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The Malcolm X Factor

Richard Reddie

Why are growing numbers of young black Britons shunning the church in favour of the mosque? RICHARD REDDIE looks at the role models in a 21st- century battle for hearts and minds.


AFTER a talk on slavery I gave recently in Leeds, I was approached by a tall black man wearing a skullcap and full Islamic attire. His face seemed vaguely familiar, but his name, Bilal Shabazz, did not help to place him. It was only when he said I would probably remember him by his 'Christian' names that the penny finally dropped. One of the most wayward, lackadaisical pupils in my secondary school was now telling me that he was married, educated and a pillar of society - all thanks to Islam. Ironically, his father was a deacon in a Pentecostal Church and he himself had been a regular attendee at Sunday School.

The research I carried out for my book, Black Muslims in Britain, suggests that Bilal Shabazz is by no means unusual, but part of a growing trend among black Britons, especially younger ones, to convert to Islam. In fact, the majority of these converts have clear connections to the church, either as one-time attendees during their early years, or with family members serving as pastors, deacons or stewards. What is it that Islam offers them that Christianity does not?

Apart from the usual mix of personal motives and theological struggles (with paradoxes like the Trinity, for example, or an incarnate God), there seems often to be an implicit race-related dimension to the choice. Many of these individuals said they were troubled by depictions of a 'Caucasian-looking' Jesus in Church, and the way terms such as 'black' or 'dark' were given negative connotations in texts, hymns and prayers to describe wickedness and sin. Others believed that Christianity in the West had focused too much on God's all-embracing love and forgiveness, and not enough on his holiness, which resulted in relativistic compromises on a range of moral and ethical matters. By contrast, they felt that Islamic strictures had given their lives a discipline and routine sadly lacking elsewhere.

For many Muslim converts or 'reverts' (they regard Islam as the inherent belief-system of human beings, which means they are 'coming back to the truth' rather than finding it for the first time), the Church is a flawed establishment. Those I spoke to mentioned that it was too closely affiliated to institutions that were both dishonest and oppressive, and that this association had resulted in 'priestly' cooption rather than 'prophetic' condemnation. In the final analysis, therefore, the church could not provide the types of responses that would facilitate real freedom for black people.

Time and again reverts/converts pointed to history to show the role of the Church in African enslavement, always preferring to steer clear of William Wilberforce and the Quaker and evangelical-inspired anti-slavery abolition movement, to focus on what took place before the Christian church found its voice. They would invariably point to the copious use of scripture to justify the enslavement of Africans and the coterie of clergy who would preach a gospel of acquiescence to enslaved Africans. They conveniently ignored the apparent Islamic dimension to the enslavement of Africans (such as the Trans-Saharan slave trade), which predates the involvement of Europeans and matches the Transatlantic Slave Trade for sheer numbers Africans enslaved.1

The issue of Africans, slavery, Islam and freedom is best seen in the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, an Ethiopian born in the late sixth century. Islamic tradition suggests that Bilal was freed from enslavement by Abu Bakr, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Caliph following the Prophet's death. Some commentaries suggest that Bilal was the Prophet's steward, which meant he accompanied Muhammad on many of his campaigns. However, it was for his wonderful voice that Bilal was remembered and during his lifetime he became the first official Muezzin - the person who calls the faithful to prayer. The figure of Bilal is important for many black Muslim converts because he clearly demonstrates that Africans were present at the formation of Islam. Equally, the fact that Bilal was manumitted from slavery also demonstrates Islam's anti-slavery credentials and its commitment to racial equality, and that 'the Prophet Muhammad is the first antiracist pioneer in Islam'.2

While some look to history to condemn the British church, other converts prefer to highlight its frosty reception of their Caribbean and African grandparents or parents. They also point out that the church (and I am also including black majority churches in this category) was embarrassingly slow to respond to the socio-economic and political situation facing black people in Britain3- the gun and knife situation is a case in point. Although the
church can now point to some excellent work to tackle this state of affairs, the knife and gun predicament predates these responses by several decades when pastors and clergymen were at best silent, or at worst prone to aiming their fire at the victims.

As a result, many disaffected youths in the 1970s and 1980s were attracted to the Rastafari movement whose counter-cultural approach was highly critical of a system that rode roughshod over black people's rights.4 Rasta reached its socio-religious zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the reggae music of the late, great Robert Nesta Marley. Jamaican-born Marley called upon 'oppressed' black people of the diaspora to turn away from a corrupt, Western-society (Babylon) and return to Zion (Africa.)5  The relationship between reggae and Rastafari was symbiotic - nearly all the leading reggae singers were Rastas, and British-based reggae groups such as Aswad, Steel Pulse, Matumbi, the Cimarrons and Misty in Roots began to record songs that addressed the plight of black people in Britain. This message chimed with black youths who faced police harassment ('Sus' laws), racial harassment (the National Front), and other aspects of institutional racism in Britain.

The Rasta movement lost a great deal of its verve with the death of Marley in 1981, and was also open to heresy and abuse due to its dearth of tenets and theology. Consequently, it no longer captures the hearts and minds of those whose search for answers to life's great questions is juxtaposed with a desire to witness real socio-economic and political justice on God's earth. Islam appears to be filling this vacuum, and hip-hop music has become to Islam what reggae was to Rastafari. Hip-hop is one of the most popular genres of music, rising from its roots in the black neighbourhoods of New York to conquer the world.6  Many of its leading exponents are Muslims or associated with Islamic groups and their music often features samples of speeches by Islamic preachers. Other rappers in both the USA and UK use hip-hop as a vehicle to propagate their message and their rap lyrics extol the virtues of Islam and its capacity to transform society. Britain's rapidly-developing Islamic hip-hop subculture, regarded as the face of 'cool' Islam, is in the forefront of work to win young converts.

Blackislam1.jpgThe majority of those converted to Islam follow the Sunni tradition, which accounts for around three quarters of the world's Muslims, while the Shia branch makes up the majority of the remainder. Within a black British context, however, the Sunnis' main competition is the Nation of Islam.

Established in the USA in 1930 by W.D. Fard, this newer branch grew under the aegis of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad with the self-proclaimed goal of resurrecting the spiritual, mental, social and economic condition of the black men and women of America.7 Its doctrines and teachings differ from Sunni Islam on a range of theological points, leading some academics to question their Islamic credentials. In both the USA and the UK, Nation of Islam men are known for their penchant for dark, well-cut suits, bow ties, and selling their newspaper, the Final Call, on high streets and outside train stations. On a more socio-political level, they have been involved in remedial work among the disaffected and marginalized, particularly the young, and have developed a number of programmes which aim to 'clean up' the lives of those in prison, on drugs or mired in criminal lifestyles (all black Muslim groups have thriving prison ministries and many see the jails as a recruiting ground for converts).

The Nation of Islam's particular take on Islam also has borrowed from the historical ideas of the Liberian-born academic, Edward Wilmot Blyden, who advanced the theory that 'Islam is the natural religion of the black man' and that 'Black folks seeking to connect with their African ancestry must factor-in Islam, which is part of their heritage'.8 Many adhering to traditional African religions might dispute this, however, as history shows that the same imperial forces were at work in the spread of Islam in Africa from 700 years up to 1450, as of Christianity some several centuries later.9

Many black Sunni Muslims avoid such doctrinaire theories altogether, since Islam does not recognise 'race' - a phenomenon now regarded as a human construct that has no basis in science.10 As a result, many of those I interviewed for my book felt uncomfortable with the term 'black Muslim' as they considered they were part of a global community of Muslims united in a single belief. Many Muslim converts worship alongside their Asian and white brethren and often find spouses from within these ethnic communities. Some converts were keen to indicate that because of its history, Islam was not subject to the racism and anti-black constructs found in Christianity - a theory advanced by Blyden as well as Malcolm X.11  Although this sounds wonderful in theory, a few of the more candid interviewees spoke about experiences that appeared to contradict this racial utopia.   

The fact that the majority of black Muslim converts, unlike many white ones, have a former grounding in Christianity, leads to dynamic and zealous encounters between black Muslims and Christians - sometimes within the same household or marriage. Men are deliberately targeted for conversion, with the thinking that their womenfolk and children will usually come in tow. Certainly, I have not yet encountered an example where women led the way in this respect.

Religious zeal can also have a downside, especially when it is espoused by impressionable new converts who are not fully conversant with Islamic tenets and therefore susceptible to the machinations of so-called preachers of hate. The effects of this tragic scenario can be seen in the numbers of black converts linked to subversive acts in the UK and abroad. As a consequence, many of the better mosques are keen to establish classes which encourage converts to develop an accurate understanding of Islam to help them contend with extremists. Many of the black converts I spoke to described how they were initially viewed with suspicion by mosques and Muslim groups, such is the connection between conversion and indoctrination.

Men are also accused of being attracted to Islam because its patriarchal nature supposedly allows them to assert their masculinity in ways that would prove unacceptable in other faiths. Likewise, black women, who are meant to be 'strong' and  'feisty', but on conversion purportedly become religious 'Stepford Wives' who live and breathe for the pleasure of their spouses. But while it is true that within a black Muslim family male headship is paramount, this does not equate with female subordination or exploitation - on the contrary, the Muslim couples I encountered were characterised by respect, love and understanding. Furthermore, Islam's encouragement of strong black male leadership means that mosques, unlike churches, do not suffer from a dearth of men.

The epitome of strong (black) male leadership is found in the polarising yet compelling figure of African-American Muslim convert, Malcolm X. Born as Malcolm Little into a Baptist household, he had a troubled childhood after his father, Earl, a part-time Baptist preacher, was killed by racist Ku Klux Klansmen. However, the pivotal moment in life came when his white schoolteacher told the bright but impressionable pupil that his chosen career as a lawyer was 'no profession for a nigger'. Instead, he should become a carpenter, which allowed him to use his hands, and was a noble profession since 'our Lord was a carpenter'! Malcolm quickly lost interest in school and drifted into crime and subsequent incarceration. It was while in prison that Malcolm discovered the Nation of Islam, and on his release he became one the most eloquent and vociferous critics of institutional racism in the USA. He often turned his fire on the church as being complicit in this racist cabal and denounced the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jnr as 'Revd Chicken-wing', a 'dreamer' who ought to wake up to the nightmare facing his black brothers and sisters.12

Most black British pastors/clergy would see nothing 'dreamy' about Dr King's agenda, rooted as it was in a radical Christian traditional of non-violent resistance and economic justice. And when Malcolm X became a Sunni Muslim a few years before his assassination, he modified his views on race and political issues, and was willing to engage with those he had previously shunned.13 The more progressive sections of the black community now hold these two men's ideas in tension, selecting the best elements and ideas for the ongoing work to tackle inequality and raise aspirations in Britain.

The black Muslim convert presence has taken root over the last two decades and can now be found in most towns and cities with a sizeable black community. Unlike, Rastafari, it shows no sign of waning.  The 9/11 and 7/7 atrocities have served to raise the profile of Islam with many, including a large number of black people, perusing the Qur'an to find out more about its basic tenets. However, the events in New York and London have been a double-edged sword for the black Muslim movement in this country, placing them under the media microscope as those most likely to be 'brainwashed'. They have also been criticised by sections of the black community who think they give black people a 'bad name' due to this association.   

Certain Islamic scholars and imams are keen to posit their faith as the recourse of the oppressed, marginalized and disaffected, who have been left behind by a rapacious market-driven, consumer-oriented society. Moreover, black British Muslims are often encouraged to identify more with the developing world - the Middle East and Asia in particular, which are demographically Muslim and have often been on the wrong end of the West's misguided foreign policy. This is in direct contrast to black Christians, who tend to align themselves to the USA.  

Despite the fact that the black Muslim community in Britain is growing, there is no meaningful dialogue between black Christians and Muslims, who resort instead to often heated debates on the efficacy and credibility of the respective faiths. By contrast, historical churches and mainstream Muslim (predominantly Asian) organisations have developed forums for discussion.

Both black majority churches and black Muslim groups have developed separate initiatives and programmes that make significant interventions in the lives of black Britons. Now we need some serious inter-faith conversations enable us to work together on matters of shared concern.
For many years, black majority churches were considered the bedrock of the black community; the one institution providing coherent, clear and consistent representation for black Britons. Although they still remain a success story, they now face a challenge from the new Islamic kid on the block who threatens their hegemony. Islam is now providing a spiritual choice for those who would customarily look to Christianity for answers to life's eternal questions. This spiritual alternative is without doubt enriching Britain's religious landscape, but it has to be hoped that these two dynamic entities can together harness their energies for the continuing benefit of the Black community, and ultimately, society in general.

Richard Reddie



1 Moreover, it can be argued that Arab Muslims institutionalised the enslavement of Africans and fostered the association of ethnicity (Africans) with enslavement. For more nuanced discussion see: Humphrey J. Fisher. Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa. (New York University Press, 2001).
2 Taking Back Islam: American Muslims reclaim their faith. Edited by Michael Wolfe and the producers of Beliefnet. (Rodale, 2002). Page 130.
3 Robert Beckford, Jesus is Dread: Black theology and Black culture in Britain. (Darton, Longman and Todd,1998). Page 29.
4 Anthony G. Reddie, Nobodies to Somebodies. A practical theology for education and liberation. (Epworth Press, 2003). Page 28.
5 Simon Jones, Black Culture, White Youth: Reggae tradition from Jamaica to UK (Palgrave Macmillan, 1988). Page 82.
6 Bakari Kitwana, The Hip Hop Generation. Young Blacks and the crisis in African-American culture. (Basic Civitas Books, 2002). Page 11.
7 Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America. (Secretarius Memps Ministries, 1965,1973). Page 26.
8 Herb Boyd, African History for Beginners. (Steerforth Press,1994). Pages 61-65.
9 John Reader, Africa: A biography of the continent. (Penguin, 1998). Page 282.
10 Ali Rattansi, Racism: A very short introduction. (Oxford University Press, 2007). Pages 73-85.
11 Hollis.R. Lynch, Edward Wilmot Blyden: Pan-Negro patriot,1832-1912. (Oxford University Press, 1967). Page 55.
12 Malcolm X Speaks: Selected speeches and statements edited with prefatory notes by George Breitman. (Grove Press, 1966). Pages 4 -17.
13 Michael Eric Dyson, Making Malcolm: The myth and meaning of Malcolm X. (Oxford University Press, 1995). Pages 12-13.