Blacks Fuel Islam's Rapid Growth in US

Converts respond to `alternative culture,' a return to roots

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ON any given night in this Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traffic backs up on Massachusetts Avenue's affluent embassy row, as area Muslims rush to the Islamic Center to perform sundown prayers and break the daily fast with the traditional Iftar meal.

It is not an unusual sight for Washingtonians. In the last few years, the area's Muslim population has been ballooning, fueled both by immigrants from the Middle East and by conversions within the African-American community.

Washington is not alone. Today, experts say, the Muslim population of North America has reached 3 million to 5 million people.

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"By the first decade of the 21st century, Islam will be the second largest religion in the United States," writes Jonathan Sarna in Moment Magazine, a Jewish publication.

The confluence of the two phenomena - large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent and increasing conversions in the African-American community - has meant a radical growth in the numbers of North American Muslims in a short time span. Today, the black community provides the bulk of the growth.

Islam has offered black Americans an alternate culture, experts say, as well as pride in a separate identity that is fraught with far fewer problems than the black militant movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Black Panthers.

"Islam was the logical extension of the political movements," says Ajieb Bilal, principal of the Muslim Community School in Potomac, Md. "The appeal was institutional life, a full cultural and spiritual life, an alternative culture. Putting down the gun was changing the mode of struggle.

"The majority of our people were Muslim longer than they were Christian," he says, explaining why so many black Americans find Islam a natural fit. "After 400 years, we're reverting."

According to both African-American and immigrant Muslims, disciples of Muhammad first came to North America with Christopher Columbus. The Arabs, who kept the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans alive during the Middle Ages, provided Columbus with maps and navigational expertise, Muslims say. "We feel that many Muslims escaped with Columbus," says Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, speaking of the persecution of Muslims in Spain.

The second Muslim influx came with the arrival of slave ships from Africa. Writings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries document the presence of a significant number of Muslims among slaves captured in West Africa and brought to the New World.

However, most of the slaves were quickly converted to Christianity. It wasn't until the 1930s that W. D. Fard, whose origins are still a matter of speculation, began to preach his own version of Islam on the streets of the black ghetto in Detroit, and a real indigenous movement began. Elijah Poole, who later changed his name to Elijah Muhammad, eventually took hold of the movement - the Lost-Found Nation of Islam.

By the 1960s - with many black Americans disillusioned by attempts at integration, fascinated by the Algerian revolution and the decolonization of Africa, and inspired by a new leader named Malcom X - the Nation of Islam swelled to around 100,000 members. In the late 1960s and early 70s, the defeat of black armed struggle led even more African-Americans to a sense of religious separateness.

Over time, Islam - as practiced by African-Americans - has changed. Elijah Muhammad's version of Islam had a heavily racial cast and was aimed at the black urban poor: God was black, the devil was white, and the country would burn for more than 300 years, with only the blacks being saved.

After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the Nation of Islam split. Louis Farrakhan, based in Chicago, continued the unorthodox teachings. Today however, most African-American Muslims are followers of Warith Muhammad, Elijah's son, according to Lo Sulayman Nyang, a professor at Howard University. Warith Muhammad emphasizes the Koran and traditional Sunni ritual similar to that practiced in Saudi Arabia.

MANY black American Muslim women dress like their sisters in the Middle East - in hijabs that cover their hair and in long skirts. Many know some words in Arabic. And increasing numbers of black American Muslims are studying in the Arab world.

"You have seen the mainstreaming of Islam in the African-American community," says Professor Nyang. "The Rap Brown phenomenon is an illustration of how Islam attracts African-Americans who are not happy with the American system," says Nyang, referring to the former black militant who is now the imam of a mosque in Atlanta.

For all the swelling in numbers and the pride in cultural separateness, the US Muslim community is not trouble-free. One problem is the lack of unity.

"The main concern of the immigrants is assimilation," Mr. Alamoudi says, speaking of the need to maintain a cultural identity. "There is a sense in the African-American Islamic community that they're not accepted by the immigrant community. One of our problems is how we can bring the two groups together."

In addition, immigrants and blacks don't live in the same geographic areas, says Mr. Bilal. "African-American Muslims are mostly confined to the African-American community in the inner city," he says. "There is little cross-cultural contact."

But a few weeks ago, for the first time ever, a Muslim cleric, Warith Muhammad, delivered the invocation in the US Senate, a sign for many that Islam's ascendancy finally is being noticed and recognized.

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