Foreign Policy Research Institute
WATCH ON THE WEST
ISLAM IN AMERICA
By Philip Jenkins
Volume 4, Number 4
Philip Jenkins is a professor of History and Religious
Studies at Penn State University. Prof. Jenkins' books
include The Next Christianity: the Rise of Global
Christianity (Oxford, 2001) and Mystics and Messiahs: Cults
and New Religions in American History (Oxford, 2000). This
essay is based on his presentation at FPRI's History
Institute for Teachers on "The American Encounter with
Islam," May 3-4, 2003. Based on the conference, we also
published "Islam and the West," by Jeremy Black. The
remaining papers will be published in Orbis, Winter 2004
(due out January 2004).
ISLAM IN AMERICA
By Philip Jenkins
Though most of us think of the American relationship with
Islam as a modern phenomenon, the encounter in fact goes
back to the very first days of the nation. That encounter
was from its first a troubled affair and involves the
origins of U.S. military and diplomatic affairs. American
conflicts with Muslim states in North Africa provide the
opening to Max Boot's fine analysis of The Savage Wars of
Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, and we all
probably know a little about "The Shores of Tripoli." We may
not know that these events occasioned the first draft of our
national anthem. In response to these wars, around 1805,
Francis Scott Key composed a patriotic song that described
In the conflict resistless each toil they endured,
'Till their foes fled dismayed from the war's desolation;
And pale beamed the crescent, its splendor obscured
By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
Where each radiant star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turbaned heads bowed to its terrible glare,
Now mixed with the olive the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.
The tune would become "The Star Spangled Banner."
In short, there is a long record of antipathy between
America and at least certain Muslim states, if not Islam
itself. Muslims in America have been trying for a long time
to make themselves recognized as fully American. Two years
ago, they thought they had achieved their greatest victory
when finally the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with the
Arabic words for Eid Mubarak, "blessed holiday." In a case
of disastrous timing, the stamp came out on September 1,
2001. But the achievement of that stamp showed that Muslims
had the self-confidence to feel deserving of representation
as an American community. Politicians now routinely speak of
church, synagogue and mosque. It is ironic in light of
recent events that one of the great criticisms of the Bush
administration in its first few months was that it was too
closely tied to Muslim causes in this country.
In the last couple of years, as Islam has grown as a
presence in this country, Muslims have tried to write
themselves into the early history of America, in the way
that every immigrant group does to some extent. (Think of
nineteenth century Minnesota Swedes erecting bogus
runestones as proof of Viking settlement.) If we look at a
modern book about Muslims in America, we will read stories
about Moriscos, crypto-Muslims, among the conquistadors, and
we read claims about Islam among African slaves in this
country. There is indeed some sort of Muslim presence, but
it is far thinner than is often claimed. The slavers who
raided Africa and brought captives to the American colonies
deliberately avoided Muslim territories as much as possible.
And colonial society was certainly inhospitable to Muslim
religious practices, the Islam that was brought vanished
quickly, it being difficult to keep up any sort of Muslim
identity. So we have to be suspicious about some claims
that are made about this part of the world. Things were
different in South America, and in Brazil, where there were
Muslim slave rebellions through the nineteenth century.
THE FIRST STRAND
There were three distinct waves of Muslim immigration. The
earliest phase was a substantial immigration of Muslim
traders-merchants, shopkeepers, peddlers-throughout the
United States, and these have left traces in all sorts of
odd places. The oldest known Muslim group for organized
prayer in America dates to 1900 in Ross, North Dakota. Over
the first twenty or thirty years of the twentieth century,
little Muslim groups show up around the country, especially
a major concentration around Detroit, where the Ford works
provided a major magnet for workers and traders. The first
permanent designated mosque as a mosque in the United States
dates to 1934, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
American Islam is distinctive. These Muslims tend to be from
today's Syria and Lebanon. Thus, it is disproportionately
drawn from Islam's Shiite traditions, and its offshoots, the
Druzes and the Alawites, which Sunni Muslims find suspect,
and even doubt their Muslim credentials. Most questionable
from a strict Muslim perspective is the Druze idea of
incarnationism, the idea that human beings can be
manifestations of the divine-that God became incarnate as a
By the 1940s, Muslims were quite widespread across the
United States, and by 1952, an organization was established
which a couple years later changed its name to The
Federation of Islamic Associations, which originally had 52
mosques across the United States. It was also then that for
the first time American servicemen were allowed to list
their religion as Muslim. In addition to those 50 FIA
mosques, there were African-American mosques, which
represent an especially interesting part of the story.
African-American Islam emerged in the early part of the
twentieth century, originating on what might be called the
far fringes of Islam. Over the century, it became more
orthodox and mainstream. The first Muslim organization among
black Americans, the Moorish Science Temple (MST), was
founded in New Jersey in 1913 by Noble Drew Ali. It had a
lot of strange ideas, including secret scriptures, very new
age-y ideas, and in fact, when the FBI in the 1940s obtained
a copy of the MST's Holy Quran, it was an adapted version of
a new-age, channeled scripture called the Aquarian Gospel of
Jesus the Christ, adapted to become an Islamic document.
Noble Drew Ali vanished in 1929. The MST was a strange body,
but it introduced the idea of Islam among black Americans,
and brought Islam home as a possible alternative.
NATION OF ISLAM
In 1930, a man named Wallace Ford or Wali Farad appeared in
Detroit, who claimed to be Hawaiian or Polynesian. He
created a new religion, the Lost-found Nation of Islam. This
won enormous support in the Detroit area during the 1930s
and was the root of the modern black tradition of Islam. But
it was a strange kind of Islam. Wallace Ford taught a
doctrine that appalled Muslims-sheer blasphemy-which is that
he was God. (During the recent sniper shootings in the D.C.
area, one sniper letter to the police seems to be quoting
Ford by declaring "I am God.") Almost certainly, Wallace
Ford was a Druz or Alawite from Lebanon, and thus
represented an ancient tradition that went back at least a
thousand years-a stream flowing from Lebanon to Detroit.
Ford taught strange doctrines like incarnationism. He taught
a non-Muslim doctrine of massive racial difference-blacks
were the chosen people, and whites evil products of a mad
scientist, a genetic experiment gone wrong. After his
disappearance, Ford was followed by Elijah Mohammed, who was
one of the great religious entrepreneurs in modern America.
The Nation of Islam was important because it took these
bizarre, heretical ideas and introduced the presence of
Islam into African-American communities. Americans became
familiar with Islam, albeit in this strange form.
By the 1960s, the Nation of Islam was in deep crisis. First,
it had a long tradition of internal violence and civil
strife. Also, more and more of its members were drawn to
orthodox Islam. In 1975, when Elijah Muhammad died, his son
Warith Din, "heir of the faith," began a massive move of the
Nation of Islam toward orthodox Islam. Today, the Nation of
Islam represents a tiny part of this much larger body. (The
term "Black Muslim," the term by which the Nation of Islam
was originally known, creates confusion between the Black
Muslim movement--the NOI--and Black Americans who are
Muslim. The vast majority of Black Americans who are Muslim
are orthodox, not NOI followers, an important distinction.)
When talking about Islam, we must recall that the various
fragments of Islam are all Islam, rather than separate
creeds. The 150 millions Shiite Muslims represent 15% of
total Muslims worldwide. If the Shiites were a separate
religion, they would be the world's fifth largest in their
own right. They are a very important part of the religion,
though much underestimated in the West.
THE THIRD STRAND
In 1965, the Immigration Act was passed. Contrary to
expectations, it led to a huge influx of people from Africa,
Asia, and Latin America, and it transformed the nation's
population. Islam was one of the great beneficiaries. The
estimated size of the American Muslim population ranges from
2 million to 15 million. A consensus estimate would be about
4.5 million. Of those, roughly 42 percent would be African
Americans, 25 percent would be people from India and
Pakistan, and about 12 percent would be Arab.
Of course, "Muslim" and "Arab" are not synonymous terms. The
vast majority of Muslims worldwide are not Arab, and in the
United States, 75 percent of Arabs are Christian. There is a
whole history to be written on Christian-Arab radicalism in
the Middle East in the twentieth century, a phase which is
now passing but has had an impact in this country. Back in
the 1970s, the Palestinians who hijacked airliners had
Orthodox Christian chaplains who would bless the teams going
out. Palestinian radical groups operating in this country,
such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,
are Christian Arab as well as Muslim.
What are some of the new issues affecting these communities
to date? One is their sheer newness. There has been a
remarkable growth in the number of mosques in religious
communities. In the 1950s, there were, counting African-
American mosques, probably 150. Today, there are about 1250,
most of them set up in the past 20 or 25 years. These
mosques are trying to operate as they would in the Middle
East. For example, they have to import talented religious
experts, importing a hafiz who can recite the whole Quran.
American Islam still doesn't have many who can do this, so
we find American mosques talent-spotting in Egypt and Saudi
What are some of the political issues facing American
Muslims today? One is Islamic schools, which have mushroomed
in the last twenty years. They have attracted controversy
because of the suggestion that they often teach radicalism,
separatism, and terrorism. Local newspapers have observed
the Muslim schools and reported the singing of dangerous
songs and use of subversive materials. The problem is that
the easiest way for a mosque to get such materials is from
the well-funded Islamic foundations and bodies, which are
happy to provide materials, books, free Qurans. The problem
is that the money behind these is often associated with a
very narrow, intolerant kind of Islam, and that brings me
back to the idea of what is Islam.
As an analogy, imagine that back in the 1920s, it turned out
that all the oil in the world was found in Tennessee and it
was entirely run by a few families of fundamental Baptists.
And over the next few years, they made it their mission to
spread the message of Christianity, but it was going to be
their version of Christianity: This is Christianity, accept
no substitute. That's rather what happened in terms of the
enormous wealth of Saudi Arabia and the kind of Islam it
represents. Online, massive amounts of information about
Islam are available from Saudi-funded organizations. In
practice, this means Wahhabi Islam: a narrow, strict,
puritanical Islam that sets itself apart from other equally
authentic kinds of Islam. Like most fundamentalist faiths,
this particular variant is modern, an eighteenth-century
movement. It has no more monopoly on Islamic truth than the
hypothetical Tennessee Baptists would have on authentic
This division raises problems for Shiite Muslims in
particular. Many Shiite Islam ideas (shrines, saints,
pilgrimages) sound attractive from a Catholic Christian
perspective. Wahhabi Muslims believe these are pagan ideas
but Shiism is nonetheless important worldwide. In Pakistan,
for instance, there is a very strong Shiite influence.
Equally vulnerable to Wahhabi attack is the Sufi tradition,
which has produced some of the greatest glories in Islam.
This includes the mysticism, poetry, art, music-concepts
that infuriate the Wahhabis.
We can see these religious conflicts erupting on American
soil, for instance in the New York state prison system.
Islam is a major presence in American prisons, and many
would say that this is a good thing because the Muslim
influence can encourage people to get their lives together,
to get off drink or drugs, to learn self discipline. In the
New York prison system today, about 15% of inmates are
Muslim. Recently, there was a lot of criticism of Warith Din
Omar, the senior chaplain of the New York system, after his
statements describing the 9/11 attackers as martyrs and the
attacks as something that America had brought on itself.
This provoked a systematic investigation of the chaplains in
the New York system, all of whom were appointed under Omar's
auspices, which investigation found a great deal of
extremist, Wahhabi sentiment. For example, Omar would not
minister to Shiite prisoners because he did not view them as
real Muslims. In response, Shiite Muslim groups offered to
provide chaplains who would teach real Islamic tolerance.
Issues concerning Muslim chaplains and the kind of religion
they teach also appear in the armed forces and in
universities. As in the prisons, there can be a lot of
tensions, not just between Islam and U.S. policy, but
between particular kinds of Islam.
Another recent issue has involved charity, one of the five
pillars of Islam. Recently, though, there have been
publicized allegations of specific Muslim charities such as the
Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development being
terrorist conduits. Reportedly, some American Muslims now
know that they have an obligation to give to charity, but
they are afraid to give because they don't know what happens
to these gifts. Muslims also complain of a double standard.
Irish Americans have no qualms about giving to groups that
are going to support nationalist causes in Ireland.
Different people from different ethnic groups are quite
happy to give to different causes in their homeland or
wherever they feel a historic link to, so why are Muslims
blamed for supporting Palestinian causes? Their view is, we
are not giving to anti-American causes, we just support our
kith and kin overseas. That is a sensitive topic and leads
Muslims to believe that they are not properly trusted or
acknowledged as patriotic Americans.
There is one analogy from American history: a large
religious group that was regarded as being violent,
brainwashing its children in schools, and using its places
of worship to stockpile weapons to overthrow the government.
It was the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-late nineteenth
century. Catholics, too, were accused of setting their
religion above the state. The charge was that a real
Catholic could not be a real American, though ultimately
those ideas faded in the second and third generations, as
Americanization progressed. Absolutely nothing that has been
said about Muslim schools in the last five years was not
said about Catholic schools a hundred years ago. Then a good
Protestant audience would be regaled about the bloodthirsty
secret oath of the Knights of Columbus to destroy the United
States. This fear of immigrant religions is a potent
American inheritance. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had 5
million members in the United States, and it was primarily
an anti-Catholic movement. Without trivializing genuine
fears about Islamist terrorism or subversion, one would hope
that, ultimately, Islam will Americanize, just as
Catholicism Americanized during the twentieth century.
In summary, Islam may not be as strong numerically as many
people may believe, but it is an important presence. We are
moving towards a phase when Americans will have to consider
three religious symbols: the church, the synagogue, and the
Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock, editors, Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream Wayne State Univ Press (Great Lakes Books), 2000
Sameer Y. Abraham, editor, Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities Wayne State Univ 1983. *This may be an obvious comment, but please note that like other books about “Arab-Americans”, this covers Christians at least as much as Muslims.
Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured : The United States and the Muslim world, 1776-1815 New York : Oxford University Press, 1995. *On the troubled roots of the US relationship with Islam – remember “the shores of Tripoli”?
Carol L. Anway, Daughters of Another Path: Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam Yawna Pubns 1995.
Allan D. Austin (editor), African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles Routledge; Revised and Updated edition 1997.
Kathleen Benson and Philip Kayal, eds. Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City Syracuse Univ Press 2002
James A. Bill and John Alden Williams. Roman Catholics and Shi‘i Muslims: Prayer, Passion, and Politics University of North Carolina Press, 2002. *Not specifically about the US, but a fascinating comparison between Christian and Muslim traditions, suggesting that Islam is far more diverse and complex than most Americans think.
Claude Andrew Clegg III. An Original Man: the life and times of Elijah Muhammad New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. *Superb biography that traces the development of the Nation of Islam
Edward E. Curtis, Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation and Difference in African American Islamic Thought. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002
Robert Dannin, Black Pilgrimage to Islam New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Sylviane A. Diouf. Servants of Allah: African Muslims enslaved in the Americas New York University Press, 1998.
Diana Eck, A New Religious America Harper San Francisco 2002
Steven Emerson, American Jihad: The terrorists living among us New York: The Free Press, 2002. *Emerson is hated by Muslim activists for what they see as his over-emphasis on Islamist terrorism. Nevertheless, his work is well researched and highly informative on the extremist subculture.
Karl Evanzz. The Messenger: The rise and fall of Elijah Muhammad New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, ed., The Muslims of America New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. *Yvonne Haddad is perhaps the most respected scholar on this topic
Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito, eds., Muslims on the Americanization Path? New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Asma Gull Hasan. American Muslims: the new generation 2nd ed. New York: Continuum, 2002.
Akel Ismail Kahera, Deconstructing the American Mosque: Space, Gender and Aesthetics Univ of Texas Press 2002. *Academic and complex, but nicely illustrated
Jeffrey Lang, Even Angels Ask: A Journey to Islam in America Amana Pubns 1997 *Case-study of conversion to Islam
C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans; Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, Inc., 1994. *Lincoln was the greatest scholar on the Black Muslim movement, and his text remains a classic.
Clifton E. Marsh , From Black Muslims to Muslims: The resurrection, transformation, and change of the lost-found Nation of Islam in America, 1930-1995 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996.
Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: culture, media, and U.S. interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 University of California Press, 2001. *A study of the media attitudes that do so much to inform and misinform American attitudes towards Islam
Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America W.W. Norton & Company 2002
*Like Emerson’s book, controversial, but informative
Fuad Sha’ban, Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought Durham, NC: Acorn, 1991
Jack G. Shaheen Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies a People Interlink Pub Group 2001. *A polemic against media stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims
Jane Smith, Islam in America Columbia University Press 2000
Michael W. Suleiman (Editor) Arabs in America: Building a New Future Temple Univ Press 2000
Vibert L. White, Jr. Inside the Nation of Islam: a historical and personal testimony by a Black Muslim Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. *A frank exposé
Richard Wormser, American Islam: Growing Up Muslim in America New York: Walker, 1994
*Aimed at a teen audience