Media reports have celebrated Halima Aden becoming the first woman to be featured in the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit edition wearing a hijab or a burkini. In the past, she has appeared on the covers of Allure, British Vogue and Glamour Magazine.
As a scholar who studies black Muslim fashion, I often find that reporters covering Muslim women’s fashion seem to have the notion that Islam and fashion are incompatible.
This attitude ignores the influence black people have had on Muslim fashion going back at least eight decades.
Early Islam in the US
First, it’s important to understand the long history Muslims have in the United States.
Their numbers were small, ranging from 30,000 to 40,000. However, as historian Sylviane Diouf notes, enslaved African Muslims left a lasting impact on black American culture, especially in the Sea Islands and Lowcountry region, the coastal area stretching from North Carolina to northern Florida.
The first Islamic text in the United States, the Bilali Document, was written by an enslaved African living on Sapelo Island named Bilali Muhammad in the 19th century. It includes rules about daily prayers and a list of beliefs of Muslims.
Another important text – perhaps the only known narrative by an enslaved person in Arabic – was written by Omar ibn Said in 1831, who lived as a slave in North Carolina. In it, he recounts his life in Senegal, including his religious education. The autobiography also includes several Muslim prayers.
Clothing as identity
In the 20th century, black Americans were reintroduced to Islam through several people and organizations.
Drew Ali taught his followers that they were not Negros or Ethiopians, rather they were Moors and that Islam was their true religion. According to Drew Ali, Moors are descendants of the ancient Moabites who founded Mecca, one of the most important cities in Islam.
W.D. Fard Muhammad, who founded what would become known as the Nation of Islam in 1930 in Detroit, Michigan, also taught his followers that they had forgotten their true identity as Asiatic Muslims and members of the lost tribe of Shabazz. The term Asiatic referred to black people and other people of color.
Clothing played a central role in constructing a unique black Muslim identity. Black Muslim women used their dress to challenge American beauty standards, which typically holds thin young white women as the ideal beauty. Their dress practices also challenged beliefs that Islam was only an Arab religion by encouraging members to develop their own local dress practices.