Islamism and Its African American Muslim Critics: Black Muslims in the Era of the Arab Cold War
Abstract

The development of Islam as a twentieth-century African American religious tradition and political discourse has been shaped by the interaction of black Americans with immigrants and visitors from Muslim-majority lands. After the Second World War, during the era of decolonization and the "rising tide of color," African American identifications with Muslims from overseas only increased as black Americans viewed Muslims as potential allies in the struggle against European neocolonialism and white supremacy. But little is known about the actual contact between African American Muslims and Muslims from historically Islamic lands and the impact of Middle East politics on the practice of Islam among African Americans. This essay begins to fill that void by uncovering African American Muslim reactions to Islamism, the twentieth-century transnational ideology that sees Islam as both a political system and a religion. It analyzes the contact, exchange, and competition that resulted as African American Muslims participated in a global Islamist missionary culture spawned by the ideological participants of the Arab cold war. As foreign and immigrant Muslim missionaries reached out to African American Muslims in the 1960s, they claimed the authority to interpret what constituted legitimate Islamic practice, encouraged African American Muslims to join their missionary organizations, and in some cases, challenged the Islamic authenticity of indigenous African American Muslim groups and leaders. This essay examines the differing responses to such missionary activity, showing how Shaikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal, the founder of the State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, New York, aligned his community of believers with Islamist ideologies; how Malcolm X became the student and ally of these new foreign and immigrant missionaries, though he resisted their politicized interpretation of Islam; and finally, how members of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam rejected the missionaries' claims to ultimate religious authority and instead defended Elijah Muhammad's prophetic voice. The essay also explores the shared repercussions of these exchanges. As a result of the increased contact with Islamic missionaries and Muslim immigrants, African American Muslims altered their religious practices and political identities, increasingly read and studied canonical Islamic texts, and created new visual art and poetry signaling their identification with the rest of the Muslim world and the heritage of Islam.


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