Role of mosques in consolidating American Muslim life
Mosques dot the American landscape and, for observant Muslims, are central to devotional life. A major study of American Muslims in 2008 found that involvement with the mosque and increased religiosity increases civic engagement and support for American democratic values. According to the study, “mosques help Muslims integrate into U.S. society, and in fact have a very productive role in bridging the differences between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States. This is a finding in social science that is consistent with decades of research on other religious groups such as Jews, Protestants and Catholics where church attendance and religiosity has been proven to result in higher civic engagement and support for core values of the American political system. Likewise, mosques are institutions that should be encouraged to function as centers of social and political integration in America.”2
When did Muslims come to America?
The history of American Muslims goes back more than 400 years. Although some evidence suggests that there were Muslims on Columbus’ ships, the first clearly documented arrival of Muslims in America occurred in the 17th century with the arrival of slaves from Africa. Scholars estimate that anywhere from a quarter to a third of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States were Muslims. Large numbers of Moriscos (former Muslims of Spain and Portugal) also came to the Spanish colonies, including many areas of what is today the United States. Although enslaved people were denied freedom of religion, many did practice their faith in secret and pass it on to their children. There are several autobiographies of Muslim slaves that survive from this period, including some by individuals who were involved in the Abolitionist movement and were Union soldiers during the Civil War.
The next significant wave of Muslim immigrants began in the mid-19th century. During the late 19th century until the 1920s, large numbers of Arabs, mostly from Lebanon and Greater Syria, arrived in the United States. Although the majority of these immigrants (almost 90%) were Arab Christians, there were sizable clusters of Muslims, most of whom settled in the Midwest. Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, an early American convert to Islam, established a mosque and mission in New York City in 1893. The first mosque structure built in the United States for the purpose of serving a Muslim community was in Ross, North Dakota (1929) and the oldest surviving mosque is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (1934).
African-Americans began to rediscover their African Islamic roots after the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the Northern cities after World Wars I and II. The re-emergence of African-American Islam has been a consistent phenomenon during the twentieth century until the present. Today, African-American Muslims constitute roughly a third of the American Muslim population.
After passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, greater numbers of Muslims began migrating to America along with many other immigrants with diverse backgrounds. The change in immigration laws allowed highly-skilled professionals to enter the U.S. Many Muslims who came during this time period were from the Middle East and South Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh).
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