Muslims have lived in the city as far back as when it was called New Amsterdam, but only established a mosque in the 1890s. Just since the 1970s has mosque building become a regular feature of NYC real estate.
Today, there are at least 285 mosques in New York City, according to a Journey Data Center report. Some mosques are expanding their facilities; at least one is rebuilding after a devastating fire; and many more are on the drawing boards.
For a long time the presence of Muslims and their mosques in New York City was in stasis. There were few, if any, Muslim missionaries in the city, so that in times of unsettling social and cultural conditions, there were few Muslim alternatives for people looking for help and hope. This was a period of Orientalism, a view of Muslim lands as static, backward and doomed to decline. There was enough truth to the view that it was generally accepted.
However, the American way of religion is that modernity and urbanization increases the number of religious options and secularisms simultaneously. This eventually works to provoke the introduction of innovative religious paths and a mutual recognition by the religious groups that the public square should accommodate each other. Religious conflicts temporarily benefit the secularists who claim for themselves the title of peacemakers (all the while clamping down on “the sects” with a secularist vision of the public square). Once the religious groups come to terms with each other, they join together to desecularize the public square. In the 1950s the accommodation was that America is a “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” country. Now, Muslims are joining other religious groups to build a postsecular public square that encompasses more types of faiths.
The period of Indifference
In New Amsterdam, the ancestral settlement of New York City, Anthony Jansen van Salee of mixed Dutch and Moroccan ancestry was called “The Turk” during the 1620s and may have been a Muslim. Slaves, likely with a Muslim background in Africa, were also brought to New Amsterdam, though there is little recorded history about this feature of NYC religions. In the African burial site in Lower Manhattan, there are some bodies with necklaces with blue beads, which is similar to jewelry that Muslims sometimes wore. Gilabaru, one of the Africans on the slave ship Amistad that became a cause celebre for abolitionists in 1839, was undoubtedly a Muslim. There may have been other Muslims also on the ship, but once they were freed none played a role in New York City because all returned to Africa.
For a long time Americans were mostly indifferent to Islam. If there was interest in religious experimentation Americans came up with their own new variations like evangelical Christian revivalists, Mormonism, Jehovah Witness, and some versions of Eastern religion. Then, in the late 19th and early Twentieth Centuries some Americans started drawing toward Islam as a way of distinguishing themselves from Christianity or American injustices toward African Americans. Muslims overseas also began to send missionaries to New York, sometimes to accompany a new tide of immigrants from Muslim lands. As often as not, the immigrants came because they were escaping disruption in their homelands.
The first large migration from Muslim lands to America came between 1875 and 1912 from the rural areas of Greater Syria (today’s Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon) of the Ottoman Empire. European powers were challenging the Ottoman’s dominance and rebellions were sprouting. The state was declining and would eventually disappear. Some locals thought that it was a good time to hit the exit door. Some immigrants like the Albanians later returned to their homeland, but most stayed in America.
In the late 19th Century Lower Manhattan immigrants from the Middle East headed to a Syrian Quarter at the foot of Washington Street, from Battery Place to Rector Street. Probably some were Muslims, but most were Christians. Red Hook too had a settlement of Arabs and Syrians along Atlantic Avenue. Brownsville also soon had “Moors,” and Arabs and Syrians were settling near Belmont. So far as we know now, a mosque was not established at any of these places until the early Twentieth Century. Most likely, prayers and Islamic teaching took place in homes. Diplomats from Muslim countries may have hosted prayers in their homes or offices. On the big holidays like Eid at the end of Ramadam, Muslims undoubtedly gathered for dinner and celebration at a rented hall or hotel.
Our retrospective relies on the work of many scholars. For further reading:
Zain Abdullah, Black Mecca: The African Muslims in Harlem, 2013.
Allan D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles, 1997.
Edward E. Curtis IV, Encyclopedia of Muslim-American history, 2-Volume Set, 2010.
Louis DeCaro, Jr., On the side of my people: A religious life of Malcolm X, 1997.
Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, 2013.
Jerrilyn Dodds and Edward Grazda, NY Masjid: The Mosques of New York, 2002.
Michael A. Gomez, Black Crescent: The experience and legacy of African-Muslims in the Americas, 2005.
Yvonne Haddad, ed. The Muslims of America, 1991.
Yvonne Haddad, Jane Smith, Mission to America: Five Islamic sectarian movements in North America, 1993.
Aminah Mohammad-Arif, Salaam America. South Asian Muslims in New York, 2002.
Jacob K. Olupona and Regina Gemignani, eds., African immigrant religions in America, 2007.
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion, 1980.
Bilal Serf, The missing link: early Turkish immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, dissertation, 2014.
Jane I. Smith, Islam in America, 2009.
John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, 1998.
Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, 2003.
Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1964.