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
"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
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. …