Covering Islam 101

Islam was put under a microscope by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Before that, although there were more than 1,200 mosques and more than 1 million Muslims regularly worshipping in the United States, Islam seemed a distant, foreign faith to many Americans. Since then, the demand for accurate, nuanced and balanced information about Islam and Muslim people has grown, as has the number of scholars in the field. There is no official count, but scholars say demand and opportunity for academics who study Islam has risen significantly since 2001. Some say that jobs now outnumber qualified applicants, but note that a whole new generation of scholars is in graduate school. Job postings for scholars of Islam in American colleges and universities have increased since 9/11 according to the American Academy of Religion, which runs an online employment service. Classes – particularly those on politics, gender and contemporary Islam – are full, giving more students at more universities background in Islam. Knowledge matters, whether these students move on to careers in business, medicine, education or other fields. According to a Pew Research Survey, 30 percent of people look on Islam favorably, 38 percent do not, and 30 percent just don’t know. This guide will help to inform about the facts of Islam, and encourage those stuck in the middle to better understand the religion.


Why it matters

Although the number has grown since 2003, only 41 percent of Americans say feel knowledgeable on Islam’s practices, according to a 2009 Pew survey. And what they know is sometimes wrong. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it turned out that many government and military leaders were also ignorant of the internal workings of Islam, which may have complicated the American mission. And since 9/11 more than half of Muslim Americans (55 percent) say life has been more difficult, which can most likely be linked to the lack of knowledge on their beliefs.

Overview of Islam

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, after Christianity. Christianity has 2.04 billion followers, while Islam has 1.23 billion followers. The word Islam is derived from the Arabic word for peace, and the word Muslim is usually translated as “to submit.” Islam is the newest of the world’s five major religions. It traces its roots to the seventh century, when Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad, an Arabian merchant, was visited by an angel who revealed the Quran, the Islamic holy book, to him.

Major beliefs: Five Pillars

Though there are different branches of Islam, all are obligated to follow the Five Pillars:

  • Declaration: Each Muslim must declare, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”
  • Prayer: Muslims are expected to perform prayers at five set times a day, facing Mecca. Prayers include a ritual washing of face, hands and feet with water and kneeling on a prayer rug.
  • Charity: The Quran instructs Muslims to make an annual payment to charity, or zakat, generally 2.5 percent of their income or assets.
  • Fasting: During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are expected to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity from sunrise to sundown.
  • Pilgrimage: Every Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca – known as the hajj — once in his life.

Check out these sites for more information on the Five Pillars:

  • IslamiCity outlines the meanings of the Five Pillars of Islam.
  • The website Islam 101 also features descriptions and pictures of the Five Pillars of Islam.
  • posts a description of how to follow the Five Pillars.

Major beliefs: practices

Friday prayers: Muslims gather at mosques for congregational prayers on Fridays at the noon prayer time, but unlike Christians’ observance on Sunday or Jews’ on Saturday, the entire day is not considered a sabbath.

Dress: The Quran instructs Muslims to dress modestly. Depending on how they interpret the instructions to women, some Muslim women wear garments that cover their heads or their whole bodies. Some women do not cover their heads and simply wear clothes that are modest in nature.

Diet: Muslims are not permitted to consume pork or alcohol and require meat and poultry to be slaughtered and prepared according to certain standards. Muslims may not consume animal shortening, lard, gelatin or any product containing alcohol (such as Dijon mustard). posts a good description of how to follow Muslim dietary laws.

Holidays: Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar America follows. That means that the dates of holidays change from year to year, and holidays begin at sundown, with the sighting of the new moon.

Money matters: Islamic law bans collecting or paying interest, so Muslims use alternate ways to pay for large purchases, such as cars, homes and insurance.

The Prophet: Violent riots in Europe over cartoon images of Muhammad showed how seriously Muslims take Islam’s ban on visual images of its prophet. Muslims consider them an act of idolatry.

Holy sites: 

  • Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia are some of the holiest sites. Muslim pray facing Mecca — the site of   the Ka’bah, a mosque Muslims believe Abraham built – and take pilgrimages there. Muslims date the founding of Islam to Muhammad’s arrival in Medina, where he found support after leaving Mecca.
  • The Dome of the Rock, a mosque in Jerusalem built on the site where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Major teachings

Islam believes in one God who is the creator of all. It is one of the three major monotheistic religions. Like Christians and Jews, Muslims are sometimes referred to as Children of Abraham or People of the Book. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, believe in God’s revelation, prophets, ethical and moral accountability and a day of judgment. They revere Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, David and Jesus as prophets but believe that Muhammad was God’s final and most important prophet and messenger. Islam emerged in the 7th century in the Arabian peninsula when Muhammad, a merchant, said he was visited by an angel. Muhammad was a maverick who faced fierce opposition because his teachings challenged the religious and political leadership of his time as well as its social structure. He also became a military leader successful in battles that helped further the spread of his message. Muslims pray to Allah, the Arabic name for God Almighty. The Quran, its holy book, is written in Arabic, and all Muslims learn Arabic in order to read and recite from the Quran and to say daily prayers. Islam’s system of law is known as shariah, and it dictates Muslims’ duties to God and to others, including social transactions and business, penal and family relationships. A few governments, such as Saudi Arabia’s, base their legal systems on shariah, but shariah is mostly defined by religious scholars.

Sacred texts

Muslims believe the Quran was dictated to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. It is considered to be the exact words of God, rather than the words of Muhammad. Muslim practice is also defined by the Sunnah — the sayings, practices and customs of Muhammad. His sayings are known as the hadith. The University of Michigan offers an online English translation of the Quran.

Branches of Islam

The Islamic schools of thought are differentiated not by rituals, which are virtually the same in all Islam, but by historical and legal doctrines. Worldwide, Sunnis make up about 85 percent of Muslims, while Shiites constitute roughly 15 percent. Orders of the mystic Sufi tradition may be either Sunni or Shiite. In the United States, roughly 90 percent of Muslims are Sunni.

SUNNI: Sunni (SOO-nee) is the largest denomination in Islam. The plural form is Sunnis. The Sunnah, or the example of the life of Muhammad, is the core of Sunni teaching.

SHIITE: Shiism is the smaller of the two major branches of Islam. It developed after the death of Muhammad, when his followers split over who would lead Islam. The Shiism branch favored Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Its followers are called Shiites. Use Shiite instead of Shi’ah unless in a quote or as part of a name. Uppercase in all uses.

WAHHABI: Wahhabism is an austere form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar that follows a strict, literal interpretation of the Quran. Most people in the West knew nothing of Wahhabism until after the 9/11 attacks, which were organized by the terrorist Osama bin Laden, a Wahhabi. Wahhabism has spread rapidly since the 1970s, when the oil-rich Saudi royal family began contributing money to it. It is considered an extremist form of Sunni Islam that strictly enforces rules and criticizes those who follow other traditions of Islam. Muslims more often use the term Salafism.

SUFI: Sufism (SOO-fee-izem) is an Islamic mystic tradition with followers around the world. It is more a type of practice of the religion than a standalone denomination. Sufis tend to identify with either Sunni or Shiite Islam. Some Muslims are critical of Sufism as an unjustified innovation.


  • “Opinion: After 9/11, reaction to Muslim Americans more nuanced”

    Read an April 24, 2013, column on CNN’s website about the Boston marathon bombing and how terrorist acts are quickly and inaccurately categorized as “Muslim extremism.”

  • “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism”

    The Pew Research Center released a wide-ranging survey of Muslim Americans that shows “no indication of increased alienation and anger among Muslim Americans” and “no evidence of rising support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans.” In fact, the report, released Aug. 30, 2011, shows Muslims in the United States continue to reject extremism by much larger margins than Muslims in most other countries.

  • “Views of Violence”

    A Gallup Poll published in August 2011 showed the views of members of different religious communities to the question of whether terrorist violence is ever justified. Nearly nine in 10 Muslim Americans said violent attacks on civilians are never justified, the highest level of disapproval among the groups surveyed.

  • “After the Arab Spring”

    The popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called “Arab Spring” that endured through the summer of 2011, had for some in the West recast Muslims and Islamic societies as promoters of democracy and values that resonate with Americans.

  • “The Future of the Global Muslim Population”

    Read a Jan. 27, 2011, Pew Forum article about the expansion of Muslims across the globe and their projected future population.

  • “Key Findings From the Gallup Muslim-West Perceptions Index”

    Watch Gallup Senior Analyst Dalia Mogahed’s presentation on the relationship between Muslims and the West.

  • “Graham: Army Rescinded Pentagon Prayer Invitation”

    Read an April 22, 2010, Christianity Today blog post about Franklin Graham’s rescinded invitation to a Pentagon prayer service due to his comments about Islam.


  • “‘South Park’ Episode Altered After Muslim Group’s Warning”

    Read an April 22, 2010, New York Times article about controversy over depictions of Islam in the show South Park and the statements from the show’s producers objecting to censoring of the program.

  • “South Park and Revolution Muslim”

    Read an April 22, 2010, post at Religion Dispatches by Hussein Rashid, a Muslim theologian and widely cited commentator, who says the leaders who sent a warning to  South Park creators about censoring inappropriate content do not understand or represent Islam.

  • “LifeWay Research Finds Protestant Pastors View Islam with Suspicion”

    On April 23, 2010, Lifeway Research released a survey showing that Protestant pastors in the U.S. have a negative view of Islam and more than half agree with Franklin Graham’s statement that Islam is an “evil” religion.

  • “American Family Association: Muslims Can Stay In The U.S. If They Accept Christ”

    Earlier in April, the liberal watchdog Media Matters highlighted columns by Bryan Fischer, the American Family Association’s director of issue analysis for government and public policy, in which he advocated halting immigration of Muslims and repatriating them to Islamic countries. Fischer also said that Muslims who convert could “become not just good Christians but true Americans.”

  • “Muslims Widely Seen As Facing Discrimination”

    A 2009 report from the Pew Research showed that eight years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans saw Muslims as facing more discrimination inside the U.S. than other major religious groups. Nearly six-in-ten adults (58 percent) said Muslims are subject to a lot of discrimination, far more than said the same about Jews, evangelical Christians, atheists or Mormons. In fact, of all the groups asked about, only gays and lesbians were seen as facing more discrimination than Muslims, with nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the public saying there is a lot of discrimination against homosexuals.

  • “Number of U.S. Muslims to double”

    As USA Today reports, over the next two decades the number of Muslims in the U.S. will go from less than 1 percent of the population to 1.7 percent, a numerical increase from 2.6 million people in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030.

Conflict with Islam in the U.S.

Travel: Many Muslims report anxiety about crossing borders, particularly returning to the U.S. after overseas travel, said Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. Those who can be identified as Muslim by name or attire may be singled out for extra scrutiny and interviews – even fingerprinting.

  • The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council have investigated individual instances and work to educate government, schools and industry about the distinctions between political and religious affiliation and about constitutional protections.

Racism: American Islam includes indigenous African-American Muslims, new Latino converts and immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South Asia. Islam makes no distinction based on race or social class and sees Muslims as one people. Still, local communities grapple with racial differences. The racial mix is often easier for young people than for their parents, and racial hostility among fellow Muslims is found more often in urban centers than in small towns.

  • Consider examining the variety of Muslims, their practices, food traditions, dress and culture, as a way to examine these tensions in a context.
  • Prison, where Islam is growing rapidly, is one place to find racial diversity, tension and cooperation among Muslims, as Muslim conversions are numerous in prison and everyone must share limited religious resources.

Women: Women’s participation and leadership in mosque worship and activities is a frequent topic. Women are becoming more vocal about wanting to take part in prayer life without being separated from men and in mosque leadership.

Head covering: The practice of Muslim women covering their heads can provoke discrimination in hiring, at work, on the street and in schools, where female students report others pulling their headscarves. Some Muslim women wear hijabs and others do not, which can cause tension among women and among mosques that follow different traditions.

Community involvement: Another conservative-moderate issue is whether and how to get involved in the larger community. Islam encourages Muslims to better the lives of everyone, regardless of religion. Bagby’s studies of Muslims in the U.S. find most believe they should be involved in American life and politics. He also finds that the longer Muslims are in the U.S., the more they are likely to become involved. But Muslims register to vote at only half the rate of Americans in general.

  • Consider interviewing socially or politically active Muslims about the rewards and tensions of community involvement and how their faith and cultural ties influence community service. Include interviews with other Muslims who are reticent or disapprove.
  • Terminology matters. The word assimilation may provoke offense among mosque-going Muslims, whereas accommodation and integration can be more acceptable. Religious Muslims may want to integrate but adamantly oppose losing culture and religion.
  • Ask historians about the reticence and gradual involvement of earlier immigrant groups – Irish Catholics, for example – who also faced religious and ethnic discrimination.

The younger generation: Younger American Muslims are finding their own voices. The Muslim Student Association, for example, was dominated from the 1960s through the 1980s by foreign students, but today the MSA is run largely by second-generation American Muslims – many of them women. Articles have been written about American Muslim youngsters who are more religiously conservative than their parents and about the growth of Islamic matchmaking agencies and arranged marriages among Muslim youth.

  • Consider exploring a less obvious story, about how some young Muslims defy labels, focusing on, say, activist young women who cover their heads yet defy tradition by taking leadership in religious practice, confusing their immigrant mothers who go uncovered but stick to home in the traditional manner.

The quest for authenticity: Young American Muslims are engaged in a quest for authentic Islam, says Professor Omid Safi, co-chairman of the American Academy of Religion’s Study of Islam section. They are so-called “born-again” Muslims and are discussing – online, among themselves, with teachers and with their families – what is authentic scholarly tradition and what are cultural traditions handed down, perhaps, from the Iranian or Turkish or Egyptian tradition of their parents or their local mosque. They want to educate themselves firsthand, and they want their faith to be grounded in authentic scholarship.

Civil rights:

  • “After 9/11, Arab-Americans Fear Police Acts, Study Finds”

    A June 12, 2006, New York Times article (posted at the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee site) says that Arab-Americans, since 9/11, worry more about overzealous immigration enforcement and racial profiling by government authorities than they do about hate crimes. Federal agents have visited Arab-American communities around the country, interviewing a broad spectrum of people, many of whom find this intimidating. Of particular note are concerns about the USA Patriot Act and immigration authorities’ “special registration” program of questioning and photographing tens of thousands of immigrant men.

  • American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

    The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee works to stop discrimination against Muslims.

  • Nieman Report on Covering Islam

    The Nieman Report on Covering Islam provides a collection of report guides and articles covering the history, traditions, principles and practices of Islam. Contact Ann Marie Lipinski.

Things journalists should be aware of

Muslim population estimates: There is no accurate count of the number of Muslims in America, and estimates are fiercely debated. Mosques do not require membership, and the U.S. Census does not ask people to identify their religion. Muslims speak many different languages, making surveys challenging. When describing the size of the Muslim population, you should always qualify numbers by saying “up to” or “between.”

Religious etiquette: Because of rules of modesty between genders, you should not expect to shake hands with Muslims of the opposite sex. When visiting a mosque, journalists should expect to remove their shoes and women may be asked to cover their heads. Men and women also may not be allowed in gender-restricted areas of the mosque. If a reporter and photographer/videographer are visiting a mosque together, it can be helpful if they are of different genders so they can visit all parts of the mosque.

Diversity and ethnicity: Islam spread from what is now Saudi Arabia all over the globe, resulting in a richness of nationalities and ethnicities. In the United States, where there is sometimes only one mosque in an area, that means a great diversity of people worship together, sometimes from dozens of different countries. Americans most often think of Muslims as Arabs, but there is a larger number of African-American Muslims and Muslims from South Asia, along with a small but growing number of Hispanic Muslims. In fact, most Arabs in the U.S. are Christian.

Religious titles: Islam’s religious titles are not easily comparable to those of Christians and Jews. Clergy, along with other men who lead congregational prayers, are generally called imams, though Sunni and Shiite Muslims use the term imam differently. Muslim clergy’s roles differ significantly from that of a pastor or rabbi who shepherd a congregation. Imams and higher religious authorities focus more on interpreting Muslim law and teachings.

Allah: Allah is literally the Arabic word for God Almighty and can be used interchangeably with God in stories involving Muslims. In the Quran, Allah is given 99 names, including king, protector, compeller, sustainer, exalter, the forgiving, judge.

Arabic names and words: Because Arabic has a different alphabet, words are often translated into English in a variety of ways; there is often no one correct English spelling. Muslims within the same community may use different spellings of basic terms, such as Quran or the celebration of Eid al-Adha. Journalists should determine if their media outlet or the community they are covering has a preferred spelling. Arabic names can be challenging to pronounce; for guidance, see The Associated Press Stylebook. The Guardian newspaper of England has an online stylebook that offers guidance on Arabic names.

Leadership: Unlike most Christian or Jewish denominations, Muslims have no central leadership, even within its individual branches, and there is no clear hierarchy of authority. This is frustrating for journalists, who need to know where to turn for comment when news happens.  Islam did have a designated leader, known as a caliph, but the caliphate system ended in 1923 and has not been re-established. That’s allowed people such as Osama bin Laden to claim to speak for many even when the majority of Muslims consider his views contrary to mainstream Islam. Journalists are wise to develop sources locally and nationally before news events require comment.

Women in Islam: The role of women in Islam is a hotly debated topic. Opinions on what Islam intends for women vary greatly among Muslims. Some non-Muslims perceive Islam as a religion that limits women’s roles and sometimes even sanctions abusive treatment, such as polygamy or stoning of women for adultery. Experts point out that Muhammad’s teachings resulted in great expansions of women’s roles and rights at a time when women could not even own property. There are a number of high-profile women Muslim leaders in America. In addition, most areas have a Muslim women’s group active in mosque and/or community affairs.

Jihad: The Arabic word jihad, meaning struggle, is inextricably associated with terrorist acts of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, who claimed to kill in the name of Islam. Within mainstream Islam, however, it has a different meaning. In the Quran, the Greater Jihad refers to each individual’s struggle to follow the teachings of Islam and submit himself completely to the will of God. The Lesser Jihad refers to Muslims’ struggle to defend Islam in a culture that often devalues religion. It is this Lesser Jihad that extremists have used – and most say perverted – to support their claims that it is acceptable for Muslims to kill innocent people in the name of Islam. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has a tradition of “just war” that prescribes ethical conduct within war and treatment of prisoners.

Language: Islamofascists … Islamists … Islamic extremists … Islamic fundamentalists. All of these terms have been used to describe people who use Islam to justify a political agenda or, sometimes, to commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam. Journalists should take care to describe the actions such terms are referring to. When appropriate, explain that the terms are disputed. And don’t use these terms to describe people who don’t fit the definition. The tricky part, of course, is that different people – from political leaders to conservative Christian leaders to the media – have used these terms differently and often very loosely. The highest priority for journalists is to distinguish between the religion of Islam and people or movements that use Islam to justify a political agenda.

Generalizations: As with any religious group, journalists should be extremely wary of writing “Muslims say” or “Muslims believe” because of the diversity of belief and practice within Islam.

Polls and surveys

Various national surveys estimate the number of Muslims in the U.S. at between 1 million and 7 million; most experts believe it’s toward the middle of those two numbers. There is no accurate count, and the numbers are fiercely disputed. Mosques do not require membership, some Muslims do not attend mosque, and the U.S. Census does not ask people to identify their religion. When describing the size of the Muslim population, you should always qualify numbers by saying “up to” or “between.”

  • “How Muslims Compare With Other Religious Americans”

    A July 2007 report by the Pew Forum found that Muslims are very much like white evangelical Christians and African-American Protestants in terms of how important they say religion is to their lives. And an equal number – 47 percent – of Muslims and Protestants said they define themselves first by their religion and second by their nationality.

  • “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”

    Read a May 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center that interviewed more than 55,000 Muslims and estimated the U.S. Muslim population at 2.35 million.

  • “Poll: Sinking Perceptions Of Islam”

    A CBS News poll conducted in 2006 found that 45 percent of Americans had a negative view of Islam.

  • “Negative Perception Of Islam Increasing”

    Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in March 2006 found that 58 percent of Americans said Islam is “prone to violent extremism” and that 27 percent admitted to feeling prejudice against Muslims and Arabs.

  • “Hamilton College Muslim America Poll”

    A poll conducted by Hamilton College in 2002 found that American Muslims were largely young – only 38 percent were older than 45, compared with 52 percent of all American adults – and highly educated – 70 percent over the age of 25 had a college education, compared with 26 percent of all Americans. Three-fourths are married, and the majority are American citizens.

  • U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

    The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey is an extensive survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which details the religious makeup, beliefs and practices as well as social and political attitudes of the American public.

    This survey found that Muslims account for .6 percent of the U.S. population.


  • American Muslim Alliance

    The American Muslim Alliance promotes participation of Muslim Americans in the political process. Agha Saeed is its founder and former chairman.

  • Council on American-Islamic Relations

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations says it is the largest advocacy group for Muslims in the U.S. It advocates for Muslims on issues related to civil liberties and justice. Contact communications director Ibrahim Hooper in Washington, D.C.

  • Islamic Society of North America

    The Islamic Society of North America promotes unity and leadership among Muslims. The organization, based in Plainfield, Ind., has a large immigrant presence. Contact executive director Ahmed Elhattab.

  • Islamic Supreme Council of America

    The Islamic Supreme Council of America is a nonprofit, nongovernmental religious organization dedicated to working for the cause of Islam. Contact Chairman Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani.

  • Muslim Advocates

    Muslim Advocates uses legal advocacy, policy engagement and education to promote rights for Muslims and others. Contact executive director Farhana Khera.

  • Muslim Public Affairs Council

    The Muslim Public Affairs Council works for Muslim participation in civic life. It works to cultivate leadership in young Muslims and encourage a sense of ownership over their religious and national identity as Americans. The group’s $1.1 million budget includes no overseas funding. It has offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and has several state chapters. The council is considered moderate and politically savvy and is led by first- and second-generation Americans. Salam Al-Marayati is president and co-founder.

  • United Muslims of America

    United Muslims of America is a nonpartisan public affairs organization that works to promote the participation of Muslims in American public life, including economics, education and politics. The nonprofit organization is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and is supported by membership fees.

Think tanks and university centers

  • Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding

    The Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., aims to foster understanding between Islamic and Western societies and to support learning about Islam in the West. Fields of particular interest include the compatibility of Islam and modern life and pluralism, women in Islam, the Islamic community in the United States and issues of Islam, violence and terrorism. John Esposito is founding director.

  • Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy

    The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C., aims to further Islamic discourse on a modern Islamic democracy. Contact its president, Radwan Masmoudi.

  • Centre of Islamic Studies at Cambridge

    The Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge is an organization that is working with the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation on the Sunna Project. This project aims to encourage, facilitate and advance work in all the disciplines of hadith study by means of the Hadith Database, and to continually enrich the database by means of the research it encourages and the interaction of all the members working in the field.

  • The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

    The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, part of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, is the country’s oldest center for such study. With a history that traces back to 1893, the center focuses on research, teaching, publication and public discourse. Its faculty includes Mahmoud Ayoub, the Rev. Steven Blackburn and Yahya Michot.

  • International Institute of Islamic Thought

    The International Institute of Islamic Thought is a private, nonprofit, academic, cultural and educational institution concerned with general issues of Islamic thought and education.  The institute is based in the United States but has locations in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the U.K.

  • Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies

    The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies is an organization that provides a meeting point between the Islamic and Western worlds of learning. Through good scholarship, it promotes a more informed understanding of Islam, its culture and civilization.

National sources

10 Top U.S. experts in Islam

  • Khaled Abou El Fadl

    Khaled Abou El Fadl is an internationally recognized law professor and the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches a course on Islamic law and has also taught about Middle Eastern investment law, immigration law and human rights and terrorism. His books include Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, and he wrote the entry on Shariah for The Oxford University Handbook of Islam and Politics.

  • Akbar S. Ahmed

    Akbar S. Ahmed is a professor of comparative and regional studies and professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., where he holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies. He has advised world leaders on Islam and was formerly High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. He has engaged in public dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in the U.S. and abroad. Ahmed has written widely and is a frequent television commentator on Islam. He is author of Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. He also undertook a yearlong “anthropological journey” across America with a team of students studying American diversity. The journey has been documented via blog.

  • Carl W. Ernst

    Carl W. Ernst is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He wrote Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World and edited Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. He is affiliated with the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

  • John Esposito

    John Esposito is founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown. He is an expert on global terrorism, Islam and democracy, and international interfaith relations. His publications include Islamaphobia: The Challenges of Pluralism in the 21st Century and Islam: The Straight Path; The Oxford Dictionary of Islam; Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam; What Everyone Needs to Know About IslamWho Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think; and Women in Muslim Family Law.

  • Yvonne Y. Haddad

    Yvonne Y. Haddad is professor of the history of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She co-authored Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today and Educating the Muslims of America. Her scholarly interests include Muslims in the West, Islamic revolutionary movements, 20th-century Islam and the intellectual, social and political history of the Arab world.

  • Sherman Jackson

    Sherman Jackson holds the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, where he is also professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity. He was formerly the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His books include Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihâb al-Dîn al-Qarâfî and Islam & the Problem of Black Suffering.

  • Richard C. Martin

    Richard C. Martin is a professor in the religion department at Emory University in Atlanta. His scholarly interests include Islamic studies, comparative religions and religion and conflict. He has written several books about the history and study of Islam. He has lived and done research in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world, and he is engaged in cooperative projects with Muslim scholars.

  • Seyyed Hossein Nasr

    Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a world-renowned scholar on Islam who teaches Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His writings include Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man and The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity. Much of his work focuses on Islamic spiritual values, but he has also written about the religious and spiritual dimensions of the environmental crisis.

  • Omid Safi

    Omid Safi is a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University, where he also directs the Duke Islamic Studies Center. He edited Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism.

  • John Voll

    John Voll is professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in Middle Eastern, Islamic and world history, and he has written on Islam in the modern world and Islam and democracy.


  • Nasser Rabbat

    Nasser Rabbat is Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture in the history, theory and criticism section of the architecture department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is avidly interested in culture and its historical manifestations in architecture. His field is Islamic architectural history, and he is immersed in the history, languages and culture of the Islamic world. He is also a good source for discussion of modern culture and architecture in the Islamic world.

Art and literature

  • Sheila Blair

    Sheila Blair is co-holder of the Norma Jean Calderwood Chair of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College’s fine arts department and the Hamad bin Khalifa Chair in Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her expertise includes Islamic art, especially of Iran and Central Asia, art and architecture produced under the Mongols, and calligraphy and books.

  • Jonathan Bloom

    Jonathan Bloom is co-holder of the Norma Jean Calderwood Chair of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College and of the Hamad bin Khalifa Chair in Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. The author of many books on the history of Islamic art and architecture and the history of paper, he teaches courses on Islamic art, Islamic civilization, the arts of medieval Spain and the history of Jerusalem. He was a principal consultant to the PBS documentary Islam: Empire of Faith.


  • Jon Wilson Anderson

    Jon Wilson Anderson, chairman of the anthropology department at Catholic University of America, is a sociocultural anthropologist who specializes in the anthropology of religion (ritual and symbol systems) and politics, new media and the social life of information technologies, and the Middle East. He co-edited New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere and Reformatting Politics: Networked Communications and Global Civil Society. He researches the communications and information revolution in the Arab world, transnational cultures and the social organization of international cyberspaces.

  • Sayed M. Omran

    Sayed M. Omran is an associate professor of Arabic language and culture at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa. He is an expert on Islam and Arabic culture. His publications include, as translator, Islam and Human Ideology.

  • Lawrence Rosen

    Lawrence Rosen is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and an adjunct professor of law at Columbia University Law School. He was, in 1981, among the first winners of the MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.” His interest is in contemporary Muslim culture and law.

Foreign policy

  • Mohammed Abu-Nimer

    Mohammed Abu-Nimer is a professor at the American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C., where he directs the Peacebuilding and Development Institute. He has researched, intervened and conducted conflict resolution workshops around the world, including in the Palestinian territories, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, the Philippines (Mindanao) and Sri Lanka. Abu-Nimer is also a senior adviser to KAICIID, the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.

  • Isobel Coleman

    Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its women and foreign policy program. Her areas of expertise include economic and political development in the Middle East, regional gender issues, educational reform and microfinance. In 2006, she coauthored Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security. Her work has appeared in publications such as Foreign AffairsUSA TodayFinancial Times, The Dallas Morning News and the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

  • Fawaz A. Gerges

    Fawaz A. Gerges is professor of international affairs at the London School of Economics. Gerges is a senior analyst and regular commentator for ABC Television News and a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition. He has appeared on television and radio networks throughout the world, including American networks and Al-Jazeera. Areas of expertise include Islam and the political process, Islamist and jihadist movements, Arab politics, American foreign policy in the Middle East, the modern history of the Middle East, history of conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy, historical sociology and international relations.

  • Peter P. Mandaville

    Peter P. Mandaville is an associate professor of government and politics and directs the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His expertise is in international politics and Islam. His research is on the role of Muslim organizations and leadership in Europe and North America; madrassas and education in the Muslim world; and social/political development in the Muslim world.

    Contact: 202-797-6105.


  • Talal Asad

    Talal Asad is a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His expertise includes religion and secularism as part of modern Muslim societies, especially in the religious revival in the Middle East, and secular and modern influences on Shariah law.

  • Richard Bulliet

    Richard Bulliet is a history professor at Columbia University in New York City who specializes in Islam. Among his books are Islam: The View From the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.

  • Thomas W. Simons Jr.

    Thomas W. Simons Jr. directs the Program on Eurasia in Transition at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and is a fellow at the center. His expertise is in modern and contemporary Islam, South and Southwest Asia, and East-West relations.

  • Liyakat N. Takim

    Liyakat N. Takim is a professor of religious studies and holds the Sharjah Chair in Global Islam at McMaster University in Ontario. His focus is in the area of charisma and the struggle for authority in the classical period of Islam. He is the author of The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shi’ite Islam.

Image and stereotyping

  • Muqtedar Khan

    Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. He has written about Islamic political thought and about the rise of political Christianity, through the Republican Party, in the United States. His books include American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom and Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West. Khan has said that Shariah is based on the same principles that shape Judeo-Christian values.

  • Anouar Majid

    Anouar Majid is an English professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. He is a critic of religious and economic orthodoxies, examining the place of Islam in the modern world, particularly its interaction with the process of globalization. He is also a novelist and co-founder of Tingis, the Moroccan-American magazine of ideas and culture.

Islamic extremism

  • Faisal Devji

    Dr. Faisal Devji is University Reader in Modern South Asian History at St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics.

    Contact: +44 (0)1865 284700.
  • Mary Habeck

    Mary Habeck is an associate professor of strategic studies in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Her areas of expertise include American defense policy; Islamic religion, culture and law; military power and strategy; military history; strategic and security issues; and terrorism.

  • Ivan A. Strenski

    Ivan A. Strenski is a professor and Holstein Endowed Chairholder in religious studies at the University of California, Riverside. His article “Sacrifice, Gift and the Social Logic of Muslim ‘Human Bombers'” was published in 2004 in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. He can speak on globalization and international law.

Islamic law

  • Jonathan E. Brockopp

    Jonathan E. Brockopp is associate professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. He edited the book Islamic Ethics of Life: Abortion, War and Euthanasia, and he wrote an article on Shariah for the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World.

  • Zahid H. Bukhari

    Zahid H. Bukhari directs the American Muslim Studies Program at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Previously, he directed the Muslims in the American Public Square Project, which looked at the contribution and role of Muslims in American public life. He also directs the Center for Islam and Public Policy.

  • John Kelsay

    John Kelsay is distinguished research professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.  He specializes in comparative religious ethics, religion and war, and peace and has written extensively about Islam and war. His publications include Arguing the Just War in Islam. He can speak to Islamic law and warfare.

  • Ingrid Mattson

    Ingrid Mattson holds the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at Western University in London, Ontario, where she studies Islamic ethics, Muslim women and Christian-Muslim relations. She previously taught at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where she developed the first accredited graduate program for Muslim chaplains in the U.S.



  • Shams C. Inati

    Shams C. Inati, professor of Islamic theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa., is a specialist in Islamic philosophy — particularly the problem of evil. She is an expert on Arab societies, religions and civilizations. She is a poet, songwriter and advocate of human rights and world peace based on justice. She has a long list of publications, including Iraq: Its History, People and Politics.


  • Zaid Shakir

    Zaid Shakir is an African-American imam who converted to Islam during his service in the Air Force. He has a master’s degree in political science and received classical scholarly training in the Muslim world. He is a writer, speaker, teacher and activist, having founded several Muslim organizations in the eastern U.S. before becoming a resident scholar at Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., which calls him a leader in an emerging indigenous American Muslim tradition. Read his blog at New Islamic Directions.

  • Brannon Wheeler

    Brannon Wheeler is director at the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He co-edited the Historical Dictionary of Prophets in Islam and Judaism. He has said that the Quran does not take a moral view of good and evil, but rather views the terms in relationship to people’s obedience to God’s commands.

  • Sheikh Hamza Yusuf

    Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is a cleric and scholar of Quran who received classical training in the Muslim world and is founding the first Muslim seminary in the United States, Zaytuna Institute, in Hayward, Calif. He was born and educated in the United States and converted to Islam as a youth. He is notable for his scholarly authority and for his ability to frame Muslim issues in the context of American life.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Mahboubul Hassan

    Mahboubul Hassan president of the Islamic Society of Greater Manchester and professor of economics at Southern New Hampshire University. In 2007 he received the Martin Luther King Award for his leadership in the Muslim community during times of discrimination and hardship.

  • Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

    The Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1957. It claims that more than 14,000 people have accepted the Islamic faith at the center since it opened. H. E. Roble Olhaye is chairman of the board of directors.

    Contact: 202-332-8343.
  • Islamic Society of Boston

    The Islamic Society of Boston began in 1981 on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has since expanded to three mosques, including a new one in Roxbury. As many as 27 different nationalities are represented at Friday prayers. Contact through their website.

    Contact: 617-876-3546.
  • Dina Le Gall

    Dina Le Gall is an assistant history professor at Lehman College in the City University of New York. Her focus is in Islamic and middle eastern studies. She is the author of A Culture of Sufism, a history of the origins and spread of Sufism through 1700.

In the South

  • Al-Farooq Masjid

    The Al-Farooq Masjid in Atlanta was founded in 1980 by Pakistani and Arab immigrants and has grown to attract African-Americans, South Asians, Hispanics, whites, Bosnians and more. Approximately 1,200 worshippers attend Friday prayers. Dr. Khalid Siddiq is director of PR.

    Contact: 404-293-4912.
  • JoAnn D’Alisera

    JoAnn D’Alisera is an associate professor of anthropology at the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She teaches courses in religion, transnational Islam and Islam in America.

  • Reem Meshal

    Reem Meshal is an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She specializes in religious fundamentalism and nationalism, including within the Muslim world.

  • Muslim Communities Association in Southern Florida

    The Muslim Communities Association in Southern Florida is the largest mosque in southern Florida. It was founded by Arab and Pakistani immigrants and today has worshippers from Iran, Turkey, Bosnia, Africa and South America. The organization supports Muslim communities and helps develop education and social outreach programs for them in the community. Abdul Hamid Samra is the imam and director of religious service.

  • Piedad

    Piedad is an organization that promotes Islam to Hispanic women. It is based in Miami. Contact founder Khadija Rivera.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • Karima Alavi

    Karima Alavi is program director for Dar al Islam in Abiquiu, N.M., where she directs a summer program for teachers called “Understanding and Teaching About Islam.”

  • Juan E. Campo

    Juan E. Campo is associate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He specializes in the comparative study of Islam, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia, and teaches courses on Islamic tradition; religion, politics and society in the Persian Gulf region; Islamic mysticism; and modern Islamic movements.

  • Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association

    The Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association provides information about Islam to the Southern California Latino community.

  • Salim Yaqub

    Salim Yaqub is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He specializes in U.S. foreign relations and is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he wrote about the relationship between Americans and Arabs in the 1970s.

Related source guides

The information in this source guide was updated on Oct. 27, 2013.