Who Are American Muslims?

In the last two decades, attempts by various polling organizations to account for the Muslim population in the US have resulted in a sizable discrepancy with estimates ranging from 1 to 7 million. The main difficulty is that the census data does not take religion into consideration so pollsters have to rely, among other things, on self-identification. The Pew Research Center estimates the Muslim population in the US at 2.35 million.

Quantitative analysis aside, defining who qualifies as an American Muslim is no easy task. Muslims in the United States may be divided into two broad categories, native born and foreign born. African American Muslims and native born converts comprise the first category while foreign-born Muslims account for the later. For more than a century African American Muslims accounted for the majority of the American Muslim population, if not the only one. A 2011 study conducted by the Pew Research Center on American Muslims shows that this is no longer the case. Native born Muslims now account for only a third of all Muslims in the US. While African Americans still make up more than half of native-born Muslims, the number of non African American converts, among them Hispanics and whites, is on the rise. Since the Immigration Act of 1965 ended nearly a century of exclusion of Asian immigration, (Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door) foreign-born Muslims come from all sorts of national, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Arab immigrants make up the overwhelming majority of foreign-born Muslims, followed by South Asians (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) and by Iranians. Comparatively few immigrant Muslims come from Europe (including the former Soviet Union) Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world.

Like other religious communities, American Muslims are incredibly diverse when it comes to their affiliations. Sunni Islam dominates worldwide with more than 85% of the world’s Muslims identifying as Sunni (let us have a link to the definition of that term/David’s glossary.) In the US, half of all Muslims are Sunni, the rest are Shia or belong to other branches of Islam that are either Sunni or Shia. Groups like the Ahamadiyyas of Punjabi origin or the Tijanis and the Mourides that are Sufi orders form Senegal and particularly popular among Senegalese immigrants (Zain Abdullah, Black Mecca, The African Muslims of Harlem) are Sunni. Ismaeli Muslims, who originate from Pakistan, are established mostly in Texas, in New Mexico and in California are Shia.

Many people may be surprised to learn that there is such a thing as American Islam. There are two communities that are distinctly American, grounded in the African American experience, The Moorish Science Temple of America and the Nation of Islam. Both of these organizations created a form of Islam that blended some Islamic theology and practices with the teachings of the Bible and that of Black Nationalism, inspired by that of Marcus Garvey’s. Like Garveyism, neither accepted whites and the Nation of Islam emphasized economic nationalism as much as separatism (Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African American Experience)

The story of the Moorish Science Temple of America started when Timothy Drew, a black man form North Carolina, who had traveled in the Muslim world founded the Moorish Science of Temple in Newark in 1913. He became known as Mufti Drew Ali. He moved his community several times, first, to Philadelphia, then, to Washington D. C. and finally to Chicago. By 1920 the Moorish Temple had attracted many converts among the black Southern migrants pouring into the city to escape racial violence and poverty. At its peak the Moorish Science Temple counted thousands of members in dozens of cities across the Midwest. Ultimately, disagreements tore the temple leadership apart and in 1929 Prophet Noble Drew from a stab wound, probably at the hands of a member of the community. Since Ali’s murder, even though the Moorish Science Temple of America has survived to its day, it counts only a small following.

The second form of American Islam, the Nation of Islam, is also an African American phenomenon. The Nation of Islam was founded in Chicago by Wallace Farg Mohammed in 1930; a man whose identity still remains a mystery. Like the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam appealed to Southern black migrants fleeing Jim Crow, and mob violence. W. F. Mohammed’s teachings seem to have been closer to traditional Islam, he used the Koran, although like Noble Drew Ali, Fard incorporated the Bible in his teachings. Following Mohammed’s sudden disappearance in the summer of 1934, Elijah Mohammed became the Supreme Leader of the Nation until he died in 1975. Under Elijah Mohammed’s leadership, the Nation of Islam, which did not accept white members, grew to several thousand members in all majors cities across the North East. The Nation of Islam also drew on the black experience to appeal to converts, especially in prisons. Elijah Mohammed’s commitment to racial justice was a big part of the organization’s appeal to its members Community building programs were and still are a major part of the Nation’s identity. The Nation gained national and international prominence after Malcom X became its spokesman in the 1950s. After Warith Deen Mohammed replaced his father, Elijah Mohammed, he instituted profound theological, political and organizational changes that culminated in the closing of the Nation of Islam and in the creation of the all-inclusive, Sunni Islam, American Society of Muslims. Having successfully led the largest conversion to Islam in the history of the U. S., W. D. Mohammed changed his title to “Imam,” he decentralized the organization and he promoted inter-faith and community dialogue at home and abroad. He also traveled extensively especially throughout the Muslim world, including to Iran. Not all members of the Nation of Islam followed Warith Deen Mohammed into mainstream Islam. Louis Farrakhan, a former did not. Instead he rejected Warith Deen Mohammed’s teachings and in 1979 he revived the Nation of Islam in its original form. Today the Nation of Islam counts 130 mosques around the world and Louis Farrakhan is known as the National Representative of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam or simply as Minister Farrakhan.