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Islamic Studies Islam in North America
Amir Hussain


Many North Americans are surprised to learn that Muslims have a long history on their continent. Historians estimate that between 10 and 20 percent of the slaves who came from West Africa were Muslim. Thomas Jefferson, to take a noted figure in American history, purchased a translation of the Qur’an in 1765, more than a decade before he drafted the Declaration of Independence. The first Muslim immigrants to North America other than slaves were from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Many were itinerants who came to make money and then return to their countries of origin. Some, however, were farmers and settled permanently. Mosques sprang up in 1915 (Maine), 1919 (Connecticut), 1928 (New York), and 1937 (North Dakota). In the late 19th century, the first Muslims came to Canada as Arab merchants who often landed in the east but wandered west to the frontier selling goods to remote farms and to the north selling to fur traders. This early population was small, with the first Canadian census of 1871 listing thirteen Muslims. The first established Muslim settlement was in Lac Labiche in northern Alberta. The descendants of those settlers helped build the first Canadian mosque, the Al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton in 1938. The immigration policies of Canada in the 1970s meant that many of the Muslim immigrants were professionals or well-qualified business people. They often did well in their new country. Most of these Muslims emigrated either from South Asia or from the Arab world. In addition, however, there are Canadian Muslims whose ethnic backgrounds reflect immigration from almost every part of the world, from Bosnia to Indonesia. The 2001 Canadian census listed 579,600 Muslims in Canada, meaning that Islam became the second-largest religious tradition in Canada—well behind Christianity but ahead of Judaism. In the last half-century, the Muslim population of the United States increased dramatically through immigration (especially following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), strong birth rates, and conversion. The U.S. census does not ask the question of religious affiliation, so there is less certainty about the size of the U.S. Muslim population. Some estimates are as low as 2 million people and as high as 10 million. Research into America’s immigration patterns, birth rates, and conversion rates—similar to those of Canada—indicates that both of these estimates are extreme. Instead, many researchers estimate that there are between 6 and 7 million American Muslims as of the first decade of the 21st century.

General Overviews

Introductory work on Islam in North America includes Haddad 1991, Haddad 1994, and Waugh, et al. 1983. Curtis 2008 is a collection of primary source documents, and Alan Godlas has an excellent website called Islam, the Modern World, and the West: Contemporary Topics.


There are two useful bibliographies on Islam in North America: Haddad, et al. 1997 and Leonard 2003.

African American Islam

At least 25 percent of American Muslims are African American. By contrast, there is not the same history of Afro-Canadian Muslims in Canada, which is one of the reasons why the experiences of American Muslims are different from those of Canadian Muslims.


The documented history of Muslims in North America begins with West African Muslim slaves brought to the Americas. There are a number of books that document this history, including Austin 1997 and Diouf 1998.

Firsthand Accounts

In the 20th century, the Nation of Islam (NOI) began in the United States. Elijah Muhammad (Muhammad 1992), Malcolm X (Haley and Malcom X 1999), Louis Farrakhan (Farrakhan 1993), and Warith Deen Muhammad (Muhammad 1991) are important figures in American religious history, and their own writings listed in this section are crucial to understanding their thought.

Secondary Literature on the Nation of Islam

There is substantial secondary literature on the Nation of Islam (NOI), including Gardell 1996 and Curtis 2006.

Secondary Literature on African American Islam

It was through the Nation of Islam (NOI) that many African Americans began their journey to Islam. Sherman Jackson (Jackson 2005) and Robert Dannin (Dannin 2002) are among the African American Muslim authors who have written some of the best work about this. In the 21st century the number of members of the NOI is very small, and the majority of African American Muslims are Sunni.

Women in North American Islam

Many North Americans have distorted images of Muslim women. In the Victorian era, English colonists criticized Muslims for being too sensual. In this modern age of sexual liberation, the veiled Muslim woman represents a repressed or oppressed sexuality. Both images are full of prejudice and misunderstanding regarding the roles of women in Islam and in Muslim society.

Veiling, Family, and Gender

Alvi, et al. 2003 is an excellent edited collection of essays on the topic of veiling. There are also numerous studies that deal with issues of family and gender among North American Muslim women.

North American Muslim Women

American Muslim women have made important contributions to the development of Islam in North America. Ingrid Mattson, for example, is a scholar who is president of the Islamic Society of North America. There are a number of books by and about North American Muslim women, including Karim 2008, Wadud 2006, Anway 1995, Rouse 2004, and Khan 2002. A documentary on the place of women in the North American mosque is Me and the Mosque, directed by Zarqa Nawaz (Nawaz 2005). Nawaz is also the creator of the hit Canadian television sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie.


The first North American mosques sprang up in 1915 (Maine), 1919 (Connecticut), 1928 (New York), 1937 (North Dakota), and 1938 (Edmonton, Alberta). There is a small but growing body of literature on mosques in North America. See Bagby, et al. 2001 and Kahera 2002 for overviews of mosques in North America. Dodds and Grazda 2002 focuses only on New York.

Contemporary North American Muslim Voices

There is a growing body of literature written by North American Muslims describing their own experiences of Islam. These range from nonscholarly accounts of personal experiences (Hasan 2000) to edited collections on what it means to be a North American Muslim (Barboza 1994 and Wolfe 2002).

North American Islam

There are a number of works on North American Islam in addition to those basic books in the General Overviews section. The best general introduction is Haddad and Smith2002, while Bukhari, et al. 2004 is particularly good for the participation of American Muslims in civil society.

American Muslim Intellectuals

A number of American Muslim intellectuals have emerged over the past few decades. See Chittick 2007 for the work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ghamari-Tabrizi 2004 for Ismaʿil al-Faruqi, and Waugh and Denny 1998 for Fazlur Rahman. Consult Denny 1994 for an overview.


There is a growing body of literature on Islam in Canada and the particular issues that are relevant to Canadian Muslims as distinct from U.S. Muslims. Hussain 2004 gives a good basic overview of some of the issues relating to Canadian Muslims, while McDonough and Hoodfar 2005 provides an excellent introduction to Muslims in Canada.

Muslims and the Media

There have been a number of recent books on North American Muslims and the media. A good resource post-9/11 is Karim 2003. Shaheen 2009, Ramji 2003 and Ramji 2005 are excellent works on the images of Muslims in films.

LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0057

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