The Growing Presence of American Converts to Islam

By Zeya, Uzra | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 31, 1990 | Go to article overview

The Growing Presence of American Converts to Islam


Zeya, Uzra, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


One of the more interesting aspects of the Islamic faith has been its continued ability to attract new adherents. Such a tradition is rooted in the history of the religion, and facilitated its rapid spread from Arabia to the far reaches of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Here in the United States, converts to Islam represent a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and account for close to one third of this nation's 3 million Muslims. The vast majority, some 900,000 persons, are of African-American heritage, while the number of white and Hispanic converts is estimated at 75,000.

In terms of religion, converts to Islam come from many backgrounds, including Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. By more closely examining the experience of Muslim converts, one can better understand the appeal and adaptability of the religion, as well as the future of the Muslim community in the United States.

For African Americans, the appeal of Islam has roots in their own cultural heritage. A number of Muslim slaves were brought to this country prior to the suspension of the foreign slave trade in 1807. Although most were unable to practice Islam, some left behind writings in Arabic which demonstrate that their faith was not forgotten. The Georgia State Library currently has an Arabic manuscript from the late 1850s, written by a Muslim slave from Guinea, Africa, which addresses topics of Islamic law as well as the indignities of slavery.

For most African Americans, however, contact with Islam did not come until the early decades of the 20th century. It was at this point that Islam was presented in a context which attempted to redress the long history of oppression suffered by black Americans. Nobel Drew Ali, an African American from North Carolina, was among the first to link Islam with the black consciousness. …

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