Commentary: The history of Muslims in the US

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SHAFAQNA – There are about 3.3 million Muslims in the United States. That amounts to about 1 percent of our population. Most of them reside in metropolitan areas, where they belong to the Sunni, the Shi’a, the Sufi or smaller congregations of Islamic beliefs.

With roughly 9 percent of all Americans, Islam ranks as the third-largest faith community behind the 70.6 percent adhering to several types of Christianity, 22.8 percent unaffiliated, 1.9 percent Jewish, 0.7 of a percent Buddhist and 0.7 of a percent Hindu. According to a Gallup Poll in 2009, Muslims in the U.S. come from a racially diverse religious segment. Native-born American Muslims are mainly of African descent, which makes up about a quarter of their denomination. In the past 70 years, many conversions to Islam occurred mostly in urban areas.

An estimated 10 percent of slaves who came to the colonial U.S. from Africa arrived as Muslims, but their practice of Islam on plantations was stringently suppressed. Prior to the late 19th century, most non-enslaved Muslims in North America were merchants and sailors. From the 1880s to 1914, several thousand Muslims emigrated from the territories of the Ottoman Empire. The number of Muslims in the U.S. increased dramatically in the 20th century, when much of their growth was driven by a comparatively high birth rate and immigration from Arab and South Asian lands.

During the drafting of the constitution of the state of Pennsylvania in 1776, those in favor of the proposed constitution favored religious toleration, while anti-constitutionalists called for reliance on Protestant values in the formation of the state’s republican government. The constitutionalists won out and inserted a clause for religious liberty in the new state constitution. American views of Islam were influenced by Europeans, who had long-warned that Islam was a threat to Christianity and republicanism.

In 1776, John Adams published “Thoughts on Government,” in which he mentioned the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a “sober inquirer after truth” alongside Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates and other thinkers. In 1785, George Washington expressed a willingness to hire “Mahometans,” as well as people of any nation or religion, to work on his private estate at Mount Vernon if they were “good workmen.” In 1790, South Carolina’s legislature granted a “special legal status” to a community of Moroccans. In 1797, President John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli declaring that the United States had no “character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen.”

On the morning of April 4, 1865, near the end of the Civil War, Union troops commanded by Col. Thomas Johnston set ablaze the University of Alabama, but a copy of the Koran was saved by one of the university’s staff. Two hundred and 92 Muslims are known to have fought during the Civil War. The highest-ranking Muslim officer during the war was Capt. Moses Osman. Nicholas Said, formerly enslaved to an Arab master, came to the United States in 1860 and found a teaching job in Detroit. In 1863, Said enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of sergeant. He was later granted a transfer to a military hospital, where he gained some knowledge of medicine.

Not all politicians were pleased with the religious neutrality of the Constitution, which prohibited any religious test. In North Carolina’s ratifying convention in 1788, anti-federalists opposed the new constitution because they feared that someday Catholics or Muslims might be elected president.

The presiding anti-federalist William Lancaster made this observation: “Let us remember that we form a government for millions not yet in existence. … In the course of four or five hundred years, I do not know how it will work. This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that chair, and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it.”

Indeed, in 1788, many opponents of the Constitution pointed to the Middle East, especially the Ottoman Empire, as a negative object lesson against standing armies and centralized state authority.

By Wolf D. Fuhrig from Columbia University.

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