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African American Muslims and the Garvey Movement

By September 2, 2013September 6th, 2013No Comments

By Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid


August 18, 2013 marks the 126th memorial birthdate of Marcus Garvey. In honor of that occasion, the purpose of this brief paper is to cite the influence of Islam and Muslims upon the man known to his millions of followers and admirers as the “Father of Black Nationalism”.


Muslim Influence on the U.N.I.A.

“Father of all Creation
Allah Omnipotent,
Supreme o’er every nation
God Bless our President”

These are the words of one of the “hymns” of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), founded by the late Marcus Mosiah Garvey, often described as the most influential leader of African descent in the West, during the 20th century. During his residency in England in the early 1900s, the Honorable Marcus Garvey was taught African history, topology and politics by a Muslim Nubian Egyptian named Duse Muhammad Ali (see photo above left) .

Years later when Garvey became a major global African diasporan leader advocating self-determination and “Africa for the Africans, many Americans of African descent who viewed themselves as Muslims struggling for the liberation of their people from oppression, became followers of his. These men and women had been influenced by an Ahmadiyyah Muslim da’ee (missionary) named Mufti Muhammad Saadiq, who came to America from India in 1920, to propagate Islam as he understood it.

Bayoumi writes “Originally conceiving of his work as broad-based, ecumenical, multiracial missionary activity, Sadiq soon realized that Whites were bitter and fearful of his message and African Americans interested and open. Early reports indicate that several Garveyites attended his lectures and were among his first converts…”[1]

During Garvey’s time journalist Roger Didier noted that some of these self-proclaimed Muslim Garveyites had  “…adopted Arabic names…There is the very dark Mr. Augustus, who used to belong to St. Marks church in this city [Chicago], but who now sings a pretty Arabic prayer and acts rather sphinx-like. Half a dozen Garvey cohorts are counted, one in his resplendent uniform…” [2]

Tony Martin noted that at the 1922 U.N.I.A. convention, “several delegates suggested that the association should adopt Islam as its official religion since three-quarters of the black world were Muslims and Muslims were better Christians than Christians”. The discussion was lively and occupied both the morning and afternoon sessions, under the topic “The Future Religious Faith and Belief of the Negro.” Garvey himself presided over the afternoon session, declaring the subject to be “of vital interest and importance, in that it struck at the strongest side of the Negro, it being conceded that the Negro was more religious than anything else”. [3]

Garvey eventually concluded and declared that it was not the purpose of the UNIA to dictate a particular spiritual tradition to African people, but rather to give them “a scientific understanding of religion”. Toward that end, he advocated inter-religious dialogue and meeting. Although the resolution to adopt Al-Islam as the UNIA’s official religion, and indeed the future religion of all black people in America was not passed, its serious introduction into the discussion spread out over hours, indicates the receptivity to the Islamic faith ( or at least as it was understood according to Ahmadiyyah teachings) that was present in the ranks of that organization. One of its hymns was even named “Allahu Akbar”.

In Detroit, Michigan, Mufti Sadiq himself spoke at five Garveyite meetings in 1923, and 40 more U.N .I.A. members converted to the faith. One was another Christian leader, Reverend Sutton, who was renamed Sheik Abdul Salaam, and placed in leadership over the congregation in that city. Ahmadiyyah appeals to the followers of Garvey, hammered a message tailored to them. Knowing that many Garveyites, or at least those inclined to Islam read its pages, The Moslem Sunrise contained an article with what must be the world’s longest title[4]. Its text included these words:

“Apart from confederation of the African tribes or peoples of African origin, the possibility of which is a nightmare to the white man, he lives in fear and trembling that El Islam may become the religion of the Negro. And why should it not be? ‘El Islam’ would be a wonderful spiritual force in the life of the colored races, uniting us in a bond of common sympathy and interest. We could then add to our motto of one God, one aim, one destiny, the words one language which would be arabic. It could easily be made the universal language of Negroes and would remove the barriers which now face us in the intercommunication of the different tribes in Africa. Arabic is already spoken by millions of Negroes..”

Garvey and Al-Islām

Garvey, who was himself the student of a Muslim, was obviously listening to this message. He posed the question, ostensibly to Christians who were American, and other peoples of European descent in positions of power, when he stated:

“…You white men, have taught us the love of God, you have had us to see Him in all goodness and perfection; is He a mockery to you? He must be something real. Must we by your actions deny His goodness and love for us, and seek and search for the God of Africa, The Allah most High, Noble and Almighty?” [5]

Further he mentioned The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) several times in his speeches, as an inspirational figure whom he considered to be a great black man. He declared before an audience at Liberty Hall, in Harlem, New York on September 17, 1922 “…everybody knows that Mohammed was a Negro…Negroes on this side of the river had accepted Christ, while on the other side, many of them, had accepted Mohammed. The administration was not endeavoring to bring Mohammed into the Western world. Mohammed was not in need of change. He was a colored man, anyhow. [6]

“The fight that has centered around me is the same kind of fight that will be centered around any other leader, any other idealist who sets out to lead the people into a new vision, into a new light. It was the same kind of fight that was centered Around Mohammed when he enunciated his doctrine; it was the same kind of fight that was centered around Martin Luther when he declared the reformation; it was the same kind of fight that was centered around the great political leaders of Ireland who sought to arouse the people for Irish freedom; it was the same kind of fight that centered around the Man of NazAreth who attempted to assemble the multitude and teach them the new doctrine of salvation, it is the same kind of fight that will be centered around any man or woman who seeks to place an ideal among the people….”[7]

“The great Mohammed, the leader of the Mohammedan faith-the man who swept the Asiatic world with that new cult, the new religion of Allah- he counted the cost and in his lifetime paid the price. Mohammed suffered many reverses; Mohammed suffered many defeats at certain times; half of the people, two-thirds of the people; nearly all of the people, forsook Mohammed, but Mohammed stuck to his faith and ultimately triumphed and Mohammedenism was given to the world. And as Mohammed did in the religious world, so in the political arena we have had men who have paid the price for leading the people toward the great light of liberty.”[8]

Is there any wonder that with such insights and expressed sentiments, receptivity and love for the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey remains in the hearts of African diasporan people in America , who are familiar with his words and teachings?


[1] East of the Sun (West of the Moon): Islam, the Ahmadis, and African America

[2] “Those Who’re Missionaries to Christians: Prophet Sadiq Brings Allah’s Message Into Chicago and Makes Proselytes”, reprinted in The Moslem Sunrise, October 1922

[3] author of Race First: The Ideological and Organizatiuonal Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the U.N.I.A. (1976), see Chapter 4, also see the minutes from the UNIA annual convention held in August, 1922, specifically those from the 25th day, Friday morning and afternoon sessions, The Marcus Garvey Papers, Vol. 4, pp. 991-992

[4] “”Crescent or Cross? A Negro May Aspire to Any Position under Islam without Discrimination: The Teachings of the Prophet are being Profitably Imbibed –with Millions of Moslems the World over, Pressure Can be brought to Solve the Race Question”, The Moslem Sunrise, April 1923, pg. 262

[5] The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, pg. 412

[6] U.N.I.A. Convention, August 5, 1924

[7] Liberty Hall speech, Nov. 5, 1922

[8] Speech, January 29, 1922, The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers, sponsored by the Univ. of California, LA


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