Indigenous Faith: The Native American Muslim Experience

Islam arrived in the “New World” before the Europeans

By Karim Hakim

January/February 2023

A life based on peace, worshiping the Creator, respect for natural resources and honoring elders. Muslims practice all of these values, which just happen to be common across the Indigenous people, among them those who lived on Turtle Island, now known as North America, long before the Europeans’ colonized their lands. Native people lived and flourished across many lands and tribes. Today, thanks to colonization’s negativity, so much of the Native population was decimated that only remnants of the original tribes remain. 

Readers should research the atrocities that took place during colonization, such as the war against and ethnic cleansing of what became this county’s Native populations, because this often-ignored part of our nation’s history paints the picture of a people’s plight that continues even today. Topics such as Columbus’ genocide against the Native populations of the Caribbean, the Trail of Tears (1830-50), and abusive Church-run boarding schools, also known as American Indian Residential Schools, should be learned about and discussed by all Americans. 

Many Muslims will be pleased to know that Islam is not only a growing faith among Indigenous people, but also that it was introduced to this land’s first inhabitants centuries ago. In fact, American historian and author Leo Weiner has documented that Muslims reached and engaged with these peoples well before Columbus arrived (Leo Weiner, “Africa and the Discovery of America”, Mar. 1921, p. 84). But such interactions weren’t the only ones with Islam that these people had experienced.

Of the many Africans forcibly brought to the “New World” as slaves, an estimated 30% of them were Muslim (Khaled Beydoun, “Antebellum Islam”, Dec. 2014) that many enslaved Africans eventually interacted with and began building close relationships with Indigenous populations. American historian William Loren Katz explained that although their history isn’t well documented, Black Indigenous people have existed and moved around what became the U.S. (William Loren Katz, “Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage”, 1986). It’s reasonable to believe that at least a small fraction of these interactions involved African Muslims sharing Islam.

While these historical ties and Indigenous faith legacies may be one reason why some Native Muslims feel connected with Islam, the reality is the vast majority of Native or Indigenous Muslims seem to have learned about and embraced Islam on their own, as opposed to having it passed down from a previous generation.

Take, for example, LaTanya Barlow, a Native American Muslim of Diné descent who grew up on a reservation and now resides in Southern California. Barlow eloquently describes what drew her to Islam: “I feel that Islam relates to me as a Native American largely in part to what is known as the fitra, the natural pattern on which Allah made humanity with the guidance to follow. 

“Native Americans believe in the natural and innate way of being inwardly and outwardly, along with the knowledge that it is up to us, individually and collectively, to fight for this way of life. There is a deep understanding that one should not upset the balance (natural order of things), because that is how Creator intended it to be and upsetting that balance creates chaos and discontent. So preserving life for all creatures is always at the heart of indigenous actions and speech. This is a balance which must remain intact for the future generations. 

“In Islam, the natural way of life is what is commanded upon Muslims in the Quran and further detailed in the authentic Sunna of Rasul Allah (saw) and is the ancient way of all our messengers and prophets sent by Allah throughout time. In al-Tabari’s tafsir (commentary) of 4:119: ‘[Iblis said] and indeed I will order them to change the nature created by Allah.’ As Muslims, we are to ensure that we are not ‘upsetting’ the balance within ourselves nor upon others, including all of creation. We must respect the divine order and do our part to establish ourselves firmly upon this balance.”

Many Native Americans are raised in a cultural system that honors spirituality and an attachment to nature. Not only physical nature, but also humanity’s internal nature. Islam provides this kind of connection with oneself and the surrounding world, as well as with God, the Creator. Jamilla Southwind, a member of the Keeseekoose Tribe, provided an amazing insight as to what made her interested in Islam after learning about it from Iraqi refugees she had met decades ago: “Well, for me I have a lot of reasons why I believe Islam is the easiest and most logical religion,” she explained, “because our people have only prayed to the One and Only Creator. No pictures of blonde, blue-eyed guys or worshiping statues and pictures. Our people call Allah (swt) the Creator, and that is one of the 99 names of Allah: Al-Khaliq.”

Southwind went on to describe some of the parallels in ritual practices and beliefs she noticed between her Native traditions and Islam.

“And the way we would use the sweet grass and sage, it’s just like how we do our wudu. I personally found it to be like a person doing wudu. And I find Islam to be so logical because of how our people never put reverence on idols and symbols, and we respect the land and do our best to respect nature because all of it is given to our people by Allah (swt).” 

It may seem like Native converts are few and far between, but Jamilla herself is part of a group of local Native Muslim converts of 60+ members. This includes members who have lived both on and off “The Rez.” 

Another noteworthy aspect of the Native Muslim experience is how they are viewed by their fellow tribal members on the reservations. Reservations are considered sovereign lands within the U.S., and local Natives can conduct their daily lives within them without needing to leave. This includes practicing their faiths, whether they maintain traditional tribal “beliefs, attend local churches that have been placed by missionaries, or a combination of both. Although there may not be any restrictions on religions within reservations, you will be hard pressed to find many masajid within tribal lands. Despite Islam growing rapidly amongst Indigenous people, there is still a great lack of information and opportunities for dawah.”

Southwind shared an interesting insight surrounding her experiences on her reservation after she converted: “In the beginning, the elders saw it as a rebellious stage or that I was possibly possessed. But my family hated that and would stand up for me and my kids. But after years passed, everyone realized I had changed and they were happy for me. I received a great amount of respect, as did my kids. They love us. Our chief holds me in high regard, and others from our region have become Muslim in recent times after I embraced Islam. Al hamdu lillah.”

One positive note of the Native Muslim experience has been our reception within the mosques of Muslim communities. Although our numbers may still be relatively small, many of the Native American Muslims we know are active in their communities and treated respectfully.

Those aware of the historical and ongoing plights of Indigenous people throughout our continent seem to hold Native Muslims in high regard. Many of us have found common ground and solidarity with Muslims from Palestine, Kashmir and other occupied and oppressed lands. 

The subject of Native or Indigenous Muslims throughout North America is a vast one with many topics, stories and discussions to be enjoyed and benefited from. We must delve even further into this important part of our heritage as Muslims and shed more light on who we are and where we have been. 

As a Muslim with Native heritage myself (the Yacqui and Apache-Chiricahua tribes), it’s important that we understand that the history and experiences of Indigenous Muslims provide a great narrative for Islam in the U.S., because they show that Islam has been part of North America’s fabric for much longer than most people realize. And also, this fact further exemplifies that Islam truly is the natural disposition and way of life for all people, including those deeply in touch with nature and pursuing peace and preservation for all people within their Native lands. 

Hakim M. Rashid is professor and former chairman of the Department of Human Development and Psychoeducational Studies, the School of Education, Howard University; former Fulbright Scholar at King Saud University; former Visiting Professor at Khartoum University; and a former Summer Fulbright Fellow in China. He received his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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