By the mid-19th century the slave population in the US had reached a staggering four million. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence, believed that all men were created equal and that they were endowed with certain inalienable rights, including freedom and happiness. Ironically, however, he did not extend these rights to slaves. He in fact owned 200 slaves.
An estimated 20% of the enslaved Africans who were brought to Africa by European slave traders were Muslim and many of them sought to recreate the communal life that they had left behind. One of the earliest records about enslaved Muslims in the US is dated to 1528, when five Moroccan Muslim slaves survived a shipwreck near Texas.
It is significant to note that the Sultanate of Morocco was the world’s first country to recognise the United States as an independent nation in 1717. On December 9, 1805, US President Thomas Jefferson hosted an Iftar dinner at the White House for a Tunisian envoy, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli.
The population of Muslims in the US, like the American population in general, is extremely heterogeneous in respect of national background, religion, ethnicity and language. African-American Muslims, who are native to the country, make up about a quarter of the Muslim population. The largest groups among American Muslims have come from South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa.
The level of education among American Muslims and their economic conditions are higher than the national average. According to the American Medical Association, about 10% of all American physicians are Muslims. Muslims are well represented in science and medicine, universities, business and entrepreneurship, law, ports, NGOs and the music industry.
The American constitution guarantees the protection of religious beliefs and practices irrespective of religious distinctions. Muslims are allowed to slaughter animals according to Islamic rituals, to construct mosques with domes and minarets, to impart Islamic instruction to their children and to solemnize their marriage in accordance with Islamic rituals. There are no restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in schools and universities or in public institutions, unlike in France and Belgium.
A large number of mosques with domes and minarets can be found across the country. Most of them have attached Islamic schools, where Muslim children are taught how to read the Quran and where they receive instruction in Islamic teachings and the Arabic language.
There are several Muslim organisations in the US, the largest ones being the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Council of North America.
Muslims in the US have made highly significant and wide-ranging contributions to the War of Independence, defence, science and medicine, architecture, arts, sports and music. Several thousand Muslim soldiers fought on the side of America in the American Revolution. Bampett Muhammad was a member of the army platoon that fought against the British colonialists. He fought for the Virginia Line between 1775 and 1783. Yusuf Ben Ali, a Muslim soldier of North African descent, also fought against the British in the War of Independence.
Fazlur Rahman Khan (1929-82), a Muslim engineer and architect who migrated from what is today Bangladesh, was a distinguished structural engineer who pioneered a new structural system of frame tubes that revolutionised the construction of skyscrapers. Khan was born in Dhaka. After receiving a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree from Ahsanullah Engineering College in Dhaka, Khan received a Fulbright Fellowship which enabled him to travel to the US in 1952. There he obtained two master’s degrees in structural engineering and theoretical and applied mechanics and a doctorate in structural engineering from the University of Illinois.
He designed the 108-story Willis Tower, also known as the Sears Tower, which remained the tallest building in the US for over two decades and is today the second-tallest building in the country. He also designed the John Hancock Tower, US Bank Centre in Milwaukee, Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis and several other buildings. He also designed buildings in Australia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bangladesh. He is recognised as one of the most influential engineers and architects of the 20th century. He is described as “the father of tubular designs for skyscrapers” by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The contribution of American Muslim scientists and physicians to physics, chemistry, molecular biology, microsurgery, neurosurgery and information technology is particularly note-worthy. Dr Mahmoud Gazi Yasargil, a renowned neurosurgeon of Turkish origin, is known worldwide as the father of microsurgery. He is well-known for his successful treatment of epilepsy and brain tumours with instruments that were devised by him. After retiring from the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Zurich, where he taught for many years, Professor Yasargil accepted an appointment as professor of Neurosurgery at the College of Medicine, University of Arkansas.
Professor Yasargil is regarded as one of the greatest neurosurgeons of the 20th century. He was honoured as “Neurosurgery’s Man of the Century (1950-1999)” by the the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.
Dr Ayub Khan Ommaya (1930-2008), a Pakistani-born neurosurgeon of international renown, made a pioneering contribution to interventional neuroradiology and spinal angiography. After receiving his M. D. from King Edward Medical College in Lahore, Pakistan in 1953, he came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He migrated to the US in 1961 and joined the National Institute of Health in Maryland as Chief of Neurosurgery.
Dr Ommaya was a leading expert in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries. He developed the first coma score for the classification of traumatic brain injury. In 1963 Dr Ommaya devised an intraventricular catheter system for the aspiration of cerebrospinal fluid on the delivery of drugs. This devise – known as the Ommaya Reservoir – is still used for administering chemotherapy directly to the tumour-affected part of the brain.
Dr Ommaya had a keen interest in the seminal and wide-ranging contributions of Muslim scientists and physicians to the development of science and medicine during the Middle Ages.
Dr Ahmed Zewail (born 1946), a distinguished Egyptian-American scientist, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999. Dr Zewail, known as the father of femtochemistry, is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Physical Biology Centre for Ultrafast Science and Technology at the California Institute of Technology. He is a member of Barack Obama’s presidential council of advisers on science and technology.
Dr Aziz Sancar is a Turkish-American biochemist and molecular biologist who has made a highly significant contribution to DNA repair, cell cycle checkpoints and circadian clock. After completing his M. D. at Istanbul University, Sancar moved to the US where he received a Ph. D. from the University of Texas in Dallas in 1977. In 2015 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Tomas Lindah and Paul L. Modrich for having mapped, at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information. Their research has provided highly useful information about the complex ways in which a living cell functions, which has very promising implications for cancer treatments.
Aziz Sancar has mapped nucleotide excision repair, the mechanism that cells use to repair UV damage to DNA. People born with defects in this repair system are likely to develop skin cancer if they are exposed to sunlight. The cell also utilises nucleotide excision repair to correct defects caused by mutagenic substances. Professor Sancar is currently the Sarah Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the School of Medicine at the University of California.
Jawed Karim (born 1979) is a German-American expert and entrepreneur in information technology. Karim, who is of Bangladeshi and German descent, is well-known as a co-founder of YouTube and the first person to upload a video on it.
Muhammad Ali, earlier known as Cassius Clay (born 1942), is a world-renowned boxing champion. He won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship thrice. Ali is one of the greatest heavyweights in the history of the sport and was crowned “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC. There have been prominent basketball champions among American Muslims, including Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Mike Tyson. Some of the biggest names among America’s rappers, such as Yasiin Bey Rakim, are Muslims. Muslim rappers played a leading role in popularising Afrocentric hip-hop music in the late 1980s.
Notwithstanding the fact that Muslims in the US are fairly well integrated into mainstream American society and have made a highly significant contribution to American society, they are faced with the rising tide of demonization, discrimination, racist slurs and even physical attacks. Islamophobic sentiments and behaviour have increased particularly after 9/11. Donald J. Trump, a front-running candidate in the presidential election, has made no secret of his hatred for Muslims. He has publicly called for a halt to the entry of Muslims in the US. Ben Carson, a former professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University and a Republican presidential candidate, has publicly declared that “A Muslim cannot be trusted to be in-charge of the US.”