ON any given night in this Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traffic backs up on Massachusetts Avenue's affluent embassy row, as area Muslims rush to the Islamic Center to perform sundown prayers and break the daily fast with the traditional Iftar meal.
It is not an unusual sight for Washingtonians. In the last few years, the area's Muslim population has been ballooning, fueled both by immigrants from the Middle East and by conversions within the African-American community.
Washington is not alone. Today, experts say, the Muslim population of North America has reached 3 million to 5 million people.
"By the first decade of the 21st century, Islam will be the second largest religion in the United States," writes Jonathan Sarna in Moment Magazine, a Jewish publication.
The confluence of the two phenomena - large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent and increasing conversions in the African-American community - has meant a radical growth in the numbers of North American Muslims in a short time span. Today, the black community provides the bulk of the growth.
Islam has offered black Americans an alternate culture, experts say, as well as pride in a separate identity that is fraught with far fewer problems than the black militant movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Black Panthers.
"Islam was the logical extension of the political movements," says Ajieb Bilal, principal of the Muslim Community School in Potomac, Md. "The appeal was institutional life, a full cultural and spiritual life, an alternative culture. Putting down the gun was changing the mode of struggle.
"The majority of our people were Muslim longer than they were Christian," he says, explaining why so many black Americans find Islam a natural fit. "After 400 years, we're reverting."
According to both African-American and immigrant Muslims, disciples of Muhammad first came to North America with Christopher Columbus. The Arabs, who kept the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans alive during the Middle Ages, provided Columbus with maps and navigational expertise, Muslims say. "We feel that many Muslims escaped with Columbus," says Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, speaking of the persecution of Muslims in Spain.
The second Muslim influx came with the arrival of slave ships from Africa. Writings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries document the presence of a significant number of Muslims among slaves captured in West Africa and brought to the New World.
However, most of the slaves were quickly converted to Christianity. It wasn't until the 1930s that W. D. Fard, whose origins are still a matter of speculation, began to preach his own version of Islam on the streets of the black ghetto in Detroit, and a real indigenous movement began. …