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Historical Context

Islam has deep roots in American history. Though it is widely assumed that Africans who were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic practiced traditional African religions, a significant number of them were in fact Muslims, as the areas of West Africa that had been raided for slaves had housed large Muslim communities for over 600 years.[1] The following autobiographical account from Omar ibn Seid (d. 1864)—a West African Muslim captured in the early 1800s and shipped to Charleston, South Carolina—is an illustrative example of the Islamic backgrounds of the African slaves:

My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tur [that is, the Futa Tooro region, located in southern Mauritania and northern Senegal], between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years, and then returned to my home where I remained six years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and set me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language.[2]

This Muslim heritage, however, would be largely wiped out with the passage of time. Indeed, it would not be until the formation of the Nation of Islam in the early twentieth century that Islam would resurface in the USA. Established by Wallace D. Fard and his disciple, Elijah Muhammad, in Detroit in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam was committed to the liberation of Blacks in a White supremacist society. The organization called for the political self-determination and economic independence of the African American community, urging their brothers and sisters to set up their own associations and busi- nesses.[3] Malcolm X (d. 1965), arguably the most charismatic minister of the Nation, played a crucial role in expanding the movement’s following, reaching a formal membership of approximately 20,000 by the early 1960s and gaining widespread support among non-Muslim African Americans.[4] Shortly after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, the Nation split into two offshoot organizations. His oldest son, Warith Deen Muhammad, took over the reins of leadership, steering the movement towards mainstream Sunni Islam and renaming it as the ‘World Community of Islam in the West.’[5] Countering this ideological shift, Louis Farrakhan—an influential minister and protege of Elijah Muhammad—re-established the Nation and its original teachings.[6] A more significant development, however, would fundamentally change the face of Islam in America. In October 1965, a new immigration law was passed that removed the racist quotas of earlier legislations, which had largely restricted immigration to predominantly White countries.8 As a result, immigrants from Africa and Asia—a considerable number of whom were Muslim—poured into the USA. Yet despite this massive influx of Muslims, particularly from the Middle East and South Asia, Black Muslims continue to constitute the single largest ethnic community, comprising over 40 per cent of the American Muslim population.9 As shall be shown later on in the chapter, a communal rift has emerged between immigrant and Black Muslims, as reflected in separate institutional structures, community publications, and religious gatherings.[7]

An African American convert to Islam, Wadud has become an influential Islamic scholar and social activist, focusing her efforts on achieving gender justice within the Muslim community. Born as Mary Teasley on 25 September 1952 in Bethesda—a small town in Maryland—she grew up in a devout Christian family. Wadud’s early years were marred by poverty. While she was still a child, her family was evicted from their house, as they were unable to pay the mort- gage.[8] Rendered homeless, the family was forced to sleep in their car, later shifting to a trailer, and, eventually, relocating to Washington, DC, where Wadud’s father had rented a couple of rooms in someone else’s house.[9] At the age of fourteen, Wadud left her family to finish her final three years of high schooling at an all-White, public institution in Boston, living with various families.13 Upon completing high school, she attended the University of Pennsylvania. It was during her college years that Wadud converted to Islam, proclaiming the sha- hada (the testimony of the Muslim faith) on Thanksgiving Day, 1972. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education, concentrating in English, and worked as a teacher for several years after college.14 She later decided to pursue graduate work in Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, writing her doctoral dissertation on portrayals of women in the Qur’an. In other words, while Esack had a hybrid education marked by both modern university schooling and traditional training in a madrasa, Wadud has no formal traditional background. That Barlas, whose exegesis we will explore in the next chapter, also has no traditional training is telling, suggesting that the so-called secular university has become an important institutional space in which Muslim women, who would have otherwise been excluded from the male-dominated world of the madrasa, can partake in Islamic scholarship. After completing her Ph.D. in Islamic studies in 1988, Wadud moved to Kuala Lampur, where she taught for three years (1989-92) at the Department of Revealed Knowledge and Heritage at the International Islamic University.[10] It was here, in Malaysia, that she became a founding member of Sisters in Islam (SIS)—an organization that advocated women’s rights through an Islamic framework. Acting as the movement’s resident specialist in Islam, she became intimately involved with SIS and would continue to work with them well after her contract at the university expired in 1992, flying back and forth to Malaysia every year and a half.[11] Following this stint at the International Islamic University, Wadud returned to the USA, taking up a post as a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, which she held until her retirement in 2008.

  • [1] Amina Beverly McCloud, African American Islam (London: Routledge, 1995), 1.Also, see Allan D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: TransatlanticStories and Spiritual Struggles (London: Routledge, 1997) and Sylviane Diouf, Servantsof Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York UniversityPress, 1998).
  • [2] Omar ibn Seid, as cited in Edward E. Curtis IV, Muslims in America: A ShortHistory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 23-4.
  • [3] Curtis, 39.
  • [4] Carolyn Moxley Rouse, Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 95.
  • [5] Ibid, 97-8. 5 Ibid, 98. 8 Curtis, 72.
  • [6] 9 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 103.
  • [7] McCloud, 169.
  • [8] Amina Wadud, ‘On Belonging as a Muslim Woman’, in My Soul is a Witness:African-American Women’s Spirituality, ed. Gloria Wade-Gayles (Boston: BeaconPress, 1995), 255.
  • [9] Ibid, 255-6. 13 Wadud, Interview 2009. 14 Ibid.
  • [10] Mehran Kamrava ed., The New Voices of Islam: Rethinking Politics and Modernity: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 201.
  • [11] Wadud, Interview 2009. In order to avoid jeopardizing the reputation of SISfollowing her leading of the Friday Prayers in New York City in 2005—a highlycontroversial event within the mainstream Muslim community and which will bediscussed at length later on in the chapter—Wadud renounced her membership withthe organization in 2006.
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