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ISLAM IN AMERICA

By Philip Jenkins

 

Volume 4, Number 4

July 2003

 

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

how:

 

 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

particular figure.

 

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

Arabia.

 

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

Christians.

 

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

mosque.

 

 

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING

 

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