The history of Islam in Mississippi began, as it did throughout the Southern United States, during the slave trade. Despite the paucity of evidence concerning the belief and practice of slaves brought from West Africa, we have detailed knowledge of certain individual Muslim slaves. One prominent example is the fascinating life of Abd Rahman Ibrahima, a Muslim prince from 18th century Mali who was captured into the slave trade, settled in Natchez, Mississippi and eventually won his freedom through the intercession of Henry Clay. As cases like his are few and far between, the history of Islam in Mississippi as it is practiced today begins mainly in the 1940s and 1950s, when the wave of African American interest in Islam that began in Chicago, Detroit, and other major cities reached Mississippi, an phenomenon influenced as well by immigrant Sunni communities, despite being few in number at that time. The earliest full-fledged Muslim communities were Nation of Islam congregations that gathered in Jackson, especially during the 1960s.
In 1965 Lyndon Johnson signed an act into law that repealed the use of immigration quotas based on nationality. Ever since the Immigrant Act of 1965 liberalized immigration laws and eliminated quotas, the number of immigrants in Mississippi has grown steadily. Now foreign-born Muslims or their descendants can be found in every masjid in the state. These two intertwining heritages of Islam in Mississippi, one reaching far into the antebellum past and the other emerging with the influx of new Americans in recent decades, have begun to converge in exciting ways. Nevertheless, both groups still maintain cultural distinctions due to their own unique histories.
Islam in Mississippi is diverse in belief and practice as well as in the ethnic makeup of masjid congregations. There are no statistical surveys available on the ethnic demographic, but I would estimate, based on masjid visits and speaking with local imams, that the numbers of African-American Muslims are slightly higher than the numbers of foreign-born Muslims and their families. A prominent local Muslim from Jackson estimated that there are approximately 4,000 Muslims in the state in all, which he regards as a conservative appraisal. Many masjids have multiethnic congregations; however, many Muslims voice the issue of ethnic divisions and their threat to Muslim unity in America. But both Muslims originating abroad and African-American Muslims also express the more tangible fear of assimilation into a non-Muslim melting pot and a consequent loss of Muslim identity and values. Balancing Muslim identity and cultural assimilation is a perennial struggle for the Muslims of Mississippi. To maintain a coherent Islamic identity in Mississippi, Muslims have affiliated with Islamic organizations throughout the United States. Many masjids, for example, are closely aligned with the Islamic Society of North America or W. Deen Muhammad’s Muslim American Society. There are also alliances of Muslims within the state; the Muslim Business Association advocates for Muslim-owned small business and corporations; the Association of Mississippi Imams is especially active in representing the Muslim community of the state to its citizens and leaders. They work to ensure that the Muslim community is represented in local politics and work to coordinate events and festivals for different masjids. They function as spokespeople for the Muslims of Mississippi in the local media.
One of the crucial issues at stake in Islam in Mississippi and arguably the South in general is an apparent urban/rural divide among the masjids. While the Muslim community throughout Mississippi grows steadily and the size of urban masjids is increasing, many of the smaller, rural masjids have closed in recent years. As Masjid Muhammad and the Community of Islam in Vicksburg are beginning new building projects, for example, the fate of small masjids in Columbus, Clarksdale, Quitman and Mount Bayou seems intimately bound to the suffering of the Delta region generally. A small masjid in Silver Creek remains open but is an exception to the general trend.
While the movement of Muslims out of the Delta regions is unfortunate, this trend is more than offset by the sharp growth of Islam in other parts of the state. In fact, many of those who lived and grew up in the Delta have moved into urban areas, joining the Muslim communities there. Generally speaking, the large and thriving Muslim populations in Mississippi are found in urban areas, such as Jackson or Biloxi, and especially in college towns, such as Oxford and Starkville. The former attracts Muslims who typically work in technical fields such as engineering and medicine; many are also college professors and social workers. For example, apparently no less than a third of the members of Masjid Omar are either professors or students at Jackson State University. The latter is usually comprised of Muslims from young, often international students and teachers at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi.
The Muslim Student Associations in Mississippi are affiliated with the national organization by the same name. All three associations in Mississippi are modeled after the original Muslim Student Association founded at the University of Illinois in 1963. Like many of the Muslim Student Associations, those in Mississippi are closely aligned with the Islamic Society of North America. The Muslim Student Associations of a few major universities in Mississippi including the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi are unique environments for Muslims from diverse backgrounds to come together for prayer and discussion. Intimately bound to the secular environment of these universities, the MSAs in the state allow members to objectify “Islam,” according to one student; as students of disparate backgrounds associate together as one body representing “Muslims,” they are compelled to reflect critically on the meaning of Islam, and discussions often tend to emphasize systems of belief over practice in defining these diverse aspects of the faith.
The MSAs understand themselves as conservative, mainstream Sunni organizations. Belief in the need to implement Islam into every facet of life brings these students together into solidarity. One could argue that the Sunni-oriented focus of the Muslim Student Organizations follows directly from the influx of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa since the middle of the 1960s. Even amidst this conservatism and often strict maintenance of identity, the MSAs uphold the value of critical dialogue. The website of the MSA at Mississippi State confirms that Membership in this organization is open to all individuals “who share a common faith regardless of their race, gender, and nationality.” The Muslim Student Organizations encourage and seek meaningful conversation with people of other religious backgrounds to increase the understanding of Islam and to clear common misconceptions about their religion and those who follow it.
Like Muslims throughout the United States, the Muslims of Mississippi often seek educational options for children and young adults as an alternative to the secular environment of the American public school system. Most of the masjids in Mississippi include Sunday schools, Qur’anic schools, full-time day schools, or summer programs. The curriculum in most of these schools involves Arabic language, instruction in wudu (ablution) and salat for new Muslims, Islamic history and occasionally hadith studies for more advanced students. Arabic language study is especially emphasized in predominantly African-American congregations, as virtually all grew up in monolingual, English-speaking families. Congregations in Mississippi often mix Arabic and English in prayer and the khutba on Friday afternoons, which is necessary to ensure an accommodating environment for the majority of Muslims who were born in the United States and have had little opportunity to master this difficult language. New Medinah has made the first step in remedying this dilemma by establishing a Clara Muhammad School on the premises near its masjid. All of the masjids, however, include at least some degree of Arabic instruction.
On the whole, the Muslims of Mississippi are gradually growing in number and influence. Since the attacks of 11 September, 2001 in New York and Washington, they have received more attention in the popular press than ever before. Of course, many look on this increased attention with ambivalence but have aimed to use this unique opportunity to inform their fellow Mississippians about their culture and politics as well as their beliefs and practices.
— Brannon Ingram, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate