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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2 by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
History, Beliefs, Practices and Records
Islam is the youngest of the world’s very large religions—those with over 300 million members, which include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Islam is the second largest religion in the world with more than 20 percent of the world’s population. Christianity accounts for about 33 percent. Estimates of the total number of Muslims vary widely, ranging from 0.7 to 1.2 billion worldwide, including 1.1 to 7 million in the United States.
A small population of Muslims existed in America in earlier centuries, but growth has been spectacular during the past fifty years. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in American and around the world. The Muslim community in America is made up of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and national origins.
There is no central authority for all Islam. There are however Islamic Centers in Washington, D.C., Toledo, Detroit, New York, and other cities across the United States. The national organization in the United States is called the Islamic Society of North America.
Islam is an Arabic word which means submission, and it represents to Muslims submission to the will of Allah as interpreted by the Prophet Mohammed. The holy book is the Qu’ran [Koran]. Followers of Islam are called Muslims. An alternate spelling for Muslim that is occasionally used is Moslem; it is not recommended because it is often pronounced “mawzlem”: which sounds like an Arabic word for “oppressor.”
Most religious historians view Islam as having been founded in 622 CE [Common Era] by Muhammad the Prophet. The religion started in Mecca, when the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) read the first revelation to Muhammad. [Mohammed and Muhammed are alternate spellings for his name.]
Islam is both a religion and a way of life. The religion has developed over its fourteen centuries of existence. To briefly describe Islam in America, it can be said that it consists of the revelation of the Qur’an, the experiences of its Prophet, and its requirements of faith and practice.
The Qur’an (Recitation): The words of God were revealed to Muhammad by the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel). Originally in oral and written form, they were later assembled together into a single book, the Qur’an. Its name is often spelled “Koran” in English but some Muslims find that offensive.
A second revered text is the Hadith which are collections of the sayings of Muhammad. They are regarded as the Sunnah (lived example) of Muhammad. These writings are not regarded as having the same status as the Holy Qur’an.
One becomes a Muslim by saying, “There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” By this declaration, the person announces faith in all of God’s messengers. Muslims in America look not only to the Prophet as the example of right and faithful living, but they also look to many of Muhammad’s family members and associates for inspiration.
Muslim children learn from their parents and mosque schools that Islam is based on these specific beliefs:
- Faith in God: God, the creator, is just, omnipotent and merciful. Allah, the Arabic word for God, is often used to refer to God.
- Faith in the reality of angels.
- Faith in God’s messengers: Includes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad, whose message is considered the final, universal message for all of humanity.
- Faith in the Holy Books: the Torah, the Psalms, the rest of the Bible, and the Qur’an.
- Faith in the Day of Resurrection and Judgment: People will be judged on the basis of their deeds while on earth, and they will either attain reward of Paradise or punishment in Hell. Unbelievers and sinners spend eternity in Hell. Paradise is a place of physical and spiritual pleasure where the sinless go after death. Muslims do not believe that Jesus or any other individual can atone for another person’s sin.
Five Pillars express the essence of the individual Muslim’s personal piety, incorporating the essentials of living a good and responsible life according to the Islamic understanding. The Five Pillars are:
- Shahada: This confession of faith states, “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” Devout Muslims repeat this testimony twice daily.
- Salat: Performance of ritual prayer; Islamic prayers are a direct link between the worshiper and God. Islam has no hierarchical authority or priesthood. Each congregation selects a learned Muslim to lead the prayers. Muslims are expected to perform five obligatory prayers each day.
- Zakat: Almsgiving; all things belong to God. Wealth is held in trust by human beings. Zakat, or charitable giving, “purifies” wealth by setting aside a portion for those in need. Usually, this payment is usually two and a half percent of one’s capital.
- Sawn: Fasting during the month of Ramadan. Fasting is a method of self-purification. Every year in the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sunset.
- Hajj: Performing the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca once during one’s lifetime: A pilgrimage to Mecca is an obligation for those who are physically or financially able.
Noting the broad geographical range of countries from whom Muslims emigrated, it is not surprising that in America there is a great range in beliefs and practices. There are Sunnis and Shi’ites, Sufis and members of sectarian groups, political Islamists, and many who espouse neither a religious nor a political agenda. All find their new minority status in America in sharp contrast to their homeland where in many cases Islam was the majority religion.
Since mid-19th century, Muslim immigrants to the United States have included both Sunnis and Shi’ites along with members of other smaller sectarian groups. World-wide only about a tenth of the Muslims are Shi’ite, constituting most of Iran’s population and more than half that of Iraq; some live in Africa, India, and Pakistan. By the end of the 20th century, approximately one fifth of American Muslims belong to Shi’a sects, mostly from Iran and Iraq but also from Lebanon, India, and Pakistan. Due to language and cultural differences, the Shi’ites from the Indian subcontinent try to keep separated from those originating in Iran and Iraq.
Sunni Muslims make up a 90 percent majority of believers. They are followers of the Hanifa, Shafi, Hanibal and Malik schools and are considered mainstream traditionalists. Willing to pursue their faith within secular societies, they adapt well to a variety of national cultures. Their three sources of law are the Qur’an, Hadith, and consensus of Muslims.
Shi’ite Muslims, followers of the Jafri school, constitute a small minority of Islam. They split from the Sunnis over a dispute about the successor to Muhammad. They believe in twelve heavenly imams who led the Shi’ites in succession. They believe that the 12th Imam never died but rather went into hiding to wait for the best time to reappear and guide humans toward peace and justice. They promote a strict interpretation of the Qur’an.
Sufism is a mystic tradition. Followers seek inner knowledge directly from God through meditation, ritual, and dancing. They emphasize personal union with the divine. The group developed late in the 10th century CE as an ascetic reaction to the formalism and laws of the Qur’an. There are Sufis from both the Sunni and Shi’ite groups. Because Sufism incorporated ideas from Neoplatonism, Buddhism, and Christianity, some Sunni followers do not consider it a valid Islamic practice. In the Middle East, some Sufi traditions are considered to be a separate school of Islam. In parts of Africa, Sufism is more a style and an approach rather than a separate school.
Muslim Migrations to the United States
Muslim migrations to the United States occurred in a series of periods. The ship-building industry of New England drew Muslims from Lebanon as early as 1875. Between 1875 and 1912, many immigrants came from rural areas from what was then called Greater Syria (currently Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon) which was then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The majority were Christian, having been trained in missionary schools. Together, the Sunni, Shi’i, ‘Alawi, and Druze Muslims formed a minority of Middle Eastern immigrants during this period. With the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, a second wave came. These were often relatives of Muslims who were already established in America. The quota systems established by the U.S. immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 limited the number of Muslims allowed entrance into the United States. The third period lasted through most of the 1930s, limited to relatives of people already living in America. The fourth wave lasted from 1947 to 1960 with a trickle of Muslims coming from the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Most of these arrivals settled in large cities, particularly Chicago and New York. The last wave was influenced both by events taking place in parts of the Islamic world and by the 1965 immigration act which repealed quotas based on national diversity. Immigration from Europe declined while those coming from the Middle East and Asia increased greatly, more than half of whom were Muslim. These immigrants represent a great range of Islamic movements and ideologies.
North Dakota was home to some of the earliest documented Muslim groups in America. Then came immigrants from Yemen and Lebanon. Dearborn, Michigan with its Ford Motor Plant established there in the late 1920s, needed workers. Soon a significant Arab community began to form there. Palestinian Muslims followed the earlier Lebanese immigrant group. Today the Arab Muslim community is composed of Sunnis and Shi’a together.
A group of Syrians and Lebanese settled in Michigan City, Indiana, and in 1924, joined by other Muslims, formedThe Modern Age Arabian Islamic Society. Cedar Rapids was still another Muslim population center, completing a mosque in 1934, the oldest mosque still in use today in America, for that reason being called the “Mother Mosque of America.”
Not surprisingly, New York and Chicago attracted Muslims from urban settings in a wide range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Early unskilled workers from the Punjab who settled on the West Coast included both Muslims and Sikhs whom Americans tended erroneously to look upon as Hindus.
Islam in the African American community had early origins with a significant number brought to North America during the antebellum slave trade. A few were able to practice their Muslim faith in secret. In the 20th century, blacks found a place in the Nation of Islam or NOI, referred to as “black Muslims” only outside the group itself. Also appealing to blacks have been some of the Sunni movements and some splinter groups.
Most American Muslims are either part of the immigrant population or are African American. There are, however, a growing number of other Americans who choose to convert to Islam as their religion and way of life. They are attracted by the intellectual appeal of a great civilization of scholarly, scientific, and cultural achievements. At the same time they approve of the straightforward simplicity of the declaration of faith and the five pillars that Muslims are expected to follow. Estimates of the number of these Anglo Muslims range from twenty to fifty thousand, but no one really knows the actual numbers.
Islam does not have denominational mosques. Members are welcome to attend any mosque in any land. The forms of religious leadership in Islam history have been many and varied. The person assuming the function of leading the prayer in a mosque or Islamic gathering is known as the imam. Preparation for the responsibility is varied. Increasingly, the imams function in ways that bear similarity to the clergy of other faiths. They may be asked to perform weddings and funerals, give legal advice, provide for religious education, raise funds for maintenance of the mosque, provide pastoral care and counseling, visit the sick and elderly, and participate in community activities.
This can prove overwhelming when as is often the case, the imam has other employment as well. Only rarely can an Islamic center afford the services of a thoroughly trained, full-time imam.
Life for Muslims living in America has been difficult. Prejudice, distrust, and misunderstanding have been prevalent throughout the country. Added to that is the diversity within the Muslims themselves. Over the last half century, a large number of organizations have developed for guidance and support of the Muslim community. The first such group was the Federation of Islamic Organizations, which after a time gave way to other groups, among which was the influentialMuslim Student Association (MSA) and its subsidiary organizations. Then came the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) which has become the overseeing body for emerging Islamic organizations. A smaller group is the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), known for its strict adherence to the spirit and the law of Islam. There are other groups as well, too numerous to mention.
Even within a distinctive representation of Islam, there are differences. And certainly no one unified body governs over all of the Islamic faith either in America or in the places of origin. Consequently, one cannot expect to find records located in one central repository or even several. Nor will all groups maintain the same kinds of records. The challenge first is to determine with which sect a family is tied. Then the best source for a family’s religious records is likely to be at the centers established by that group within the geographical area of an ancestral family.
The response by one individual regarding religious records of Islam was the following, “Islam does not keep genealogy records any more than Christianity keeps genealogy records, or for that matter any other religion. Muslim individuals might keep their own records. You’d have to ask them.”
Islamic Society of North America
PO Box 38
Plainfield, IN 46168
Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA)
166-26, 89th Avenue
Jamaica, NY 11432
National Center and Headquarters for the Nation of Islam
7351 South Stony Island Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60649
Christianity Today - Islam, U.S.A.
by Wendy Murray Zoba
Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)
EthicsDaily.com - What Is Islam?
by Gary Leazer
Institute of Islamic Information and Education
Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA)
Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)
Nation of Islam
Religious Tolerance - Islam - The Second Largest World Religion…and Growing
Suite 101 - Islam
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.