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Persons of Islamic background were among the explorers, traders, and settlers who visited the New World from the time of Columbus. A considerable number of Moriscos (Spanish Muslims who concealed their faith after 1492) migrated to both Portuguese and Spanish America, but their increasing numbers threatened the Christian rulers, who had them exterminated by the Inquisition.


African Muslim slaves from Senegal, Gambia, the southern Sahara, and the upper Niger came to the Americas between the mid-1500s and the mid-nineteenth century. Estimates of the proportion of Muslims within the total numbers of African slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere range from 14 to 20 percent.

After abolition in the Caribbean, the British in Guyana transported between 1835 and 1917 large numbers of Indians as indentured servants. Most were Hindus, but a sizable minority (16 percent) were Muslims, who comprise more than 10 percent of the nation’s population today. In Trinidad and Tobago there is also a longstanding Muslim minority of about 6 percent. Suriname, long a Dutch colony, has few African Muslims left, but its Muslim population is 23 percent owing to the large numbers of Indian and Javanese Muslims who were imported for labor in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although many African slaves came from Islamic backgrounds, the conditions of slavery made it impossible for large numbers of them to sustain their religious beliefs, practices, and institutions. But there are records of very remarkable individual African Muslim slaves (see Allan D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook, New York, 1984). Indian and other Muslim immigrants, however, were not slaves and thus were able to maintain their spiritual, cultural, and social institutions sufficiently well to preserve an Islamic identity.

Muslim Immigration to North America. Significant numbers of free Muslims did not start arriving in the Americas until the late 1800s, when Arabs from greater Syria, especially, began to arrive. Most of these people were poor, working-class males who made their living by peddling and menial jobs. They tended to assimilate into American society and often took American spouses, if a Muslim wife-whether from back home or among the immigrant community-was not available. They found it difficult to sustain a Muslim identity, but there was some activity in mosque and community building, for example, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Edmonton, Alberta, where strong and growing Muslim communities flourish today. This first “wave” (I follow here Yvonne Y. Haddad’s periodization in her pamphlet A Century of Islam in America, Washington, D.C., 1986) of immigration continued until World War I, after which a second wave continued through the 1930s, ending with World War Il.

A third wave of Muslim immigration after World War II included many people from the elites of Middle Eastern and South Asian countries seeking education and professional advancement. Although many returned to their home countries, a large number remained. The members of this third wave have tended to maintain their Islamic identity while assimilating into North American life at a moderate rate. Sometimes more observant and strict Muslims refer to these people as “`Eed [`Id] Muslims,” because of their supposed habit of attending the mosque only during the two canonical religious festivals each year, `Id al-Adha and `Id al-Fitr. But these people extended the establishment of Islamic centers and mosques, as well as larger-scale Muslim associations, such as the Federation of Islamic Associations, a somewhat loose organization of mosques in the United States, whose Canadian affiliate is the Council of Muslim Communities of Canada (CMCC). Another active organization that encourages the building of new mosques and cooperation among Islamic congregations is the Council of Masajid (“mosques”) of the United States, Inc. Still another is the Muslim Students Association of U.S.A. and Canada (MSA), which was organized by international Muslim students studying in North America in 1963. The MSA evolved into and is connected with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), currently the largest Muslim “umbrella” organization, with several affiliated associations pursuing a variety of Islam-related interests. [See Federation of Islamic Associations and Islamic Society of North America.]

A fourth wave of Muslim immigration to North America began in the mid-1960s and continues today. It was made possible by changes in U.S. immigration laws, which opened the doors to people from many parts of the world whose talents and occupational capabilities filled acknowledged needs. Large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East, Asia, and beyond migrated to America to take up permanent residence with citizenship. Among these were considerable numbers of Muslims, particularly from the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Today the majority of Muslims in North America are immigrants, with Arabs more numerous in the United States and Pakistanis second, whereas the proportions are reversed in Canada.

The most recent wave of Muslim immigrants is also generally the most motivated to sustain and hand down a strong Islamic identity and establish permanent institutional and community structures to that end. There is much less interest in assimilating into North American life among the more recently arrived Muslims. The worldwide Islamic revival, including its “fundamentalist” aspects, in its North American circles has among its highest goals the establishment of an Islamic environment on that continent. It intends to do that by means of da’wah (missions), Islamic schools, publications, building new mosques and centers, becoming involved in politics, public relations, and developing Islamic financial institutions, such as interest-free banking.

Muslims who are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants live in all the metropolitan regions of North America, but in the United States there are particularly large communities in Boston, New York, the Detroit-Toledo corridor, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles/Orange County, whereas in Canada there is a large Muslim community in Toronto, with sizable ones also in Montreal, Windsor, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver.

Muslim African Americans. The second largest North American Muslim community is the Muslim African Americans in the United States. Three major reasons for conversion to Islam by many African Americans are: the consciousness among many of a lost Islamic heritage dating back to the time of slavery, the related proliferation of new, quasi-Islamic religious movements among African Americans in the twentieth century, and the strong trend of conversion to Islam by African Americans in correctional facilities.

The fact of Muslim slaves in the Americas has been mentioned above. In 1913 the Moorish Science movement was established in Newark, New Jersey, by Timothy Drew (1886-1929), who came to be known among his followers as Noble Drew Ali. He taught that black Americans would discover their true identity only through an educative process centered in his text called The Holy Koran. Noble Drew Ali considered black Americans to be “Asiatics,” or “Moors,” but not “Negroes.” Islam was seen as the true religion of Asiatics, whereas Christianity was a religion for the whites. The movement borrowed some aspects of Islam but followed its own course, gradually splitting up into a few small circles today.

The next quasi-Islamic movement to arise in the United States was the Nation of Islam. It was founded in Detroit in 193o by a foreign national of uncertain origin named W. D. Fard (with variants), who called for education, a common ritual, and strong community defense, all regulated by a strict ethic. One of Fard’s principle followers, the black American Elijah Poole (1897-1975) carried on the movement in 1934 after Fard’s mysterious disappearance. There was little Islamic about the movement except its name. For example, the doctrine came to regard Fard as Allah incarnate and Elijah Muhammad (i.e., Poole) as his prophet. White people were regarded as devils who had robbed the blacks of their preeminent place in the order of things. [See Nation of Islam and the biography of Elijah Muhammad.]

The Nation of Islam attracted many African Americans, who were inspired and helped by its message of hard work, abstinence, strong family values, and commitment to improving the general lot of black people. The Nation of Islam came to have organizations-in the form of mosques-throughout the urban United States. One of Elijah Muhammad’s most outstanding associates was Malcolm X (1925-1965), who was converted in prison and changed his name from Little to protest the humiliation of having been christened with a white, “slave” name. Malcolm X, who made the pilgrimage to Mecca and converted to normative Islam, was assassinated in 1965 by members of the Nation of Islam. Since then his image has grown as one of America’s most powerful visionaries for empowerment of black people. [See the biography of Malcolm X.] His embracing of mainstream Sunni Islam has been a major factor in the increasing identification of Muslim African Americans with the world Islamic community. The beginnings of this occurred in 1975 when, on the death of Elijah Muhammad, his son and designated heir to leadership, Wallace Deen Muhammad, announced that the Nation of Islam would henceforth leave behind much of his father’s teaching and move in the direction of normative Islam. Although this successor movement had a number of names, it now prefers to call itself simply “Muslim” and has effectively liquidated its organizational infrastructure, except for the leader’s (whose name became Warith Deen Muhammad) preaching and teaching mission in Chicago and the weekly newspaper Muslim j ournal, which covers news of interest to all Muslims.

Not all Nation of Islam followers agreed with the dramatic change brought about by Warith Deen Muhammad. One longtime associate, the former Louis X, has continued the Nation of Islam’s struggle to lift up and empower poor black people and strengthen them with the effective message of Elijah Muhammad. Minister Louis Farrakhan, as this leader came to be known, is a charismatic preacher who alarms much of white America with his provocative discourses. There are some aspects of Islam in the continuing Nation of Islam, but orthodox Muslims in America reject it as an authentic Islamic movement. One widely distributed pamphlet refers to it as “Farrakhanism,” a distinct religion, protected under the First Amendment, but not Islamic.

The conversion of large numbers of African Americans to Islam in prison started in the days of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X remains a beacon of hope for those who have been brought as low as prison. Nation of Islam chaplains have been very effective in preaching to and helping inmates, and their record of successful litigation in American courts for prisoners’ religious rights (e.g., Friday noon prayers and a pork-free Islamic diet) has improved the general lot of incarcerated persons.

Inmates declare Islam as their religion for a variety of reasons, including physical protection, but many come to lead exemplary lives both inside prison and after release. In some corrections systems, such as New York State and New York City, Muslim African American inmates make up a major proportion of the prison and jail populations. Although many incarcerated Muslims become model inmates, many also get caught up in a cycle of recidivism and reincarceration. This is a great challenge to the entire Muslim community that is only beginning to be addressed.

There is a considerable cultural, occupational, educational, and economic gap between most Muslim immigrants and most Muslim African Americans. Racism also plays a part in the separation of the two communities. But Muslim “chaplains,” as prison imams are often called by administrations, increasingly recognize that the support system and caring community of fellow Muslims that a Muslim inmate benefits from in prison is usually not available to poor urban blacks on release. Rather, the former, chronic conditions of life on the street in the American underclass often win out. Halfway houses and other measures are being called for, but resources and the will to innovate in this often discouraging and sometimes dangerous Islamic social work are scarce.

Challenges to Muslims in the Americas. In the Americas, the numbers, diversity, organizational development, and Islamic identity of Muslims are strongest in North America, but substantial Muslim communities exist throughout the hemisphere. In addition to the small but well-established communities in the Caribbean basin, there are other Latin American immigrant communities, composed mostly of people from Arab countries, in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela. The Muslim populations of Argentina and Brazil, for example, are each at least twice the Muslim population of Canada (estimated at 200,000 in 1992).

In North America, and especially the United States, with its Muslim population of perhaps 4 million or more (no precise census has been conducted yet), the worldwide Islamic ummah is gathered in a kind of microcosmic form in a single (if complex) American social and political order. The great variety of Muslims there in

cludes numerous Shi`is of different types, although the vast majority are Sunni, reflecting the ratio worldwide. Muslims in North America are urgently concerned about building Islamic unity even as they acknowledge ethnic, racial, and cultural divisions and tensions.

Muslim congregations in North America range from narrowly ethnic enclaves (e.g., Turkish, Syrian, and Pakistani) to richly diverse communities. Most congregations try to have imams who are well trained in Arabic and to practice fiqh (jurisprudence) and the classical religious sciences. Thus they tend to import imams from Middle Eastern or South Asian Islamic countries. There are sometimes difficulties when imams fail to perceive the nature of North American society and the problems Muslims have coping with it. Often members of a local congregation want an imam who can provide counseling and other services similar to what Jews and Christians expect from their rabbis and ministers (see Waugh, 1982). But this problem is increasingly recognized, and initiatives to train foreign as well as native imams have begun.

The long-established Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, Ohio, has a membership of about six hundred families drawn from more than thirty national and ethnic backgrounds. Most of the members are Sunnis, but Shi`is are included, too. The center has a large Friday mosque, extensive educational and activity wings, a bookstore, clinic, mortuary, cemetery, recreation field, and extensive kitchen/dining facilities. Similar large centers exist in major urban areas, such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Toronto, and central New Jersey. In Houston, several mosques have banded together in a cooperative association with a central coordinating staff and a model for developing noncompetitive Islamic organizations and services in different quadrants of the metropolitan area. Although this octopuslike comity arrangement is not without problems, it might serve as a prototype for other urban regions with large, dispersed Muslim populations. In Oakland, California, there is a large Sunni mosque with an affiliated, full-time Islamic school that was originally a Nation of Islam congregation. Now, although it consists mostly of Muslim African Americans, it also numbers Arab Americans and other immigrants among its members.

Large Islamic Associations. The Islamic Society of North America, introduced above, represents the type of large-scale coordinating effort that many Muslims consider essential to the long-term well-being of the ummah (community) in North America. The ISNA, which has a headquarters campus near Indianapolis, Indiana, has both individual and institutional memberships, publishes a glossy magazine, Islamic Horizons, and holds an annual meeting each Labor Day weekend attended by around five thousand people in recent years. ISNA is essentially a Sunni organization, but it attracts the support of Muslims from many different ethnic and national backgrounds, including African Americans. ISNA strongly emphasizes Muslim family values, da’wah, Islamic education, youth activities, political activism, Islamic publishing, cooperative and continuing relations with Muslim groups and countries overseas, helping in the development of new mosques and centers, and so forth. ISNA also shares with other Islamic groups an urgent concern for developing a fiqh that is both true to the mainstream Islamic tradition and responsibly adaptive to new circumstances and problems found by Muslims living as minorities in the West.

Although large organizations such as ISNA offer the advantages of a wide communication network, educational research and development, publications, an image of Muslims seeking unity, and certain economies of scale, many Muslims prefer to pursue their Islamic goals at the local level. Large congregations in effect compete with ISNA by sponsoring their own public outreach and da’wah initiatives. The Islamic Society of Southern California, for example, sponsors an Islamic Education Service that has a television network and distributes sound and video cassettes of sermons, speeches, conferences, and panel discussions on a variety of contemporary topics including human sexuality, AIDS, relations with Christians and Jews, and spirituality. It publishes The Minaret, a sophisticated magazine with a national readership.

There is a feeling among many Muslims in North America that, although large-scale coordination of Islamic activities is desirable, the right means for this has not yet been devised. In 1992 the first North Americawide Islamic Coordinating Conference was held, in Indianapolis. It brought together the widest range of representatives of Muslim organizations in a spirit of mutual consultation and seeking a vision for the future. But the assembled participants proceeded cautiously, aware that the processes of Muslim unity and cooperation in North America are as diversely complex as the constituencies that represent the ummah there.

[See also Brazil; Canada; Suriname; Trinidad and Tobago; and United States of America.]


Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, ed. The Muslims of America. New York and Oxford, 1991. Informative essays on organizations, Islamic thought, Muslims in prison, political activity, da’wah, women, and other topics.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Adair T. Lummis. Islamic Values in the United States: A Comparative Study. New York and Oxford, 1987. Well-documented study based on interviews and questionnaires. Husaini, Zohra. Muslims in the Canadian Mosaic: Socio-Cultural and Economic Links with Their Countries of Origin. Edmonton, Alberta, 1990. Good demographic and sociocultural data, with particular emphasis on Alberta.

Kettani, M. Ali. Muslim Minorities in the World Today. London and New York, 1986. Muslims in the Americas are covered, with statistics, on pages 191-213.

EI-Kholy, Abdo A. The Arab Moslems in the United States: Religion and Assimilation. New Haven, 1966. Careful empirical study that, though dated, still has considerable historical value.

Lee, Martha F. The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement. Lewiston, N.Y., 1988. Carries the story beyond Lincoln (below) into the period of Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America (1961). 3d ed. Grand Rapids, 1993. The most thorough study of the Nation of Islam, by a distinguished African-American sociologist.

Marsh, Clifton. From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Transition from Separatism to Islam, 1930-1980. Metuchen, N.J., and London, 1984. Useful information on the Moorish Science Temple and the ways in which Wallace (Warith) Deen Muhammad diverged from his father’s doctrine. Contains a list of African American masjids (mosques).

Melton, John Gordon, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Religions. 3d ed. Detroit, 1989. Contains an annotated listing of Islamic organizations in the United States, with addresses (pp. 825-842).

Waugh, Earle H. “The Imam in the New World: Models and Modifications.” In Transitions and Transformations in the History of Religions, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Theodore M. Ludwig, pp. 124-149. Leiden, 198o.

Waugh, Earle H., Baha Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi, eds. The Muslim Community in North America. Edmonton, Alberta, 1983. Very useful source of information on such topics as survival strategies, socioreligious behavior of Muslims, Islamic studies, Pakistani Muslims in Canada, and Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Waugh, Earle H., Sharon McIrvin Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi, eds. Muslim Families in North America. Edmonton, Alberta, 1991. Sequel to the above, with excellent essays on religion, ethnicity, family life, sex/gender, women, mate selection, divorce, immigrant groups, and other topics.

Williams, Raymond Brady. Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan: New Threads in the American Tapestry. Cambridge and New York, 1988. Contains reliable and informative treatment of South Asian Muslims in the United States.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/islam-americas/

  • writerPosted On: June 9, 2014
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