Several readers have asked for my thoughts about Muslims in the United States. Certainly a topic worth exploring, especially today. Although some historians suggest that there were Muslims on Columbus’ ships, the first clearly documented arrival of Muslims in America occurred in the 17th century with the arrival of slaves from Africa.
As of 2023, about 25% of the world’s population are Muslims and currently 3.45 million Muslims are living in the United States, representing approximately 1.1% of the total population. Especially noteworthy today, more than 100 US American Muslim appointees are currently working in President Joseph Biden’s administration. Not the case of course in the previous presidential administration.
More than 20 years since the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that US American Muslims still endure record discrimination and marginalization. Donald Trump’s vitriolic anti-Muslim presidential campaign rhetoric in 2016 was a preview to his strongly Islamophobic administration. The 45th president and his White House staff and advisors targeted Muslims in both speech and policy: the use of anti-Muslim rhetoric; the elevation of Islamophobic staff members to key White House positions; banning visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country; and a lack of response to the rise in US hate crimes targeting Muslims.
Islam is one of the three historic Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today Christianity is the world’s largest religion with about 31% of the world’s population. Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with 25%. Judaism is the smallest with only 0.2% of the world identifying as Jewish. Islam, however, is the world’s most rapidly growing religion and is forecasted to grow faster than Christianity by 2050.
The founder of Islam was the Arab religious, social, and political leader Muhammad (c.570 – 632). According to Islamic doctrine, he was a prophet divinely inspired to preach and confirm the monotheistic teachings of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.
An historic perspective is important. The Islamic Golden Age, from the eighth to the thirteenth century CE, was a period during which science, literature, geometry, astronomy, and other fields of knowledge flourished. During this Golden Age, some of the most significant advances in medieval scholarship were made by Muslim scholars. Muslim conquerors had come into possession of numerous Greek and Roman manuscripts. Muslim scholars carefully preserved them and translated them, especially philosophic and scientific works. Without the preservation and translation work of Muslim scholars during this period, much of ancient Greek knowledge would have been lost forever. Algebra, which comes from an Arabic word, was developed during the period. We owe our numerals to Arabic scholars. And a great many stars were discovered and astronomical theories developed by Muslim scholars during this Islamic Golden Age.
Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, many contemporary US Americans have negative views about Muslims and Islam. About 50% say they don’t personally know anyone who is Muslim and know “not much” or “nothing at all” about Islam. Yet they have strong anti-Muslim feelings. US Americans, however, who are not Muslim, but personally know someone who is Muslim, are more likely to have a positive view of Muslims and less likely to believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions.
I am a Christian theologian and I have worked for decades, promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding, especially with men and women belonging to all three Abrahamic religions. A few years ago I was a key speaker at a gathering of about 70 imams in Brussels. The topic was freedom of expression. And it went very well. Reactions to a great many questions and responses were positive. And I also learned a lot. In fact I told my audience I was not there to teach but to listen. Wherever it is found, however, Islamophobia is hard to combat. Far too often, if a person calls for a factual and well-researched understanding of Islam, that person is often labeled “unChristian,” or “unpatriotic,” or simply “dangerous.”
After seeing and reading a lot of anti-Muslim political and religious rhetoric, one has to ask just what are the truths and misconceptions behind contemporary anti-Muslim beliefs?
I see four big misconceptions:
- That Islam is a violent religion: Anti-Muslim groups frequently pull passages from the Quran as evidence that Islam promotes violence. Actually anyone who is looking can also find passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that justify intolerance, violence, genocide, and slavery. Yet both books — the Quran and the Hebrew Scriptures — include abundant passages advocating tolerance, peace, and love. We need to remember that every religion has extremist elements. Far right Christian nationalist violence is increasing in the United States. And of course right now Christians are bombing and killing other Christians in Ukraine.
- That Islam is inherently sexist and anti-female: Actually the Quran and related teachings of Islam promote many views regarding gender that were quite progressive for the time in which the prophet Muhammad lived. Women can own property, for example, and keep their last names after marriage. Muhammad also strongly advocated the education of girls. “Searching for knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim male and Muslim female,” Muhammad said. We need to remember however that Muslims, like Christians, interpret and follow the teachings of their religion under a variety of cultural influences. In progressive cultures, Muslim women can rise to the tops of their professions as doctors, lawyers, and scholars. In conservative cultures, however, women may be prevented from participating fully in public life. In either case, this status may not be unique to Muslim women. Understanding cultural influences on all religions is very important, yesterday and today.
- That Muslims and Jews hate each other: The alleged enmity between Muslims and Jews does not do justice to the rich and complex Muslim-Jewish history and to today’s reality of Muslim-Jewish relations. For many people, of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has shaped their perspective on Muslim-Jewish relations. In the Iberian Peninsula — the former Islamic states in today’s Spain and Portugal – Jewish people were able to make great advances in science, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, during the Muslim Golden Age. See the book by Mark R. Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Today there are certainly positive Muslim-Jewish developments. Earlier this month, July 2023, members of the Latin American Jewish Congress and the Muslim World League met for two days in Buenos Aires. Over 40 participants discussed ways to collaborate and published a “decalogue” of agreements, which includes future interfaith programming in South American schools and invitations to members of each group to participate in holiday services of the other faith. Great progress is being made today in Muslim–Jewish interfaith dialogue groups in the United States, like, for example, the “Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society (JIDS) of Washington,” started in 2009. Monthly dialogue groups meet across the country bringing together Jews and Muslims for friendly, yet frank, encounters.
- That Muslims want to establish Shariah law in the United States: Shariah law refers to the moral and legal framework about how Muslims should behave and relate to the world. It does influence legal codes in Muslim-majority countries, but it is more of a philosophical and religious precept, not a universally applicable set of laws. However, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Iran, have combined state and religious power to create a theocracy. In the United States, however, US law always supersedes Shariah law. No US court has ever made a ruling based on Shariah and, according to the US Constitution, no court ever can.
For further reading I recommend two books: The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Hatred of Muslims, by Nathan Lean. And The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West by Todd H. Green.