Updated: May 22, 2020
“There ain’t no place for me in Christianity,” said Rajul as he leaned against the front door of the Islamic Center. This sixty-something year-old man, dressed in his loose-fitting button down shirt and jeans, had a jovial spirit. He was the kind of man you would want standing at the door to greet those entering for Friday prayers. His mouth was upturned in a steady smile, while his eyes revealed years of hardship.
Rajul grew up in Chicago and attended church regularly as a child. There was a problem though, he said. He remembers looking through his Sunday School books and only seeing white faces. “Is this the faith for me?” he thought. As a young man, Rajul wrestled with his identity as a Christian; he had a longing for a faith that was for him, for his people. In contrast, he recalls seeing young African American men walking tall in neatly pressed suits throughout the streets of his neighborhood, calling more to join the fold of the Nation of Islam. He admired these men, and would think to himself, “Man, I want to be a Muslim!” And this he did. Years later, while reading the Quran in a prison cell, this former churchgoer committed himself to Islam. He had found his identity.
For many African Americans like Rajul, the question, “Who Am I?” is ubiquitous. African lineages were decimated by slavery as mothers and children, fathers and wives, were inhumanely separated from one another. The psychological damage that this would wreak on one coming from societies in Africa where community members dictate one’s identity cannot be overstated. This identification decimation has left deep scars in African American communities, causing many searching for their true selves in the absence of traceable family trees. Against this backdrop, in the early twentieth century people like the mysterious W.D. Fard, who later founded the Nation of Islam, preached a new message to people of color. According to Fard, African Americans were members of the lost tribe of Shabazz, having been forced from their home city of Mecca through the slave trade. He sought to empower his hearers by teaching that they must revert to the religion of their ancestors: Islam. Many in Fard’s churchgoing audience found this message incredibly appealing. Their quest for identity had been realized. Though many of today’s African American converts join the ranks of an orthodox brand of Sunni Islam, the influence of the Nation is still strong as a gateway to Islamic teachings for many in African American communities.
As a way to further distance themselves from the oppression of slavery, many African American converts to Islam have even changed their names. Elijah Poole, the son of a Baptist preacher and early leader of the Nation of Islam, became Elijah Muhammad. As the Nation of Islam grew in membership, Muhammad required that converts change their surnames to X in order to expunge their “slave names.” Hence, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. Many others, like famous boxer Cassius Clay who became Muhammad Ali, have followed suit in putting on this new identity.
But is Islam the answer to this important identity quest? Rajul’s search for his roots have led him to see Islam as a return to the old ways, saying, “Most of the Africans who came over in slavery were Muslims.” Is this accurate? It is vital to have the correct information regarding important decisions, especially pertaining to choosing one’s faith. While many, like Rajul, have felt that “reverting” to Islam was a return to one’s heritage, this may not be altogether true. Most scholars would agree that the amount of African slaves who were Muslims was probably closer to twenty percent, although it is very difficult to determine actual percentages.
Laying aside the conjecture of African religious heritage for a moment, consider African American religious heritage. As one scholar quipped, “It is astonishing, given their severely inhumane treatment at the hands of Christians, that any African Americans converted to Christianity throughout the years of the slave trade.” But they did, and in large numbers. Social activist and writer Jamar Tisby asserts that the African American Church emerged as “the ark of safety” for people of color as their Christian faith helped them endure slavery and even led some to resist oppression.
The early forced-immigrants from Africa saw within the Gospel the seeds of freedom that lead to emancipation, both physically and spiritually, despite the message coming to them on the lips of their oppressors. Consider the magnitude of this. Even when Message bearers are imperfect or downright sinful, the Gospel still transforms lives. This is not to excuse slaveholders in any way, but, rather, to highlight the attraction of the Gospel for African Americans in the worst of circumstances.
What attracted enslaved African Americans to the Gospel? Simply put, they saw within the pages of the Bible a message of equality. Knowing that slavery depends on the oil of inequality to keep its engine running, they drank deeply of the Bible’s message of brotherhood. Because of powerful parity implications of the Gospel, some American slave-owners didn’t want their chattel to take their Christianity too far. According to Eric Mason, some even tried to keep the African Americans in their holdings from reading the Bible for fear that they would understand the implication that Christianity made them their masters’ equals before God. 1 Hugh Auld, the slaveowner of the renowned Frederick Douglass, agreed with this sentiment when he said, “If [a slave] learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave.” 2 Indeed, the message of the Christian faith held out hope for both this life and the hereafter for the African American slave.
Conversely, Islam does not offer the same message of equality. Its history is littered with racism, intolerance, and slavery, only without the self-correcting nature of Christianity. Anyone who has visited a mosque or opened a Qur’an can see that it is a faith of Arab-centricism. Seeing this, one African-American Muslim man recently said to me that in the Islamic faith “Arabs think they’re superior to non-Arabs.”
In light of this, it is our prayer that people like Rajul will find in the Gospel the answer to their identity quest. Christianity has been an indelible part of the African American experience, and holds out hope to each person in this community today. Believers who endeavor to reach African American Muslims can be encouraged that, according to Carl Ellis, while they have an Islamic veneer rationally, they have an “intuitive Christian core.” Indeed, many African American Muslims have remained connected to a Christian community, as their relatives are still committed followers of Christ. Their worldview, to a large degree, is still Christian. This is good news for one who desires to share the love of Jesus with them. Every African American Muslim deserves to hear (and hear again) the Truth about Jesus.
Throughout these blogposts, we have attempted to show that Christianity is superior to Islam for African Americans, both in terms of issues of justice as well as historical identity. It is our desire at Global Initiative to equip you to reach Muslims. If you would like any additional resources on reaching African American Muslims, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.