A Brief History of
Muslims in America
Muslims have been in America for a long time!
Various scholars and sources claimed Muslims arrived on our shores as early as 1178 (a Chinese source called the Sung Document) to the 1300s – when Malian sailors arrived around 1310, to other North African Muslim seafaring explorers arriving a little later to explore the American interior via the Mississippi River.
These specific claims of Muslims’ arrival prior to the 1500s have been challenged for a number of reasons including not being corroborated, producing little or no solid evidence, critiqued by experts in a number of fields, or simply dismissed and easily ignored. This is not to say these claims are false, but as yet have limited support. For the purposes of this document, we will be covering the 1500s on.
One of the earliest accounts of Islam’s possible presence in North America dates to 1528, when a Moroccan slave named Estevanico is shipwrecked near present-day Galveston, Texas. He and four survivors subsequently travel through much of the American southwest and Mexican interior before reaching Mexico City.
During three centuries of slave trade, over 10 million Africans are forcibly brought to the shores of Cuba, Mexico, South and North America. Most are taken from West African peoples known as Fulas, Fula Jallon, Fula Toro, and Massina. Scholars estimate that up to more than 30 percent of these slaves were Muslim, although most are forbidden from practicing their religion.
SCHOLARS ESTIMATE THAT UP TO 30% OF SLAVES
FORCIBLY BROUGHT TO THE U.S. WERE MUSLIM
Muslims’ presence in the USA is affirmed in documents dated more than a century before religious liberty becomes law of the land, as in a Virginia statute of 1682 which refers to “negroes, moores, molatoes, and others, born of and in heathenish, idolltrous, pagan, and Mahometan parentage and country who heretofore and hereafter may be purchased, procured, or otherwise obteigned, as slaves” [sic].
(Courtesy of Trustees of the Boston Public Library)
Ayyub ibn Sulaiman Jallon – also known as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Muslim slave in Maryland, is set free by James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, and provided transportation to England. He arrives home (Boonda, Galumbo) from England in 1735. Diallo comes from a prominent family of Muslim religious leaders.
Records from the American Revolutionary War indicate that at least a few likely Muslims fought on the American side. Among the recorded names of American soldiers are "Yusuf ben Ali" (a member of the Turks of South Carolina community), "Bampett Muhamed", and possibly Peter Salem.
The Sultanate of Morocco, under its ruler Mohammed ben Abdallah, is the first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation. Abdallah maintained several correspondences with President George Washington.
The South Carolina legislative body grants special legal status – the Moors Sundry Act of 1790, to a community of Moroccans. The resolution offers the opinion that free citizens of Morocco are not subject to laws governing blacks and slaves.
Yarrow Mamout, an African Muslim slave, is set free in Washington, D.C. He speaks the Fula language and English and can read in write in Arabic as well as write his name in English. He remains in the United States and becomes an early shareholder in the Columbia Bank of Georgetown, the second chartered bank in the country. Today, portraits of Mamout hang in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Georgetown Public Library in Washington.
PORTRAIT OF YARROW MAMOUT ON DISPLAY
AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
(Courtesy of Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, D.C. Public Library)
On December 9th, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson hosts an Iftar dinner to celebrate the month of Ramadan at the White House for his guest, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, an envoy from Tunis. Jefferson adjusts the timing of the meal to after sunset to accommodate Sidi Soliman Mellimelli’s Ramadan tradition.
Omar ibn Said is brought to Charleston, South Carolina, as a slave in 1807. He runs away to escape the hard labor, but is caught and imprisoned in North Carolina. Writing in unreadable script and speaking a language no one understands, he is branded a lunatic. Governor John Owen buys him and gives him minimal work, granting him a small house on the Owen estate and treating him more like a friend of the family. Said later writes an autobiography and maintains contact with other Muslims in the area.
The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 is a U.S. federal law that states no new slaves are permitted to be imported into the U.S. It takes effect in 1808, the earliest date permitted by the U.S. Constitution.
Abdul-Rahman ibn Ibrahima Sori, a former West African nobleman who was captured and sold to slave traders in the U.S. in 1788 and later called “the Prince of Slaves”, is freed by order of U.S. President John Quincy Adams and Secretary Of State Henry Clay after the Sultan of Morocco requests his release.
The United States cavalry hires a Muslim named Hajji Ali (nicknamed “Hi Jolly” in a mispronunciation) to experiment with raising camels in the Arizona desert. This experiment is known as the United States Camel Corps.
Two hundred and ninety-two Muslims are known to have fought during the Civil War.
On the morning of April 4th, near the end of the American Civil War, Union troops commanded by Col. Thomas M. Johnston set ablaze the University of Alabama; a copy of the Quran known as The Koran: Commonly Called The Alcoran Of Mohammed is saved by one of the University's staff.
Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, particularly from Syria and Lebanon, arrive in large numbers, with many settling in Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and even the Dakotas. Like most other migrants, they seek greater economic opportunity than in their homeland and often work as manual laborers.
Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, an early American convert to Islam, establishes a mosque and mission in New York City in 1893 and founds the American Islamic Propaganda Movement. In 1888, he formally declares himself to be a Muslim.
MUSLIMS ARE KNOWN TO HAVE FOUGHT DURING THE CIVIL WAR
Muslims of Arab descent in Ross, North Dakota, gather in homes for the first recorded communal prayers held by American Muslims. They later build a mosque in 1929.
Muslim missionary Satti Majid arrives from Sudan and becomes involved in starting up several Muslim organizations.
Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in Chicago, Illinois, start the Džemijetul Hajrije (Jamaat al-Khayriyya) (The Benevolent Society: a social service organization devoted to Bosnian Muslims).
The American Mohammedan Society is founded in New York City by Lipka Tatars and other Muslim immigrants from Poland, Russia, and Lithuania. They build a mosque in 1926 in Brooklyn, New York.
Timothy Drew, better known as Noble Drew Ali (January 8, 1886 – July 20, 1929) is a Moorish American religious leader who founds the Moorish Science Temple of America. Considered a prophet by his followers, he founds the first American Islamic organization [in American history] before relocating to Chicago, where he gains a following of thousands of converts. Drew Ali is the first American-born Islamic religious leader and his legacy is significant because of his influence on the founding and ideology of the Nation of Islam.
The first recorded Masjid (mosque) is built in 1915 by Albanian Muslims in Biddeford, Maine. Although the masjid doesn't exist there anymore, there is a Muslim cemetery there.
Dr. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq founds a branch of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam in Chicago, Illinois. Preaching racial equality, this missionary movement is the most successful in leading many African Americans to this sectarian form of Islam, until the ideology of the Nation of Islam began to exert more influence. Sadiq published a periodical called Muslim Sunrise.
Muslim immigration is halted with Immigration Act of 1924 (a.k.a. The Asian Exclusion Act, The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, and The National Origins, Act), which severely restricts the immigration of Africans and bans the immigration of Arabs and Asians.
The Nation of Islam, (NOI) is an African American political and religious movement, founded in Detroit, Michigan, by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad on July 4, 1930. After Fard disappears in June 1934, Elijah Muhammad leads NOI. Muhammad establishes places of worship, a school named Muhammad University of Islam, farms, and real estate holdings in the United States and abroad. After Elijah Muhammad's death (1975), his son, Warith Deen Mohammed, changes the name of the organization to "World Community of Islam in the West" (and twice more after that), and attempts to convert it to a mainstream Sunni Muslim ideology. In 1977, Louis Farrakhan rejects Warith Deen Mohammed's leadership and re-establishes the Nation of Islam on the original model.
African-American Muslims establish the first Muslim mosque, al-Masjid al-Awwal, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At this time, it is not only the first mosque in the city but also one of the first mosques established by converts to Islam in the United States.
The oldest mosque on the West Coast, the Muslim Mosque of Sacramento (now Muslim Mosque Association), California, is established by Muslims from the Indian subcontinent in the same year that their homeland is partitioned. Many of these immigrant Muslims originally came via ship to the port cities of Vancouver and San Francisco in the early 1900s, and later migrated to the Sacramento Valley in search of farming opportunities.
Muslim service members in the Armed Services successfully sue to be allowed to identify themselves as “Muslim.” They had previously been denied this right because Islam was not recognized as a legitimate religion by the U.S. Military.
The first national Muslim conference is held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1952, with four hundred Muslims from around North America in attendance. This conference lays the groundwork for the foundation of the Federation of Islamic Associations of the United States and Canada (FIA).
On June 28th, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower takes part in dedicating the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. He says: “Our country has long enjoyed a strong bond of friendship with the Islamic nations and, like all healthy relationships, this relationship must be mutually beneficial.”
"AND I SHOULD LIKE TO ASSURE YOU, MY ISLAMIC FRIENDS, THAT UNDER THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION, UNDER AMERICAN TRADITION, AND IN AMERICAN HEARTS, THIS CENTER, THIS PLACE OF WORSHIP, IS JUST AS WELCOME AS COULD BE A SIMILAR EDIFICE OF ANY OTHER RELIGION"
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
The newspaper Muhammad Speaks is launched. It later becomes the largest minority weekly publication in the country and reaches 800,000 readers at its peak. It begins as the voice of the Nation of Islam, but as a part of the transition away from the Nation, the newspaper changes names, first to Bilalian News, later to The A.M. Journal. This publication is now known as The Muslim Journal.
In the case of Fulwood v. Clemmer, concerning religious services for Muslims in prison, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia determines that Islam qualifies for constitutional protection since it meets the court’s definition of religion as “theistic” (involving a belief in a supreme being) and of “ultimate concern” to the believer’s life. In its decision, the court orders prisons to provide facilities for religious services to Muslims just as to Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish inmates.
The Muslim Students Association (MSA) or Muslim Student Union, of the U.S. and Canada, also known as MSA National, is established as an organization to aid foreign Muslim students attending schools in the United States and Canada. The first MSA National chapter is formed at the campus of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) by international students. In contrast to early membership, members are now frequently American-born Muslims.
Malcolm X, who has spoken out against the racial teachings of the Nation of Islam and has embraced the broader multiethnic teachings of orthodox Islam, is killed as he delivered a speech in Harlem. At the time of his death, he was known as Al Hajj Malik al-Shabazz.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (a.k.a. the Hart-Cellar Act) ends the quota system, enacted in 1924, which had virtually halted immigration from Asia to the United States for over forty years, and placed significant limitations on immigrants from non-European countries. Following 1965, growing numbers of immigrants settle in America; many are Muslim.
The Hanafi Movement is founded by Hamas Abdul Khaalis, who had been the Nation of Islam's first National Secretary and a friend of Malcolm X. He founds the Hanafi Movement with money donated by Kareem Abdul-Jabar – the famous basketball star. In 1977, Khaalis and some of his followers are involved in a crime involving hostage-taking which results in the death of a radio reporter and shooting of Washington D.C. city councilman Marion Barry in the chest. Muslim ambassadors from Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan help to end the standoff.
The Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers forms in 1971, and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists in 1972.
The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is established in Plainfield, Indiana. ISNA is now an umbrella organization for many active Islamic groups seeking to further the cause of Islam in the United States. It has been described in the media as the largest Muslim organization in North America and traces its origins to the Muslim Student Association of the U.S. & Canada (MSA) which was formed in January 1963.
Alianza Islámica becomes the first Latino-Muslim organization in the United States. It is founded in 1987 by a group of Puerto Rican Muslim converts whose founders feel that neither the African-American-majority nor the immigrant-majority communities sufficiently address Latinxs' particular culture, languages, social situations, and contributions to Islamic history.
The Islamic Center of Southern California forms the Muslim Political Action Committee, later named the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The Council’s aim is to articulate Muslim perspectives on political issues, to inform legislators about Islam, to speak out against discrimination, and to encourage greater political participation by Muslims in the American system.
Dr. Shirin Tahir-Kheli becomes the first American Muslim ambassador to the United Nations for the U.S. She heads the U.S. delegation sent to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in March 2001.
Muslims hold the first solidarity conference called "Muslims Against Apartheid." This is the first conference of its kind in support of Muslims for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The conference is organized by the American Muslim Council, which is established in 1990 and headquartered in Chicago; it later re-organizes using the name The American Muslim Council and re-locates to Washington, D.C.
Charles Bilal becomes the first Muslim mayor in the United States when he is elected to govern the town of Kountze, Texas.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj becomes the first Muslim to offer the opening prayer of the United States House of Representatives. And Imam Warith Deen Mohammed becomes the first Muslim to offer the opening prayers to the U.S. Senate.
On December 3rd, Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad is sworn in as the first Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces at the Pentagon, taking the rank of Army captain. According to the Washington Post, his swearing-in caps 10 years of negotiations between military leaders and representatives of the American Islamic community, a process that both sides say generate increased respect for the other's religious beliefs.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is established in Washington, D.C. and has regional offices nationwide. Through civil rights actions, media relations, civic engagement, and education, CAIR promotes social, legal and political activism among Muslims in America.
On February 20th, 1996, First Lady Hillary Clinton hosts the White House’s first Eid celebration. This starts a tradition of hosting the White House Iftar dinner every year going forward which has been followed by Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
Ahmad H. Zewail becomes the first American Muslim to be awarded the Noble Prize. He is awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his groundbreaking work in femtochemistry.
FIRST LADY HILLARY CLINTON HOSTS THE FIRST WHITE HOUSE EID CELEBRATION. THIS STARTS A TRADITION OF HOSTING THE WHITE HOUSE IFTAR DINNER EVERY YEAR GOING FORWARD.
The U.S. Postal Service issues the first U.S. postage stamp known as the "Eid Stamp" to commemorate the two main Islamic holy days: Eid al-Fitr – the festival of fast-breaking at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha – known as the festival of sacrifice. The stamp is designed and drawn by calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has continued to issue a new stamp over the years to recognize these important holy days for Muslims.
Attacks in New York City, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11th cause many non-Muslim Americans to be suspicious of all Muslims, causing reactions targeting Muslims – from hate crimes that target Muslims and mosques, to increased surveillance of Muslim communities by federal authorities. Many American Muslims actively reach out to fellow Americans to correct misconceptions about Islam and opening the doors of their mosques and cultural centers.
The International Museum of Muslim Cultures opens in Jackson, Mississippi. It is the first Muslim museum in the United States.
On September 18, 2006, Anousheh Ansari Raissyan an Iranian-American engineer and co-founder and chairwoman of Prodea Systems, becomes the the first Iranian in space, the fourth overall self-funded space traveler, and the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station. She also became the first person to publish a weblog from space.
Keith Ellison becomes the first Muslim to be elected to U.S. Congress. He represents the house from Minnesota.
Plans to construct an Islamic cultural center, Park51, in Lower Manhattan cause great controversy and much protest throughout the United States. Dubbed by misinformed media as the “Ground Zero Mosque”, opponents of the center’s construction claim that the site for the Muslim cultural center and worship space would be too close to Ground Zero, claiming it would be “insensitive” to do so. Despite continued challenges to the project, both internally and externally, plans for the construction of the center, in that location, continue to move forward.
In 2010, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, in Tennessee, makes plans to construct a larger cultural center to support the growing Muslim community in the area. Despite initial approval by the town planning commission, vocal and even violent opponents protest, going so far as to claim that Islam is not a religion and that the center could pose a Constitutional threat. After years of court disputes and vandalism and arsenal attacks on the property, the last lawsuits are finally dismissed by the federal courts in June 2014 and members of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center are finally granted official permission again to occupy their property.
New York City Schools add the Muslim holidays Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr to the public school calendar as official days off for all public schools, effective in 2016.
Zaytuna College becomes the first accredited Muslim College in USA. Based on Holy Hill in Berkeley, CA, it was started as Zaytuna Institute in 1996 by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Hisham Alalusi and founded as a college in 2008. The college offers one major, in Islamic Law and Theology, with courses ranging from Arabic grammar and Islamic jurisprudence, to American history and literature.
Carolyn Walker-Diallo is elected to the NYC Civil Court – the 1st Muslim woman elected as a judge in the U.S. and the 1st Muslim elected as a judge in the state of NY. She takes her oath of office with her hand on the Quran.
President Donald Trump issues executive orders for restrictions on citizens of seven (first executive order; January 27th ) or six (second executive order; March 6th) Muslim-majority countries. A third action, done by a presidential proclamation, (Presidential Proclamation 9645; September 24th) restricts entry to the U.S. by citizens of eight countries; six of these countries are predominantly Muslim.
The Pew Research Center estimates that there were about 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the U.S. in 2017, and that Muslims made up about 1.1% of the total U.S. population. Since their 2011 estimate of 2.75 million (including 1.8 million adults), the Muslim population has continued to grow at a rate of roughly 100,000 per year, driven both by higher fertility rates among Muslim Americans as well as the continued migration of Muslims to the U.S.
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib make history by becoming the first Muslim women elected to Congress after both Democrats win their congressional midterm 2018 races. Omar, the first Somali-American Muslim to ever become a lawmaker when elected to the Minnesota’s House of Representatives in 2016, replaces Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2007. Tlaib, a Democrat from Detroit, Michigan, is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. She has served six years in the state legislature.
RASHIDA TLAIB, LEFT, AND ILHAN OMAR WILL BE THE FIRST MUSLIM WOMEN TO JOIN CONGRESS.
(Rashida for Congress / Facebook)
Wikipedia – Islam in the United States
The Pluralism Project – Harvard University
Wikipedia – Muslims in the United States Military
Wikipedia – Arab Immigration to the United States
Wikipedia – List of Mosques in the United States
The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act)
Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion