A Brief History of Early Muslims in America

Pop Quiz: How long do you think Muslims have been in America?  Since the…

  1. 2000s
  2. 1900s
  3. 1800s
  4. 1700s
  5. 1600s




If you guessed 5, then you are correct.

Muhammad Yaro, enslaved in late 1700s. He knew how to read and write in Arabic and write his name in English. He was able to become free and became quite wealthy as a financier in Georgetown.

Muhammad Yaro, enslaved in late 1700s. He knew how to read and write in Arabic and write his name in English. He was able to become free and became quite wealthy as a financier in Georgetown (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

If you were surprised at this answer, believe me, so was I when I first found out about it while browsing through a random library textbook in high school. It’s something that is never mentioned in our classes but I guess maybe that’s because of the history behind it. You see, one of the first clear records of Muslims being in America were the African Muslims who were brought here as slaves, given Christian names, and who were heavily repressed from practicing their religion. Among them, a known Muslim slave was Yarrow Mamout (original: Muhammad Yaro). It is estimated that about a third of the enslaved Africans were Muslims. In fact, Muslim presence altogether rivaled numbers of Methodists and Roman Catholics in America. Muslims from Spain and Portugal called Moriscos also came to many Spanish colonies though I am not sure if they came as slaves or free. Additionally, there are several autobiographies of Muslim slaves, Muslims in the abolitionist movement, and of Muslim Union soldiers during the Civil War. American Muslims also fought in the American Revolutionary War as indicated by soldier names like ‘Yusuf ben Ali’ (slave name: Salem Poor) and ‘Bampett Muhammed’ (slave name: Joseph Benhaley) as well as  in the Vietnam War and others.

Furthermore, the presence of Muslims is also affirmed in documents such as in a Virginia statute of 1682 which says, “negroes, moores, molatoes, and others, born of and in heathenish, idolatrous, pagan, and Mahometan parentage and country [who] heretofore and hereafter may be purchased, procured, or otherwise obteigned, as slaves.” Some of the earlier slavery laws were actually more concerned with the religious beliefs of the enslaved rather than their skin color.  This concern was to the point that a Spanish law in 1685 declared that, “The introduction of Mohammedan slaves into America is forbidden on account of the danger which lies in their intercourse with the Indians” meaning that the Europeans were afraid of the passing of their slaves’ beliefs to other people since religion is something that can actually be shared unlike skin color (I think this is still a concern of people today). Around this time is when Europeans decided that no matter who slaves were, they should all be converted to Christianity.  A Virginia law of 1667 states that men and women “brought or imported into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes, Moors, Mollattoes or Indians… shall be converted to the Christian faith.” From then on, this was the policy with regard to the religion of enslaved people.

Moreover, there are even earlier accounts of Muslims being in America though they aren’t as well-documented. Scholars say that a Chinese Muslim diplomat and admiral named Zheng He visited America in 1421, about 71 years before Columbus arrived here.  Many historians also believe that Muslims from the Senegambian region of Africa also traveled here around the 14th century. These people are thought to be Moors who after being pushed out of Spain voyaged to places like the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It is also noted that when Columbus made his journey to the Americas, he carried with him a book written by Portuguese Muslims who had already made a journey here in the 12th century. Then in the early 16th century, there are reports of Muslims such as a man named Istafan who had worked as a guide for the Spanish in their victory of Southern American regions (Arizona and New Mexico).

Mother Mosque of America located at 1335 9th Street Northwest in Cedar Rapids, Linn County, Iowa is on the National Register of Historic Places’ (Rifeldeas).

Beginning in the late 1800s, waves of free and multinational Muslims (along with larger waves of Arab Christians) came to America People from the Middle East, especially Syria and Lebanon. began setting in the mid-west. After a period of stagnant immigration, in the late 1900s, other Arab people such as those from countries like Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt also migrated here. Then in the 1960s, larger waves of Muslims from Africa, Latin America and many parts of South Asia also traveled here. One of the first American converts to Islam was Mohammad Alexander Russell Webb, a U.S. consul to the Philippines, who established a masjid (mosque) in New York City in 1893. However, the first structure of a masjid built in US was built in Ross, North Dakota in 1929 and the oldest surviving one was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1934. Fast forward to present day and we have Muslims from all over the globe in America. I personally am very proud of the diversity we have in my religion. It never ceases to amaze me especially since I think it embodies the essence of my faith very well. The following two quotations (one from the Quran and one a Hadith, saying of the Prophet) are an evidence to this idea:

O mankind! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and We made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, (the) most noble of you near Allah (is the) most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah (is) All-Knower, All-Aware (Quran 49:13).

All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” ~The Last Sermon of the Prophet

Despite living in such a multiethnic state, I have to admit that I don’t get much of a chance to meet Muslims from diverse backgrounds mainly because the location I live in has a majority of about four ethnicities. I do wish to correct that though in the future.

I wish history classes in the United States taught us information on Early Muslims in America when they mention Columbus or teach World Religions. I think this information is even more vital today because of all the negative talk against Muslims and Islam. The media and many in power make it sound as if Muslims are a recent phenomenon in America (not to mention the bigoted claim that all Muslims are terrorists). This statement  is simply not true. Islam is a religion of peace and the billions of people who practice it are peaceful. Just like anyone else, we want to live in harmony, have good jobs, see our children grow and achieve, buy a house and et cetera. To blame the actions of a few on the entire religious group is a felony in my opinion because although one may not be physically assaulting the group, the hate speech does enough to rouse the ignorant to do so.

Geysar Gubanov, a contributor to the U.S. News, recently wrote the following:

“Today, however, by portraying Muslims as existentially evil and anti-American, by presenting Islam as a religion of violence, by burning the Quran and attacking the religious beliefs of Muslims, we are missing an opportunity to reconcile the world’s largest religions. One way to achieve this goal is to encourage inter-religious dialogue to promote coexistence in the U.S. in the manner our Founding Fathers envisioned it and to educate all people in the spirit of tolerance, love and peace.

These principles are emboldened in our holy scriptures. The Bible teaches us to be ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love’ and the Quran says, ‘You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.’

President George Washington was right when he wrote in 1790 that ‘all possess alike liberty of conscience. … For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.’

Finally, we must also not forget recent history when the fear of another religious group led to the horrors of Holocaust. We need to learn from our past. And, once again, let us not obliterate the history of the United States’ longstanding openness towards Muslims. We Americans, as a progressive nation, should work together to build a better country, where Islam is a part of our colorful religious and cultural mosaic. ”



Muhammad Yaro: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/yarrow-mamout-the-slave-who-became-a-georgetown-financier/2015/02/13/06710a98-b30b-11e4-827f-93f454140e2b_story.html?utm_term=.bf7657f1a348

Zheng He in America: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/world/who-discovered-america-zheng-who.html

Early Muslims in America:

Geysar Gurbanov’s article: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2015/01/27/islam-has-a-long-standing-place-in-american-society

More info on Bampett Muhammad and Yusuf Ben Ali: Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History By Edward E. Curtis


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