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Historical Background

Historical and archeological evidence point to the arrival of the Muslims of western Africa on the eastern shores of America prior to the discovery of the continent by Christopher Columbus. This may be viewed as the first instance of Muslim presence in the continent, though there remain no tangible signs to this effect. There were groups of Spanish Muslims, and especially Moriscos, in the expeditions of Columbus to Central America as well as among the future sailors and travelers who made the Atlantic crossing. These made great contributions to the creation of civilizations in South and North America; a fact mainly ignored by the historians of the subject. The ceilings of many of the ancient cathedrals in Ecuador, Mexico and other Latin American countries bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the Islamic mosques, which points to their construction by Muslim artisans, a deduction backed by a certain body of evidence. A number of creeks in the state of New Mexico, in the USA, bear Arabic names, an indication of the presence of Muslim agriculturalists in the area. In addition, the architectural styles prevalent in the state, and especially in the city of Santa Fe, bear close affinity to Islamic buildings; one that goes by the name of adobe, a term derived from the Arabic “al-tub”, implying a covering of plaster and mud. Recently, there has appeared a dictionary of over one thousand common architectural terms of Arabic origin in the Spanish language of South America. The Moorish style remains one of the major foundations of South American architecture, in which use is still made of patterns of tile work originating from western Islamic lands. In spite of the extensive Muslim presence in South and North America, in the 16th and 17th centuries AD, Islam failed to endure as a living religion among the immigrants of these continents, though it continues to exert its influence on the artistic aspects of their lives. 

With the migration of white people, especially the British, to the shores of North America, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the practice of slavery carried out in South America escalated to the north, to which a vast population of African slaves was relocated. Today, the majority of the islands in the Caribbean, whose native inhabitants have become extinct, are populated by blacks, some thirty million of whom also reside in North America. There must have undoubtedly been groups of Muslims among the waves of African slaves of North America, who continued to practice their religion until forced into conversion to Christianity, a development which brought to an end this phase of Islamic presence in the Americas as well. The memory of this original belief never disappeared among the blacks and resurfaced in the 20th century in the form of a widespread movement of return to Islam. 

The origin of the existing Muslim populations in North America as well as in Central and South America must be traced to the migration of Muslims to these regions in the closing decades of the 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries. This wave of immigration initiated with groups of Syrians and Lebanese and, later, extended to those from the Balkans who set up small Muslim communities in Michigan, Ohio and Iowa and built the first mosques on American soil. The stream of Muslim immigrants continued after the First World War, but it turned into a flood after World War II, a trend that has continued to this very day. The last wave of Muslim immigration, made of those from Iran and the Indian subcontinent as well as a smaller number from South East Asia and Africa, brought about a major transformation in the Muslim societies in the USA and Canada, where the knowledge of Islam became widespread among the populations of these countries. Today, in the US congress, Muslim prayers are recited alongside the Christian and Jewish and the US military includes Muslim chaplains working alongside their fellow Christian and Jewish colleagues. The situation is rather different in the case of Central and South America. None the less, their Muslim populations are also on the rise and there exist mosques and Islamic centers in all major countries of the region. In addition, the descendents of the Arabs who migrated to these countries in the 19th century and who were assimilated in their new environment, loosing their religious identity, have started to return to their Islamic origin. 

Owing to the special importance of the Islamic community in the USA and Canada, the remaining space will be devoted to the discussion of their present condition. In the early years of the 20th century, in addition to the wave of immigrants from Muslim countries, there was founded a center called the Moorish Science Temple by a black man from New Jersey by the name of Drew Ali, who combined Islamic teachings with elements from the particular outlook of the black Americans. The center continued its activities for several decades and managed to gain a following among the black community, who distinguished themselves by wearing a fez and displaying such Islamic symbols as a crescent. This movement, however, was soon to be overshadowed by the establishment of the far more influential Nation of Islam by a mysterious man by the name of Wallace Fard (Farid), who began his activity in Detroit but who soon disappeared without a trace. The leadership of the movement was taken over by his pupil Elijah Muhammad, who shifted his operations to Chicago. While confessing himself as a Muslim, Elijah Muhammad also deemed himself as a type of prophet and gave rise to many innovations. He considered Islam as exclusive to the blacks and preached an anti-white racism, wrapped in an Islamic garb. At the same time he succeeded in strengthening family values among his followers, inspiring them with a sense of self-esteem, and convincing them to abstain from sexual promiscuity, intoxicants, theft and other ethical vices. In the face of white opposition, Elijah Muhammad succeeded in gaining a considerable black following within the framework of his Nation of Islam. 

Toward the end of the 1950s, Elijah Muhammad’s most distinguished pupil by the name of Malcolm X (Malik al-Shabbaz) left the black supremacist movement after a pilgrimage he took to Mecca and declared himself a traditional Muslim, denouncing his previous racist views. Malcolm X, in all likelihood the most eminent black American leader of the time, was a powerful speaker whose disagreement with Elijah Muhammad undermined the latter’s leadership of the black Muslim community. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 during a speech he was delivering in New York City. Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 and was succeeded by his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, who followed in the footsteps of Malcolm X in declaring himself an orthodox Muslim. He studied for a period in al-Azhar University and succeeded in bringing the majority of his followers into the mainstream of Islamic faith. In 1980, he officially severed his ties with the Nation of Islam and went on to found the American Muslim Mission, which is still active and plays a crucial role in the conversion of large numbers of blacks to Islam. There, however, remains a small minority who continues to cling to the mainly unorthodox views of Elijah Muhammad, which still maintain their appeal to the oppressed black population. The group is led by Louis Farrakhan, with his headquarters in Chicago. The population of Muslim black Americans has continued its rapid growth ever since the days of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. Today, large numbers of black inmates in American prisons embrace the message of Islam and embark on a new path to securing their rights while remaining committed to ethical and social principles. 

In addition to Muslim immigrants and black converts there has appeared a trend toward conversion among white Americans dating from the end of World War II. Just like their counterparts in Europe, their approach to Islam has been via Sufism and the mystical and philosophical dimensions of the religion. Many of these new converts include eminent authors, academics and artists. The first introduction of a Sufi order in the USA dates back to the 1920s, with the arrival in San Francisco of `Inayat Khan, a member of the Chishtiyyah. In the post-World War II period, various Sufi orders managed to considerably expand their activities in the USA, such as the Qadiriyyah, the Shadhiliyyah, the Khalwatiyyah-Harajiyyha, the Ni`mat Allahiyyah and the Nashbandiyyah. Today, there can be found khanaqahs and takiyahs in most major American cities and Sufi and mystical works have a great following among the people of the country. 

The history of the Muslim community in the USA and Canada in the past few decades indicates a separation of activities between these three groups, i.e. the immigrants from the Islamic countries, Muslim blacks, and the white converts to Islam; a trend that appears to have shifted toward more cooperation, especially in the past twenty years. For instance, the major annual conferences of key Islamic institutions, such as ISNA and ICNA, are attended by tens of thousands of people from all three groups.

* source: Nasr , Seied Hossein "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.585 - 586

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