How Ahmadi missionaries appealed to black Muslims in twentieth century America

A 1923 front cover of the Muslim Sunrise. Credit: Muslimsunrise.com
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As a missionary movement, Ahmadis soon appeared in the United States, Britain, Europe, Indonesia and Nigeria in the early twentieth century. The story of Islam in the United States, however, is intrinsically tied to slavery. Some estimates put the figure at 15 to 30 percent, or, 600,000 to 1.2 million slaves were Muslim.[i] Others estimate that the figure was 10 per cent.[ii]

Muhammad Sadiq, who arrived in Philadelphia on February 15, 1920, was one of the first Ahmadi missionaries to enter the United States.  A year later, with the help of other Muslims, Sadiq had launched the monthly periodical The Muslim Sunrise to challenge negative stereotypes about Islam in the press.

Sadiq used the Muslim Sunrise to argue that Islam could resolve the racism Christianity had failed to answer. He contended that Islam and the Arabic language would unite all people of African descent. This post-colonial message came at a time of great social discontent and racist violence. Sadiq sought to align himself with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey’s charisma and intellect offered a transformative solution to black dispossession, colonial domination and racism.[iii] The Muslim Sunrise aligned its message with the UNIA. An article which appeared in a 1923 edition of the Muslim Sunrise argued that:

Apart from confederation of the African tribes or peoples of African origin, the possibility of which is a nightmare to the white man, he lives in fear and trembling that El Islam may become the religion of the Negro. And why should it not be? ‘El Islam’ would be a wonderful spiritual force in the life of the colored races, uniting us in a bond of common sympathy and interest. We could then add to our motto of one God, one aim, one destiny, the words one language which would be arabic. It could easily be made the universal language of Negroes and would remove the barriers which now face us in the intercommunication of the different tribes in Africa. Arabic is already spoken by millions of Negroes. [iv]

Another example of this rhetoric appeared in the previous volume of the magazine.

My dear American Negro – Assalam-o-Alaikum. Peace be with you and the mercy of Allah. The Christian profiteers brought you out of your native lands of Africa and in Christianizing you made you forget the religion and language of your forefathers – which were Islam and Arabic. You have experienced Christianity for so many years and it has proved to be no good. It is a failure. Christianity cannot bring real brotherhood to the nations. So, now leave it alone. And join Islam, the real faith of Universal Brotherhood. [v]

Under Sadiq’s editorship, this pan-Africanism was part of a wider strategy to recruit members of Garvey’s UNIA. At the same time, Ahmadi missionaries settled in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Ghana.[vi]

The magazine also served as a means to proselytise non-Muslims with articles that addressed the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. Readers could learn Arabic and understand Quranic verses through transliterations in English. Short articles would challenge incorrect stories about Islam in mainstream newspapers. Others could learn how and when to pray; or read extracts of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s theology. The magazine also listed the names of converts and their testimonials.

Financial troubles, however, forced the Muslim Sunrise to cease production from 1924 to 1930. This occurred at the same time as the decline of the UNIA with Garvey’s deportation.[vii]

Disillusioned and embittered by the racism he encountered in the United States, Muhammad Sadiq returned to India in 1923. According to a letter published in the New York Times in 1993, he had attracted a large number of black converts during his short stint in the United States. This was particularly true in Detroit and Chicago between 1922 and 1923.[viii] The Muslim Sunrise also highlighted the successes of its black missionaries. In 1922, it featured Sheik Ahmad Din (P. Nathaniel Johnson) who worked as a missionary in St. Louis, Missouri. Local press reported that Din had converted around 100 people in the first six months of his mission in the St. Louis area.[ix] Photos of black female converts often highlighted their religious commitment to Islam. Some wore traditional veils and covered their arms to define themselves in opposition to white culture. [x] The stories of other historical famous black Muslims appeared in the magazine. One example was Bilal ibn Rabah (580-640 AD). He was a slave freed by the Prophet Muhammad, and became Islam’s first muezzin – a person who issues the call to pray (adhan) five times a day.[xi] This gave a historic link between Islam and Africa. For black converts it offered “an alternative universal history to which to pledge allegiance”. [xii] Some of the earliest independent black mosques took inspiration from Ahmadi teachings. The first mosque in Cleveland was later established by the former Ahmadi Wali Akram.[xiii] Some black converts established their own mosques to accommodate the growing black consciousness and scholarship around Islam.[xiv] Before the rise of the Nation of Islam (NOI), Ahmadi missionaries offered “the first multi-racial model for American Islam”.[xv] This influence, according to the academic Edward C. Curtis, reached Elijah Muhammad, a religious leader in the NOI, who had “regularly quoted, verbatim, from Ahmadi literature, including Ahmadi translations of the Qur’an”.[xvi]Ahmadi missionaries had converted around 10,000 people by the 1940s.[xvii]

It was during this period of history that cities like Boston would prove important cultural hubs for black converts. Some embraced Islam due to the missionary work of the Ahmadis. [xviii] Ahmadi missionaries had to compete with Nation of Islam missionaries for converts in Boston. Both offered competing visions of a ‘practical’ and ‘spiritual’ interpretations of Islam in the political sphere.[xix] Yet, this message of universalism felt hollow to some black converts when they were unable to lead missions, causing some to leave or reject the sect. Another factor was cultural – South Asian missionaries brought their own colonial baggage and insisted that others follow Indian customs. Others moved away due to theological differences.[xx] In spite of the rise of the Nation of Islam, the Ahmadis maintained support among black communities in the 1930s and 1940s. The language of internationalist, pan-Islamic resistance to Western imperialism was toned down. Yet it never lost the message of multi-racial religious unity, which fused Indian nationalism with pan-Africanism.[xxi]

In the state of Massachusetts, a local Ahmadi missionary named Abdul Hameed tutored Malcolm X and Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis about Islam. Jarvis wrote in his memoirs that Hameed was “instrumental in both Malcolm’s and my life”.[xxii] Though he would acknowledge the later influence of Elijah Muhammad over Malcolm, Jarvis stated that: “It was Abdul Hameed who presented us our first mention of Islam – his point of view being based on the Ahmadiyyan movement originating in India.”[xxiii] Hameed made multiple visits to Jarvis in Norfolk prison between 1949 and 1950. In 1947, he gifted both men prayer books written in Arabic. [xxiv] In his autobiography, Malcolm X minimised the influence of Hameed, describing him as a “member of the orthodox Muslim movement in Boston” who had taught him to memorise Arabic prayers phonetically.[xxv]

The creation of Pakistan in 1947 shifted the attention of the Ahmadi mission in the United States. The post-partition violence had seen thousands of Muslims disappear in East Punjab as millions sought refuge in Pakistan. [xxvi]Yet the story of Ahmadis in the United States never faded away. In Chicago, there remain examples of black-run Ahmadi places of worship today.[xxvii]

References:

[i] “Ramadan: A Centuries-old American Tradition – Al Jazeera English,” Al Jazeera: Live News | Bold Perspectives | Exclusive Films, accessed July 18, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/06/ramadan-american-tradition-201462714534443176.html.

[ii] “Reading Melville in Post-9/11 America,” The Nation, accessed July 18, 2016, http://www.thenation.com/article/reading-melville-post-911-america/.

[iii] “Marcus Garvey, “The Negro Moses”,” Online Exhibitions | The New York Public Library, accessed September 7, 2016, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-garvey.html.

[iv] O’Meally, J. A. “Crescent or Cross: A Negro May Aspire to Any Position Under Islam Without Discrimination”. The Muslim Sunrise IV (October 1923). p.264-265. http://www.muslimsunrise.com/dmddocuments/1923_iss_4.pdf

[v] Sadiq, Muhammad Mufti. “True Salvation of the American Negroes”. The Muslim Sunrise 2&3 (April and July 1923) p.184. http://www.muslimsunrise.com/dmddocuments/1923_iss_2_to_3.pdf

[vi] Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African-American experience. Indiana University Press, 2003. p130.

[vii] Ibid. p130.

[viii] “Islamic Movement Came to U.S. in 1920 – NYTimes.com,” The New York Times, accessed July 19, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/22/opinion/l-islamic-movement-came-to-us-in-1920-424693.html.

[ix] Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African-American experience. Indiana University Press, 2003.

[x] Ibid. p129.

[xi] “Muezzin.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Islam., edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e1569 (accessed 23-July-2016).

[xii] Marable, Manning, and Hishaam D. Aidi, eds. Black routes to Islam. Springer, 2009.

[xiii] Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African-American experience. Indiana University Press, 2003.

[xiv] McCloud, Aminah Beverly. African American Islam. Routledge, 2014

[xv] Turner, Richard Brent. Islam in the African-American experience. Indiana University Press, 2003.

[xvi] Curtis, Edward E. “Islamism and its African American Muslim critics: Black Muslims in the era of the Arab cold war.” American Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2007): 683-709

[xvii] Bayoumi, Moustafa. “East of the Sun (West of the Moon).” In Black Routes to Islam, pp. 69-78. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2009.

[xviii] Fanusie, Fatimah. “Ahmadi, Beboppers, Veterans, and Migrants: African American Islam in Boston, 1948–1963.” In The African Diaspora and the Study of Religion, pp. 49-69. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Ibid. p124.

[xxii] Jarvis, Malcolm. The Other Malcolm,” Shorty” Jarvis: His Memoir. McFarland, 2001. 55.

[xxiii] Ibid, p55.

[xxiv] Garrett Felber, “Reconsidering Malcolm X and Islam,” African American Intellectual History Society, accessed July 26, 2016, http://www.aaihs.org/reconsidering-malcolm-x-and-islam/.

[xxv] Haley, Alex. The autobiography of Malcolm X. Ballantine Books, 1992.

[xxvi] Brass, Paul R. “The partition of India and retributive genocide in the Punjab, 1946-47: Means, methods, and purposes 1.” Journal of Genocide Research 5, no. 1 (2003): 71-101.

[xxvii] “Muslims.” Encyclopaedia of Chicago. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/865.html.

This article is based on research presented in the Faith Matters paper titled “Sectarianism, Extremism & Hate Crime: The Impacts on the Ahmadiyya Community“.

 

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