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The Pew Study and African American Muslims

Ihsan Bagby

Pew Research Center recently released a major study entitled “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.”  This article highlights some of the findings of this study with special reference to African American Muslims.  Overall African American Muslims along with the age group of 18-29 (the second generation) distinguish themselves from other American Muslims by greater religiosity, more unhappiness with America and its policies, stronger Muslim identity and greater unwillingness to assimilate. The full report can be downloaded at 




The Pew study estimates that African American Muslims are 20% of the total U.S. Muslim population.  This estimate seems low.  For example, the 2000 study, “The American Mosque: a National Portrait” found that 30% of mosque goers in America are African Americans.  Since the Pew study found that African American Muslims tend to attend masjids more than immigrant Muslims, it is reasonable that the percentage of African Americans in the total Muslim population is lower than 30%--but how much lower.  The problem might lie in Pew’s methodology in conducting the study.  A portion of the Pew sample was generated by selecting Muslim sounding names from a large list.  Pew admitted that few African American Muslims were on this list but it is unclear how Pew compensated for this deficiency. 


American Muslim Population


                                                Foreign Born                65%

                                                African American          20%

                                                Native Born                  15%


Almost one-fourth (23%) of the entire American Muslim population are converts.  Of all the converts, 59% are African American and 34% are white Americans.  Undoubtedly the percentage of white American converts has been increasing over the past decades. 




African Americans                    59%

White Americans                      34%

Other (Hispanic)                         7%


Almost half of the converts chose Islam when they were 21 years or younger.  More than a third converted between the ages of 21-35.  In general most people convert when they are young.  This should inform our efforts to call people to Islam.


Age at Time of Conversion

 Less than 21                 49%

21-35                           34%

36 +                             17%




A problematic statistic, which has been the focus of some media attention, is that among American Muslims, African American Muslims have the highest favorable rating for al-Qaedah and the least unfavorable rating for al-Qaedah.  Actually only 9% of African Americans view al-Qaedah favorably and 61% view al-Qaedah unfavorably (30% didn’t know or didn’t respond).


View of al-Qaedah


                                   Favorable         Somewhat        Very          Don’t Know

                                                           Unfavorable      Unfavorable      Refuse


African Americans              9%                25%                 36%               30%

All American Muslims         5%                10%                 58%               27%

18-29                                 7%                16%                 58%               29%


So, the reality is that a very small minority of African American Muslims think favorably of al-Qaedah.  In my own opinion, this response is not an endorsement of al-Qaedah but the residue of the sympathy that African Americans in general and African American Muslims in particular feel for those who struggle against the “man,”  “the powers that be,” just as African Americans had to struggle against the dominant white power structure for their own rights.  Nevertheless, the vast majority of African American Muslims recognize that al-Qaedah’s struggle entails terrorist tactics that are misguided, immoral and un-Islamic.




African Americans and the age group 18-29 overall have a higher rate of religiosity than the average American Muslim.  Only Pakistanis have a higher religiosity rate.


More than half (54%) of African American Muslims attend a masjid weekly or more.  About 37% of immigrant Muslims attends a masjid weekly or more.  More than one-fourth (27%) of African American Muslims never or seldom attend a masjid.


Masjid Attendance


                                                            Weekly            Less often         Seldom

                                                            Or more                                   or never


            African Americans                    54%                 20%                 27%

            All American Muslims               40%                 26%                 34%

            Foreign Born                            37%                 27%                 36%




African American Muslims also score high in giving priority to their Muslim identity over their American identify.  In response to the question of whether the respondent considers themselves as American first or Muslim first, 58% of African American Muslims responded that they are Muslim first as compared to 47% of all American Muslims.  Only Muslims aged 18-29 scored higher—60% said that they are Muslim first.


In the same vein, about half of all African American Muslims said that Muslims should remain distinct from American society as opposed to adopting American customs.  About one-fourth (26%) of all American Muslims felt that Muslims should remain distinct.  This particular question is somewhat unfair, because Muslims might interpret the question differently, but nevertheless African American Muslims are clearly in favor of retaiing the distinctiveness of their deen as opposed to assimilating and losing their identity in the American mainstream.




An interesting finding is that African American Muslims reported that in the post 9/11 environment they experience more instances of discrimination and intolerance due to their Islam than other Muslims.  African American Muslims are also more likely than other Muslims to feel that anti-terrorism policies single out Muslims.  In certain regards, the 9/11 tragedy did not affect African American Muslims directly, but these findings demonstrate that African American Muslims are enough more impacted than other Muslims.

Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qibla to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (From the Faith). Indeed it was (A change) momentous, except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah Make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people Most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful.

Quran: 2:143
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