Muslim Artifacts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is committed to studying and documenting African American religious life—past and present. Over the past ten years, the Museum has acquired over 1,093 religion objects that are now part of its national collection. Objects associated with Muslims are an integral part of this material culture. Its Center for the Study of African American Religious Life engages in both public programming and collecting.
The Museum based its decision to collect Muslim objects on several motivating factors—one, the need to represent the diversity of African American religious beliefs and practices; two, the awareness of a longstanding, influential history of Muslims in the United States; and three, knowledge of the significant role of Muslim communities as part of the development of African American self-help organizations and social reform movements in the early 20th century.
Although the black church has served as the cornerstone of African American communities, the religious beliefs and practices of African Americans have been highly diverse. Islam, Judaism, Rastafarianism, Buddhism, and Animism have also influenced the way African Americans view and interpret the world and express their faith in the unseen. These religions, or spiritual paths, represent a radical departure from the ideological and theological foundation of the black church. While Islam, for example, shares with Christianity the fundamental belief in the concept of one God, the vibrant material culture associated with Islam reveals a way of life uniquely aligned with principles and practices espoused within the faith since its inception in 7th century Arabia. As the sacred text of Muslims, the Holy Qur’an engenders this sense of historical continuity and unity among Muslims. The rituals of prayer and fasting during Ramadan, for example, have gone largely unchanged over time and place. Prayer rugs, dhikr beads, and kufis are the kinds of objects expressive of Muslim identity and culture; they are among the 166 Muslim objects represented in the Museum’s inaugural exhibition and national collection.
The presence of African American Muslims in the United States is longstanding. Their history began in the 1500s with colonial expeditions; continued with the arrival of captured Africans on slave ships; persisted through the Revolutionary War, in which many Muslims fought; and is still apparent throughout the United States. It is estimated that roughly 20 - 30% of the Africans who arrived in North America during slavery were Muslims. They arrived with distinct religious beliefs and cultural expressions, and they used their literacy—the ability to read and write Arabic—to form communities and resist slavery. Over time, the numbers of Muslims dwindled, but they left letters, diaries, and autobiographies that offer an authentic glimpse into their lives. In contrast, some nineteenth century publications by non-Muslims provided the Western world with a limited and sometimes skewed view of Muslims and Islam. Today, only 2% of African Americans are Muslims, but many are high profile athletes, politicians, activists, and entertainers. Some of the historical and contemporary figures represented in the collection are Muhammad Ali, Sister Clara Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, Betty Shabazz, and Malcolm X.
Communities of Muslims, such as the Nation of Islam, were among the self-help organizations developed during the early 20th century to help ensure the survival and social progress of African Americans. Led by Elijah Muhammad, who popularized the terms Islam and Muslim among Americans, the historic Nation of Islam (1930 – 1975) became one of the largest black, religious organizations in the United States and arguably the most well-known, probably because of its brilliant, devoted, and media savvy spokesperson Malcolm X, who is credited with substantially, and almost single-handedly, increasing the stagnate membership of the Nation during the late 1950s. The organization’s notoriety also resulted from its successful economic and educational programs, its highly visible presence in urban centers nationwide, and its theological departure from traditional Islam.
Not solely a religious organization, the historic Nation of Islam was part of the black nationalist movement of the 1910s-1970s. Through group identification, economic empowerment, political engagement, and cultural awareness, this movement sought the liberation of African Americans from various forms of oppression. Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and the Moorish Science Temple were two groups representative of this movement. The Museum acquired objects such as garments, business signs, identification cards, and publications from former members of the Nation and Moorish Science Temple. The present-day Nation of Islam, formed in 1979, owes its longevity to its outspoken and controversial leader Minister Louis Farrakhan. As the convener of the 1995 Million Man March, Minister Farrakhan is part of the Museum’s exhibit about the National Mall as a “Stage for Change.”
Without the material culture of African American Muslims, the Museum could not thoroughly document the African American religious experience—its diversity, its origins, or its potency in the struggle for uplift and liberation.
Explore the Museum’s full collection, including videos, audio, and objects not currently on display, through our collection portal or learn more about the contributions of African Muslims in Early America by reading our Collection Story.