Excerpt from the Lecture Muslim African Americans and Islamic Education

By Zakiyyah Muhammad

Director, IMAS – Institute of Muslim American Studies 

Presented at Zaytuna College, Berkeley California

February 28, 2017 in recognition of Black History Month

Full lecture here: https://youtu.be/abjyfu–p4Q



Following is an excerpt from the lecture on the historical development and pedagogical issues of Islamic education that transformed the African American experience. Covering approximately 400 years from African ancestors to the present, we explore five important questions. Who are Muslim African Americans? What is Islamic education? When did Islamic education begin in America? How is it different from conventional western education? And How did it transform the African American experience? The excerpt concludes with a list of references. The full lecture will be published in an academic journal soon to be announced.

This lecture is underpinned with the Muslim worldview that there is one God, indivisible with no equal, spouse or children; one Creator, one creation and one human family. In Qur’anic language that reality is Tauhid which means unity, oneness; that all things are interrelated and interdependent except Allah, The Creator. And willingly or unwillingly the entire creation including humanity are evolving upward and outward into one global humanity (community). This is the plan of God, Allah and is outside the realm of human power to assist or resist.

Who Are Muslim African Americans?

Muslim African Americans are the people whose lineage can be traced to Muslim ancestors kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the Americas.   The term was used as early as 1975 by Imam W. Deen Mohammed, leader of the largest and most influential community of Muslims in the United States of America. Black Muslims was not what these people called themselves. That name was coined by Dr. C. Eric Lincoln in his seminal study, The Black Muslims in America, 1961. In an effort to evolve from that color conscious designation to human identity designation, while honoring ones ethnic heritage, Imam W. Deen Mohammed put forth Muslim African Americans. It was embraced by a majority of indigenous Muslims who regard their first identity as Muslim, their ethnic identity as African heritage and their national identity as American.   Recalling a treasured ancestor, Dr. Ali Mazrui, it represents a triple heritage.

Definition of Western Education

Education in western intellectual thought is defined as: The acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and habits that permit an individual to function and make decisions perceived as self-enhancing.[1] This definition although in English originates from the Latin, educare – to train or mold and educere – to lead out, or bring out.   It is consistent with the Greek and Roman origins of western intellectual thought. In American institutions, anchored in western intellectual thought, education is an applied science that draws from the disciplines of anthropology, psychology and sociology. Over decades scholars have uncovered significant flaws in the philosophical underpinnings of these disciplines resulting in misinformation and misapplication of educational theory and human development. Also, influenced by humanism – the separation from the spiritual and rational makes it rift with dualism.   From the perspective of Al-Islam, these definitions are incomplete and do not definitively acknowledge the source, process or the goal of Islamic education.

Islamic Education

By contrast, Islamic education is an exact science specific to the human being. The author defines it as, “The perfected process of human development that evolves the consciousness of the human being into the excellence of one’s human potential.”[2] “This consciousness begins with a spiritual component recognizing that human beings first have a role and responsibility to the Creator who created them and to the physical creation that sustains them of which they are the guardians / trustees.”[3]   In Qur’anic language the word is Khalifatulard. Islamic education is constructed on the excellence of human nature clarified in the revelation of Qur’an and exemplified in the life example of the last prophet, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, prayers and peace be upon him. It represents an alignment between Revelation, the natural creation and the human being.

Previously defined as tarbiyah, from the Arabic root rbw, raba and rabba, at the First World Conference on Muslim Education, King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, Mecca, March 31 to April 8, 1977, Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al Attas made the correction.   In his seminal articulation on the philosophy of Islamic education he said tarbiyah is inappropriate because it is not exclusive to human beings and is not an original term in Qur’anic semantic fields but extends to other species; flora and fauna, minerals, etc. It had been impacted by western educational thought as a result of colonialism and the bifurcation of its educational system into religious and secular. The correct term is ta’dib which reflects adab or behavior. The conclusion of that Conference was a global effort labeled, the Islamization of Knowledge.

Muslim African Ancestors

Islamic education was first observed in the Western hemisphere in the early 14th century among kidnapped enslaved Africans who brought the Qur’an to America. Research confirms that during the almost 400 year slave trade approximately 40% of those kidnapped and shipped to America were African Muslims.   They were literate, could read and write Arabic. The fact that they were literate was one of the most distinguishing marks of the Muslims.”   “…. [it] clearly set them apart from the rest of the slaves and became as distinctive as a physical trait, says Sylviane Diouf in her seminal book, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.”[4]

We know some of their names and stories. Unprecedented scholarship from Austin, [5] Diouf [6] and others have documented that these African Muslims were literate; could read and write Arabic comparable to elite Europeans who read and wrote Latin, and many had memorized the Qur’an. Some of their patterns of living and learning are now known and their portraits and artifacts, which include biographies and diaries, are in the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, Historical Societies and private collections. These Muslims were also leaders of the most aggressive and successful slave rebellions in America, Haiti, Cuba and the Caribbean.

They include Yarrow Mamout, 1738 -1823 who was given a Ceremonial Janaza at the historic Nations Mosque in Washington, D.C. by Muslim African Americans in 2016. His former residence in Georgetown was partially excavated in conjunction with the Historic Preservation Office of Washington, D.C.

Without institutional establishment of their faith – Al-Islam – and forced conversion to Christianity, the Qur’an and Islamic education was lost during 400 years of enslavement and racial and religious oppression. However, the chain was unbroken.[7]

Over the centuries, slave holders were dedicated to erasing the memory of all African religions, culture, language and history brought by the enslaved. Thus, a people were transformed from rulers of principalities[8], scholars, jurists and artisans to slaves. And given a host of derogatory names like coon, jungle bunny, shine, boot and nigger. They were also given the Bible which said they were cursed and relegated to servitude to white people.[9]

Search for Self-Identity

The conundrum they and succeeding generations experienced for the next 400 years was a search for themselves – their human identity – their place in the world. That sojourn began with the seeking of knowledge through education. Slave holders also knew knowledge and education was the path to freedom, justice and equality, therefore learning to read and write was a crime punishable by losing a foot, a hand, eyesight or death. The enslaved were legally forbidden to learn to read and write. Some slave masters allowed a selected few to read to keep records of production; others felt that teaching the Bible would not only save their souls but make them more docile and amenable to their slave condition. Laws were imposed in Virginia in 1680; in 1695 in Maryland and in 1740 in South Carolina to prohibit gatherings of the enslaved for any reason and to ensure that no slave could read or write. The laws made it a crime for anyone “who shall hereafter teach, or cause any slaves or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe in any manner of writing whatsoever.”[10]

The politics of literacy was also evident during enslavement. Diouf writes, “The hostility toward the literate Africans that many slaveholders expressed did not arise from the fear that their property would somehow trick them by forging passes or getting access to useful news. …..it was dangerous because it represented a threat to the whites’ intellectual domination and a refutation of the widely held belief that Africans were inherently inferior and incapable of intellectual pursuits. The Africans’ skills constituted a proof of humanity and civilization that did not owe anything to the Christians’ supposed civilizing influence. If these men and women could read and write, if they were not the blank slates or the primitive savages they had been portrayed to be in order to justify their enslavement, then the very foundation of the system had to be questioned. This issue was so potent………. [slave holders]……. felt compelled to deny the Africanness of the ‘outstanding’ Muslims and to portray them as Arabs.”[11]

After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865, newly freed slaves were portrayed as roaming the country not knowing what to do; suggesting that slavery was better for them. The fact is they were travailing the South seeking to find family members torn from them during enslavement. Secondly, they sought education as a path to freedom and human dignity. They made enormous accomplishments, particularly during the brief period of Reconstruction. Succeeding generations still believed education was the answer. And it was. But an education that would bring clarity and freedom to the body and mind. One that would answer the pressing scriptural questions about God and their pitiful condition. However, answers to those pressing questions was not forth coming. The Caucasians’ interpretation of Christianity and the Bible exerted hegemony over the spiritual and rational thought of colored people. With little exception, colored people were overwhelmed with the notion that God was white and white supremacy was the rule, the law, and the way.

For most Muslim African Americans education has been the #1 priority and cannot be separated from the historical realities of the African American experience. Perceived as the path to freedom, justice and equality education in reality has been the bane of existence for centuries. The conundrum was seeking an education from institutions structured by people who believed you were inferior; seeking to extricate oneself from the religious idea that you were cursed by God (See Genesis 9:18-27) and unworthy of the equality of life approximating Caucasians; and that you were outside of the family of God, because God is white and you were black.

The Freedom Movement (Evolution of a Super Ego or Group Personality)

From 1865 to approximately 1930 a series of monumental African American leaders emerged addressing these concerns. Referred to as the evolution of a Super Ego by Imam W. Deen Mohammed, they each advanced the movement towards education for human freedom. Among those referencing the conundrum with the Bible was Nat Turner and David Walker outlined in his historic David Walker’s Appeal.[12]

Then, the articulations of Frederick Douglass emerged. Born enslaved on a Maryland plantation, Frederick Douglass taught himself to read and write. He ran away from the plantation and became an abolitionist. His great oratory pricked the consciousness of humanity in America and abroad and he became an ambassador to Haiti, president of a bank and one of the greatest spokesmen on the intimate details of slavery in America. He said: “I had through some medium, I know not what, got some idea of God, the Creator of all mankind – the black and the white – and that he had made the blacks serve the whites as slaves. How he could do that and be good I could not tell. I was not satisfied with this theory, which made God responsible for slavery, for it pained me greatly, and I have wept over it long and often.”[13]

Booker T. Washington and W. E.B. DuBois had different perspectives of how to educate African Americans. History has shown that both were necessary. Booker T. Washington, in an effort to appease Caucasians, stressed vocational education rather than equal opportunity. He established the historic Tuskegee Institute which still stands. W. E.B. DuBois, a giant intellectual and first African American to graduate from Harvard University, stressed the intellectual development and called for a “Talented Tenth” to provide intellectual leadership to African Americans. Each effort provided a degree of success but did not address the fundamental issue of identity and scriptural misrepresentation that plagued the soul of a people.

William Edgar Burghart DuBois in his 1901 study (the Negro Common School, 1901)[14] reported that in 1865 after Emancipation fewer than 100,000 black students were in schools in the South.   However, the demand for literacy was so great that by 1900 more than 1.5 million former enslaved people were enrolled in independent black church based schools or those operated by the American Missionary Society (AMA), a Caucasian Christian group and the foundation for most of the HBCU’s – Historically Black Colleges. As these institutions represented the only hope for advancement for the former enslaved, the underlying epistemology of the education they received was not questioned. And to a great degree the recipients did not know how to rationally analyze the teachings they were receiving.   The Bible was the basis of instruction and perceived as the authority irrespective of the disturbance it brought to the souls as it reinforced white supremacy and black inferiority. (See Genesis 9:18-27).

Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 gave legal sanction to separate schools for blacks and whites. They were supposed to be equal accommodations, but were not. State sponsored education for African Americans did not commence in the South – Georgia in particular – until 1924. (Georgia is referenced because more black people lived in Georgia than any other state in the country). The single classroom children attended was described as “not fit for cattle.” The former governor of Georgia, Allen D. Chandler wrote in 1901, “I do not believe in higher education for the darky. He should be taught trades, when he is taught fine arts he gets educated above his caste and it makes him unhappy.” Others asserted, “We need more Negro schools devoted to “turning out well-equipped household servants, coachmen, gardeners, farm laborers and the like.”[15]

After a century of being educated in schools with curricular developed by Christian missionaries that supported their superiority, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Week then Black History Month, also a graduate of Harvard University, emerged in 1933 with his seminal – The MisEducation of the Negro. His analysis of the education received by then-called Negroes was as follows:

  • “The chief difficulty with the education of the Negro is that it has been largely imitation [of Caucasians] resulting in the enslavement of his mind.”[16]

  • “The ‘educated Negros’ have the attitude of contempt toward their own people because in their own as well as in their mixed schools Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and Teuton and to despise the African.”[17]

  • “The so-called modern education with all of its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker peoples. For example, the philosophy and ethics resulting from our educational system have justified slavery, peonage, segregation and lynching. The oppressor has the right to exploit, to handicap and to kill the oppressed. Negroes daily educated in the tenets of such a religion of the strong have accepted the status of the weak as divinely ordained and during the last three generations of their nominal freedom they have done practically nothing to change it.”[18]

This point cannot be lost on education in predominately Muslim countries. Since the end of WWI and particularly WWII, American education has influenced education throughout the Muslim world to the point of imitation. Consequently, not only the practice but the language of Islamic education has morphed from its original Qur’anic and Islamic roots to a philosophy and practice that is at its core bifurcated into a religious and secular system. This dual system of education and lack of knowledge of Qur’anic foundations have confused and devastated the Muslim world.   Further complicated by tyrannical leaders, wars, oppression and poverty the intellectual development of the collective Ummah towards a model community defined by Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah, (prayers and peace be upon him) remains obscure. Although individual Muslims have and continue to excel, the collective Ummah has struggled to produce significant educational institutions consistent with Qur’anic foundations.

Dr. Woodson continues,

  • “No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his social benefit. His education makes it necessary.”[19]

  • “How we have arrived at the present state of affairs can be understood only by studying the forces effective in the development of Negro education since it was systematically undertaken immediately after Emancipation. To point out merely the defects as they appear today will be of little benefit to the present and future generations. These things must be viewed in their historic setting.”[20]

  • “In our schools, especially in our schools of religion, attention should be given to the study of the Negro as he developed during the antebellum (eighteenth and nineteenth century) period by showing to what extent that remote culture was determined by ideas which he brought with him from Africa. To take it for granted that the antebellum Negro was an ignoramus or that the native brought from Africa had not a valuable culture merely because some prejudiced writers have said so does not show the attitude of scholarship, and Negro students who direct their courses accordingly will never be able to grapple with the social problems presented today by the Negro church.”[21]

Dr. Woodson then wrote something else extraordinary in 1933: “Men of scholarship and consequently of prophetic insight must show us the right way and lead us into the light which shines brighter and brighter.”[22]

The Nation of Islam

Before that statement was published, that light had begun to shine and in 1975 it shone even brighter. The most consequential socio-religious movement in America emerged in 1930 – the Nation of Islam.   More powerful and sustained than the Marcus Garvey movement, it was the early expression of Islam in America. Founded by W. D. Fard Muhammad and built by Clara and Elijah Muhammad it lasted for 40 years and ushered in Islamic education and the preeminent leader of Muslims in America, Imam W. Deen Mohammed. Other Muslims existed, defined as Sunni or Ahmadiyah but they had little influence on African Americans and were interestingly detached from the historical African American experience.

Islamic Education Resumed with Elijah and Clara Muhammad

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam turned a page not only in the religious expression of African Americans but in the pedagogical approach to their quest for education.

He declared, “The so-called American Negro is the only creature that turns the education of his children over to his open enemy.” “First, my people must be taught the knowledge of self. Anyone who does not have a knowledge of self is considered a victim of either amnesia or unconsciousness and is not very competent.”[23] He said, “I want an education for my people that will let them exercise the right of freedom.” “………that will elevate them.” [24] “We need ……… an education which removes us from the shackles of slavery and servitude. …..not an education which leaves us in an inferior position and without a future. ….that leaves us looking to the slave-master for a job.”[25]   “We must be obsessed with getting the kind of education we may use toward the elevation and benefit of our people.”[26]   “We must have a knowledge of self and we must do for ourselves.”[27]

“One of the attributes of Allah, The All-Wise God, Who is the Supreme Being is knowledge. Knowledge is the result of learning. Knowledge is a force or energy that makes its bearer accomplish or overcome obstacles, barriers and resistance. We have tried other means and ways and we have failed. Why not try Islam? It is our only salvation. It is the religion of Allah, His prophets and our forefathers.”[28]

So, the question is why have other scholars and academics refused to even mention Elijah Muhammad? Essentially attempting to erase 40 years of his exemplary work towards establishing quality education and Islam in America? If the response is, it was not real Islam, he did not have the right aqidah;[29] he taught hate. The author’s response is in the words of Malcolm X, Al Hajj Malik Shabazz……You have been bamboozled! And there are millions who share the same opinion.

It is important to now mention that those who supposedly had the right aqidah for 400 years did not come to the aid of the kidnapped, enslaved Africans in America or the newly freed Africans in America. Not a Muslim sheikh, amir, mufti, country, government, leader, philanthropist, individual, no one came to the aid of the enslaved, oppressed African American. No one! This is why the community of Muslims who value the leadership of Imam W. Deen Mohammed and respect their Islamic lineage from The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam will not ever be subservient to any Muslim country or leader. They will only support the good they do. Their position is, Allah is the owner of the universe and all of its treasures. Allah brought this unique community to the Qur’an, therefore, this community belongs only to Allah, The Most High.

Clara Muhammad

Clara Muhammad started the University of Islam with her children in her home around her kitchen table.   She developed the first curriculum and is credited with establishing the first Muslim home school in 1936 when homeschooling was illegal. At its peak the University of Islam had 52 schools throughout the United Statas and its accomplishments remain unprecedented. It started children at 3 years old, decades before Head Start began in 1965 which is believed to be modeled after it. Arabic was taught on the elementary level and students were separated by sex. African and Black history, world civilization and all sciences were taught on all grade levels. Dr. C. Eric Lincoln wrote,

Muslims schools are emphasizing Negro history, Negro achievements and the contributions of Negroes to the world’s great cultures and to the development of the American nation. These facts are rarely taught in public schools, and the Muslims may be alone in trying to bring the Negro community to an awareness of racial heritage.[30]

The flagship Clara Muhammad School and W. Deen Mohammed High School are in Atlanta, Georgia http://mohammedschools.org/academics/high-school/. These institutions have been in operation for forty-one (41) years. Their predecessor the University of Islam for forty-three years and is still in operation under another leadership totaling 80 plus years.

Dr. Molefi Asante of Temple University in 2003 named Elijah Muhammad one of the 100 Greatest African Americans. His wife, Clara Muhammad, devoted her life to building the University of Islam. It produced the first Muslim African American graduate from Al Azhar University, Cairo, Dr. Akbar Muhammad, who spoke fluent Arabic; the first Muslim African American Hafiz Qur’an and Qari, Imam Darnell Kariem and the preeminent leader of Muslims in America, Imam W. Deen Mohammed among other doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.

When the Honorable Elijah Muhammad passed in 1975, his son and heir apparent, Imam W. Deen Mohammed became leader of the Nation of Islam. He built upon the best of his father’s 40 year contributions and eliminated what was not consistent with the Qur’an. Using the Qur’an as the foundation for the Community, he addressed the root causes of black inferiority and white superiority correcting scriptural misrepresentation. The University of Islam schools were evolved and renamed after his mother, Clara Muhammad Schools. These corrections freed the mind and the soul from scriptural oppression and mythology and ushered in true human freedom.


  • [1] Encyclopedia of American Education, 2007. Harlow G. Unger. Facts on File, New York.
  • [2] Muhammad, Zakiyyah. (1998, Winter). Islamic Education in America. Religion and Education, 25 (1/2). 87-96.
  • [3] Muhammad, Zakiyyah. 2005. “Faith and Courage to Educate Our Own: Reflections on Islamic Schools in the African American Community” in Black Education, Editor, Joyce E. King, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey, London. 262-3.
  • [4] Diouf, Sylviane A. 1998. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York University Press, NY. 107.
  • [5]Austin, Allen D. 1984. African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Source Book. Garland Publications, University of Michigan.
  • [6] Diouf, Sylviane A. 1998. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York University Press, NY.
  • [7] See the Unbroken Chain of Qur’anic Freedom: From Africa to New Africa. An unprecedented panel presented at ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) October 2-6, 2013. Video available at www.instituteofmuslimamericanstudies.com
  • [8] Abdul Rahman Ibrahim was a prince in his native country Timbuktu cited in a documentary, Prince of Slaves. http://docsouth.unc.edu/highlights/ibrahima.html
  • [9] See Bible Genesis 9:18-27.
  • [10] Irons, Peter. 2002. Jim Crow’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision, Chapter 1. New York: Penguin, Putnam, Inc.
  • [11] Diouf, Sylviane A. 1998. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York University Press, NY. 108.
  • [12] Walker, David. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, 1830. Called by Dr. James Turner in the Introduction, “The most seminal expression of African American political thought to come forth in the early nineteenth century.”
  • [13] Douglass, Frederick. 1855. “Letter to His Old Master”, My Bondage and My Freedom. New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan. 423.
  • [14] Dubois, W. E. B. 1901. The Negro Common School, Atlanta University Publications No. 6 (Atlanta,
  • 1901).
  • [15] Dittmer, John. 1977. Black Georgia in the Progressive Era 1900-1920, University of Illinois Press,
  • Urbana and Chicago. 142.
  • [16] Woodson, Carter G. 1933. The MisEducation of the Negro. Washington, D.C. p. 134.
  • [17] Ibid, p. 1.
  • [18] Ibid, p. xii.
  • [19] Ibid, p. xiii.
  • [20] Ibid, p. 9.
  • [21] Ibid. p. 147.
  • [22] Ibid, p. 145.
  • [23] Muhammad, Elijah. 1965. Message To The Blackman in America. Temple No. 2 Publications,
  • Chicago, IL p. 39.
  • [24] Ibid, p. 40.
  • [25] Ibid, p. 41.
  • [26] Ibid, p. 34.
  • [27] Ibid, p. 41.
  • [28] Ibid, p. 41.
  • [29] Aqidah means Islamic creed that grounds or binds or ties one to Al-Islam.
  • [30] Lincoln, C. Eric. 1961. The Black Muslims in America. Beacon Press, New York, p. 250.