WHY ARE BLACK PEOPLE TURNING TO ISLAM?
Some are following their heroes, others looking for meaning in their lives. One thing’s for sure – the numbers are growing…
Black conversion or “reversion” to Islam is not new; it has been taking place in the African diaspora since time immemorial. However, I looked deeper into the phenomenon to find out why a growing number of Black Britons, especially younger ones, are embracing Islam. Although I am not a Muslim, I have always been interested in Islam – three of my all-time heroes, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Jamaican singer Prince Buster were Muslim converts, and I was intrigued by the way Islam inspired all three to transcend their respective vocations to become icons.
What surprised me at the start of my study was that very little of any substance had been written about a religious phenomenon which first came to public prominence in the dubious form of Michael de Freitas, a Trinidad-born, UK-based lapsed Catholic. As Michael X and then Michael Abdul Malik, he was at the forefront of the race equality struggle in Britain during the 1960s. It was this stark lack of information that encouraged me to write a book, something that involved painstaking research and innumerable interviews in cities and towns with a growing Black Muslim presence.
One of the first issues I became aware of was the fact that many converts feel uncomfortable with the term “black Muslim”, as they regard themselves as part of a worldwide community of believers who do not recognise “race”. However, others are less reticent about associating their blackness with being a Muslim, and believe that Islam is the “natural religion of black people” and provides the means for full “spiritual, mental and physical liberation” from an oppressive system designed to subjugate them.
My research reveals that there is no one, straightforward reason for conversions, but a plethora of theological, emotional and cultural motivations. Practically all those interviewed suggested that Islam had given their lives meaning and woken them from a spiritual malaise. Others said that their faith provided inspiration and strength to engage with a society they regarded as corrupted by materialism and moral relativism. And for those whose lives had previously been errant, Islam’s decisiveness on a range of religious and socio-cultural matters had given them a focus and an anchor. Equally, many of the women interviewed suggested that the Islamic focus on modesty had liberated them from the rampant fashion-related consumerism that objectifies all women, and sexualises pre-pubescent girls.
What I also found of real interest was the fact that the vast majority of those interviewed had some previous connection to Christianity, either as former church attendees or through having relatives with firm ecclesiastical connections. This differs from white converts who tend to have no previous religious experience.
I also found that the aforementioned Malcolm X had influenced many black folks, particularly men, to consider Islam. In many respects brother Malcolm’s life reads like a blueprint for the majority of those with whom I spoke. He was bright child who was brought up as a Christian, but was failed by an institutionally racist society. As a result he became a delinquent who subsequently fell foul of the law. While incarcerated he embraced Islam (in the form of the Nation of Islam) and this turned his life around , resulting in him becoming one of the most eloquent, courageous and uncompromising spokespeople for black civil and human rights.
Black Muslims in this country, just like in the US, have also gained a reputation for “cleaning up” the lives of those involved in crime, drugs and gang violence, and many of those I spoke with were recipients of this remedial work. As a result, these beneficiaries were never bashful about sharing their beliefs with those of others faiths or none, and it would be true to say that black converts are often in the vanguard of efforts to proselytise. Having said that, my book includes contributions from Black Muslim doctors, academics, students, artists, sportsmen and musicians. The latter are important because Muslims are increasingly using the musical genre of hip-hop to promote Islamic teachings, and it is worth noting that many of the leading hip-hop artists are Muslims.
Black Muslims are mindful that both 9/11 and 7/7 have placed their faith under a microscope with converts singled out for particular scrutiny. However, all those interviewed showed a commitment to walking “the straight path” and believed that sections of the media made too much of the so-called impressionability and/or susceptibility of converts to the wiles of “preachers of hate”.
Finally, I would say that Islam is providing a spiritual alternative among those who would generally have looked to Christianity for answers to life’s great questions. My book is an attempt to find out more about a phenomenon that is enriching Britain’s religious landscape, and should hopefully be a catalyst for greater discussion and study.
Black Muslims in Britain: Why are a growing Number of Young Black people are Converting to Islam? is published by Lion Hudson