Islam in North America

There are an estimated 5 million to 8 million Muslims living in the United States, who worship in more than 2,000 American mosques. Many people do not realize that Muslims have been part of the cultural landscape of the Americas for the past 200 years.

It was an interest in their ancestral roots that led many African Americans to research and embrace Islam. The African American movement known as the Nation of Islam was based in an attempt to reclaim the spiritual and cultural traditions of these noble Muslim ancestors.

Early Exploration

Modern scholars generally agree that Christopher Columbus was not the first person to “discover” America. Citing evidence of ancient trade and ethnic diversity, scholars believe explorers arrived on the North American continent several centuries before Columbus. Many of those first explorers were Muslims from West Africa. Historian Gaoussou Diawara has documented the story of one such explorer in his book The Saga of Abubakari II. One of the first men to set sail to America from Africa (in 1312 C.E.), Abubakari was the brother of the famed Muslim king of Mali, Mansa Musa.

Pre-Columbian ruins of mosques, as well as inscriptions of Qur'anic verses, have been discovered in Cuba, Mexico, Nevada, and Texas. Several noted archeologists and historians have reported on these findings, including Ivan Van Sertima, author of They Came Before Columbus, and the late Dr. Barry Fell, a Harvard University ethnologist and author of Saga America.

In 1527 C.E., Estevanico, a Muslim explorer originally from Morocco, traveled to the Americas as the personal servant of Andr's de Dorantes on a mission from Muslim Spain. Estevanico acted as a guide on a land expedition from Florida to the Pacific Coast. After nine years of travels, his party reached Mexico City and told tales of their expeditions. He later performed early explorations of Arizona and New Mexico.

Slavery Years

The next wave of Muslims to arrive in North America were African slaves brought to the United States from what are now the West African countries of Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and Gambia. A large number of these slaves were Muslims, and they struggled to maintain their Islamic practices even under the torment of slavery. Over time, many were forced to give up or hide their faith.

While very little historical information has been preserved about these early African Muslim slaves, the stories of some have been passed along in historical records.

  • Job ben Solomon (“Jallo”) was a Fulani Muslim brought to Maryland as a slave between 1730 and 1733. He was a well-educated merchant from Senegal, the son of an imam who had memorized the entire Qur'an. The founder of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, helped Job ben Solomon gain his freedom; eventually, he was able to return home.

  • Kunta Kinte, a Muslim from Gambia, strove to preserve his Islamic heritage by scratching verses of the Qur'an in the dirt while working in the fields. Alex Haley's book Roots was based on his search for this African ancestor.

  • Abrahim Abd al-Rahman ibn Sori, “the Prince of Slaves,” was a Muslim from Guinea who worked the cotton fields in Mississippi and later became the overseer of the plantation. Abrahim was seen praying regularly and was respected by both black and white people for his dignity and piety.

  • Yarrow Mamout was a slave from Virginia who lived to be more than 100 years old. In 1819, American painter Charles Willson Peale went to Washington to do portraits of distinguished Americans. His portrait of Yarrow Mamout now hangs in the Georgetown Public Library.

  • Recent Immigration

    Beginning in the late 1800s, refugees from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine immigrated to the United States. Many were laborers who came to America to seek a better life, as did the many other immigrants who created the mosaic of American society. These early Arab immigrants established communities throughout America's heartland: in Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

    There are approximately 2,000 mosques in the United States today. The “Mother Mosque of America” was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1934. It was the first building in the United States designed for use as a mosque.

    Today, the American Muslim community represents the full diversity of the faith. According to a 2001 survey sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, more than 30 percent of all Muslims in the United States are African Americans. About 33 percent are of South Central Asian heritage, descending from Indian, Pakistani, or Afghani immigrants. Muslims of Arab descent make up about 25 percent of the American Muslim population, and immigrants from the African continent make up another 5 percent. There are also sizable groups of American Muslims of Iranian, Turkish, Southeast Asian, and European descent. Between 17 and 30 percent of American Muslims are converts to the faith; nearly two-thirds of these are African Americans.

    American Muslims are active and engaged in all aspects of American life and work in all sectors of society — as physicians and university professors, taxi drivers, and entrepreneurs. Several thousand Muslims serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. More than 60 percent of American Muslims are registered voters, and the percentage of Muslim college graduates is more than double the national average. Muslims in the United States value freedom and contribute to the cultural mosaic of the country.

    Islam in Latin America

    In Latin America, practicing Muslims became a visible presence in the mid-1800s, when a massive migration of Muslim Arabs came to Latin American soil. They settled primarily in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia. Later, these Muslims immigrated to other South American countries.

    Today, more than 6 million Muslims live in Latin America; this population includes Hispanics as well as recent emigrants from Muslim countries. The Islamic Organization of Latin America is headquartered in Argentina, home to 700,000 Muslims. The Cultural Islamic Center of Mexico, established in 1994, operates a small mosque and translates Islamic material into Spanish.

    Do all Muslims speak Arabic?

    The vast majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native tongue. However, nearly all Muslims attempt to learn the basics of the language that is so central to their faith.

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