It is estimated that there are between 1.5 to 3 million Muslims in America. Where did they come from? How did they get here? This article will give a brief overview of early Muslims in America and how contemporary Muslim Americans have fit into modern life.
A misconception in modern American life is that Muslims and Mosques have only recently begun to spring up in America. Some claim that the first Muslims came here long ago, while other point to the slave trade as the way many of the original Muslims came to America. One thing seems certain though: Misunderstandings of the nature of Islam have been in the North American story since the beginning when Christopher Columbus made his famous journey in 1492. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (the same one’s that sent Chris overseas) oversaw the near complete conquest of Moorish lands in 1492. While Muslims and Jews were tolerated by the Catholic monarchs at first, soon torture and official discrimination became the norm for both groups.
Getting away from Europe, many experts agree it seems the earliest Muslim in North America could have been Estevanico Azamor . A Moroccan native, Estevanico was enslaved by the Spanish and was one of the first non-natives to explore present day Arizona and New Mexico. Several black Muslim soldiers are thought to have fought in the Revolutionary War on the side of the Colonists. The most famous of these Muslim Revolutionaries was Peter Saleem, who is credited with shooting British Major John Pitcarn during the Battle of Bunker Hill. One Muslim man, Hajj Ali, was comissioned by the U.S. Calvery to try and raise camels in the Arizona desert.
Islam also played an interesting role in the American Civil War when, during Sherman’s march to the sea General Croxton was tasked with securing the city of Tusculoosa and burning the University of Alabama. While marching onto campus grounds faculty members including Andre DeLoffre and Dr. William S. Wyman pleaded with Colonel Johnston to spare the Univeristy’s library, the finest in the south. Despite an appeal to save the building from Johnston to Croxton, the General’s orders were firm: the building must burn. Johnston then made a deal: he would save one book from the library. The book chosen for salvation? A rare copy of the Qu’ran.
Ethnicity, Age and Homeland- Contrary to popular belief, most Arab-Americans are NOT Muslim. That being said, in a Pew Research Poll, Muslim Americans identified their homeland as an Arab country. This is not to say the all Muslim Americans are Arab, far from it (of those polled 41% identified themselves as non-Arab, opposed to those 24% that identified themselves as Arab). The same poll showed that Muslim Americans are well integrated into society and reflect the median American’s lifestyle. Only 40% of the Muslim Americans polled said they believed Muslims carried out the attacks on 9/11. 65% of the polled Muslims are first generation, but nearly 35% were born in the United States. 21% of polled Muslims are second generation with one or both parents born overseas. In Muslim American populations, 56% of the population is an adult 18 to 39 years old. In the general U.S. population this number is only 40%.
All about Al Maal (and how to get it)- Financially or Educationally, one would have a hard time differentiating the average Muslim American from the public at large. A fairly larger portion of Muslim Americans have not finished High School (21%) than the average population (16%) but 20% of the Muslim American population is registered for a college course. 24% of Muslim Americans have a Bachelor’s degree and 10% have a Graduate degree. 41% report a household income of $50,000 or more, close to the general population of 44%. Muslim American households are also just as likely to make $100,000 or more. 35% of Muslim Americans report a household income of $30,000 or less while 33% of the general population claims the same income. Compared to Western Europe these numbers are amazing. In Germany, a “majority of Muslims (53%) reported family incomes of less than 18,000 euros annually compared with 35% of Germans overall. A similar gap exists in France. In Great Britain, 61% of Muslims reported incomes of less than 20,000 pounds, compared with 39% of the general public. And 73% of Spanish Muslims report incomes of less than 14,500 euros compared with half of the public nationwide”.
Reverence and Traditions- The attack from Islamophobes and skeptics is usually that Masjids and Islamic Centers are used to promote violent forms of Islam such as Wahhabism. In the Pew Research Poll, half of those polled identified themselves as Sunni Islam, the world’s largest Islamic sect. More than one-fifth (22%) of the sample population responded they were just Muslim with no affiliation. Those claiming Shi’a Islam, the world’s second biggest Islamic sect were at 16% of the respondents. 5% of the respondents claimed another sect of Islam and 7% gave no response. For the most part respondents affiliation matched their country of origin’s religious traditions.
Patriotism and Politics- Asked whether they thought of themselves as an American or Muslim first, 47% of Muslim Americans said they thought of themselves as Muslims first while 28% said they thought of themselves as Americans first. An earlier related question posed to U.S. Christians showed 42% of them thought they were Christians first and 48% thought of themselves as Americans first. One of the more controversial parts of the Pew poll is the statement that 13% of those that view themselves as primarily Muslim support the use of suicide bombers in the defense of Islam in most cases. The same beliefs are claimed by Muslim Americans who identified as Americans first. All of this aside, an overwhelming majority from both groups reject suicide bombing outright (85% of primarily American and 79% of primarily Muslim).
The majority (61%) of Muslim Americans say they feel there is a way for the State of Israel to exist while the needs of the Palestinian people are met. Only 16% of Muslim Americans said the Palestinian people will not have their needs met as long as Israel continues to exist. A full 23% did not or refused to answer. This trend is quite different from Muslim majority countries. Morocco leads the way with 90% of their population saying “The rights and needs of the Palestinian people cannot be taken care of as long as the state of Israel exists.” Jordan came in second with 85% followed by the Palestinian Authority (80%), Lebanon (75%) and Kuwait (73%).
Conclusion- Here before us we have a very dynamic, integrated group of individuals from a common background. Most striking to this writer is how much they bring with them from their homelands and religious traditions yet how much they wish to become a part of the American fabric. The fact that the majority (73%) of Muslim Americans support their government helping the poor is testament to the influence of Islam in their lives via zakat, waqf, sadaqa etc. Muslim Americans have an established, rich history in America and can have a bright future, but it can only be determined by one group: Americans, all of us.