"Fish, Grits, and CousCous": Islam in the African-American Experience
The fact that Africans who got drawn into the vortex of slavery came from a variety of ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds, is seldom recognized. For example, many enslaved persons belonged to the Islamic faith. Thus, the fact that Islam has been an integral feature of African-American religious life in the United States for centuries, is often overlooked. The program “Fish, Grits and Couscous: Islam in the African American Experience” featured panel of experts who explore different aspects of Islam in Black America. Dr. Sylviane Diouf, of the Schomburg Center for Black Research and author of the award winning book Servants of Allah (which traces the influence of Islam on slave communities in the United States), began the discussion by overviewing the west-African origins of African-Americans. She pointed out that a large proportion of African-Americans have origins in the Senegal-Gambia region, which is historically one of the most Islamic regions in Africa. She went on to discuss the life histories of enslaved Muslim Africans and cited specific Islamic influences within African-American culture, such as expressions used by African-Americans with Arabic roots, as well as the Blues, which, according to Dr. Diouf, are deeply influenced by Koranic chanting and the Muslim call to prayer.
The next panelist, Dr. Michael Gomez, Professor of History, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, is the author of a number of path breaking books on politics and culture in the Black Diaspora, including Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas. Professor Gomez observed that it was difficult for enslaved Africans of Muslim ancestry to sustain their faith under the institution of slavery. For example, there was no access to Arabic religious texts and very little literacy in Arabic within slave communities. Furthermore, large numbers of enslaved Africans embraced Christianity. While there was no coherent institutionalized practice of Islam during slavery, there were nevertheless, sensibilities to Islamic antecedents in the slave communities of North Carolina, Georgia and the Mississippi basin, according to Professor Gomez. The rise of Islamic movements among African-Americans in the 20th century is attributable to the sense of alienation they experienced as they descended into second class civic status following the demise of the Reconstruction period and the rise of segregation, which gave rise to a crisis of identity in the Black community during this period. Muslim movements such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam fused Black nationalism with religion, promoting Black self acceptance and self-love, according to Professor Gomez.
The next speaker, Professor Michael Nash (faculty member in the Division of the Humanities at Essex County College and a lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers-New Brunswick), drew on his recent work Islam among Urban Blacks: Muslims in Newark, New Jersey, to discuss the development of Islam is New Jersey’s most populous city. He stated that many southern Blacks settled in Newark in search of economic opportunity during the great Black migration. One of these migrants, Noble Drew Ali from North Carolina, who settled in Newark in 1913, was the founder of the Moorish Science Temple. He then traced the developments of this and other Islamic sects in Newark.
The final speaker was Ms. Donna Austin, a graduate of the Department of Africana Studies and Vice-President of the New Brunswick Islamic Center. Ms. Austin spoke about the role of women in Islam from both historic and personal perspectives. She tried to dispel some of the popular myths about the marginal status of women in Islam and offered examples of the important roles played by African-American women in the development of Islam among Blacks in the contemporary United States. She concluded her presentation by discussing the personal inspiration she derives from her Muslim faith.
Following the formal talks, students engaged in a lively discussion with the panelists. Many students commented that they enjoyed interacting with scholars and that their awareness of this topic was increased as a result of the program.
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