The Barack Obama campaign rejected help from Muslim congressman Keith Ellison during the Democratic primary, the New York Times reported this week. Ellison, an African-American who was raised as a Catholic, converted to Islam in college. What’s the deal with black Muslims—are they Sunnis or Shiites or something else?
Most are Sunnis, if they care to make the distinction. A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center found that among the several million Muslims in America, 20 percent are native-born African-Americans. Among those black Muslims, half identified themselves as Sunni—as Ellison does—and another third said they had no affiliation. There are a handful of predominantly black Shiite mosques in the United States, though they represent a small minority of all black Muslims. Another small percentage belongs to the Nation of Islam, an independent Muslim movement that has had strained relations with the mainstream Islamic community. Estimates of the Nation of Islam’s membership vary from 10,000 to 200,000 with most guesses falling near the low end.
Decisions to identify as “Sunni” may reflect the desire of some black Muslims to differentiate themselves from the Nation of Islam rather than from Shiites or other Muslim sects. Muslims born in the United States are less likely than those from other parts of the world to identify with the Sunni-Shiite divide. And “Sunni” may be a default choice for some people, since it describes 85 percent of all Muslims in the world. Many of those black Muslims who do happen to identify themselves as Shiite were inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution; younger American Shiites might have been exposed to the sect of Islam during study-abroad programs.
There are some cultural differences between African-American Muslims and other Islamic groups in the United States. While nearly all self-identified Muslims in America adhere to the five pillars of Islam, imams at predominantly black mosques tend to deliver longer sermons and are more likely to have other employment, experts say. Imams who preach to immigrant communities are more likely to be supported wholly by the mosque and are often brought in from abroad.
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Explainer thanks Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Jamillah Karim of Spelman College, Lawrence H. Mamiya of Vassar College, and Anthony B. Pinn of Rice University.