Black History Month: African American Muslims

Black History Month, also called African-American History Month, is a celebration of the achievements of African-Americans and their key role in the United States. It is a month to recognize African-Americans as more than just a group of people mentioned in our history class textbooks. By recognizing their unique individual stories, we can truly appreciate African-American history.

We are familiar with many of the key figures in African-American history, and here I will talk about some lesser-known Muslim African-Americans who have made great contributions to American history.

  1. 1. Omar ibn Said

    A dark history followed for Africans during the slave trade. It was found that thirty to sixty percent of the slaves were Muslims from Africa, one of them including Omar ibn Said. Omar ibn Said was an educated Muslim-African born about 1770 in Futa Toro (modern Senegal), captured at age 37 and brought to South Carolina to be sold. He remained enslaved until his death in 1864. He was transported to Charleston, North Carolina and then escaped to North Carolina. When ibn Said escaped to Fayetteville, North Carolina, he was imprisoned after entering a Christian church to pray. Said garnered attention by writing on the walls of his prison cell in Arabic, and he soon became the legal property of General James Owen of Bladen County, who recognized Said to be an educated man and, according to Said's autobiography, treated him well. Said still understood the ills of slavery. His autobiography opens with a passage from the Quran, Surah 67, entitled Sūrat al-Mulk, which means “sovereignty.” 

    "In the name of God, the merciful, the gracious. God grant his blessing upon our Prophet Mohammed, Blessed be He in whose hands is the Kingdom and who is Almighty; who created death and life that he might test you; for he is exalted; he is the forgiver (of sins), who created seven heavens one above the other."

    The chapter focuses on God’s control over all things and humanity’s attempts to control the world. The passage itself challenges the idea of ownership over another human being, a right that only exists within God, He maintained his Islamic faith all throughout his life. 

    When Omar died in 1864, at over ninety years of age, he was still enslaved to the Owens family. He is buried in Bladen County, North Carolina. In 1991, an American mosque was named after Omar ibn Said, and in 2010, the state erected a historical marker honoring him. During Black History Month, stories like Omar ibn Said remind us that Muslims were not strangers to early America, and have, in fact, been an important part of our collective history.

  2. 2. Muhammad Ali

    Muhammad Ali was a boxer, philanthropist and social activist who is universally regarded as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Ali became an Olympic gold medalist in 1960 and the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1964. Although many focus on his achievements as a boxer, he was a remarkable man for his wisdom and deep faith. His pure and non-discriminatory understanding of Islam made him loved by all. 

    “My fight in the boxing ring was only to make me popular. I never enjoyed boxing. I never enjoyed hurting people, knocking people down. But this world only recognizes power, wealth, and fame … And after hearing the powerful message of Islam, and seeing the beautiful unity in Muslims, after seeing how the children are raised, after seeing the procedures of prayer, after seeing the way we eat, the way we dress, just the whole attitude of Islam, it was so beautiful — I said this is something more people have to know about, this is something more people would accept and join if they really understood.”

    He loved America even though he was forced to attend segregated schools. He loved America even after the government and many of its citizens turned on him for becoming a Muslim. He loved America even after he was convicted of draft dodging and banned from boxing for three and a half years. Ali loved America because he was a fighter, and America let him fight for his unpopular — and what some thought were unpatriotic — beliefs. He loved America because it’s a nation that gives fallen fighters repeated chances to get up off the mat.

  3. 3. Ibtihaj Muhammad

    The story of Ibtihaj Muhammad came to me when I was considering sports. Could Muslim women even play sports? Yes, yes they can. 

    Ibtihaj Muhammad is an Olympic medalist in fencing. A 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, 5-time Senior World medalist, and World Champion, in 2016, Ibtihaj became the first Muslim American woman to compete in the Olympics in hijab. Her memoir, Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, chronicled her journey from a teenager deciding to fence in high school after seeing a sport that didn’t require a uniform modification to properly cover herself, all the way to intense training she underwent for the Olympic scene.

    "People are always shocked to hear I'm an athlete by profession and even more shocked when they hear I'm a fencer from the United States. I challenge the stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed and that a Muslim can be American by birth. It's amazing how many assumptions people make, but I embrace the opportunity to use this Olympic platform to educate."

    In addition to changing the athletic arena, in 2014, Ibtihaj launched her own clothing company, Louella, which aims to bring modest, fashionable and affordable clothing to the United States market. In 2017, Mattel announced their first hijabi Barbie, modeled in Ibtihaj’s likeness, as part of Barbie’s “Shero” line of dolls. It is so important every little girl gets to see themselves represented in toys like the famous Barbie doll. It sends a message — you are seen, you are special, and you are loved.

    “This will show children how to embrace what makes them different and to remind them that they're beautiful and they can be whatever they want. We can help push that narrative through role play, through dolls and through using your imagination.”