Islam in America

"There is No ONE Kind of Muslim"

Tide of Conversion to 'A Universal Religion'

Many Black Men Leaving the Church for the Mosque

Army's First Muslim Chaplain Sees a Historic Role



By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY Jan. 27, 1994

On Manhattan's Upper East Side, 1,000 Friday worshipers crowd into a gleaming new $14 million mosque.

In Bladenboro, N.C., butchers slaughter goats according to the rules of the Koran - Islam's most holy book.

And in Fort Monmouth, N.J., an Army captain trains as the military's first Muslim chaplain.

A new sound is being heard in the USA, a land where church bells have always pealed loudest. It is the cry of the muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer, beckoning members of what experts say is the nation's fastest-growing religion. And as the number of Muslims swells, so too does their political and cultural influence.

"This is a new phenomenon," says Sayyid Syeed of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va. "The Muslim population has grown through immigration, birth and conversion" in the past two decades.

No one knows exactly how many of the world's nearly 1 billion Muslims live here. The best estimate is at least 5 million- meaning Muslims could outnumber the USA's 6 million Jews by early in the next century and make Islam the nation's second- largest religion.

Despite Islam's growth, Muslims complain they are misunderstood and stereotyped. Though fewer than 20,000 belong to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, again under attack recently for racist and anti-Semitic statements, the public identifies most black Muslims with his group. So Muslim immigrants find themselves branded for the acts of extremists. Many cite a WASHINGTON TIMES headline after the World Trade Center bombing in New York: "Muslim Arrested." "If there's an IRA bombing, they don't say 'Catholic'. Or 'Greek Orthodox' are raping Bosnians," says Mustafa Malik of the American Muslim Council, a Washington interest group. "Most Americans don't have a very positive attitude toward Muslims," says Sulayman Nyang, a Howard University African studies professor. "Most see Muslims, through Middle East issues, as fundamentalists, terrorists, anti-Westerners. ... It is guilt by association," Nyang says.

Yet, contrary to their depiction in the media, Arabs make up just 12% of U.S. Muslims, says the American Muslim Council. Muslims aren't monolithic, says Yvonne Haddad, a University of Massachusetts Islamic historian. "They come from different countries, with different languages, different ethnic identities, different races. Africans, Asians, Europeans. Also converts. There is no one kind of Muslim." But most Muslims are conservative on social issues, opposing abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality and divorce. They support school prayer. Many avoid alcohol, dating or dancing. Muslim women are urged to dress modestly, so head scarfs and floor- length dresses have become more common sights on U.S. streets. Despite their conservatism, Muslims who practice Islam's five pillars - accepting no god but Allah and Mohammed (PBUH) as his prophet, prayer five times a day, fasting, charity and making a pilgrimage to Mecca - make up just 10% of those in the USA, says Haddad.

And some Muslim leaders worry about the effects of creeping secularization, even though there are about 1,100 mosques across the nation, most built in the last dozen years.

"Drug addiction is non- existent in our community, our children aren't in gangs, we don't have problems with alcoholism, with domestic abuse," says Aslam Abdullah, editor of THE MINARET, the USA's only Muslim-oriented English-language periodical. "Our moral values can contribute to society."

Yet" the ground rules have to be accepted - America is not going to be an Islamic state and Muslims do not want to impose Islam on anybody," says Ihsan Bagby of the Islamic Resource Institute, a Los Angeles think tank. "Most Muslims have a strong love for the things American value - freedom of speech, respect for individualism and hard work."

There are two distinct Muslim communities in the USA:

- Converts: Black converts make up 42% of Muslims and account for most conversions of U.S. - born residents, the Muslim Council says. One in 5 African slaves may have been Muslim before being forced to convert to Christianity, experts say. But it wasn't until the 20th century that Black Nationalism, through the Nation of Islam, sparked an Islamic revival.

The Nation's message of black superiority and racial separation, along with strict discipline and economic self- reliance, appealed to some black men beaten down by crime and poverty. Today, though, most black Muslims follow the teachings of Warith Deen Muhammad, who rejected the Nation's racial theories and urged a return to mainstream Islam.

Still, says Howard University's Nyang, a Gambian immigrant, many blacks see Islam "as a cultural weapon in the struggle against racism" and a return to ancestral faith.

- Immigrants: The first Muslim may have arrived with Christopher Columbus. Today, more than half the USA's Muslims are immigrants. Most came after 1964, when immigration policies changed to allow more student and professional emigres from Muslim countries.

Now, 1 in 4 U.S. Muslims is from India or Pakistan. Others come from the Middle East, Africa, Iran, Turkey, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

Haddad says most immigrants assimilate quickly, settling in suburbs or small towns where they often replace native- born professionals who have moved to larger cities. Many towns rely on foreign-trained Muslim doctors for health care, and other immigrants work as engineers, scientists and business people. Farooq Kathwari, a Muslim, heads the Ethan Allen furniture company. Another Muslim, Fazlur Khan, was an architect of Chicago's Sears Tower. "Muslims are quietly contributing," says Syeed, "but that is very difficult to publicize."

Because of their diversity - immigrant and black Muslims have little contact - Muslims have yet to muster much political clout. Although some black converts and immigrants have begun to organize, most newcomers, like other immigrants, don't get involved in politics.

"It will take some time," says Haddad, noting Muslim political contributions are often rejected by politicians wary of offending other constituents. Eventually though, "Muslims will go beyond the Jewish community" in influence.

Says Mahmoud Dakhil of Los Angeles's new Omar Mosque: "We want to educate Muslims about America and educate America about Islam. It's a two-way street."


By Bruce Frankel, USA TODAY, Jan. 27, 1994

NEW YORK - As Shawn Waldron quietly makes his Shahadah, the 1,400-year-old Islamic declaration of faith, the wiry 13-year-old is scarcely aware that he represents a significant cultural shift.

Yet in joining 250 former Christians kneeling in prayer at the Abdul- Muhsin Khalifa mosque in Brooklyn, the son of a former Baptist preacher joins a tide of conversion reshaping black America's religious landscape. "There is a struggle out there for the bodies and souls of black Americans, especially black males in our cities," says William Pannel, professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. There is some real concern out there" among black churches.

African- Americans are the largest and fastest- growing segment of the USA's estimated 5 million Muslims - 42%. A new survey by the Islamic Research Institute found that 85% of the 11,000 Americans who convert to Islam each year are black.

Most converts are young men in their early 20s, seeking spiritual remedies to moral and religious confusion, racial inequality, and the violent uncertainties of inner-city life. Black converts say Islam provides clear direction, discipline, conservative family values and intellectual encouragement. "It's not just a religion. It's a way of life," says recent convert Abdur- Rashid Taveras, 22.

While the racial theories of the Nation of Islam have received most of the media attention in recent years, most black Muslims reject those ideas in favor of orthodox Islam, which they say is color blind." It's a universal religion," says Shaheed Abdul- Malik, 23, who converted in his teens. "It sees no color and no race."

Boosting its appeal the past year was the film MALCOLM X, which reminded the African-American community of that leader's conversion. But the origins of Islam are deeply embedded in black America; reaching back to the founding of the Moorish Science Temple in Newark, N.J., in 1913.Slaves may have brought the faith with them to America.

Thousands of American blacks were drawn to the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and '60s by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. For 40 years, he spread a version of Islam that championed Black Nationalism, racial chauvinism, quasi- militaristic discipline and economic self- sufficiency. Since Elijah Muhammad's 1975 death, his son - Warith Dean Mohammed - has led black American Muslims away from racial separatism and into mainstream, moderate Sunni Islam. An estimated 250,000 African-Americans are followers. By contrast, the Nation of Islam, active in converting black prisoners and led by Louis Farrakhan, has about 20,000 followers, experts say. In most African- American Muslim congregations, older leaders, now in their 40s, came out of the Nation of Islam - where they were attracted by its social activism. New converts focus more on Islam's theological solutions, such as the treatment of Christian concepts like the divinity of Jesus.

African-American men, on the other hand, find affirmation of their masculinity - one that insists fulfilling obligations to protect and provide for wives and children. Female converts, such as Hadiyyah Phipps Muhammad, 39, a hospital nurses' aide, say the security that comes to women who submit to the patriarchal religion is a fair exchange for real sisterhood and a chance to bond with reliable men. "In Islam, men don't come to Jumha on Friday and then go out on the street and act the fool," she says. "It's not to say the home is your place, but it is your base." says Sayyida Muhammad, 37, a public address announcer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, "We are the most protected women in America."

In neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, the effect of Islam is palpable. Where Muslims own stores, shopkeepers don't hide behind bulletproof barriers, as they do barely a block away. And after Muslim-led anti-drug campaigns, street dealing is less overt. Taveras says he might not have turned to Islam if he lived in the suburb. "But here," he says, "Islam offers hope, solutions and a way out."


(The Tennessean, Volume 89, No. 234)

Suleiman Azia gave up Christianity to become a Muslim for lots of reasons. Growing up a black Baptist in Nashville, Tennessee, he said he never saw a biblical character in church literature that wasn't white. Also, the various denominations seemed to give a confusing picture about just who Jesus is--Is he God, or the son of God?

Perhaps most of all, church was attended mostly by women. Where were the men? "It seems there's something lacking in the message if it's not attracting men," said Azia, 37, a Nashville native and businessman who left the church by age 18. "In Islam, I found a stronger ideal of brotherhood and moral discipline--and of manhood. Muhammad was a man just like us, and still he led a life that was pleasing to God," said Aziz, owner of Vision Books International in Nashville.

Aziz's story could be multiplied by the thousands in America, and that's what worries African-American church leasers. Though black churches remain a thriving institution, the conversion of black males to the religion of Islam poses a worrisome threat as the century winds down, according to a new national report. "It is already clear that in Islam the historic black church denominations will be faced with a far more serious and more powerful competitor for the souls of black folk than the white churches ever were," said church historians Wric Lincoln of Duke University and Lawrence Mamiya of Vassar College, writing in the new Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 1993.

Church life among African-Americans is by no means eroding, according to scholars Lincoln and Mamiya: 78% of the black population claims church membership, and attendance among blacks is slightly higher than whites. But nearly 90% of converts to Islam in the United States are African-American men, a statistic that doesn't surprise Amiri al-Hadid, a local sociologist who is himself a Muslim convert. "The church teaches you to be passive, but that's not how you survive in America.' said al-Hadid, 48, a former Baptist who teaches at Tennessee State University and helped organize a new mosque in Nashville. "Islam teaches self-defense. It teaches knowledge and discipline, and the African-American male needs discipline. But there isn't an ambience of guilt. In church, there is sadness, a sense of guilt, the need to repent, an emotional environment. But men are just not going to cry in public. Islam appeals to your reasoning. It encourages a rational relation with God, not emotions."

Nevertheless, al-Hadid, who was known as Andrew Jackson before changing his name this year, said Islam and Christianity should be driven into competition for the black community, but should collaborate to promote common values.

Some local Christian ministers find the issue of male conversion to Islam too sensitive to talk about, but others confirm the trend. "The reason we're losing a lot of our kids to Islam is they don't perceive Christianity as active enough," said the Rev. Avery Blakeney, pastor of Messiah Baptist Church. Blakeney has lately recruited inner-city, Africa-American teen- age boys to plant trees and beautify the yard around J.C. Napier Homes--the king od activism youngsters need to learn Christian values of self-esteem and altruism and to give them reason to embrace church rather than the mosque, he said."


(Special to The NY Times) Buffalo, N.Y., December 24, 1993

He was born a Baptist, but as a young man he embraced Islam and took the name Abdul- Rasheed Muhammad. Now, he has also taken the rank of Army captain, becoming the first Muslim chaplain in the armed forces and a symbol of growing religious diversity.

Since his swearing-in on Dec. 3 at a ceremony at the Pentagon attended by family, friends and reporters, Captain Muhammad has been back home in Buffalo, finishing his work as a prison chaplain and preparing to report for duty on Jan. 10 at the Army Chaplains School in Fort Mommouth, N.J.

Sitting in the office of the mosque where he is an assistant imam, he said his appointment was a step toward acceptance of Islam as one of the nation's major religions. "Muslims can now feel themselves becoming a little more mainstream," he said.

Captain Muhammad is the first of the 3,150 active-duty chaplains in the armed forces who is neither Christian nor Jewish. A spokesman for the Defense Department, Lieut. Col. Doug Hart, said there were 2,500 people in the armed forces who identified themselves as Muslim, with 1,330 in the Army. Recruits are not required to report their religions, Colonel Hart said, and the total could be higher. A group called the Muslim Military Members estimates the total is closer to 10,000.

The research director of the American Muslim Council in Washington, Mustafa Malik, said there were more than five million Muslims nationwide, most of them immigrants. An estimated 42 percent of the Muslims are black Americans. They make up a majority of Americans converting to Islam and a majority of Muslims in the armed forces, Mr. Malik said, though neither he nor the Defense Department had precise figures.

Captain Muhammad, 41, was born Myron Maxwell, the 10th of 11 children in a family living in the Commodore Perry housing project here. Though his family was Baptist, he was never baptized, he said, because his parents wanted to leave the choice to him. He did attend church as a youngster, but he remembers that it put him to sleep. By his teen-age years, he said, he was wondering why the worshipers were black, "but the symbols were not African- American."

"I wasn't comfortable with it," he added. "It didn't sit right with my nature." He began listening to recordings of speeches by Malcolm X and, in 1973, as an anthropology major at the State University at Brockport, he took a course in comparative religion. He found that "Islam was the right way for me personally."

In 1974 he joined the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim group that espoused racial separatism and Black Nationalism. He said he did not fully subscribe to the philosophy, but was attracted by the emphasis on personal responsibility and self-help.

"In the projects where I grew up," Captain Muhammad said, "the women were exploited. In the Nation of Islam the men were always polite. They were always clean cut. I felt the Nation of Islam had more to offer than the church." After 1975 the Black Muslim movement changed course. Mr. Muhammad went with the large segment that abandoned Black Nationalism and adopted a more traditional practice of Islam under the leadership of Imam W. Deen Mohammed.

"We've come from the extreme of being anti- government to having a representative in the military," said Fajri Ansari, imam of Masjid Nu'Man, the mosque where Captain Muhammad is an assistant imam. Captain Muhammad has been an imam, an official qualified to advise other Muslims and to lead them in religious rites, since 1978. He also holds master's degrees in social work and guidance counseling and has worked since March 1992 as a chaplain at two prisons in Albion. He sees his new position as historic but not revolutionary. "My goal is not to change the Army," said Captain Muhammad, who was in the Army as a sergeant. "It is to educate the Army."

There are potential conflicts between Islamic practice and military routine. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day and meet for congregational prayer at midday on Fridays. In the month of Ramadan they observe a daytime fast, and Islamic women are supposed to wear a scarf that covers the head but leaves the face exposed. Captain Muhammad has already made one concession. Before his swearing-in and before anyone told him to, he shaved off his beard to comply with Army regulations. Though beards are not a religious requirement they are symbols of piety among Muslim men, he said, adding, "It was a struggle for me to cut it off."

Gunnery Sgt. Archie Barnes of the Marines, executive director of the Muslim Military Members group, said in general the military had been extremely flexible. Some commanders have tried to limit physical exertion for Muslims during Ramadan, he said. Nevertheless, Sergeant Barnes said, Islamic chaplains are needed because enlisted personnel are often uncomfortable asking superiors to meet their religious needs. "If you understand anything about the military structure," he said, "it doesn't come across well."

Mr. Alamoudi, from the American Muslim Council, called Imam Muhammad "a pioneer" and hoped that "others will follow in his footsteps."


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March / April 1994
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