Muslim in America: Converts to Islam

Islam in America. Jane I Smith. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Anglo Converts

While the great majority of Muslims in America are either African American or part of the immigrant population, a growing but significant number of other Americans are choosing to adopt Islam as their religion and way of life. Estimates of the number of Anglo Muslims in the United States range from twenty to fifty thousand, but as always it is difficult to determine anything close to exact figures. Some of these are Anglo women who have married Muslim men. Islamic law, as we have seen, permits Muslim males to marry women from among the People of the Book, namely Christians or Jews. While there is no compulsion for such women to convert, because the children will be raised according to the religion of the father, a number of them do choose to adopt Islam. Their conversions may occur because a women’s husband is eager for her to accept Islam, or she is persuaded that Islam is the right religion for her, or she wants her children raised in a monolithic home. Probably more than half of the marriages between immigrant Muslim males and non-Muslim American females end in the wife’s conversion to Islam, although it should be noted that surveys of female converts indicate that in many cases their adoption of Islam came before marriage to a Muslim man. Children are also raised in the religion of the father if a Muslim woman should marry a Christian or Jewish man. Although such marriages are not legally condoned, they do happen occasionally, putting great pressure on the husband to convert.

Other Anglo Americans choose to convert to Islam for a variety of reasons. Some find the intellectual appeal of a great civilization of scholarly, scientific, and cultural achievements a refreshing antidote to the often anti-intellectual and secularist climate of the contemporary West. One of the reasons for the spread of Islam in various parts of the world over the centuries has been the straightforward simplicity of the declaration of faith and the five pillars that an observant Muslim is obliged to follow. For some Americans this directness is an appealing alternative to what they may find to be confusing Christological doctrines and Trinitarian affirmations espoused by the Christian Church. As Islam in one form or another has attracted many blacks as an antidote to the continuing white racism of American society, other Americans have found its egalitarian platform a viable alternative to a Christianity that sometimes seems inextricably bound to prejudicial practices. Some Anglos without intimate personal relationships or close family connections hope that in a religion so explicitly community oriented they may find solace from loneliness. Unfortunately, that is not always the result, as Muslims orient their communities not only to the commonality of Islam but also and often to the particularity of national and ethnic identities.

The zeal of the new convert to any faith or ideology is notoriously high and certainly not less so in the case of Americans who decide to adopt Islam. Generally religiously conservative in belief and in dress, for reasons of personal conviction, with perhaps the desire to persuade themselves and their families of the rightness of their decision, converts are articulate and enthusiastic spokespeople for a clear and sometimes rather inflexible interpretation of their new faith. Some of the current literature discusses the loneliness Anglo converts may feel after their conversion, especially those not married to Muslims. They share neither in the specific cultures represented by immigrants nor in the ethnic identity of African Americans. Some resent what they feel to be the unnecessary monitoring of their progress as Muslims by conservative immigrants. “Sometimes the questions can become pretty intimidating,” writes one convert. “For example, if you are approached by a salafi [conservative] group, Beware! They will test your knowledge of Islam … Don’t get nervous. Don’t panic. Remain calm.…” Some Anglo converts have formed support groups to help one another in the transition to a new faith and identity.

Hispanic and Native American Converts

A good deal of attention is currently being given to the importance of making more converts from the Latin American community in America. Enthusiasts are quick to point to the natural affiliation of Islam with many parts of Hispanic culture, begun with its movement into the Iberian Peninsula in 711. Throughout the years of Muslim presence in Spain until its expulsion after 1492, Islam and Spanish culture were deeply intertwined. Whether such historic affiliation really influences the decision of some Hispanic Americans to adopt Islam may be questionable, especially given the fact that many who convert prefer to ignore their Hispanic heritage and refrain from speaking Spanish in the attempt to be part of the American Muslim “scene.”

Islam first appeared in the barrios of the American Northeast in the early 1970s. Mainly first-generation Puerto Ricans from New York, many of these converts entered Islam by affiliating with African American mosques. Since then, immigrant Muslims have tried to organize missionary movements among the Latino populations, with the end of integrating them into established Sunni mosque communities. Hispanics have found much in Islamic culture that is akin to their own cultural heritage, especially the importance of the family structure and specifically defined roles for men and women. Divorce, which has been growing in American Hispanic communities, is noticeably much lower among Latino Muslim couples.

Muslims are slowly waking to the reality that the Hispanic community in America is a ripe source for new converts. “Olé to Allah!” reads the cover page of an issue of The Message devoted to articles about American Latino Muslims. Increasing attention is being paid in Muslim journals to the fact that American Hispanics have been virtually ignored as a community in need of da’wa, and many are arguing for increased efforts at providing basic Islamic instruction in Spanish. A particular need has been identified for accurate Spanish translations of the Qur’an. The few Hispanic Muslims who actively teach members of their communities about Islam lament that so little is available on the history, traditions, doctrines, and practices of the faith for those whose first language is Spanish. Some works suffer from having been written first in an Asian language, then translated into English, and finally rendered in Spanish.

One illustration of the growth of Latino Islam is a missionary effort in New York City entitled PIEDAD (Propagación Islámica para la Educación y Devoción de Ala’el Divino). A Puerto Rican convert began PIEDAD in 1987, and it has focused particularly on Latinas who are married to Muslims as well as Latinos who are incarcerated. Another Islamic Latino organization in the El Barrio area of New York City, called the Alianza Islámica, began some fifteen years ago as an outgrowth of the Darul Islam movement, illustrating the close association between Hispanic converts and African American Islam. Operating out of a small storefront, it provides a number of social services for the surrounding community as part of its outreach program. Members do after-school tutoring, plan summer recreation, offer drug and alcohol as well as marriage counseling, and provide diploma instruction for kids who have dropped out of school. The Alianza has served to bring wayward Muslims back into the fold, as well as to attract new members from the Hispanic community.

In California the recently formed Asociación Latina de Musulmanes en las Américas (ALMA) seeks to spread Islam among Spanish-speaking people, educating them about the contribution of Islam to their society and culture, with the hope of bringing them back to their ancestors’ way of life. ALMA is currently planning to begin publication of the first Spanish Islamic magazine for distribution in the United States, Canada, and Latin America.

While their numbers are still very small, a few Native Americans are also becoming more vocal about their identification with Islam and are reminding other Muslims of the long association of Indians and Muslims on the North American continent. Seminoles in Florida claim that some of their number are descended from African slaves who before emancipation managed to escape and mingle in their ranks, even converting some of the Seminoles to Islam. The Algonquian and Pima languages are said to contain words with Arabic roots. Cherokees claim that a number of Muslims joined their ranks and say that the chief of the Cherokees in 1866 was a Muslim named Ramadhan Ibn Wati.

Some Muslims are now recognizing significant commonalities between Native American and Qur’anic world views, such as a deep reverence for nature and obedience to God’s laws for the created world and the acknowledgment that people of all races and colors must be treated equally. Native American understanding of a kind of original divine instruction for humankind parallels the Qur’anic concept of the din al-fitra, or natural inherent religious response basic to all people. Native American awareness of divine presence in all the four directions is compared with the Qur’anic assurance that wherever one should turn, there is the face of God. Native American traditions pay much attention to the importance of sacred sites and pilgrimage, which balances the Islamic duty of hajj to Mecca and pilgrimages to the tombs of saints. The current concern of American Muslims for what they see as the excesses of modernism and secularism in the West resonates in much of Native American tradition. As Muslims and Native Americans both struggle to clarify and maintain their identities in the American context, it may well be that their ties, both historical and philosophical, will be strengthened.

American Converts to Sufism

Another reason for a number of Americans to consider themselves Muslim is their association with Sufi groups in this country. As indicated in the previous chapter, Sufism is a complex part of the history of Islam, sometimes greatly appreciated and at other times rejected as a deviation from the true faith. To the extent to which Sufi groups in America associate themselves with one of the established and recognized Sufi orders, they must be counted as part of what has emerged as a genuine American Islam. Again, the lines are often blurred, and who is or is not a “real” Sufi may be anyone’s call. Some U.S. groups that choose to adopt the name Sufi as part of the New Age movement do little more than combine body movements with stylistic meditative practices and have no Islamic theological understanding of Sufism.

Particularly attractive to some Americans are forms of Sufi dancing. Normally, these dances are done with a leader in the center, along with a musician, the participants grouped in a circle or circles moving in rhythm. Sometimes the movements are accompanied by group chanting. Such chanting and dancing have often been suspect to orthodox Islam but in some cases, such as the “whirling dervishes,” have become a recognized and honored part of the tradition.

Muslims associated with long-established and internationally recognized orders have little patience for the “silliness” of Americans eager to adopt new fads of so-called spirituality, and they are quick to point out that pseudo-Islamic Sufi groups have no legitimate role in American Islam. Reflecting the tensions of Sufism with mainline Islam over the centuries, many immigrant Muslims of a traditional orientation find it difficult to acknowledge the legitimacy of any American Sufi groups. Muslim organizations that are supported financially by Saudi Arabia refuse to allow the participation of Sufi groups. While those who actually “convert” to Islam via Sufism are relatively few, there seems to be a growing interest in Sufism as both a spiritual/psychological discipline and, in the American orders, a locus of fellowship and communal identification. In general, Americans find Sufi movements open, accessible, tolerant, and supportive of individual needs and concerns.

Interestingly, two of the most popular Sufi personages in the West in this century, Hazrat Inayat Khan and Idries Shah, have both seen Sufism as a phenomenon distinguishable from the formal religious structure of Islam. The writings of these two teachers, with their emphasis on the inner life over the outer forms of religion, have been voluminous and influential, especially on young American “seekers.”

Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was initiated into the Nizami branch of the Chistiyya Order in India, studied with both Muslim and Hindu masters. His philosophy blended Advaita Vedanta and the “unity of being” philosophy of the school of the Andalusian mystic Ibn ’Arabi. Commissioned by his teacher to bring harmony to East and West, he devoted his life to introducing Sufism to America. He was one of the first to teach Sufi doctrines in the West, lecturing and traveling across America from 1910 to 1927, initiating a number of disciples, and founding the Sufi Order in the West. Many of his teachings are contained in a multivolume series titled The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

When Inayat died in 1927, his son Vilayat Khan, still a boy, inherited leadership of the order. Severe tensions arose in the group, and some turned to the well-known Sufi leader Meher Baba for direction. One of those whose personal claims would not sit well with orthodox Muslims, Baba, who was born in India in 1894, believed himself to have realized Godhood. After 1925 he never spoke, communicating with his disciples by hand gestures or in writing. A number of his many books were “dictated” in this manner.

In the 1960s, a time of growing appeal of Sufism in America, the European-educated Pir Vilayat Khan emerged as effective leader of the Sufi Order in the West, and the movement grew rapidly. The classically trained Pir is said to have felt somewhat distanced by some of his new hippie followers. He was particularly distressed when his disciples wanted to use drugs to induce a spiritual state.

The Sufi Order in the West is still under Vilayat’s guidance, although it has expanded to include a variety of teaching and experiential modes. The order continues to stress spiritual awakening, but it also does work in social services, education, and health. It is active in a number of major cities and sponsors retreats, psychotherapy and healing seminars, work camps, and musical presentations. Most Muslim groups in America look on the activities of the Sufi Order in the West, however, with suspicion and even disapproval, disclaiming it as a truly Islamic movement.

Idries Shah, a popular writer and teacher who emphasizes the psychological aspects of Sufism, has been influential in America since the 1960s. An Indian of Afghani lineage, Shah spent most of his time in the West in England, although his writings have been on the shelves of American bookstores from the beginning. Particularly popular are his folktales imparting Sufi wisdom through anecdote and example. Shah, whose followers constitute the Society for Sufi Studies, has been especially critical of those who perpetuate old forms and practices of Sufism that are not relevant to the modern Western world. Shah’s works, such as the early and still popular The Sufis, conspicuously lack terminology that would specifically identify his interpretation of Sufism with traditional Islam. His writings especially appeal to Westerners of a more intellectual orientation.

Since the 1970s, Sufi groups that have clearly been formed and adapted to fit American culture and demand have been joined by others whose members are immigrants well familiar with Sufi lineage and the practices of a specific tariqa, or path, of which they were members in their home countries. These people tend to be more traditional than the earlier practitioners of Sufism in America and more committed to stressing the continuity of Sufism with Islam. Americans are increasingly drawn to these teachers, attracted by the mystical and pietistic form of Islam represented by their orders.

One group that illustrates a blend of New Age influences with the more institutional tradition-based Islamic orders is the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship, located in Philadelphia. Its members are both immigrants and American converts from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds. The experience of Bawa’s followers serves as a good illustration of the blending of East and West, immigrant and indigenous experience, and traditional Sufism with new adaptations. The Sri Lankan-born Bawa, a member of the Qadiriyya order, first arrived in America at the invitation of a young Philadelphia woman who had corresponded with him for several years. He quickly drew a number of devotees and decided to remain to fulfill his mission in America. Many of those who found his message appealing were young Americans whose lives had been troubled and lacked a spiritual base. Only gradually were they made to realize that his teachings were grounded in Islam and that he was part of a long and venerated Sufi lineage. He is said to have so embodied the principles of love and charity in his own person and life that simply being in his presence was spiritually uplifting. He considered himself, and was considered by his followers, to be their shaykh, or spiritual leader.

Bawa was eager to keep abreast of the latest technological developments, and his use of television and video equipment in the propagation of his message added to the sense that, despite his lineage, the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship was a genuine American order constantly adapting to new developments. Bawa’s death in 1986 did not mean the dissolution of the Fellowship, and in fact the group has member branches in several other cities, such as Boston. It did, however, raise the question of what it means to be an American Sufi group. By what means can another shaykh emerge to guide the community, and will such a person come from overseas or be an American-born convert to Islam? Because of the training prerequisites of a Sufi leader in a traditional order such as the Qadiriyya, the question of what constitutes American Islam may be sharper for Sufis than for other Muslims. The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship is only one such Sufi group to face these questions.13

Some Sufi groups combine holistic health, music, dance, poetry, and other aesthetic forms with traditional Sufi meditation. Many have become active in the da‘wa, or missionary activity, of Islam in America. Members of the new generation of Muslims born in America to immigrant parents are joining white converts to Sufi movements. For many men and women, Sufism seems to breathe the possibility of life and activity into religion in a way that they have not known before, at the same time that one’s relationship both to the shaykh and to God gives new meaning to the very word islam, submission. Sufism also seems to provide a way of cutting across the racial, ethnic, and cultural definitions of so many American Muslim groups, which despite the egalitarian appeal of Islam often continue to segregate themselves along lines of particular identity. In recent years Americans who have studied with Sufi masters abroad have returned and written numerous works to distill the Sufi message into a distinctly Western idiom.

Sufism particularly interests some American women, who find in it an appealing alternative to the Christianity or Judaism, or the agnostic environment, in which they may have been raised. Particularly attractive are those orders more lenient in their restrictions on, for example, the mixing of women and men during the worship time. Sometimes practitioners may be seated in a circle, with men forming one half and women the other. Those Sufi groups unconcerned about separation of the sexes generally pay little attention to any affiliation with the tradition of Islam. As in the Muslim community as a whole, there is both considerable discussion about the appropriateness of women’s assuming leadership roles in Sufi organizations and increasing examples of such leadership. The Naqshbandiyya, a “sober” order founded in the Indian subcontinent in the fourteenth century by Baha’ al-Din al-Naqshbandi, is particularly popular in the United States and Canada and has provided a context in which significant numbers of women have felt comfortable participating.

Several Shi‘i Sufi orders exist in America, one of the most evident being the Nimatullahi Order of Sufis founded and led by Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, former head of the department of psychiatry at Tehran University in Iran. The order was established in America with his arrival in the 1970s. Located first in California, it maintains centers in a number of American cities, including San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston. Nurbakhsh, who himself now lives in England, stresses a Sufism concerned with doing and seeing rather than thinking and talking, one whose aim is the realization of Truth through love and devotion. The writings of this prolific leader include works on Sufi poetry, psychology, and spiritualism, Jesus in the eyes of Sufis, and Sufi women. He is perhaps best known for In the Paradise of the Sufis. Other Iranian Shi‘i Sufi orders have grown up across the country in the past several decades. Generally, they emphasize the connection of Sufis with the mystical movements of Islam above the beliefs and practices that would set these groups off as distinctively Shi‘i.

Among the numerous groups loosely associated with Sufism, or at least inspired by Islam, is the Indonesian spiritual movement of Subud. Begun around the middle of the century and now with branches in a number of countries, Subud became part of the American scene in the 1970s at the time that so many new movements were taking root. Reported to have once had more than seventy North American centers, Subud continues to attract small numbers of American adherents who, while certainly not seeing themselves as converts to Islam, are drawn by the appeal of participating in social welfare projects on an international scale.

One interesting American communal-living experiment cast in a decidedly Sufi mold has been the establishment of the Dar a1-Islam community located in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Distinct from the African American Darul Islam movement described above, this first Islamic village in America was begun in 1980, with the support of Saudi Muslims, as an attempt to model the piety of the early Islamic community of Prophet Muhammad. Located on more than eight thousand acres of land northwest of Albuquerque, the community is home to an adobe brick mosque and school designed by the late and famed Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi. With the goal of bringing together Muslims of all backgrounds from across America as well as from Europe and the Middle East, the community stresses the interracial and interethnic nature of Islam assured by God in the Qur’an: “We have made you tribes and nations so that you might know one another” (Sura 49:13). Members, who dress in a variety of styles appropriate to Southwest existence and to a modest understanding of Islamic requirements, try as much as possible to live a life of quiet piety exemplifying the virtues of Islamic life. At present, it must be acknowledged that the Abiquiu experiment is far from reaching its goal of becoming a large and Islamically organized living community. Never more than twenty-five families in all, membership in residence has dwindled, and much of the original land has been sold. The Dar al-Islam, nonetheless, performs an important service for American Islam through its Institute of Traditional Islamic Studies.

The Ahmadiyya Community of North America

While the classification of Islamic individuals and associations in America into immigrant, African American, and convert is generally useful, some groups do not fall neatly into these categories. Immigrants who are converting to classical Sufism in the United States are one such exception. Another is the Ahmadiyya community, originally a Pakistani missionary movement, which has been a presence in North America for many decades. Its members have worked since the early part of the twentieth century for the conversion of Americans to Islam. Many, but certainly not all, of those converts have been African American. This group is one of the most active within the Islamic fold (if, indeed, it is within, an identity challenged by many Muslims) in the work of da‘wa, calling or recruiting new members to its understanding of the faith of Islam. Ahmadis have worked particularly on translating and providing copies of the Qur’an to Muslim communities around the world. Claiming more than ten million followers in more than one hundred countries, they have recruited many thousands in North America.

The founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was born in 1835 in Qadian in India’s Punjab. An enormously prolific writer, he claims to have received divine revelations or signs legitimating his role as an Islamic leader. Then in 1889 he announced that he was the mahdi whose coming Muslims have long expected. Critics have charged that he actually appropriated the status of prophet, an accusation that his followers have explicitly denied. Around the turn of the century the movement began to move beyond India. Of its two branches, only the group called the Qadiani Jamaat has been influential on the American scene. Sunni Muslims have denounced the Ahmadiyya movement as a deviation from the true teachings of Islam, both because of its founder’s claims about his own status and because Ahmadis believe that Jesus was not taken up to heaven at the crucifixion but continued his work on earth, ending up in Kashmir, in India. When statistics about the number of Muslims in America are cited, other Muslims are adamant that Ahmadis not be included. Ahmadis, however, claim vigorously that the movement does not depart from Islam at all and see the Ahmadiyya movement as an active and effective organ for the recruitment of new Muslims in America and across the world.

The first Ahmadi missionary to the United States was Mufti Muhammad Sadiq in 1920. He began a society for the preservation of American Islam and in 1921 started publication of the periodical Moslem Sunrise (changed in 1959 to Muslim Sunrise). Chicago became the official headquarters of the American Ahmadiyya movement and the site of its first mosque. Ahmadi missionaries played a significant role in the early decades of the century in attacking what they saw as the blatant racism of American society. By 1940 there were said to be between five and ten thousand converts in the United States. In 1950 the Ahmadiyya headquarters moved to the American Fazl Mosque in northwest Washington, D.C. This continues to serve as the center for the educational and propaganda mission of the movement. Copies of its publications are distributed to members of Congress and other government officials, foreign diplomats, the press, and so on. At present Ahmadi centers can be found in more than fifty cities in the United States and Canada.

In their Western missionary work, Ahmadis have been particularly attuned to the necessity of maintaining a strict Islamic faith in the face of Western secularism and materialism. Ahmadi women, who generally dress more conservatively than women in other Muslim or pseudo-Muslim movements, have played and continue to play important roles in the American Ahmadi mission. Like many other Muslims, Ahmadis worry about appropriate education for their children, especially girls, and often opt to develop their own schools. Members of the community bear the special burden of affirming their Islamic identity both within a culture that does not appreciate it and as part of Sunni Islam, which does not accept it.

Clearly, the picture of American Islam is growing increasingly complex. Stories of immigrant and African American Islam in this country for a long time were quite distinct and separate, and relations between blacks and immigrants were generally quite rare. Now, however, those stories are coming to be interrelated. Added to this fascinating mix are the conversions of whites, Hispanics, and Native Americans to Islam. These groups are still small but are significant both for their actual presence and for the impetus they give to the da‘wa, or mission movement, within Islam. They are also of great importance to those who want to gain political capital out of the fact that American Islam is multiracial, multi-ethnic, and growing. Let us turn now to the story of African Americans and the many ways in which they have played and continue to play a crucial role in the development of American Islam.