Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in America, and the massive number of African-American converts—in prisons, colleges, and inner cities—is a key factor. There are more than 2 million black Muslims in the United States, and if current trends prevail, that figure will continue to swell.
Carl Ellis is president of Project Joseph, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based ministry that equips the church with seminars and educational resources for reaching Muslims. Ellis is coauthor, with Larry Poston, of The Changing Face of Islam in America (Christian Publications). He recently spoke with CT's Edward Gilbreath.
You've written that the growth of Islam among African Americans is more a reflection of the church's weakness than of Islam's strength. What do you mean?
Everybody has issues that they are seeking answers to. If the church does not address specifically the issues that people are concerned about, and another group comes along and addresses those issues, no matter how bizarre the answers are, you'll find people taking a strong look at that other group.
Christianity has done a good job addressing personal and spiritual matters, but for too long the church stopped dealing with the area of cultural and social issues. For example, things like Afrocentrism and pan-Africanism, which was basically a vision for missionary outreach to the African Diaspora, were originally Christian concepts. But the church withdrew from those ideas and left them out there, and then the secularists and the Islamic groups came along and redefined them according to their views. The African-American church forgot its own history; we withdrew from a position of social and theological leadership and adopted the theology of the dominant culture, which tended to have a Eurocentric slant.
What led to this retreat?
Between 1875 and 1900, there were three distinct traumas that, I think, radically altered the theological direction of the African-American church and paved the way for Islam's influence. First, there was the end of Reconstruction in the South, the rise of terrorism against blacks, and the reestablishment of white supremacy.
Second, there was the Industrial Revolution in the North and the influx of European immigration, which led to the rise of white-only trade unions. It was African Americans who had all the trade skills after slavery, but within one generation these people were completely locked out of the skilled labor force. And third, the strong African missions work of the black church was decimated when the colonial powers consolidated their hold on sub-Saharan Africa and began barring entry to new African-American missionaries and expelling those already there.
As a result of these traumas, the church became in grown. It began to deal with the new slavery that had emerged after the Civil War and withdrew from the larger social concerns.
Which opened the door for the Black Nationalist groups, and figures like Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Exactly. The Nation of Islam had "the Fruit of Islam." These Muslims were black belts and very concerned with empowerment. The images were manly and relevant to the black community. The interesting thing is that had it not been for the traumas of the nineteenth century, you might have seen a figure like Malcolm X rise from the church rather than from the Nation of Islam.
What, specifically, attracts young African-American men to Islam?
There's a lot of external discipline. These guys line up in military-like lines and do rounds of prayer. Many African-American men long for that structure and order. And there's a wise, sage type of image that you find in a lot of imams [male leaders]. Since 1970, one of the big issues that's really been a concern for African Americans is this whole quest for true manhood. And the success of Promise Keepers shows that it's an issue even in the white community. Islam may be seen as a way to redefine one's manhood.
Also, the Nation of Islam purports to be the religion of our African roots—which, of course, it isn't. If you look at Islam, the God it portrays suggests more of an Arabic tribal deity. American Christianity, on the other hand, has at times portrayed God with the images of a European tribal deity. So now here I am, an African American, and I've got to decide which one of these tribal deities I'm going to worship. Am I going to worship the one that looks like my oppressor, or the one that looks like somebody in my neighborhood?
Generally, African Americans who convert to Islam come from Christian backgrounds, so it's hard to believe that they would totally throw out a belief in Jesus Christ. What ideas are attached to Christ that allow their Muslim faith to coexist with what they were taught in Sunday school?
They honor Jesus, at least claim to honor Jesus, as a great prophet. So, an American Muslim convert will tell you in a minute, "Oh, we revere Jesus." Most of them probably believe that very sincerely. And, to be honest, the Christology of African-American theology has been a little fuzzy anyway over the years. We know Jesus is God, but it hasn't really been worked out. It hasn't been explained in any kind of rational manner, mainly because African-American theology has been more an intuitive rather than a rational theology. Consequently, the deity of Christ was seen in the context of "He's my friend and help," as opposed to a conceptual thing.
The Nation of Islam is the most prominent purveyor of the black Muslim faith in the U.S., but it is not the largest.
Out of the 2.6 million African-American Muslims, the Nation of Islam makes up only about 18,000 to 20,000. But, with leaders like Louis Farrakhan, it makes the most noise.
We must realize that there are essentially two kinds of African-American Muslims. One group is what I call the Black Nationalist-type Muslims. They would include the six Nations of Islam—the movement has splintered since the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975—plus a couple of other groups. All these groups have a theology based on the historical core cultural issues of African Americans—dignity, identity, significance, empowerment—along with various doctrines that claim God is black and the white man is the devil.
The other group is what I call mainline Muslims. They derive their theology straight out of the Qur'an and the Hadith. Of the mainline Muslims, you've got the Orthodox Muslims, the Shi'ites, the Sufis, and the Ahmadiyyas. They all fight amongst themselves as to who is right. The Orthodox sect is by far the largest, with roughly 2.2 million adherents. Granted, most of those Orthodox Muslims were likely introduced to Islam through one of the Black Nationalist groups. But as time passes, a smaller percentage will come from those groups.
Does the rigid lifestyle of the Muslim faith lead to many defections?
What usually makes them defect is when they discover that Islam is nothing but a works-righteousness treadmill. For those Muslims who come to Christ, it's as if they hear Jesus saying all over again, "Come to me, all you who are weary and tired, and I will give you rest." I think a lot of them realize that, for all the ablutions and guidelines for diet and dress, when it's all said and done, they're just as much sinners as they were before.
Is it dangerous to witness to Muslims?
Probably not as dangerous as it will be in the future. Right now, if I lead a Muslim to Christ, it's no big deal—especially an African-American Muslim who converted. But with Islam's growing influence, ten years from now, anybody who does that will probably have fatwas [official religious rulings] issued against them. I'd say 99 percent of the Muslims I run into are true seekers, so now is the time. God has given us a window of opportunity to reach them.
What are some practical things to know as we reach out to black Muslims with the gospel?
First, we need to look at the social and cultural issues that are affecting the black community—the need for justice, equality, empowerment—and really take those seriously, then go to the Bible and begin to extract what it says about these things.
Second, the principles I use to reach Muslims are exactly the same principles I use to reach anybody. There are three things that a Muslim, a Hindu, or anybody else has no resistance against: the prayers of the saints, the love of the saints, and the wise application of biblical truth to their core issues—whatever those issues are. Every Muslim that I've met who came to Christ always came to Christ for one or more of those reasons, and the one that I hear mentioned mostly is the love. We should always remember that Islam is a system, but Muslims are people. We may not like the system, but the people we must love.
For more information about Project Joseph, call (423) 490-0605 or send e-mail to ProjectJoseph@CompuServe.com.
ChristianityToday.com has been looking at Christianity and Islam in the U.S.A. all week. The articles included:
Monday: Islam, U.S.A. | Are Christians prepared for Muslims in the mainstream?
Tuesday: Islamic Fundamentals | Christians have a responsibility to understand our Muslim neighbors and their beliefs
Wendesday: How Muslims See Christianity | Many Muslims don't understand Christianity—especially the idea of salvation by grace through faith.
Thursday: Engaging Our Muslim Neighbors | The Church faces a challenge not just to understand Muslims, but to befriend them.
"Emergence of Islam in the African-American Community," an article Ellis wrote with Adam Edgerly, is available at Answering-Islam.org.
A Christian pamphlet about the Nation of Islam is also available online.
Ellis's books, including The Changing Face of Islam in America and Free at Last? are available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
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