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

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This series of articles focuses on the early pioneering African-American men and women who converted to Islam Ahmadiyyat. They established mosques, missions and propagated their faith tirelessly across America between the 1920s and 1970s. Each article is a snapshot in time which focuses on a city and some of the converts.

Dr Talha Sami, UK

“[In Chicago] We went skating with the missionary. Everybody would go. All the members would go to museums and picnics. We were like a family.” (Sister Nycemah Amin-Yacub)

Rashid Ahmad American recalls what life was like in Chicago when he moved there in 1945. He related numerous accounts when he was a non-Muslim about the street life, decades before he studied in Rabwah, Pakistan. He said prostitution and theft would be common ways to earn money without working (Perseverance, pp. 13-14) and one neighbourhood was even called a “bucket of blood”.

On the flipside he discussed his own run-ins with the law where the racism of the Chicago police department was prevalent – he cites the example of Two Gun Pete Washington who served on Chicago southside from 1934 to 1960 – it is reported that during this time, he killed more than a dozen black men. (Ibid, p. 15)

Amongst all this, there had been a plethora of black movements based in Chicago during this time:

1. Mr F Hammurabi Robb came to the southside and began “The Negro” in Chicago, in the late 1920s

2. Mr Hammurabi directed the “Worldwide Friends for Africa” (also known as the House of Knowledge) in the 1930s

3. “Th e Peace Movement of Ethiopia” was established in 1932 in Chicago; it had Garveyite tendencies and a back-to-Africa approach

4. “The Pacific Movement of the Eastern World” was founded in Chicago in 1932 which supported the Japanese military but aimed to secure black equality at the same time. One of its key members was Major Satoka Takahashi who maintained close ties with the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple of America. His first appearance was at the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) at the Chicago meeting in 1932. He was forced out of the USA on 20April 1934. He was responsible for “The Development of Our Own, Pacific Movement of the Eastern World” and the “Onward Movement of America”. One by one, all these movements fell to the wayside. (Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black Messianic Nationalism, The Black Scholar, pp. 23-46)

5. In 1939, the “Colored American National Organisation” was established in Chicago

Sunni orthodoxy had not been well preserved in the Midwest during the 20th century. In Ross, North Dakota, Lebanese Muslims organised prayers in the 1900s, but only by 1930 did they decide to build a mosque – by 1940, a few people were using it and it was torn down in 1970. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa the first prayer meetings were in 1920 in a rented hall but the building was completed in 1934. Mistakenly, it has often become known as the first “mother mosque” of America. (American Islam: Growing Up Muslim in America, p. 57)

The foundations of Islam in America had actually been laid by Hazrat Mufti Muhammad Sadiqra, the Ahmadi missionary. It was reported by The Chicago Daily Tribune that there were 2,000 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States by the 1930s. (Chicago Daily Tribune, 26 October 1930)

The Chicago Herald Examiner stated:

“… approximately 1,000 Moslems are said to live in Chicago. 20,000 are scattered throughout the country”.

In the early 1930s, a congregation was led by the Ahmadi Muslim converts. The legacy of the chapter at this time was that it was 98% American converts; this was something that had been left by the Mufti. He had started, through the grace of Allah, a wave of American converts to Islam.

One of these converts included African-American convert, Omar Khan, who was converted by Sufi Muti-ur-Rahman Bengalee Sahib and then went on to be the president of his chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Other notable converts were also brother Noor-ud-Din and Muhammad Ahmad, the latter a Caucasian. Catherine Uber was another convert. All of them were given prominent roles and spoke at different functions of the community. (Early Ahmadi Converts of North America [Thesis], pp. 85-87)

A historic photograph of early members of the United States Ahmadiyya Community with missionary Sufi Muti-ur-Rahman Bengalee Sahib seated in the middle, 1946

Nur-ul-Islam, who was the distinguished sadr (president) of Chicago for 20 years and Hameeda Khatun Chambers, who served the Chicago chapter tirelessly, were two prominent early converts. They both came from strict, strong Christian backgrounds, but ultimately became zealous preachers of Ahmadiyyat.

Nur-ul-Islam

“His most outstanding quality was his passion for tabligh. He had a strong emphasis on praying five times a day.” (Nycemah Yacub-Ameen)

Nur-ul-Islam was born in Georgia on 22 August 1908 as Timothy Titus Smith. He was the son of Samuel Smith and was a middle child of 11 children. His parents were first cousins. His father was a Baptist minister. They were quite well-off, having 300 acres of land and a huge house. They had a house of seven gables. Unfortunately, their wealth was short-lived; at the age of around 20, he was ironing his slacks, getting ready to go on a date, when their house caught fire. The family instantly became homeless and then relocated to Chicago, Illinois.

This was the time when they first heard about the Ahmadiyya Movement through another person, known only as Gibbs. The latter attended the meetings but never signed any of the allegiance paperwork. Timothy formally joined the Ahmadiyya movement in 1932 or 1933 under the tenure of Bengalee Sahib (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA [unpublished], p. 105).

Shortly after, he met his wife in 1934, who became an Ahmadi Muslim later. Mary Ethel Skyles, his wife, took the name Naima, when she converted whilst Timothy took the name Nur al-Islam. He was a tenacious individual; he said he could not marry her until she joined the Ahmadiyya movement. They were formally married in 1935.

Like so many others, Nur-ul-Islam had the challenges of dealing with his family when he accepted the Ahmadiyya community. His 10 brothers and sisters thought of them as strange, as did his in-laws. They would also disrespect him and taunt him. Once, a jibe was made about his beard, to which he responded, “Jesus had a beard; what about that?” The response ended any further verbal abuse.

His own family did not take his conversion so well. His minister father tried to dissuade him from his past culminating in many painful discussions. Eventually, one day, he told his father, “If you promise to stand before God and answer for me on the Day of Judgement, I will leave Islam and return to a Baptist Church”. Their response was, “Boy, you know I can’t do that”. That ended the debate.

He was a hard-working man and worked two jobs. Sometimes he would work 16 hours a day in a steel mill. He was very committed and involved in the propagation of Islam. Their daughter recalls that “she always said, ‘Whatever I can do, you can do’.”

Ahmadiyya headquarters, Chicago 4448 Wabash Avenue, 1922

Nur-ul-Islam was very passionate about tabligh; this should be no surprise given his evangelical background. He would do his best and had many different methods – for example, he would regularly give out leaflets. At other times, he would take certain routes when driving just to give people lift s so he could propagate Islam. During these discussions, he was very insistent about Jesusas dying on the cross. Those that usually accepted his argument would have an intellectual bent. He was sadr of Chicago for approximately 20 years. He was re-elected over and over. He loved being in the mosque and offering services.

His daughter recalled that not a day, week, month or year passed in which he ever missed his Jamaat duties. Such was his dedication that once, he was crippled over in pain, but still made it to the mosque. During the meeting, he collapsed and was carried away by an ambulance to hospital where he stayed for one week with a bleeding ulcer. Eventually, his family relented; two of his sisters and one brother joined the community, remaining so until their death. When Liaquat Ali Khan (first prime minister of Pakistan) visited the USA, he was extended a welcome and greetings from the Ahmadiyya Community. He acknowledged this in a letter to Nur-ul-Islam (“Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam”, Ahmadiyya Gazette, June 1950, Vol. 1, no. 4, p. 11)

“In Nur-ul-Islam’s house the training was: you say your five daily prayers, you attend the mosque a minimum of once a week and as a teenager, you fast during the month of Ramadan. During one period of his life, Nur-ul-Islam was a welder working in the steaming hot steel mills 16 hours a day and yet he fasted. His children, whom he gave a quarter a week allowance, had to give him 10 cents back for chanda.” (Nycemah Yacub-Amin, Memories of Nur-ul-Islam, Interview with missionary Mahmood Kausar)

Hameeda Khatun Chambers

“She was seasoned in the fi re of sacrifice and commitment [and] had prayed and persevered alone. She had remained active in the cause of God.” (Dhul Waqar Yacub)

Irene Smith was born on 16 April 1910 and was 12 years old when her family crossed the border of Albany, Georgia heading west to Chicago. She was the daughter of a staunch Baptist minister. Like Nur-ul-Islam, she too was raised in a strict Christian environment with regular attendance at church as a necessity. This level of consciousness was ingrained from an early age. Her first introduction to the Movement was through her brother who had been a Muslim for 10 years. She attended the mission house for 30 consecutive nights during the holy month of Ramadan. She had heard the call to prayer in a movie many years earlier and felt that this had resonated upon her.

By 1946, she was captivated and she signed the allegiance form and entered Islam Ahmadiyyat. She had numerous administrative offices in Chicago and within Lajna Imaillah, she was Lajna president from 1965 to 1968. She was steady and focused in her eff orts for more than 50 years and held various administrative offices within the Chicago chapter and Lajna Imaillah.

In 1986, she wrote to Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh saying that she was sick and was a pensioner and could not afford to pay the obligatory contributions (chanda). Huzoorrh responded, “I do not want you to stop paying this because I don’t want you to stop receiving blessings”.

Huzoorrh also wrote a letter to Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad Sahib with the letter attached. He further wrote “I am surprised such devout people have been neglected” and then instituted a scheme where the community began to send her $300 regularly. (Early Ahmadi Converts of North America [Thesis], p. 17)

Hameeda Khatun’s financial contributions were exemplary. She contributed to 27 of the fundraising drives throughout the organisation. During the 1970s, she was single-handedly responsible for keeping payments up to date on the Sadiq Mosque, ensuring the utility bills were paid and processed incoming mail. Hameeda Khatun died in January 2000 at the age of 90. (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA [unpublished], p. 10)

(To be continued…)

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