By Sylvia Chan-Malik
“Four American Moslem Ladies”:
Black American Women in the Ahmadiyya Movement of Islam, 1921-23
This photo is the first known group photo of visibly-identifiable Muslim women in the United States. It was originally featured in the January 1923 edition of The Moslem Sunrise, the newsletter of the Ahmadiyya Movement of Islam (AMI) in the United States, a South-Asia based Islamic missionary movement that was one of the first major Muslim organizations in the U.S. This image is often included histories of U.S. American Islam, generally as a way of documenting Black American women’s presence in early Islamic movements in the U.S. Yet little attention has been paid to the actual women in the photo, named in the caption as Mrs. Thomas (Sister Khairat), Mrs. Watts (Sister Zeineb), Mrs. Robinson (Sister Ahmadia), Mrs. Clark (Sister Ayesha): who they were, where they came from, and how and why they came to convert to Ahmadiyya Islam.
In my forthcoming book, Gendering American Islam: U.S. Muslim Women and the Question Race, I recount a cultural history of U.S. Muslim women’s lives across the 20th-21st century which begins with this image, taken in November 1922 at the Al-Sadiq Mosque on 4448 South Wabash Avenue in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. In my exploration of the photo, I examine the ways in which early Black American Muslim women learned to be Muslim and practice Islam in the harsh environments of the post-Great Migration urban North, and in the context of new formations of kinship and difficult working and living conditions in industrial Chicago. For example, how did working-class Black Ahmadi Muslim women find spaces to pray during their workday? How did they explain their sudden avoidance of pork to their non-Muslim families and communities? How were they to raise their children as Muslims? And, how should they dress and express themselves as Muslims? In the image, one sees the innovative and improvisatory approaches of these women in attempting to answer the last question. They wrapped shawls and bed sheets around and over their Sunday church hats and dresses in order to announce their newfound religious identities.
Such manners of styling were likely culled from the teachings of the AMI’s chief missionary in the U.S. from 1921 to 1923, Mufti Muhammad Sadiq. Hailing from the Punjab region of India, Sadiq arrived in the U.S. to propagate Islam through the teachings of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the head and founder of the AMI, who in 1888, had declared himself the Mahdi, or Promised Messiah of Islam and Christianity, as well as an incarnation of the Hindu god, Krishna.  Ahmad believed the teachings of Islam had become corrupted through the interpretations of ulema (scholars) and thus called for a revival of Islam through moral reformation and non-violence. Upon arrival, Sadiq was immediately detained by U.S. immigration officials on charges of polygamy, stemming only from his identification as a Muslim, which led him immediately to recognize the presence of racial inequality in the U.S. While many of his early American converts were white, Sadiq quickly recognized the appeal of the Islam to Black Americans, many of whom were drawn to the religion’s universalist and racially-egalitarian message, and had come to learn of the faith through the Pan-Africanist teachings of Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
Yet Sadiq also realized that women were drawn to Islam’s teachings. By mid-1922, the missionary moved the AMI’s headquarters from Highland Park, MI to the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago, a flourishing Black American cultural center which would come to be known as the site of Chicago’s Harlem Renaissance, and was home at one time or another to Black luminaries such as Ida B. Wells, Louis Armstrong, Richard Wright, and Lorraine Hansberry. Upon arrival in Bronzeville, Sadiq placed ads for his mission in only one place, the “Woman’s Page” of the nation’s most prominent Black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. For the women that came to hear his sermons, Sadiq emphasized Islam’s gender egalitarianism often, stating clearly that, as he wrote in the very first issue of The Moslem Sunrise, published August 1921, “Sex makes no distinction in the rules for the uplift of the soul to higher levels of purity, calmness, and union with Allah.” In addition, Sadiq’s mission included a significant educational component, in which his followers were instructed to form study groups to read the Quran and the writings of the Promised Messiah, as well as to receive instruction in Arabic, so that they could read Islamic texts in their original form.
Such messages of Islam’s racial and gender parity, and emphasis education and literacy were appealing to the large numbers of Black American women who would convert to Ahmadiyya Islam during Sadiq’s time in the United States. The Black women who attended Sadiq’s lectures were Southern migrants struggling to adapt to new forms of labor and family and social relationships in the urban North. Because they were overwhelmingly working-class, mostly domestic and factory workers, they often felt shunned by the bourgeois respectability politics of the Black Church, which catered mostly to middle-class and affluent Blacks in Bronzeville. Those seeking a spiritual home—such as Sisters Khairat, Zeineb, Ahmadia, and Ayesha—encountered a charismatic guide in Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, who connected them to a global community of Muslims.
Sadiq provided stories and images of faraway places—India and “Arabia”—which likely included photos of their newfound “sisters” in Islamic dress. While the Four American Moslem Ladies may not have had fine silks and saris of their Ahmadi Muslim sisters in the Punjab, Sisters Khairat, Zeineb, Ahmadia, and Ayesha made do by pulling out and pressing their best linens, putting on their church clothes and hats, and wrapping themselves as regally and beautifully as they knew how. They innovated and improvised, and of their own will, chose Islam. As they looked into the lens of the camera that day, and as they looked out at the world around them every day, they did so with the visions of self-made Muslim women, as working-class Black woman working to survive—and striving to flourish—upon the ever-evolving racial, gendered, and religious landscapes of Bronzeville and beyond. Through their striving and creativity these Black Muslim women have left undeniable imprints on the history and future of U.S. American Islam.
 In Sunni doctrine, this contradicts the idea of the al-nabi al-khatm, or the seal of the prophets, e.g. that the Prophet Muhammad was the final and last of God’s prophets, and thus none may follow him. Yet perceptions of Ahmadis as non-Muslims are not only theological, but political, relating directly to the status of the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, where the group has been subjected to ongoing persecution and oppression for the past century; for example, they bear the legal status of “non-Muslim” (indicated in identity cards and stamped on passports) and are prohibited from performing any Islamic rituals, even from speaking the Islamic greeting, “Assalaamu Alaikum” or praying in mosques. Such differences, while formed and most latent in the South Asian context, have engendered separation between Ahmadi and Sunni Muslim communities in the U.S., as well as an overall tendency in scholarship to compartmentalize Ahmadiyya Islam in the U.S. as “proto-Islamic” sect and at time, ignore its influence within broader histories of American Islam.
Sylvia Chan–Malik is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University New Brunswick. She currently a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in NYC, where she is completing her book manuscript, Gendering American Islam: U.S. Muslim Women and the Question of Race.