The first Muslims in America were most likely African slaves owned by 16th century European explorers. In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson campaigned in Virginia for freedom of religion not just for Christians, but for Muslims, Jews, and even “pagans.”
Other Muslims came to America from the Middle East in the late 1800s and early 1900s for economic reasons, often settling in the Midwest. The Ford Motor Company employed many at its various factories. In the 1950s Muslims came from Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt, and later on others arrived from Africa and Asia. In recent years Muslim refugees have come to America seeking safety and security.
There were an estimated 3.45 million Muslims in the US in 2017, about 1% of the total population. That number grows by roughly 100,000 per year, mostly because Muslims tend to have more children, not because people are converting to Islam. Most Muslims in America are Sunni, but they are very diverse in their language and cultural backgrounds.
A specific and separate expression of Islam in the African-American community, known as the Nation of Islam, is a controversial combination of Islamic theology and issues related to racism and civil rights. Its most notable leaders have been Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. In 2017, only 3% of US-born African Americans identified with the Nation of Islam; the majority of Black Muslims would consider themselves Sunni.
Surprisingly, Muslims and Christians in America care about many of the same things: getting a job, putting food on the table, and making life better for their kids. They also share some of the same struggles: how to live morally in a secular culture, how to live faithfully at home and at work, and how to protect their kids from harmful situations and negative influences.
However, especially since September 11, 2001, Muslims perceive that many Americans view them suspiciously, assuming that every Muslim is anti-American. In a 2017 study, 25% of Muslims in the US said that discrimination, racism, and prejudice were the biggest problems they face.
The numbers are not overwhelming, but Muslims are coming to faith in Jesus in America. God often uses three things in particular to lead men and women to himself: access to the Bible, friendships with Christians, and positive experiences with local evangelical churches.
However, while access to Christians and Christian resources is often available in America, social pressure on Muslims to remain in their communities and resist exposure to other faiths runs deep. Often Muslims who come to faith in Jesus in America experience struggles similar to what they would face in their home countries, starting with the loss of family and friends.
While some American Christians embrace welcoming and befriending Muslim neighbors, many others are afraid. Exciting opportunities abound for believers in America to love Muslims and share the Gospel with those who have likely never encountered it before.