The untold story of black Muslims in America: Pioneering African-American Ahmadi Muslim converts, St Louis

0

Dr Talha Sami, UK

“We would have to sell dinners to raise money. There would be fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans. Ibrahim Khalil would take the orders. Abdul Ali put the wood in the stove. Almas Ali would fry the chicken with Amina Khalid and Sister Zeinab. I remember they would stand cooking all day so much so their ankles would swell.” (Sister Aziza Ahmad)

A previous article discussed the pioneering activities of Sheikh Ahmad Din who established Ahmadiyyat in St Louis. This legacy continued for decades more. It has a rich vibrant history; it is the second longest fully fledged independent chapter which quickly became a powerhouse chapter in America that would host pioneering Ahmadis across each decade. This was another pivotal chapter of the early Ahmadiyya Community.

St. Louis riverfront, circa 1942 | Wiki Commons

Like Chicago, it had the close-knit feel. It was the centre of a thriving group of individuals where brotherhood and sisterhood were paramount. This was a cosy community with about 20 families between the 1940s and 1950s.

One Chicago member described it as a small community that had a real family touch; one could see the generations there. Even to this day, there are now many generations of African- American Ahmadis.

One example is Abdul Aziz who joined around 1944. He had a son Habibullah Aziz. He had his own sons of Azim and Zahir. Azim’s son was Omar. Ibn Yamin and Ibrahim Khalil spread the message of Islam diligently, which led to the second wave of conversions after Mufti Sadiq Sahibra. They were able to convert Usman Khalid who, in turn, converted Aminah Khalid. These were the pioneers of the St Louis community. (And They Prayed Too: African-American Journey to Islam Exhibit, St Louis, Missouri)

Taking it all the way back, Sister Aziza remembers the community and its humble beginnings. She fondly recalled her childhood within these times. The community looked different; there was no Lajna, Nasirat and no chanda amongst many of the other things which later have come to play a pivotal role in the community.

At that time, it was nurtured through children’s classes, the regular Sunday meetings and frequent gettogethers. This cultivated the feeling of the family – Sister Aziza recollected that even if there were arguments, they would always be mended. The local fraternity did not stop a global sentiment; during the partition of India into the Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan, they would get together to raise money for those Muslims of the community who stayed behind in Qadian, India, known as the Darvesh. They numbered 313, which was the same number of Muslim participants who fought the first battle at Badr at the time of the Prophetsa.

The St Louis chapter in the 1950s

Aside from socialising, education was a key part of this chapter; Sister Aziza particularly recalls The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam and Where Did Jesus Die? as key texts that were frequently read by the early members – the former had to be read before taking allegiance. Her husband was fundamental in American Islam. Rashid Ahmad was the first African-American missionary to study in Rabwah, Pakistan, before returning to America. His long-time friend, Percy Smith, enquired about Islam on his own return, accepting the Movement soon after. He had been on his own journey and would host popular jazz musicians in California at his house to discuss spirituality and religion. He became a staunch proselytiser in his own right in St Louis, later re-locating and taking the name Saeed Ahmad. He would send letters, pass handbills and visit people’s homes to spread the message of Islam. He even sent a cablegram to Pakistan in repudiation of a false statement published in Lahore. (“Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam”, Ahmadiyya Gazzette, 1971, p. 4.)

For the next few decades, Saeed personally tutored and taught the Holy Quran to the youth, established a youth day, organised chartered busses to Jalsa Salanas and established an ice-skating team competing at local and national events. Together, Rashid Ahmad and Saeed Ahmad were instrumental in ensuring a good faith space was made. For years, the St Louis chapter would use rental halls and homes. Next, there was the purchase of the first formal mosque at 4401 Oakwood; the St Louis mosque and Sadiq Garden were also established (Perseverance, pp. 160- 161).

Early Lajna Imaillah of St Louis

Earlier, the accounts of Jamila Munir and Aziza Ahmad were recounted who were pioneering sisters in the St Louis chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and heralding from an American Ahmadi dynasty. They both related, at a time of segregation, that converting to Islam may well have led to one’s family disowning them. In a racially charged environment, those that further differentiated themselves could have suffered with volatile consequences. This did not stop there being a strong sense of proselytisation within this chapter. (Interview with Abdul Jabbar Rafiq, 21 July 2019)

The racial climate was problematic for many. Sister Bushra Saeeda was a white convert. For her, to associate with African- Americans, join a black church and to convert to a new religion was unheard of. There were few places in America where blacks and whites could intermingle. She would regularly go to the mission house; however, the only place in the city where she could sit with her sisters would be the Walgreen’s coffee shop or in the park. (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA [unpublished], p. 47)

This is one of the many examples of the multi-racial make-up of the community. There was a strong connection between all the sisters here. They were welcoming to new converts; sister Abdur Razzaq converted in 1946 after being affiliated with the Moorish Science Temple of America and a non-Ahmadi Muslim group. She was an active participant; she was regular in attendance and financial contributions till her demise. She is the first recorded president for St Louis Lajna and was president for many years. (Ibid, p. 48)

The St Louis sisterhood contained many future national presidents, one of whom was Sister Moneerah Ahmad who was born in Mississippi on 31 March 1930. She married James Carr in 1948 and joined the Methodist Church. She migrated to St Louis, Missouri in 1951; two years later, they accepted the movement, adopting the names Moneerah and Munir Ahmad. She became the fifth national president. At her time, she had 10 functioning Lajna chapters. She died in 1996. (Ibid, p. 88)

The St Louis chapter has a tremendous history. It was hard to narrow down a male and female to focus on for a single article. Abdullah Ali and Almas Ali were some of the earliest pioneers.

Abdullah Ali and Almas Ali

“He never missed an event. He had a great love for the Ahmadiyya Community.” (Hafiz Nasiruddin)

Abdullah Ali, Usman Khalid, Jawad Ali and Mubarek Ahmad

Each chapter seems to have had their distinctions – the Haneefs of Boston/New York, the Afzals of Pittsburgh/New York, the Sadiqs of New Jersey, the Shaheeds of Pittsburgh and so on. St Louis was much the same. Abdullah Ali was the son of a slave. He was a Muslim before he joined the Ahmadiyya community. It is possible that he was part of the Muslim Brotherhood in St Louis along with Ibrahim Khalil and Usman Khalid; it was in fact Ibrahim Khalil who brought in Usman Khalid. Together they would work diligently to spread the message of Islam; Aminah Khalid was so impressed by the new changes in her husband that she too accepted. Together Usman and Aminah would serve St Louis for decades. (And They Prayed Too: African-American Journey to Islam Exhibit, St Louis, Missouri)

He could not read or write when he took allegiance and when he signed the form, he signed it with an X in 1936. He became very dedicated to the community. He had a clear sincerity and belief in Khilafat, despite never having seen it. Decades later, Sister Tanvir still remembered his example and the pioneering elders, which included Saeeda Lateef, Amina Khalid, Hameeda Chambers, Nasira Razaa, Latifa Kareem, Hameeda Aziz and Aliyyah Shaheed. (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA [unpublished], p. 58) (Reflection on Ahmadiyya history, interview with Hafiz A Nasiruddin)

Sister Almas Ali converted in 1936; she was married to Abdullah Ali. She worked in Illinois but travelled to St Louis every weekend to attend meetings and give her financial contribution – her name is listed on all the early contributions of financial sacrifice or fundraisers as a regular participant. One entry of Lajna contributions is from 29 January 1968; Sister Almas gave $5 even when she was sick; kind-hearted as she was, she passed it along to another sister. Earlier, we discussed how the faith spaces came about in St Louis. It was, in fact, in the home of Abdullah and Almas Ali who established a base for Ahmadis to meet. When there was no other place to hold meetings and prayers, they were often held in her house. The St Louis missionary even lived with her and her husband for some time. They would also host the Friday service at their house. Every new year when others would shoot guns from their firearms Abdullah would go and recite the Azan. (And They Prayed Too: African-American Journey to Islam to Islam Exhibit, St Louis, Missouri)

She later went on to serve as the Lajna president from 1968-1970 amongst various other offices and later died in 1995. (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA [unpublished], p. 51)

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here