At the Peterson Lecture in 2008, Mawlana Hazar Imam reinforced his commitment to education in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. He noted that, “the quest for distinctive identity and the search for global coherence” requires “a readiness to study and to learn across cultural barriers, an ability to see others as they see themselves.”1 This echoes his long-standing call for pluralism, which is “rooted in the essential unity of the human race.”2 It is through this commitment to pluralism that we begin to explore the untold history of Muslims in America.
Muslims have had a presence in this part of the world long before the United States of America was formed as a nation. Even before Thomas Jefferson bought and studied a copy of the Qur’an,3 and before William Lancaster stood in front of the Constitutional Convention in 1788 and declared himself opposed to a mandatory religious test for the highest office in the country, an argument that opened the doors for political equality for people of all religions,4 Muslims were already present in the Americas.
It is widely understood that there were three waves of Muslim migration into what would later become the United States. The first Muslims were brought to America as slaves in bondage and forced to practice their faith in secret. This wave of Muslims, predominantly African, were brought here against their will, and often lost their faith due to forced conversions.5 Decades after the 14th amendment freed them from bondage, the descendants of those first Muslims looked to Islam once more, their communities growing roots anew. The second wave of Muslims consisted of migrants arriving predominantly from the Middle East and Eastern Europe who established themselves in the United States before the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which instituted a quota system to limit immigration.6
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that as of 2011, 22% of Muslims in the United States are third generation American or more, likely alluding to the descendants of the second wave of Muslim migrants.7 Immigration policy later shifted as a result of the Civil Rights movement, and with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the third wave of Muslims entered the United States.8 The Muslim communities of today, therefore, are comprised of immigrants and American-born Muslims alike.
No matter our origin, we have claimed our place in the American mosaic of peoples from almost every corner of the world. We are American Muslims who come from different communities and cultural backgrounds. Through building an awareness of our history and specific challenges each community faces, we can come together to build solidarity. To advance these efforts, in August 2021, the Jamati Institutions for USA will launch an upper secondary program called American Lived Ismaili Faith, or ALIF. The program will focus on Islam in America and offer Ismaili youth an opportunity to find their place and identity as American Muslims. ALIF features a holistic approach to learning, focused on lived faith, physical and mental wellbeing, and the ethic of stewardship. To learn more or to find ways to get engaged with this program, please email [email protected].
1 Aga Khan IV. “Annual Meeting of the International Baccalaureate” (Atlanta, Georgia: 18 April 2008) Aga Khan Network. Read more here.
2 Aga Khan IV. “Stephen Ogden Lecture at Brown University” (Providence, Rhode Island: 10 March 2014) Aga Khan Network. Read more here.
3 Little, Becky. “Why the Quran Was a Bestseller Among Christians in 18th Century America” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks. (January 3, 2019). Read more here.
4 Spellberg, Denise. “Could a Muslim be President? An Eighteenth Century Constitutional Debate.” Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol.39, No.4. (John Hopkins University Press, 2006): p. 485-6.
5 Moinuddin, Iffat Mohammadi, "Muslim Migration into the US: A Study of the Motivations and Consequences behind Migration and Settlement Patterns" Chancellor’s Honors Program Projects. (2003): p.3. Read more here.
6 Moinuddin, “Muslim Migration into the US: A Study of the Motivations and Consequences behind Migration and Settlement Patterns,” p.4; this is also called the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, and is referred to specifically as the “Asian Exclusion Act,” as most Arab-Muslims were considered Asian by definition in the United States at the time.
7 “Section 1: A Demographic Portrait of Muslim Americans,” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy (Pew Research Center, August 30, 2011). Read more here.
8 “US Immigration Since 1965” HISTORY, A&E Television Network. (September 3, 2019). The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 is also called the Hart-Celler Act, and is the policy that eliminated the existing quota system that diversified the immigrants who moved to the United States. This opened the gateway to Muslims from all over the world instead of just primarily from the Levant or Europe. Read more here.