Sister Mary Abdi talking over homework assignments with Rohymah Toulas and Lanya Abdul-jabbar at the Islamic School in Seattle, Washington. Library of Congress

Islam and the U.S.


In a campaign speech earlier this month, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. His comments were quickly condemned by leaders around the globe—including many fellow Republicans—but drew cheers from his political base. It’s proof that despite their growing presence, the country’s Muslims are often stereotyped in the American imagination.

On this episode of BackStory, we’ll take a look at the long and surprising history of America’s relationship with Islam, from the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century to the clash between American-born Muslims and more recent immigrants from the Middle East. What does it mean to be Muslim in America? And how has the practice of Islam in the U.S. changed over time?

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. More than 200 years ago, the US went to war with Muslim pirates. It was America’s first conflict in the Islamic world. But it wasn’t, as some pundits claim today, about religion.

FRANK COGLIANO: They’re not going to war, I don’t think, in 1801, with Islam. Because they don’t actually know enough about Islam to go to war with Islam.

PETER: By the 1970s, Muslims were very much part of the American landscape. But the question of how to practice their religion here was hardly a settled matter.

NABEEL ABRAHAM: In the old country, where we just came from, mosques didn’t look like this. And what’s with the women running around without head scarves? What’s with these parties going on?

PETER: Today on the show, the often overlooked history of Islam in America. We’ll unearth the legacies of Muslim slaves and listen for Islamic influences on some of hip-hop’s early innovators. We’ll be right back.

Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. And we’re going to start today near Fayetteville, North Carolina. It was there, back in 1810, that an escaped slave held in a local jail attracted a flurry of attention. And what drew curiosity seekers were the strange and unknown characters he had written from right to left on the walls of his cell.

ALA ALRYYES: I can’t imagine the characters being very precise, but I can imagine that someone eventually was able to look at them and say, oh, this looks like Arabic.

ED: This is Ala Alryyes, who has written about this man, Omar Ibn Said. Omar knew Arabic, the language of Islam, because he had been an Islamic scholar in West Africa in the years before he was captured and enslaved. After his imprisonment in Fayetteville, Omar was returned to slavery and eventually sold to the prominent Owens family of North Carolina. In the following years, his fame as a slave literate in Arabic steadily grew, which is in part why, a few decades later, he was allowed to write his life story. The Life of Omar Ibn Said, written by himself, was published in 1831.

ALA ALRYYES: So this is the only extant autobiography written in Arabic by a Muslim American slave. Through it, we have access to both his original world– that is, the world he came from, West Africa– and an attempt to negotiate his situation in the US as a slave.

ED: Because Omar was still enslaved when he composed this narrative, it’s perhaps not too surprising that his account of life with the Owenses isn’t very critical. Nor does he seem unhappy about his apparent conversion to Christianity. But Alryyes says that what you see in that document isn’t necessarily what it seems, either when it comes to religion or to his feelings about being owned.

ALA ALRYYES: So one interesting thing about the narrative about his life, his autobiography, is that he opens it with a Quranic sura.

ED: A sura is a chapter of the Quran.

ALA ALRYYES: The sura’s central idea is that God is the one who has the power and the ownership of all things and persons. And opening your slave narrative, as it were, with a text that says that God is only one who has ownership of all things seems to me it could not be just an accidental feature of his autobiography, but a choice that has an organic connection to his possession as a slave, right? In other words, he is using the sura to kind of negate the very possibility that one man can own another man.

ED: In his autobiography, Omar describes how he was taken from the region of current-day Senegal and, quote, “sold into the hands of a Christian man.” In this, Omar was far from alone. As many as 15%, maybe more, of the half-million African slaves who were brought to British North America were Muslim. But within a generation or two, Islam had faded away in America. And that, says Alryyes, is what makes this unique document so important.

ALA ALRYYES: Omar’s autobiography is not the full story, but it is a clear example of the fact that Islam and America did not just meet on September 11, 2001, and that they had a lengthy, complex, and more interesting relationship than that.

PETER: That lengthy, complex, and interesting relationship is what we’re going to be exploring for the rest of the hour today. How has Islam figured into the story of America? And what has it meant to be Muslim here in generations past? We’ve got stories about the rediscovery of Islam by African Americans after slavery and about the very different strains of religious practice imported by immigrants a few decades later.

BRIAN: But first, let’s return to the story of the Muslims who were enslaved and sent to America. These Muslims were especially vulnerable to capture in West Africa, and that’s because they were often on the move. They journeyed to Mecca on the hajj. They trafficked goods between cities as traders. Scholars, like Omar ibn Said, travelled to study and teach at institutions far from their home.

And as we heard in Said’s story, many of these people were highly literate. Being able to read the Quran was, and is, a central part of Muslim religious practice.

ED: And this helps explain why Islam was snuffed out so quickly in the Americas. Omar was the exception. For most slaves, reading and writing were prohibited. Literacy was a double-edged sword.

SYLVIANE DIOUF: Absolutely. It was a strength– and a weakness, as well.

ED: This is Sylviane Diouf, a historian who has written extensively about this first influx of Muslims to America.

SYLVIANE DIOUF: You know, the fact that a religion that is very dependent on the written word, on having the Quran and being able to read it, on going to school and having teachers– all of that, of course, you know, was not conducive to the passing on of the religion to children and grandchildren.

ED: So the children and grandchildren of Muslim slaves didn’t seem able to carry on their forefathers’ religion, even if they were aware of it. But you say there’s evidence of that tradition that remains. What were those traces, and where do you find them?

SYLVIANE DIOUF: You know, I read in the WPA interviews, recorded interviews by former slaves, they were talking about their parents and grandparents, who had been Muslims in the Sea Islands. I mean, the women were actually making little rice cakes and they were giving them to the children. And I found a song, which was sung at least until the 1940s, talking about those rice cakes, and you know, how sweet they were, and the children were happy with those.

And what was fascinating is that the women were saying “saraka” when they were giving those cakes, and people kind of understood that’s “saraka” was kind of an African word for rice cakes. And it was not. It was very clearly the Arabic word “sadaqah,” which means free-will offering. And so we will hear, in the American South, this continuation of an Islamic practice. And that continued on the plantations here.

Another thing that also can be attributed to the Muslim influence is in music. The blues, which is a very, very particular kind of music that really is, you know, quintessential American music. And there is one particular piece which is recorded by Alan Lomax in a penitentiary in Mississippi in the 1930s, really sounds exactly like the call to prayer.


You know, when you listen to a call to prayer recorded in West Africa, you know, the similarity is absolutely extraordinary.


In the United States, contrary to the rest of the Americas, Muslims had a better chance of preserving their singing styles. Because starting it 1740, drumming was forbidden in the United States. There had been a revolt in South Carolina in 1739, and people had been called to the revolt by drums. And after that, you know, the decision was passed against drumming.

So while people from Central Africa rely essentially on drums, West African Muslims did not. So they could keep on, you know, maintain their kind of singing, which is actually mostly recitations of the Quran and other things, while the others could not. And that really kind of gave rise to that particular type of music that is found only in the United States.


ED: Sylviane Diouf directs the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Trans-Atlantic Slavery in New York. She’s the author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. Earlier in the segment, we heard from Ala Alryyes, a professor at Hofstra University. He contributed to the book, A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said.


BRIAN: It’s time for a short break. But don’t go away. When we get back, we’ll turn our gaze back to Africa– specifically, to a band of pesky pirates who goaded Thomas Jefferson into war.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: We’re back, with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about some of the lesser-known ways that Islam has figured in the story of America, going back many generations. We’re going to turn now to America’s first major encounter with the Islamic world on the international stage.

PETER: On October 11, 1784, the American ship Betsy and her nine-man crew were captured by Moroccan sailors. The schooner was the first of many US vessels that would be taken by the four Barbary states. With Morocco, these included three provinces of the Ottoman Empire– Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli.

ED: The brand-new United States had inherited an old problem. Barbary leaders demanded that foreign ships pay tribute to guarantee safe passage to the Mediterranean. And if countries failed to pony up, well, then things got messy. Barbary corsairs held foreign crews hostage for exorbitant ransoms, and sometimes sold them into slavery. All of which posed a problem for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom were diplomats in Europe at the time.

FRANK COGLIANO: Adams’s solution is it’s better to pay the money and be done with it. Like the British do, like the French do, like the Spanish do, et cetera.

ED: This is historian Frank Cogliano.

FRANK COGLIANO: Jefferson says, no, no, this is a point of principle. And the point of principle’s very important. Because if we give ground on this, we’ll end up paying forever. It will cost us more in the long run to pay tribute than it would to wage war. But in the 1790s, during the Federalist era, the United States does negotiate a series of treaties with the Barbary powers, and they basically grit their teeth and pay tribute, and enjoy a fairly lucrative trade in the Mediterranean.

PETER: One of those treaties was the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which fell apart as soon as Jefferson became president four years later. He refused to pay any more tributes, and in response, Tripoli declared war. It was actually another negotiating tactic, but Jefferson took the declaration at face value. Just a few months into his presidency, the US was at war with the Barbary states. It was America’s first conflict in the Islamic world.

FRANK COGLIANO: Since 2001, there’s been a spate of scholarship and publications and online commentary presenting the Barbary War and the First Barbary Wars as the first Wars on Terror, as though we get the antecedents to our contemporary conflict there. I just don’t think that’s the case. I think although religion is an element of these conflicts, as far as the Barbary states are concerned, this is a financial transaction. They’re seeking to raise money and revenue, and this is how they do it. They’re essentially taxing people, ships that pass by their coast.

And for the United States, it’s not a conflict of religion. As the 1796 treaty with Tripoli stipulates– and that was negotiated on behalf of John Adams– the United States was not founded as a Christian country, and it has no conflict with Islam. And I think that characterizes most of what’s going on in this period. This is about trade. This is about power.

PETER: And I can quote from that treaty, ratified by the Senate. “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

And it suggests, though, that Tripoli might have thought that there was a religious element, and that’s why that explicit declaration that religion is not important was made.

FRANK COGLIANO: Yes, that’s true. I mean, when Jefferson and Adams held negotiations with the Tripolitan ambassador in London in 1786, this issue came up. You know, they asked. They said, basically, what’s your problem with us? Why are you doing this?

PETER: Yeah, exactly.

FRANK COGLIANO: And the Tripolitan ambassador used religion in part to justify that, and said, well, our Prophet commands this. And so to some extent, the 1796 treaty is a deliberate repudiation of that. And I think that this is important, both as a statement of fact, but also it’s an aspirational statement. It’s seeking to separate the United States from the traditional diplomacy and statecraft of Europe and the Old World– which, of course, was characterized by conflicts between Islam and Christianity. And the United States is attempting to distance itself from that.

As far as the ambassador himself was concerned, I think it’s an interesting moment. Because he is using Islam to justify going to war with the United States and opening up these negotiations. But to some extent, he’s doing it in answer to the question he’s asked, and he’s perfectly willing to set aside his religious belief, especially if he’s given a sizable enough gift from Adams and Jefferson to negotiate peace. So it seems to me it’s more of a justification than anything, but the conflict between the two isn’t really over religion.

PETER: Well, let’s look a little bit further– the show is about Americans and Islam– and focus on the founders, people like Jefferson, and what their religious views were. And why they would have been less likely, perhaps, than modern policymakers to emphasize religion in their view of foreign policy.

FRANK COGLIANO: It’s a moment when revealed Christianity is not that important to the founding generation. I just don’t believe it is. And as a consequence, I think if we’re talking about Jefferson and the way the other founders saw Islam, I think they’re curious about Islam. I think they have some understanding of Islam. And as we know, Jefferson owned a copy of the Quran.

PETER: Right, exactly.

FRANK COGLIANO: But they’re not going to war, I don’t think, in 1801 with Islam. Because they don’t actually know enough about Islam to go to war with Islam. They saw is as an alien faith. I don’t think they saw it as a threatening faith. And I think that’s the important distinction– in part because for men like Adams and Jefferson, religion was something one could believe, there were benefits to be derived in terms of the kind of values one could learn from religious teaching, but it wasn’t necessarily something that one should engage in wars over. Jefferson believed the Old World had been drenched in blood because of religious intolerance.

PETER: Right. What’s the big deal for you about the Barbara Wars? It’s clear you don’t think that the religious dimension’s important. What is important?

FRANK COGLIANO: Well, I think what’s really important there is what it tells us about Jefferson. We don’t have Jefferson the quasi-pacifist who hates war, here. We have a Jefferson who’s very comfortable using force, and using deadly force, to advance American interests. We don’t have Jefferson who’s worried about strict construction of the Constitution, as we all learned in school. He’s willing to go to war without consulting Congress in the first instance.

So there are interesting precedents there, in terms of the kinds of issues we debate today, about presidential power or war powers and so on. So it reveals much to us about Jefferson. I don’t think it reveals as much as some would suggest about a clash of civilizations.

PETER: Right. How would you summarize your critique of the deployment of that trope or that idea, a clash of civilizations, in modern discussions of American engagement in the Middle East and North Africa?

FRANK COGLIANO: Well, I just don’t think it’s very helpful. Because the trope is often deployed to justify contemporary conflicts. And the implication is that, you know, we’ve always been doing this. We’ve been in this clash of civilizations for more than two centuries, and it will continue, presumably, for the next two centuries.

Yes, we’re involved in prolonged conflict. Yes, we have been involved in conflicts in the Islamic world previously in our history. But the context really does matter. I just don’t think we can find the roots of our contemporary conflicts in what happened to North Africa. I think it’s far more useful, as far as what it tells us about how the United States makes foreign policy, and makes decisions, and presidents make decisions about the use of force, than it is about a war with Islam.


PETER: Frank Cogliano is a historian at the University of Edinburgh. He’s the author of Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy.

BRIAN: I noticed that Frank mentioned Jefferson’s Quran in passing. I’ll tell you the first time that I heard about Jefferson owning a Quran. It was when Congressman Keith Ellison from Minnesota– Ellison was the first Muslim member of Congress– took his oath on that very Quran. Peter, how did Jefferson end up with a copy of the Quran in the first place?

PETER: Well, Jefferson had everything in print that he could get. I think that’s important to keep in mind– that is, the Enlightenment impulse for universal knowledge. So what does that mean? What does the Quran in his library signify?

Well, it signifies that for Jefferson, it’s all grist for the mill. It’s all part of his effort to understand human nature. In a way, he thinks that religion is false consciousness, Christianity as much as anything else. He’s a Deist. He believes in natural religion. But the superstitions, the beliefs of peoples, these are all understandable. We have to see past them. That’s when enlightenment is all about.

So the result of this is a notion of universal human nature that means that we have to acknowledge the integrity of each human being, and a right to be wrong. So in a way, for people in Jefferson’s time– and Jefferson himself, drawing on the teachings of John Locke and his writings on religious toleration– to emphasize the most outlandish, the most unlikely candidate for–

BRIAN: Shows what a capacious concept this is.

PETER: That’s right. And you know, it’s not just Thomas Jefferson. In the battle for religious freedom in Virginia, it was devout Baptists looking to overthrow the established church and have freedom of worship. They explicitly included Muslims in their account of who should be embraced by this idea of religious freedom.

ED: So it’s kind of damning with faint praise. We are so capacious that we will even include Muslims.

PETER: Right. Right.

ED: Is that the kind, yeah?

PETER: Yeah. Nobody would have anticipated that a congressman from Minnesota– which didn’t exist, of course– was going to swear on this Quran, and to proclaim that that scripture from another faith tradition was equal to the Christian scripture. That was so remote.

What’s different about our ideas today, I think– and this is crucial– is we begin with the idea that we need, in this pluralistic society, to embrace people who are different, and to acknowledge their sameness. For Jefferson, none of that matters. What matters is this universal principle of natural rights. Jefferson believes in the homogeneity of universal principles.

What he’s saying, essentially, is it doesn’t matter what you believe. Now we know it does matter what you believe. It’s central to people’s identity. And somehow, we have to accommodate that.


ED: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory, and we’re talking about the history of Islam in America. Earlier in the show, we heard about the prevalence of Islam among African slaves in the New World, and the traces the religion and culture left behind. Now you’ve probably heard how, in the mid-20th century, Islam became important again for African Americans.

The most influential black Muslim group, the Nation of Islam, preached that instead of focusing on integration, black people should work within their own communities to empower themselves. Under such leaders as Elijah Muhammad and the charismatic Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam inspired followers to reclaim a past tied not to slavery, but to what they called a superior culture and higher civilization with North African roots. One they felt slavery had tried to erase.

RICHARD TURNER: By the 1960s, the Nation of Islam was the wealthiest organization in African American history.

ED: This is historian Richard Turner.

RICHARD TURNER: They accumulated that wealth by selling newspapers, buying real estate, establishing small businesses, grocery stores and restaurants, in major American cities.

ED: It turns out this model wasn’t new. The Nation of Islam owed a lot of its economic practices, as well as its religious and cultural principles, to an earlier organization called the Moorish Science Temple, and to its founder, who went by the name Noble Drew Ali.

BRIAN: Ali was born in North Carolina in 1886 and was one of the more than one million African Americans who left the South for cities in the North in the 1910s and ’20s. Ali set up is temple in Newark, but later moved it to Chicago, where the group became an influential voting bloc in local elections.

Its followers worshipped one god and called him Allah. They read from the Circle Seven Koran, a version that Ali himself compiled from different sources. The men dressed in fezzes or turbans, and the women, in long dresses and sometimes hijabs. They prayed on Fridays and followed Muslim dietary rules.

By the 1920s, the group had upwards of 30,000 followers. I asked Turner to tell me about Ali and about the philosophy of the Moorish Science Temple.

RICHARD TURNER: He claimed to be a prophet of Islam for African Americans. And this is one of the reasons why Noble Drew Ali is very important, because he is the first major figure in US history who signals the reemergence of Islam in the United States after Reconstruction.

BRIAN: What did the word “science” mean? Take us back 100 years and explain to me– I get the Moorish. I’m Jewish– I get Temple. What did Science mean?

RICHARD TURNER: You know, that’s a hard one to unpack. But my thinking on this is that he was attempting to look at the history of people of African descent in the United States through an objective, scientific lens, rather than through the non-scientific lens of institutional racism. Because Noble Drew Ali believed that racial categories were not essential categories, that they were socially- and politically-constructed categories.

BRIAN: Ahead of his time, in that regard.

RICHARD TURNER: He was way ahead of his time, in that regard. He truly believed that people of African descent who had been enslaved in the Americas should not call themselves Negro or colored. That instead they should claim a connection to a nation. And for Noble Drew Ali, the important nation was Morocco, where there had been a great ancient Islamic civilization.

BRIAN: Why would 30,000 or so African Americans need to embrace something as foreign-seeming as the Moorish Science Temple?

RICHARD TURNER: First of all, they made a critical decision that Christians were involved in the thousands of lynchings and burnings of black people at the stake that were taking place throughout the South and the Midwest in the early 20th century. You know, they were moving away from that racist element of Christianity– of course, which had also supported enslavement.

And I think, you know, as people moved to the North and the Midwest, and some people were moving to California also, they were open to new religious messages and political messages because they felt they were free. And some of this made sense to people, because we do know that there were African Americans who remembered Muslims who were part of their family heritage from the period of enslavement. They remembered ancestors who prayed at sunrise on a mat every day, and who fasted at particular times of the year, and wore veils. And so there were these memories of Islam.

BRIAN: Did Noble Drew Ali have in mind the “melting pot” model that some Americans held dear? Was he looking at the way, let’s say, Italians and Poles and Jews were being treated, and noting that they were nationalities, in many instances? Was this a conscious move on his part, to kind of trump race and hope that his followers would be treated like some of these white ethnicities?

RICHARD TURNER: I think that may have been one of his motivations. Noble Drew Ali was trying to claim respectability for African Americans by getting rid of the stereotypes of people of African descent. By getting rid of the mammy and the Jezebel, the Sambo, the pickaninny, the brute, stereotypes of African Americans that were invented to oppress people. And then reclaiming a whole different history, and looking to the Islamic world for inspiration, for peoplehood and nationhood and pride.

BRIAN: Well, thank you for joining us today on BackStory.

RICHARD TURNER: My pleasure.


BRIAN: Richard Brent Turner is a professor of religious history at the University of Iowa.


PETER: It’s time for another break. But stick around. When we return, a Tale of Two Islams– and One Mosque.

BRIAN: More BackStory, coming up in a minute.

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about the many currents of Islam across American history. We had a comment on our website from a listener named Rob in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s a convert to Islam and was kind enough to join us on the phone to tell us about his recent experience on a different radio show.

ROB (ON PHONE): I’d been asked to represent a Muslim perspective on a current event. And one of the things that struck me is after I went off the air, there was actually more than one caller who called and said, is he really American?

PETER: Yeah?

BRIAN: Who plays third base for the Yankees, Rob.


PETER: We don’t know that, do we?

BRIAN: No, I have no idea.

PETER: Well, Rob, maybe you could do share with us how you and the community that you worship with and the people you identify with as fellow Muslims have dealt with this perception, identification of the extreme with the mainstream. What do you say to each other?

ROB (ON PHONE): Well, first of all, we have gotten used to doing a lot of outreach. We’ve become more involved in interfaith and in inviting people in. Frankly, the community was largely immigrant and had pretty much kept to itself. And then 9/11 compelled a change, and we began to tell each other, we need to let people know what we’re really like. Because they’re just getting a lot of misinformation.

You know, it’s really extraordinary, the kinds of things you hear on talk radio or on other sources that are on the internet, that people say the Quran says this, and Muslims are all commanded to do that. And by the time that’s happened, we’ve lost the opportunity to influence people’s views who consume that. But we can invite them to meet us one-on-one, and that seems to be the most effective way.

PETER: So you’re actually– I’d risk the proposition, then, that because you’ve been forced, after 9/11, to have more of a public profile in your local community, in fact, that may have helped accelerate the assimilation of Muslim immigrants?

ROB (ON PHONE): That’s a very good point. I do want to point out that maybe a third of a typical metropolitan Muslim community is African American.

PETER: Right.

ROB (ON PHONE): In some places, more than that. But then there’s the large immigrant– or people who are second- or third-generation in this country. From my experience, the typical narrative would be a young male who comes to the US, frequently for the educational opportunities. And when they come here, they’re not necessarily very devout. But as they settle and raise a family– and often, they marry someone from another nationality, or they marry an American who may or may not have converted. And as they establish a family, they become more interested in the religion.

BRIAN: Well, I also think that in the case you’re talking about, many of these people had been in the majority, religion-wise. They took it for granted. And all of a sudden, they find themselves in a very distinct minority. And as you pointed out, they are often discriminated against. It does force you to reconsider that part of your identity, if you feel it’s under duress.

ROB (ON PHONE): Exactly.

ED: Rob, you point to the fact that there’s a great ethnic multiplicity within the Muslim community. I think that’s a unique thing. I mean, when Jews came here, they came from specific parts of the world. And when Catholics, they came in two waves– bot both times, from first Ireland, and then Southern Europe. How explicit is this acknowledgement of the different trajectories that people follow into the Muslim American community? How do you all negotiate that?

ROB (ON PHONE): Are you talking about differences in culture?

ED: And African American and immigrant, but also from South Asia and Middle Eastern. It strikes me that there’s a unique configuration among Muslims.

PETER: Well, you might even say a very American configuration.

ED: Right.

ROB (ON PHONE): Well, there’s an ideal in Islam that all Muslims belong to one community, and there’s no– no one takes priority because of their ethnic background. In America, you see congregations where that vision seems to be closer to the reality. And I’ve never really thought of it this way, but I think perhaps Muslims who are observant and who come to the mosque regularly are perhaps those to respond best to that. And those who would rather worship just with their own ethnic group may not turn out as often.

PETER: Oh, that’s interesting.

ROB (ON PHONE): But we do take pride in– you could say, you know, Friday at midday is the most integrated hour in American religion.

BRIAN: Thanks for talking to us today on radio, Rob.

ROB (ON PHONE): Thank you.


PETER: One Friday in 1976, a group of men broke into a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. They didn’t want to vandalize it. All they wanted to do was pray. For the mosque’s members, it was a regular workday. But Friday is a holy day in Islam, and these men, recent immigrants from Yemen and Palestine, were shocked that the mosque was closed. It was the opening salvo in a struggle to control not only the building but how Islam there would be practiced.

BRIAN: The mosque in Dearborn was called the Dix– that’s D-I-X– Mosque, and was one of just a couple in the area. It had been built in the 1930s by Lebanese immigrants who came to work at the local Ford factory. Like many Muslim communities in Michigan, the Dearborn congregation had developed a religious practice, well, that was pretty different from the Islam practiced in other parts of the world. So you can understand why the newcomers were confounded.

Nabeel Abraham grew up attending the Dix Mosque in the 1950s and ’60s, and he’s written about the struggle there. Nabeel, welcome to BackStory.

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Glad to be here.

BRIAN: Now before we get into this struggle that you’ve written about in the Dix Mosque of the 1970s, why don’t you give our listeners a look into what it was like attending the mosque when you were a kid?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Well, it was really an evolving mosque. I didn’t realize that at the time, but we were really like a Protestant church. Nobody wore a headscarf. You know, instead of Friday prayers, which is the thing that Muslims do around the world, we had Sunday prayers. We had Sunday school.

The basement floor, you might say, that was where all the socializing occurred. There were weddings there, and I remember them. And these were Palestinian weddings. These were people from my father’s village.

And there would be a fellow with a sword. That always caught my attention. Here’s this sword, comes out of nowhere, and he’s brandishing it and doing like a Zorba the Greek dance. There would be a lot of sweat, people moving and gyrating and dancing.

BRIAN: But did you have any sense that that was unusual, or you might be violating the religious mores of other worshipers?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Oh, no. No. To us, it completely seemed normal. Because we didn’t have, as a community, we didn’t have any other places. And it was the life, the center of life, for a small group of mostly Lebanese, and some Palestinian and a few other miscellanea Muslims.

The mosque was accommodating itself to life in America. And had been doing so for a while. There was a women’s auxiliary. That seemed to be a little bit more modern or progressive.

BRIAN: And did those women have much of a say in the mosque?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: They did, because they were raising funds, and they were pushing for Arabic language instruction, religious instruction. And they were the ones that I found out later, through my research, were the ones who were saying, hey, we’re losing our young people to out-marriages who are moving away, who aren’t keeping in the community.

BRIAN: But the whole time, as I understand it, even before the new immigrants came in the ’70s, there are these older directors kind of lurking in the background. And they already had a lot of issues with those more progressive women. Is that right?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Yes. Now there were the old men. The old men had a hand in building this mosque and steering it. And they were right-wing, or let’s put it– crusty, OK? But the guys who were coming in from Yemen, the new immigrants, were looking at the whole picture and saying, this is not authentic.

And the old country where we just came from, mosques didn’t look like this. They were open on Fridays. There were a lot of men there praying. And what’s with the women running around without headscarves? What’s with them raising their voices and dictating policy, or attempting to? What’s with these parties going on?

And the old men were looking at these new guys and saying, well, we can use them. We can use them to block the women and put them back in their place.

BRIAN: So this new blood comes in, and it, in some ways, serves the purposes of these old guys.

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Of the old-timers, yes.

BRIAN: How does that work out?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Well, it worked out very badly for them, and they were told that by the women. They said, you think these guys are your allies. They’re going to have your lunch in the future. And they said, well, we’re in charge, and we have the legal documents, et cetera. But they had one– let’s call it weakness. They had elections. [LAUGHS]

BRIAN: So was there ONE key election where the new guys took OVER?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Yes, there was. What happened is they outvoted the old-timers, took over the board, and took possession of the bank account of the mosque. And they started making policy. And they brought an imam, or a sheikh, from Yemen, a real hard, rigid fellow. A puritanical guy.

And the first thing that guy did is told the women that you are not welcome here, doing what you used to do. You’re going to use the side entrance.


NABEEL ABRAHAM: We’re going to put up a curtain. There’s going to be gender segregation. And you’re not going to raise your voices in here.

Well, it didn’t take very long for the women to feel that this was not– they weren’t welcome. That’s when they went and started their own group, and the old men followed them, eventually. And they started–

BRIAN: Hold on. Why did those old men follow the women that they had just tried to get rid of?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: They realized that they would have to sit in the back bench, so to speak, or leave. And eventually, they left and joined with the women to form–

BRIAN: How did the women treat them when they arrived with their tail between their legs?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: They humiliated them. They said, we told you so. This is an important point. The women put together this new Islamic center. They put up the money, because their purse, their treasury, remained in their hands. Whereas the men came penniless. They made a Faustian bargain and lost.

BRIAN: What’s the scene today in Dearborn? What is the nature of the Islamic community, if you could make a big generalization?

NABEEL ABRAHAM: Well, there’s enormous diversity, first off, to answer part of that question. What has happened is there’s been this enormous mushrooming of mosques, banquet halls, schools, Arabic parochial schools, Muslim schools, with this enormous influx of more Yemenis, more Iraqis, who weren’t present at that time, more Lebanese.

In the suburbs, you would find, among the Pakistani professional class of Arabs, say, Syrians, Palestinians, you will find less traditionalists. Although– I mean, they may start shouting, no, no, we are traditional, too. And I would say yes.

BRIAN: We love when people write into our website.


NABEEL ABRAHAM: Well, there’s enormous diversity. So today, Muslims and Islam are part of the norm. And people who don’t agree with the philosophical line, they can go to another mosque.

BRIAN: And how is different, Nabeel, than the standard story of religion throughout American history, of congregations fighting over differences of practice, and finally, part of the congregation is sent packing? They form their own church, in this case– talking about Protestant in the 19th century. And you know, eventually there’s just this proliferation of churches.

NABEEL ABRAHAM: You really hit the nail on the head. It’s part of that trend. It is the Americanization of Islam in America. They’re following in the same steps, virtually, as the Christian churches– and you could probably add the Judaic institutions.

BRIAN: But Nabeel, I want to thank you for joining us on BackStory.

NABEEL ABRAHAM: My pleasure.

BRIAN: Nabeel Abraham is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn.


ED: Throughout much of the 20th century, the story of Islam in America has been a story of two main constituencies. On the one hand, they’re the immigrants and their children, who we heard about in the last story. But there are also the African American Muslims, identified with groups like the Nation of Islam and, before that, the Moorish Science Temple. Our next story concerns the sometimes tense relationship between the two communities and the ways in which hip-hop culture open up a space for them to coexist. BackStory producer Kelly Jones is going to take it from here.


KELLY: This is Afrikaa Bambaataa, one of the founding DJs of hip-hop culture, with funk legend James Brown in 1984.


Like lots of his peers, Bambaataa was raised on funk. He also grew up hearing household debates about Afrocentrism, black politics, and the Nation of Islam. Bambaataa would blend those sonic and political influences and create the Universal Zulu Nation a movement designed to combat street violence by diverting gangs’ time and energy into socially conscious hip-hop.


The Universal Zulu Nation wasn’t explicitly Muslim. But its desire to create a positive Afrocentric culture was inspired by the black Muslim organizations that Bambaataa had been hearing about at home.

SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: So hip-hop is emerging, but at that very same time in these very same communities, you have vibrant and active African American Muslim communities. So hip-hop was born in that energy.

KELLY: This is Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, an anthropologist who studies the intersections of Islam and hip-hop. She says that these Islamic influences only grew stronger over the next few years, and points out that by 1988, Public Enemy was explicitly referencing Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on tracks like “Don’t Believe The Hype.”


KELLY: In the ’90s, arguably hip-hop’s golden age, references to Islam as a positive force in the black community were everywhere.

SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: From Wu Tang Clan, to Ice Cube, to Eric B and Rakim, Lakim Shabazz, Poor Righteous Teachers, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Talib Kweli– I mean, and some of these people are Muslim. Some of them aren’t. But all of them have references to Islamic tradition in their music. All of them have references to this kind of black Muslim ethic around community empowerment and self-determination and alleviating suffering.

KELLY: Take Busta Rhymes, the Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest. They all came together in 1996 for “Rumble in the Jungle.” It’s a song that combines ideas from the Five-Percent Nation, a Nation of Islam offshoot steeped in numerology.


KELLY: With references to former Nation of Islam member Malcolm X–


And references to Muhammad, the Prophet and the boxer.


KELLY: Or take Sunni artist Yasim Bey, formally known as Mos Def. His 1999 song “Umi Says” used the Arabic words for mother and father to encourage self-respect.


KELLY: Now as the hip-hop generation has come of age, so have second and third generations of immigrant Muslims. One pretty easy way to fit in is to define yourself by what you’re not. For Arab and South Asian immigrants to America, Su’ad says, that means defining yourself as not black.

SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: This, of course, for Muslim immigrants, is a challenge, right? Because when you first come to the country, you find there are Muslims who are here. And the Muslims that are here are the very people that you’ve been implicitly taught you should stay away from, right? And it becomes a source of tension, right?

In American Muslim communities, you have people who are sort of like, you know, no. Like hell no, right? They’re like, we’re not doing this hip-hop stuff. This is not Islam, right?

KELLY: On the other hand, there are many American Muslims, most of them young, who aren’t black but who do embrace hip-hop culture. Hip-hop speaks to them because it references familiar beliefs about the world.

SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: So Lauryn Hill, on her first solo album, “The Miseducation,” she has a song called “That Thing,” right? And she’s like, saying you’re a Muslim, a Christian sleeping with a djinn.


SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: So djinn is an Arabic term that’s for– I don’t know what you would call them in English. Like little devils, I suppose? I’m not really sure what you’d call them. Now if you’re like 13 or 14, or 15, 16, 17, whatever, you’re young, you’re American Muslim, and this is playing on the radio– because when Miseducation came out, Lauryn Hill, this was on the radio. This was like Top 40, right? Well that, really has a profound effect on who you see yourself to be. Because if it’s on the radio, it’s cool. And so if someone is talking about what you know, what your mother’s talking about at home, on the radio, then that’s cool, and you’re cool, too.

KELLY: But Su’ad says it’s not just about passive listening. She’s noticed that a lot of young Muslims in Chicago, many of whom are not black, are also energized by hip-hop culture to get actively involved.

SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: So they weren’t just sort of consuming the music passively, sort of in their bedrooms, writing down lyrics and buying new sneakers. They were also sort of like doing marches, or trying to organize young people on the South Side of Chicago, to sort of alleviate or to sort of deal with the realities of what black life is, too.

KELLY: And it’s the relationship between Islam and hip-hop that gives Muslim communities in Chicago common ground– common ground that extends beyond race or ethnicity.

SU’AD ABDUL KHABEER: It really challenges this idea that the only way you can really be sort of, quote, unquote, “authentically Muslim,” is if you’re sort of doing things the way people do elsewhere. So whatever they do someplace else, that’s Islam. You should do it that way. And if you don’t do it like that, it’s not authentic.

And what Islam and hip-hop– their relationship, it really challenges that. Because it says, well, no, because we’re Muslim. We’ve been doing this for a while. We have the same kind of moral priorities. We’re interested in the same social things. And we’re doing it as Muslims, and we’re doing is not based on practices elsewhere. We’re based on a tradition that’s been established and developed here in the United States. Like, I don’t think there’s another site that does that like hip-hop does for Muslims in the United States.


BRIAN: That story was produced by Kelly Jones with help from Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, an anthropologist at Purdue University.


PETER: And that’s going to do it for today. We’ll be waiting for you online. Leave us a comment to let us know what you thought of today’s show at

And while you’re there, take a moment to weigh in on our future shows. Our November topics include reconciliation, executive power, and popular images of Native Americans. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, at BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, and Robert Armengol. Our digital producer is Emily Gadek, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from [INAUDIBLE] and Emily Charnock. Special thanks this week to David Sukenot and Timothy Marr.

BRIAN: BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties. By the Tomato Fund– cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel– history made every day.

ANNOUNCER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


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Islam and the U.S. Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

In the lesson material that follows, students will have the opportunity to develop and practice several of History’s Habits of Mind. The Habits of Mind provide life-long advantages. They help students build mature thought processes for both learning and living.

In learning about the Founding Fathers’ attitudes toward other religions and their acceptance and toleration of diverse religious beliefs, students can observe the impact made by individuals who have made a difference in history. These men were forerunners of the American way toward a religiously accepting and diverse society. Reading statements of the Founders about religious diversity helps students understand the significance of the past in shaping the present. Learning from primary sources gives authenticity to student learning. But a look at the frustrations of Adams and Jefferson as they attempt to deal with the Barbary States also shows the limitations of individual action and underscores the complexity of historical causation. Adams and Jefferson were representing a weak, disunited country, trying to achieve diplomatic ends on a severely limited budget. These lessons also provide excellent opportunities for students to comprehend the interplay of change and continuity in history. The dialogue between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over whether military action or diplomatic activity is the best approach to dealing with the Barbary Pirates has echoes in our own time regarding the best approach to preventing a nuclear Iran. The compare and contrast activity for the Barbary Wars and the Gulf Wars also develops this Habit of Mind, as well as helping students to appreciate the often tentative nature of judgments about the past. It is important for students of history to realize that historians disagree. A variety of perspectives come into play as historians make judgments about the past. The research activity exposes students to a variety of secondary sources on the Barbary Wars. They will also develop independent research skills as they learn more about the Gulf Wars of our own time. In addition to developing History’s Habits of Mind and research skills, these lessons provide instruction in the Common Core competencies in reading and in writing arguments supported by evidence. Primary sources appear in both their original form and in modified versions to afford readers with various strengths the opportunity to read documents from the past. Students need guidance in learning how to frame an argument and express a position supported by evidence. The discipline of history is particularly well-suited for developing these skills.