The presence of Islam in America is as longstanding as the arrival of the first captive Muslims from Africa, making Islam one of America’s formative religions. But the long-suppressed indigenous Islam didn’t resurface in organized form until the 1930s, when it infused the politico-spiritual drive by Noble Drew ‘Ali and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad to address the appalling social conditions of the ghettoized black masses of the North.
Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam would prove to be the most extensive, influential and durable of African American self-generated organizations. Combining black cooperative entrepreneurship with indigenous Islam-tinged culture and spirituality, the NOI pursued a collectivist nationalist agenda which sought to advance the black masses’ cause within America or without it. At its collectivist height, the NOI achieved a $95 million empire of interlocking black Muslim small businesses and farms, providing a model for “bootstrap self-development” by the marginalized and dispossessed, worldwide.
Bourgeois elements developed within or engaged by the NOI sought to weld a united African American nation out of a range of classes. Outstanding second-generation leaders such as Warith Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X would further embed Islam in Black America and extend its relations into the international community. Their media offered an informed and critical outlook on both domestic and international affairs that often paralleled progressive analysis. But it remains ambiguous whether the developing African American nation will pursue its still-unfulfilled promise through secession, autonomy or long-term integration. Much depends on how America responds.