The following post first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Nigeria, on October 28, 2006.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
I pointed out last week that the notion that the early presence of Islam in America is traceable to the rise of the Nation of Islam is not faithful to the facts of history. To what, then, can we attribute the early presence of Islam?
Many popular and scholarly sources date the presence of Islam in America to as early as 1776—the year America got its independence from Britain. However, the most definitive evidence of the presence of Islam in the United States, according to recorded history, started when Muslim slaves, especially from Senegal, the Gambia and Nigeria, were brought here.
The names of two such slaves often feature prominently in the discussion of early Islam in America.
The first is Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Senegalese prince who was “wrongly” sold into slavery. He was renamed Job Solomon when he arrived in America. Being a sheltered child accustomed to the luxuries of royalty, he was unable to endure the rigors of physical labor on the slave plantation.
So he ran away but was recaptured by the slave masters. It was soon discovered that he was literate in Arabic and was, in fact, a prince. After two years of servitude, a lawyer by the name of Thomas Bluett who was traveling around Maryland where Diallo was in prison for escaping physical labor bought his freedom in 1733 and took him to England where he learned English before returning to his native country.
Bluett’s fascinating account of this intriguing episode was published in book, which is now available online through this link.
The second most prominent Muslim slave was Omar Ibn Said, a Wolof, or perhaps a Mandingo man from present-day Senegal. He was captured as a slave and brought to the state of North Carolina in 1807. According to records, he lived into his mid 90s and remained a Muslim—and a slave— until his death around 1864.
He resisted all attempts to convert him to Christianity. His name was changed, or corrupted, to Uncle Moreau and later Prince Omeroh. Because he was a very learned Muslim, he wrote at least 14 manuscripts in Arabic, including his autobiography, most of which are now preserved at the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He was not as lucky as Diallo. Nobody bought his freedom on account of his profound learning and robust scholarly productivity. These two figures are just representative samples of the scores of Muslims who were brought to America as slaves, and who retained their faith in spite of intense pressures to renounce it. Others were not this resilient, of course.
However, early Muslims in America were not all slaves from Africa. There is the well-known case of Alexander Russell Webb, regarded by many accounts as one of the first white Americans to embrace Islam. He converted to Islam in 1888.
In fact, the title of this series, “Islam in America,” is borrowed from one of his hugely influential books on Islam. He was born a Presbyterian, but recanted his faith in his received religion and was areligious for 15 years. Then he studied Buddhism, hoping to find spiritual fulfillment in it that he said his received faith lacked. But he was disappointed.
Then he studied Islam and became convinced that it answered all the nagging cosmological questions he had been grappling with. He converted to Islam without having met any Muslim in his life. He later toured the Indian subcontinent to meet Muslims.
President Stephen Grover Cleveland appointed him American ambassador to the Philippines in 1887, even though at that time he had become the most outspoken representative of Islam in America. There was no contrived “clash of civilizations” then. He died on October 1, 1916 at the age of 70.
If the presence of African slaves in America can be called the first noticeable wave of Muslim presence in America and the efforts of Alexander Webb the second, the third wave could very well be the immigration of Middle Eastern and European Muslims from Syrian, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine Albania, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, etc between the late 1800s and the early 1900s.
But this was still insignificant in comparison with what I call the fourth wave of Muslim immigration into the United States from Asia and Africa from the 1960s to the present.
Since the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect data on religious identification, the actual number of Muslims in the United States is the subject of a lot of disputation. Various institutions and organizations have given widely varying estimates about how many Muslims live in the USA. The Council on American-Islamic Relation (CAIR) estimates that there are up to seven million Muslims in the United States. Other non-Muslim groups put the Muslim population in America between two and three million. For a country of 300 million people, that is not a significant numerical strength.
According to a recent survey by the Faith Community Today (FACT), regular mosque attendees come from the following backgrounds: South Asian (33%), African-American (30%), Arab (25%), African (3.4%), European (2.1%), White American (1.6%), Southeast Asian (1.3%), Caribbean (1.2%), Turkish (1.1%), Iranian (0.7%), and Hispanic/Latino (0.6%).
The FACT survey also states that converts make up 30% of the U.S. mosque participants. Of those converts, 64% are African-American, 27% are White, 6% are Hispanic, and 3% are classified as Other.
There is not a lot of associational bonding between African-American Muslims (and I mean the orthodox African-American Muslims) and Arab Muslims. This is not the place to discuss that, however. A silent issue that has been plaguing the immigrant Muslim population is the reluctance of children of Muslim immigrants to embrace Islam.
A famous white Muslim convert and professor of mathematic at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Jeffery Lang, captured this problem in his widely read book titled Losing My Faith: A Call for Help. While Muslims here are busy attracting converts, they are losing their children from the fold. However, they are not losing the children to Christianity or to other competing religions; they are losing them to no religion.
Muslim in America are reluctant to confront this reality and Dr. Lang argues that American Muslims should invest as much energy in Islamic propagation as they should in retaining their children’s enthusiasm about Islam.