Dr. Sulayman Nyang | The History of Muslims in America

My father is a professor of African and African American history and I can vaguely remember seeing on his bookshelves at home a book authored by Sulayman Nyang in my childhood. Many years later, when I was in the process of thinking about Islam, long before, well, at least a few months, before I converted, I ordered a large number of books about Islam online. And one of the books I purchased was Dr. Sulayman Nyang’s Islam in the United States. These books formed my first in-depth introduction to and study of Islam, which eventually culminated in my conversion.

So I was quite interested to have the opportunity to attend a day-long lecture on the history of Muslims in America given by Dr. Sulayman Nyang, the head of the African Studies department at Howard University. He reminded us that even though popular American history often begins with the arrival of Columbus that the history of Islam in America began during the Pre-Colombian period and that events that transpired at the same time in Africa and Europe are also a part of this story. Nyang emphasized that Muslims should learn this history and not see the history of Europe or sub-saharan Africa as separate from our story as American Muslims but to integrate it into our understanding.

According to Dr. Nyang, the most conservative estimates indicate that up to ten percent of the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves were Muslim. More than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the story of Muslims and America includes the war-like encounters with the Barbary pirates in North Africa. Interesting that more than two hundred years later, the U.S. is once again engaged in armed conflict in Tripoli.

Around the turn of the 20th century former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as the police chief in New York City was dubbed Harun al-Roosevelt after the Muslim caliph Harun al-Rashid. Both are said have wandered the streets at night to gain a better perspective on the everyday lives and happenings of the people whom they served. Many Yemenis were employed in the automobile industry in and around Michigan, which is now one of the largest centers of Arab Americans and Muslims. These early Arab immigrants tended to marry white or black women if they did not return home to marry an Arab woman.

Muslims from Southern Europe and of Slavic descent tended to settle in northern cities and in the Midwest. Some Muslims arrived from South Asia and the Asian Pacific islands like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines and settled in the Western part of the United States and Canada. Among the Muslims settling on the West Coast were a large number of Muslims and Sikhs from the Punjab. Some of these young Punjabi men worked in the rice fields in California and married Mexican immigrant women, which led to the formation of the Punjabi-Mexican ethnic group, and some of their descendants can still be found today.

Important to the story of Islam in America particularly among Muslim immigrants was the construction the Suez Canal, which allowed more direct travel between Western countries and Asia, the Cold War, and the influx of young Muslim students in the latter half of the 20th century. Prior to Cold War, ninety percent of Arab immigrants in America were Christian. Today, the numbers of Arab Christians and Muslims have almost equalized. As the Cold War progressed, more and more Muslims began to immigrate to the United States and would begin to lay the foundation for the creation of the influential Muslim Student Association and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The MSA began on college campuses and propagated a conservative form of Islam, which sought to correct what they believed were misguided or deviant interpretations.

More well-known is the story of African American journeys and encounters with Islam. However, there are two distinct narratives of Islam in the African American experience, which include a more traditional form of Islam and the formation of proto-Islamic groups. The story of traditional Islam is often mentioned in reference to Muslim immigrants or about Americans who traveled overseas to Muslim lands like Alexander Russell Webb and the remnants of Islam maintained by the descendants of African slaves as in the example of the Gullah people of the coast of South Carolina. A number of the proto-Islamic groups like the Nation of Islam or the Moorish Science Temple held beliefs deemed heretical to many of the more traditional Muslims.

Among the important legacies of the African American Muslim experience is that of institution building from mosques to schools to businesses, both on a local and national level and of interfaith work and dialogue. A legacy, which other American Muslims have only recently begun to recognize and emulate.

One stumbling block in the development and maturation of Muslim communities and institutions was the “Myth of Return.” Many Muslims immigrated to America believing that they would earn their education and living here and someday return to their home country. For these Muslims, their identity and roots were firmly moored in old world realities. But their children, often born here in America, do not share that same nostalgia for their parents’ home country and may not even be able to speak the language.

Dr. Nyang posits that this mythology of return pre-9/11 helped create a confused discourse about whether or not Muslims here could fully participate or identify as Americans or if migration to a Muslim land was preferable or even required. This also led to the “imported imam syndrome” where adults believing they might return to their home countries enjoyed having an imam who shared their cultural framework but this turned out to be a “disaster” for their children who grew up here and could not identify with this type of imam. According to Dr. Nyang, the events of September 11th, helped “explode the myth of return” for many Muslims, and while some did indeed return home, the vast majority who stayed have acknowledged that America is their home country. As for the growing pains experienced by the Muslim community, Nyang says “every group [in America] has negotiated for identity, security, and acceptance in the host society.”

According to Dr. Nyang, there are three types of Muslims, grasshoppers who wish to be fully assimilated into the dominant host culture and often change their names or are not outwardly recognizable as Muslim, oyster Muslims who are isolationist who tend to cling to more orthodox understandings of religion. These Muslims are somewhat like the Amish or orthodox Jews in being apart from society even while being in it to the limited extent necessary. The third group of Muslims are the owls, which seek a path to reconcile between the grasshoppers and the oysters.

Throughout his talk, Dr. Nyang encouraged the audience to take a proactive role in learning and researching this history to share with others. He also encouraged us as American Muslims today to effect positive change and participate in society through building institutions and also by writing in our campus newspapers to leave traces of a Muslim footprint so that those who come after us will know that we were once here.

It’s a thought-provoking question, at your school or workplace or in your community, if you left today, would anyone know a Muslim had been there?


  1. جزاك الله خيرا for this. Nice summary/review. Do you know if this lecture was recorded and be available on youtube?

    Also, the point about the Sikhs in Cali, was this mentioned in his book? I remember watching a PBS special a long time ago and it mentioned something to this effect. It was crazy b/c there were black and white photos….OLD photos of a straight Sikh dude and a latina women + kids family portrait.

  2. Wa iyyakum, thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, the lecture was recorded, part of Qurtuba’s programs at the ADAMS Center. They have a website: http://www.qurtubainstitute.org/ Not sure if they will put the video up, Shad is probably the one to ask.

    I don’t recall the story of South Asians marrying Mexicans in California in his book Islam in the United States, as I read it many years ago, but I could look it up, it’s still on my bookshelf.

    Dr. Nyang did recommend the 2-volume work American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation, which details the history and migration of many ethnic groups including information about the Punjabi-Mexicans.

  3. ASA Ify,

    VERY interesting! Especially in light of my ‘Women’s Reading Circles’ idea I mentioned to you! I’ve been planting seeds for a Muslima History one soon … FYI …

  4. Wa salaam alaykum Kweli, another sister was mentioning yesterday via facebook how she was thinking of starting a book club, the more the merrier, insha’Allah.

  5. You have demonstrated what it means to be a student. You went to that lecture and in a fantastic way you now share your findings with us. Keep the spirit and be rest assured that we will all be looking for writers like you. Tell us all you know about this scholar so that we can rely on your reports.

  6. Dear Ify:
    I am impressed by your posting on my lecture at Adams. I look forward to seeing you again. Keep the faith and good luck.

    Professor Sulayman S. Nyang, Ph.D.
    Howard University
    Washington D.C. 20059

  7. Dr. Nyang,

    Thank you for stopping by my blog, your kind words, and for the inspiration. I really benefitted from your presentation on the history of Muslims in America and one of the many lessons that has stayed with me is to leave our footprints and our traces here and now on the institutions and places that we as American Muslims live, work, and interact with on daily basis. Working on building a legacy and conducting my own research.

  8. Dear Sister Ify,
    As Salaamu Alaikum
    My Allah guide you for your informative blog. I have had the pleasure and honor of hearing Dr. Nyang on several occasions give an excellent historic account of the history of Islam in America. Not only was it very informative but he did it without once looking at his notes. Al Hamdu Lilah.
    Also I was curious when you said that your father was a professor I was wondering if perhaps it might be the same Dr. Felix Okoye that is a professor at Brockport University, in Brockport, New York? If it is the same person I had him as a professor in 1974 and he was an amazing teacher. Occasionally I still see him at the Public Market in Rochester, New York. He always has a smile on his face.
    Just curious
    Yahya J. Abdullah

    1. Wa alaykum salaam Yahya! Delighted to hear from you and yes that Dr. Okoye is my dad. It’s such a small world, no? Thank you for reading and commenting and yes my dad can usually be found at the Public Market every Saturday morning.

  9. Funny, Ify, that I was searching for more info on Dr Suleyman Nyang (I have been enjoying his lectures on youtube), and one link brought me back here. I suspected he was Gambian, and not Senegalese, as I first thought, based on the spelling on his name, and wanted to confirm it. Forgot how great of a blog you have here.

  10. good one ify. i congratulate you on this marvelous gesture on a man internationally distinguished and of african origin. i am aspiring to be like him. cheers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s