The history of Muslims in America dates back to the transatlantic mercantile interactions between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Upon its arrival, Islam became entrenched in American discourses on race and civilization because literate and noble African Muslims, brought to America as slaves, had problematized popular stereotypes of Muslims and black Africans. Furthermore, these enslaved Muslims had to re-evaluate and reconfigure their beliefs and practices to form new communal relations and to make sense of their lives in America.
At the turn of the 20th century, as Muslim immigrants began arriving in the United States from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South Asia, they had to establish themselves in an America in which the white race, Protestantism, and progress were conflated to define a triumphalist American national identity, one that allowed varying levels of inclusion for Muslims based on their ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds.
The enormous bloodshed and destruction experienced during World War I ushered in a crisis of confidence in the ideals of the European Enlightenment, as well as in white, Protestant nationalism. It opened up avenues for alternative expressions of progress, which allowed Muslims, along with other nonwhite, non-Christian communities, to engage in political and social organization. Among these organizations were a number of black religious movements that used Islamic beliefs, rites, and symbols to define a black Muslim national identity.
World War II further shifted America, away from the religious competition that had earlier defined the nation’s identity and toward a “civil religion” of American democratic values and political institutions. Although this inclusive rhetoric was received differently along racial and ethnic lines, there was an overall appeal for greater visibility for Muslims in America. After World War II, increased commercial and diplomatic relations between the United States and Muslim-majority countries put American Muslims in a position, not only to relate Islam and America in their own lives but also to mediate between the varying interests of Muslim-majority countries and the United States.
Following the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s and the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, Muslim activists, many of whom had been politicized by anticolonial movements abroad, established new Islamic institutions. Eventually, a window was opened between the US government and American Muslim activists, who found a common enemy in communism following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Since the late 1960s, the number of Muslims in the United States has grown significantly. Today, Muslims are estimated to constitute a little more than 1 percent of the US population. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the United States as the sole superpower in the world, the United States has come into military conflict with Muslim-majority countries and has been the target of attacks by militant Muslim organizations. This has led to the cultivation of the binaries of “Islam and the West” and of “good” Islam and “bad” Islam, which have contributed to the racialization of American Muslims. It has also interpolated them into a reality external to their history and lived experiences as Muslims and Americans.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries.
Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century.
With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.
Catherine A. Brekus
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.