Islam is the second largest religion in the world. In 1995 about 1,122,661,000 Muslims inhabited this planet. Count the commas, folks—that’s a billion plus a hundred million. That means of every living person, one in five is a Muslim. As citizens of what is yet a superpower, we tend not to notice the worldwide Islamic population, of which merely sixteen percent are Arabs.
But this blindness to our situation needs to change, not only so we can be more aware of the need for foreign missions, but so we can be aware of the needs of our neighbors. Islam is moving to where you live. And it looks like it is here to stay.
Islam and Early America
After the United States was founded, Islam had more influence than many would expect on certain segments of the population. For example, after being converted to Christianity, the Virginia statesman John Randolph of Roanoke confessed in 1818 to a friend: “Very early in life I imbibed an absurd prejudice in favor of Mohammedanism and its votaries. The crescent had a talismanic effect on my imagination, and I rejoiced in all its triumphs over the cross (which I despised) as I mourned over its defeats; and Mahomet II himself did not more exult than I did, when the crescent was planted on the dome of St. Sophia, and the cathedral of the Constantines was converted into a Turkish mosque.” Randolph’s pleasure over the Muslim conquest of Byzantium (by then, Constantinople) in 1492, shows how, for those who had rejected Christianity in favor of Unitarianism, it represented a monotheistic alternative to orthodox trinitarian Christianity. However, this admiration was probably not due to any close experience with Islamic culture or religion, but simply a hungry desire to uphold a nontrinitarian ideal.
The fact is Islam exerted almost no direct influence on North America in the last century. An estimated thirty percent of the slaves brought to America from Africa were Muslims. However, they did not establish Islam in this hemisphere. In the 1860s, a wave of Muslim immigrants came from Syria and Lebanon to escape the tyranny of the Turkish military draft, but they did not have a great impact. A Canadian census in 1871 recorded 13 Muslims of unknown origin, but the surveys made ten and twenty years later reported no Muslims in the entire country. Nineteenth-century North America was simply not open to the spread of Islam.
The First Attempt at Muslim Proselytizing
While a few American converts were won for Islam in the 1870s and ‘80s, the first major effort at “evangelism” was made in 1893, when the American Islamic Propaganda Movement was founded. Alexander Webb, a jeweler, newspaperman, and diplomat, was converted while visiting India.
Adding “Mohammed” to his name, Webb came back to the States and founded the Movement, wrote three books on Islam, and published the periodical, The Moslem World. His endeavors were financially supported, first by Muslims in India, and then by the Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II. Despite establishing “brotherhoods” in several major U.S. cities, the movement more or less died when Webb did in 1916. Despite his efforts, America was simply not open to the Islamic message. Indeed, during this time period, many Islamic immigrants ended up being absorbed by the second generation into the American culture, whether secular, nominally Christian, or sincerely Christian.
This Present Darkness
Immigration increased and mosques where built so that, by the early 1950s several national Islamic organizations emerged. A Lebanese veteran from World War II, formed the Federation of Islamic Organizations.
Now the situation is drastically different. Estimates vary, but Islam now seems to make up about 2.4 percent (or six million) of the United States population. Making up fifteen percent of all legal immigrants, over a hundred thousand Muslims enter this country legally each year. Furthermore, it is estimated that there are annually tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who are believers in Islam. In addition to immigration, there is also procreation. Muslims tend to have more children than non-Muslims because most do not practice any form of birth control.
Conversion also adds to Muslim growth. It is estimated that there are over 25,000 conversions to Islam in this country each year. Because most of these converts come from Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish backgrounds, they not only entail the expansion of Islam but a shrinkage in other religions. There are now over 12,000 mosques in the United States with at least one in each state. In California, Muslims make up 3.4 percent of the population, and 4.7 percent of the population of New York state. As of 1995 there were 165 Islamic schools, 426 Islamic associations, around 90 Islamic publications, and twelve national Islamic organizations. Just like Webb’s American Islamic Propaganda Movement, many of these projects receive funding from Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. By the next millennium, Islam will probably be the nation’s second-largest religion.
The Crescent in the Culture War
The influence of Islam is not confined simply to the number of Muslims in this country. One must also consider the ways in which they might impact our society and make it even more inhospitable to the Gospel than it already is. By changing the institutions in our culture, Islam can be made to seem more acceptable and thus increase its growth.
Saudi Arabia donated five million dollars to the Harvard School of Law in order to start a center for Islamic legal studies. The donation was given on the condition that Islamic professors would teach the classes. A Middle Eastern studies program was also funded by Saudi Arabia at the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus. It, too, required Islamic professors.
In 1991 the United States Armed Forces Chaplains Board recognized the American Muslim Council as an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency. On December 3, 1993, an Imam was sworn in as the first Muslim chaplain in the Armed Forces.
The Golden Opportunity
Of course, as bad as Islamic expansion in the United States appears to be, it also presents an opportunity to spread the kingdom of God. As Muslims come from all around the world, we have the opportunity to present the Gospel to the Islamic world. Let’s pray that such conversions will take place. And then let’s do all we can to reach out to our Muslim neighbors. They are not going to go away.