Sheila Musaji

Posted Feb 9, 2013      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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There have been a number of lists published (see bottom of this collection) over the years, but most were somewhat exclusive, focusing on particular segments of our American Muslim community.  This list is the beginning of what I hope will be a much expanded list.  If you have information about people, organizations, historical incidents, firsts, etc. that should be included here (and can provide a link or a reference from a book to document that information), or if you know about something that occurred earlier than what I have listed as a first, please send that information to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) 

The American Muslim community is possibly the most diverse in the world.  Our community includes Sunni and Shia and Sufi, and every madhab.  It includes immigrants and native-born, and every race, nationality, and ethnic group imaginable.  It includes many movements, and people who have multiple identities.  It includes conservative and liberal points of view.  It includes traditional as well as heterodox movements and splinter groups.  At this point in time, a majority of the American Muslim community is native born, converts and second-generation or multi-generation individuals and families.

There are events listed that had a negative impact on the American Muslim community, or that provided serious challenges.  There are individuals and organizations listed that some members of the community believe to be deviant or even “not Muslims”, but they were involved in events that had an effect (positive or negative) on the wider community nevertheless, in many cases because the American public is not aware of the distinctions between these various groups.  This is the reality, and the American Muslim community is in the process of creating community structures, organizations, and support systems to deal with this incredible richness and variety.  For some, this process is uncomfortable.

Some of the events listed created controversies and were well-publicized at the time. Some of the events influenced the attitudes of the American public toward Islam and Muslims (good and bad), some led to serious internal discussions in the American Muslim community, some led to a need for a response from the community.

Some of the events were political or cultural events that the American Muslim community was forced to deal with, although they came from outside of our community.

Even in those cases when mistakes were made in our response to particular events or issues, those can become an opportunity for growth if we look back at them and use those examples to improve our responses in the future.  **  The attitudes of the American public towards Islam and Muslims have fluctuated over the years. 

This is meant to be the beginning of a truly comprehensive list.  I would like to hear from Muslims who have information (with sources) about other events that should be included.  Please send these to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


1500’s to 1700’s

— Estevan of Azamor (or Estevanico) may have been the first Muslim to enter the historical record in North America. Estevanico was a Berber originally from North Africa who explored the future states of Arizona and New Mexico for the Spanish Empire in the 1530’s.

— In 1586. That year, Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596), the famous English seaman, discoverer, and privateer, brought at least two hundred Muslims (identified as Turks and Moors, which likely included Moriscos) to the newly established English colony of Roanoke on the coast of present-day North Carolina. The Roanoke settlement was England’s first American colony and constitutes the first chapter of English colonial history in the New World and what ultimately became the history of the United States. Only a short time before reaching Roanoke, Drake’s fleet of some thirty ships had liberated these Muslims from Spanish colonial forces in the Carribbean. They had been condemned to hard labor as galley slaves.

—  Anthony “The Turk” Janszoon van Salee  may have been the first Muslim settler in the New World..  New Utrecht, one of the original six towns settled on Long Island, was in the Bensonhurst area (84th Street between 16th and 18th Avenues, roughly). Jacques Cortelyou, a surveyor, began selling lots in the area to create New Utrecht starting in 1655-1657. One of the first, if not THE first, houses built in the town was the Nicasius De Sille house which stood at (roughly) 18th Avenue and 84th Street. Anthony Janszoon van Salee was a free black Moroccan who settled in New Utrecht in 1630 and became a prominent merchant and landowner.

— It is estimated that between 15 and 30% of the slaves forcibly brought to America were Muslims.  The first slave ship landed in 1619 with about 20 African slaves. That means that of the estimated 500,000 African slaves in America, 75,000 to 150,000 were Muslims.  A few well-documented cases were Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn SoriAyuba Suleiman Diallo 1701-1773 (about whom the film Prince Among Slaves was made — Omar Ibn Said 1770-1864 — Yarrow Mamout who bought his freedom in 1797 and whose portrait was painted by renowned early American artist Charles William Peale, and it resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

— In 1732 Ayyub ibn Sulaiman Jallon, (aka Job bin Solomon) a Muslim slave in Maryland, was set free by James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, and provided transportation to England. He arrived home (Boonda, Galumbo) from England in 1735.  He was one of the few slaves ever to make the voyage both ways and return to his home.  **   

—In 1739, When Benjamin Franklin helped establish a non-denominational religious meeting house in Philadelphia, he emphasized its non-sectarian nature by stating that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service”. **

—In 1776, John Adams published “Thoughts on Government,” in which he praises the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a “sober inquirer after truth” alongside Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, and other thinkers. **

—The first country to officially recognize the independence of the United States was Morocco, in 1777. This was a year before the second country, Holland, recognized the United States’ independence and six years before Britain and most of the rest of Europe did. This early recognition led many of the founding fathers of the U.S. to have an extremely positive view of Islam and the Arabic world in general. **   

—Between 1785 and 1815, over a hundred American sailors were held captive for ransom by Barbary pirates in Algiers. Several wrote captivity narratives of their experiences that gave most Americans their first view of the Middle East and Muslim ways, and newspapers often commented on them. The views were generally negative.  Piracy was widespread during this period in history, however this particular group of pirates were somehow seen as more of a threat. 


— 1826 U.S. Marine Corps officers began wearing the “Mameluke Sword” in commemoration of 1stLt Presley O’Bannon’s assault on Derna, Tripoli.  It is still worn today.  **

— In 1828 Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, a former prince from West Africa and now a salve on a Georgia plantation, is freed by the order of Secretary of State Henry Clay and President John Quincy Adams. He was known to many during his lifetime as “The Prince of Slaves.” A drawing of him, done by Henry Inman, is displayed in the Library of Congress.  Unity Productions Foundation has produced a film about his life.  **

— In 1831 Omar Ibn Said, an educated native of West Africa, wrote the only known American slave narrative in Arabic**

— 1839 “Sayyid Sa’id”, ruler of Oman orders his ship “The Sultana” to set sail to America on a trade mission, reaching New York, April 30, 1840. And although the voyage was not a commercial success, it marks the point of Muslims successful friendly relations with America, which still continues to exist between many of the Islamic nations and the United States of today.  **

— 1839-1840 The Amistad Trials a very important trial involving definitions of “slavery”, “property”, legal and illegal importation of slaves, International law, etc. “On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court announced its decision.  Justice Story, speaking for the Court, said that the Amistads were “kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom.” As justification for the Court’s decision, Justice Story relied largely on the narrower arguments of Roger Baldwin, rather than the “interesting remarks” of John Quincy Adams. (LINK TO SCT DECISION) The Africans were free: they could stay or they could return to Africa. (The decision was, of course, by no means a repudiation of slavery, and clearly implied that if the Amistads had been brought from Africa prior to the 1820 treaty banning importation of slaves, they would have been considered property of Ruiz and Montes and been returned to Cuba.)”  **

— Small-scale migration to the U.S. by Muslims began in 1840, with the arrival of Yemenis and Turks

—In 1846, Emir Abd el-Kader of Algeria was well respected worldwide for his struggle against French colonization. He was called the Algerian George Washington. The town of Elkader, Iowa was named after him. It is the only town in the U.S. named after an Arab. **

— 1846 Tunisia became the first Arab country to abolish slavery.  The abolition of slavery in Tunisia preceded the abolition in the U.S. by almost 20 years.  **

— 1854 the Ottomon Empire sent a gift to be included in the Washington Monument. Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid sent a marble plaque that helped to build the Washington Monument. Inscribed in the plaque was a poem that began with a few simple words: “So as to strengthen the friendship between the two countries”. Over 150 years have passed since those words were carved into marble. Our nations have changed in many ways. But our friendship is strong, and our alliance endures”.  This stone is on the 17th floor of the Washington Monument.  **

— Bilali Muhammad (1770-1857), a slave on Sapelo Island, Georgia, wrote the first and only extant book of Islamic Law written in America, called the Bilali document, prior to 1857. 

— Hajj Ali (Hi Jolly) the only truly legendary Old West figure of Arab origin. Born in Syria, he arrived at Camp Verde with the second shipment of camels in 1857 and helped the Americans handle their camels on Beale’s trek to California. His easygoing nature—and Americans’ ignorance of Arabic—left him with the nickname “Hi Jolly,” and after the westward trek he took part in numerous camel projects throughout California and Arizona.

— There are recorded instances of Muslims in the United States military during the American Civil War, for example,  Muhammad Ali ibn Said (also known as Nicholas Said),  came to the United States in 1860 where he found a teaching job in Detroit. In 1863, Said enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment in the United States Army and rose to the rank of sergeant. He was later granted a transfer to a hospital department, where he gained some knowledge of medicine. His Army records state that he died in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1882.  Another Muslim soldier from the Civil War was Max Hassan, an African who worked for the military as a porter. 

— In 1865, during the Civil War, the Union burned The University of Alabama.  A copy of the Qur’an was the only book saved from the University Library.  A copy of the Quran dating from 1853, its spine missing, its pages browning and its front cover almost detached, sits today in a library at the University of Alabama.  **

— Four years after Canada’s founding in 1867, the 1871 Canadian Census found 13 European Muslims among the population.

— Ross, North Dakota is the site of the first documented Muslim Cemetery with tombstones dating from 1882 **.  There was an early mosque but it was torn down, and a new mosque was built in 1929.  The immigrants came there because the Homestead Act gave people up to 160 acres of land after taking care of it.

— The first American convert to Islam that we know about was Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916)  He founded the American Islamic Press as well as one of the earliest mosques in New York City, established in 1895. His organization Muslim Mission, which he founded in Manhattan in 1893, was among the first Islamic Missions in the United States.  He was the only Muslim attending the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions. 

— The first Muslim periodical in the U.S. was called Moslem World and published by Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb in 1893.

— A New York Times article, headlined “New-York’s First Muezzin Call” and published December 11, 1893, documented the “melodious” call that sonorously floated out from the third-story window of the Union Square Bank building at 8 Union Square East.  John Lant, the muezzin was affiliated with Alexander Russell Webb’s group. After the congregation prayed that day, the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Study of Islam ensued. Fittingly, the meeting closed with a discussion on “Islam in America.”  **

— In 1893 Muslim immigrants from the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, etc. begin to arrive in North America. They are mainly Turks, Kurds, Albanians, and Arabs.

— 1896 to 1900 The Library of Congress Dome includes a mural “The Evolution of Civilization” which acknowledges important contributions to the development of civilization.  Those acknowledged include:  Judea for religion, Greece for philosophy, Rome for administration, Islam for physics.**

—When the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, Spain ceded all of the Philippines to America, including the Moro land that they did not own. The U.S. fought the Philippine-American War between 1899 and 1913 in order to make the Philippines which had only recently declared its independence from Spain an American colony. Mark Twain wrote about one incident in this war with the Moros in an article entitled Incident in the Philippines. All of this led to a great of negative anti-Moro (anti-Muslim) propaganda and publicity in the U.S.  Public opinion was so negative that Twain’s article was one of those he asked to be published after his death.  This was one of the first cases of falsely conflating political issues with religion, particularly involving protagonists who were Muslim.  **

1900 to 1919

— Between 1903 and 1908, about 6,000 Punjabis from India entered North America (Canada) and nearly 3,000 crossed into the United States. The first group of immigrants can be divided into two general groups. The majority was illiterate and semiliterate laborers from agricultural and/or military backgrounds. The second, very small group was the educated elite group of professionals and students. The laborers were mainly peasant Sikhs and some Muslims from Doaba and Malwa regions of Punjab province in Northwest India, while the later was composed of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from throughout upper India. The working class South Asians left very few written records of their early experiences. In contrast, the educated group wrote prolifically on issues such as immigration and citizenship rights.  They worked on farms and on roads, and railroads.  **

—In 1904, at the St. Louis Exposition and World Fair, merchants and visitors came from all over the world, including the Arab world at which time an Arab used a waffle to create an ice cream cone.

— The Dzemijetul Hajrije (The Benevolent Society) of Chicago, Illinois was established in 1906 to preserve the Bosnian Muslim community’s religious and national traditions as well as to provide mutual assistance for funerals and illness. The organization established chapters in Gary, Indiana, in 1913 and Butte, Montana, in 1916 and is the oldest existing Muslim organization in the United States.

— Lipka Tatar immigrants from the Podlasie region of Poland founded the first Muslim organization in New York City, the American Mohammedan Society in 1907.  They established what may have been the first mosque in the U.S. in New York City the same year on Powers Street in Brooklyn (Tatar/Polish) **

— In 1910, The town of Indio in the Coachella Valley of California imported date palms from Arabia. The town now produces 95% of the nations dates. The date industry developed at a time when Americans were fascinated with Arabia, a fascination that influenced the history and architecture of this area. The communities of Mecca and Oasis take their names from that Middle East connection, as did two communities that have since vanished – Arabia and Edom. The names of early business establishments reflected the Arabian theme, such as the Ali Baba Theatre and the Caravan Lounge, as well as street names such as Oasis, Deglet Noor, etc. **

— In 1913, Timothy Drew (Noble Drew Ali) established an organization in Newark, NJ, known as the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA). Drew Ali reportedly was commissioned by the Sultan of Morocco to teach Islam to African-Americans. Many other African-American Muslim groups grew out of the MSTA. 

— The first well-known and popular Sufi figure in the United States was Hazrat Inayat Khan.  He blended aspects of Sufism and Islam with other spiritual, musical and religious concepts and practices. He did not actually consider his group a Sufi group and preached a Universalist spiritual movement. Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Sufi Order in America, called ‘The Sufi Order in the West’ was founded in 1910. The Order continued through his disciples Rabia Martin and Samuel Lewis.

Biddeford, Maine mosque established in 1915 (Albanians)


First American Muslim Charity, the Red Crescent, modeled after the Red Cross established in Detroit in 1920

— In 1923, Khalil Gibran’s book the Prophet was released. It became very popular in the 1960’s with the counter-culture. In the U.S. Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time. The Prophet has never been out of print since 1923. **

— In 1926 Duse Muhammad Ali, mentor of Marcus Garvey and the person who had a considerable impact upon Garvey’s movement, establishes an organization in Detroit known as the Universal Islamic Society. Its motto was: “One God, One Aim, One Destiny.”

—  Ross, North Dakota mosque built in 1929 (Syrian/Lebanese). 

1930’s and 1940’s

— Muhammad University of Islam Schools (originally NOI), later called Clara Muhammad Schools (under ministry of W.D. Muhammad) founded in 1934 in Chicago, IL.  The first Islamic schools in the U.S. 

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Mother Mosque of America is on the National Registrar of Historic Places.  The first building built specifically to be a mosque. - 1934(Syrian immigrants)

— Sheikh Dawood founded the Islamic Mission Society on State Street in 1934 Brooklyn.  His writings and theories are contained in his self-published books al-Islam the Religion of Humanity (1950) and Islam the True Religion of Humanity (1965). The shortcoming of the work of such early homegrown Sufi groups was that they failed to train proper successors and the movement died with them. [Ottley, Roi, `New World A-Coming’, Arno Press, New York, 1968, pp. 116-9.]

—In 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court Building was completed.  Friezes on the North and South walls depict the greatest lawgivers of history including the Prophet Muhammad holding a copy of the Qur’an. **

Dearborn, Michigan, Dearborn Mosque - 1937 (Lebanese)

New York City, Islamic Mission of America Mosque - 1937

— The first Canadian Mosque, the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Alberta - 1938

Art Blakey aka Abdullah Ibn Buhaina (1919-1990) first American Muslim jazz musician and grammy award winner, and first celebrity Muslim musician.  He converted to Islam in 1948.

— In 1948, Haj. Yahya William Aossey set aside and donated 12 acres of land in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, establishing the First National Muslim Cemetery in North America. **


— In 1952 Muslims in the Armed Services sued the federal government to be allowed to identify themselves as Muslims. Until then, Islam was not recognized as a legitimate religion.

— 1952 C.E. The McCarren-Walter Act relaxed the U.S. ban on Asian immigration. Muslim students come to the U.S. from many nations.

— Religious and Cultural Home Mosque in Chicago, Illinois established in 1957 (Bosnian)

— The Dzemijetul Hajrije opened the first Islamic Sunday School with curriculum and textbooks under Bosnian scholar Sheikh Ćamil Avdić (Kamil Avdich) (a graduate of al-Azhar and author of Survey of Islamic Doctrines) in 1957.

— In 1957, the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., the first mosque in D.C. was dedicated.


— Mohamed Zakariya first American Muslim to earn title of “Hattat” in calligraphy.  He began studying in the 1960’s. 

— The Muslim Journal (originally called Muhammad Speaks, and for a short time called The Bilalian News) was founded in 1960 by Elijah Muhammad, and taken over by Warith Deen Muhammad in 1975. This year marks its’ 52nd year of publication.  The Muslim Journal is still published.

— In 1961, Marghoob Quraishi (1932-2005) established the first Muslim Youth Camps in Southern California.  They are still ongoing, and focus on shaping Muslim community values that are in harmony with an American cultural and political identity.  **

— The Islamic Center of America in Dearborn celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2012.  It was founded in 1962, and was the first Shia Mosque in the U.S., and is also the largest mosque in the U.S

— The Dar-ul-Islam movement, another important group among the African American Muslim community began in 1962. Until its disappearance in 1982-1983, it made a serious impact upon the development and practice of traditional Islam in America.

Muslim Student Association of the U.S. and Canada MSA was established in 1963. It was originally an organization for foreign students.  Later it was reorganized as an organization for all Muslim students.  Over the years, many organizations grew out of this early group.  The MSA also held its first national American Muslim convention in 1963.  ISNA was not founded until 1982, but considers this 1963 convention as the first of its annual conventions.

— Malcolm X went on Hajj and subsequently broke with the NOI and joined mainstream Sunni Islam in 1964.  He was assassinated in 1965.

— Cassius Clay publicly announced that he was now Muhammad Ali and a Muslim in 1964.  Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) was the first American Muslim celebrity.

— Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore considered by many to be the first American Muslim poet laureate.  His first book of critically acclaimed poetry released in 1964.

— In 1968, Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Sen. Robert Kennedy.  Although Sirhan was a Christian Arab, the fact that he was an Arab, and the public misperception that Muslim and Arab are interchangeable terms led to this issue of “Muslims killed Kennedy” to be raised many times over the years.  **


Be Here Now by Ram Dass, a book sometimes called the “Bible of the counter-culture mo