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Ignoring & Distorting Islam in African & African-American Studies

The Value in Africana Studies

As an undergraduate at Cornell, I was intrigued by the racial divide on campus. Most of the white community was concentrated on West Campus (probably quite appropriately), while the majority of the non-white community was to be found on North Campus. This very fact prompted me to live on North Campus and to move in to Ujamaa (Swahili for "community") where I was one of two whites in amongst a predominantly African and African-American community.

My experiences there are subject for another article. Suffice it to say, that these experiences opened my eyes to a world, a history, and more importantly, a way of thinking I may have never known. Early on in my Cornell experience I was embraced and taken under the wing of a brilliant and highly-motivated Africana Studies scholar, Dr. James Turner. His objectives not only involved teaching the disciplines of Africana Studies, but focused primarily on teaching how to think. In particular, how to think critically. Africana Studies was more the vehicle through which he taught critical thought.

At any rate, as I learned to approach things with a critical eye, I began to question convictions, my heritage, and even my religion (at the time Christianity). I questioned the news, commercials, my professors, and eventually, even the discipline of Africana Studies, itself. As I examined Africana Studies closely, after having accepted Islam, a pattern began to arise. I soon discovered a neglect and at times blatant distortion of the role that Islam had to play in Africa.

Islam as Outsider

...if African stories of creation and divinities are myths, so are Christian, Jewish and Islamic ones. However, a better category for both African and other creation stories would be "narratives." Moreover, Jehovah, Yahweh and Allah are no more arguable than Nkulunkulu, Oludumare and Amma. (Karenga p.213)

The Sahara: A Geographical Divide?

Any, even superficial, reading of text regarding Africa reveals a deliberate separation between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. While in some instances, such as the epidemiology of HIV and AIDS, it makes sense to make such a distinction; for the most part, it is unwarranted, unhelpful, and even destructive.

-popular use of Egyptian symbols to represent Africa, yet dividing present day Africa into North & South

The trans-Saharan trade was brisk and varied passing thru towns like Walata, Kumbi Saleh, Tichitl and Awdaghost. From the North, traders brought salt, daggers, silk, jewelry, time pieces and fine cloth. From other parts of the Sudan, they brought bars of iron, gold, leather, cotton, kola nuts, shea butter, millet and sorghum. (Karenga p. 92)

Division by Language

African & Non-African: Dividing Histories

During the year 1062 a Moslem religious sect, the Almoravides, began to invade Ghana with the intent of forcing its people to submit to Islamic or Muslim conversion. (Anderson p. 54)


Though he mentions orthodox Islam in his Chapter entitled Black Religion, it is only in one sentence in the introduction to the chapter.

The religion of Black people in the U.S. is predominantly Judeo-Christian, but Islam, both Black and orthodox, and ancient African religious and ethical traditions, are growing among African Americans. (Karenga p. 211)
That is the second to last time in the chapter about religion that true Islam is mentioned.

In Karengaís section on The Islamic Tradition, he leaves out true Islam entirely, choosing instead to devote ten pages to the likes of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam.

Islam is clearly the largest and most effective religious challenge to Christianity among Blacks. In fact, as Lincoln (1974b:154) contends, "It has an inevitable appeal to Blacks who have difficulty with American Christianity because of its racism and with the Black Church because of its posture of accomodation." Beginning in 1913 with Noble Drew Aliís establishment of the Moorish Science Temple and growing to its highest point in the early 60ís in the context of the Nation of Islam, headed by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Islam has become a major religion among African Americans. Moreover, it has served as a creative challenge to Black Christianity in its internal criticism and struggle to create a more socially relevant religion, as expressed in Black liberation theology. (Karenga p.246)

The ideological scheme and message to Black people that Malcolm X espoused were significantly antithetical to that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and to most of the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X cast whites in satanic images, opposed integration, stressed self-help, promoted Pan-Africanism, and urged Blacks to achieve liberation "by any means necessary," not excluding violence. Malcolm Xís philosophy represented, partly, a revival of Marcus Garveyís ideology. It appealed to the rising number of Black students and to many older African Americans who had grown weary and cynical of the gradual and peaceful approaches of the traditional leaders. Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965 as a result of his defection from the Muslim organization of Elijah Muhammad. The philosophy and exhortations of Malcolm X influenced the politics and civil rights activities of many African Americans throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. (Anderson p.104)

A separatist Black economic ideology was espoused during the 1960s by Elijah Muhammad, the late leader and founder of the Black Muslims, and the Nation of Islam in America. Muhammadís philosophy of Black economic independence has been revived and is fostered today by one of his "disciples," Minister Louis Farrakhan. (Anderson p. 228)

Other Divisive Strategies

In Introduction to Black Studies, when dealing with Malcolm Xís switch to true Islam, Karenga mentions it only for its relevance to the break up of the Nation of Islam.

Recognizing the rise of Islam and Muslim popularity in his empire, Tunka Menin showed political and economic wisdom by appointing several Muslims as ministers, treating all Muslims justly and allowing them to practice their religion freely. This not only contributed to peace in the empire, but received the economic benefit of good relations and increased trade with the Muslim North. (Karenga p. 92)

Conclusions & What to do About Them


  • Anderson, Talmadge, Introduction to Afriacan American Studies, Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1993.
  • Appiah, Kwame (ed.), Africana; The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, Basic Civitas Books, 1999.
  • Karenga, Maulana, Introduction to Black Studies, The University of Sankore Press, 1993.
  • Salzman, Jack (ed.), Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Vol. 3, Simon and Schuster MacMillan, 1996.


    As early as 773-734 CE, the Muslim author Al-Fazari wrote of Ghana, calling it the Land of Gold. Also, other Muslim authors wrote of Ghana and its wealth and importance to the trans-Saharan trade. Among these were al-Yaqubi in the ninth century, al-Masíudin and Ibn Hawqal in the tenth century. But the most definitive report of the early Muslim writers was The Description of North Africa (1067) written by al-Bakri, a Moor who lived in the Moorish empire in Spain and who was also a geographer. (Karenga p. 90)



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