When students think of Islam—if they do at all—they might summon an image of Denzel Washington playing a stern and passionate Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 film, or maybe they imagine Louis Farrakhan on the speaker's platform at the Million Man March in 1995. Some might have encountered Middle Eastern Muslims on the nightly news, mostly as "fundamentalists" and "terrorists." A few have met immigrant Muslims in their neighborhood. Muslim students might be among their classmates. But Muslims are more diverse than popular images allow, and American Muslim history is longer than most might think, extending back to the day that the first slave ship landed on Virginia's coast in 1619. It encorporates two groups—Muslims from other countries who migrated to America by force or by choice, and African Americans who created Muslim sects in the twentieth century. Thus, a consideration of the Islamic presence in America provides a new perspective on several important (and familiar) issues that will be used to organize this essay:
1. What is the history of slavery in the United States?
2. How have immigrants resisted and accommodated American culture?
3. What were African Americans' experiences in the northern cities after the Great Migration?
4. How has African-American Islam addressed race relations since the 1960s?
5. Is America a Christian nation?
At first, you will need to introduce Islam to your students, and a helpful way to do this is to invite their responses to the word "Muslim." What comes to mind when they hear the word? Write their responses on the board without comment, and then use the list to establish the dominant images of Muslims—for example, as militants, extremists, newcomers. Then you can begin to contest these impressions and establish that Islam is a diverse and long-standing American religion—one that has had a significant presence in the United States.
At this point you will need to introduce the basic beliefs and practices of the world's one billion Muslims, most of whom live in Asia, not in the Middle East as most Americans presume. As in Christianity and Judaism, Islam (which is second only to Christianity in worldwide adherents) includes a number of communities or branches. The two major groups are Sunni Muslims, who constitute about 85 percent of Muslims, and Shii (or Shiite) Muslims, who account for 15 percent of the world's Islamic population. All traditional groups are represented among the five million Muslims in the United States, along with some new movements that have been cultivated on American soil.
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