Islam: Islam in the Americas

views updated


Muslims have been arriving in the New World from the sixteenth century to the present. The horrors of the lives of Muslim slaves mark the first accounts, while the horrors of the lives of Muslim immigrants in the aftermath of the tragedies of September 11, 2001, mark the latest accounts. Muslims have settled in almost every part of the Americas. Their relationships with other immigrants and with indigenous peoples have been as varied as their success in planting Islam in the religious landscape.

There have been problems with accurately documenting the earliest arrivals. Various accounts of Muslims arriving in North America prior to Columbus have yet to be proven. Recent research on Muslim slaves from West Africa, however, has been much more definitive. It is now documented that Muslims were among the first African slaves to arrive in the New Worlds, as early as 1501. These Muslims were from regions ranging form Senegal to Chad and from the southern border of the Sahara to the northern fringes of the tropical forest. The African Muslim diaspora was spread from North America to the Caribbean and on to South America. The size of the African diaspora is still in dispute; estimates range from 9.5 million to 20 million, with Muslims comprising anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of slaves over a period of three hundred and fifty years. While data now exists on the numbers and percentages of various ethnic groups, in only a few countries is religious affiliation noted in censuses. What is uncontested is the fact that Muslim African slaves were scattered across every region of the Americas.

Slaves and Plantation Communities

Significant numbers of African Muslim slaves were literate in Arabic, making them unique in the slave community. There exist short biographies of at least seventy-five of these slaves who were brought to North America between 1730 and 1860. The earliest known biography is a fifty-four-page volume, Some Memories of the Life of Job Ben Solomon, written in 1734 by an Englishman. From these and other accounts, what emerges is a clear history of the struggle to retain Muslim faith and Arabic literacy. Most researchers agree that the slaves who proved most difficult to convert to Christianity were the Muslims. Muslims were also the most difficult to keep in slavery: the first slave revolt in the New World was led by Muslims in 1522. Catholics sought to convert Muslims because conversion provided a moral justification for the institution of slavery, while Protestants generally oppressed slaves on the grounds that they would be morally bound to free slaves that had been converted to Christianity. Forced and mass conversions were persistently resisted by many Muslims, as shown by rebellions in the French West Indies and in North America.

There are a variety of reports on the religious life of Muslim slaves in historical documents, ranging from the reports of slave masters to Works Progress Administration accounts from descendants of slaves in the early twentieth century. The Muslim practices of alāt (prayer) and awm (fasting), along with the retention of Arabic words and phrases, stand out in these accounts. Though prayer was one religious practice often hidden by slaves, accounts of public prayers were recorded. The story of Yarrow Mamont praying in public is reported by Charles Peale, who painted his portrait in 1819. Other non-Muslim slaves, such as Charles Ball, writing in the early nineteenth century, tell of hearing prayers spoken in Arabic. Muslims slaves in Brazil used prayer rugspieces of cloth or animal skinsand are reported to have actively fasted during the month of Ramaān, and to have celebrated the feast that marks the end of Ramaān. Though impoverished, slaves are even said to have made gifts of whatever they possessed.

Through faith, practice, and dreams, Islam did survive in the Americas despite the brutalities and dislocations of slavery. The willpower of African Muslim slaves was remarkable. The distinctive lifestyle of the Muslim was imprinted on the consciousness of descendents. Muslims had much difficulty maintaining modesty in the face of degradation. As much as slave owners tried to keep slaves humiliated by keeping them nude, Muslim slaves put on as many clothes as they could find, including head wraps and caps. The use of Arabic names along with slave names assisted in identity preservation, and Muslim names can presently be found among people all over the Americas and the Caribbean. For example, the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia provide a significant slave-made reservoir of African Muslim names. Muslim slaves also maintained Islamic dietary regulations against pork despite the meager, limited offerings of plantation living.

Muslims are forbidden to eat dead meat, blood, and the flesh of swine and to drink wine or other forms of alcohol. In the Caribbean, slaves were forced to drink alcohol as part of a diet designed to increase productivity and were given it as a bonus for hard work. Muslim slaves rejected both alcohol and pork with such consistency that at least one Caribbean governor complained in writing that continued punishment was not working. There are additional documented accounts of Muslim slaves' refusal to eat non-halal meats (meats not slaughtered according to Islamic law). Other Islamic traditions, such as circumcision and polygamy, were also retained. There are accounts from Brazil of Muslim slaves practicing circumcision on boys at ten years of age. The practice of polygamy, though not wide-spread in the Americas, was understood in the West as an expression of the natural immorality of slaves.

In several historical accounts, Muslim slaves are described as "uppity" or "arrogant" because of their persistence in pursuing their religious practices and literacy. One account from Cuba claimed that Muslims stayed to themselves. The deliberate separation of slaves from the same ethnic groups had much the same effect on Muslims as it had on other slavesit created loneliness and depression. The only difference was that the practices of Islam and knowledge of Arabic acted as cultural bridge-builders between Muslims of different ethnic groups. Though some Muslim slaves were literate and others semi-literate, slavery remained the circumstance of almost all African Muslims for generations in North America. In 1837, however, decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, Sir Andrew Halliday reported that Trinidad boasted a free Muslim community. In Brazil, as early as 1850, many Muslim indentured servants were able to pool their resources to buy their freedom and then either remain in the country or go back to Africa.

The resourcefulness of Muslim slaves in the Americas extended to obtaining Qurʾāns and to communication across the Americas, especially to and from Brazil. One documented report speaks of the importation of Qurʾāns from Europe for sale to Muslim slaves. Slaves went into debt, buying about one hundred Qurʾāns every year. It is also documented that Arabic Qurʾāns were in use on the Sea Islands. The sale and transport of slaves between the Caribbean and North America also facilitated the transmission of Qurʾāns. Slaves also wrote their own Qurʾāns from memory. Benjamin Larten, a Jamaican slave, apparently displayed his Qurʾān in 1835 to author Richard Madden.

Some of those Muslim slaves who previously had been teachers continued to teach, especially in Brazil. As a result of various revolts, some of the names of these slaves and freedmen are known. Newspapers published accounts of the revolts and the names of the participants to aid in their recapture. In addition, the names of slaves who were tried in court for holding classes appear in legal documents; two such names are Dandea Aprigio and Sanem. Evidence of structured Qurʾanic schools among slaves is mostly found in Brazil, though it is known that there were some schools established on the North American continent. The most renowned religious slave manuscript is the Ben-Ali diary, which is a thirteen-page document in Arabic. Arabic was not only used in the context of attempts to practice and preserve Islam, however. It was also used to transmit the plans for uprisings. One letter confiscated in 1835 during a revolt in Bahia, Brazil, was a call to "take the country and kill the whites." The separation of people in each tribe was a tried-and-true method of keeping control of communication and possible revolt. This generally worked on captives, but not for Muslims who, though separated from members of their tribes, could still communicate using Qurʾanic Arabic.

Islam endured in the Americas primarily due to the persistence of the Atlantic slave trade, which resulted in a continuous arrival of slaves. It was only in the last decades of the nineteenth century that the steady flow of new arrivals began to wane. By then, many descendants of African Muslim slaves were so removed in time (up to more than fifteen generations) from their homelands that much of the Islamic tradition was lost. Some descendants turned to Christianity, some turned to a blend of Christianity and Islam, while others gave up on religion. Many researchers currently assert that Islamic influences can be readily observed in black syncretic religion. There is overwhelming scholarly agreement, however, that Muslim communities comprised of Americans of African descent were not seen again until the twentieth century.

Islam in the Americas: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

After the horrendous period of chattel slavery, Islam was spread through most of the Americas by immigrants, exiles, and refugees from the Muslim worldprimarily from the Arab world and South Asia. In some regions Muslims formed exclusivist communities that only engaged the majority community when necessary. Other Muslims actively engaged themselves in the social and political life of their adopted country. In the Caribbean, where descendants of African Muslims remained after slavery, immigrant (primarily South Asian) Muslims made no efforts to blend into and strengthen the existing Muslim community. On the other hand, in those places where the majority of immigrants were Arab Muslims, there were significant efforts to merge with any existing Muslim community.

Islam in the Caribbean and South America

The terms Caribbean and South American refer to aggregations of countries, not to specific areas within legally defined boundaries. Thirty-one countries form the Caribbean, which is divided into English, French, Spanish, and Dutch linguistic regions. The majority of the countries are English-speaking. The total Muslim population by country varies from 4 to 15 percent. The largest Muslim populations are in English-speaking countries such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. There are small communities made up of Muslims of African descent, but the greatest number of Muslims are descendents of immigrants from India and Indonesia who came as indentured servants. In French-speaking countries, such as Guadeloupe, Guyana Françoise, Haiti, and Martinique, the Muslim community is mainly composed of African Muslim immigrants from West Africa. Martinique is also home to a very wealthy immigrant Palestinian Muslim community supported by Saudi Arabia.

Muslims on the Spanish-speaking islandsCuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Ricoclaim an Islamic heritage in the Americas dating back to the days of slavery and trace their history prior to slavery back to Islamic Spain during the eighth to fifteenth centuries. Thus, many trace their ultimate cultural ancestry to northern Africa and the MoriscosMoors who were forcibly converted to Christianity. These Muslims are aware that Moriscos were enslaved with other Africans during the Atlantic slave trade. There are also much Islamic and Moorish retention in this sector of Caribbean society, especially in language and names.

In the Caribbean, Muslims continue to experience life as minorities. Christian missionaries continue to try to convert Muslimsthough there is also increasing evidence that Muslims are trying to convert Christians. In 2002, reports in local newspapers asserted that of the few conversions that take place, most are from Christianity to Islam.

The history of Muslims in Mexico is difficult to trace. Spanish conquistadors from both Cuba and Spain came to pillage Mexico's resources in the early 1500s. The indigenous population was subdued and forcibly converted to Catholicism during this time. Many in the native population died as a result of the importation of European diseases and from starvation, as Europeans devastated the farming land and depleted water resources. Mexicans themselves regained control only in the 1900s.

Historians are divided over when Islam came to Mexico and who brought it. Some claim it was introduced by Syrian immigrants, whereas others point to Turkish immigrants. One recent (2002) study estimated that 10 percent of the Syrian-Lebanese immigrant community were Muslim. Today this community is one of the richest and contains more than 250,000 people. The history of Islam in Mexico is largely undocumented, with the exception of a sixteenth-century book called Un Herehe y un Musulman. Written by Pascual Almazan, this recounts the exploits of Yusuf bin Alabaz, who came to Mexico after expulsion during the Reconquista in Spain. Today, Islam is a recognized entity following the establishment of the Muslim Center de Mexico in 1994 in Mexico City. There are also centers in Monterrey, Torrion, Guadalajara, and San Cristobal de las Casa.

Islam in Cuba has not been documented before the twentieth century. At the start of the twenty-first century, Muslims in Cuba continue to pray at home because there is no mosque where they can freely congregate. There is an Arab House built by a wealthy Arab in the 1940s, which houses an Arabic museum, a restaurant, and a prayer space for diplomats. Monies are currently being solicited for the building of a mosque. In the late twentieth century, a representative of the Muslim World League making his own solicitations on behalf of Cuban Muslims referred to the example of a small town, Pilaya de Rosacio, which has a Muslim population of 40 percent.

If the number of Muslim organizations and centers is any indication, there are Muslims all over other areas of South America. The origins of Islam in Chile have not been researched, but census reports show that in 1854 two Muslims from the Ottoman Empire came to Chile. Given that the Ottoman Empire (the last Muslim empire), which fell in 1929, covered a great deal of the Arab world, it is difficult to state ethnic origins of these immigrants. It is also only presumed that they were Muslim, for religion was not noted in the Chilean census of 1865. However, by 1895 the census did note the presence of 58 Muslims who lived in Tarapaca, Atacama, Valparaiso, and Santiagoall in the north of the country. By 1907 there were approximately 1,500 Muslims, all of them immigrants. The first Islamic institution in Chile was the Society of Muslim Union of Chile, founded in 1926. Interestingly, the numbers of Chilean Muslims rises and falls throughout the twentieth century for reasons that are unaccounted for in any reports. Through the 1970s and 1980s there were no religious leaders or mosques in Chile. In the 1990s the construction of Al-Salam Mosque was begun, following which other mosques were built in Temuco and Iquique. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is estimated that there are 3,000 Muslims in Chile, many of whom are Chilean by birth. The majority are Sunnī, but there are both Shīʿī and ūfī communities present as well. Muslims, still a small minority group, generally face great pressure to convert to Christianity.

In times past, Rio de Janeiro was one of the disembarkation points for those millions abducted or sold from Muslim Africa. The native population learned about Islam primarily through Muslim behaviorprayer and abstention from pork and alcohol. Islamic revivals are reported to have occurred frequently enough over the centuries to leave a permanent mark. In 1899 the Cairo-based magazine Al-Manar published in its August issue an article entitled "Islam in Brazil." Here it was noted that the Muslim communities in Rio were made up of direct descendants of Muslim slaves. During the 1920s, Arab immigrants and traders added to Brazil's Islamic presence. Now, university students lead the way in teaching about Islam. There are currently five large Islamic organizations in Brazil: in São Paulo, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Boa Vista, and Florianopolis.

Venezuela currently has fifteen Islamic civic associations in ten states. Arab immigrants, Venezuelans, and Creoles have come together to make Islam a known tradition. The closest estimate of when Islam came to Venezuela is "centuries ago." Estimates of the number of Muslims range from 700,000 to almost a million. Venezuelan Muslims have many of the same problems as Muslims in other countries where Muslims are a minority and Islam is a potentially competing faithissues revolving around dress, political participation, civic concerns, and Christian missionizing.

Muslims in Peru trace their ancestry to the Spaniards and the Moros. As Moros fled persecution in Spain, they settled in many South and Latin American countries. In Peru they have had a lasting influence on dress, food, architecture, and both the social and political systems. Women who covered their hair were called las tapadas Limenas (The covered ones from Lima). There are also the famous balcones lumenas, which are protruding balconies done in a style known as Arabescos a term clearly referring to an Islamic heritage. Twentieth-century Islam in Peru is dominated by Palestinian Arabs who arrived in the 1940s, fleeing Jewish persecution. Today, after several aborted construction projects, Peruvian Muslims (there are no estimates of their numbers) still have no mosques, but they do have the Asociacion Islamica del Peru in Lima and a school.

Argentinean Muslims currently number between 900,000 and one million. If Arabs and other ethnic groups are included this number increases to three million. It is reported that Muslims first arrived in Argentina around 1870 from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Today, there are mosques all over the country, as well as nine Islamic centers. Bolivia traces its Islamic heritage to immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, but as with Chile the ethnicities of the Muslims who came is unknown. The first mosque however, was not commissioned until 1992, in Santa Cruz. There are already three civic organizations, known as Centro Islamico Bolivanos.

What is significant about the Islamic presence in the Caribbean and South America is that it has survived for so long. The patterns that lie behind the introduction of Islam into various countries appear to be multifold: in some countries the Islamic presence can be traced to the Atlantic slave trade; in others it is due to the influx of refugees caused by the Spanish persecution of non-Christians in Spain; in yet others it is the result of Muslims fleeing a ravaged Ottoman Empire in search of opportunities or of Arab refugees fleeing persecution by Jews in Palestine; and in others still it is attributable to the arrival of Muslim Indians, both indentured servants and immigrants seeking better opportunities. Regardless of the origin of the Islamic presence, it has endured and is currently growing.

Islam in Canada

The Canadian Census of 2001 lists 579,640 people, or 2 percent of Canada's population, as Muslim, an increase of 128.9 percent from the 1991 census. Ontario Muslims have more than doubled to 352,500, while the number of Muslims in Quebec increased by 141.8 percent. The median age is 28.1 years. As of 2004, there were more than eighty mosques, with additional locations rented or leased for prayers, such as Masjids and Islamic Centers. There are, in addition, various other centers where Muslims congregate for prayers and community activities.

The earliest authenticated account of Muslims in Canada is provided by the census of 1871, which lists thirteen Muslim residents. The first mosque, Al-Rashid, was built in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1938. Canadian Muslims hail from at least forty different countries from all over the Muslim world and all over the Americas. Until the census of 2001, the largest non-Christian minority were Jews, but Muslims now hold this distinction. A significant Muslim presence first began to develop in the 1970s, after the "White Canada" policy of 1891 was abandoned, with immigration coming predominately from the Arab world and South Asia. Mosques, which are mostly in major cities, are found in nine of the ten Canadian provinces, the exception being Prince Edward Island. A few dozen of these mosques have Islamic schools associated with them.

Canadian Muslims initially put their energies into building or acquiring facilities for prayers. This quickly extended to procuring additional spaces for religious education on the weekends. By the 1980s, full-time schools were established, and by the 1990s, specialized social services organizations were in place. The focus of these social services organizations was on pre- and post-marital counseling, teaching parenting skills, spiritual counseling, domestic and substance abuse issues, and imām training. Though the Qurʾān encourages Muslims to extend their social projects to the non-Muslim communities in which they live, this has only happened in a few instances.

On the other hand, Canadian Muslims have been much more successful than their U.S. counterparts regarding the media. Canada has a multifaith television channel, Vision TV, on which one host, a Muslim woman, uses two thirty-minute weekly programs to facilitate discussion of issues involving Muslims and Islam.

One study completed in the 1990s in Ottawa concluded that Muslims found "their comfort level fairly high" in Canada. Because many Muslim immigrants to Canada are professionals who earn enough to live quite comfortably, this experience is almost a foregone conclusion. With regard to less tangible issues, however, there are many concerns. Many Muslims find that the general media are hostile to Islam and Muslims. They discern "unfair or inaccurate stereotyping of their cultures" in movies, documentaries, and television series. On the other hand, many Muslims are hostile to media that exalt alcohol, causal sex, and lifestyles that are at best immodest. Even though Canadian society places a high premium on tolerance and pluralism, there is ongoing debate over the rising numbers of "nonwhite" citizens. Despite the official abandonment of the White Canada policy in the late 1960s, the desire to maintain the "whiteness" of Canada persists.

There are also substantial problems with racism inside the Muslim community. Many of the ethnic communities are extremely ethnocentric. There is little brotherhood or sisterhood when it comes to interracial marriages among Muslims. Assertions of a "color-blind" Islam fall by the wayside when it comes to marriage and private spaces. Other contentious issues arise out of the impact of influences from the larger Canadian community. Gender issues have become increasingly significant, as Muslim women from all ethnic groups learn of the efforts of the women's movement to enhance the quality of women's lives. This has led to disagreements over pervasive male-only leadership in most community functions and organizations.

Observers of and participants in the Canadian Muslim community note that Muslim communities in Canada are not doing a good job of dealing with interethnic tensions, parent-youth tensions, and the frustrations of women. Some say that Muslims, despite being drawn to the relatively comfortable lifestyle of the West, are still conditioned by the oppressive and repressive cultures of the Muslim world. For many Canadian observers, and for many young Muslims as well, the Muslim community seems terrified of social freedoms and of working cooperatively with other faith-based communities.

Whereas many Christian communities actively pursue interreligious dialogue, Muslims, with the exception of a few individuals and communities, generally do not. Even where multifaith awareness is criticalin prisons, hospitals, and hospicesMuslim involvement in dialogue and outreach is limited. Though Muslims are everywhere in the work force, intercultural exchange is infrequent. Some prominent Canadian Muslims lament a focus on the "homeland" that has been slow to change, even in the wake of repression of the community since the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Since September 11, 2001, some Canadian Muslims have found themselves targeted. Provincial governments have reactivated their use of "security certificates," which give them the power to vote extrajudicially on "whether an immigrant should be shipped back to his or her country (if an immigrant) or stripped of citizenship (if he or she is already a citizen)." With one exception, the security certificate has only been used against Muslims. Project Shock provides subjects for the security certificate. This sixty-million-dollar Mountie-led effort, shadows, documents, and interrogates Muslims in Canada as part of the fight against terrorism. Under this effort, Canadian governments formed Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs) that secretly investigate potential suspects. Civic commitment and community renown have not protected Muslims from coworkers who call police or INSETs to report suspicious behavior. The increase in racial profiling and human rights violations is currently becoming increasingly alarming.

In a recent poll by Tandem News, 43 percent of Canadians said they supported the idea of requiring immigrants to carry photo identification. At the same time, many Canadians (64 percent) opposed declaring war on Iraq with the United States, and after September 11, 2001, many non-Muslim Canadians have sought out information on Islam and Muslims. Muslim groups in Canada have begun the planning for a class-action suit in Ottawa against the security certificates and unlawful detentions.

The potential for detention and deportation in the United States, meanwhile, has caused some U.S. Muslims to flee to Canada. These new immigrants, largely Pakistani in origin, have come in the hundreds. In January 2003 in Ontario alone, over four hundred Pakistanis sought asylum, though only about 55 percent will have their applications accepted. Those who are denied must return to the United States, where they will be detained and possibly deported. As the United States continues to surveil and arrest its Muslim citizens and residents, Canadian Muslims fear that their lives will become even more difficult.

Islam in the United States: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In 2000, Cornell University and Zogby International published two separate surveys of Muslims in the United States. Working from a figure of seven million Muslims, they estimated that almost half of U.S. Muslims are African American and almost half are immigrants. Though the United States census does not track religious affiliation and surveys have margins of error, some useful information can be gleaned from their findings. Over half of the U.S. Muslim population is under forty years of age and more than half have a college degree. More than half of the Muslim population earns more than $50,000 per year in occupations that range from entrepreneurial ventures to medicine. However, Muslims are virtually absent in professions that make public policy and consciously assert influence over public opinion, and these numbers are not changing. Muslim families are at least 25 percent larger than the average American family. The story of how Muslims are faring in the United States is really two separate stories: one of indigenous Americans and one of immigrant Americans.

During the nineteenth century the Muslim presence in the United States was negligible. Muhammad Alexander Webb, a multi-talented convert who worked as a diplomat, founded the American Islamic Propaganda Movement in 1893. He lectured on Islam, wrote books, and published a periodical entitled The Moslem World. Few traces of his movement remained after his death in 1916, however. In the early decades of the twentieth century a few hundred Arab Muslims from Syria represented the primary presence of Islam in the United States, along with a few fledgling communities of African Americans. For many of these largely uneducated but entrepreneurial immigrant Muslims, life was severe in Jim Crow America. The Immigration Act of 1897 had limited immigration from the Ottoman Empire under the overarching category of restrictions on Orientals, mimicking Canada's White Canada policy. Arab immigrants (mostly male) settled in the Midwestern states and along the East Coast. While many changed their given names to English nicknames to facilitate assimilation, others viewed their tenure in the United States as temporary. A shortage of Muslim women led to marriage to Christian women for some and a bachelor life for others.

Even with restrictive immigration policies, the United States also admitted about forty thousand Turks, Kurds, Al-banians, and Bosnians between 1900 and 1925. Almost simultaneously, Islam was developing a presence in some of the segregated black communities of the East Coast and Midwest. Sometime during the second decade of the twentieth century, the Moorish Science Temple, led by Noble Drew Ali, emerged. The 1920s witnessed the creation of the Amadiyah movement in Islam (1921), the Universal Islamic Society (1926), the First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh (1928), and the Islamic Brotherhood (1929). This collage of philosophies and ideological positions marked the beginning of an expansion of Islam among African Americans that would eventually make them the biggest single ethnic group among U.S. Muslims. While immigrant Muslims sought the American Dream, Americans of African descent sought refuge from their American nightmare.

The first sixty-five years of the twentieth century was an especially horrible and violent time for black Americans. Inequality was enforced through Jim Crow laws (extensions of the slave codes) in southern states, and through convention in many of the northern states. Complete or nearly complete segregation in all public places was basic to the U.S. social order. Blacks had no rights that whites had to respect. In reaction to strict segregation, a wave of lynchings, and suffering caused by the Great Depression, blacks began increasingly to turn to Islam. The rise of ideologies that use Islam as their basis, at least in part, owes everything to the state of the nation.

The Moorish Science Temple of America, founded in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913 by Timothy Drew (later Noble Drew Ali), was the first of these ventures into Islam. Noble Drew Ali believed that Morocco was the original land of African Americans, whom he called Asiatics and Moors. Drew Ali claimed that after traveling to Morocco he converted to Islam and received permission to spread Islam in America. This account has been spread for almost a century by community members, but the evidence for this voyage and for meetings between Drew Ali and various Islamic dignitaries has never been documented. Some researchers assert that Drew Ali may have met Muslims from various parts of the world who had immigrated to the East Coast. However it was that he came into contact with Islam, Drew Ali took elements of Islam and combined them with other religious teachings to formulate the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America. The book's cover asserts that the book had been "divinely prepared by the Prophet Noble drew Ali, by the guiding of his father, God, Allah."

Members of the Moorish Science Temple constructed a new way of life for themselves. They abstained from alcohol, gambling, and pork consumption and embraced clean living, fasting, and prayer. Women covered their heads with turbans made from seven yards of cloth, while men donned fezzes. Modesty of dress was evidenced through the wearing of loose clothing. The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple provided a template for personal relationships and etiquette for the public sphere. Moors, as members were called, gained a reputation for clean living, honesty, and frugalitya reputation reflected in some of the works of the Harlem Renaissance. Moors were also entrepreneurial. They manufactured and sold oils and herbal remedies throughout the black community. The popularity of Moorish Science enabled Noble Drew Ali to open ten chapters within ten years in cities in both the Northeast and Midwest. By 1928 he had established seventeen temples in fifteen states.

In the face of competition from numerous other ideologies seeking the allegiance of the black community, the Moorish Science temple taught a very simple definition of Islam: "The cardinal doctrine of Islam is the unity of the Father, Allah, we believe in One God." Perhaps because his community did not follow all of the tenets of Islam and because of his heretical designation of himself as prophet, Drew Ali did not refer to his movement's religion as Islam, but as Islamism.

Another Islamic movement embraced by some in the black community was Amadīyah, which has its origins in South Asia. Amadī publishing houses in India were prolific in the production of English-language Islamic materials. During the early years of the twentieth century, most of the English Qurʾāns, English study materials, biographies of the prophet Muammad, and Islamic history texts distributed in the United States were produced by them. Most African American Muslims had little knowledge of the debates and conflicts associated with this particular Islamic reform movement in its country of origin, and they eagerly embraced the limited brand of Islamic harmony it advocated. In a social environment in which prophets were many and varied and the safety of every descendant of slaves was at risk, the Amadī version of Islam became popular. As these South Asians embraced African Americans and publicly decried the violence against them, Islam gained a further foothold in the black community. One difference with this community however, was the absence of black nationalism.

Druse Mohammed, son of a Mamlūk military commander, also reported to be a mentor of Marcus Garvey, was a pan-African founder of the Universal Islamic Society in Detroit in 1926. An apparently tireless advocate for human rights, he challenged Europeans to accept an Islam-based universalism as an extension of Enlightenment ideals. He saw Islam as an alternative to Western imperialism. His ideas were readily embraced by African Americans, for whom the Islamic ideal of universal brotherhood was a welcome alternative to the racist practices of Protestant Christianity. Unfortunately, the only accounts of the Universal Islamic Society that exist are a few small pamphlets.

Shaykh Daoud Ahmed Faisal's Islamic Brotherhood (1924; also incorporated as the State Street Mosque and the Islamic Mission) was the first African American Sunnī Muslim group in the United States. Here, as with the Amadīyah movement, the Qurʾān, biographies of Prophet Muammad, and accounts of Islamic history formed the central texts. Unlike Amadīyah and the Garvey movement, Shaykh Faisal focused his community efforts directly on the social problems of the black community. Just as Noble Drew Ali sought publicly to distinguish his movement from philosophies of Ethiopianism, black Christian sects, and Garvey's movement, Faisal distinguished Sunnī Islam from both the previously mentioned movements and the Moorish Science Temple. There are nevertheless some curious similarities between Drew Ali and Faisal. Shaykh Faisal also asserted that he received a letterin his case from Jordan, in 1925authorizing him to spread Islam. Whatever the genesis of the Islamic Brotherhood, it has been estimated that the group inspired over sixty thousand conversions to Islam during Shaykh Daoud Faisal's lifetime. This community initially used the Qurʾāns and other Islamic literature published by the Amadiyah, but then began producing their own translations.

By 1930, Islam was firmly planted in the black religious landscape. The Great Depression had taken more of a toll on blacks than on whites, and the resultant stress led to the emergence of more prophets and more Muslim communities. The First Mosque of Pittsburgh (1928), a Sunnī congregation, was originally affiliated with the Amadiyah movement, but, armed with knowledge of the Qurʾān and Arabic, they began to challenge the core tenets of the Amadī Mission and its focus on its founder as a prophet. After ten years of fund-raising, this black community bought out the Amadī and moved fully into Sunnī Islam. The 1930s also witnessed the beginnings of the Nation of Islam, a black community that spoke to the hearts of many black Americans and raised the reactionary hatred of white and black Christian communities.

The Nation of Islam had its origins in a collaboration between Wali Fard Mohammed (his ethnicity is still being debated) and Elijah Poole (later known as Elijah Mohammed). It did not become known for its form of Islam, but for its rhetoric attacking Protestant Christian America's treatment of blacks. By publicly labeling whites "the Devil" and detailing the many ways whites sought black genocide, the Nation of Islam insured its popularity among blacks and the hatred and fear of whites. Unlike the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation used the Holy Qurʾān as its focus, augmented by Elijah Mohammed's How to Eat to Live and Message to The Black Man, and a compilation of Fard Mohammed's lectures called the Supreme Wisdom. Like the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation claimed an Asiatic heritage and declared Islam to be original religion of the black man. Also like the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation deviated from Islamic orthodoxy by declaring the holy status of its founders: according to their teachings, Fard Mohammed was God in person and Elijah Mohammed was the messenger of God. The Nation practiced most of the central tenets of Islam, though it adapted them to the social needs of blacks in America. One example was their adaptation of the practice of Ramaān (the month of self-restraint), which they moved to December. This shift was seen as necessary both to avoid the temptation to overspend during the Christmas season, and to counteract the focus on Christian celebrations, which imaged the Creator, God, as a white man.

As the Nation of Islam matured, it established temples across the United States in every major city. It is estimated that at its peak there were more than 500,000 registered members. Many researchers assert that much of the growth of the Nation during the 1950s can be attributed to media focus on the charismatic leadership of Malcolm X (formerly Malcolm Little; also known much later as El Hajj Malik Shabazz). The Nation organized itself around Islamic notions of abstention from consumption of pork, gambling, alcohol, narcotics, and lewd behavior. Women were required to attend Muslim Girls Training class in order to learn home economics, and Civilization classes to learn about world and black history. Men were required to become members of the Fruit of Islam, from which they learned about the proper nature of marital relationships, how to conduct themselves privately and publicly, crafts, and the martial arts. While the men donned suits with white shirts and bow ties, the women wore a uniform consisting of a long tunic over a long skirt, with a matching veil.

Building a "righteous nation" that would be independent of whites was the goal. The Nation quickly developed the best drug and narcotics detoxification programs around, and simultaneously developed a wide range of businesses, both to keep members away from the temptations of drug use and to provide a road to self-esteem. Their efforts resulted in the first black parochial school system, a nationwide chain of food stores, cleaners, clothing-manufacturing factories, and restaurants. They acquired farms and, in order to import various goods, entered into contracts with Muslims overseas. They published a national newspaper, books, and pamphlets. The black community took pride in these accomplishments and identified, though distantly, with the Nation's efforts. Perhaps because of the Nation's success, but more likely because of its rhetoric, the U.S. media decided, in the 1950s, that the Nation was the only important manifestation of Islam in the African American community. Naturally, this paved the way for confrontations with other expressions of Islam, especially Sunnī Islam. This antagonistic relationship between different strains of African American Islam characterized the greater portion of the twentieth century.

The Nation of Islam, with a great deal of media assistance, became strongly associated with opposition to the methodologies used by the civil rights movement. Media cast the conflict as one between black separatism and integrationism, totally ignoring the root cause of all black protestwhite oppression. Most African American Muslims opposed Martin Luther King's tactics of putting women and children at the front of protest lines to face armed white men with attack dogs. While black Christians hoped that white Christians would eventually find their faith incompatible with the continued persecution of blacks, most African American Muslims believed that if white society's understanding of Christianity had permitted the violence thus far, change was unlikely. These opposing views became associated with their most ardent voicesMalcolm X and Martin Luther King.

During this period, African American Muslim inmates began to sue the federal government for the right to use Arabic/Muslim names and for the freedom to practice Islamincluding the right to have halal meat, Qurʾāns, prayer rugs, and so on. After a series of successful litigations, these prisoners firmly established Islam as a part of America's religious landscape. Despite the fact that the actual number of African American Muslims was not that large, Islam began to exert a great deal of influence in the black community. In fact, one of the reasons that African Americans of all religious persuasions supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was that it revoked the Oriental Exclusion Act of the 1920s, which prevented immigration from the Muslim world.

By the 1970s, African American Muslim communities had grown in size and religious sophistication. The original communitiesthe Moorish Science Temple, the Amadīyah, and the Nation of Islamall widened their membership within the black community. Shaykh Daoud Faisal's community developed into separate entities under the general umbrella of Darul Islam (The Abode/House of Islam). There were at least fourteen philosophically different expressions of Islam in the African American community. The original communities maintained their organizational structures, practices, and beliefs, while the newer communities sought out contact with the Muslim world. Members of the Darul Islam communities traveled to the Sudan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco to learn Arabic and pursue Islamic studies. Controversy over the definitions of Islam in the United States increased at an accelerated rate. Despite the debates, African American Muslims introduced Islam into the worlds of music, sports, education, health care, and social services, all fields in which they were represented in significant numbers.

The Ansarullah Nubian Islamic Hebrews, led by As-Sayyid Isa Al-Haadi, developed communities across the United States. Starting in 1971 they published over 200 books, almost three hundred cassette tapes, and dozens of videotapes and newspapers. The community in New York City owned a recording studio that provided a base for rhythm-and-blues, rap, and pop musicians. Members of this community lived communally, practicing collective ownership and control of property and goods. Children were raised with Arabic as their only language and were schooled inside the community. Leveling charges of racism and "sectism" at Saudi Arabia, this community found its origins in the Sudan.

Yusuf Muzaffaruddin Hamid led the Islamic Party of North America, which was based primarily in Washington, D.C., but had extensions later on in Georgia and the Caribbean. Hamid journeyed throughout the Muslim world to study the various popular Islamic movements of the 1960s. When he returned, he built an organization dedicated to sharing knowledge of Islam with the general black population of Washington, D.C. While there are only a few publications from this community, they had a very positive and influential impact on black Washington, as they worked to reform drug users and prostitutes and provide tutorial and mentoring services.

One community that became especially renowned among young musicians is the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Formally known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, this group was founded in New York City in 1964 by Clarence 13X, a former member of the Nation of Islam. The name of the group came from the Nation of Islam's "Lost Found Nation Lessons." The Five Percent were those who taught righteousness, freedom, justice, and equality to the entire human family. They were destined to be poor, righteous teachers and to struggle especially against the elite. Their connection to Islam, though tenuous at best, remains, and they have been a conduit for young African Americans seeking to explore Islam as a worldview.

With the death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the Nation of Islam fell into philosophical debates that reached their zenith in a split. Wallace Muhammad declared that his father, Elijah, had always been leading the community toward Sunnī Islam, though he was in error in taking so long. Louis Farrakhan and other ministers disagreed. Wallace (now known as Warithudeen) led those Nation members who followed him through a series of doctrinal and organizational changes. His group first called themselves Bilalians after Bilal ibn Ribah, an Abyssinian slave who converted to Islam and was the first muezzin (person who calls the community to prayer). Several years later (1982), they emerged as the American Muslim Mission. Since the 1990s the community has been called the Muslim American Society, though it is involved in a dispute with an immigrant group over the rights to the name. The original Nation has also gone through changes and further divisions.

Many in the Nation who did not follow Warithudeen Muhammad gave their allegiance to Louis Farrakhan. Some of the philosophical changes that occurred under Louis Farrakhan's leadership mimicked the changes initiated by Warithudeen Muhammad, but they developed over a much longer period of time. In the 1980s Minister Farrakhan solicited aid from African Muslim imāms in slowly moving his group into the fold of a more traditional Islam, while maintaining the focus on the concerns in the black community. Others in the original Nation chose neither Farrakhan nor Muhammad as their leader. Rather they selected another very outspoken minister, Silas Muhammad. Minister Silas Muhammad has primarily made his presence felt in the international arena of human rights debates in the Hague. Still others chose Elijah Muhammad's brother, John Muhammad, while some decided to continue with the original platform of the Nation, acknowledging only the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as leader.

Most communities of African American Muslims are still in the process of maturation. Members of most communities have continued to study overseas in the Muslim world, but there has not been much in the way of literary production. Represented most heavily in the worlds of music and sports, African American Muslims rarely enter the political fray. Their apolitical stance is attributable both to the fatigue and despair that followed the civil rights movement and to the discouragement of "learned" members of the immigrant communities. Recently, however, there has been some increase in political activism and a number of Muslims have run for and now hold political and judicial offices.

European-American Muslims have been present in Islam in the United States at least since the conversion of Alexander Webb in the late nineteenth century. Though few in number, their diligence regarding outreach across ethnic barriers and to the larger white society, along with their novelty, has kept them in the forefront of the communities to which they belong. The number of European-American Muslims is growing, and is currently estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

Latino Americans have been converting to Islam for the last thirty years, largely from Catholicism but also from Pentecostal Christianity. Since many do not change their names upon conversion, there numbers are hard to track. One recent survey of mosques found Latino mosques in New York, Los Angeles, Newark, and Chicago. This survey also concluded that 6 percent of American converts are Latino. Most Latino-American Muslims consider Islam a natural heritage and point to the many Arabic words and names in Spanish. Many converts to Islam have spoken at conferences and seminars on their conversions, citing differences with the Catholic Church over the concept of the Trinity and also the notion of "mysteries of the Church" behind such concepts.

Alianza Islamica, founded in 1975 by a group of Puerto Rican converts, was the first Latino Muslim association in the United States. Working closely with African American Muslims, they are at the forefront of battles against urban gang activity, drug dealing, and prostitution. They sponsor mentoring and cultural programs, along with forums on HIV and AIDS. Like African American Muslims, they have had myriad problems with immigrant Muslims. Since the founding of Alianza Islamica, quite a few Latino Muslim organizations have emerged, such as the Latino American Dawah Organization, which works to educate Latinos about Islam.

Students and professionals from the Muslim world began immigrating to the United States in the late 1960s. At first, many immigrants prayed with African Americans, but as their numbers grew they formed communities based on common language, common ethiniticty, and, when possible, common regional origin. Arab Muslim students formed the first Muslim Student's Association (MSA) in 1963. The MSAs firmly established Islam as an available worldview among the educated elite. Muslims, recruited as healthcare professionals, scientists, and technology experts, brought an Islamic presence to places where it had not previously been. It is estimated that Muslims currently comprise a significant percent of the physicians, architects, and scientists in large corporations and hospitals. The architect of the Sears Tower in Chicago was a Muslim.

Immigrant Muslims in the United States come from eighty-four countries. Predominately, they are Sunnī Muslim, but there are also Shīʿī, ūfī, and Ismāʿīlī communities. Researchers report that Shīʿī and Ismāʿīlī Muslims make up 15 to 20 percent of the immigrant Muslim population, and that the majority of Muslim university professors belong to one of these two groups. In the various Sunnī Muslim communities, the competition for leadership is fierce. Arabs have the greatest say in defining Islam, while South Asians vie with them and with each other for authority. Some differences between groups are becoming sharper, while at the same time recognition of common ground is also increasing. Most of the immigrant communities still tend to be ethnocentric, staying away from each other and from the larger American community.

Both Arab and South Asian Muslims have formed a number of professional and social organizations, many of which are national. These organizations have assisted them in settling in the United States and provide venues for discussions of intracommunity issues and general social gatherings. They also facilitate marriages between young adults. Whether Sunnī or Shīʿī, most immigrants marry endogamously, maintain traditional customs at home, and predominately speak Arabic, Urdu, or their mother tongue.

ūfī orders have increased their numbers in the last two decades. Some are Sunnī, others Shīʿī. Most of the members are white, middle- and upper-middle-class American converts, but there are also a small number of immigrant and African American converts. African Muslim immigrants come from a variety of countries, but they are small in number, with Somali refugees forming what is perhaps the largest single ethnic group. All immigrant communities have established an informal economy through networks connecting them with their former homelands.

Few Muslims live in rural America. The suburbs of major cities continue to be where residential communities are established and mosques are built. Yet immigrant Muslims have not yet become an integral part of these suburban communities. The Islamic presence, however, is visible. This visibility and lack of community participation has led to vandalism of mosques and attacks on individual Muslim families, especially in the period since September 11, 2001.

Since that date, 13,740 Muslims have been detained and ordered into deportation proceedings (as of 2004). Many Muslims from countries targeted by the U.S. government for support of terrorist activities have fled to Canada or simply gone "home." The immigrant Muslim community lives in perpetual fear of night raids, of their coworkers calling the FBI or CIA, and of mosque invasions and deportations. The actions of the U.S. government have encouraged various media personalities to attack Islam and Muslims, leading in turn to several Constitutional debates about the First Amendment. As a result, immigrant Muslims are debating to what extent they can or should become "Americans."

See Also

African American Religions, article on Muslim Movements; Malcolm X; Nation of Islam.


Balderston, Daniel, Mike Gonzalez, and Ana M. López, eds. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Latin American and Caribbean Cultures. New York, 2000. This volume contains sections on topics such as: General History, Religion and Politics, Globalization and Latin American Religion, and the Transnational Character of Latin American Religion.

Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. New York, 1996. Explores the interrelationships of race, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, generation, and nationalism in different discourses, practices, and political contexts. Maps theoretical and political shifts in approaches to questions of difference and diversity.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York, 1998. An impressive book drawing on Diouf's Senegalese heritage, her familiarity with Islam and Arabic, and her translations of relevant French, Spanish, and Portuguese documents from both sides of the Atlantic.

Forte, Maximilian Christian. Against the Trinity: An Insurgent Imam Tells His Story: Religion, Politics, and Rebellion in Trinidad and Tobago. Binghamton, N.Y., 1996. A personal narrative.

Gomez, Michael A. "Muslims in Early America." Journal of Southern History 60, no. 4 (November 1994): 671718. Gomez examines the diverse African regions and cultures from which Muslim slaves came, and establishes links between these cultures and the present-day African American community. This article was later expanded in Gomez's Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998).

Korom, Frank J. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. Philadelphia, 2002. Beyond basic historical and ethnographic data, Hosay Trinidad offers a thoughtful and rigorous exploration of the Trinidadian Muharram: its contradictions and controversies and the complex interaction of the local and global influences that shape it.

Mallon, Elias. Neighbors: Muslims in North America. New York, 1989. In an effort to facilitate interfaith relations, this book provides interviews with Muslims who talk about their families, their work, and their spiritual journeys.

Nimer, Mohamed. The North American Muslim Resource Guide: Muslim Community Life in the United States and Canada. New York, 2002. This useful resource offers an overview of mainstream Muslim life in North America and provides basic information about Muslim Americans and Muslim Canadians. It includes population statistics, as well as immigration information that tracks the settlement of Muslim people in the Americas. American Muslim participation in the political process is given special attention. The book also reviews various recent events with special significance for Islamic-Americans, especially in relation to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Pulis, John W. Religion, Diaspora, and Cultural Identity: A Reader in the Anglophone Caribbean. Library of Anthropology, no. 14. Amsterdam, 1999. This volume is a much-needed and long overdue addition to the literature of Caribbean studies. Drawing upon ethnographic and historical research in a variety of contexts and settings, its contributors explore the relationship between religious and social life.

Quick, Abdullah Hakim. Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean before Columbus to the Present. London, 1996. A brief look at the history of Islam in the Caribbean that provides some amazing material concerning early Muslim settlementslong before the arrival of Columbus.

Richardson, E. Allen. Islamic Cultures in North America: Patterns of Belief and Devotion of Muslims from Asian Countries in the United States and Canada. New York, 1981. A very descriptive book.

Waines, David. An Introduction to Islam. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. A fairly comprehensive look at Islam and its spread, from the perspective of a believer.

Waugh, E. H., Baha Abu-Laban, and Regula B. Qureshi, eds. The Muslim Community in North America. Edmonton, Alberta, 1983. One of the first comprehensive treatments of immigrant Muslims in North America, especially Canada. Community concerns and issues are explored in detail.

Yousif, Ahmad. Muslims in Canada: A Question of Identity. Ottawa, Ontario, 1993. An excellent review of old and new Canadian immigrant communities. Family life and mosque- and school-building projects are explored along with attendant issues and concerns.

Aminah Beverly McCloud (2005)

About this article

Islam: Islam in the Americas

Updated About content Print Article