Roughly half of the Muslims in the United States are African American and the other half are immigrants and their American–born children. The Muslim American Society represents African American Muslims and the Islamic Society of North America represents Muslims who are mostly from Africa and Asia. This video from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly examines the differences between the two groups and whether the two communities can bridge the cultural gap that divides them.
Muslims in America are a diverse group, belonging to over 75 different ethnicities and nationalities. Muslim immigrants represent a spectrum of educational backgrounds, social classes and language backgrounds. There are Muslims who have assimilated to Western culture, as well as those who have maintained customs of dress, food and social relationships that are traditional or normative in their countries of origin.
Muslims have been a part of the population of the Western Hemisphere since before the founding of the United States. The diversity present among Muslim Americans is the result of a multi-layered history of Muslim immigration to America and the emergence of Islamic religious movements among African American populations.
Muslim history in America can be traced back to the 16th century with the arrival of Hispano-Arab Muslims from Spain – Mudejars – in the Spanish-occupied territories of the New World. During the 18th and 19th centuries, as many as 20 percent of the slaves from Africa were Muslims, although many were quickly converted to Christianity.
Muslims began to migrate to the United States in the late 19th century. The first wave of immigrants came from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. In addition, Muslims from Yugoslavia, Albania, the Ukraine, and Central Asia came to America, founding small ethnic communities located mostly on the east coast. Contributing to the heterogeneous nature of Muslim settlements were Tatar Muslims from Tsarist Russia and a small number of Indian Muslims. In the early 20th century, although the total Muslim population was small, formally organized communities began to emerge in Michigan, Iowa, Maine, Connecticut, and New York. In the 1920s and 1930s, African Americans began to form communities that defined themselves as Muslim.
In the modern era, the increase in native-born American Muslims and converts to Islam has elevated the U.S. Muslim population to an estimated 6 to 7 million. Muslims in America have evolved as a community of different races, ethnicities and cultures all sharing one common faith.
BOB ABERNETHY: America's growing Muslim community held its conventions this past week -- two conventions, not one. In Chicago, it was the Islamic Society of North America representing primarily the immigrant Muslim community. In Philadelphia, it was the African-American Muslims, a group much larger than and totally distinct from Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. In spite of their common religion, the two major Muslim groups have for years been meeting simultaneously and separately. Arthur Magida reports on the cultural divide between them.
ARTHUR MAGIDA: At the convention in Philadelphia of 15,000 African-American Muslims, special attention was paid to issues that particularly concern American blacks, such as economic self-empowerment.
Mr. W. D. MUHAMMAD (Muslim American Society): We witness that Muhammad is the servant and messenger of God.
MAGIDA: W. D. Muhammad, the head of the American Muslim Society, contrasted the two groups.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Most of us are not as informed in the religion as the immigrants, those who've migrated, those who came here from Middle East and Far East and other places, but we do have a better -- I think a better sense of what America is than they do. They are learning. They're learning fast, too.
Associate Professor AMINAH McCLOUD (DePaul University): Each of them have in that same suitcase a different understanding of colonialism: the immigrants, British and French colonialism; the African-Americans, American racism. And that sometimes get in the way of both of them seeing each other.
MAGIDA: Here in Chicago, tens of thousands of Muslims, mostly from Africa and Asia, gathered from their annual convention. While unity and cohesiveness were emphasized in both cities, the gap between the two groups and the two cultures could not be avoided.
Sponsoring the Chicago gathering was an umbrella group of 500 Islamic professional, academic, and religious organizations in the United States. Under the banner of the Islamic Society of North America, they play down theological differences so they can forge a united Islamic community.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
MAGIDA: Reflecting the immigrant status of most of the delegates in Chicago, the convention emphasized international issues and advised those present that their lifelong experiences as Muslims have helped those new to the faith.
Professor INGRID MATTSON (Hartford Seminary): One thing they might bring is an experience of how to integrate Islam in their daily life in a way that if you haven't grown up as a Muslim, you wouldn't have that experience.
MAGIDA: Even though some African-Americans feel that the immigrants regard them as second-class Muslims, the immigrants do appreciate the efforts that blacks have made in recent decades toward establishing an Islamic presence in the United States.
Mr. SAYYID SYEED (Islamic Society of North America): We, as Muslims, have been very much interested in digging deep into the historical facts about our Islamic African-American ancestors in America. They maintain their Islamic identity. These people are role models for our children who are -- who we are bringing up as Muslims in America.
MAGIDA: As with all world religions, Muslims do not share a common language or common social customs. Their challenge in the United States is to forge a commonality in a land that is relatively new to Islam, and for the two most significant Islamic communities in the U.S., blacks and immigrants, to bridge the cultural chasm that now divides them. In Chicago, this is Arthur Magida for Religion Ethics Newsweekly.
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