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Islam in America

The section courtesy of Dina Malki

Grocery stores with “Halal meat” signs up, Middle Eastern restaurants with delicious menus like Hummus dip, street signs most Americans can’t read because they are in Urdu, Persian or Arabic, overcrowded alleys packed with cars Friday afternoons in the vicinity of a mosque or Islamic center, women wearing traditional caftans with matching headscarves, and multilingual chit chats are all but a few things you notice when you first walk down the streets of Dearborn, Michigan. The same scene is common on a smaller scale all over American cities where Islam, a monolithic faith based on the tradition of Abraham, is widely dispersed. Since the early colonial times, Muslims have been part of the American culture and continue to contribute to its diversity in every aspect of the American life. A culturally, ethnically, and socially diverse group, Muslims have also generated diverse viewpoints from the American public.

History: “Prince Among Slaves,” a PBS production, documents the early Muslims who lived on American soil through the story of the Muslim African Prince AbdulRahman ibn Sori, enslaved and brought to America in 1788. Indeed, records show that between ten and twenty percent of slaves brought into America since the 1520s were Muslim. For those who retained their faith, their masters sometimes provided them with a place to conduct their communal prayers. Some left a heritage of literature in Arabic and English, like commentaries on the Quran. For example, Omar ibn Said, also known as “Uncle Moro,” was a Muslim scholar and trader from Western Africa who was enslaved in 1807 and brought to Charleston, S.C.; he wrote in Arabic the only American slave narrative.

Alexander Russell Webb was the first significant Anglo-American convert into Islam. Otherwise known as the Yankee Mohammaden, the Victorian consul to the Philippines converted to Islam in the 1880’s and became the spokesman of Islam to the USA at Chicago’s World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

From the 1840s to the 1920s, the first small-scale influx of Muslim immigrants from Arabic and Turkish cities landed in America. Then the post World War II era sent a few more, but the third and biggest influx started in the 1960s. The 1965 congress laws of immigration opened the door to more than one hundred thousand Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Muslim immigrants. Eventually, The Muslim population steadily grew due to high fertility rates and several conversions.

Meanwhile, the Nation of Islam was a Black Muslim movement that appeared in the 1930’s. It remained a small-scale group until Malcolm X brought its membership up to 25,000 in 1963. However, Malcolm and many others like Mohammad Ali, the legendary boxer, soon left the movement and adopted mainstream Islam. Over the next decades, the Nation of Islam adopted a Sunni orthodox mainstream Islam, but a number of its old followers dissented and kept the old school.

Demographics: Islam today is the world’s and America’s fastest growing religion. According to the 2009 American religious identification survey, Muslims count for 0.6 percent of the American population. Yet, other statistics show that up to seven million Muslims live in America. Even though they live all over the United States, they are concentrated in four major areas: First, the New York/Boston/Washington area; second, California; third, the Chicago/Cleveland/Detroit Midwest area; and last, Texas cities like Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Muslims are diverse in their ethnicities, religious practices and beliefs, as well as cultures. Their ethnic backgrounds are mostly South Asian, Arab, and African-American, yet many come from Iranian, Turkish, white, Latino and Native American origins. They are highly educated professionals. In fact, they are more educated and affluent than the national average. According to a 2003 report, half of American Muslims earn more than $50,000 a year, and almost sixty percent have a Bachelor’s degree or higher (the national average is 44 percent.) They are mostly professionals like engineers, doctors and computer professionals among other professions. They are also a young population: forty-seven percent are ages between 35 and 54.

Politically speaking, a recent shift in the American Muslim ideology reflects a more positive attitude and mentality towards participating in elections and lobbying. Forty percent of American Muslims say they are democrats, while twenty-three percent say they are republicans, and the rest see themselves as independent. Eight in ten Muslims in America are registered voters according to a 2003 report. Their voting patterns and interests are around education and civil liberties.

Muslims in general favor government solutions to issues like healthcare and poverty, but are more conservative on issues like same-sex marriages and abortion. They support social service programs by both donating monetary contributions and volunteering. A majority of them believe in multi-faith dialogue with Jews and Christians based on common values, see that the terrorist attacks actually harm American Muslims, and emphasize that they worship the same God as Christians and Jews.

Studies show that forty-two percent of Muslims say they volunteer for social service to the public. The national average was twenty- nine in 2005. Doctors who offer free clinics, organizations who support shelters and carry out food drives, MAS organizations that do charity work for the whole American community are examples of the many social activities Muslims are engaged in.

The Muslim American hall of fame includes many popular and revered figures from every trade like NBA stars Karim Abduljabbar and Hakeem Olajuon, congressmen Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, journalists Farid Zakaria of Newsweek and Michael Wolfe, and many more.

Muslims proclaim the oneness of God and follow the teachings of Mohammad, who they believe to be the seal of the prophets. The five daily prayers inscribed on Muslims are held in mosques that also serve as community centers. Today, there are about 2000 mosques, Islamic schools and centers in the USA. Most of them have been built in the 1980s. Even though all Muslims are required to adhere to certain religious pillars, Muslims are religiously diverse. Almost one third of them attend mosque prayers on a weekly basis and another third seldom pays the centers a visit. Diversity also reflects in the attire. Muslim men and women are required to dress modestly: women cover their heads and bodies and men often grow beards. Yet, many others dress up liberally and lead liberal lifestyles. In between, there is a group of Muslims who practice some aspects of Islam but not others.

As diverse American Muslims are, the American public’s viewpoint of Muslims is even more diverse. The events of 9/11 raised a controversy about Islam, one so intense that it put all Muslims under the spotlight, alienated them, and polarized the American public. Statistics show that one in two Americans has unfavorable opinions about Islam and Muslims. There is a national trend of lumping Muslims all together under a violent stereotype. Yet, Muslims globally and nationally have an emerging voice defending their cause and faith against Western bashers and Muslim extremists. When Mohammad Ali, for example, visited ground zero in the aftermath of 9/11, he declared: “I’ve been a Muslim for 20 years… People recognize me for being a boxer and a man of truth. I wouldn’t be here representing Islam if it were terrorist… Islam is peace.”

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