Guide to Muslim Groups in America


Guide to Muslim Groups in America
Mikhail Juma Tariq, 1995



Mikail Juma Tariq

Muslims have attracted attention in the fields of crime control and rehabilitation in America. It has been widely noted that Islam is the most effective force for rehabilitating drug abusers (who are also usually thieves to support their habit). Many people see Islam as the main force combatting the epidemic of drug abuse and crime in the urban black communities of America. At the present rate of growth, Muslims are expected to be a majority in these communities before the year 2010. So there is a need for anyone working in crime prevention, corrections or with any aspect of the urban black population to be familiar with Islam and the Muslim groups in America. This will give a brief description of the major groups and their leaders and history. Perhaps this will help people decide the extent to which they are willing to cooperate with the different groups in their work of rehabilitation and crime prevention.

All Muslims believe there is only one God, Allah, and that Muhammed was his prophet. This is the Shahada, the creed of Islam, and is recited by Muslims frequently. Anyone who believes in any other divinity than the one true God or who follows the teachings of anyone claiming to be a prophet after Muhammed is not a true Muslim. However, there are people who call themselves Muslim who do not fit this definition, and they must be considered in any discussion of the Muslims of the United States.

The first division is between those who are immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants, mostly from countries in Asia or North Africa, and those who have become Muslim in this country, mostly African-American, usually called Black Muslims. The Black Muslims mostly trace back to an immigrant teacher named Wallace Deen Fard (also known as Fard Mohammed) [in Arabic writing, the vowels after consonants are not written as letters but may be noted by small marks above or below the letters, with no distinction between o and u or between i and e, so Muslim and Moslem are both correct transliterations of the same Arabic word. Fard is pronounced Farad, but the second a is usually not written].

His principle disciple and successor was Elijah Mohammed. Their movement was known as the (original) Nation of Islam and their newspaper was Mohammed Speaks. Elijah Mohammed taught a very modified form of Islam designed to appeal to Black Americans with a Christian background, but drawing on other tendencies such as Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement and the practices of Freemasons. He deified Fard, which is very offensive to orthodox Muslims, and caused Black Muslims to not be accepted as real Muslims outside America. Sometimes Fard was described as God walking on earth, sometimes as one of twelve (or twenty-four) great Scientists who had brought enlightenment to mankind. In this tradition, Scientist does not mean one who does scientific work, but rather a divine, mystical being far above mankind, perhaps an Archangel or a Jinn.

The most popular preacher in Elijah Mohammed's movement was Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, he took the Muslim name of Malik El Shabazz after going on pilgrimage to Mecca, but is best known as Malcolm X from his Nation of Islam period). He caused several thousand people to join the movement and made it a major force within the black community of New York. He made news by attacking white people as evil for the way they had oppressed black people and was rejected by the mainstream of the black civil rights movement as racist or simply too extreme and too confrontational. Then he broke with Elijah Mohammed after finding out that Elijah Mohammed had sexually used many young women, including his secretaries, and had had several illegitimate children with them. This was confirmed by Wallace Deen Mohammed, Elijah Mohammed's son and heir.

Malcolm X went on pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met Muslims from Asia and Europe as well as from Africa. He came away a very changed man. He realized how far the Nation of Islam was from true Islam and that good Muslims came in many colors and nationalities. He renounced his earlier teaching that white people were evil and that black people should form their own separate country. On returning to America, he began trying to lead Black Muslims out of the Nation of Islam and into true Islam, and condemning Elijah Mohammed publicly as a sinner. The result was that most Black Muslims rejected him and condemned him as a traitor. The leader of those condemning him was his own protege and assistant, Louis Farrakhan. When Malcolm X was killed by Black Muslims, Farrakhan admitted that this was probably inspired by his preaching but denied that he was involved in either the planning or the act. Many followers of Malcolm X do not accept this and still hold Farrakhan guilty of Malcolm's murder.

When Elijah Mohammed died, he left the leadership of the Nation of Islam to his son, Wallace Deen Mohammed. His followers started calling him Warith (heir) to acknowledge his inheritance of the leadership from his father. He had been educated in true Islam and Arabic by a tutor and had never accepted that Fard was divine, even though he had been named Wallace Deen after Fard. He immediately began making major changes in the Nation of Islam, changing the name to the American Muslim Mission (now Muslim American Society), establishing true Islamic teachings and practices following the Qur'an (Koran). The two biggest changes in terms of alienating some of his father's followers were rejecting the idea that whites were evil and actually welcoming them to join his movement and reconciling with the followers of Malcolm X, who gladly accepted him as leader. He established good relations with Jewish and Christian groups and invited Rabbis and Ministers to speak in masajid (mosques). He has spoken in many synagogues and churches, as well as the U.S. Senate. His high standing with Christian leaders was shown this year when he gave the Martin Luther King Day keynote speech at the Baptist Church where King had preached in Selma, Alabama, and then lead the memorial march to the Pettus Bridge.

The Muslim Americans constitute over 90% of Black Muslims at the present time, with somewhere between 600,000 and 1,200,000 members. They are characterized by very high moral standards, with almost no alcohol or drug abuse, and very steadfast opposition to crime. They have good relations with Jewish and Christian groups, the police, and the government in general. They encourage cooperation and joint action with other groups. They oppose all discrimination and stereotyping. Women are respected and held to be completely equal with men. They emphasize education and self improvement, their schools are mostly named after W. Deen Mohammed's mother, Clara Mohammed. They are recognized internationally as true Muslims. Their newspaper is the Muslim Journal. Recently, this group organized on a more formal basis and Plemon El-Amin (Imam of the largest Masjid in Atlanta) was chosen as the head of the Shura (Council) of Imams of the Muslim American Society.

Louis Farrakhan accepted the leadership of W. Deen Mohammed for some time, but then broke with him to form a new movement which took the old name Nation of Islam. This should not be confused with the original Nation of Islam under Elijah Mohammed, though it is certainly closer to it in its teachings than are the Muslim Americans. He resurrected the discarded ideas that Fard was divine and that whites are evil. As a result, his movement is not recognized as Muslim by other Muslims. He alienated many by condemning Jews and describing Judaism as a "gutter religion". But he has been very successful in attracting media attention and is frequently called 'the leader of the Black Muslims', even though at an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 members, his Nation of Islam makes up only about 5% of such Muslims. Their newspaper, The Final Call, has a large readership, including many who are not Muslim but like its anti-white perspective.

This (new) Nation of Islam has maintained the tradition of strict discipline like the old, so their success at eliminating alcohol and drug use may be even better than that of the Muslim Americans. They have been employed as a security agency in some neighborhoods and housing projects and have cleaned areas where they are dominant of drugs and street crime. They are very good at convict rehabilitation, taking their converts when released to new neighborhoods and finding them a job, new friends and a clean environment. As noxious as many find their racist and arrogant attitudes, their contribution to the fight against drugs and crime should not be ignored.

The third largest faction within the Black Muslims is the Ansaaru Allah Community (called the Ansar Cult by outsiders) who call themselves "Nubian Islaamic Hebrews". At 10,000 to 12,000 members, they are only about 1% of Black Muslims, but they are concentrated in a few communities where their extreme and exotic views can make news. Their leader (Dwight York, a.k.a. Malachai Z. York ) calls himself "the Lamb ... successor to the honourable Elijah Muhammed". He has taken the name "As Sayyid Al Imaam Isa Al Haadi Al Mahdi" (this can be translated as 'The Chief The Leader Jesus The Guide The Messiah', or as 'The Leader The Leader Jesus The Leader The Leader').

To appreciate how outlandish his teachings are, one must know the story of Noah and his sons and grandsons in the Bible. One son, Japheth, was the ancestor of all the people north and east of Mesopotamia (Iraq). Shem was the ancestor of the Semites (named for him), which in the Bible means the people of the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) [including the Hebrews], but not Palestine (Canaan). The third son, Ham, had four sons, Canaan, Egypt, Cush and Put. Canaan was the ancestor of the Canaanites, Egypt of the North Africans, Cush of the Nubians of Sudan and the Cushites of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, and Put of the Sub-Saharan Africans. When Noah awoke from a drunken stupor, he realized Ham had "uncovered his father's nakedness", probably a euphemism for homosexual rape (this whole story is rejected by Muslims, who believe Noah was a prophet and never defiled himself by drunkeness). Noah then put a curse upon Canaan (not Ham himself) that he and his descendants should be "slaves in the tents of Shem and Japheth". This is thought by many Biblical scholars to have been written to justify the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews and the enslavement of the Canaanites. This has been turned upside down by the Ansar Cult, they say they are Nubians, the true Hebrews, and the descendants of Abraham. Caucasians and Jews are the "sons of Canaan" (mixed with dogs as a result of their ancestors' bestiality) and meant to be "servants to the Nubian Black Man". Their hatred of whites in general and Jews in particular seems to know no limits. It is grotesquely unfair for the 90% of African-American Muslims who believe in the brotherhood and equality of all mankind to be judged by the racism spewed forth by these extremists who are not accepted as true Muslims by any other Muslims.

(Update on the "Nubian Islaamic Hebrews", 2007. The group is no longer using that name and they are no longer pretending to be Muslim. The religion is now called Nuwaubu . They have moved from New Jersey and New York to rural Georgia and have built their own town. They are now basing their religion on ancient Sumerian and Egyptian religions and on extraterrestrial revelations from their leader, Dwight York. He is no longer calling himself "As Sayyid Al Imaam Isa Al Haadi Al Mahdi", but is using the name “Dr. Malachi Z. York”. He is in prison now, serving a 135 year sentence for over 100 counts of fraud, child molesting, etc. With over a thousand cases of child molestation filed, he must hold a world record as a criminal.)

While the Black Muslims number some one million, the Muslims with Asian, North African and Balkan origins number some four or five million in the United States. These can be divided ethnically as well as by religious group. South Asians, from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Mauritius, are perhaps the largest group. The Nile Valley (Egypt and Sudan) and Arabia (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) are both well represented. Some have come from Central Asia and the Balkans (Turkey, Albania, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirghizia, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and Tadzhikistan) and the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lybia, Mauritania and Western Sahara). Fewer are from West Africa (mostly Nigeria), East Africa, Central Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Malay peoples (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philipines, Brunei and the Cham).

The largest religious group is the Sunni or Sunnites. There are some 800,000,000 Sunni. When the prophet Muhammed died, there was a split over who would become the next leader. The vast majority followed Abu Bakr, a leading disciple of Muhammed, and these became the Sunni. The minority followed Ali, Muhammed's son-in-law, and became the Shiah. The Sunni are named this because they follow the Sunna, the collected sayings of Muhammed that are not in the Qur'an. All Muslims follow the Qur'an (Koran), which contains the Word of God (Allah) as revealed to the prophet Muhammed. The Sunni try to model their lives on the example of the prophet. They are the dominant group among Muslims everywhere except Iran. The Muslim Americans identify closely with the Sunni and sometimes call themselves Sunni.

The Shiah or Shiites, some 200,000,000, dominate Iran and are a sizable minority in Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan and India. The name comes from Shiah Ali, the party of Ali. They tend to be more mystical and spiritual than the Sunni, who are thought of as practical and scientific, at least by comparison. The successors of Ali were known as Imams. Imam is a title used for one who leads prayer in a masjid (mosque), but it also used for the leader of all Shiahs. Shiahs have split over who should be the Imam, with some recognizing the seventh as the last, but most accepting the twelfth as the last. The twelfth Imam disappeared long ago and is expected to reappear when needed to save his people from error. Many people in Iran believed that the Ayatollah Khomeini was the reappearance of the twelfth Imam, which heightened the fervor of their devotion to him. Khomeini never claimed this, and since his death this belief has dissipated.

The Ismailis are the followers of the Aga Khan. They are Shiahs who believe the Aga Khan is the Imam. They are usually merchants and are found in all the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. This group is known for their honesty and devoutness. They number only some ten millions.

The Wahabis (Saudi Arabia) and Senussi (Lybia) are Sunni Muslims who were led into a more puritanical way of life than most. In some ways these movements were precursors of the Fundamentalists. The Fundamentalist movement started among the lower classes of Iran as a reaction to the "Westernized" lifestyle of the educated upper classes, which was seen as immoral and a betrayal of Islam. Since the success of the Iranian revolution, Fundamentalism has become a growing movement in many countries among Sunni as well as Shiah Muslims. The name was taken from the Fundamentalist movement in Christianity, which means those who believe the Bible is the literal Word of God. As all Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the Word of God, this is not the meaning in Islam. The similarity lies in their rejection of modern values and practices and, to some extent, scholarship and science.

Most Muslims approve of the desire of the Fundamentalists to stop those practices forbidden in the Qur'an, such as drinking alcoholic beverages, unsupervized dating, wearing revealing clothing, listening to music or watching films with immoral themes, etc. The problem really comes from their methods, which has even gone to the extreme of murder, mutilation and terrorism. Repression of others is forbidden in the Qur'an, and all these violent methods are as reprehensible to those Muslims educated in the true tenets of their faith as they are to non-Muslims. Unfortunately, in countries with large numbers of poor people with little education, such a way to feel vindicated in striking out at the privileged has wide appeal. Thousands of educated, professional Muslims have been murdered and many are frightened to speak out against the murderers. One can only hope that these fanatics can be controlled and that the one billion Muslims of the world will not be judged by them.

The Ahmadiyya sect originated in Kashmir (Pakistan). The founder, Mirza Gulam Ahmad, is thought by them to be the return of Jesus (Isa) and a prophet after Muhammed. This of course means they are not accepted as true Muslims by other Muslims. They are very concerned with the propagation of their faith, with a very active missionary program. This zeal for teaching others about their beliefs has led to comparison with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Druze of Lebanon, Palestine (including Israel) and Syria are sometimes described as Muslim but their beliefs are actually a synthesis of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Their belief in reincarnation puts them outside the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). They have been allied with the Muslims in Lebanon, where they are counted as one of three nearly equal sects, with the Sunni and the Shiah, in the civil war against the Christians (who are also split into nearly equal numbers of Catholics and Syrian Orthodox). However, in Palestine (Israel), they have allied themselves with the Jews against the Christians and Muslims.

The Sikh religion was formed as a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism in an attempt to unite the people of India in one religion. It failed in that but did become dominant in the Indian state of Punjab. The Sikhs follow twelve gurus as prophets after Muhammed (especially Guru Nanak, the founder) and their holy book, the Granth Sahib, takes the place of the Quran. They believe in one God, Sat Nam (True Name), and there are many similarities to Islam. Their prayers are beautiful and are acceptable to any monotheist. However, they are clearly not Muslim and make no claim to be Muslim.

The Baha'i Faith makes no claim to be Muslim, but since the founders were Shiah Muslims and since they do believe in one God and that Muhammed was a true prophet, some people think of them as Muslim. Their belief in the Bab and Baha'u'llah as prophets after Muhammed, and that the writings of Baha'u'llah supersede the Qur'an, puts them outside of Islam.

There are numerous small sects which claim to be Muslim or use Muslim terms and are taken for Muslims by non-Muslims. In the U.S., most of these are remnants of Elijah Mohammed's (old) Nation of Islam which have refused to accept the leadership of W. Deen Mohammed and the purification which has made his followers, the Muslim Americans, true Muslims. The test of whether they really are Muslim or not is the creed of Islam, the Shahada, "There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his prophet" (La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah). This means divine status is given to no one and nothing except Allah and no one is followed as a prophet after Muhammed.

There are two new books on the history of Islam in America and the different movements within it. African American Islam by Aminah Beverly McCloud gives a lot of detail on groups which are currently important. She tells about Imam Jamil Al-Amin, who is now the Imam for a Masjid in Atlanta. As H. Rap Brown, he was the head of the Republic of New Africa in the Sixties.

She also describes the Five Percenters. This break-away group from the old Nation of Islam maintains much of the teachings of Fard which have been abandonned by other groups. They believe they are the righteous five percent who must struggle against the ten percent of evil "bloodsuckers" who are exploiting and mis-leading the remaining eighty-five percent of the population.

Both McCloud's book and Islam in the African-American Experience by Richard Brent Turner tell about the early history of Islam in America. Of particular interest is the Moorish Science Temple lead by Noble Drew Ali. This group took much of their organization and rites from Masonic tradition, which is understandable given the Islamic roots and affinities of the Masonic movement. They early established the tradition of Muslims in America being upright and industrious, exemplary members of the community. They later withdrew from urban society and formed rural agrarian collectives, which still exist and are doing well, but which have little impact on the larger society.

One point made in both books is the role that the Ahmadiyya Movement played in introducing the Quran and other Islamic literature to American Muslims and teaching the universality of Islam. The Ahmadiyyas from India teaching the orthodox Muslim position that all men are brothers and all races are equal made a big impact on Muslims who had believed that white people were all evil.

Very few African Americans stayed with the Ahmadiyya Movement permanently, however. Their belief that Ahmad was the Mahdi and the resurrection of Jesus was not acceptable to many. There have been many Muslims who have looked for a Mahdi to come to unify the Muslims of the world, purge them of sin and error, and bring the unbelievers of the world into Islam. One common belief is that this Mahdi would be Jesus come back to punish the Jews for not accepting him and the Christians for Deifying him, causing both groups to accept the truth of Islam. Despite not being willing to accept Ahmad as a true prophet, the idea of continuing prophecy and prophets after Muhammed has been adopted by several would-be prophets.

Richard Brent Turner makes the main emphasis of his book the dual roles that Islam has played in the African American experience. It has addressed the ills of the community on the one hand, providing guidance in living a pure and productive life. On the other, it has acted as a vehicle for community building and giving self esteem. For an oppressed community persecuted as a race, this has frequently involved castigating the race of their oppressors as evil. His book gives insight into the psychology of rebelling against oppression which gives rise to the reverse racism found in many African American groups, whether they call themselves Muslim or not. The conflict between racial pride and the universality of Islam has caused separation and conflict between African American Muslim groups.

Black Pride and Black Power have been useful in lifting oppressed people up, creating disciplined, productive communities. This has been widely recognized, as shown in the response to Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March" by many who had no interest in Islam. The depth of the split between African American Muslim groups is shown by the fact that the Muslim American Society refused to endorse or support this March.

Mikail Juma Tariq

This is part of a collecion of articles on Islam and Muslims,
See these other articles as well:

Click the button below for an article on Haram (that which is forbidden) and Khamr (that which intoxicates).

For a comparison of Christianity and Islam, click


Click this button for a discussion of Muslims and Homosexuality.
Homosexuality and Islam  

Click this button for a discussion of Muslims and Beards.
Beards and Islam