Islam in America: A brief overview & some prospects for resurgence

Islam in America: A brief overview & some prospects for resurgence

Opinions abound regarding the condition of Muslim communities in America after the terrorist attacks of September 11th , 2001

Policy Perspectives, Vlm 1, No.1

Opinions abound regarding the condition of Muslim communities in America after the terrorist attacks of September 11th , 2001. But still empirical research is not available on this subject that may tell what really is happening. Some research and analysis of the Muslim community in America on its own self and my personal impressions are here to understand and explain the situation.

Slayman S. Nyang concludes in a short essay on Islam in America that Islam is in the US to stay as the First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; Muslims are part of the religious landscape of America, and Muslims are becoming more American with their own institutions that establish their presence in the American landscape (mosques) and can project their own interests (lobbies.) This was certainly true before September 11, 2001, but American attitude towards Islam have changed since Nyang wrote this in 1999.

Connecticut Civil Liberties Union conference was a source of insight into the situation. The conference was about the possible meanings and outcomes of the new Patriot Act legislation which has been enacted following the attacks in New York. The critics of this legislation have argued that this new legislation effectively neutralizes many of the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the US Constitution, especially for non-US citizens. It would appear that this legislation gives different branches of the government involved in law enforcement much more power which can also be used to oppress Muslims in America. How this new legislation will be used by the government is yet to be seen but we can consider these new developments in legislation along with attitudes expressed in some of the public statements made by some prominent intellectuals and opinion leaders in America already before September 11 and its aftermath.

In 1990 Bernard Lewis gave a lecture to the US Congress wherein he stated that, “there is an Islamic challenge to the West… a clash of civilizations… perhaps irrational but surely historical reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage.” In 1992 a Pentagon report identified “radical Islam” as the only remaining threat against a New World Order. President Bill Clinton’s qualification that “the West did not have problems with Islam, only with its wing of violent extremists seemed to be rebuked by Samuel Huntington in his famous 1996 study, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” In this study he urged the West to unite, maintain global military superiority, and restrict Muslim immigration. For Huntington a multicultural and multi-religious orientation will lead to the end of Western civilization. These intellectuals involved in studies of Islam are clearly portraying Islam as a threat to the West that must be countered and it stands to be seen if these views of Islam will lead the opinions of those in power. We have yet to see if the Patriot Act and any other legal weaponry available to American leaders will be used to oppress the Muslim communities in the United States and curtail growth of Islam or if Muslims in America will rise to the challenges of the present, refuse to merely stagnate and “disappear,” and pursue an Islamic resurgence in America.

Islam in America before the 20th Century
Much of the history of Islam in America has been hidden in obscurity and only very recently has there been real interest in uncovering what has existed of Islam in America. Muslims have been in America for at least five hundred years although early documentation is scant and there is much speculation about the first contacts. I personally know American Indians living in a rural part of West Virginia that claim that the Muslim practice in their family came from Moorish and Turkish contacts hundreds of years ago. These may have come from slaves that escaped Spanish ships or colonies. These same friends and other families call themselves “Melungeons,” claiming ancestry from Muslims who immigrated to America centuries ago. Documentation and evidence is scant but these people maintain a web of intriguing family stories that point toward Muslim ancestors. Apparently there had been larger communities of Muslims in that area but they were subject to severe oppression in the later part of the 1800s and earlier part of the 1900s. Their stories are frightening tales of total intolerance and oppression. Their recent family stories describe the necessity in that area of keeping their Muslim practices and beliefs discretely hidden from non-Muslim neighbors. Apparently, the Muslims in that area that remained discretely hidden were the ones who survived.

Slaves did come in the holds of slave ships to America but their numbers were comparatively low vis-à-vis non-Muslim slaves. The white slave owners for the most part did not tolerate Islamic practice and forced Christianization on the slaves. It seems that this process of Christianization was thoroughgoing enough that Muslim communities did not continue in the mainstream on any large scale. Islam in America continued to exist only in isolated cases. Therefore, Islam in America as it exists today is a 20th century development due to immigration of Muslims and indigenous Muslim movements of recent development.

Some Statistics of Muslims in America
Estimates of how many Muslims there are in America vary between 2 to 9 Million and the discrepancy comes from disagreements on who can be rightly called a Muslim. Many observers lean toward a middle ground. There are 1300+ mosques dotted all over the USA. Nyang mentions more than 1500 mosques in America. 70% of the Muslim population is concentrated in ten states: California, New York, Illinios, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Ohio, and Maryland. Statistics show a voluntary geographic concentration whereby immigrants follow friends and relatives to live and work and thereby be established and 30% of all Muslims in America have gone to the New York, Illinois, and California areas. Amongst non-Afro-Americans the most significant impact has been made by the Sufi orders in North America. Estimates of Anglo converts to Islam vary between 20 thousand to 50 thousand. Muslim expansion is mainly due to immigration to the USA but there is a significant number of converts in the Afro-American community which is perhaps 30-40% of the total number of Muslims in America.

The Different Groups of Muslims in America
Groups of Muslims in America can be separated for the purposes of analysis into two broad categories; immigrant Muslims and indigenous Muslims. The majority of immigrant Muslims come from 60 countries as students or immigrants. A major wave of Muslim immigration came after 1965 when immigration rules for entering the United States were lax.

Immigrant Muslims have established a number of organizations. There are several but the main ones that most people come into contact with are the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The MSA was founded back in 1963, organized by students of North Africa and South Asia who had influences from the Islamic Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islaami. This grew after the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars. In 1975 the MSA had expanded, had moved to a headquarters with a full-time secretariat, and was more than merely a student organization. In the early 1980s the Islamic Society of North America was therefore established, this being a federation of Muslim associations. They have a number of publications and organize conferences and education programs for American Muslims. Shiites split off from this organization in 1979.

Indigenous Muslim Groups
The largest grouping of indigenous North American Muslims are Afro-Americans. Apparently the majority of Afro-American Muslims are Sunni Muslims although there are smaller Shiite groups and other Afro-American Muslim sects. Of the different groups of Afro-American Muslims, not all of whom are mentioned in this paper and not all of whom exist openly, the major ones that we have ample material on for study are the American Muslim Society headed by Warithuddeen Muhammad and the Nation of Islam headed by Louis Farakhan.

Historically, these groups appear to have their main origins in the early part of the 1900s and developing what might be called “black theologies of liberation,” these being often very heterodox from an orthodox Muslim viewpoint. One early group was the Moorish Science Temple which has apparently maintained a very heterodox ideology decades after the death of its main leader in 1929 and its subsequent divisions into smaller chapters which still exist today.

Another group that became much more prominent and influential was the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. This group became large and powerful under Elijah Muhammad’s leadership but also professed very heterodox/unIslamic ideologies. Upon Elijah Muhammad’s death in the mid-1970s, his son Warithuddeen Muhammad began quickly transforming the Nation of Islam into a mainstream Sunni movement and visits to its member mosques shows Sunni Islam being practiced.

One section of this movement headed by Louis Farakhan has rejected this transformation to Sunni Islam and conservatively maintained the heterodox teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Although the Nation of Islam is smaller, it has a widely disseminated voice in the Afro-American community. It should be noted that the Nation of Islam under Lous Farakhan has been growing in economic power and reach of its voice. They managed to organize a “Million Man March,” the largest demonstration in American history, and have been advocating measures that may have led to a decrease in crime in the Afro-American community. The Nation of Islam is currently still a “black power” movement dedicated to the old separatist ideal of a separate nation for black Americans. The two movements, the American Muslim Society and the Nation of Islam have had a tense relationship, the tension perhaps being controlled by a lack of interaction. There have been mutual resentments and Warithuddeen Muhammad has indicated that his followers should have no contact with Farakhan and his movement.

In the late 1980s, Farakhan began redefining the mission of the Nation of Islam, continuing to preach the basic doctrines of the Nation of Islam while stressing some elements of Islamic faith such as prayer and fasting and pursuing ties with Islamic governments in the Middle East. Muslims in America are waiting to see if Farakhan will really bring his movement more into line with orthodox Islam. In 1997, the General Secretary of ISNA, Sayed Muhammad Sayeed, published an open letter in the Islamic Horizons magazine expressing his personal disappointment and that of other Muslims that Farakhan as leader of the Nation of Islam continues to affirm many of the original tenets of Elijah Muhammad.

Imam Warithuddeen Muhammad is increasingly looked up to as a Muslim leader in America and has received honors, praise and recognition. This may be tied in with the fact that he has sharply criticized Farakhan’s path of Black Islam and has pointed out that the Nation of Islam has been advocating racism. Warithuddeen Muhammad rejects any merger of Islam with Black nationalism, maintaining that true Islam is a religion for all people, is universal, not racial. Warithuddeen Muhammad has tried to counter anti-Muslim sentiments by claiming Islam’s compatibility with basic American values. He was the first Muslim invited to offer prayer opening the US Senate in 1992. He has been praised by conventional Muslim leaders for spreading Islam in North America. In 1986 he was elected to the Supreme Council of Masajid of the Muslim World League.


Other Indigenous Muslim Movements
The other groupings of indigenous Muslims that are not Afro-American Muslims are primarily white Americans. The numbers of white Americans who have accepted Islam are still very small. They are perhaps 20-50 thousand in all. There are small numbers of Latino converts in the Latin American community and Native American Muslims. These numbers of “Anglo converts” come from a number of sources. Marriage to immigrant Muslims is one source of these conversions to Islam. Many of the white Americans who accept Islam seem to be passing through some contact with Sufism.

Hermansen gives a good overview of the history and variety of many of the Sufi movements that exist in America. American Sufism has been largely ignored in the past, but this phenomenon of Sufism in America deserves closer attention than it has received in the past from scholars of Islam as this is one way that white Americans are coming into Islam. The phenomenon of Sufism in America presents a way through the cultural activities, translation and publishing work that is happening within and around American Sufism that Americans gain some exposure to Muslim ideas. This leads to an inquiry that did not exist before, often without interference from parties unsympathetic to Islam and their accompanying distortionist perspectives. Despite whatever preexisting thoughts or feelings that Muslims making dawah to white Americans may have about Sufism in their own countries, it can be clearly advantageous for Muslims making dawah to be able to talk intelligently and objectively about Sufism when they meet Americans who have interests in Islamic mysticism. This can be a good starting point with surprising amounts of common ground for friendly discussions about Islam. Where these discussions lead can largely depend on the skill of the worker in dawah but these discussions can lead in the direction of understanding a necessary core foundation in daily Muslim religious practice for any successful tasawwuf that would-be Sufis might be interested in. Of course, understanding daily Muslim religious practices can often best be understood by having contact with friendly members of the local Muslim community personally involved in religious outreach. Hermansen’s article gives a good overview of the history of different Sufi movements in America and this can be helpful for workers of dawah when trying to wisely discern who is the best choice of person to spend time talking to.

Prospects for Future
There appears, as of yet, to be no empirical research on the state of Muslim communities in North America today. There are plenty of opinions but no-one really knows how these Muslim communities are faring. My own opinion of what must be done in Muslim communities begins with and entails much concern given the present situation of ongoing warfare with the Muslim world and publicly voiced suspicions of Islam and Muslims on the part of prominent intellectuals in North America. I was deeply struck by the statements of one of the officers of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union as she publicly stated that history in America is due to repeat itself if rights and freedoms guaranteed in the US Constitution are sidestepped as they appear to be by the Patriot Act legislation. The prospects pointed to by this statement can be rather frightening if one considers what has happened in the United States during the 20th century and if these tendencies are repeated. If suspicion and fear of Muslims in America and elsewhere increases, this “repeating of history in America” could become rather grim. It will be very important for Muslims to take part in the lobbies that have been created for Muslims and in the various watchdog groups that exist that strive to protect immigrants’ and minorities’ rights. I especially look toward the American Civil Liberties Union to point the way toward proper checks and balances on the exertion of power in America. Whatever else can be done to establish friendly relations and visibly establish Muslims as respected members of society, overcoming Americans’ fears of Islam and the legacy of anti-Islamic propaganda, should be seen to be helpful for Muslims.

Overall, however, the number of Muslims is still rather low vis-à-vis the rest of the population and they do not appear to have the necessary cohesion for cooperating on issues of common concern despite whatever exhortations are parleyed toward them from well-wishing Muslim scholars and leaders. Any solution to the present situation that Muslims face must include increasing the overall number of Muslims and increasing cohesion amongst Muslims in America. The oft-repeated comparison to the effectiveness of the Jewish community in North America for cooperating on common issues that concern it as a whole appears to remain unachieved on the part of Muslims.

Nyang notes that although Muslims are drawn from all human colors and nationalities around the world, the American Muslim population has an ethnic mix which does not neatly correspond with the predominantly white population. Therefore it is too easy for a white American mainstream to look at Islam in America as an exotic religion of a minority and immigrants, to be largely ignored. As the numbers of Muslims in America remain relatively low and there is lack of cohesion in the Muslim community, mainstream America may continue to go on ignoring American Islam.

As Nyang writes, American immigrant Muslims must learn to deal with sectarianism among Muslims in their new home. So far they do not do this and it can be plainly seen that the immigrant Muslim communities tend to divide up along ethnic lines, forming their own mosques and communities and failing to achieve cohesion. The Afro-American communities largely do the same, preferring to maintain their own organizations. Farakhan’s group, the Nation of Islam, recruits new Afro-Americans. Although more open, the reality of the American Muslim Society is that it is still overwhelmingly Afro-American and its mosques are often geographically located in areas where white Americans do not often go. Although Afro-American communities are often welcoming to visitors and willing to cooperate on some matters, they face the ongoing sociological reality that the Afro-American community looks to them to work on matters of social justice and matters of concern to the Afro-American community in an American society that is seen as still oppressive to Afro-Americans. The Afro-American Muslim communities legitimately have their hands full with responsibilities and taking part in a centuries-long quest for advancement of Afro-Americans. Continued exhortations to achieve unity in the community will probably achieve the same limited results that they have thus far as they fall upon the ears of people facing the above-mentioned realities in addition to the stresses and strains and depression caused after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The key to moving forward lies in a strategy of a mainstream American Islamization based on an understanding of its starting point in the current reality described above. For the purposes of constructing a strategy, we can state that the strategic starting point is the current reality, that there is only limited cohesion amongst the various members of the American Muslim community and we can assume that this lack of cohesion or very limited cohesion will continue. African-American communities will have their hands full with African-American interests and will not have resources and energy to reach out for any Islamization of the mainstream. Any reaching out to the mainstream by Afro-American and immigrant communities will face a barrier of xenophobia and racism. In addition, the US government can curtail Muslim immigration whenever it wants and as it sees fit and this can effectively limit Muslim growth to some conversions in the Afro-American community. If a mainstream Islamization does not happen in America, Islam will probably be marginalized and ignored, seen as a minority and foreign religion. This leaves the main push of resources and energy for a mainstream Islamization to come from mainstream Americans in cooperation with any mixture of elements from the other groups or from one of the other major groups of North American Muslims if they can find a way to overcome the resistance of xenophobia and racism.

If Islam in America continues to remain divided along ethnic and minority lines, we may continue to hear what I have heard repeatedly from Americans: an argument along the lines being, “Most communities will give some kind of friendly “lip-service“ to having this creation of an American Jamaat as a goal but it can be plainly observed by any American visitor that they mostly return to their ethnic groupings with all the divisions and rivalries that these entail… where is my rightful place in all this and what do I have in common with this minority/immigrant group?” The answers to these questions often sound very hollow as we are told, “we are all in favor of creating an American jamaat,” and the sociological reality of ethnic divisions remains to greet the American visitor.
Sometimes the reality is more clearly experienced as a tacit attitude that can be described as, “We of the XYZ group are the best Muslims for the following list of opinions/reasons, just put us in charge of any movement in the direction of an American Jamaat and you can be at the bottom!” Behind any talk of cohesion across Muslim groups and creating a mainstream jamaat is an oft-repeated partisan agenda. The author has had this very same complaint voiced repeatedly in the Afro-American communities with a good measure of frustration and disappointment. This situation of competing ethnic groups and organizations can look all too familiar to some mutually antagonistic Church organizations and their dynamics that the Americans recently left! So the existing Muslim communities wonder why more Americans don’t come in and stay with them and the Americans suspect a cultural agenda and the prospect of being used for someone else’s purposes after all the warm welcomes, the hugs and handshakes, pats on the back, and great food are warmly given to the American newcomer. Both sides must certainly experience disappointment, frustration and confusion with the outcomes.

The strategy that I would like to promote is one where immigrant (including South Asian) Muslims and mainstream Americans work together to promote an Islamization movement targeted at the mainstream in American society. For the purposes of formulating this strategy and defining what “mainstream“ Americans are, these can be defined as any American who would not be focused on the interests of one ethnic minority or immigrant community but would be interested in the creation of a larger American jamaat to include everyone. Therefore, a “mainstream” American Muslim movement cannot be a “white” Muslim movement. “Mainstream” then is not defined by skin color or ethnicity but more by an attitude coupled with action directed towards creating one American ummah. For this to have credibility there must be enough trained American scholars and leaders visible to all to see.

The solution that I see has some key parts as sub-strategies. In addition to one part of keeping existing structures in place for dawah and taleem, but perhaps taking a different tack, I like the concept of small groups and one-on-one dawah. Americans are more and more leery of large religious organizations. As these larger religious organizations are necessary to get work done, I would like to see an expansion of strategy and activity branching out of these large organizations and promoting small groups for dawah and taleem. Small decentralized and widespread groups that meet in one person’s home or another welcoming place offer the place for a warmer and friendlier contact than a large mosque. Mosques should be kept functioning – of course, but we can reach more people in dawah by building friendships and trust with Americans informally in a smaller and warmer setting. This entails the need for knowing American culture and an extensive training and education in Islam.

If Muslims in America can keep a number of small groups meeting weekly or semi-monthly where trust is established, it is possible to find possible candidates for further education and training of indigenous Muslim leadership. Over time the small group model can be self-replicating and Americans can do dawah and taleem in small groups with other Americans, all of which is well within the American law, but kept discretely low-profile and “below the radar” and avoiding the dynamics of large organizations.

This model I am familiar with from my academic studies of Turkish and American Sufism where Turkish Sufis historically converted a large part of the Turkish population in the countryside to Islam and American Sufis kept Islam alive by being discretely hidden in small groups. The Americans mostly succeeded historically in merely surviving in a hostile environment. The Turks were much more successful as they strove for each person to find one new person every year and teach that person the necessities of the Religion. In theory this would have led to a geometric growth but, in reality, an arithmetic growth of the jamaat was achieved. Over time an arithmetic growth achieved major results, the evidence to be seen in Anatolia. A similar model for a decentralized one-on-one approach to dawah in small groups can be attempted and this can complement the existence and functioning of the larger organizations that already exist in North America.

My own experience with small groups has been the most rewarding in terms of bringing other Americans into Islam. I have been able to invite a small number of other Americans into a friendly setting of a small gathering on a weekend and discuss religion over some good food in an atmosphere of friendship. Whereas a large mosque filled with foreigners speaking Arabic and Urdu was a bit too exotic for these Americans, talking about Islam with another American obviously got better results. When I compare my experience with a small group to the experience in local mosques, I believe that I have been more successful with my approach in reaching mainstream Americans. The large immigrant-controlled mosque nearby where I live has a large community of South Asians and Arabs with a smattering of other immigrant groups. There are only one or two other white Americans to be seen and these came into Islam by the workings of a local Sufi order – itself a small group. There is another mosque which is mostly Arabs and has high quality teaching and good khutbas. Unfortunately this Arab mosque is further away from the city where I live. The Afro-American mosque in the city has been successful at converting Afro-Americans. They are friendly and welcoming but are themselves facing the same old problems of trying to reach white Americans.

Over time what can happen with a successful strategy may be left to our imagination. I like to envision that there would be an expansion of numbers of American Muslims with no family or national ties outside America achieving enough mass to support its own organizations, scholarship, and leadership. These same Muslims would have an interest in practicing their religion freely in North America and having an expanded voice in the society, politics and the economy. Naturally, the larger the numbers of American Muslims, the more their voice will be heard. Demand for training of competent indigenous leaders will necessarily imply relations to institutions of learning in the Muslim world where excellence in Islamic scholarship exists, implying better ties with the Muslim world. As the American Jamaat grows, more clear advantages will exist for the existing immigrant and minority Muslim communities to cooperate with and be part of a larger American Muslim community. This will be especially true if indigenous Islamic scholarship is of a high standard. With a larger group of American Muslims, there can be an integrative center effectuating a stronger cohesion across Muslim groups and better addressing issues of common concern to us all in North America. I can leave it up to the imagination of the reader what an experience it will be when immigrant Muslims and their growing children find themselves invited to an “American mosque” and are impressed with the commitment of the American Muslims there and the level of scholarship of the American Muslim leaders.



Eds. Westerlund, David and Svanberg, Ingvar. Islam Outside the Arab World. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Chapter 19. Mattias Gardell, North America, pp. 420-443.
Hermansen, Marcia. “Hybrid Identity Formations in Muslim America: The Case of American Sufi Movements.” The Muslim World Journal. Volume 90, Spring 2000. pp. 158-197.
Lincoln, C. Eric. (1961). The Black Muslims in America. Boston: Beacon P. Reprint 1970.
Nyang, Suyleyman S. (1999). Islam in the United States of America. Chicago, Il. Kazi Publications, Inc.

Smith, Jane I. (1999). Islam in America. New York. Columbia UP.

Nyang, Sulayman S. (1999). Islam in the United States of America. Chicago, Il.: Kazi Publications, Inc. pp. 29.

Gardell, Mattias. “North America.” Islam Outside the Arab World, Ed. David Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg. pp. 420-421.




Gardell, 421-424.

Gardell, 421

Gardell, 421-424.



Gardell, 420.


Nyang, 29.

Gardell, 421.

Gardell, 435.

Gardell, 421.

Smith, 65.

Gardell, 421.

Gardell, 434.

Smith, 52.

Gardell, 436.


Gardell, 437.


Gardell, 437.

Smith, 97-103.

Gardell 424-430.

Gardell, 424-427.

Gardell, 427.

The historical development of this movement and more description of key personalities involved in the Nation of Islam is covered in depth in the major work in the area; Lincoln, C. Eric. (1961). The Black Muslims of America. Boston: Beacon P. Reprint 1970.

Smith 92.

Smith 93-95.

Gardell, 431.

Gardell, 431

Smith 94.

Smith, 94.

Smith, 94.

Smith, 94-95.

Smith 95-96.

Smith, 96.

Smith, 96.

Gardell, 433-435.







Smith, 66-68.

Smith, 68-73.

Hermansen, Marcia. Hybrid Identity Formations in Muslim America: The Case of American Sufi Movements. pp. 158-188.

Hermansen, 158.

Hermansen, 178-188.

Nyang, 30.

Nyang, 29-30.

Smith, 94.

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