A Brief History of Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

The writing below is the part of my "ancient" research on Islam & Muslim in USA. I wrote this for the sake of SALAM UI’s journal on Islamic Affairs.

A Brief History of Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

By: Retno Widyastuti

To know the development of Islam in America, Sulayman S. Nyang in his book titled “Islam in the United States of Americaâ€?, explains about the history of Muslims’ migration to the U.S. into four phases. The first phase is the pre-arrival of Columbus (pre-Colombian), where in around 1312, Mansa Abu Bakr (a Muslim from Mali) traveled from Africa to the Gulf Coast region of Mexico. It is also disclosed by Jane I. Smith in his book titled "Islam in America", that Islam and Muslims allegedly been present in America since the two centuries before Christopher Columbus landed in America in 1492. The Muslims came to trade in the U.S. as the ship’s crew. They were the remains of Muslim’s Spain in Andalusia. In 1492, Granada became the last base of Muslim in Spain. Since it’s collapsed, most of the Spain Muslims fled to America. This was caused by the inquisition that forces Muslims to choose three options; they have to go out from Spain, converted to Christianity, or put to death penalty. However, not all of the researchers are agree with this opinion because of the lack of strong evidence.

The second phase is the period of the rise of Africans slavery that brought to America. It is believed that around 10% of these slaves have an Islam background as their religion. This opinion has strong evidence because there are some records of African Muslim slaves who settled in America.

The third phase is the period of Muslims migration from across the world to America. This phase begins since the post-civil war period, where there were immigration waves of Arab Muslims from the Ottoman Empire. They joined the Christian Arabs who had migrated first. This Muslim migration then followed by the flow of immigrants from the Indian Punjab. Immigrants also came from Southern Europe (Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece). The U.S. immigration data noted that those Muslims immigrants also came from the Ottoman Empire[1].

In the late 19th century, there also a migration wave of Muslims who migrated from Central Asia, such as Ukraine (former Soviet Union part). Muslim migrants from the Soviet Union, who touted as “the children of the cold warâ€?, were fled to America because of the invasion of communist ideology. There also some Asian nations’ origins that also contribute to the Muslims migration wave to America, they were come from China, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Champa (Vietnam) and other Southeast Asian countries. In the 60’s and 70’s, the number of Muslim immigrants continues to grow because of the Cold War and political upheaval in the Middle East, such as; the Arab-Israeli Conflict in 1967, Gulf War and the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Those events caused the exodus of political refugees from Arab countries (Nyang, 1999; page 22-29).

The fourth phase is the period in which Muslim students from various countries coming to America. They intend to achieve higher education. Their arrival was associated with the Cold War, where they also called the children of the cold war. At this time, American leaders have a strategy to stem the communist ideology. One of the ways was providing educational programs by recruiting and training the students from the third world.

Nyang mentioned that this fourth phase was the forerunner of the development of American Muslim community, because they formed many organizations and Islamic institutions in America. After they completed their studies at American Universities, this generation of immigrants Muslims became professionals who lived and settled in America. They became the pioneers and founders of Islamic organizations or institutions, such as; Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE, and the Islamic Medical Association (IMA). These organizations provide a significant role in presenting Islam in the American public.

American Muslim Organizations

American Muslims have about 400 organizations and institutions as a forum and media for Muslim community activities. Here are some organizations and institutions of the American Muslim which are well known and have a great number of members.

Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

CAIR is a grassroots and non-profit organization that aims to provide an Islamic perspective on important issues in American public. CAIR is the largest American Muslim organization in the field of human rights and advocacy in the U.S. They are serving more than 5 million American Muslims with 32 branches throughout the country and also Canada. CAIR also an advocacy groups with the largest Muslim civil rights advocates nationwide. CAIR is the forefront in voicing the opinions and interests of the American Muslim community. Their vision is leading the advocacy for social justice and mutual understanding.

CAIR plays an important role in American public, especially as an important source for the bureaucrats, researchers, students and journalists who rely on CAIR’s report to know the American Muslim community. In American society, CAIR contribute more to defend and advocate for American Muslims who get treatment that does not comply with civil rights, such as; anti-Muslim attitudes, discrimination, harassment, threats and physical attacks.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)

MPAC platform issues is promoting the identity of American Muslims, Islamophobia ward, helping America’s national security, protecting civil liberties, and bridging the Muslims around the world.

Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)

One of the most powerful Muslim organizations in America is the ISNA. ISNA is an outgrowth of MSANA (Muslim Student Association of North America), an independent organization, with open and transparent membership, and with a vision to unite Muslims in North America by contributing the progress for Muslim community specifically, and the society in general.

ISNA fight for the creation of societies where Muslims can live in peace and prosper side by side with other American communities in all areas of life, despite having difference on traditions and beliefs.

The American Muslim Taskforce (AMT)

American Muslim organizations joined in together under an umbrella of American Islamic organizations which is known as “The American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT). Some of AMT’s members are including; AMA, CAIR, ICNA, ISNA, Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA), Muslim American Society (MAS), MPAC, the Muslim Student Association National (MSA), Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), Project Islamic Hope (PIH), and United Muslims of America (UMA).


  • Abdul Rauf, Feisal. (2005). What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America. HarperColins Publishers; New York.
  • Being Muslim in America. United States Department of State / Bureau of International Information Programs. http://www.america.gov/media/pdf/books/being-muslim-in-america.pdf. Accessed on November 21, 2010.
  • Nyang, Sulayman S. (1999). Islam in the U.S.. ABC International Group; Chicago.
  • Smith, Jane I. (2005). Islam in America. Edisi bahasa Indonesia: Islam di Amerika, diterjemahkan oleh Siti Zuraida. Yayasan Obor Indonesia; Jakarta.
  • Strum, Philippa and Tarantolo, Danielle (Eds.). Muslims in the United States; Demography, Beliefs, Institutions. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar. June 18, 2003. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Washington, D.C. http://www.wilsoncenter.org Accessed on November 10, 2010.


[1] The area of Ottoman Empire included Turkish or Syrian nation. Nowadays, it was known as Syria, Palestine and Lebanon.

Author: Sunu Family

We are an Indonesian family living in Bonn, Germany since 2017. Our family consists of Ayah (Radit), Umi (Retno/ Chiku), Kakak (Zahra), and Adek (Faiq). We will share our experience living in Germany, our trips, thoughts, Umi's related research on her study, etc.

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