Muslims in America: The Nation's Fastest Growing Religion

By Ali, M. M. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Muslims in America: The Nation's Fastest Growing Religion


Ali, M. M., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Muslims in America: The Nation's Fastest Growing Religion

By M.M. Ali

The often-heard statement that "Islam is the fastest growing religion in America" elicits reactions varying from hope to fear. In fact, Muslims in America are not totally new kids on the block. They have been here for quite a while now. What is attracting attention are their growing numbers and their increasing visibility in this heterogeneous society, particularly in the urban centers.

According to Dr. Sayyid Syeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), there are between 6 and 8 million Muslims in the United States today. The New York Times, which has its own agenda, placed the number between 2 and 4 million two years ago. Dr. Diana Eck, who is working on the subject at Harvard University, believes the correct figure is somewhere in between.

How much of the growth is due to immigration also is hard to ascertain. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) provides information only on the places of origin of immigrants, and not on their religion. The INS data therefore provides a general picture which can become distorted in detail.

For example, the Arabs who come from various parts of the Middle East are not all Muslims. Similarly, immigrants from the Asian subcontinent can be Muslims, Hindus or Christians. While several organizations and researchers are collecting data on Muslims in America, to date there is no authoritative count. What is acknowledged by all, however, is that their numbers are growing rapidly.

Dr. Ahmed Totonji of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in the Washington, DC area, projects that by the turn of the century, the number of Muslims in America will reach the 10 million mark. Dr. Hisham Al Talib, also of the IIIT, says: "At their present rate of growth, their number will double in 28 years' time."

U.S. Bureau of Census records shed no light on the matter. Its statistics, based on race, are of little help in determining religious affinities. America's Muslims, it needs to be remembered, have come from all of the five major continents.

Historical records indicate the presence of a few Muslims on American soil early in the 16th century. Slaves brought in from Africa in the 17th century also included some Muslims, but their religiosity appears to have been lost while they were in bondage. There also is evidence that descendants of some of the Moors driven out of Spain found their way via the Caribbean islands to South Carolina and Florida in the late 18th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of Muslims immigrated to North America from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan and most settled in the upper Midwest. One of their earliest mosques was established in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Nation of Islam

In the early 1930s, a man named Fard Mohammed founded the Nation of Islam (NOI), an organization that expanded under the leadership of Elijah Mohammed and is today led by Minister Louis Farrakhan. It was the NOI that Malcolm X first joined but later left to enter mainstream Sunni Islam, just as did Warith Mohammed, son of Elijah Mohammed, upon the death of his father.

The Nation of Islam therefore became a major gateway into orthodox Sunni Islam for African Americans, whose descendants generally are referred to as "indigenous Muslims." At the same time, many African Americans have remained in the Nation of Islam. NOI supporters claim membership of between 50,000 and 100,000. Their detractors say they number around 20,000.

The majority of Muslims in the United States, however, are immigrants and their descendants. The 1965 relaxation in U.S. immigration laws increased the inflow, which continues to this day. In Yvonne Haddad's book The Muslims of America, Carol Stone used 1980 census data to demonstrate that the numbers of Muslims were highest in California, New York and Illinois. At the time, 400,000 Muslims lived in New York, 180,000 in Illinois and some 30 percent of America's Muslims lived in California.

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