The untold story of Black Muslims: African-American Ahmadi women of the “Sewing Circle”

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23rd October 20201

This series of articles focuses on the African-Americans who Hazrat Mufti Muhammad Sadiqra brought under the banner of the true Islam during his time in America between 1920 and 1923. The converts all came from varying backgrounds. Ultimately, they became zealous preachers of Islam Ahmadiyyat in America.

Dr Talha Sami, UK

One of the developing themes within the post-9/11 debate about Islam is regarding gender roles, which has sought to empower and further identify Muslim women within the Islamic sphere. (Places in the Nation: Immigrant and Indigenous Muslims in America, Religion and Social Justice For Immigrants, p. 55)

Leonard has extensively written about gender inequalities and patriarchal Islamic understandings, which are often shaped by immigrant culture. She also voices a sharp lack of inclusion within the institutions (“American Muslim politics: Discourses and practices”, Ethnicities, pp. 147-181).

Jane I Smith writes how in a post-9/11 culture, women are only now taking leadership roles (Islam in America, The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, pp. 376-377).

However, Mufti Muhammad Sadiq Sahibra was able to empower female American converts from the early 1920s. America has always had debates about women’s rights on a national stage and in no way are they limited to Islam; in fact they are representative of challenges of modernity.

In 1887, 1914 and 1918, there had been attempts to lobby states in order to gain support for the rights of women to vote. Finally, on 4 June 1919, the 19th Amendment was passed. It was in 1948 when Elizabeth Cady Staton and Lucretia Mott launched the women’s right movement.

This brief timeline unfortunately shows how far behind women’s rights were, yet Mufti Sadiq Sahibra was well ahead of the curve.

In 1921, Mufti Sadiq Sahibra was enlisting women into leadership roles. (“Black Liberation: The Tree of Ahmad”, retrieved from http://soulmuslim.blogspot.com)

Mufti Sahibra specifically made a point to uplift women in the Islamic religion whilst in America. He developed a 10-point formula for the Western world to understand Islam and it largely focused on distinguishing it from Christianity. (Hazrat Mufti Muhammad Sadiqra, Lajna Imaillah Karachi, pp. 196-198) (Al Fazl, 25 March 1921, p. 2)

One specific point that he said was that in Islam, men and women are spiritually equal; the auliya (knowers of God) are both men and women, he explained. Early Ahmadi literature has suggested that at least one-third of Mufti Sahib’s converts were women. (Pre-Lajna: Sowing the Seeds of Lajna Imaillah)

The propagation of the message was to men and women. Mufti Sahibra wrote about one of the first female converts in New York in the first issue of the The Moslem Sunrise – this was a lady who has come to be known as Madam Rahatullah (Mrs Garber). She was actively converting others to the Ahmadiyya movement and had been lecturing in New York and Detroit. Madam Rahatullah even gained recognition in the 23 November edition of the Detroit Daily News in 1922, which stated that she was the “first Muhammadan missionary to the United States” and was “not a native Muhammadan”.

It has been suggested she was an African-American, although this article states she was born Indian to Swiss parents. She later converted to Islam by Sheikh Muhammad Majid Gilani. (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA, unpublished) (“Black Liberation: The Tree of Ahmad”, retrieved from http://soulmuslim.blogspot.com/)

It is possible that she was African-American, although it is also possible that she was Caucasian. There has been no evidence to confirm either. Either way, she is a testament to Mufti Sahib’sra earlier efforts. She wrote:

“I stood upon the threshold of despair Hope had taken flight I knew not where; When lo! A door was opened wide for me I entered – and Islam made me see. The truth behind the clouded veil. And now upon her waves I sail Guided by the Prophet’s sacred hand under Heaven’s canopy to that Holy Land.” (The Moslem Sunrise, October 1921, p. 39)

The same can be said of a Caucasian, Sister Ayesha (Mrs Augusta Atkinson) who was from Hermosa Beach, California and is mentioned in a 1922 issue of the The Moslem Sunrise as a “zealous Ahmadi Moslem lady” who remained in the community. It appears that she stayed active decades later. The Moslem Sunrise from circa 1930 to 1948 has documented her as giving a donation of $5 in a certain contribution.

Nonetheless, the multi-racial setup was being constructed by Mufti Sahib. This is the beginning of the Chicago chapter and how it began to possess such a strong African-American base. The story is largely anecdotal and accepted within the Ahmadiyya Community.

I delved into the details of the story with Nycemah Yacub who is acknowledged as one of the foremost authoritarians of the history of the American community.

Augusta Atkinson
It was not just in Chicago that this effect was felt. Sister Naimah Ahmed at Detroit, Michigan was an avid worker in Detroit’s Sewing Circle (which was the precursor to the formal women’s organisation of Lajna Imaillah) and is one of the earliest members of it. The Ahmadi sisters in Detroit between 1920 to 1939 began to become regular door-to-door preachers. (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA, unpublished, p. 12)

It simply was not the case that these women converted, but rather they converted, learnt, adhered and proselytised. These women would work synchronously with men in the field, teaching and preaching Islam. These sisters were at the helm of liberation in a Western society where women’s rights were systematically still being defined socially, politically and economically.

Women had an active role; sisters Haleema and Raheema Rogers were regular contributors to the The Moslem Sunrise (Pre-Lajna: Sowing the Seeds of Lajna Imaillah). It was after their conversion that the adoption of Islamic style dress and Arabic names became commonplace amongst these women. It was further relayed in Al Fazl that American women “wear the veil, pray and sign the bai‘at”. (Al Fazl, 26 February 1924, p. 2)

“It is noteworthy that all of these women wore traditional Muslim veils to cover their faces and long sleeves and long dresses to cover their bodies. The new clothes differentiated the Muslims from the Christian neighbours and signalled the new religious commitment.” (“Ahmadiyya Movement In Islam”, The Ahmadiyya Gazette, Nov-Dec 2007, pp. 108-109)

There were others of notable mention. The Mufti mentioned Mrs Ophelia Avant and Brother Ahmad of Sioux City, Michigan for their passionate preaching, although not everyone got the title of “sheikh”. (“Ahmadiyya Movement In Islam”, The Ahmadiyya Gazette, April 1997, p. 48)

Mrs Ophelia Avant and Madam Rahatullah were prime examples of how Mufti Sahibra empowered women into leadership roles. It is this affirmation that has been entitled “effective insurgency”; Muslim women were able to live between Islam and a racial religious form during the past century. (“Raising Muslim Girls: Women of Color Legacies in American Islam”, With Stones in Our Hands, p. 327)

Aliyyah Ali
“She knew a lot of history. She was a gentle lady. She was never mean.”

Ellen Dent was born in Mississippi according to the United States Federal Census in around 1892 (http://search.ancestry.com/cgibin/sse.dll?h=38028886&db=usefcend&indiv=try). It is possible that Ellen moved to Kenner, Louisiana early on. She is largely remembered to be from Kenner, Louisiana. Ellen was part of the migrant horde and spent the bulk of her adult life in Chicago; by the 1920s, she was residing in Chicago Ward 3 Cook. The same census has reported that she could read and write and was married to Randel Dent.

Her first introduction to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was by chance; she saw advertisements of what Mufti Sahibra had published in the newspaper. However, there is an alternative account that suggests she received a flyer on Islam distributed by Mufti Sahibra whilst visiting relatives in Chicago. Mufti Sahibra advertised in the female interests’ section of newspapers too; it highlights the importance he placed on preaching Islam to women and also Mufti Sahib’s effective tabligh methods. Ellen liked what she read and went to the mosque. She was interested in the fact that there were only white people at the mosque and was fascinated.

As a result, Ellen began regularly attending. She found herself to be the only African-American in the congregation, but she reported that she felt no discomfort with any of this. Ellen became interested very quickly and even began bringing her friends. The Caucasian community did not feel comfortable with this – it must be remembered that this was at the height of racial strife within America within the early 1920s. They went as far as telling Mufti Muhammad Sadiq Sahibra to forbid her from attending, as she was black. He did not tolerate this and consequently, they all left. Mufti Sahibra stood firm and did not let his Islamic principles wither.

Soon after, Ellen was one of the first to sign Bai‘at only a few months after her first introduction. She became the first African-American convert to the movement. (Mahmood Kauser, Early Ahmadi Converts of North America, Jamia Thesis, pp. 55-56)

The Moslem Sunrise mentions Miss Ellen Dent, then later as Mrs Randell Dent. It has been suggested that she was single when she became Ahmadi and then married between 1920 and 1930. It appears that her husband also converted, for which there is ample evidence. Nural Islam – an African-American Ahmadi Muslim who served as Sadr of Chicago in the 1960s – would talk of brother and sister Dent. Mr and Mrs Dent (Brother Rafaat and Sister Aliyyah) were also cited as giving $5 each in chanda – of course, they gave more donations, but their name on this instance has been recorded (Correspondence & Assorted Files, DW, January 2012, Milwaukee).

It is reasonable to assume that she would have explored Islam with her husband and would have been a major influence in his conversion. Miss Ellen Dent was renowned for wearing a long dress and a veil streaming behind her. She is remembered by one member as vividly wearing a long dress with a veil behind her, constantly working in the mission house whilst taking care of her children. (Pre-Lajna: Sowing the Seeds of Lajna Imaillah)

“She was a humble lady and the people around her were humble people. Above all else, she was courageous for truth. It takes courage to walk into a place where you are the only African American.” (Dhul Waqar Yacub)

Ellen Dent continued to be devoted to the cause; she was a generous lady throughout her life. For example, in 1970, it was announced that she donated $50, which was a significant amount in those times, especially compared to the other donations which were mostly made by doctors and missionaries. (“Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam”, The Ahmadiyya Gazette, August 1970, Vol. IX, no. 8 and 9, p. 7)

Ellen was a worker in the Chicago’s “Sewing Circle”, this national institute for Ahmadi Muslim women started in the 1930s, exclusively by African-American women. They would get together “… and knit; besides that they would study literature of the community including the The Moslem Sunrise. They would sell the commodities made which in turn would be used as expenses for the Ahmadiyya movement.”

She lived her last years in her native home of Kenner and passed away at the age of 93 on January 1981. Dhul Waqar Yacub Sahib has noted that it appears only one Ellen Dent passed away at the age of 90 in Louisiana that previously lived in Chicago thus confirming her identity as Ellen Dent.

Four American Moslem Ladies
Four ladies posed for the photo. They drew their scarves close around them so as to preserve their modesty. Little did they know they would be the first African-American Muslims pictured. This is the tale of four American Moslem ladies who were Mrs Thomas (Sister Khairat), Mrs Watts (Sister Zeineb), Mrs Robinson (Sister Ahmadia) and Mrs Clark (Sister Ayesha). They were all African-American. They have strictly adhered to modest dress with their hats and shawls tightly bound around their bodies.

Sister Zeineb (Mrs Watts)
Sister Aziza Ahmad and Jamila Hamid, two sisters who lived in St Louis and then based in Philadelphia, knew one of the ladies very closely; they were able to give a first-hand description of her appearance, etiquette and life. They affectionately referred to Mrs Watts as “Sister Zeineb”. She was renowned for her kind-hearted and hard-working nature. They said they always knew they could count on her for assistance. It is most likely she was a convert from the Moorish Science Temple of America or may have come from a Sunni background.

Dannin has suggested that a lady called Zaynab Usman and Saydak Abdaraz were part of the Muslim League Islamic Brotherhood in St Louis. It is possible that indeed this is the same lady. (Black Pilgrimage to Islam, p. 52)

Sister Zeineb was an educated lady who was employed as a secretary. Within the community, she served as the head of many posts; she was the general secretary and financial secretary of St Louis in the 1940s. At one point, she served two offices at one time. She also served as Lajna president for several terms after 1956 as well as other offices.

It is on record that Sister Zeineb would also clean the mosque regularly (Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA, unpublished, p. 50) and would travel to Milwaukee for educational classes often.

Members of the Jamaat who knew her have said that attending Friday prayers was routine for Sister Zeineb and she would also come to the Sunday meetings with due diligence; sometimes she had to catch two buses to attend. It was often a two-hour journey each way. It is possible and unfortunate that her earlier conversion narrative to Islam may never be fully discovered, but what is clear is that she died as an Ahmadi Muslim by the grace of Allah. Sister Zeineb passed away in the 1960s.

Ayesha Clark
Mrs VC Clark, after accepting Islam, changed her name to Ayesha Clark. It has been estimated that she converted between April 1922 to July 1922. (Correspondence & Assorted Files, DW, January 2012, Milwaukee)

Little else is known about her but there is mention (The Moslem Sunrise, 1923, Issue I, p. 167) that Friday meetings were held regularly in her house “as usual”, which demonstrates that women were an active part of the congregation.

Khairat Thomas
Little information is known about her other than her original name was Mrs Parabee Thomas (

Research and data-gathering is still ongoing about these ladies; little is known about Mrs Robinson.

Others
There were approximately 1,000 that came to the movement in the time of Mufti Muhammad Sadiq Sahibra; thousands more in the next decades. Unfortunately, so much has been lost in the pages of history. One of those who accepted in Chicago was Sister Maryam Bashir who joined the movement in the early 1920s. She came from a poor background. Her husband was Brother Mohammed Bashir who earned money by selling confectionaries on Chicago streets. She was very punctual and consistent with her commitments to the mosque; attending Friday services and Sunday meetings. In 1950, she presided over Lajna Imaillah’s first national meeting held in Chicago during the second annual convention. She remained active in Chicago’s local Lajna until her death in 1959; she had been the president many times by then.

Sister Mariam’s best friend was Haleema Rahman. She also converted under the reign of Mufti Sadiq Sahibra. She was an artist and renowned for her quilts and teaching the girls of the community how to “knit and purl”. She was an active member for about 40 years before she died in 1966 at 100 years old. (Yacub, Women Pioneers of Ahmadiyya USA, p. 43).

These were the ladies that helped establish the precursor auxiliary group of Ahmadi Muslim women known as “The Sewing Circle” off their own initiative before Lajna Imaillah was formally ordained. In fact, these American Muslims left such an indelible mark on Mufti Sahibra that he delivered a speech entitled “The state of American women” on 24 March 1924 when he had returned to India. (1924, April 4. Al-Fazl)

Dr. Fatuma Guyo 25th October 2020 At 2:09 pm
Asalam Alaikum brother Basir,

Thank you for sharing the link to African American Ahmadi Muslim Women. These women’s stories speak to the broader role of Black women in propagating Ahmadiyya Islam and building their communities. It is also insightful to learn that they were pioneers of Lajna USA. Their stories fill the gap on experiences of African American Muslim Women. We only get to know about the experiences of Black women from other religious perspectives, but rarely from Islamic perspectives. Certainly, African American Ahmadiyya Muslim women’s perspectives add to the missing gap within American religious history. Wondering if there are possibilities of using Ahmadiyya archives to write stories about these women. The idea is to bring their contributions and contributions of Ahmadiyya Black Community to the wider academic discourse.
Thank you!

source: https://www.alhakam.org/the-untold-story-of-black-muslims-african-american-ahmadi-women-of-the-sewing-circle/

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