Americas, Islam in the
AMERICAS, ISLAM IN THE
The Islamic presence in pre-Columbian times is a point of contention, with some writers asserting that Arab and West African Muslims settled in the Americas between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries; others dispute these assertions, citing a lack of archaeological and other historical evidence.
The undisputed spread of Islam in the Americas started in the early sixteenth century with the arrival of a small number of Moriscos (Muslims forced to adopt Christianity who may have maintained their faith in secret) from Spain, and millions of enslaved West Africans. It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the twelve to fifteen million Africans deported through the Atlantic slave trade were Muslim. Their prayers, fasts, refusal of pork and alcohol, circumcision, collecting of zakat, mosques, Qur˒anic schools, and importation of Qur˒ans from Africa and Europe have been documented for countries as diverse as Peru, Brazil, the United States, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and Cuba. Manuscripts written in Arabic have been recovered in several countries, most notably in Bahia, Brazil, where Muslims from Nigeria led a series of revolts between 1807 and 1835. There is evidence that the African Muslims succeeded in converting both enslaved and free people to Islam, and accusations of Islamic proselytism among Native Americans surfaced in the sixteenth century. West Africans maintained Islam in America during four centuries of slavery, but could not transmit the religion to the generations who were born in the Americas. With the end of the international slave trade in the late 1860s, Islam disappeared as an overtly practiced religion among people of African descent. However, cultural and linguistic traces remain today.
In the nineteenth century, Islam emerged again in the Americas with the arrival of Asian and Arab Muslims. After the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1834, Muslim indentured laborers from India were introduced to Trinidad and Guyana, along with the much larger numbers of Hindus. Between 1890 and 1939 the Dutch brought indentured Muslim workers to Dutch Guiana (Surinam) from their colony in Indonesia. They now represent 75 percent of the Muslim population of Suriname, the country with the highest percentage of Muslims (about 25%) in the Americas.
By the end of the nineteenth century, religious and political unrest, along with economic transformations in the Ottoman Empire, led to the emigration of Syrians and Lebanese, who established themselves throughout North and South America. Among them was a minority of Muslim Lebanese and Syrians who migrated, concentrating their settlements in Brazil—which counts the largest Muslim population in Latin America—Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada. In South and Central America most were traders, while in Canada, the majority were farmers.
In the twentieth century new Muslim populations settled in the Americas. After World War I, a small number of followers of the Indian-founded Ahmadiyya sect settled in South America and the Caribbean; and Albanians and Yugoslavs migrated to the Canadian prairies. Palestinians started to arrive after 1948 and again, in successive waves, following the Middle Eastern wars of 1967 and 1973.
Today, Islam continues to spread throughout the Americas through the natural growth of the existing Muslim population, conversions, and continued immigration from Muslim nations. Statistics are unreliable, but there are an estimated 1.4 million Muslims living in Latin America and the Caribbean, 253,000 in Canada, and about 6 million in the United States.
Kettani, M. Ali. Muslim Minorities in the World Today. London: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1986.
Sylviane Anna Diouf