The Black American Sufi: A History

This article was made possible in part through a media partnership with Sacred Writes: Public Scholarship on Religion

by Rasul Miller

The Black American Sufi: A History

Black American Muslims engage virtually every kind of Islam: Sunni, Shia, traditional, reformist, orthodox, heterodox, and whatever else one might imagine. Therefore, it is not surprising that many Black American Muslims have embraced Sufism. They can be observed marching in the parade with Senegalese members of the Mouride order on Amadou Bamba day in Harlem. In Chicago, Black American members of the Haqqani Naqshbandi order can be seen wearing bright red turbans at the suggestion of their Turkish Cypriot spiritual guide, Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani, who commented on the beautiful, “fiery” nature of Black spirituality Elizabeth Sirriyeh, “Sufi Thought and its Reconstruction” in Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century. Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer M. Nafi (eds.), 122.. nd, distinguished Muslim scholars like Ustadha Ieasha Prime and Imam Amin Muhammad connect spiritual seekers in the United States to the rich tradition of the Ba ‘Alawi order in Yemen, who helped spread Islam across the Indian Ocean. There is also considerable evidence of Sufi practice among enslaved African Muslims in the Americas because Sufism was, and continues to be, a hallmark of the Muslim societies from which many were taken captive during the Transatlantic slave trade.

Members of the Haqqani Naqshabandi community can be seen here (at min 01:31) sporting their signature red turbans along with award-winning violence interrupter Ameena Matthews as she promotes peace between young Black men on the streets of Chicago.

Sufism continues to be an integral part of orthodox Muslim religious life for those Black American Muslims who embrace it…

Although Sufism reemerges in Black American Muslim communities during the early 20th century, in a number of contemporary Black Muslim communities, Sufis are viewed with suspicion. Part of the reason for this is the rise, during the 1990s, of a generation of Black American Muslims exposed to the Salafi movement through travel and increased access to English translations of religious literature exported from the Gulf Arab States. In particular, many young, Black American Muslim men who studied at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia began teaching and prostelitizing in major cities on the East Coast with considerable success. As a result of this rising Salafi influence, many became leery of Sufism and questioned its compatibility with orthodox Islam. This added to an earlier attitude of suspicion against Sufism and foreign Sufi Shaykhs that emerged among some Black American Muslims in the aftermath of the tumultuous fracture of the Darul Islam Movment (the Dar). Despite these dynamics, Sufism continues to be an integral part of orthodox Muslim religious life for those Black American Muslims who embrace it, and a testament to their desire for spiritual fulfillment and transformation. What follows is a brief overview of Black American Muslim engagement with Sufism during the 20th century.

Sufism among 20th Century Muslim Pioneers 

Two of the most prominent pioneers of orthodox Islam in 20th century America were Shaykh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and Al-Hajj Wali Akram. I refer to these men as “orthodox” pioneers to align with the everyday language of many Black American Muslims during the early 20th century. At the time, Black American Muslims distinguished “orthodox” groups of Muslims from those that they considered heterodox, such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, and were less likely to distinguish between “Sunni” and “Shi’a” Muslims.

Mother Khadijah & Shaykh Daoud. From the digital archive of the estate of Imam Mohamed Kabbaj.

Shaykh Daoud was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1891. At the age of 21, he relocated to New York City to study music. In 1924, he married a Bermudan vocalist who later adopted the name Khadijah. By 1928, Shaykh Daoud had accepted Islam and opened the Islamic Propogation Society, one of the city’s first organizations founded for the purpose of promoting Islam. Together, Shaykh Daoud and Mother Khadijah founded a mosque called the Islamic Mission of America in Brooklyn in 1939. Shaykh Daoud joined the Shadhili order, possibly as early as the beginning of the same decade, and was likely introduced to it by Ethiopian and Somalian Muslims in Harlem in the 1930s.For more on the Somalian and Ethiopian presence in Harlem, see Daoud A. Haroon’s reflection “Flow of Baraka.” References to Harlem’s Somali Muslim community and Ibrahim Guled, the Somalian Imam of the International Muslim Society, a Harlem based mosque established in the 1940s, can be found in Vivek Bald’s Bengali Harlem and Patrick D. Bowen’s A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States. Vol. 2. The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975. He deepened his connections to it through Yemeni Muslim merchant seamen who attended his Brooklyn mosque in the 1940s. The many Arab, South Asian and East African merchant seaman who encountered the mosque spread word about Shaykh Daoud’s and Mother Khadijah’s efforts through a global network of Muslim seafaring workers, prompting others to visit his mosque when their ships docked at the nearby Brooklyn Bridge piers. Shaykh Daoud went on to become a muqaddam (an official representative) of the Shadhili order. According to one close friend and aide, Shaykh Daoud received a written authorization from the renowned Moroccan Sufi Shaykh Ahmed al ‘Alawi, which Shaykh Daoud used to carry with him inside his kufi.

Al-Hajj Wali Akram held gatherings for the observance of the Chishti dhikr (devotional remembrance) in his mosque. This likely marks the first public Sufi gathering convened by Black American Muslims in a mosque during the 20th century.

Another giant of early 20th century orthodox Islam, Imam Al-Hajj Wali Akram, who founded the First Cleveland Mosque in 1937, introduced members of his congregation to the Chishti order during the 1950s. According to members of his family, Imam Akram embraced the order while traveling throughout the Arab World, South Asia and Eastern Europe after completing his celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca in 1957. Unlike Shaykh Daoud, whose Sufi affiliation was unknown to most members of his congregation, Al-Hajj Wali Akram held gatherings for the observance of the Chishti dhikr (devotional remembrance) in his mosque. This likely marks the first public Sufi gathering convened by Black American Muslims in a mosque during the 20th century. 

Wali Akram at home in Cleveland, Ohio. 1990. copyright Jolie Stahl

The 1970s and Onward 

During the 1970s and early 1980s, while in the early stages of his career, [Shaykh Hassan Cisse] spent significant time with Black American adherents in New York City, Detroit and Chicago

During the 1970s in New York City, three Black Muslim Sufi communities emerged that went on to amass a national following: the Tijaniyyah, Qadiriyyah and Burhaniyyah. These three groups provided many Black American Muslims with their first exposure to a traditional Sufi order. The first of these was the Tijani order. Many of the first Black American Tijanis came from the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB) in Harlem and the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (ICC-NY) in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Two of the earliest members were Imam Sayed Abdus-Salaam, co-founder and assistant Imam of MIB, and Hajjah Kareemah Abdul-Kareem, an attendee of ICC-NY who became prominent in the city’s Muslim community due to her philanthropy. Miller, Rasul “When the Divine Flood Reached New York: The Tijani Sufi Order Among Black American Muslims in New York City.” In Varieties of American Sufism: Islam, Sufi Orders, and Authority in a Time of Transition, edited by Elliot Bazzano and Marcia Hermansen. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press 2020 (in press). They were introduced to the Tijani order by a young Senegalese religious scholar named Shaykh Hassan Cisse, who first visited the United States in 1975. Shaykh Hassan’s exceptional Islamic scholarship, fluency in English and pan-African political sensibility made him especially attractive to Black American orthodox Muslims interested in the legacy of Islam in West Africa. In the subsequent decades, Shaykh Hassan emerged as the world’s preeminent representative of the Tijani order. But during the 1970s and early 1980s, while in the early stages of his career, he spent significant time with Black American adherents in New York City, Detroit and Chicago. He appointed dozens of Black Americans in various cities as muqaddams of the Tijani order. As a result, the order took root in urban centers throughout the country, spreading to cities like Atlanta, Washington D.C., Cleveland and Denver, thus creating a distinctly Black American Sufi congregation. The Tijani order furthered its reach with the founding of the African American Islamic Institute in 1984, a Qur’an school in Senegal that hundreds of Black American Muslim children have attended.

Jama’at of the Shehu. Eid al Fitr. 2019 copyright Luqmon Abdus-Salaam

n the latter part of the 1970s, some of the leaders of the Dar were introduced to the Qadiri order by Shaykh Mubarak Ali Gilani from Pakistan.Mukhtar, Curtis, “The Early Attraction to Orthodox Islam” in Yvonne Haddad and Jane I. Smith (eds), Muslim Communities in North America, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press), 65; Abdin Chande, “Islam in the African American Community: Negotiating between Black Nationalism and Historical Islam” Islamic Studies 47 (2, 2008): 221-241, 226; The Dar was founded by Muslims who previously attended Shaykh Daoud’s and Mother Khadijah’s ethnically diverse mosque in Brooklyn and had learned about the history of Islam in South Asia from people like Hafiz Mahbub, a Pakistani Qur’an teacher who served that community. In addition, Imam Yahya Abdul-Kareem, the Imam of Ya-Sin Mosque in Brooklyn (the Dar’s headquarters) exhibited an interest in Qadiri texts as early as the 1960s. He and other members of the congregation became formal adherents of the Qadiri order upon encountering Shaykh Gilani, who visited the United States in 1978. Shaykh Gilani’s knowledge of African Diasporic history and his criticism of Western imperial domination of majority-Muslim countries contributed to his appeal among members of the Dar — a community characterized by its zeal for Islam and its rejection of Western, secular, white supremicist cultural norms. However, some members were distrustful of Shaykh Gilani and opposed the idea that their predominantly Black and Latino Muslim congregation should defer to a foreign religious leader. Subsequently, during the early 1980s, the Dar effectively split into two communities. The contingent that embraced Shaykh Gilani’s leadership and his approach to Sufism formed the Jama’at al-Fuqrah (currently known as The Muslims of America, Inc.), which established rural Muslim settlements around the United States. that are still active today. 

Upon their return, York established his Ansar Allah community…Shaykh Awadallah, on the other hand, … cultivated a relationship with Shaykh Muhammad Osman Abdel Burhani, … who then designated Shaykh Awadallah as his American muqaddam during the late 1970s.

The third community to emerge during this period was the Burhani order. In 1973, a Black American Muslim named Shaykh Abdullah Awadallah traveled to Sudan. One of his traveling companions was the infamous Malachi York, then known as Imam Isa. Upon their return, York established his Ansar Allah community, a heterodox Islamic congregation that incorporated aspects of the Sudanese Sufi tradition along with an eclectic mix of beliefs and practices.Palmer, Susan. The Nuwaubian Nation: Black Spirituality and State Control. (Ashgate, 2010) 46 Shaykh Awadallah, on the other hand, maintained a commitment to Sunni Islam and cultivated a relationship with Shaykh Muhammad Osman Abdel Burhani, a well-known spiritual guide he met in Sudan who then designated Shaykh Awadallah as his American muqaddam during the late 1970s. Shaykh Awadallah set up a zawiya (a community worship space) in the Bronx that held dhikr regularly.

6th Annual Shaykh Hassan Cisse Commemoration Courtesy of Nasrul Ilm America.

From the 1980s onward, increasing numbers of Black American Muslims throughout the United States became interested in other Sufi orders on the African continent. For instance, during the 1990s, many Black American Muslims learned about the famed precolonial Nigerian scholar, political leader, and Sufi guide, Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. They ultimately formed the Jama’at of the Shehu, and embraced the leadership of his descendants and spiritual heirs in Sudan. This increased awareness of the legacy of the Shehu was due, in large part, to the efforts of an African American Muslim named Shaykh Muhammad Shareef bin Farid, founder of the Sankore Institute of Islamic-African Studies. A prolific translator, he made scores of works authored by the Shehu and other scholars associated with him available to the public in English. 

Of course, Black American Muslims can be found in many more Sufi orders than these. They continue to forge substantive transnational relationships by participating in global Sufi networks, while simultaneously using the lessons of the Sufi tradition to address their local communities’ needs. Today, Black American Muslims explore the wisdom of famous Sufi sages mentioned on the pages of history who hail from every corner of the globe. Yet, it remains important to tell the local histories of our Black American Muslim foremothers and forefathers who engaged Sufism because they can grant us access to a unique kind of wisdom — one that can help us navigate the ideological differences that divide Muslim communities in the United States, and around the world, and how to harness Islam’s transformative potential in our own context.

Rasul Miller is a historian of Black Muslim communities in the Atlantic World. He received his PhD in History and Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black Internationalism and West African intellectual history. He currently serves as a Postdoctoral Associate in the study of the Racialization of Islam at Yale University’s Center for the Study of  Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. 

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  • Thanks for the great info.

    • I remember Sheikh Daud long time ago he hugged me as I was wearing wool jalibiyah from the Magrib andh he said it reminded him of his youth when his father would take on a journey to visit the various brotherhood there in North Africa.

  • Jazakullah khairun! May Allah richly reward you for this research! I began attending Chisti dhikr circles in San Francisco in the mid 1970s on the order of my Taoist Tai Chi master (long story) – after hundreds of hours reciting “la illaha ilallah”, “Mohamad rasuulallah” seemed obvious. When I came to Islam, in 1978, the only mosque I was really welcome of comfortable in was in the W.D. Mohammed community. My first door to tasawuf was in the Sufi Islamia Ruhaniyat, founded by Murshid Samuel Lewis, a student of Hazrat Inayat Khan of Hyderbad, of the Chisti-Nizami. I am curious as to who was Imam Al-Hajj Wali Akram’s murshid – is that known?

    A senior teacher in the Ruhaniat was Murshida Vera Corda, who had bayat from Hazrat Inayat Khan. I have been told that after Inayat Khan’s death in 1927, she had bayat from Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi. I am seeking to confirm this.

    Thanks again for this very important contribution to the history of tasawuf in this country!

    Wa Aleykum as-Salaam, wa Rahmatullahi, wa Barakatt Hu!

    • I just visited Hazrat Inayat Khan’s house in Paris last year. Pretty amazing

      • Imam Wali Akram RahimAllah was initially introduced to Islam through the Ahmadiyyah movement. It was presented to him through Indian(Pakistan) migrants who had migrated to Cleveland in the early part of the 20th century. Sometime in the 1930s or early 40s when he started traveling abroad he came in contact with the Chisti tariqa. And truly Allah knows best –

    • Ma sha’a-llahu (What Allah wanted to happen has happened)🌹

      May Allah continue to bless your scholarship.

      Ahmed Mujahid Akbar
      Dar es-Salaam Foundation a Michigan Nonprofit Charitable Corporation dedicated to
      Community Development

  • What a wealth of history. Thank you for this post.

  • as salaamu alaykum wa rahm jazaaka Allahu khayran for this concise but accurate history of the Sufism among the African American Muslim national minority.

  • dr miller i disagree that your characterization of malachi york as possessing “an eclectic mix of beliefs and practices”. when in fact he was responsible for establishing a cult that harmed many people who thought they were practicing islam. im puzzled how a professional scholar could put describe his legacy (?) in this manner.

    • This is an interesting point. With this book coming out in November we need to have a discussion on York’s lasting impact to Islam.

      • As Salaam Alayk
        I hope your book doesn’t have my father, Shaykh Abdullah B. Awadallah as York’s study mate….. if so, please contact me at once.

    • Dr. York did indeed take a mix of practices to establish the Ansaru-Allah community in Brooklyn- that’s what it was at the time. What it expanded and morphed into is another course of study in and of itself- as the focus of this text was Sufi orders- of which the Ansar’s were most definitely not.
      I will say that it may be that Dr. Miller will ensure to choose his words better in the future- especially in the book he is working on- to ensure that even the few words he chooses to use describing Dr. York. will first of all not be associated directly with my father, Shaykh Abdullah B. Awadallah, and second, if used at all, more mindful of that history.

      I am sorry for any pain reading such gentle words-well, at least tactful words…gave you. I will make dua that your future deeds and deen overshadows that experience you had into oblivion.

      • Hamdulillah. I made similar comments about the inclusion of “Dr” York in this essay. To date I have received no response from the author. In fact my comment no longer appears in this section. I am curious as to how a document submitted by a PHD could opine or state things and not respond to a challenge to the accuracy of said document. Allah musta an amma yasifoon. ameen

      • As Salaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your feedback and insights. First of all, I want to let you know that I meant absolutely no disrespect to Shaykh Abdullah B. Awadallah. I hold him in high regard and would be honored to have the opportunity to speak with you further about his life and legacy. Regarding my comments above, it was not my intention to give the impression that Shaykh Awadallah and Dr. York had any association with one another beyond traveling to Sudan together. Your comments have caused me to reflect on how mentioning even that point might confuse people, and might require further clarification. I would be very disappointed if anyone associated Shaykh Awadallah with the controversies of the Ansars based on anything I wrote. I would love to discuss this with you further if you are willing.
        Thank you again and may Allah reward you! And may Allah shower blessings and mercy upon your father!

    • I am in agreement as I have known several Muslim brothers and Sisters who were part of that group imparting horrendous narratives about the activities in the Bushwick ave ‘club-house’ they inhabited. I remember one brother who said when he realized their ‘doctrine/ideology’ was a hodge-podge of racist, un-Islamic beliefs based on the worst ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition along with several immoral and unethical practices left them. When he got out and said he took Shahada meaning he understood they were deviated from Islam and never looked back. mash’sha’lah

    • Thank you for your comment! I share many of the same sentiments as you with regard to Dr. York. My statement was by no means an endorsement. By eclectic, I simply meant that the Ansars incorporated beliefs from many different places – including non-Islamic ones. This is also why I used the term heterodox. Thank you again for feedback!

      • This was a response to the above comment from ABUKHALID MUHASIB. Thank you again

  • JzakuAllah Kheir, thanks so much for this beautifully written and documented history. Much appreciated. Warmest of regards from Melbourne, Australia.

  • Integral to the Qadiri (Uthman dan Fodio branch) is the teachings of al-Shaykh Sidi al-Muktar al-Kunti, the eighteenth century Qubt (Pole) and venerable master of the al-Qadiriyya Tariqa in Bilad as-Sudan, the Sahel-Sahara region of Western and Central Africa, that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

    Al-Shaykh Sidi al-Muktar is inconstestably the most renowned representative of the mystical al-Qadiriyya order in the southern outskirts of the Sahara. From within the original brotherhood (Qadiriyya), he managed to found his own brotherhood, known as al-Bakka’iyya (referring to al-Shaykh Sidi A’mar ould al-Shaykh Sidi Ahmad al-Bakkay, d. 1590).

    Paul Marty, the renowned French scholar of the region, claims that the Bakka’yya order is practiced by:

    * All Kunta tribal groups from Mali, Algeria and Mauritania;

    * The Zawiya of al-Shaykh Sidiyya al-Muktar and in particular all the attached Moorish and black branches;

    * The Mourides group of al-Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba in Senegalese Baol and its dependents;

    * The Bou Kunta in Senegal and all the attached branches;

    * The Fulani, Songhai and Igelled groups of Middle Niger region (Goundam);

    * The Fulani and Marka group from Masina (Jenne, Dia);

    * The Malinka group from upper Guinea (Kouroussa, Kankan, Beyla);

    * All the Diakanke groups, and their subsidiaries from Guinea (Touba, Bakadadji, Bissikrima, Kindia, Conakry) and upper Senegal (Bafoulabe, Kita);

    * The Fadiliyya brotherhood created by al-Shaykh Muhammad Fadil (c. 1797-1869);

    * The dan Fodio from the north of Nigeria;

    * The Masina Fulanis

    Outside the Moorish and Tuareg tribes, the spirituality preached through the Bakka’iyya-Qadiriyya found fertile ground in African populations. Its memory is deepest in Senegal, Guinea, northern Ivory Coast and in the Islamised Sudan. All the black peoples who consider themselves adherents of Qadirism come under the affiliation and discipleship of al-Shaykh Sidi al-Muktar.

  • Thank you for this knowledge. I never knew about Burhanniya. That was interesting

    • There’s a Burhaniyyah meeting out in New Jersey BTW.

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