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The history of African American Shias has its roots in the strong relationship this community has had with Islam long before and independent of immigrant Muslims. In its early history, Black Islam in America was characterized by the presence of charismatic leaders who led ideological and resistant movements against white America. The presence of such charismatic figures and the appropriation of Islamic symbols made Islam an attractive proposition for many African Americans.

The charismatic leaders of the African American movements appropriated elements of Sunni rather than Shii Islam in their teachings. This was, in all probability, because Shiism in the early 1920s and 1930s did not have a visible presence in the American public sphere. In fact, most black leaders were not aware of the nuances that differentiate Sunni from Shii Islam.

African American Shias

Shiism, whether in the form of immigrants or African Americans, had no voice in American Islam. In 1979 the African American community started looking at Shiism as a possible expression of normative Islam. This is the time when the history of African American Shias started to shape. It is estimated that by 1982, more than one thousand African Americans had converted to Shiism in the Philadelphia area alone.

The emergence of “Black Shiism” in America in the 1980s was both slow and painful. Unlike black conversion to the Nation of Islam, there was no communal acceptance of Shiism. There were no Shii proselytes visiting members of the African American community, either inside or outside incarceration facilities, encouraging them to convert.

When Black Shiism did emerge, it lacked charismatic figures who could provide an ideological basis for a dynamic movement. In fact, there was no movement to speak of at all. Black Shias could not afford to provide protection, social services, or employment opportunities to those who joined their ranks. Due to their rather tenuous position, the ideological basis of Black Shiism was tied to the interpretation provided by the immigrant Shia community.

Transition to Shia Islam was deemed as an aberration and possibly even heresy by many in the black community. The Wahhabis, who by that time were actively promoting their ideology in America, had pronounced Shiism to be a heretical sect, and by converting to Shi‘ism, African American Shias became alienated not only from their family and friends but also from the Black Muslim community, which felt betrayed by the Black Shias. For many African American Sunnis, Black Shiism represented cultural and religious heresy. In all probability, this explains the instances of discrimination and violence reported by Black Shiis in correctional facilities and other spheres of American society.

By embracing Shiism, black Shias moved from being a minority in America to becoming a minority within the African American and Black Muslim communities. But why did some African Americans find Shiism appealing? We will discuss it in the next article.

Taken from: “Shi’ism in America”

By: Liyakat Nathani Takim


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