Muslims at Ramadan: Showcasing a diverse minority

Photo thanks to Susanne Kappler.

The fasting, abstaining and feasting that accompany the Islamic holy month of Ramadan are among the most prominent markers of North America’s growing Muslim population. But few may realize how diverse the Muslim community is. In fact, many Americans have been playing catch-up when it comes to learning about Islam, even though it is the world’s second-largest faith and an increasingly visible part of the civic and racial-ethnic makeup of the United States and Canada.


One especially notable but often overlooked characteristic of Islam is its ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. Ramadan offers a chance for reporters to explore that diversity by looking at how disparate communities of Muslims differ in their observance of the holiday, how they have adapted to the North American setting and how much they come together over shared traditions.

As a more nuanced view of American Islam emerges, its diversity is becoming apparent. There are immigrants from a variety of world cultures who have come to the U.S. in the past decades, plus young second-generation American Muslims and African-American Muslims, who include converts and those born to the faith. All have a religion and a country — the U.S. — in common. After that, group identifications begin to shuffle and mix. An extensive 2009 Gallup analysis measured demographics and attitudes of American Muslims, showing that more than one-third are African-American. America’s two Muslim congressional representatives, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and André Carson of Indiana, are African-American Muslims; both are converts to the faith.

Experts don’t agree on how many Muslims live in this country – estimates range from a little more than 1 million to 7 million, with the best estimates trending toward a lower figure. Getting a handle on Muslims’ race or ethnicity is equally challenging.

Surveys and studies of American Muslims are relatively new and few in number. The U.S. Census doesn’t ask about religious affiliation, and unlike a number of other religions, Islam doesn’t count its own believers. So issues related to demographics are debatable, political and newsworthy. Moreover, because the Muslim population varies by areas, this national story has many local variants.

Scholars agree that the three largest groups of American Muslims are African-American, Asian origin and Middle Eastern origin. That diversity is also reflected in global statistics that show 20 percent of the world’s Muslims live in Arab countries. Most Muslims live in Africa and Asia. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country by population, and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have more than 100 million adherents each. There are also significant Muslim communities in China, and in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as well as in Western Europe. Turkey and Iran are the largest non-Arab Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. Egypt and Nigeria have the largest Muslim communities in Africa.

In the United States, two authoritative surveys – the Gallup survey released in 2009 and one done in 2007 by the Pew Research Center – differ greatly on some points regarding Muslim demographics. In particular, they differ on their calculation of the African-American proportion of American Muslims. Pew’s analysis of its data offers a portrait of middle-class, mainstream Muslims; Gallup’s analysis shows that American Muslims experience stress and are least likely among groups to see themselves as thriving.

The Pew Research Center released another report in 2011 that found almost 63 percent of Muslim Americans were born abroad — though 70 percent of those born abroad are now U.S. citizens. The report also found that American Muslims are younger and more racially diverse than the American population as a whole.

African-American Muslims

There is some tension between African-American Muslims, who form a sizable group within American Islam, and immigrant or first-generation Muslims. African-Americans disproportionately experience poverty, while immigrant and first-generation American Muslims in middle-class professions are less likely to have that experience. Do these socioeconomic differences affect the Muslim population in your area? How is this relationship evolving over time?

One of several reasons for the marked presence of Islam among African-Americans is prison conversion. Some adopt the religion while incarcerated, and some experts believe this is fueling the growth of Islam in this country. Check with agencies that deal with ex-convicts as well as any local prison chaplains to find out their assessments.

America’s two Muslim congressmen are both African-American, converts to the faith and from the Midwest. In addition, the oldest mosque in America is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One of America’s vital centers of Islam is Dearborn, Mich., where immigrants working in the auto industry settled. Midwest-based journalists might particularly want to explore the historic relationship between Islam and America’s heartland and how that affects contemporary American Islam.

Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam is a religious movement within Islam that focuses specifically on African-Americans. Formed in Detroit, Mich., in 1930, the relationship between the Nation of Islam and mainstream Islam among African-Americans is complex. No one knows the exact numbers, but Nation of Islam members are a minority of African-American Muslims; most Muslims do not regard Nation of Islam teachings as orthodox Islam.


Sufism is another way to understand diversity within Islam. Sufism is the mystical tradition within Islam; America’s most popular poet is the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi. While Sufism is traditional, it has also gained some traction within America today among those attracted to mystical and meditative practices; some Sufi groups in America do not even regard themselves as Muslim but rather as universalist. In addition, parts of Africa have been home to Sufism, making it part of the original religious heritage of African-Americans. This angle on African-Americans and Islam is particularly fresh. If your area has Sufi practitioners, explore their demographic characteristics and theological underpinnings.

News articles and research

  • “Muslim Americans: A National Portrait”

    The Gallup Center for Muslim Studies’ “Muslim Americans: A National Portrait” provides demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of Muslim Americans and measures attitudes.

  • “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”

    Read a May 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center that interviewed more than 55,000 Muslims and estimated the U.S. Muslim population at 2.35 million.

  • “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism”

    The Pew Research Center released a wide-ranging survey of Muslim Americans that shows “no indication of increased alienation and anger among Muslim Americans” and “no evidence of rising support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans.” In fact, the report, released Aug. 30, 2011, shows Muslims in the United States continue to reject extremism by much larger margins than Muslims in most other countries.

  • U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

    The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey is an extensive survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which details the religious makeup, beliefs and practices as well as social and political attitudes of the American public.

  • “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait”

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ report “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait” (April 2001) broke ground with its focus on American Muslim congregational life.

  • “How Muslims Compare With Other Religious Americans”

    A July 2007 report by the Pew Forum found that Muslims are very much like white evangelical Christians and African-American Protestants in terms of how important they say religion is to their lives. And an equal number – 47 percent – of Muslims and Protestants said they define themselves first by their religion and second by their nationality.

  • “Report highlights Islam’s global diversity”

    Read an August 13, 2012, article published by the Religion News Service about how the tenets of Islam are interpreted differently around the world.

National sources

  • The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

    The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, part of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, is the country’s oldest center for such study. With a history that traces back to 1893, the center focuses on research, teaching, publication and public discourse. Its faculty includes Mahmoud Ayoub, the Rev. Steven Blackburn and Yahya Michot.

  • Muslim Alliance in North America

    The Muslim Alliance in North America is a national network of masjids, Muslim organizations and individuals committed to work together to address certain urgent needs within the Muslim community.  They are especially concerned with issues affecting indigenous Muslims. Contact: Siraj Wahhaj.

  • American Muslim Alliance

    The American Muslim Alliance promotes participation of Muslim Americans in the political process. Agha Saeed is its founder and former chairman.

  • Edward E. Curtis IV

    Curtis is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. He is the author of Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam: 1960-1975 (2006) and editor of The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States (2008).

  • Alan Godlas

    Alan Godlas is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Georgia and has assembled this resource guide on the Middle East. He is also one of the country’s experts on Sufism.

  • Sherman Jackson

    Sherman Jackson holds the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, where he is also professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity. He was formerly the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His books include Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihâb al-Dîn al-Qarâfî and Islam & the Problem of Black Suffering.

  • Dalia Mogahed

    Dalia Mogahed is director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which specializes in the study of American Muslims. She previously served as executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.


  • Seyyed Hossein Nasr

    Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a world-renowned scholar on Islam who teaches Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His writings include Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man and The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity. Much of his work focuses on Islamic spiritual values, but he has also written about the religious and spiritual dimensions of the environmental crisis.

  • Sulayman Nyang

    Nyang is 
a professor of African studies at Howard University. He teaches and has written extensively about Islam and was the co-principal investigator for the research project “Muslims in the American Public Square.”

  • IslamiCity

    IslamiCity bills itself as “a global Muslim eCommunity” and offers everything from news and opinion to ecards and matrimonial services on its site. It is based in Los Angeles and owned by Human Assistance and Development International, a nonprofit organization. Mohammed Aleem is its CEO.

    Regional sources

    In the Northeast

    • Kecia Ali

      Kecia Ali is a professor of religion at Boston University. She wrote Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence. Her areas of expertise include progressive Islam and women, gender and Islamic law and Muslim societies. She taught a class in 2003 on marriage and divorce in Islamic law at Harvard University Divinity School.

    • Ingrid Mattson

      Ingrid Mattson holds the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at Western University in London, Ontario, where she studies Islamic ethics, Muslim women and Christian-Muslim relations. She previously taught at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where she developed the first accredited graduate program for Muslim chaplains in the U.S.


    • Muhammad Shamsi Ali

      Ali is imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. He is Indonesian.

      Contact: 212-722-5234.
    • Zaheer Ali

      Zaheer Ali is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University researching 20th-century African-American history and religion; he is project manager for Columbia’s Malcolm X Project.

    • Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

      The Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1957. It claims that more than 14,000 people have accepted the Islamic faith at the center since it opened. H. E. Roble Olhaye is chairman of the board of directors.

      Contact: 202-332-8343.

    In the South

    In the Midwest

    • Marcia Hermansen

      Marcia Hermansen is director of the Islamic World Studies Program and a professor in the theology department at Loyola University Chicago. She is an expert on Islamic spirituality and Sufism.

    • Islamic Center of America

      The Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., claims to be the largest mosque in the U.S. It is a Shiite mosque, and its congregation is predominantly Arab. Contact Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini.

    • Aminah B. McCloud

      Aminah B. McCloud is a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago and director of the Islamic World Studies Program. She has written about black Muslims. She can also discuss the place of animals in the Muslim world. The notion of animal rights is a new one for Muslim societies, she says.

    In the West

    • Zaid Shakir

      Zaid Shakir is an African-American imam who converted to Islam during his service in the Air Force. He has a master’s degree in political science and received classical scholarly training in the Muslim world. He is a writer, speaker, teacher and activist, having founded several Muslim organizations in the eastern U.S. before becoming a resident scholar at Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., which calls him a leader in an emerging indigenous American Muslim tradition. Read his blog at New Islamic Directions.

    • Muzammil Siddiqi

      Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Executive Council of the Shura Council of Southern California and director of the Islamic Center of Orange County, has written about the need for forgiveness from an Islamic perspective and led Muslim-Catholic dialogues.

      Contact: 714-531-1722, 714-239-6473.

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