A selection of Black Muslims in history; from the birth of Islam in 7th century to the present day.
(Disclaimer: There are many more figures I could have included, from different fields and periods of time. This is simply a small selection from a huge number of Muslims, both historically and in more recent times. There are also articles and books written on each of these individuals, I have deliberately kept some of the sections and list of achievements brief. The reason for both of these mainly to keep the article reasonable in length.)
Bilal ibn Rabah
Bilal is one of the most well-known Sahabah (companions) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and one of the earliest converts in Islam. No biography of the Prophet (saw) or history of Islam is complete without mentioning Bilal.
Bilal was a slave and owned by the notorious Umayyah ibn Khalaf, one of the prominent tribal leaders in pagan Makkah and a staunch enemy of Islam in the 7th century. The idolatry in Makkah was rife and it was central to the trade and economy of the area. Bilal had heard about the arrival of a Prophet and his teachings. He was convinced by its message of worshipping One God alone, the purity of Islam and also the character of the Prophet (saw) himself.
Upon hearing that his slave had embraced Islam, Umayyah ibn Khalaf asked Bilal to reject this faith. Despite the pleas and warnings from his master, Bilal refused to abandon his new beliefs. Ummayah then undertook stronger measures, i.e. beatings and torture to try and force Bilal to denounce the worship of One God. Bilal stood firm. Ummayah then ordered his men to take Bilal to the desert, place him on the hot searing sand and pelt him with stones. Several men then placed a large heavy rock on Bilal’s bare chest which was not only crushing him under the weight of the boulder but it also pinned him to the burning sand of the desert. Bilal’s torturers were taunting him and asking him to denounce Islam and to say something in favour of the idols. Bleeding and bruised, burning from the hot sand and searing sun, being crushed under the weight of a large rock, Bilal gave a simple but powerful response: “Ahad. Ahad. (He is One. He is One)”.
After hearing that Bilal was being tortured in the desert, Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s (saw) closest companions then offered 10 ounces of gold to Ummayah in order to free Bilal from slavery. Ummayah took the offer and scoffed, saying had Abu Bakr bargained, he would have even accepted an offer of 1 ounce. Abu Bakr responded and said had Ummayah bargained, he would have offered 100 ounces of gold to free Bilal.
After the boycotts, torture and persecution of Muslims in Makkah, they migrated to Medina. Where they established a community and a mosque. When the call to prayer was ordained, the Prophet (saw) specifically asked Bilal to perform this noble and honourable act. Bilal became known as Muazzin-ur-Rasool – The prayer caller of the Messenger of God.
Umm Ayman (also known as Barakah) was described by the Prophet (saw) himself as “my mother after my own mother”.
When the Prophet (saw) was born he was held in the arms of Umm Ayman who became his wet-nurse and she was present for much of his childhood, including being his primary carer when his mother, Amina, died when he was just six years old.
She was also one of the very early converts and faced persecution for embracing Islam in the early days. Umm Ayman assisted in both the preparations for migration from Makkah to Medina and also in the battle of Uhud as she provided water and treated the injured.
When Umm Ayman migrated on foot to Medina, the Prophet (saw) said: “O Umm Ayman! O Ummi (O my mother), indeed for you is a place in Paradise.”
Usama ibn Zayd
Usama ibn Zayd is the son of Zaid ibn Haritha who was the Prophet’s (saw) adopted son and his mother is Umm Ayman.
The Prophet (saw) was reported to have taken both his grandson Hassan and Usama on his lap and said: “O Allah! Love them as I love them”.
When Usama was 10 years old, he asked his father’s permission to participate in the Battle of Badr, the first major battle in Islam. His father refused due his young age. A year later in the Battle of Uhud, he again attempted to be one of the soldiers but was turned away. Usama was in his late teens when the Prophet (saw) put him in charge of an army that had people much older and senior to him. Usama was part of the first group of Muslims to defeat the Roman army.
Negus (or Najashi) was an Abyssinian king during the time of the Prophet (saw). During the period of persecution in Makkah, the Prophet (saw) ordered a group of Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia to seek refuge and safety. They were well received by the King and his devout Christian following.
The leaders of the Quraysh tribe in Makkah sent a delegation with expensive gifts to Negus in order to have the Muslims expelled and handed over to the Quraysh. Negus was told this group had invented a new religion, one which neither the Quraysh nor the people of Abyssinia followed.
Negus was reluctant to hand them over and said they had sought protection in his country and he would question and judge them for himself. Negus asked the Muslims about this new religion. Jafar answered and told them about the Messenger (saw) and the worship of One God. When asked to recite something from the new Revelation, Jafar recited chapter 19, verses 16 to 21, which was the chapter of Mary. When questioned about their view on Jesus, Jafar said Jesus was the slave of God and His Messenger.
Negus stated that the teachings of Jesus and what Islam had come with was like the width of a stick, i.e. very close in its teachings. He then refused to hand the Muslims over and told the Quraysh to leave.
Negus later embraced Islam. Upon Negus’ death in Abyssinia, the Prophet (saw) performed Janazah-al-Ghaib (Islamic funeral prayer in absence).
Wahshi ibn Harb
Wahshi ibn Harb may be most remembered for killing the uncle of the Prophet (saw), Hamza, at the Battle of Uhud. Wahshi was hired by Hind, the wife of Abu Sufyan, to avenge the death of her father who died at the Battle of Badr fighting against the Muslims.
Wahshi later embraced Islam. Although it pained the Prophet (saw) to see Wahshi, he accepted his coming to Islam and also forgave him. When Wahshi asked if Allah would forgive him, the following ayat in the Quran was revealed:
“O My servants who have transgressed against themselves, do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” (39:53)
After the death of the Prophet (saw), many trials and tribulations occurred. One of these included imposters claiming Prophethood. Once such individual was Musaylima. Wahshi killed Musaylima during a battle and said: “I had made Shaheed (a martyr) one of the best men (Hamza) during Jahiliyah (ignorance, before accepting Islam) and killed one of the worst (Musaylima) while being a Muslim.”
Al-Jahiz was born in Basra, Iraq in the late 8th century. His family ancestry goes back to Ethiopia.
Al-Jahiz was a practising Muslim from a young age and was fond of learning and debating Islam. He was a biologist, writer and poet. Al-Jahiz wrote many books on animals including the effects of the environment on animals, food consumption and characteristics of plants and animals. One of his hallmarks and personal writing style was to include anecdotes and humour within his works.
Al-Jahiz proposed a theory of animal evolution, hundreds of years before Charles Darwin’s ‘theory of evolution’.
The richest person in history is a 14th century African king by the name of Mansa Musa I of Mali. His fortune today would have been $400 billion (inflation adjusted). By comparison, the World’s current richest man has a fortune of $68 billion.
Mansa Musa was not only extremely wealthy, but pious, generous and a scholar. Upon returning from Hajj, Mansa Musa purchased a large number of books and brought with him jurists and scholars. Through this, Universities in Gao and Timbaktu flourished, mosques were built, scholarship increased and mass education was encouraged.
Askia Muhammad (also known as Askia the Great and Muhammad Toure) was a ruler in West Africa in the 15th and 16th century. When Askia became ruler, his empire known as Songhay, rapidly expanded and incorporated parts of modern-day Nigeria and Senegal. At the time it was the largest empire in African history.
Under his leadership, Islam was made the state religion. Askia standardised trade and currency. He also enhanced learning and literacy as well as creating a centralised government focusing on agriculture, finance and justice. Sankore University in Timbaktu describes this period as a golden age for Muslim scholarship
Ayyub ibn Sulayman
Ayyub ibn Sulayman (also known as Job Ben Solomon) was born in Senegal in the early 1700s. In 1731, Ayyub was abducted by European slavers and eventually bought in London. He wrote the Quran purely from memory and was also able to translate Arabic books into English.
Born in 1736, Yarrow Mamout was abducted from Guinea at 16 years old. He was enslaved in Maryland, US and was finally freed at the age of 60 years old.
A few years after being freed, Mamout purchased a house in Georgetown – something remarkable and incredibly rare at the time for a slave taken from Africa. He also went on to invest money and became a financier for local merchants – both black and white.
Mamout was a devout Muslim from the Fulani tribe in West Africa. In his native Guinea, Mamout received a Quranic education and had knowledge of both Arabic and basic English. Mamout openly practised his faith until his death at the age of 87 and was buried in his garden where he used to pray.
Uthman Dan Fodio
Uthman Dan Fodio was an 18th century scholar from modern-day Nigeria. He was a Hafiz (one who has memorised the entire Quran), a Muhaddith (mastered the study of Hadith), Mufasir (qualified commentator on the Quran and a jurist in the Maliki tradition.
Dan Fodio was the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in the early 1800s. By 1815, the empire included Northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and parts of Niger. Sokoto rule was independent until it fell under colonialism in 1903.
Nana Asma’u was the daughter of Uthman Dan Fodio and was born in 1793. Asma’u could speak four languages, was a hafiz (one who has memorised) of Quran, had knowledge of hadith and was a poet.
Asma’u inspired a generation of female Islamic scholarship and literacy. She taught both boys and girls and Asma’u trained a network of women so they could go on and teach others.
The story of Asma’u and her works are still remembered today. Several schools, organisations and buildings are named in her honour.
Born in French-colonised Senegal in the 1850s, Amadou Bamba led a life committed to propagating Islam and social justice. His father was a respected judge and scholar and as a child, Bamba tried to imitate his father in acts of worship and studying the religion.
Bamba went on to found the Murdiyya movement which called people to traditionaI Islamic and prophetic ideals. Bamba stressed the importance of spiritual rectification and avoiding the overindulgence of this world. The Murdiyya movement attracted large numbers of followers and emerged as a formidable resistance to French imperialism.
In 1895, the French authorities sent Bamba to trial and accused him of forming an army against the state. He was exiled to Gabon and again to Mauritania. During his exiles, Bamba continued his works and produced poems and books on Islamic jurisprudence, commentary of the Quran and praising of God and His Messenger (saw). This exile proved to backfire against the French as his works continued to inspire an Islamic revolution in Senegal.
Every year, millions flock to Touba, the city where Amadou built the Great Mosque. They celebrate the life and exile of Bamba and the Islamic revival he helped bring about.
Described as one of the greatest African American leaders, Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, in 1925.
Malcolm had a difficult and troubled childhood which included losing his father when he was just six years old and his mother being put in a mental hospital when he was thirteen. During a stint in prison, Malcolm went through a transformation, rejecting his life of crime, smoking and gambling and joined the Nation of Islam (NOI), an African American movement that combined Black Nationalism with Islam.
Malcolm was an articulate public speaker, he founded a newspaper for the NOI and led several mosques in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Malcolm was famous for being outspoken about the struggles and oppression of Black Americans and called for the separation of Black and White Americans. He also rejected calls for ‘integration’ and the Civil Rights Movements as he did not believe they addressed the root cause of oppression towards Black people. Two of Malcolm’s famous quotes include: “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American Black man’s problems.” and “By any means necessary”.
A rise in Malcolm’s popularity, power and followers saw tensions arise between Malcolm and the NOI. There were also revelations of immorality about the founder of NOI, Elijah Muhammad, which disturbed Malcolm. When Malcom made the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj, he rejected his former NOI beliefs, instead he embraced traditional Sunni Islam and changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Whilst in Hajj, Malcolm wrote a letter to some associates in Harlem, New York. The letter included the following:
“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here.”
“For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.”
“They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that experiences in America had led me to believe could never exist between the white and non-white.”
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.”
On his return to the States, hostilities between him and the NOI increased which included death threats. The authorities were also troubled by Malcolm’s new universal message. No longer was Malcolm just appealing to the Black masses, but he was preaching to the whole of society.
In 1965, whilst delivering a lecture, Malcolm was assassinated. Three members of the NOI were convicted of his murder.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr in 1942, in Louisiana, Kentucky.
Ali took up boxing at the age of 12 and after working his way through the ranks he was an Olympic gold medalist in 1960. In 1964, Ali challenged the heavyweight champion of the World, Sonny Liston, who was regarded as the most powerful and intimidating fighter of that era. Ali was a huge underdog in the fight but Liston quit in the sixth round. It was seen as one of the biggest upsets in sporting history. Ali was the first fighter in history to win the World heavyweight championship on three separate occasions.
Later that year, Ali announced he had embraced the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and would no longer use the name Cassius Clay, a name he regarded as his ‘slave name’. 10 years later, Ali embraced mainstream Sunni Islam.
In 1967, Ali refused to a call-up to the US army to fight the war in Vietnam. He cited religious objections and famously stated: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.”
“And shoot them for what? They never called me n****r, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father….Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, had his passport taken away, stripped of his World title and banned from boxing for 3 years. At the height of his career, Ali was deprived of his livelihood.
Ali appealed the case and managed to avoid prison. He returned to the ring in 1970 and his conviction was overturned a year later. In 1974, Ali was given an opportunity to fight Heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire. The fight was dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle. Foreman was a huge favourite to win the fight and pummelled Ali for eight rounds, forcing Ali to constantly lean on the ring ropes and absorb the punches being thrown at him. This was all a strategy by Ali. Foreman started to tire and when the opportunity arose, Ali managed to knock Foreman out and win the title that was stripped from him seven years earlier. This tactic was forever known as rope-a-dope.
Ali was well known for his pre-fight comments, antics and predictions. This excited and entertained the public but often infuriated and frustrated his opponents. Ali recorded 56 wins in his career and 5 losses, 3 of which came at the climax of his career and when he was in decline. He retired in 1981.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Ali was a devout Muslim and publicly spoke about his faith. His famous quotes on his faith include:
“Everything I do now, I do to please Allah.”
“Being a true Muslim is the most important thing in the world to me. It means more than being Black or being American.”
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
“God gave me Parkinson’s syndrome to show me I’m not ‘The Greatest’ – He is.”
Even later in life while his health was deteriorating, Ali continued with maintaining a public profile, charity work, speaking out in public and propagating Islam. Ali criticised both extremists and also those that attacked Islam “…to advance their own personal agenda.”
Prominent Islamic scholar Yasir Qadhi from the US stated: “There is no denying that Muhammad Ali is the most famous and influential American Muslim, ever. If the only good that he brought was to bring a positive image of Islam, and to spread the name of our beloved Prophet in every household and on every tongue in the world, it is a life that is indeed enviable.”
Muhammad Ali died aged 74 in 2016 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Ali is today regarded as the greatest sportsman of all time.
Dr Abu Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips is an Islamic scholar of Jamaican/Canadian origin. He converted to Islam from Christianity in the 1970s. After embracing Islam, Bilal Philips embarked on a journey of studying Islam and has a BA in Islamic Studies (Medina, Saudi Arabia), a MA in Islamic Theology (Riyadh, Saudi) and also a PhD from the UK.
Bilal Philips became a teacher of Islamic studies in Riyadh, a lecturer in UAE and an Islamic consultant in Qatar. He has also founded many organisations and institutions dedicated to Islamic studies and had produced multiple books and translated many important works including those of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah.
Shaykh Zaid Shakir embraced Islam in 1977 and was born in Berkeley, California. After co-founding Masjid-al-Islam in Connecticut and serving as the head Imam, Zaid Shakir led a community renewal project and an anti-drugs campaign. He then studied in Syria and Morocco for seven years before joining the Zaytuna Institute where he teaches Islamic law, spirituality and Arabic.
Shakir was described by the New York Times as a “leading intellectual light” and by Dr Cornel West as “one of the towering principle voices not only in contemporary Islam, but in American society.”
Born in 1946, Shaykh Khalid Yasin is an American revert from Harlem, New York. Yasin was heavily influenced by the struggles and oppression of African Americans in the 1960s. Yasin was drawn to Islam by the preaching of Malcolm X and he embraced the religion the same year Malcolm X was assassinated.
Yasin studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and has delivered lectures all over the world. In one lecture in 1994 that Yasin delivered, 43 people embraced Islam on that night. Yasin is the executive Director of the Islamic Teaching Institute (ITI), a Dawah organisation that has helped 5,000 people embrace Islam over the last ten years.
Abdullah Hakim Quick
Shaykh Abdullah Hakim Quick has worked in over 60 countries over the last 40 years, delivering lectures on Islam, debating with academics and public figures and giving Dawah to those of other faiths. He is also a senior historian.
Hakim Quick was the first American to graduate from Madinah University and has a Doctorate in African History from the University of Toronto. He is currently the Head of History at the Al Maghrib Institute and the Director of Outreach for the Canadian Council of Imams.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj was born in 1950, in Brooklyn, New York and is the current Imam of Masjid Taqwa. He embraced Islam in 1969.
Like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, Wahhaj was formerly a member of the Nation of Islam but he adopted Sunni Islam in the mid-1970s.
In 1988, Wahhaj also received high praise from the media and Police department for setting up an anti-drug patrol in Brooklyn. Wahhaj and his community staked out drug houses for 40 days, in the cold of winter. This forced the closure of 15 known drug houses.
Wahhaj is a member of the Board of Advisors for the American Muslim Council and was the first person to give an Islamic invocation to the United States Congress. Wahhaj was previously the vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. Wahhaj is an international speaker and lecturer on Islam.