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Searching for Roots: Hope for African American Muslims

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

The following is the first of a three-part blog series, which confronts the claims of Black Islam concerning roots, racism, and retribution. We want every African American Muslim to know the Truth about Jesus.

“Most of the Africans that came over in slavery were Muslims,” said Robert as the faithful gathered for Friday prayers at the Midwestern mosque. Having left behind the Christian faith, he now proudly embraces the religion of his ancestors. Robert’s thinking coincides with that of many African American Muslims throughout the twentieth century who “would testify later that by practicing Islam, they were reclaiming a religious and spiritual heritage that had been stolen from them when their ancestors were kidnapped in Africa.”[1]

While Islam certainly held sway in certain pockets of Africa during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, no one knows for sure how many Muslims came through the Middle Passage to the Americas. Richard Turner estimates that Muslims constituted at least fifteen percent of the slave population of North America.[2] Jane Smith cautiously places her estimate at twenty percent.[3] Edward Curtis concedes that estimates widely range between the thousands to more than a million.[4] James Dorman contends that almost no Muslim slaves arrived in North America after 1770.[5] Knowing or even accurately estimating the number of African Muslims brought to North America during the Transatlantic Slave Trade seems impossible.

While history does not provide clear answers on the religious roots of enslaved Africans, this much is certain: whatever the religious background, enslaved African Americans largely embraced Christianity. Those who came over on slave ships as Muslims did not, by and large, pass their faith on to future generations. The Islamic movements among African Americans during the twentieth century occurred without a generational link to Muslim slaves of the South, for Islam did not survive the days of slavery. This means one of two things or perhaps both: (1) either the number of practicing Muslims forced into the Transatlantic Slave Trade was not as great as some say and, therefore, not large enough to ensure a critical mass of ongoing followers, or (2) that the problems born during the dark and painful days of slavery necessitated a more robust solution than any other religious system could offer. Whether born into African Traditional Religion or Islam, many of these precious people left these behind and embraced Christ. According to Jemar Tisby, African Americans

saw the truth of the gospel message even as slaveholders and white supremacists distorted [it]. ...[They] looked to the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt as a model for their own exodus from American slavery. Black Christians saw in Scripture a God who “sits high and looks low” – one who saw their oppression and was outraged by it.[6]

Born in the hot fields of racial injustice and oppression, the Black Church “emerged as the ark of safety for people of African descent.”[7] In the face of the hardships of slavery, the hope of the Christian faith shined. In his groundbreaking book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., argues, “No pillar of the African American community has been more central to its history, identity, and social justice vision than the Black Church.”[8]

A search for one’s roots has a great deal to do with the quest for identity. As the dignity and identity of African Americans sat in shambles as a result of the abhorrent slave trade, many found a new identity in the refuge of the Christian faith. As image-bearers of God (Gen 1:27), they discovered dignity that could not be dismantled.

Still today, the Black Church “animate[s] Black identity.”[9] African Americans who have left the church for the mosque in search of their roots should consider what they have passed over. In an age when atrocities like police brutality, racial profiling, and mass incarceration persist, is Islam up to the task of providing hope and a refuge? Or, like their ancestors who courageously endured the barbarity of slavery, will they find their identity through a superior way? Juxtaposed to the impossibility of knowing how much Islam truly impacted their family tree prior to the slave trade, African Americans can know that Christianity played a vital role in the Black community then and now. These are the true religious roots of a shining people, forged in the fires of hardship.

[1] Edward E. Curtis, IV., Muslims in America: A Short History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 22. [2] Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003), xvii. [3] Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 76. [4] Curtis, 4. [5] Jacob S. Dorman, The Princess and the Prophet: The Secret History of Magic, Race, and Black Muslims in America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2020), 36. [6] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 19-20. [7] Tisby, 19. [8] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2021), 1. [9] Gates, 2.

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