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A brief history of Islam in America

Islam’s roots in America go back to the Founding Fathers.

Muslims pray during the "Islam on Capitol Hill 2009" event at the West Front Lawn of the US Capitol September 25, 2009, in Washington, DC.
Muslims pray during the "Islam on Capitol Hill 2009" event at the West Front Lawn of the US Capitol September 25, 2009, in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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.

In 1788, at a state convention in North Carolina on whether to ratify the newly forged federal Constitution, those who opposed ratification warned that Article VI of the Constitution allowed for the possibility that one day, "in the course of four or five hundred years," a Muslim could become president of the United States. Article VI states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Of course, the Constitution was eventually ratified, and that clause stayed in. The Ben Carsons of America's founding era lost the debate.

There is even a bas-relief statue of the Prophet Mohammed on the north wall of US Supreme Court that, while constructed in 1935, deliberately harks back to much earlier roots. As noted by scholar Timothy Marr in his book The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, the "larger-than-life representation of the Prophet Muhammad" is situated "between Charlemagne and Justinian as one of eighteen great law givers of history."

Frieze depicting Mohammed in the United States Supreme Court.
Franz Jantzen/public domain

The first communities of Muslim Americans were slaves

In the early years of America's founding, the vast majority of Muslims weren't citizens but slaves. Scholar Richard Brent Turner explains that researchers disagree over the number of Muslim slaves that were brought to the Americas, and estimates range from 40,000 (in just the US) all the way to 3 million across North and South America and the Caribbean.

Many Muslim slaves were educated and literate in Arabic, Turner writes, and they "often occupied leadership roles in the jobs that slaves performed on plantations in the American South. ... Their names, dress, rituals, and dietary laws were perceived as powerful significations of Islamic identities in the slave community."

Historian Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, whose book A History of Islam in America is one of the most comprehensive on the subject, states, "Muslims in colonial and antebellum America came from a variety of ethnic, educational, and economic backgrounds. In America, their experiences varied depending on when, where, and how they were transported to these shores."

Similarly, writes GhaneaBassiri, "there was no singular interpretation nor practice of Islam. In some instances, Islamic beliefs and practices were means of self-identification that distinguished, and at times even isolated, African Muslims from other enslaved Africans or white Americans."

But although many African Muslim slaves tried to maintain their Islamic identities and traditions once they came to America, they also needed to adapt to their new environment and form new communities. And this ultimately led almost all of them to convert to Christianity.

GhaneaBassiri writes:

Conversion to Christianity was arguably the most widespread method by which African Muslims reconfigured their religious practices and beliefs to adapt to their new context and to form new communal relations. While we do not know exactly when and how (or even whether) the open practice of Islam completely ceased in nineteenth-century United States, it is clear from our sources that the American-born children of African Muslims did not practice Islam nor did they self-identify as Muslims.

Thus, despite the massive influx of Muslims from the Atlantic slave trade, by the end of the 19th century Islam had all but disappeared among these communities.

The first mosque and the first Muslim immigration after slavery

At the same time that Islam was fading among communities of slaves and former slaves, millions of immigrants began arriving on America's shores toward the end of the 19th and especially the early 20th centuries. They included tens of thousands from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. They were spurred in part by the Industrial Revolution that erupted once America finally emerged from the ashes of the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

America’s first mosque was built in Chicago, according to historian Sally Howell, in 1893 as part of the "Street in Cairo" attraction at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. It was meant to be a "close replica of the Mosque of Sultan Qayt Bey in Cairo," she says, and to "display Islam for American audiences."

C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham (Project Gutenberg/public domain)

The scene at the Chicago "Cairo street" mosque provides a glimpse of the Islamic experience in America in the 1890s — both among Chicago's Muslims and as a sort of exoticized curiosity for non-Muslims. Here is Howell's description:

The Muslim workers and performers at the exhibition, including a trained imam, were encouraged to remain in their "native costumes" by the fair’s organizers. But it was on their own initiative, and to the apparent delight of the public, that when the adhan (call to prayer) was made from the mosque’s minaret five times a day, the visiting Muslims would duly gather inside and perform their obligations. At the exhibition’s close, the mosque was torn down, and the staff and the performers at the "Cairo Street" exhibit, who had been imported to the United States as objects of spectacle, returned to their more prosaic lives in Egypt, Morocco, and Palestine, where the ritual of prayer would draw little comment.

The second mosque built in the United States wouldn't show up for several more decades: It was located in Highland Park, Michigan, and was completed in 1921. Howell describes it well:

Built by Muslim migrants for use as a place of worship, this mosque, like the one on "Cairo Street," was intended to represent Islam to American observers, but the Muslims of Highland Park hoped to create a very different impression of their faith. The Islam to be practiced in the Moslem Mosque of Highland Park would not be exotic, foreign, or a thing of spectacle. It would be an American faith tradition not unlike those found in nearby churches and synagogues. It would attract worshipers who were American citizens.

Islam grows in early-1900s America — and not just through migration

The early 20th century saw Muslim immigrant communities in America beginning to establish small, local community organizations across the country.

At the same time, Howell writes, African Americans also "began to embrace Islam in the 1920s and 30s partially in response to the radical dislocations and racism they experienced prior to and during the Great Migration (the movement of disenfranchised southerners to industrial regions in the North)."

Several of these African-American Muslim associations would go on to have significant impact on the face of Islam in America by promoting the idea of Islam as a lost part of black African heritage. Howell writes:

For many, it was Marcus Garvey’s Negro World, the newspaper the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) established in New York in 1914, that first popularized the link between Pan-Africanism and Islam. By 1920 the UNIA had more than 100,000 members and 800 chapters worldwide.

Other organizations created during this period — such as the Moorish Science Temple of America, established in the mid-1920s by Noble Drew Ali, and the Nation of Islam, established by W.D. Fard in 1930 —helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of Islam as an influential part of the Black Power movement and the broader civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

In 1924, the US Congress passed the National Origins Act, which "restricted immigration from Asia and other Muslim-sending regions and thus stemmed the flow of new Muslim arrivals."

But as the 20th century progressed, Muslim immigrants who had already arrived on America's shores, as well as the African Americans who had connected with the religion (or, in perhaps some cases, reconnected with long-lost Muslim roots), began playing a much more active role in American politics and society.

Islam's role in the civil rights era and in black nationalism

Many Americans know the story of how the shared experiences of World War II helped lead African Americans to demand equal rights that recognized their role in defending the country during the war. It turns out a similar phenomenon happened with Muslim Americans as well — and the two communities, at this point in American history, overlapped considerably.

Today, we rightly remember and commemorate the role of Christian leaders, most famously Martin Luther King Jr., in the civil rights struggle. But Islam played a role as well.

According to sociologist Craig Considine, "As they had done during the Civil War, Muslim Americans fought and died in World War II and Vietnam. Over 15,000 Arab Americans, some of whom were Muslim, fought for the U.S. in North Africa, Europe and Asia during the second World War."

"World War II significantly altered America’s national identity," GhaneaBassiri, the historian, writes. "Americans of varying ethnicities, religions, and gender united to fight a devastating war under the banner of liberty." He goes on to explain how this led Islam to play a growing role in civil rights and black nationalist movements:

Within African American Muslim communities, the chasm between the realities of discrimination and the democratic ideals through which America self-identified after World War II was a powerful example not only of hypocrisy but also of the fact that nearly a century after the Civil War, black Americans still remained outside America’s national narrative. In this context, black nationalist Muslim movements’ critique of Christianity as a "white man’s religion" and their appropriation of Islam as the national religion of African America proved very appealing. It attracted numerous converts and ensconced Islam in black America as a religion of liberation. During the Civil Rights Movement, it Islamicized a significant segment of African America.

But this history is a controversial one. Although many Americans came to associate Islam with black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam, represented by the charismatic civil rights leader Malcolm X, and by the Five Percent Nation (also known as the "Five Percenters"), the reality is that the religious beliefs, rituals, and practices of these groups were far outside the mainstream of Islam.

Indeed, most Muslims do not view adherents of the Nation of Islam and similar movements to actually be Muslims, as many of their beliefs are contrary or even downright blasphemous to many of the core tenets of Islam.

The idea of the superiority of one race over another — a central theme of some hard-line black nationalist Muslim movements — is viewed by mainstream Muslims as contrary to the teachings of Islam. Malcolm X himself would come to reject the beliefs of the Nation of Islam. After a trip to North Africa and the Middle East in 1964, which included a pilgrimage to Mecca, the man who for millions of Americans represented the face of black nationalist Islam converted to mainstream Sunni Islam and changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.

Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin on March 26, 1964.

He was assassinated shortly after.

Despite Malcolm X's change of heart, the Nation of Islam continued to be an important force in the landscape of American Islam for decades to come. Under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, who still leads the group to this day, the Nation of Islam moved closer to mainstream Islam, but it is still seen by most Muslims as separate from Islam.

Muslim immigration grew significantly after 1965

As a result of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, perhaps more than 1.1 million new Muslims arrived in the United States before the end of the 20th century.

Not all of these immigrants were religious, but their significant educational and cultural capital (a large number were academics, physicians, and engineers) catapulted them into leadership positions among existing and newly established Muslim immigrant groups.

Scholar Zain Abdullah traces their experiences after arriving, which were often colored by events in the Middle East, though many of the migrants were not from the region:

After their arrival in 1965, the treatment of Muslim Americans was shaped largely by a series of geopolitical encounters between the United States and various Muslim nations. In 1967 the Six Day War, a significant event in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, brought negative portrayals of Arabs into the American media and fed into the worst stereotypes about Islam. ...

The 1970s oil embargo against the United States further exacerbated harsh views of Muslims and the Middle East. Long gas lines angered Americans, and Muslims in the United States felt the brunt of their rage. Major news outlets sketched caricatures of Arabs as rich oil "sheiks" bent on world domination.

And things would only get worse. At the end of the decade, the Iranian Revolution and the US hostage crisis would captivate the world and provide yet another instance of "violent" Islam's clash with the West.

1980s and '90s: Hostages and hip-hop

"At the turn of the decade, the [1979] Iranian Revolution and the U.S. hostage crisis deeply upset the American public," writes Abdullah. In 1979, a populist uprising led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the US-backed shah of Iran and led to the creation of a Shia Islamic theocratic regime. Students involved in the revolution captured 52 American hostages and held them for well over a year, releasing them on January 20, 1981.

Nonstop media coverage of the crisis brought the plight of the hostages and the revolutionary religious fervor of their Muslim captors into the homes of millions of Americans. As historian Edward E. Curtis IV notes, "When Iranian students took over the American embassy and kidnapped dozens of embassy personnel, many U.S. citizens also became enraged. Hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, and South Asians rose in the United States."

The other way many Americans encountered Islam in the 1980s and '90s was through hip-hop and rap music, in part a legacy of the black nationalist movements founded during the civil rights era. Andrew Emery writes at the Guardian:

For many music fans of the 80s and 90s, hip-hop was the first, thrilling, exposure to Muslim culture and the religion of Islam. After the early days of breakdancing and braggadocio, it found room for a spiritual and religious element. The range of Muslim rappers spans the obvious – Yasiin Bey (the Artist Formerly Known As Mos Def) — and the superficially unlikely — T-Pain, taking in such luminaries as Nas, Andre 3000, Lupe Fiasco, Ice Cube and Busta Rhymes.

The expression of Muslim belief through hip-hop has frequently been mediated through fringe groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Five-Percent Nation, and the language they use has bled into the rap argot. ... [I]ts deep, important impact on the music and culture is so long-standing and obvious that it no longer needs saying out loud.

Gradually, Islam became to feel a bit more familiar in American life. In 1991 and 1992, convert imam Siraj Wahhaj and Warith Deen Mohammed became the first Muslims to offer prayers before the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively.

September 11, 2001, and the terrible aftermath for American Muslims

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a watershed moment in the history of Islam in America. The largest attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 had been carried out by extremists acting in the name of Islam. It changed the nature of Muslim relations in the United States, and it opened a debate that is rarely acknowledged but is still going over whether Muslim Americans are accepted as equal citizens.

Although Muslim religious leaders and organizations in the United States and around the world immediately denounced the attacks as un-Islamic, many Americans began to fear, distrust, and even hate their Muslim neighbors. The FBI reported a 1,600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crime incidents in 2001:

(US Department of Justice)

For their part, Muslim Americans tried to reassure their fellow Americans that they were as peaceful and patriotic as any other red-blooded American. Curtis writes:

All across the country, mosques and Islamic centers flew the American flag and opened their doors to non-Muslims. Muslims sought to educate their non-Muslim neighbors about Islam and reassure the public about their loyalty to the United States and their love of the American dream. Many Americans visited a mosque for the first time, often attending information sessions on Islam in which Muslim leaders explained that Islam is a peaceful religion that does not condone terrorism.

Patriotic young Muslim girls joined the Muslim Girl Scouts, Curtis writes, earning merit badges for "answering questions about Islamic practices, for teaching non-Muslims about their religion, and for learning Islamic prayers." And, yes, they also sold cookies and wore brown-and-green uniforms, sometimes with the addition of a headscarf.

The 9/11 attacks, as well as the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also bred American interest in Islam and the Middle East, including in academia and government. As college courses, news specials, documentaries, and books proliferated, millions of Americans became educated about the religion, people, traditions, and historical lands of Islam.

Unfortunately, this increased appetite for knowledge about Islam also opened the door for the emergence of the "Islamophobia industry," as it is sometimes known. Individuals with anti-Muslim agendas published books, quasi-academic journals, and articles; established websites, blogs, and nonprofit "research" institutes; and appeared on cable news shows to spread the "truth" about Islam, which they portrayed as violent, sinister, and un-American. Though purporting to be "experts" on Islam, these individuals presented heavily biased and often factually inaccurate information to the public that often veered into outright bigotry and conspiracy theories.

Because 62 percent of Americans do not personally know someone who is Muslim, according to a 2014 Pew poll, many are more susceptible to believing the worst, accepting the hateful, violent vision of Islam presented by these supposed experts. This distorted understanding of Islam took root in many pockets of American society, helping lay the groundwork for the climate of fear and hatred of Muslims that we are seeing today.

The ongoing debates and identity crises among Muslim Americans

American Muslims are a diverse group, and their struggle to define their identities and their place in American society hasn't always been just about rejecting terrorism and violence and finding acceptance among non-Muslims. The same conversations about identity, sexuality, values, and inclusion that the rest of America has been wrestling with for decades have also been taking place within American Muslim communities.

New Muslim subcultures developed, particularly in the mid-2000s, in part because the internet and social media enabled people with similar interests to connect much more easily than they ever had before. Zain Abdullah writes:

Groups like the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU), which operated from 2004 to 2006, and Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) established a presence on the Internet. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Muslim community has likewise become more visible and added their voice to the debate on Islamic authenticity. Its members have challenged the propensity to define Muslim family life in exclusively heterosexual terms. In 1998 the Al-Fatiha Foundation was set up in New York in response to the needs of a LGBT Muslim population.

Michael Muhammad Knight, a white American who converted to Islam at the age of 16 after reading Malcolm X's biography and spent two months at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, studying Islam, wrote a fictional novel called The Taqwacores. The Amazon blurb for the book probably has the best, most concise explanation of the book, which captures one aspect of the search for identity among America's Muslim communities:

A Muslim punk house in Buffalo, New York, inhabited by burqa-wearing riot girls, mohawked Sufis, straightedge Sunnis, Shi’a skinheads, Indonesian skaters, Sudanese rude boys, gay Muslims, drunk Muslims, and feminists. Their living room hosts parties and prayers, with a hole smashed in the wall to indicate the direction of Mecca. Their life together mixes sex, dope, and religion in roughly equal amounts, expressed in devotion to an Islamo-punk subculture, "taqwacore," named for taqwa, an Arabic term for consciousness of the divine.

Originally self-published on photocopiers and spiralbound by hand, The Taqwacores has now come to be read as a manifesto for Muslim punk rockers and a "Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims."

When Knight wrote the book, there was no such thing as "taqwacore." He made it up. But to Knight's surprise, it turned out that the book, and the movie based on the book, spoke to thousands of young Muslims in America and beyond who saw themselves and their Islam reflected in the fictional lives of Knight's characters. Taqwacore became real.

In 2009, filmmakers produced a documentary on the whole phenomenon, called Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, that became an official selection of the 2010 Sundance and SXSW film festivals.


Muslim Americans today

In 2007, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, was sworn in — using Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Quran. But this positive sign of Muslim American integration into the heart of the American political system has been met by some with fear and hate. Rep. Ellison constantly face demands by colleagues and pundits that he prove his loyalty to America. In this way, Ellison's accomplishments as well as the unfair and unequal demands placed on him capture well the place of Muslims in America today.

Just on December 9, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King appeared on MSNBC, declaring: "You won’t get Keith Ellison or Andre Carson in this Congress to renounce Sharia law, let alone somebody that’s just come out of the Middle East that is someone who has been steeped in Islam for a lifetime."

Rep. Carson (D-IN) is the second Muslim American elected to Congress. King's implication is pretty clear: Both of these members of Congress are considered suspect and very likely disloyal because of their religion, and must affirmatively prove their loyalty by denouncing "Sharia."

The US Census does not collect data on religious affiliation, so there are no official statistics on the number of Muslims in the United States. A 2011 survey of Muslim Americans by the Pew Research Center, which was conducted in English as well as Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu, estimated that there were 1.8 million Muslim adults (and 2.75 million Muslims of all ages) in the US. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based advocacy group, puts the number of American Muslims much higher, at an estimated 6 million to 7 million.

Regardless of their true number, our political debate places Muslim Americans at the nexus of some of today's most contentious issues: US foreign policy, national security, terrorism, inclusion, religious liberty, and American identity. The rise of ISIS has triggered a resurgence in the global jihadist movement, and the threat of jihadist terrorism at home has increased. But so too has Islamophobia.

American Muslim women who wear the headscarf for reasons of modesty and religious identity are now having to decide whether they want to continue this practice and risk scorn or perhaps even violence from people who associate Islam with terrorism. Mosques are being vandalized, innocent people are being harmed, and the current frontrunner in the Republican presidential contest has openly and unabashedly called for a total, albeit temporary, ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

Despite their long and rich history as an integral part of American society going all the way back to the founding of our nation, many Muslim Americans in 2017 continue to be treated as unwelcome foreigners. That is not a universal sentiment, to be sure, but neither is it a tiny fringe belief.

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