American Stories

'United States of America' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article discusses the American Muslim community as background for the American Stories theme. The article by Jane I. Smith and Karen Isaksen Leonard is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


With anywhere from two to six million followers in the United States in the early twenty-first century, and with numerous Islamic mosques, centers, and schools across the continent, Islam has clearly become an American religion. The U.S. census does not include information on religion, but Muslims may be replacing Jews as the principal non-Christian minority group in the country. At the end of the twentieth century, although statistics are disputed, African-American Muslims constituted 30 to 42% of the American Muslim community, while Arabs constituted 12.4 to 33% and South Asians 24.4 to 29%. All of these groups now include second- and later-generation Muslims, with some tensions marking the relationships between “new Muslims” and “new Americans.” Most of the major cities of the United States have Muslim populations, with the largest concentrations in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. The majority of Muslims in America (probably 80 to 90 percent) are not associated with organized religious institutions but continue to identify themselves as Muslims and take pride in Islamic heritages.

Since the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, American Muslims have experienced challenges to their religion and their civil rights and have drawn together in many ways to meet these challenges. Yet internal diversity is great and opinions vary about the beliefs, practices, and organizational strategies that Muslims are following in the U.S. Leaders of Sunnī, Shīʿah, and other Muslim sectarian backgrounds have built strong community and religious organizations. Islamic legal scholars, including progressive Muslims and feminists, and laypeople without Islamic legal training all offer opinions about the role of shariʿah (Islamic law) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in the U.S. Some Muslim leaders are building political coalitions across sectarian and national-origin lines, seeking places in American mainstream politics; others emphasize political issues in Muslim homelands, especially in the Middle East. The one certainty is that, in the twenty-first century, American Muslims are working to establish themselves and their religion in American society.

Historical Overview

While some scholars argue for a pre-Columbian Muslim presence in the Americas, as well as for early West African explorations in the Caribbean, the major early movement of Muslims to America took place from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries: perhaps one-fifth of the Africans brought in the slave trade were Muslim. Few records remain of these Muslim slaves aside from a few narratives and a Qurʿān apparently written down from memory; given the conditions of slavery and racism, most African slaves became Christians. Yet the virtual disappearance of African Muslims in America was reversed in the twentieth century as many African-Americans turned to Islam, developing distinctive versions of it to suit their needs, and as African Muslims began coming as immigrants.

Indigenous African-American Muslims were arguably the first in the U.S. to mobilize on the basis of the religion of Islam, and they did so in the early twentieth century, building new and separate religious and socioeconomic communities. Looking for alternatives to white and Christian domination, African-American migrants from the American south to the north created new and syncretistic religions. The earliest movements of African-Americans toward Islam, the Moorish Science Temple (1913) and the Nation of Islam (1930), both asserted “Asiatic” racial identities, explicitly rejecting slave, Negro, and/or African identities. Here American racism was an important factor, for although African-Americans were citizens after the Civil War and by birth, they felt disenfranchised and looked for roots elsewhere. Noble Drew Ali proclaimed his followers to be “Moorish Americans” and Asiatics, and Elijah Muhammad of the Nation proclaimed his followers to be “Asiatic-Blacks.” In both cases contact with early Arab Muslim immigrants may have influenced these movements, but there was little significant interaction between indigenous African-American Muslims and Muslim immigrants. The arrival of a few dedicated Ahmadiyya missionaries from British India in the 1920s did give both movements access to the Ahmadi English language translation of the Qurʿān and some of the “old World” teachings.

Second to mobilize on the basis of Islam in North America were Arab Muslims, the descendants of immigrants arriving since the late nineteenth century along with foreign students coming to study in the 1950s and 60s. Christian and Muslim Arabs, the great majority of them Christian, had begun migrating to the eastern and midwestern United States in the late nineteenth century, and initial scholarly work on American Muslims, much of it by Yvonne Haddad, Jane Smith, and Earle Waugh, focuses on them. The first wave of immigrants came around 1875 from what was then Syria (and was later divided into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine). These relatively unskilled and uneducated peasants hoped to become financially successful in America, but they faced limited opportunities. Most became mine, factory, or migrant workers or peddlers, while others became grocers, shopkeepers, and petty merchants. Early centers were Detroit and Dearborn, in Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio.

Coming from the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century, the Arab immigrants were called “Turks” by others but called themselves Lebanese or Syrian Lebanese. As Turks, they were “Asiatics” (Turkey was then called Asia Minor) and were treated in contradictory fashion in terms of eligibility for citizenship. Asians or Asiatics did not then qualify for naturalization—only whites or blacks could be naturalized citizens until a series of federal acts extended naturalization rights to various national origin groups starting in the 1930s. People from the Middle East were “white” in successive census racial classifications, but in 1910 the Census Bureau classified them as “Asiatic” by nativity. Thus Arabs were twice denied citizenship, when they were declared not to be “free white persons” in 1909 and 1914. Both of these decisions were reversed on appeal, the second of them in 1923 (George Dow, 1923), so Arabs were ultimately classified as Caucasian and white and could become naturalized citizens.

Early Arab immigrants who did well encouraged compatriots to follow them. Arabs coming between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s were pushed more by political than economic circumstances in their homelands and many were much better educated than the earlier immigrants. They included Palestinians leaving after the creation of the state of Israel, Egyptians whose property had been confiscated as a result of Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization policies, Iraqis leaving after the revolution of 1948, and Muslims from Eastern Europe escaping the ravages of World War II or of communist rule.

These Arab Muslims first mobilized on the basis of national origin, together with the far more numerous Arab Christians. By the 1950s, Arab Muslims were organizing on the basis of Islam, although they continued to work with other Arabs on issues of civil rights. Arab Muslims founded the early North American Islamic movements: the Federation of Islamic Associations or FIA in 1953, the Muslim Student Association or MSA in 1963, and the Islamic Society of North America or ISNA, growing out of the MSA in 1982. Under ISNA's umbrella, other organizations developed, like the Islamic Medical Association, the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers, and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists; the MSA continues to be active on American college and university campuses. These organizations worked to maintain and transmit Islam, in Canada as well as the U.S.; their focus was inward, on their own families and communities.

After 1965, when the Immigration and Naturalization Act spurred increasing immigration to the U.S., new Muslim immigrants began to arrive from all over the world. Reversing decades of discrimination against immigrants from most of the world save northwestern Europe, the American government set quotas that favored nations previously discriminated against and set new qualifications for immigration, preferring highly skilled professionals and the relatives of those already citizens. Muslims moving to the U.S. after 1965 have for the most part have been well educated, westernized, and fluent in English. Twice-migrant professionals from the former British colonies of Uganda and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the U.K., and Canada have also settled in the U.S., along with groups of less educated and less skilled workers from Yemen, Palestine, and Lebanon. Many fled conditions in their home countries—Iranians leaving as a result of the overthrow of the shah, Kurds, Kuwaitis, and Palestinians fleeing after the Gulf War of 1990–1991, and Afghans and Somalis escaping civil war or famine. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first years of the twenty-first century will send more refugees and immigrants to the U.S.

Also after 1965, American Muslims began to form political coalitions on the basis of religion and to encourage participation in national politics. Coming for reasons of professional advancement and often escaping from conditions in their nations of origin, the majority of these late-twentieth-century Muslim immigrants initially sought economic and social status in the U.S., but eventually they sought citizenship as well. By the 1980s, South Asian Muslims from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh had become the third major group of American Muslims. These predominantly well-educated professional Muslim immigrants arrived after the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 reversed the 1923 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to deny citizenship to people from India; the 1923 decision had termed Indians “non-white” although admittedly Caucasian. (Early-twentieth-century South Asian immigrants, including Muslims from India [earlier Hindustan], were termed “Hindus,” a geographic rather than religious designation.)

Increasing Diversity

Diversity among American Muslims increased as Islamic movements proliferated within the African-American community and immigrants came from more countries and more sectarian backgrounds. A brief survey of some of the major groups shows the challenges facing American Muslims who want to unite the community either religiously or politically.

African-American Muslim movements have been studied most often in the context of American religious history. The founder of the Moorish Science Temple, Timothy Drew (1886–1929), changed his name to Noble Drew Ali and began to preach that Christianity was the religion for whites and that Islam was the true religion for “Asiatics” (blacks). Unable to read Arabic and without an English translation of the Qurʿān, he wrote his own very different Koran and drew upon symbols, rituals, and followers from Freemasonry and the Shriners. The movement spread from Newark, New Jersey, to major cities like Detroit and Philadelphia; remnants of the community remain today in over seventy cities.

The founder of the Nation of Islam, a man of mysterious origin named W. D. Fard, began preaching in Detroit in 1929, calling African-Americans real Muslims who had become separated from their homeland, “The Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America.” Fard's preaching was heard by Georgia-born Elijah Poole (1897–1975), who took the name Elijah Muhammad and became the leader of the movement, its “Messenger of God,” after the disappearance of Fard. Muhammad emphasized self-respect, ethical integrity, and economic independence from whites. He also taught that the blacks were the first and last makers and owners of the universe, the chosen people of Allah, and that the white man was fathered by the devil; blacks, he said, had to separate themselves from their longtime oppressors. He too drew on Masonic rituals and symbols, and he encouraged followers to give up their slave names, taking X as a last name. The center of Nation of Islam activity has been Chicago, but temples were established in many economically depressed city-centers, and the message appealed to many imprisoned blacks. By the 1960s internal difficulties were plaguing the Nation. Malcolm X (1925–1965), who had converted to Islam in prison, had become a prominent and articulate leader of the Nation and deeply committed to Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm's personal disillusionment with Muhammad, however, and his inspiring experience of an all-inclusive, universal Islam while on pilgrimage to Mecca led Malcolm X to break with the Nation of Islam. He was assassinated by two Nation of Islam members at a religious rally in 1965.

When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son Wallace, or Warith Deen Mohammed, became leader and led the community away from the separatist teachings of his father and closer to the egalitarian and other basic teachings of Sunnī Islam. Having received a classical Islamic education, Warith Deen Mohammed assumed the title of mujaddid (renewer of faith); he has renamed the movement many times—the American Bilalian Community, the World Community of Islam in the West, the American Muslim Mission, the Muslim American Society, and finally the American Society of Muslims in 2001, following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Mohammed's community has a network of mosques, educational institutions (the Sister Clara Muhammad Schools), and radio and print media. A national survey of mosques done in 2000 showed his community was based in the American south and included over half of African-American mosques. Warith Deen Mohammed (d. 2008), however, unexpectedly gave up his leadership position in 2003, leaving the direction of this major African-American Muslim Sunnī community with some 1000 mosques unclear.

Other Muslim groups have attracted African-Americans to Sunnī Islam, including the Darul Islam movement, which perhaps peaked in the 1960s, was reformed under Imam Yahya in the 1970s, and then fell under Ṣūfī influence in the 1980s. Other African-American Sunnī organizations include the Ḥanafī movement, the Islamic Party of North America, the Union of Brothers, and the Islamic People's Movement, the latter centered in the Caribbean. The sectarian Ansaru Allah Community, a black nationalist new religion with Islamic overtones, was founded in 1970 by Isa Muhammad, born Dwight York. Influenced by the black power movement of the 1960s, York has consistently opposed American racism, taking new names as his teachings develop in different directions. With its headquarters in Brooklyn, the community has branches in several major cities and maintains an active ministry in the penal system. There are also small groups of black Shīʿah, drawn primarily by the actions and teachings of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The original Nation of Islam has continued as a separate group led by Minister Louis Farrakhan (b.1933), perpetuating many of its early teachings and working to establish economic self-sufficiency for urban blacks. Nation of Islam members lead local community efforts to keep neighborhoods free of drugs and drug-related crime. Farrakhan's movement is based in Chicago, but other groups also claim to be the authentic Nation of Islam, under leaders in Baltimore, Detroit, and Atlanta. The Five Percenters, a Nation splinter group formed in 1964 under Clarence “Pudding” 13X, believes that its members are the chosen 5 percent of humanity living a truly righteous Islamic life, manifesting the divine nature of the black man, and identified with Allah. The headquarters is in Harlem, and the Five Percenters have branches in major U.S. cities and in many prisons. Five Percenters are among the leading performers of “Muslim rap” and “Islamic hip hop.”

Although most American converts to Islam are African-American men who convert while in prison, Islamic leaders in the U.S. also point to white and Hispanic converts, estimating them at more than 100,000. Among the earliest of these was Alexander Russell Webb (d. 1916), U.S. consul to the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century. Disenchanted with Christianity, Webb corresponded with Mirzā Ghulām Aḥmad (d. 1908), leader of the Aḥmadīyah in Lahore, and eventually became an articulate spokesperson for Islam, publishing a journal called The Moslem World and some texts about Islam. The majority of white and Hispanic converts to Islam seem to be women married to Muslim men, adopting the faith sometimes before and sometimes after the marriage.

Immigrant Muslim communities have also increased in both numbers and diversity. The Aḥmadīyah movement, a South Asian missionary movement translating the Qurʿān into the world's major languages and sending agents to the Americas in the early twentieth century, was instrumental in providing English-language materials and basic Islamic teachings to early African-American Muslim movements. Now headquartered in London—Pakistan having declared the Aḥmadīs non-Muslims in 1974—this movement's two divisions have had substantial Pakistani congregations in the U.S. since the 1960s, the Qādiānī based in Washington, D.C. and the Lāhorī based in California.

Muslim immigrants settling in the U.S. after 1965 seem to be more committed to their religion. In the mid-twentieth century, Arab Muslim immigrants generally were strongly committed to Arab socialism or nationalism. More recently, however, religion has infused political conflicts throughout the world, and the growing numbers of immigrants from South and Southeast Asia and the Arab world identify more with Islam. These Muslims, led by well-educated professionals, want to establish a strong religious community in their new country. Mosque-building has increased substantially, drawing on the resources of the new immigrants and donations from oil-rich Gulf countries for the construction of mosques and Islamic centers in America.

Sunnī immigrants dominate the American Muslim scene, leading the national coalition organizations, the religious ones like ISNA (above) and ICNA (the Islamic Circle of North America, founded by Pakistanis in 1971) and the political ones founded in the 1980s and 1990s (below). A shūrā or mutual consultation council formed under ISNA auspices was and remains dominated by scholars of the Sunnī legal schools, although Shīʿī and female scholars were added in the first few years of the twenty-first century. A Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (SSIS) in Herndon, West Virginia, trains imams for the U.S. armed forces and the prison system. Most of the over 2,500 mosques in the U.S. are Sunnī, and a survey of them in 2000 showed that only 13% had been founded before 1970 while half were founded after 1980. Immigrant mosques tend to employ imams trained abroad, and the sermons are given in the language of the congregation, Arabic, Farsi (Persian), Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, and so on. In mixed congregations, for example where Arab and South Asian Muslims mingle, sermons may be given in English (as they are in African-American mosques).

Although most Muslim immigrants to America are Sunnī, the number of Shīʿah is growing. In earlier decades Shīʿī Muslims were too few to establish separate mosques and often worshipped with their Sunnī brethren. The 1979 revolution in Iran and the Iran–Iraq war sent many Iranians to the U.S., as did the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Dearborn, Michigan, is a center for displaced Shīʿah. Many of the more recent Shīʿī immigrants from Iran are well-educated, middle and upper-class secular people, almost all of them from the Ithnā ʿAsharī (Twelver) branch of Islam. They believe that the twelfth imam disappeared in the tenth century and will return at the end of time to establish justice in the world; in the meantime, they acknowledge the authority of religious scholars in Iran and Iraq. Substantial numbers of Iranian Shīʿah have settled in Texas and southern California. The Twelver Shīʿah operate an Islamic seminary in Medina, New York, which provides a four-year course of Islamic instruction for male students studying to be imams and reportedly for female students as well. In the early twenty-first century, 10 to 15 percent of the American Muslim population is thought to be Shīʿī. ShīʿAh have mosques of their own, and in 2002 they established a national organization called the United Muslims of America or UMA.

Other Shīʿī groups in America include the Ismāʿī-līyah (Seveners), who believe that Prince Karim Aga Khan (b. 1936) is the forty-ninth hereditary imam. They have established a thriving community in Canada and have small communities scattered throughout the United States, especially in New York and California. Ismāʿī-līs place a high premium on education and have a strong organization in the United States. There are also small pockets of ʿAlawīs from Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey and Zaydīs from Yemen.

Many different Ṣūfī movements, mystical schools of thought in Islam, have been established in the U.S., the earliest of them drawing young American converts in the 1960s. Not all of these movements espouse classical Islamic doctrines and practices and some do not require a commitment to Islam. Among the most influential is the Qādirīyah Ṣūfī order, embodied in the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in Philadelphia. The fellowship has several thousand converts, primarily from the highly educated middle and upper classes. The burial site of their leader, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, is considered by some immigrants a walī (saint) shrine. Ṣūfī convert groups are also based in New York, California, Texas, Michigan, and New Mexico; in the last, the tomb of Samuel Lewis is also considered a shrine. Some immigrants have perpetuated the Ṣūfī orders (ṭarīqahs, literally “ways”) of their countries of origin. These include the Bektāshīs, whose most thriving location is Detroit's Albanian tekke (a building for Ṣūfī activities) with its resident Ṣūfī sheikh; the Shādhilīyah; the Ishrāqīyah (among Iranians); and the Naqshbandīyah (among Syrians and Turks).

The small Druze community in the United States is of largely Lebanese origin, with some members from Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. The Druze grew out of Ismāʿīlī Shiism centuries earlier, and while some Druze in America identify themselves as Muslims, others do not. The Druze are concentrated in Los Angeles, with American Druze Society chapters in several other cities. Another offshoot of Islam in America is the Bahāʿī religion, founded by Bahāʿ Allāh in Iran in the mid-nineteenth century and first brought to the United States in 1892. The largest community is in the Chicago area, with the temple and national Bahāʿī archives in Wilmette, Illinois.

Citizenship, Religion, and the Nation: Before and After 9/11

With respect to citizenship and the nation, Muslims in America have taken different positions over time. Of the two early important African-American Muslim movements, the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, the first counseled loyalty to the nation, but the second and more powerful movement explicitly encouraged members to reject citizenship and duties like voting and service in the military. The boxing champion Muhammad Ali was imprisoned for his refusal to serve in the military. The early Arab Muslim immigrants became citizens and engaged successfully (where they were numerous) in local and state politics. Many of the large numbers of recent (post-1965) Muslim immigrants took several decades to decide whether or not to become American citizens. Once the decision to take citizenship and participate in American politics at all levels was made in the late 1980s by key national Muslim leaders, however, it was enthusiastically implemented. Now, the several national American Muslim religious and political coalitions argue for the inclusion of Islam as part of Western civilization and the American mainstream religious scene, positioning Islam as a partner with Judaism and Christianity and emphasizing the religious teachings and values shared by the three monotheistic religions.

By the end of the twentieth century, both religious and political American Muslim groups were building professionally organized movements, sometimes in competition with each other. The national political organizations developed in the 1980s and 1990s—the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) of 1988, the American Muslim Alliance or AMA of 1989, the American Muslim Council (AMC) of 1990, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) of 1994—were all immigrant-led. Critiques of American foreign policy and orientations to nations of origin dominated the early goals of many of these organizations, but a shift was underway well before 9/11, toward the rights and responsibilities of Muslims in the U.S. Although Arab and South Asian leaders made efforts to involve some African-American Muslim groups, immigrant alliances with African-American Muslims were relatively weak. The renamed Nation of Islam led by Warith Deen Mohammed was moving close to mainstream Sunnī beliefs and practices, and Warith Deen Mohammed participated in some national coalition activities, notably as a member of the Islamic Society of North America's governing council.

All of the American Muslim organizational efforts of the 1990s reflected great optimism about the place of American Muslims in the nation and in the world. The immigrant leaders of American Muslim politics, most of them Western-educated professional men, spoke confidently about representing the Islamic umma not only in America but internationally. Yet in the separate organizations and coalitions they were building and in the surveys they were taking (2000–2001), they were defining the American Muslim community in ways that excluded those they considered marginal: the Aḥmadīs, the Ismāʿīlī followers of the Aga Khan, Ṣūfīs, and the Nation of Islam (led by Louis Farrakhan). Most noticeably, African-American Muslims were minor players in these national political coalition efforts. For example, the coalition formed for the presidential election in 2000, the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council or AMPCC, supported the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2000 and urged Muslims to vote Republican, their primary consideration being the Israel–Palestine issue. African-American Muslims resented this commitment and the lack of consultation with them when making it.

After the traumatic attacks of September 11, 2001, on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, these self-appointed immigrant Muslim national leaders were challenged and often set aside as President Bush, other politicians, and the media looked for Muslim leaders who were less insistently negative about American foreign policy, more willing to criticize Islamic extremism, and more “American” in appearance and accent. They found such “more congenial” leaders among those marginalized by the American Muslim political organizations: Ṣūfīs, Ismailis, African-American men and white women converts, and academics, scholars of Islamic law and civilization. Newly in the spotlight were people like Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a white convert, a Ṣūfī, and Islamic law teacher; Ali Asani, an Ismāʿīlī and a Harvard professor; Khaled Abou El Fadl, UCLA professor of Islamic law; Ingrid Mattson, a white woman convert and professor of religion; and Siraj Wahaj, a powerful African-American Sunnī orator and imam of a mosque in Brooklyn. These new spokespeople ably represented and defended Islam to the American public. Warith Deen Mohammed, leader of the Muslim American Society, the largest African-American Muslim community, spoke to his group about being American and blending in. Again, he changed the community's name, from the Muslim American Society, with Islam first, to the American Society of Muslims, with America first, as Mohammed said.

African-American Muslim efforts to seize the initiative and regroup after 9/11 have widened the split between immigrants and indigenous Muslims, and African-American Muslims have experienced further divisions within their own ranks. On the one hand, members of Warith Deen Mohamed's American Society of Muslims felt that its American roots entitled it to a greater leadership role; they argued that African-American Muslims were well suited for interfaith activities, that their Christian backgrounds had remained relevant after conversion because Islam includes Abraham, Jesus, and others in its line of prophets before Muhammad. On the other hand, a new African-American–led group organized separately from the immigrant-led Sunnī Muslim groups and also from Warith Deen Mohammed, calling itself MANA, the Muslim Alliance of North America. MANA, led by Siraj Wahaj, justified this split-off or necessary additional organization by stating that the existing national organizations did not adequately reflect the concerns of indigenous Muslims. They accused those organizations not only of continuing to focus on overseas agendas but of trying to become part of the dominant white culture. The leaders of MANA also charged Warith Deen Mohammed's community with ignoring the problems facing black Americans, with talking about Arabic and traditional Islam, and trying to join the American middle-class. MANA called for maintaining a critical attitude toward American society and defined “indigenous” as “anyone who is native to America,” thus potentially including all second generation immigrant Muslims.

This African-American Muslim separatist initiative is also reflected in academic battles, as a respected African-American Muslim scholar of Islamic law, Sherman Jackson, has strongly attacked Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Islamic law at UCLA and part of a newly emergent “progressive” Muslim group of academics. Jackson claims Abou El Fadl and other immigrant intellectuals are accepting white America's claims to “false universalisms” and are overlooking the justifiably different African-American interpretations of Islam and African-American needs for social justice. Immigrant Muslims are accused of being “American Muslim romantics” who try to appease the dominant culture by presenting an acceptable “universal” and progressive version of Islam. Asserting that there are not only New and Old World realities but different realities within the New World, Jackson sees Islam's pluralistic legal traditions as enabling interpretative communities to adapt Islam to their circumstances. Jackson grounds African-American Islam firmly in American, not Middle Eastern, religious history. Yet race, always of crucial concern to African-Americans, has become crucial to immigrant Muslims (though in a new way), as many immigrant Muslims see themselves as being “racialized” as Muslims. While African-American Muslim legal scholars are seeking more radical reinterpretations of Islamic law in America to highlight the needs of poor black Americans or of women, middle- and upper-class immigrant Muslims are mastering and using American law for their own security and protection, turning from concerns of social conservatism to civil rights, justice, and freedom of speech.

An important strand of cosmopolitan or progressive Islam—one that might be called feminist—has acquired a high profile in the U.S. since 9/11. The range of spokespeople is broad, including people of all Islamic backgrounds, and it includes Muslim women who are immigrants, African-American, and Euro-American, some of them Ṣūfīs. A major component of this emerging progressive Islam in America is the “gender jihād” (Wadud, 2006), and here too, we see divisions emerging between immigrant and indigenous communities and also based on ideas of social justice. In the early decades, the energy and activity of women among Arab Muslims were crucial to establishing major mosques in Detroit and Toledo, and American Muslims are beginning to recognize that early history and the key role Muslim women play today. The Muslim feminists writing about Islamic history, law, and jurisprudence include indigenous and immigrant Muslim women, with academics Leila Ahmed (an Egyptian), Amina Wadud (an African-American), and Kecia Ali (a white convert) leading the way. They call for a continuing radical rethinking of the Qurʿān and hadīth (traditions), asserting that much of what is now considered divine and immutable sharīʿah (Islamic law) is the result of a long, male-dominated intellectual process. A 2004 “march on a mosque” by six Muslim women (Arabs, South Asians, and one African-American) attracted media attention, and since then, in an even more widely-reported event, Amina Wadud gave the sermon and led men and women in Islamic prayer in New York City on March 18, 2005. Perhaps most significant was the election in the summer of 2006 of Dr. Ingrid Mattson to head the Islamic Society of North America, the largest umbrella Islamic organization in the U.S. and one generally viewed as conservative.

Despite the highly negative impact of 9/11, it can be argued that there has been an opening up of the political arena to American Muslims, as reflected in the election of Keith Ellision in 2006 as the first Muslim in the U. S. House of Representatives. This is accompanied by a growing realism and openness on the part of Muslims about differences among Muslims. Muslims have begun to organize to provide reliable information about Islam, producing television programs, publishing magazines, books, and audio- and videotapes, inviting the public to visit mosques, and initiating conversations with Christian and Jewish representatives.

The stances of immigrant Muslims and indigenous African-American Muslims on integration into the nation have changed with time. The new organizational efforts and the new and diverging interpretations of Islamic law reflect sharp differences in national origin, race, and class in America. American Muslim political organizations were previously more conspicuous on the conservative end of the political spectrum, with groups at both local and national levels talking about Muslim family values, American immorality, and issues like homosexuality, marriage, and divorce. But now the liberal end of the political spectrum is gaining prominence as American Muslims emphasize civil rights, justice, and the freedom of speech and assembly. Discussion of the new “racialization” of immigrant Muslims usually traces it to political events in the Middle East and Iran and their repercussions in the U.S. rather than to the older American racism against African-Americans. Immigrant Muslims are thus taking up issues of civil rights and social justice concerned with the “war on terror” but are less concerned with race relations in the United States. African-American Muslims are now strongly claiming their American roots, no longer arguing for separation from America but from immigrant or “old world” Islam and from immigrant Muslim leadership. Immigrant Muslims are no longer talking as much about the international ummah or emphasizing connections to Muslims outside the U.S.; indeed, most groups have moved to disassociate themselves from foreign donors and influences. Immigrant Muslims now emphasize their U.S. citizenship and accommodations of Islamic and American law that will grant them justice and liberty. Both groups are increasingly engaged in American society and politics despite their differences, more engaged than has been true historically for either the immigrant or indigenous Muslim communities.


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Smith, Jane I. and Karen Isaksen Leonard. "United States of America." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #178: 'United States of America' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", April 17, 2024