At the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, there is beauty in the swirling Arabic letters. There is elegance in the geometric patterns on the walls and the plush green carpeting. The occasion for my visit to the mosque was the second annual Massachusetts Open Mosque Day. In the spirit of “Open Minds, Open Hearts,” 21 mosques across Massachusetts opened their doors to guests. At the mosque I went to in Wayland, the lovely welcome included an impressive assortment of sweets, a bevy of information and a warm welcome from Muslim neighbors who wanted to share their culture and beliefs.
I spent much of my visit listening to Dr. Kecia Ali’s comprehensive presentation on the history of Muslims and Islam in America. Ali, who teaches in Boston University’s Department of Religion, is an expert in the Muslim experience in America and began her talk with a flurry of fascinating statistics—statistics that painted a contemporary picture of Muslims across the world.
Nearly one in four people on the planet is Muslim. Contrary to popular perception, most Muslims are Asian, with the largest population residing in Indonesia. The second-largest population is in India, even though Muslims are a minority in that country. Ali noted that if you add up the Muslim inhabitants of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, they comprise the largest population of Muslims in the world. At last count, 49 countries had Muslim majorities. Most Muslims live in what the United Nations has designated as developing countries, which means most reside in Africa or Asia.
Ali also clarified that Arab identity and the Muslim religion are not synonymous. Only one in five Muslims is Arab, and one in five Arabs is Christian. There are roughly an equal number of Muslims and Christians in Africa, along with adherents of indigenous religions. As she emphasized, the religious boundaries are blurred there.
In America, Muslims make up 1 percent—3.3 million people—of the general population. Muslims are the most ethnically and geographically diverse religious group in the United States. Virtually every ethnic group in America, including Latinx, Southeast Asians, Central Europeans (mainly from Bosnia) and Africans (many from Somalia), claims a notable Muslim presence.
As Ali pointed out, most American Muslims come from three major groups: Arab, Southeast Asian and African American. Coming from various places of origin, American Muslims have diverse political views and different religious observances. Their diversity is also reflected in education, class and culture. The largest wave of contemporary Muslim immigration was from Southeast Asia in the 1960s.
The story of Muslims in America includes the critical fact that Islam has been an American religion for four centuries. The first Muslims, most of whom were enslaved, arrived in America when the country was just a territory. By the Civil War, between 15 percent and 20 percent of enslaved people were Muslim. Muslim practices survived slavery, and in the late 19th century many of the Muslims who had been enslaved found their way to cities in the Midwest and the South.
The history of American Muslims is not complete without talking about the role of the Nation of Islam. Established in the 1930s, the Nation grew to be one of the bigger Muslim populations in America. Founded by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X was one of its more charismatic spokesmen. In 1963, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam and adopted practices that were more in line with the majority Sunni population. As Ali observed, Malcolm X drew on a long legacy of using Islam to articulate anti-colonial and anti-racist theologies, as well as political ideals. Before his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X played a major role in the conversion of a number of African-Americans to Islam, as well as Islam’s entry into mainstream African-American culture.
After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son dismantled the Nation and brought his followers closer to mainstream Sunni Islam. By the late 1970s, Louis Farrakhan revived the Nation of Islam with the goal of meeting the needs of the African-American community. The movement has continued to exist separately, but has also moved closer to Sunni Islam. Although Ali acknowledged Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, she also noted that Farrakhan had brought a significant number of people to Islam.
After Ali’s talk, I lingered at an information table in the mosque’s vestibule. Toobah, a friendly college student wearing a hijab, directed me to books that introduced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad to the general public. When I asked, she told me her hijab is a point of pride and devotion to Islam. She was grateful that I came to visit her mosque and directed me to another table where I, and everyone else who attended the mosque’s open house, was gifted a copy of the Quran.
According to a recent survey, four in 10 Americans have never met a Muslim. Their primary acquaintance with Muslims is through media portrayals, which are often negative. As Ali noted, the overwhelming majority of Muslims unequivocally condemn all forms of violence and terrorism.
Misinformation and prejudice against Muslims have been taken up several notches since the 2016 election. Forty-three states have introduced anti-Sharia laws. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes anti-Sharia sentiment as “mass hysteria.” Attacks on hijab-wearing women, men speaking Arabic or men who are turban-wearing Sikhs have increased dramatically.
I describe myself as an anxious optimist. That is, I worry a lot, but I ultimately think things will work out. I wholeheartedly believe that personal interactions are key to mitigating prejudice. It’s crucial for us non-Muslims to speak out about acts of hate toward our Muslim brothers and sisters. It’s critical that we become educated about the peace-loving precepts of Islam. Perhaps it starts with a visit to a mosque where we can have one-on-one conversations with Muslims about what’s in both of our generous yet complicated hearts.