Readers may be surprised to learn that two versions of Islam exist in the United States. One is the normative religion, founded 1,400 years ago in the Middle East; the other is indigenous African-American Islam. While the later evolution of African-American Islam is well known, its origins until now have remained murky, limited to a sense that the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA), the first Muslim mass movement in America, emerged in 1925, and its successor, the Nation of Islam (NoI), five years later. But who was the key figure that founded this new form of Islam? And whence derived his irregular ideas about Islam?
In his research, Dorman of the University of Nevada has answered these two questions, a signal contribution. African-American Islam, it turns out, is not a local franchise but a distinct folk religion that originated about a century ago primarily in Newark, Chicago, and Detroit and whose tenets deeply contradict those of normative Islam.
Dorman identified the key founder of African-American Islam, the man known publicly and to history as the Prophet Noble Drew Ali to be John Walter Brister (1879-1929), an entertainer and quack doctor. Second, he places MSTA into its cultural milieu, one of benign American fascination with and even respect for the Middle East and Islam, making Asian, Islamic, Arab, and Moorish themes widespread in the golden age of vaudeville and the circus.
For African-Americans, Oriental themes took on a much deeper meaning by offering a potential escape from the racism that oppressed their lives. Being "Hindoo," "Egyptian," or "Moorish" implied not being from Africa, and thereby offered the potential of avoiding the stigma associated with that heritage. Dorman summarizes: "For Drew Ali and his followers, Islam became the antidote to white racism."
African-American Islam has receded into the background, especially since 1975, increasingly replaced by normative Islam, a trend that will likely further accelerate with the passing of the NoI's current leader, Louis Farrakhan, now 87. But Walter Brister and the MSTA have earned a permanent place in American history by serving as the original bridge for 700,000 African-Americans, and likely many more in the future, to move from Christianity to Islam.