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United States, Muslim Media in the

Michael Muhammad Knight
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United States, Muslim Media in the

Various forms of media, the technologies through which information is shared, have remained consistently salient in the construction of, and advocacy for, Muslim communities in the United States. Although the earliest specimens of Muslim media in the United States date to the time of slavery, the twentieth century saw a proliferation of Muslims in the United States employing newspapers, pamphlets, books, radio, literature, music, and other mediums to establish and maintain Muslim networks as well as communicate to non-Muslims. In the twenty-first century, online media, including social media networks, became an increasingly vital component of American Muslim discourses.

The Nineteenth Century.

Among the narratives produced by African-born slaves in North America, a disproportionate number of accounts come from Muslim writers, which has been attributed to their elevated status in relation to non-Muslim Africans. Newspaper accounts frequently exoticized Muslim slaves as having been Arab princes and social elites who found a dramatic reversal of their fortunes. One of the better known Muslim slave narratives is that of Omar ibn Said (c.1770–1864), who had been born in Futa Toro, between the Senegal and Gambia rivers, and trained in Arabic for religious purposes. He was captured in 1807, brought to Charleston, South Carolina, and remained enslaved until his death. In 1831, Ibn Said was commissioned by his owners to write his life story, which he produced entirely in Arabic. Ibn Said’s narrative reflects elements of both the popular slave narrative and his religious training. Ibn Said opens his autobiography with Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,” which begins all but one of the sūrahs in the Qurʾān. He makes extensive use of the Qurʾān, and his writing style appears to have been informed by the style of the Qurʾān, as seen in phrases such as “O people of North Carolina.”

In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the white convert Alexander Russell Webb produced journals, books, and pamphlets with hopes of bringing Americans to Islam. The Moslem World, described as a “well-printed paper of sixteen pages” by The New York Times, had a run of seven or eight issues from May to November 1893, and has been recognized as the earliest Muslim periodical in the United States. Webb followed The Moslem World with a second journal, The Voice of Islam, which in turn was followed in 1895 by his third periodical, The Moslem World and Voice of Islam, in which the theme of conversion was featured even more prominently than in his previous journals. In addition to these short-lived periodicals, Webb published a book, Islam in America, as well as a number of pamphlets, including a guide to prayer and ablutions and booklets on the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian crisis.

The Aḥmadīyah Movement.

The earliest example of a transnational Muslim community producing media in the United States appears to have been the Aḥmadīyah movement, whose missionaries established a tri-monthly newsletter, Moslem Sunrise, in 1921. Like Webb’s earlier journals, Moslem Sunrise was aimed at promoting conversion in the United States, and celebrated new Muslims by including their photos and letters. The paper’s principal founder, Muftī Muḥammad Ṣādiq, sent five hundred copies of the paper to Masonic lodges with hopes of inspiring Freemasons to become Muslims. Despite the widespread condemnation of the Aḥmadīyah as a heterodox movement, many of the prominent themes found in Moslem Sunrise would be featured in later discourse of American Sunnīs, particularly the notion that Islam is fundamentally antiracist, with emphasis placed on the important role of Bilāl ibn Rabah, Muḥammad’s Ethiopian companion. In its missionary appeal, Moslem Sunrise charged white supremacist expressions of Christianity with contributing to the slave trade and subsequent destruction of Islam among Africans in America.

Aḥmadīyah discourses on Islam and race, widely circulated through Moslem Sunrise, appear to have influenced discussions of Islam in the black press in the 1920s. The Aḥmadī mission has been acknowledged as a vital ingredient in the African American Islamic movements emerging in Detroit and Chicago in the years following the Great Migration. The Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA), founded by Noble Drew Ali in Chicago, produced its own media, such as Moorish Literature, and most importantly a scripture popularly known as the Circle 7 Koran, the contents of which had been culled from New Thought texts.

Nation of Islam.

The Nation of Islam (NOI), founded by Master Fard Muhammad in Detroit, embarked on media production following Fard Muhammad’s disappearance in 1934, when his community split into competing factions. The group that would triumph under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad established its own newspaper, The Final Call to Islam. After this and other short-lived attempts at official NOI periodicals, such as The Islamic News and The Messenger Magazine, the NOI began publishing Muhammad Speaks in 1960, under the direction of Malcolm X. In addition to newspapers, the NOI disseminated Elijah Muhammad’s discourse through radio addresses, columns in mainstream newspapers, pamphlets, and books.

Muhammad Speaks lasted throughout the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, after which it underwent a number of name changes corresponding to transformations within the Nation of Islam. In 1975, following the death of Elijah Muhammad and the subsequent rise of his son, Wallace D. Muhammad (later Warith Deen Mohammed) to leadership of the NOI, the community underwent a careful but rapid transition toward Sunnī Islam. As Warith Deen Mohammed advocated “Bilalian” as a title of honor for his Muslims (and in fact for African Americans in general), Muhammad Speaks was renamed Bilalian News. During W. D. Mohammed’s reformulation of his community’s understanding of Islam, the newspaper served as an important forum in which previously held doctrines were given new interpretations. Following the conclusion of the community’s “Bilalian” period, the paper would continue as the Muslim Journal.

In 1978, Louis Farrakhan broke away from Warith Deen Mohammed’s community to start his own Nation of Islam, espousing a return to the original teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Shortly thereafter, he established a newspaper, The Final Call, named in honor of Elijah Muhammad’s newspaper from the early post-Fard years. The paper, at first published sporadically from Farrakhan’s basement, evolved into a professional-quality paper including not only religious discourses, but also coverage of general-interest topics and international news. In 1994, the paper boasted a circulation of 500,000. Starting in the 1980s, members of the Five Percenter movement, which had originated with former NOI members in the 1960s, also embarked on producing their own newspapers (The WORD) and mimeographed zines (Sun of Man). These publications, particularly The WORD, contributed significantly to the Five Percenters’ re-formation as the Nation of Gods and Earths.

Publications since the 1960s.

In the decades since the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which ushered in new waves of immigration from Muslim-majority countries and radically transformed the demographics of American Islam, the development of American Muslim institutions has been accompanied by a parallel growth of Muslim media. Muslim organizations published their own periodicals to promote the organizations’ projects, cover issues of community interest, and provide networking opportunities for Muslims throughout North America. The most prominent of these organizational periodicals has been Islamic Horizons, the official magazine of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which began as a pamphlet in 1983 but developed into a meaningful community voice for American Muslims. ISNA also established the American Journal of Islamic Studies.

In addition to periodicals, Muslim organizations produced growing catalogs of books, video and audio tapes, and other media. Significant publishers and distributors of Islamic media in the United States included Chicago-based Kazi Publications, Amana Publications, and American Trust Publications, which was established by the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT). In the 1990s, Saudi-based Dar-us-Salam Publications opened a North American headquarters in Houston.


Music has been an important forum for American Muslim expression, overwhelmingly in the genre of hip-hop. Until the post-9/11 era, the dominant Islamic voice in hip-hop was that of the Five Percenters, whose membership includes a long list of seminal artists: Rakim, Nas, the Wu Tang Clan, members of Digable Planets, Guru, Erykah Badu, Big Daddy Kane, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, Lakim Shabazz, and World’s Famous Supreme Team. L.L. Cool J and Queen Latifah were also briefly affiliated with the movement. References to Five Percenter doctrine and culture can be found throughout classic rap lyrics of the 1980s and 1990s, as Five Percenter slang entered into general hip-hop culture and was widely appropriated by non-members. The first decade of the twenty-first century saw a growing Sunnī presence in hip-hop, exemplified in artists such as Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Lupe Fiasco, and Brother Ali, whose lyrics frequently incorporate religious and political commentary. Beyond mainstream hip-hop, U.S. Muslim youth culture and convention scenes have provided opportunities for “daʿwah rap” groups such as Native Deen and various artists affiliated with the Bay Area hip-hop collective Remarkable Current.


While Muslims have been creating media throughout American history, Sylvia Chan-Malik writes, “What changed in the post-9/11 era was the unprecedented level of media, political, and cultural scrutiny upon Islamic practices and Muslim communities . . . a shift that ultimately led to the increasing categorization of cultural and literary production emerging from various Muslim communities as ‘Muslim American’” (Chan-Malik, 2013, p. 280) This proliferation of media specifically emphasizing Muslim identity has taken many forms. There are stage performances, such as Wajahat Ali’s play The Domestic Crusaders, and the Hijabi Monologues, a series of spoken-word performances by ḥijāb-wearing Muslim women modeled after The Vagina Monologues; documentary films, such as Allah Made Me Funny, which follows American Muslim comedians; New Muslim Cool, which tells the story of Latino-American convert and hip-hop artist Hamza Perez, and Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, which covers Muslim punk bands on tour; literature, such as The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2004) by Mohja Kahf; and poetry, such as the work of Kahf and Def Poetry Jam artist Amir Sulaiman, whose politically and spiritually charged pieces such as “Dead Man Walking” have made him a popular fixture at Muslim youth events.

Online Media.

In the twenty-first century, much of the Muslim media production in the United States has taken place online. Notable figures such as Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Zaid Shakir have addressed national and international audiences through podcasts, and videos of their lectures and interviews proliferate on YouTube and other video sites. In 2006, Louis Farrakhan began offering podcasts and live online streams of his mosque sermons. Beyond this public outreach by famous leaders, the Internet has provided opportunities for numerous Muslims to create media for the purposes of sharing information, expressing opinions, and building community, particularly through online magazines such as Illume, AltMuslim, and AltMuslimah, and a thriving American Muslim blogosphere. Online media featured prominently in the emergence of the “Progressive Muslim” movement, particularly in the organizational and discursive overlap between the blog site MuslimWakeUp.com and the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU). MuslimWakeUp.com, cofounded by Ahmed Nassef (who was also a cofounder of PMU), ran a variety of pieces in support of woman-led congregational prayer, leading up to the famed gender-integrated prayer organized by PMU and led by Āmina Wadūd on March 18, 2005. Following the disintegration of PMU, much of the decentralized Progressive Muslim movement’s discourse and networking has taken place through social media, such as the Facebook group Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), which has attempted to position itself as a successor to PMU. El-Tawhid Jumaʿa Circle, which is based in Toronto but has branches in U.S. cities, has networked through social media and invites Muslims to “attend” the Toronto chapter’s Friday sermon (khuṭbah) via Skype.

Social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have provided new possibilities for decentralized, grass-roots-level Muslim discourse, particularly as expressions of vibrant and tech-savvy American Muslim youth cultures. When Muslim activists responded to anti-Islamic subway ads with their own ad campaign to reclaim the word “jihad,” Twitter users used the “MyJihad” hashtag to share their own understandings of jihad as signifying personal and spiritual struggle. In response to a Newsweek cover story by Ayaan Hirsi Ali on “Muslim Rage,” Muslims launched a popular “Muslim Rage” hashtag campaign on Twitter, posting satirical treatments such as “Lost your kid Jihad at the airport. Can’t yell for him. #MuslimRage” (Chappell, 2013). The magazine cover was also Photoshopped to depict the angry, bearded, turban-wearing men as dancing at a club rather than attending a rally, with the headline changed to “Muslim Rave.”

Online media have contributed to the rise of “rock star” imams, such as the above-mentioned Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Suhaib Webb, assertions of American Muslim identity and advocacy, and the emergence of new reformist networks and alternative spaces, such as PMU, MPV, and El-Tawhid Jumaʿa Circle. The growing proliferation of Muslim media production in the United States reflects not only an urgent need to answer anti-Islamic discourses of the post-9/11 era, but also the need among American Muslim communities for articulations of their beliefs, values, and attitudes within their own contexts. These discourses draw from American Muslim histories that reach back into the nineteenth century, or as recently as the decades following the 1965 Immigration Act. As the supposed border between immigrant and African American Muslim communities is seen to be largely artificial and imaginary, the media produced by Muslims in the United States reflect increasing intersections and exchanges between American Muslims of diverse backgrounds, traditions, and sectarian identities, along with their equally diverse concerns and narratives.


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