"African American Islam has two strains," says Sulayman Nyang, professor of African Studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "The early families embraced orthodox Islam; the Nation of Islam has been known as an anti-white, anti-American, racist movement."
American Islam made broader impressions in the '60s when social activist Malcolm X, once a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, embraced orthodox Islam, and Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964. He was also part of a breakup within the black Muslim community that took place after 1975, when Imam Warith Deen Mohammed succeeded his father, Elijah, as leader of the Nation of Islam. Mohammed rejected the Nation's racist strains and founded the Muslim American Society.
"W.D. Mohammed turned the movement around by 180 degrees," says Nyang. Yet most Americans are still not aware of the different groups within the African American Muslim community.
An estimated 30% to 40% of all U.S. Muslims are African American, and the vast majority, about 1.5 million, follow Imam W.D. Mohammed. (The total number of American Muslims is said to be anywhere from 2 million to 7 million, depending on which of widely differing surveys is used.) While the Nation of Islam keeps membership numbers private, the highest estimates are about 100,000.
If the urban poor are a priority for all African American Muslims, it's because they are the primary constituents. These roots also help to explain why many African American Muslims feel disenfranchised from others in the faith.
"Immigrant Muslims don't come to us for advice," Hasan says. "They think we don't know as much about the religion as they do."
Ethnic tensions are not new for American Muslims. Thirty years ago, an influx of Asian Muslim immigrants, many of them professionals, discovered American Islam and were not impressed.
"For the immigrant Muslims, authority was based on knowing Arabic and Islamic law," says Sherman Jackson, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Most African American Muslims didn't know very much about either."
What they did know, and immigrants from Muslim countries did not, was grass-roots politics and coalition-building outside their own religious group, Jackson says.
The Bilal Center's Hasan and other African American leaders are stressing those skills now. "African Americans prove that Islam is not antithetical to democracy or to America," says Imam Faheem Shuaibe, director of the predominantly African American Masjidul Waritheen in Oakland, which has about 300 members.
Shuaibe has openly challenged immigrant Muslims to show more respect for African Americans. Last fall at a national conference of the American Muslim Alliance in San Jose that was made up primarily of Middle Eastern and Arab Muslims, Shuaibe made the point that W.D. Mohammed should be referred to by his title, imam.
He says Sept. 11 "put the conversation on the table" for all American Muslims. His side of the conversation comes down to this: "When you're presenting a message about Islam in America, don't exclude me. African American Muslims have led the way at integrating Muslims into American society."
At the conference, Shuaibe says, he was still smarting from an earlier situation that had upset a number of African American Muslims. During the country's last presidential election, a coalition of American Muslims endorsed George W. Bush for president and encouraged all Muslims to vote in a bloc. Leaders from the Muslim American Society felt left out of the process.
"When those voices claimed to speak for all Muslims in America, I resented it," says Shuaibe. "And when they claimed this was the moment for American Muslims, it irritated me. The American Muslim identity they claimed was already in place."
After the election, coalition members claimed the bloc vote resulted in nearly three-fourths of American Muslims voting Republican, based on the group's own surveys. General exit polls, however, showed that the vast majority of African Americans, at least 90%, voted for democratic candidate Al Gore. That rift has been smoothed out, Shuaibe says, but he wants more open communication. "We need to talk about the sensitivities. It's important because we're a family."
At a recent gathering at Georgetown University, leaders from Islamic ethnic groups, including African Americans, talked about having an all-inclusive Muslim American conference once every four years, starting in 2004. "It is something like the Olympics or the World Cup," Bukhari says of the challenges of the plan.
He compares American Muslims' struggle toward unity to the transition American Christians and Jews went through in the 19th century, during the migrations from Europe. "Among American Muslims now, only 36% were born in the U.S. The rest are from elsewhere."