Category: History


Dr. Shakeela Hassan and the Making of a American Muslim Icon

by Sapelo Square

Imagine the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and you will undoubtedly picture a man wearing a cap embroidered with a large star and crescent. This month’s post features Dr. Shakeela Hassan, the maker of those iconic caps. In this video interview with Sapelo Square Editor in Chief, Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Dr. Hassan explains how she came up with the design alongside Elijah Muhammad at his dinner table. Her story reveals that the caps, like the Nation of Islam itself, were as much products of local, homegrown enterprise as they were of global Muslim networks.

Dr. Hassan’s story is a striking example of what Professor Sally Howell calls “Old Islam” — the theologically inclusive, ethnically diverse and explicitly indigenizing Muslim communities that arose primarily in the Midwest before America’s immigration reform of 1965. Both she and her husband, Zia Hassan, found a spiritual home in the Nation of Islam as well as close friendship with the Muhammad family upon arriving in Chicago from Pakistan in the 1950s. Indeed, as she tells elsewhere, Clara Muhammad was “nothing short of a mother to me.” Their relationship was born during an era that defied current divisions between ‘immigrant and indigenous’ Muslims in the United States. The story of these caps provides a rare glimpse into not only the personality of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, but also a bygone era that still has much to teach us.


Sekou Odinga: A Black Muslim Former Political Prisoner in the United States

Today’s post features a short talk by Sekou Odinga about the need to free political prisoners held in the United States. This FRED Talk (Facing Race, Elevating Democracy) was part of a series organized by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. Sekou Odinga is a Black power activist who served over 30 years in prison after taking part in the liberation of Assata Shakur from prison in 1979. Odinga’s story provides a compelling example of Muslims’ participation in the radical activism of the Black Power movement beginning in the 1960s. Muslims like Sekou Odinga, Saafiya Bukhari and Dhoruba Bin Wahad were members of the Black Liberation Army, while others like Dr. Muhammad Ahmad and Sterling X participated in organizations like the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Republic of New Afrika. Often these organizations collaborated, and their membership overlapped. Odinga, like many Black radical activists, was inspired by the life and legacy of Malcolm X during his youth. He joined the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the revolutionary Pan-African organization that Malcolm X founded, which also attracted other influential Muslim activists like Sallahudin and Lumumba Shakur who inspired many participants in the Black Liberation movement to adopt the Shakur family name. Odinga later served as a founding member of the Bronx chapter of the Black Panther Party and was invited to travel to Algeria in 1970 to help organize the international section of the Party.


A picture of Sekou Odinga in his younger days, prior to his 33 year incarceration.

In this FRED Talk, Odinga dispels the myth that America has no political prisoners by speaking on the circumstances surrounding his own imprisonment and the imprisonment of several other activists. He remarks that,

“All freedom struggles against oppressive governments produce political prisoners. This is a historical fact. We can go back as far as Jesus Christ, Peace be upon him, who was himself a political prisoner of the Roman empire, just as Leonard Peltier, Aafia Siddiqui, and 13 members of the Black Panther Party are political prisoners of the U.S. empire.”

Elsewhere, Odinga has recounted facing torture when initially captured by police in 1981, describing how he was burned by cigars, brutally beaten and had his head flushed down toilets in an attempt to pressure him to provide information about other activists. In this talk, he describes some of the horrors associated with the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, and links this history to the disturbing recent Black Identity Extremist (BIE) categorization used to justify the surveillance and criminalization of Black Lives Matter activists.

sekou-imprisoned-concrete_wall-350x400pxAlhamdulillah, Sekou Odinga was released from prison on November 25, 2014. Since his release, he has continued speaking on behalf of the many political prisoners still incarcerated in the United States for their involvement in radical Black activism during the era of COINTELPRO and has been an active member of the Muslim community in New York City. Odinga’s personal history reminds us that Black Muslims were once at the forefront of radical activism and helped to pioneer power building strategies for aggrieved communities in America. Perhaps his life and work will inspire us to rediscover the potential for our faith to spark liberatory transformation for both individuals and communities.  

Click the link here to watch his entire talk:



The Nation of Islam Mourns Elijah Muhammad

From Ebony Magazine, May 1975

The final post in our series on the Black press’s coverage of Black Muslims in the mid-twentieth century comes from Ebony Magazine’s article on the funeral and legacy of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The head of the Nation of Islam (NOI) passed away on February 25, 1975, of congestive heart failure at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, Ill.. Muhammad had been at the helm of the NOI for nearly 40years at the time of his passing. His seventh son, Wallace D. Muhammad—later to be known as Warith Deen Muhammad—succeeded him the following day at the annual Saviours’ Day festivities.

Ebony Magazine published an eight-page spread on Muhammad in May 1975, memorializing his role in “shaping the destiny of black people.” The article recounts his humble origins in Sandersville, Ga., his refusal to register for the draft during World War II and his rise to prominence as “the Messenger of Allah” for Black Muslims in the United States. However, the article demonstrates just how little the general public knew about the radical shifts within the NOI leadership. It notes that “[l]ittle is known about Wallace’s personal life” except that he “tried hard to reconcile the differences between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad” and that he was “believed to be less rigid in his interpretation of Muslim theology, more of a scholar than his father.” The fact that Wallace D. Muhammad was a Sunni Muslim who would soon guide most of the Nation into Sunni Islam was still a closely guarded secret.

The article is perhaps most remarkable insofar as it demonstrates the respect, and even awe, that the NOI commanded among Black Americans by the1970s. It wholly avoids narratives popular in the White press that detracted from the NOI’s religious authenticity by suggesting that it was in fact a purely nationalist movement. Indeed, the article seems to write this perception off as paranoia when it states that “White America heard itself denounced as evil incarnate and doomed to destruction, and the implication was drawn by many that the highly disciplined and secretive Muslims would be the instrument of that destruction.” The authors at Ebony were far more interested in the “strong and viable socio-economic organization [that was]… too real to avoid, too pertinent to dismiss, too large to ignore.” They instead highlighted that “Muslim holding[s]… estimated at $80 million,’ which included a weekly newspaper, restaurants, Guaranty National Bank and Trust Company, a fish import network, grocery stores, meat packing companies, bakeries, department stores, investment realty, and more than 15,000 acres of farmland across Michigan, Georgia, and Alabama.

Elijah Muhammad spent his life spreading a “do for self” program of personal and economic uplift rooted in Islam. Thanks to his leadership, the NOI became the face of Black self-reliance and nation building in the United States. Ebony’s coverage shows that, by the time of his death, Black Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, had heard the message.




Muhammad Ali Loved Africa and Africa Loved Ali

From Ebony Magazine, September 1964

Captions like “[w]ildly cheering crowds in Kumasi, Ghana,” and “military guard assigned to keep Clay fans from getting out of hand” give us an idea of the adoration Ali received.

Today’s post continues our series exploring Ebony Magazine’s coverage of Black Muslims during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In a 1964 article entitled “Champ’s African Love Affair,” Ebony chronicles Muhammad Ali’s first tour of Africa less than a year after joining the Nation of Islam and becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. The editorial portion of the article is only one page long. The five subsequent pages contain powerful photographs of the champ in the various countries he visited, which included Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Egypt. Unfortunately no pictures are shown from his stop in Senegal, leaving us to wonder about Ali’s experience there. Still, the pictures presented are captivating. They demonstrate the love and esteem that Ali enjoyed from people on the continent.

Captions like “[w]ildly cheering crowds in Kumasi, Ghana,” and “military guard assigned to keep Clay fans from getting out of hand” give us an idea of the adoration Ali received. And Ali’s reflection that “[e]very black man in America should see Africa, because that’s where home really is” reveals something of his own thoughts during the historic trip.

The caption of one picture of Ali entering a beautiful mosque in Cairo reads “[w]ith solemn face — an unusual expression for exuberant Louisville Lip.”

While most of the pictures depict Ali receiving honors or being celebrated by fans, a few of the pictures from his time in Egypt display a different side of this renowned Black Muslim world traveler. The caption of one picture of Ali entering a beautiful mosque in Cairo reads “[w]ith solemn face — an unusual expression for exuberant Louisville Lip.” In another, he glares at a sculpture of an ancient Egyptian queen which appears to have had its nose damaged, like so many statues depicting rulers of the African cradle of civilization. Perhaps Ali was searching for other African features and lamenting that it was been defaced. Or perhaps he remembered Malcolm X’s comments about the Black women and men depicted by such structures.

He called President Kwame Nkrumah his ‘personal hero,’ undoubtedly due to Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism and opposition to Western colonialism.

Ali served as an ambassador for both Black folks and Muslims from the United States. He was celebrated as a symbol of dignity by Black and Brown people and Muslims the world over. But in some ways, he exhibited the same hopes, concerns and expectations as many Black American Muslims who engaged Africa, whether through travel or by exploring its history and culture. Ali envisioned a familial relationship with Africans remarking,  “I want to see Africa and meet my brothers and sisters.”

He called President Kwame Nkrumah his ‘personal hero,’ undoubtedly due to Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism and opposition to Western colonialism. Ali also appeared open to the thought of repatriation, expressing an interest in building a home on land he was given in Ghana. And he took note of the chasm between Africa’s reality and its depictions in the West, exclaiming, “[t]hey never told us about your beautiful flowers, magnificent hotels, beautiful houses, beaches, great hospitals, schools, and universities.” Enjoy these images of Muhammad Ali experiencing the beauty of Africa, its peoples, and its cultures.