Feature Islam In America

Learn more about the relationship between Islam and America.

Islam In America

When the first Muslims came to the land that would become the United States is unclear. Many historians claim that the earliest Muslims came from the Senegambian region of Africa in the early 14th century. It is believed they were Moors, expelled from Spain, who made their way to the Caribbean and possibly to the Gulf of Mexico.

When Columbus made his journey to the United States, it is said he took with him a book written by Portuguese Muslims who had navigated their way to the New World in the 12th century.

Others claim there were Muslims, most notably a man named Istafan, who accompanied the Spanish as a guide to the New World in the early 16th century in their conquest of what would become Arizona and New Mexico.

What is clear is the make up of the first real wave of Muslims in the United States: African slaves of whom 10 to 15 percent were said to be Muslims. Maintaining their religion was difficult and many were forcibly converted to Christianity. Any effort to practice Islam, and keep the traditional clothing and names alive had to be done in secret. There was an enclave of African-Americans on the Georgia coast that managed to maintain their faith until the early part of the 20th century.

Between 1878 and 1924, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, particularly from Syria and Lebanon, arrived in large numbers, with many settling in Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and even the Dakotas. Like most other migrants they were seeking greater economic opportunity than in their homeland and often worked as manual laborers. One of the first big employers of Muslims and blacks was the Ford Company—these were often the only people willing to work in the hot, difficult conditions of the factories.

At the same time, the Great Migration of blacks to the North helped encourage the African-American Islam revival and the growth of the African-American Muslim Nationalist Movement that still exists to this day. The hope remains to restore the culture and faith that was destroyed during the era of slavery.

During the 1930s and 40s, Arab immigrants began to establish communities and build mosques. African-American Muslims had already built their own mosques, and by 1952 there was more than 1,000 in North America.

After a 30 years of excluding most immigrants, the United States flung open its doors again in 1952 and an entirely new group of Muslims came from places such as Palestine (many had come in 1948 after the establishment of Israel), Iraq, and Egypt. The 1960s saw waves of South-east Asian Muslims also making their way to America. Muslims also came from Africa, Asia and even Latin America.

The estimated number of Muslims in this country varies, depending on the source. The American Muslim Council claims 5 million, while the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies believes the figure is closer to between 3 to 4 million followers of Islam. The American Religious Identification Study by the City University of New York, completed in 2001 put the number of Muslims at 1, 104,000. 

Over the years, the nation gained public prominence due to famous members like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Today, there are more than 1500 Islamic centers and mosques around the country.

Figures vary, but experts estimate that between four and seven million Americans are Muslim.

Islam is expected to soon be the second largest religion in America. Since the attacks of 9/11, prejudice against Muslims has risen sharply.

Many Muslims have responded by becoming more active in the American political process, striving to educate their neighbors about their religion and history.