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Blacks and Immigrants Learning To Live Under One Mosque


IMMIGRANT Muslims and black Muslims have often lived separate lives in America.

African-American Muslims and Arab or Indian Muslims do mingle in mixed mosques, and sometimes intermarry. But for the most part, the groups live separately - a sore point for most Muslims because Islam ideally erases racial and ethnic differences.

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"We live in different neighborhoods," says a Moroccan member of an Orlando, Fla., mosque attended mainly by Indians and Pakistanis.

Now, however, partly out of mutual interest and partly out of a maturing of the Muslim community, bridges are being built between blacks and immigrants. Leaders of the two groups hope for permanent integration - though they say events like last fall's Million Man March, denounced by Muslim leaders as "un-Islamic" because it was based on race, do not help.

Cooperation between the two groups dates to a warm February day in 1993 at the Buena Park Hotel in Orange County, Calif., when 25 leaders of the four main American Muslim organizations formed the National Muslims Consultative Council, or "the Shoura."

Members of the Shoura now meet regularly, making mainly symbolic decisions. But the group is seen as an important first phase of a larger rapprochement between African-American and immigrant Muslims.

Leaders of the two groups visit each other's events - meetings that take place nearly every month. Leading black figures such as Warith Dean Muhammad, head of the Muslim Mission, the largest black group, and Jamil al-Amin, head of the black National Community, go to the events of the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Council of North America - the main immigrant groups. This year, the four main leaders head an official delegation of Muslims in a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

But integration at the grass roots may be slower. Intermarriage is picking up slightly, particularly in California. A number of mosques, mainly those near colleges, are mixed. But for 30 years, blacks have had their mosques; Arabs and Indians have had theirs.

The explanation is classic sociology: A sizable number of the 1.3 million black Muslims were converted in prison or come from underclass backgrounds. They learned the Islam of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, whose message of black supremacy was popularized by disciple Malcolm X. After a trip to Mecca in 1964, Malcolm renounced the Nation and black nationalism - splitting black Muslims into 14 groups. When Malcolm was assassinated, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan took over, leading today's powerful Nation of Islam.

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By contrast, immigrant Muslims are ambitious and educated, part of an overseas upper-class "brain drain." They are anxious to "make it" on the American dream track - a track that doesn't go through black neighborhoods.

Of the immigrants, many were secular, unlike the black Muslims who had converted. Among the devout immigrants, there was a subtle looking-down-the-nose at blacks who practiced what seemed like home-grown Islam.

Aisha Mustafa, editor of The Muslim Journal, a black Muslim publication, admits that early black leader Elijah Muhammad did have "un-Islamic ideas." Hence, "immigrants long believed they had a better understanding of Islam," she says.

The result was enmity and suspicion. But a major change occurred in 1975. Warith Dean Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, rejected the black nationalism of his father. He became a moderate Sunni and changed the name of the Nation of Islam to the Muslim Mission.

Cross-fertilization between immigrants and blacks is under way. Blacks are forcing new thinking. Unlike immigrants, most don't regard themselves as Sunni or Shia, but are simply "Muslims."

Many blacks, particularly women, question Islamic traditions. In Cleveland, for example, instead of praying with men in front and women in the back, the two sexes pray side by side - separated by a screen. In another break of tradition, black Muslim wedding receptions don't segregate the sexes.

"We seek religion from the source ... from the Koran and Prophet Muhammad, and not from cultural influences," says Ms. Mustafa.

Muslim Mission sources say the Million Man March concerns Shoura leaders. "The march gives our struggle a bad image," one official says. "We don't see ourselves as black Muslims. We see ourselves as Muslims."

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