A Brief History of Islam in the United States


The presence of Islam in the New World began with the Moriscoes who accompanied the Spanish invadors. Following their time, great numbers of Muslim slaves were imported to this continent to work on the plantations of the South. In spite of the effort to wipe out the slaves' Islamic identity, Islamic practices and beliefs remained strong with many of them. Several books chronicle the early history of Islam in America, including: In the early part of this century, waves of immigrants from various parts of the Muslim world, most notably Palestine, Lebanon and what is now Pakistan, appeared on these shores. These people were mostly illiterate, unskilled Arabs who found work in the auto factories of Detroit, or peasants from the Panjab who set up house in such places as Sacramento.

Then, beginning in the '50s, the picture changed drastically. An influx of Muslim professionals, many of them physicians, finding conditions in their homelands inhospitable, settled in this country after completing their studies. The black movements, the back-to-Africa groups, had come into flower by this time. Great numbers of Muslim students from all parts of the world also began to arrive in this country.

This was the period which saw the formation of the early Muslim communities and mosques in such places as Detroit, Ann Arbor, Gary (Indiana), Cedar Rapids (Iowa), Sacramento and the like. Visiting scholars and missionary groups from the Middle East and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent also began to arrive. And Islam began, in a very slow manner, to gain adherents among white Americans.

It was this period which also witnessed the formation of national Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of the United States and Canada, later to be replaced by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and their supporting institutions. Regional and national conferences of Muslims for the discussion of issues of common concern were streamlined during this period. Many Muslims who had never practiced their religion now found their way back to their roots and began, for the very first time, to appreciate the value of their faith.

The black movements now came into their own. Most prominent among them was the Black Muslim sect, headed by the self-proclaimed "prophet," Elijah Muhammed. He ading a political rather than a religious movement, Mr. Muhammad was easily able to sell the frustrated, suffering black community his ideology of reacting to racism with racism under the heading of "Black Islam." For a time the movement flourished, but later, with the exposure of Mr. Muhammad's sexual improprieties, it began to wither and fade. Malcolm X, who had been its chief spokesman, had turned against its leader and, after experiencing the brotherhood of true Islam during his Hajj, changed his position concerning the inherent evil of all members of the white race. Malcolm's assassination in 1965 did nothing to halt the dissolution of the Black Muslims. Subsequently, Elijah's son Wallace, now Warithuddin Muhammad, led the majority of his father's ex-followers into orthodox Islam. What remained of Elijah's followers became the Nation of Islam under the leadership of the controversial Louis Farrakhan.

Today, mosques, Islamic centers and schools are found in every community of any size. Islamic organizations and institutions abound, now at last able to minister to the needs of the Muslim congregation in America. Muslims' voices are heard speaking up for their faith in official circles, to the media and in every field of endeavor, and Muslims are now able to make a significant contribution, especially in the realm of spirituality, values and morals, to the life of this nation.

At present, the number of Muslims in the United States is estimated to be on the order of between 5 to 8 million. It is the fastest growing faith in this country. Estimates indicate that by the year 2000, the number of Muslims in the United States will be greater than that of the Methodists, and that by the year 2010 the number will have doubled to 10 to 16 million. The estimated conversion rate among Americans is 135,000 per year. The Defense Department reports that there are now approximately 9000 Muslims on active duty in the U.S. armed services (it is reported that more than 3000 Americans embraced Islam during the Gulf war alone). A vast network of Muslim ministries also caters to some 300,000 converts in prisons, with an estimated conversion rate of 35,000 per year.

The predominant group among Muslims in the United States are Afro-Americans. The immigrant communities, which come from a great variety of countries stretching from Eastern Europe to Cambodia and virtually every country in between, comprise the next largest group. The student community is the third largest group. Finally, Caucasian and other ethnic Americans comprise the smallest group, but this too is growing at a fast rate.

Among all these, Afro-Americans are reported to comprise 42% of the total; 24.4% are Indo-Pakistani; 12.4% are Arabs; 5.2% are Africans; 3.6% are Iranis; 2.4% are Turks; 2% are from South-East Asia; 1.6% are white Americans; 8 5 are Albanians; and all other groups comprise 5.6%. The ten states with the highest concentration of Muslims are California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Ohio and Maryland (listed in order of population). This represents 3.3 million of the Muslim population in the United States. There are more than 1000 mosques, compared to 600 in 1980, 230 in 1960 and 19 in 1930. In addition, there are 400 Islamic schools (108 full-time), over 400 associations, an estimated 200,000 businesses, and over 80 publications, journals, weekly newspapers, etc.

The simplicity of Islam and its appeal both to reason and to the heart accounts for its tremendous appeal. With teachings about God, human responsibility and the life hereafter which are very similar to those of Judaism and Christianity, it insists on the necessity of living a pure, God-centered life following the natural dictates of a balanced mind and conscience, following the guidance transmitted through the last prophet of God, Muhammad, peace be upon him. It honors the previous great prophets of the Bible, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and many others, and also reiterates the belief of early Christian communities concerning the prophetic mission of Jesus, ascribing divinity to the Creator alone.