A continuous Muslim presence in the Milwaukee area can be traced back to the 1950’s. It is known that Muslims arrived in Milwaukee prior to this time, but the number of such Muslims was very limited. In addition, those who did settle in the Milwaukee area prior to the 1950’s were often students or peddlers who remained here only temporarily.
Over the years, the various ethnic, cultural and racial groups that make up the Milwaukee Muslim community were able to come together to establish religious centers and facilities that were open to all individuals, regardless of their country of origin or background. And although the process of overcoming cultural barriers and adopting an American Muslim identity was sometimes challenging, the Muslim community in Milwaukee takes pride in the fact that it has been able to successfully incorporate its varied cultures, ethnicities and races into its institutions. Without any doubt, the most ethnically, culturally and racially diverse religious organizations in the Milwaukee area are Muslim organizations.
Muslims in the Milwaukee area trace their origins to more than 30 countries. In the Milwaukee area, the three largest groups are those that come from the Arab world (more than 20 countries), those from Southeast Asia (India, Pakistan and Kashmir), and African American Muslims.
Although it is beyond the scope of this short history of Muslims in the Milwaukee area, it should be mentioned that a substantial number of Africans that were brought to the United States as slaves were Muslims. Over the years, many of these slaves adopted (often by force) the faith of their “slave masters”.
A few African American families in the Milwaukee area adopted and practiced mainstream Muslim beliefs as early as the 1950’s. However, the first introduction of most African Americans to Islam was through a black separatist group that referred to itself as the “Nation of Islam” (NOI), even though their beliefs had nothing to do with mainstream Islam. The NOI was established in the 1930’s and its main leader, Elijah Muhammad, preached a theology that had no connection with the teachings of mainstream Islam. Following the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, many of Elijah Muhammad’s followers began to adopt mainstream Islam, encouraged by Elijah’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad, who was educated in mainstream Islam. Warith Deen Muhammad remained an important leader in the national Muslim community until he passed away in Chicago, Illinois in September, 2008.
The African American community established a Mosque in Milwaukee in the early 1970’s as well as a private school. Clara Muhammad School continues to operate in Milwaukee.
Muslims who immigrated to the Milwaukee area from Arab lands may have been drawn here, at least in part, by the existence of an established Arab Christian community with whom they shared a common language and culture. The Arab Christian community (Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian) traces its origins in the Milwaukee area to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As with Muslims in later decades, the Arab Christian immigrants often started off as street merchants and peddlers. Milwaukee’s second Archbishop, the Most Reverend Sebastian Messmer, established an “Arab” Melkite church in 1911 and the dedication of St. George Melkite Church on the corner of 17th and State Street took place on December 23, 1917. By 1930, it was estimated that the Arab Christian community in Milwaukee was around 600 people.
By the early 1950’s, a more significant number of Arab Muslims arrived in Milwaukee, some as students, and others working as traveling salesmen and peddlers. Many resided in the area around State Street between 7th and 20th.
By the mid 1960’s to early 1970’s, the number of Muslims from Arab countries continued to increase. Many of the new immigrants were Palestinians who were displaced as result of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Others came from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and other Arab countries. In more recent years, Milwaukee has seen a substantial influx of refugees from Iraq.
The first Muslims from Pakistan, India and Kashmir arrived in the Milwaukee area in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The early arrivals included physicians and students. Between 1966 and 1972, a significant number of Muslim physicians arrived in the Milwaukee area to complete their residency and other medical training. Many remained in the Milwaukee and played an instrumental role in the establishment of Muslim houses of worship in the Milwaukee area.
The first Muslim holiday prayer that is known to have taken place in Milwaukee was organized in1968 in the home of a Marquette University student. For a period of time in late 1968 to early 1969, Friday congregational prayers (Juma’) were held in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Yunus at 840 N. 12th Street near the former Mt. Sinai Hospital.
In addition to Muslims from the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent and African American Muslims, Muslims in the Milwaukee area trace their origins to Turkey, Albania, Kosovo, Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Nigeria, a number of other African countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and other nations.