When students think of Islamif they do at allthey might summon an image of Denzel
Washington playing a stern and passionate Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 film, or maybe they
imagine Louis Farrakhan on the speaker's platform at the Million Man March in 1995. Some
might have encountered Middle Eastern Muslims on the nightly news, mostly as
"fundamentalists" and "terrorists." A few have met immigrant Muslims in their neighborhood.
Muslim students might be among their classmates. But Muslims are more diverse than popular
images allow, and American Muslim history is longer than most might think, extending back to
the day that the first slave ship landed on Virginia's coast in 1619. It encorporates two
groupsMuslims from other countries who migrated to America by force or by choice, and
African Americans who created Muslim sects in the twentieth century. Thus, a consideration of
the Islamic presence in America provides a new perspective on several important (and familiar)
issues that will be used to organize this essay:
- What is the history of slavery in the United
- How have immigrants resisted and accommodated American culture?
- What were
African Americans' experiences in the northern cities after the Great Migration?
- How has African-American Islam addressed race relations since the 1960s?
- Is America a Christian nation?
At first, you will need to introduce Islam to your students, and a helpful way to do this is
to invite their responses to the word "Muslim." What comes to mind when they hear the word?
Write their responses on the board without comment, and then use the list to establish the
dominant images of Muslimsfor example, as militants, extremists, newcomers. Then you can
begin to contest these impressions and establish that Islam is a diverse and long-standing
American religionone that has had a significant presence in the United States.
At this point you will need to introduce the basic beliefs and practices of the world's one
billion Muslims, most of whom live in Asia, not in the Middle East as most Americans presume.
As in Christianity and Judaism, Islam (which is second only to Christianity in worldwide
adherents) includes a number of communities or branches. The two major groups are Sunni
Muslims, who constitute about 85 percent of Muslims, and Shii (or Shiite) Muslims, who
account for 15 percent of the world's Islamic population. All traditional groups are represented
among the five million Muslims in the United States, along with some new movements that have
been cultivated on American soil.
Despite their diversity, Muslims have a good deal in common. They look to the
Qu'ran the sacred book that records the message of Allah [God] as it was revealed to his final
prophet, Muhammed (A.D. ca. 570-632), and they seek to follow the example (sunna) of the prophet. All accept the Five Pillars of Islam, the basic beliefs and duties of Muslims:
Muslims in prayer, Long Island, New York
Courtesy Islamic Center of Long Island
- A profession of faith (shahada). All Muslims must proclaim "There is no God but
Allah and Muhammed is his prophet." Note here that Muhammed is not God in Muslim
theology but rather a spokesperson or mouthpiece for the divine.
- Prayer (salat). All Muslims pray five times daily while facing the holy city of Mecca in
- Alms (zakat). Faith also means outreach. To give thanks and follow the example of
Muhammed, Muslims with the economic means must give alms to those who are less
- Fasting (sawm or siyam). Muslims who are physically able are to fast from dawn to
dusk during the ninth month (Ramadan) of the Islamic calendar.
- A pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. At least once in their lives, all Muslims who are able
must make a pilgrimage to the Great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, toward which
they have knelt while praying five times daily during their lives. (Chapter seventeen
of The Autobiography of Malcolm X offers a vivid account of this pilgrimage, which
was life-transforming for him. It was on hajj, he recounts, that he first glimpsed the
possibility that people of different races could get along.)
Slavery and Islam
A small but significant proportion of African slaves, some estimate 10 percent, were Muslim.
You might tell the story of Omar Ibn Said (also "Sayyid," ca. 1770-1864), who was born in
Western Africa in the Muslim state of Futa Toro (on the south bank of the Senegal River in
present-day Senegal). He was a Muslim scholar and trader who, for reasons historians have not
uncovered, found himself captive and enslaved. After a six-week voyage, Omar arrived in
Charleston, South Carolina, in about 1807. About four years later, he was sold to James Owen
of North Carolina's Cape Fear region. In 1819 a white Protestant North Carolinian wrote to
Francis Scott Key, the composer of The Star Spangled Banner, to request an Arabic translation
of the Bible for Omar, and apparently Key sent one. Historians dispute how much the African
Muslim leaned toward Christianity in his final years, but Omar's notations on the Arabic bible,
which offer praise to Allah, suggest that he retained much of his Muslim identity, as did some
other first-generation slaves whose names have been lost to us. (Omar's Arabic bible, which has
recently been restored, is housed in the library of Davidson College in North Carolina.)
Muslims and Immigration, 1878-1924
Most history courses cover the immigrants who changed America's population throughout the
nineteenth century. You might point out these immigrants were not all European or Christian.
Many were Chinese and Japanese migrants who practiced Buddhism and other Asian traditions.
Thousands of Muslims came as well, and most of these first Islamic immigrants were Arabs
from what was then Greater Syria. These Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese migrants were poorly
educated laborers who came seeking greater economic stability. Many returned, disenchanted,
to their homeland. Those who stayed suffered isolation, although some managed to establish
Islamic communities, often in unlikely places. By 1920, Arab immigrants worshiped in a rented
hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and they built a mosque of their own fifteen years later. Lebanese-Syrian communities did the same in Ross, North Dakota, and later in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and
Michigan City, Indiana. Islam had come to America's heartland.
The first wave of Muslim immigration ended in 1924, when the Asian Exclusion Act and
the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act allowed only a trickle of "Asians," as Arabs were designated,
to enter the nation.
African-American Islam in the Urban North
A Euro-American, Mohammed Alexander Webb (1847-1916), proclaimed himself a Muslim at
the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, but converts have been more prominent
among Americans of African descent, especially those who followed the mass migrations of
southern blacks to northern cities beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century. Noble
Drew Ali established a Black nationalist Islamic community, the Moorish Science Temple, in
Newark, New Jersey in 1913. After his death in 1929, one of the movement's factions found
itself drawn to the mysterious Wallace D. Fard, who appeared in Detroit in 1930 preaching black
nationalism and Islamic faith. Fard founded the Nation of Islam there in the same year. After
Fard's unexplained disappearance in 1934, Elijah Muhammed (1897-1975) took over, and he
attracted disenchanted and poor African Americans from the urban north. They converted for a
variety of reasons, but, for some, the poverty and racism in those cities made the Nation of
Islam's message about "white devils" (and "black superiority") plausible.
Race Relations since the 1960s
Elijah Muhammed won an important convert when Malcolm Little (1925-1965) joined the faith
in a prison cell. Malcolm X, the name he took to signal his lost African heritage, became a
public figure during the 1960s, although he separated himself from the Nation of Islam before
his death. After Elijah Muhammed's death in 1975, the movement split. One branch, under the
leadership of the fifth son of Elijah Muhammed, moved closer to the beliefs and practices of
Islam as it is practiced in most of the world. This group, which would later change its name to
the American Muslim Mission, is the largest African-American Islamic movement. The much
smaller Nation of Islam, which the American Muslim Mission and other Islamic groups
condemn as racist and unorthodox, is much more familiar to most Americans. Many American
Muslims would claim that the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, is not representative of
either immigrant or convert Islam in the United States.
As you teach the Nation of Islam, you might ask students what the history of African-American Islam since the Great Migration tells us about race relations. Why were Malcolm X
and others in northern cities so willing to believe that European Americans were "white devils"?
In what sense, you might ask, is the Nation of Islam's sacred story about the origin of whites as
the mistake of a black scientist a "truthful" representation of many African Americans'
Muslims and the New Immigrants after 1965
If you are able to reach the post-1965 period in your class, you might reintroduce Muslims in a
discussion of demographic changes in contemporary America. Palestinian refugees arrived after
the creation of Israel in 1948. More important for the history of American Islam, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 relaxed the quota system established in 1924, thereby allowing greater
Muslim immigration. The gates opened even more widely after the 1965 revisions of the
immigration law. Since then, Muslim migrants have fled oppressive regimes in Egypt, Iraq, and
Syria; and South Asian Muslims, as from Pakistan, have sought economic opportunity. By the 1990s, Muslims had established more than six hundred mosques and centers across the United States.
Islamic Cultural Center of New York
Islamic Center of West Virginia|
|Islamic Center of Long Island|
Courtesy Muslimsonline.com, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York,|
and the Islamic Assn. of West Virginia
Is America a Christian Nation?
Toward the end of your discussion of Islam in America, you might raise this final issue
concerning religion and national identity. Islam may soon be the second largest American faith
after Christianity, if it is not already. Estimates vary widely, and a moderate estimate is five
million American Muslims in 1997more than Episcopalians, Quakers, and Disciples of Christ.
When recounting this to students, and recalling the history of Islamic slaves and the early
debates about the First Amendment, you might ask students whether America is a Christian
nation as some have proclaimed. Could we, you might ask to focus the discussion, elect a
Muslim president? If so, would she (while we are imagining, let's get bold!) view this land as a
New Israel or take her presidential oath on a Christian Bible, as has been traditional?
Thomas A. Tweed holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and is currently the Zachary Smith Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Tweed is the author of Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (Oxford University Press, 1997)
and the editor of Retelling U.S. Religious History (California University Press, 1997). He most recently co-edited, with Stephen Prothero, Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (Oxford University Press, 1999).
comments or questions to Professor Tweed through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."