe, and the Americas have been joined by more recent Africa immigrants to create a diaspora of millions of black Muslims living outside of Africa. Though their lives are often marred by anti-black racism, their practice of Islamic religion is far more diverse than any focus on Nation of Islam and its heirs might suggest.
Reflecting the sectarian divide among Muslims worldwide, a minority of black Muslims are Shi‘a Muslims while the majority are Sunni Muslims. But their shared Sunni identity reveals little about how these Muslims actually practice Islam.
One of the least known black Muslim diasporic populations in the world is the Siddi or Habshi Muslims of India and Pakistan. Like many other Sunni Muslims, many Siddis and Habshis believe in saints, human beings who possess baraka, or spiritual power. One of their spiritual patrons is Bava Gor, an ancestor who long ago immigrated from Africa to India along with his sister, Saint Mai Mishra, who is also venerated in various ceremonies in Islamic shrines across the region.
Bava Gor and Mai Mishra are not the only Muslim saints popular in the Africana Muslim diaspora. Another popular black Muslim saint, especially in New York and Paris, is the Senegalese founder of the Muridi Sufi order, Ahmadu Bamba (d. 1927). Those devoted to his teachings often join religious groups led by a marabout, a spiritual master who guides initiates toward a more religious life. In New York, these initiates and others celebrate an annual holiday devoted to Bamba’s memory, parading from Harlem to Midtown Manhattan. The saint’s devotees often send money home to maintain a large mosque and his tomb in the holy city of Touba, Senegal, which is also a popular site of religious pilgrimage.
While saints are an important part of the black Muslim diaspora, many black Muslims sympathetic to modern Islamic reform movements, including but not limited to so-called fundamentalist Salafi and Wahhabi schools of thought, reject the whole idea of saints. These Muslims can be found throughout the black Muslim diaspora as well, whether in Trinidad or Italy, and they often claim to practice a more orthodox form of Sunni Islam.
Black Muslims in the diaspora also have a variety of attitudes toward their African roots. Some of them eschew any sense of racial identity or ethnic pride, asserting instead that Islam erases all such differences. Others simply do not think of themselves as black, as is the case with thousands of African-descended Muslims in the Jordan Valley. Their practice of Islam and their ethnic identity are not distinguishable in any meaningful way from their non-black neighbors, although they still feel the effects of anti-black racism.
Other black Muslims, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, embrace their African heritage as a form of cultural identity and often political protest. Female British hip hop duo Poetic Pilgrimage, for example, see their music as an Islamic expression of multiple ethnic and cultural influences, not only of Africa but also of the Afro-Caribbean. For them, Islamic hip hop is a form of resistance against racism.
Surveying the black Muslim diaspora from an international perspective means looking across the Atlantic and sometimes in our own neighborhoods to understand the diversity of the world’s “Black Muslims.” Black Muslims such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali made an indelible impact in the United States and across the Muslim world. But the term black Muslim needs to be redefined to include people well beyond their circle of influence or style of Islamic religious practice.
This more inclusive, pan-African understanding of “Black Muslim” is surely what Malcolm X would have wanted.