The first Muslims arrived in the American colonies and later in the United States as African slaves. Although a few and noteworthy Muslim American slaves left written records of their lives, Islam was largely extinguished by the white slave owners. Sectarian and racial forms of Islam were introduced into the United States, particularly within urban African American communities, by Ahmadiyya missionaries and the Moorish Science Temple. The rise of the Nation of Islam under Wali Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad and its bifurcation under the latter’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan deserve special attention, as do the initial appeal of the Nation of Islam’s racial formulation of Islam and, decades later, the willingness of most of its members to move to Sunni orthodoxy after Elijah Muhammad’s death. The second major, though not entirely separate, strand of Islam in the United States, though often interacting or competing with the first, comes from Muslim immigrants. This group brings unique issues, such as living in a largely Christian society, competing with the Nation of Islam, refuting stereotypes in the media and popular culture, finding a political voice, and coping with post-9/11 Islamophobia, all leading to the consideration of the prospects for a uniquely “American Islam” that reflects U.S. pluralism and (supposed) separation of “church and state.”
Americans have utilized Islam as a rhetorical device for articulating various understandings of American identity from the time of the earliest Anglo-American settlers. In every period, many rejected Islam and Muslims as oppositional to American identity, accusing Islam of inherent despotism that conflicted with American liberty. Others, though, used perceived traits of Islam to critique American behaviors or focused on similarities between Islam and Christianity. Many citizens of the early American republic assumed their country was essentially Protestant, but founding figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison indicated their support for a more inclusive polity by listing Muslims among the varieties of people they believed could be good citizens. These men meant this abstractly, as they believed there were no Muslims in the United States at the time and did not know some African slaves were Muslim.
American Protestant organizations sent missionaries around the world starting in the early 19th century, including to areas of the Middle East where the Muslim majority was legally protected from proselytization. Therefore, missionaries tended to work with native Christian populations. American missionaries, travelers, and explorers had a great interest in the Holy Land. A frequent theme in their writings was a desire to see this area reclaimed from Islamic rule. They believed the Holy Land could be regenerated through Protestant influence and often suggested Jews could be relocated there. Over time, liberal Protestants moved away from seeking conversions and became more interested in educational and medical aspects of missions. American discussions about Islam intensified again after September 11, 2001. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis argued that Western civilization and Islamic civilization were inherently incompatible. Others, like John L. Esposito and Feisal Abdul Rauf, focused on the historical and theological similarities between Christianity and Islam to suggest common ground.
Lawrence A. Peskin
Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups.
Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians.
These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming.
As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem.
After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.