Written by Paul Easterling
The Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) was the first organized movement of African American Muslims in the United States; all other African American Muslim movements either began after the MSTA or were not founded in the United States, such as the Ahmadiyya movement. However, there are differences in the history of interaction between African people and al-Islam as opposed to Christianity, because there was a sizeable population of al-Islamic Africans before the process of European enslavement began. Regardless, when Africans converted and adapted to the religion of al-Islam (or adapted the religion of al-Islam to themselves), what is clear is that they made the tradition unique to their needs and experiences. This uniqueness reinforced themes that were seen as critical to African people in America: building a sense of collective pride, attention to propriety or a sense of justice as well as community development and maintenance. Further, this pattern was followed and recreated in a variety of ways as the African American Muslim movement in the United States evolved. The MSTA, for instance, focused on creating a sense of nationhood by introducing and reinforcing images and concepts that were both familiar and foreign to African Americans in order to fashion a sense of self-pride and mystery that many African Americans found culturally enriching.
The Nation of Islam (NOI) reinforced and continued the process started by the MSTA after the murder of Noble Drew Ali in the early 1930s. Malachi Crawford, author of Black Muslims and the Law: Civil Liberties of Elijah Muhammed to Muhammed Ali states, “it is apparent that the MSTA’s ideas of self-definition, the divinity of man and the use of religious history to formulate a new and alternative national identity provided the NOI with a blue print to build its ethno-religious beliefs.” Furthermore, the NOI was able to have a process of out-reach that surpassed the efforts of the MSTA through Midwest and East coast expansion but also by appealing to the growing African American prison population in the US. Moreover, it was in prison when one of the more prolific members of the NOI was converted from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X. This conversion would help to boost the NOI movement in a way that forced the American general public to take seriously the African American Muslim voice. Further, with the growth of the NOI came very important publications which helped to provide not only a voice, but shape to the African American Muslim movement. One of those publications was Message to the Black Man in America by Elijah Muhammed.
Message to the Black Man in America helped to inspire an entire generation of African American men and women to look deeper into the meaning of what it means to be of African descent and a spiritual being in the United States. Muhammed was able to capture the essence of African personhood, its’ pride as well as deep frustration, while being the object of American dehumanization. Muhammed, born Elijah Poole to a Baptist family, was forced to reconsider the role of Christianity in the lives of African American people when he witnessed white Christians lynch and murder members of his community. Muhammed was unable to reconcile the contradictions of a loving Christian God with the evils of European American Christians.
However, despite both the powerful critique of Christianity and the organizational efforts of the NOI, Arab Muslims of the al-Islamic tradition have had a problematic history with respect to African people and the African continent, just as White Christians and Christianity have. This is of course referencing the East African slave trade and Arab colonization of African lands and people predating the European efforts that took place on the Western side of the continent. This problem was hardly if ever addressed by Elijah Muhammed however, it is an element of religious history that must be dealt with from an African-centered perspective. Meaning, to approach al-Islam as anything more than an Arab-centric religious tradition is ahistorical. Islam like Christianity has provided some sense of religious foundation and spiritual security for Black people but it is still a spiritual tradition which has interrupted and disrupted African history and culture, as well it has been used to colonize the minds and spirits of African people.
While Malcolm X remained a Muslim until his assassination, he forsook the rigid belief system offered by Elijah Muhammed for a more culturally sensitive approach that was more inclusive of non-Muslims because for him racial issues took precedence over religious concerns. Akiniyele Umoja in the article “From Malcolm X to Omowale Malik Shabazz: The Transformation and Its Impact on the Black Liberation Struggle,” states “in January 1964 Malcom began to meet with others for the purpose of forming a new organization: Muslims dissatisfied with the NOI hierarchy’s corruption and lack of political activism; and intellectuals and activist inclined toward Pan-Afrikansim, nationalism and racial politics.” Malcolm’s concerns were culturally based. He understood that a strictly religious approach was not enough to deal with the problems African Americans were faced with; religion must have a cultural focus otherwise it would become problematic for people of African descent. This once again illuminates the point that religious believe is a veneer that does not overshadow the cultural sensibilities of a people.
The OAAU, that is, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, is a testament to Malcolm’s approach towards recognizing the need for attention to racial issues apart from religious concerns. That is to say, with the organizing of this movement, the OAAU, Malcolm made it known that there were/are concerns of the African American community that could not be solved through religious or spiritual means. Moreover, the end of Malcolm’s life is a testimony to the intelligent practice of religion among African people throughout the world. Meaning, Malcolm understood that there is great diversity in the religious practices of African people, but that religious practice should not be a barrier that keeps African people blind to the most basic of human concerns: dignity. Malcolm understood this problem and urged other African American leaders of the United States and the world to leave their respective belief systems “at home, in the closet” so that basic humans concerns could be addressed. More than being a cry for ecumenical support and action of the time, it can be argued that this was a revelation of Malcolm’s after his return from Africa, that African people have cultural similarities that overshadowed religious coatings that seemed to dominate.
 Richard B. Turner. Islam in the African-American Experience. (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2003), 109-111.
 Michael Gomez. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. (Durham: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 59-87. Michael Gomez. Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the United States. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) , 59. Discussing the examples of Abu Bakr and Muhammad Kaba the author states, “it is not clear that privileged individuals such as Abu Bakr and Muhammad Kaba, who themselves own slaves in West African, were necessarily abolitionists”. See also: Sohail Daulatzai. Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
 Elihu Pleasant-Bey. The Biography of Noble Drew Ali: Exhuming a Nation. (Memphis: Seven Seal Publications, 2004).
 Malachi D. Crawford. Black Muslims and the Law: Civil Liberties from Elijah Muhammed to Muhammed Ali. (New York: Lexington Books, 2015), 9.
 Elijah Muhammed. Message to the Black Man in America. (Atlanta: Messenger Elijah Muhammed Propagation Society, 1965). See also: How To Eat To Live, Vol. 1 & 2 (Atlanta: Messenger Elijah Muhammed Propagation Society, 1967).
 Karl Evanzz. The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammed. (New York: Random House, 2001), 9-31.
 Bethwell A. Ogot. Zamani: Survey of East African History. (East African Publishing House, 1969). Hans J. Kisling and F. R. C. Bagley, et al. The Last Great Muslim Empire: History of the Muslim World. (Brill, 1997).
 James L. Conyers, Jr. and Andrew P. Smallwood. Malcom X: A Historical Reader. (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2008), 34.
 Malcolm X. Public speech: “A Message to the Grassroots.” (November 10, 1963). In this speech X emphasizes the need for African people (people of color in general) to unite based on their commonalities in order to strategize intelligently against a common enemy.
 Malcolm X. Public speech: “The Ballot or the Bullet.” (Cleveland, Ohio: April 3, 1964).