Together, black Muslims account for about a quarter of the country's estimated 5 million to 8 million Muslims, compared to the estimated 50 percent of U.S. Muslims who are from South Asian and Arab countries.
Despite their historic role within American Islam, many African-Americans complain that Arab and South Asian Muslims who have immigrated since the 1960s have never taken them seriously as partners in the faith, show little interest in cooperation and have marginalized their role in U.S. Islamic institutions.
But that may be changing as South Asian and Arab Muslims who dominate leadership positions in mosques and advocacy groups feel their civil rights at risk after Sept. 11, 2001. Increasingly, they are turning to African-American Muslims for their civil rights experience.
Cooperation between the two groups should come naturally, leaders say, especially after Sept. 11, when many Muslims say they find themselves enduring what black Americans--Muslim and non-Muslim--had endured for years: job discrimination, profiling, hate crimes, violence and murder.
“There are an awful lot of places where our issues and interests converge and on which we find ourselves working together," said Hilary Shelton, federal and legislative affairs director for the NAACP, the venerable black civil rights group.
Since Sept. 11, the NAACP has stepped up its cooperation with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society and similar groups, opposing provisions of the Patriot Act that they say infringe on their civil liberties. The NAACP also condemned a secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance that many believe has unfairly targeted American Muslims.
Black Americans "went through the struggles of the civil rights era, and the struggles before that," said Ahmad Al-Akhras, a native Palestinian who leads the Ohio chapter of CAIR. "And we learned from leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. They paved the way for people after them." Last December, Al-Akhras was appointed to the executive committee of the Ohio chapter of the NAACP.
Although slavery had nearly wiped out Islamic practices among blacks, several black nationalists a century ago tied their movements to Islam. The most prominent was Elijah Muhammad, whose Nation of Islam movement espoused black redemption through Islam and black racial superiority. When Muhammad died in 1975, his son, Warith Deen Mohammed, took over the Nation of Islam, disavowed racist theology and moved his followers to a more mainstream practice of Islam.
"It took a while for the immigrant community to understand that our community had actually evolved and moved on to Islam as it's practiced around the world. And it took five to 10 years of W.D. Mohammed's leadership to demonstrate that we were, quote unquote, legitimate Muslims," said Ayesha Mustafaa, editor of Muslim Journal, a weekly newspaper affiliated with Mohammed that has about 40,000 subscribers.
Based in Chicago, Mohammed's ministry is known today as The Mosque Cares and claims about 250,000 followers. Another 10,000 to 20,000 black Muslims belong to the Nation of Islam, now led by Louis Farrakhan.
Most of the remaining 1 million to 2 million African-American Muslims are not affiliated with either group, but they often complain about being overshadowed by or mistaken for the more visible followers of Mohammed and Farrakhan.
For U.S. Muslim groups, the cooperation with black civil rights groups has taught important lessons about forming alliances, working the media and grass-roots organizing, Muslim leaders say.
"A group like CAIR that's only been around for 10 years can learn a lot from a group like the NAACP," said Johari Abdul-Malik, a Brooklyn-born convert, or "revert" as some prefer, who is now imam at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, near Washington, D.C.
"The African-American community is the veteran in facing those challenges. They parallel what they faced in the '60s," said Kareem Shora, legal director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has a significant Muslim constituency.
With their civil rights experience and knowledge of American society to offer, more African-American Muslims are slowly filling leadership roles in mosques and advocacy groups.
Abdul-Malik, who is also Muslim chaplain at Howard University, said he was appointed imam at Dar Al-Hijrah, whose reputation had been "Arab-centric," in 2002 because of his American background and experience as an activist.
For the most part, his constituents have welcomed him, he said. "I have people, even older immigrants, telling me, `Brother, we need you to be more out in front, because our immigrant brothers don't have the experience,"' he said.
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, has also risen to prominence, in part for his oratory skills and ability to crystallize common issues faced by blacks and American Muslims, such as profiling.
"I get the double whammy," he's fond of saying, "driving while black and flying while Muslim."
Other African-American Muslim converts in prominent positions include Siraj Wahaj, a Brooklyn imam who in 1991 became the first Muslim to perform the invocation for the U.S. House of Representatives and sits on the board of directors of the Islamic Society of North America, one of the largest Islamic organizations in the United States. CAIR also has at least one board member and one state chapter president who are African-American Muslims, and last year named a scholarship after civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
Despite these inroads, many African-American Muslims complain--and many other Muslims acknowledge--that great divides remain, especially in day-to-day contact between rank-and-file Muslims, and that the contact that does exist is often superficial.
Many American Muslims see an embarrassing reminder of that divide every Labor Day weekend in Rosemont, Ill., where the Islamic Society of North America holds its annual convention that draws about 35,000 mostly South Asian and Arab Muslims. A few miles away in downtown Chicago, thousands of Warith Deen Mohammed's followers gather for their annual convention.
"They are only reaching out because they need help," said Aminah Beverly McCloud, an Islamic studies professor at DePaul University in Chicago. She believes today's Muslims don't have the same commitment to civil rights that the African-Americans of the civil rights era had.
"They were Americans who felt so strongly about liberty and justice that they were willing to give their lives for it. Black and white. That's not the case with the immigrant community. They're here to make money," she said.
Others believe many Muslims who are born into the faith don't take African-American Muslims seriously, or don't associate with them because of cultural prejudices.
"There needs to be some dialogue between us based on respect. But because we're from America, we're reverts, a lot of people don't respect us as Muslims," said Yusef Abdul-Jaleel, who is active with the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood, founded in 1967 as a mainstream alternative to the Nation of Islam.
"There needs to be more day-to-day interaction, something other than, `Brother, can you speak here, we're having a fundraiser."'