Islam in United States : Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Edited from
Encyclopedia of Religion
Second Edition
by Lindsay Jones (Editor)

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, Albanians, 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 Ahmadiyah 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 frugality— a 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 Ahmadiyah, which has its origins in South Asia. Ahmadi 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 Qur'ans, English study materials, biographies of the prophet Muhammad, 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 Ahmadi 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 Mamluk 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 Sunni Muslim group in the United States. Here, as with the Ahmadiyah movement, the Qur'an, biographies of Prophet Muhammad, and accounts of Islamic history formed the central texts. Unlike Ahmadiyah 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 Sunni 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 letter—in his case from Jordan, in 1925— authorizing 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 Qur'ans and other Islamic literature published by the Ahmadiyah, 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 Sunni congregation, was originally affiliated with the Ahmadiyah movement, but, armed with knowledge of the Qur'an and Arabic, they began to challenge the core tenets of the Ahmadi Mission and its focus on its founder as a prophet. After ten years of fund-raising, this black community bought out the Ahmadi and moved fully into Sunni 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 Qur'an 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 Ramadan (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 Sunni 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 protest— white 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 voices—Malcolm 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 Islam—including the right to have halal meat, Qur'ans, 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 communities—the Moorish Science Temple, the Ahmadiyah, and the Nation of Islam—all 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 Sunni 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 imams 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 Sunni Muslim, but there are also Shia, Sufi, and Ismaili communities. Researchers report that Shia and Ismaili 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 Sunni 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, taying 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 Sunni or Shia, most immigrants marry endogamously, maintain traditional customs at home, and predominately speak Arabic, Urdu, or their mother tongue. Sufi orders have increased their numbers in the last two decades. Some are Sunni, others Shia. 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 call-ing 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.”


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