A brief history of Islam in America
Islam’s roots in America go back to the Founding Fathers.
Much of the debate in the US surrounding President Trump’s ban on immigrants and refugees has tended to assume that Muslim Americans are mostly migrants and that Islam is a relatively new phenomenon in America, along with questions about integration and assimilation.
In fact, Islam has a long history in America, going back to the earliest days of the country’s founding. In the past two-plus centuries, Islam and Muslim Americans have been intertwined with American history. That story is not well-known, and while admittedly that’s in part because the Muslim population of the US has often been quite small, Islam still appears in ways that most Americans might find surprising — particularly, for example, in the history of American slavery and emancipation.
What follows is a brief history of Islam in the United States, from its founding up through today, and a guide to the Muslim American community as it has grown and as it exists today.
How the Founding Fathers thought about Islam and Muslims in America
The most visible role of Islam in the America of the Founding Fathers was perhaps in the words and actions of the founders themselves, who deliberately sought to include Islam as they established the principles of religious liberty.
“The Founders of this nation explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic. Freedom of religion, as they conceived it, encompassed it,” explains James H. Hutson, the chief of the Manuscript Division of the US Library of Congress.
Thomas Jefferson, who famously owned a copy of the Quran, had much to say about Islam’s place in America. According to Hutson, Jefferson, while campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, demanded “recognition of the religious rights of the ‘Mahamdan,’ the Jew and the ‘pagan.'”
Even the issue of whether a Muslim could one day be president of the United States — an issue that recently came up when Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson stated that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” — was an issue the Founding Fathers discussed while ratifying the US Constitution.
How Muslims, Often Misunderstood, Are Thriving in America
They’re a vibrant and increasingly visible part of the tapestry in communities across the nation.
This story appears in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
This story is part of Diversity in America, a National Geographic series covering racial, ethnic, and religious groups and examining their changing roles in 21st-century life. Tell us your story with #IDefineMe.
There was nothing to do but watch as the copper-domed building in the southern Texas oil town of Victoria burned down.
The mosque where Abe Ajrami’s Beyoncé-loving daughter was feted with other high school graduates, the mosque where his children went to religion classes, the mosque where he and his family went every Friday to pray and mingle over a potluck of seven-layer dip and spiced biryani, was gone.
“I was trying not to break down,” says Ajrami, a Palestinian American who raced to the mosque after getting a phone call in the dead of night. He recounts the experience to me in his living room as his wife, Heidi, an American convert to Islam, sits to his right and his daughters, Hannah and Jenin, sit to his left, while his son, Rami, sleeps upstairs.
This family reminds me of my own. My father, from Lebanon originally, also came to the United States for an education and a better future, as Ajrami did. My mother was a Unitarian Universalist, like Heidi, and she met her future husband in college and converted. My parents have raised five ambiguously tan American Muslim kids.
Islam in America (the Pluralism Project)
The Pluralism Project is embedded in Harvard University’s educational programs. It’s aim is to develop a data base of articles and projects illuminating the essential religious pluralism of American society. The links here are to articles related to the project’s work on Islam in America.
- The First American Muslims
- Early American Mosques
- African-American Islam Reborn
- New Immigration and the First Organizations
- African-American Islam Reformed: “Black Muslims” and the Universal Ummah
- Emerging Islamic Infrastructure
The Shoe Is On the Other Foot: Pluralism and the Qur’an
Muslims continue to face the challenges of living where Islam is not the norm but only one of a number of competing claims in a vast market of religious wares
by Jane Smith
The raging fires of the immigration debates in the U.S. illuminate what Muslim immigrants have known for a long time — America is not and really never has been a melting pot. The ugly rhetoric surrounding the plan for a mosque and community center near Ground Zero, and recent assaults such as those on the Bridgeport, CT mosque in my neighborhood, illustrate well the difficulties Muslims face on a regular basis. Nonetheless, Muslims have actually managed to survive quite well in the West and have even succeeded in persuading many American citizens of the right of Islam to exist as a legitimate partner in the complex balance of religious life in this country.
For many Muslims the shoe is now slipping onto the other foot. The issue is becoming not only whether they and their religion are accepted by other Americans, but whether Islam itself can find a way to live out the pluralism that many are persuaded is at the heart of the Qur’an’s message. Studies now show that while early generations of Muslims tried to honor that pluralism in relation to other religious groups, more exclusivist views came to prevail and communities such as Christians and Jews found themselves increasingly discriminated against by Islam. Exegetes turned from verses of the Qur’an that insist that God willed different religious communities rather than a single one, and emphasized those verses that affirm that the only true religion in the eyes of God is Islam.
It seems to me that the future of Islam, at least as I understand it in the American context, has much to do with the way that Muslims figure out how they are going to position themselves on the question of pluralism. That we all live in a religiously differentiated society is a given. But is that a good thing in the Muslim perspective? While Muslims struggle to be truly accepted by Christians, Jews, and other groups in America, can they promise the same in return? And if so, at what level?
Muslim-American Women in the United States: What is Considered Muslim Enough?
Islamic communities within the United States are perceived as one and the same. Since the events of 9/11, comparative studies emphasize Muslim identified individuals as members of an “emerging collective identity” (Sirin et al., 2008, p. 261). However, identifying Muslims as members of a collective group ignores diversity within the Islamic religion. In light of the literature (Jeldtoft, 2011; Jensen, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007; Sirin et al,. 2008), institutionalized religious practices (e.g., wearing the Hijab for women and religious beard or hats for men) are viewed by non-Muslims as universal markers of a Muslim religious identity. Moreover, there are gender differences within the Islamic religion making orthodox women more identifiable by out-group or non-Muslims, via their choice to wear the Hijab (to cover their heads). The majority of research rooted in discriminatory attitudes towards women perceived, based on the Hijab, to be Muslim in the United States, focuses on an out-group (non-Muslim identifying) perspective (Elashi, Mills, & Grant, 2010; Jeldtoft, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007; Sirin et al., 2008). Out-group discrimination of Muslim women underscores a collective identity assuming homogeneity within the Islamic religion. There is a dearth of research focusing on how Muslim women in the United States define their faith within their own community, and how discrimination occurs within-group (Elashi et al., 2010). Viewing discrimination solely from an out-group perspective, neglects the range of subjective interpretations of being ‘Muslim enough’ in American Islamic communities. To address the literature gap, the present review will examine how female Muslim identity is constructed in the United States.
Muslim-American women face the challenge of reconciling different aspects of their identities. It is important to recognize categories of one’s identity (i.e., gender or race) are not mutually exclusive, and intersectionality underscores that multidimensional nature of identity (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991). Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) coined the term intersectionality to encompass how the interplay between one’s race and gender changes one’s experience. Therefore, Understanding a Muslim-American woman’s identity, involves understanding the intersection of her gender, religion, and in most cases her race. Sirin and Fine (2007) discuss how a “hyphenated self” (p.152), can be used to understand how one’s identity can be “at once joined, and separated, by history, the present socio-political climate,” (p.152) etc., especially during global conflict. Muslim-American women’s identities therefore have become hyphenated in the aftermath of 9/11 in the United States. How much a Muslim woman chooses to identify with her faith is subjective. However, perceptions of Muslim women differ depending on how visibly religious they appear by both in-group and out-group members.
American Muslim Women Explain Why They Do — Or Don’t — Cover
For Muslim women, a headscarf — or hijab — is a visible sign of their faith and identity, and whether to wear one is a big decision. The recent decision by a Christian college professor to don a headscarf out of solidarity with her Muslim sisters highlighted the hijab question, at least for non-Muslims. For Muslim women themselves, especially in the United States, it was an old story.
“Before I wore hijab, making friends with people who weren’t Muslim was a lot easier,” says Maryam Adamu, who was born in North Carolina to immigrants from Nigeria. Before she began wearing a headscarf three years ago, people didn’t know she was Muslim — until she told them.
“I, like, Trojan-horsed my Islam,” she says, laughing. “Like, ‘You’re already my friend. I know you like me. Now you know I’m Muslim, and you’re going to learn about this faith.’ ” Once she started wearing a headscarf, she encountered a social obstacle she hadn’t seen before. “Now, I have to work a lot harder to get into people’s lives who aren’t Muslim,” she says.
For some women, that can be a burden. Asma Uddin, born in Miami to Pakistani parents, is devout in her religious beliefs, but she stopped wearing a headscarf when she found it interfering with her work as a lawyer.
“I was tired of being a political spokesperson for my faith,” she says. “I felt that I should be able to put that away, and wearing a headscarf in public doesn’t give you that luxury. I was tired of trying to prove that Muslim women in headscarves are also empowered, [by saying] ‘Look at me. I’m working in a white-shoe law firm with a headscarf on.’ Uddin is a now a staff attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Wholly American, Wholly Muslim
All across this country—and the world, in fact—there are numerous people who seek to define Islam and Muslims in a specific and (frequently) negative manner. Islamophobes have, in fact, staked their careers on this task. There are also criminals, so-called Muslims, acting in the name of Islam in such a wrong way that provides a “definition” of the religion wholly inconsistent with its principles. The actions of these criminals are just that: criminal and twisted and do not reflect the truth. Islamophobes claim that these deviants are, in fact, only representing the truth, and any claim to the contrary is a “lie.”
Hence the importance of Muslim voices owning their faith. These voices define Islam; they represent the truth. This is why the “I Speak For Myself” series is so important. Starting with the first book, I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (White Cloud Press, 2011), American Muslim women got the chance to tell the world their story, in their own words. Now, it is the brothers’ turn with All American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim, edited by Wajahat Ali (a Patheos contributor and former blogger) and Zahra T. Suratwala.
Islamic Sharia and Jewish Halakha Arbitration Courts
by Sheila Musaji
We have been slowly working to put online all of the articles from the print issues of The American Muslim published between 1989 and 1995. Recently, one such article Native American Courts: Precedent for an Islamic arbitral system by Issa Smith which was originally published in our 1993 print edition went online.
This was quickly noticed by Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, and his posting about the article provoked a number of Islamophobic postings on his site.
Last years dispute over establishing Sharia arbitration courts for family law in Canada prompted so much controversy, and ultimately led to the banning of all faith based arbitration in Canada, and this years hysteria over a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury – it comes as no surprise that there is such strong feeling about what seems like a non-issue.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech was certainly not treason, craven, bonkers, a reason to “sack” him, or as Christopher Hitchens has said, a reason to say “To Hell With the Archbishop of Canterbury”. The Archbishop certainly wasn’t saying as John Gibson suggested on Fox News: “What the archbishop was proposing — in effect — was the unfairness of Sharia law toward women be institutionalized for Muslim women under British law.” And, the Archbishop is not as Robert Spencer called him, the “Archdhimmi” of Canterbury.
As an American Muslim I would be opposed to any suggestion that Sharia replace our American legal system for American Muslims or any other Americans, and I would be the first to fight any such possibility.
Anti-Islamic Resolution Undermines Secular Society
by Ussama Makdisi
Islamophobia has reached America. In Austin today, a resolution by members of the Texas State Board of Education to rectify “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias” in “past Texas Social Studies textbooks” is being put to a vote.
The board determines Texas public school curriculum standards for well over 4 million public school children. There is nothing wrong with honest debate, but there is something wrong with xenophobia, fear-mongering and patently obvious distortions of basic historical truths in the name of education and objectivity. The resolution egregiously takes different quotations out of context from different textbooks and strings them together to create the misleading impression of a pro-Muslim narrative. Above all, there is the appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment by claiming that Middle Easterners desire to “buy into [sic] the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly.” As absurd as this allegation is in fact, it nevertheless evokes the conspiratorial idea that foreigners are attempting to brainwash unsuspecting Americans. Substitute the word “Jews” or “Reds” for “Middle Easterners” and you get the idea. The same Texas State Board of Education voted earlier this year to introduce major changes to the social studies curriculum in line with the prejudices of its extremist members: McCarthyism was effectively whitewashed, and the secular democratic basis of the United States was downplayed in favor of a “Judeo-Christian” view of America. Moreover, teachers were instructed not to teach a balanced view of the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians were the only national group associated with “terrorism” and Islam was the only religion associated with “fundamentalism.” Needless to say, it is not Texas educators who are the forefront of this radical revisionism; it is demagogic individuals who are blatantly politicizing education and exploiting a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry and ignorance that is sweeping across America.
Early American Mosques
The majority of Muslims in America, like most other Americans, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. In the late 19th century, Muslims began immigrating to the United States. The first immigrant Muslims came from Syria-Lebanon to the East Coast as early as the 1870s, later to be followed by European Muslims; Muslims from the Indian subcontinent came to the West Coast in the early 1900s.
The “Syrian” immigrants, from what is today Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, were often single men, attracted by economic opportunity. Many worked as peddlers, especially in the mid-west. Gradually, Muslims began settling in industrial areas such as Fall River, Massachusetts, Chicago, Illinois, Toledo, Ohio, and Dearborn, Michigan. As early as 1901, many South Asian Muslim immigrants started coming to the U.S. from what is today India and Pakistan. They traveled by ship from India, entered through the port of Vancouver, Canada, and migrated south to California for better farming opportunities. Bosnian Muslims, entering through eastern ports, migrated to Chicago beginning in 1906. By the 1920s, American Muslims were widely diverse and dispersed throughout the United States, with South Asians, Albanians, Turks, Bosnians, as well as people from Syria-Lebanon, scattered in small communities throughout the U.S.
Many early Muslim communities did not have enough funds or people to establish a mosque; they met in private homes, renting out halls for holidays, and founded social organizations which were intended to preserve both their ethnic and religious heritage. The first documented communal prayer of Muslims in America was in Ross, North Dakota, in 1900. By the 1920s, small communities across the United States were gathering for prayers and forming the first Islamic Associations. One of the first groups formed was a Muslim charitable organization, the Red Crescent Society in Detroit. Other early associations of Muslims included South Asians in Sacramento, Bosnians in Chicago, Turko-Tatars in New York, and small immigrant communities from Syria-Lebanon in Detroit, Michigan, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With the First World War, the Immigration Act of 1924, and the Great Depression, Muslim immigration began to slow. While there was a brief upsurge in immigration between the two World Wars, racially biased immigration laws severely restricted the growth of many early Muslim communities.
Towards a Younger, Hipper Islam
When talking to those of my generation and younger from the Muslim American community, an oft-mentioned challenge is a disconnect from the Islam one knows and believes in and the messaging received in places of worship.
This seems to be changing tremendously here in the U.S. due to one simple thing: time.
The practice of Islam in America is practically as old as the country itself, however the institutionalization of it – in the form of community centers, places of worship and even organizations based on Islamic principles – is really only several decades young.
In what can best be described as generational evolution, young American Muslims born and raised in the U.S. (unlike many of their immigrant parents) are searching for ways to bridge cultures they love equally: that of country and faith.
Those bridges are being found in the human capital of the generation itself, through men and women whose first language is English, who watch “Avatar” and “Lost” and study Quran, and who believe that vice and virtue can be explained in rap music, poetry or even through examples in the storyboards of Hollywood films. Many believe that these new “bridges” are the Muslim community’s best hope for combating extremism.
New Boundaries: Evangelicals and Islam After 9/11
by Richard Cimino
Throughout 2002 and early 2003, evangelical Protestant leaders had shown themselves to be the most caustic critics of Islam in the U.S. In separate instances and within a few months, evangelist Franklin Graham called Islam a “very wicked and evil religion,” while Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell criticized Islam and its founder as being violent and sympathetic to terrorism.
Muslims and the Destiny of America
by Eboo Patel
(from The Washington Post)
Most Muslim events are held in anonymous rooms in suburban hotels, silently sending the message that American Muslims ought not concern themselves with the great issues of our time and place. Much of the talk is about the old days in other places – Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, the Palestinian territories. Most of the talkers are aging men with long beards (“uncles”, we call them), first generation immigrants who tell long stories about pure places far away. Their identities were formed in those settings. Their memories of other times on distant shores are sweet.
And who can blame them? Every immigrant community – Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, Poles, Russians, Indians – knows this story. Who hasn’t heard granddad’s tales of the homeland?