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Talk explores link between Islam and black America

The Islamic faith is an important part of African-American heritage, says Imam Qasim Ahmed, a local Muslim leader who will give a talk on the subject Thursday at the Enoch Davis Center.

Ahmed, founder and director of the Islamic Learning Institute Inc., regularly speaks at universities, churches and synagogues about his faith. A main goal is to "remove barriers and improve relationships," he said.

Thursday's talk, one of several Black History Month events being offered at the Enoch Davis Center, will focus on the role of Islam in African-American history. Ahmed said there is much the general public doesn't know about Islam and its centurieslong connection to black people in America.

"One of the main things is that almost 70 percent of African slaves that were brought here during the Middle Passage, during the slave trade, were from Muslim lands and many of them were Muslims. They lost their total identity, not only their religious identity, but their family lives," he said.

Ahmed, 56, said the fact that African-Americans have been attracted to the religion over the years has been credited by a scholar, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, to "an Islamic memory gene."

Those who have returned to the faith have benefited, said the Tampa resident, who became a Muslim in 1969. Converts have adopted improved diets and refrain from alcohol and drugs, he said.

"Malcolm X, when he became Muslim, his whole life changed. He became Muslim when he was in prison," said Ahmed, adding that other black men who have converted also have transformed their lives. "They never went back to crime. Islam began to give them a sense of pride."

Though Islam had a slight foothold during slavery, it was not until the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise of the black nationalist movement, that interest in the faith was revived, Ahmed said.

Interest increased under the late Elijah Muhammad, Ahmed said, describing Muhammad's version of the faith as mostly "social." The leader was intent on encouraging proper dietary habits and social and family responsibility, he said. Muhammad also encouraged African-Americans to start their own businesses and to buy land, said Ahmed, a partner in the Muslim-owned Graceline Progressive Land Developers and Benchmark Construction Management Inc. The companies plan to build 30 houses, ranging in price from $400,000 to $600,000, on 31st Street S, next to Maximo Elementary School.

Before Elijah Muhammad, there was Fard Muhammad, who adherents believed was born in Mecca and referred to as "the Master." He taught the faith to Elijah Muhammad. After Fard disappeared mysteriously in 1934, Elijah Muhammad took over the organization's leadership. His son, W. Deen Mohammed, rejected the radical teachings and adopted mainstream Islamic theology and practice. Louis Farrakhan eventually became head of Elijah Muhammad's movement.

Today there are about 2.5-million to 3-million African-American Muslims, said Ahmed, who described Islam as a religion that believes in "equal law and justice, built upon recognition and respect for the common human excellence of all people."

Ahmed, who founded his mobile institute to teach Arabic classes in 1978, has expanded the forum to offer workshops and seminars on topics such as family and community life and interfaith dialogue. He was the resident imam, or prayer leader, of the Houston Masjid of Al-Islam before moving to the area two years ago. He continues to serve as an imam and lecturer to mosques serving African-Americans and other ethnic groups around the country.