Notable American Muslims

Notable American Muslims

AMEENA JANDALI AND HENRY MILLSTEIN provide a brief background on the history of Muslims in America, and names some American Muslims who have significantly contributed to American society and culture

Muslims have been part of American history since before the United States existed as a nation, contributing to the building and the very fabric of this country. Around one-fifth of Africans brought here as slaves were Muslim. Many were known for their literacy, knowledge, and adherence to aspects of their faith, although few were able to continue to practice Islam. 

The first wave of voluntary Muslim immigrants to the U.S. came in the second half of the nineteenth century, mostly from what was then called Greater Syria. The majority were single men hoping to earn money for families back home. One such immigrant, Hajji Ali (anglicized as HiJolly) served as chief camel driver in the U.S. army’s attempt to set up a Camel Military Corps between 1856 and 1864. The camel experiment was discontinued but Ali was immortalized in a campfire song. Another Syrian immigrant, Anas Hamawi, is credited with the invention of the ice cream cone at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. 

Later waves of Muslim immigration came from the collapsing Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union afar World War II, and from the Indian subcontinent following the part ton of India and Pakistan. After immigration laws became less restrictive in 1965, Muslims came in greater numbers from many places in the Muslim world, primarily for work and education, or in some cases to escape political repression and turmoil at home.

Together with African American and other indigenous Muslims, American Muslims today make up a community that is vibrant and talented and is contributing in multiple and varied ways to the rich fabric of America.

African Americans, who began to rediscover Islam in northern cites early in the twentieth century, form another sizable component of the American Muslim community. The most well-known rediscovery movement was the Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Muhammad in the late 1930s. The Nation differs from traditonal Islam in significant ways; with the death of its founder in 1975, his son W. D. Muhammad led most of the Nation’s followers toward mainstream Islam.

The post-1965 wave of Muslim immigration brought large numbers of people seeking to continue their graduate studies in medicine, science, and engineering in the United States. One of the most remarkable of these immigrants was Fazlur Rahman Khan, who designed the Hancock Building and Willis Tower in Chicago, two of the world’s tallest buildings. His innovations in building technology led Newsweek magazine to dub him “the Einstein of structural engineering.”

But he was not unique. After graduating, Muslim immigrants found and excelled in compete jobs in their fields, settling in urban areas where they married and raised families. Now their children and grandchildren are students at prestigious universities in fields such as medicine, engineering, and law. 

Today thousands of American Muslims are highly successful physicians, engineers, scientists, lawyers, and professionals in diverse fields. Together with African American and other indigenous Muslims, American Muslims today make up a community that is vibrant and talented and is contributing in multiple and varied ways to the rich fabric of America.

While American Muslims remain a relatively small part of the U.S. population—between three and six million—they have produced more than their share of major contributors to American life. The following are a few examples of notable American Muslims and Americans of Muslim backgrounds.

SCIENCE & ENGINEERING ANOUSHEH ANSARI is an Iranian-American engineer and co-founder and chairwoman of Prodea Systems. She previously served as co-founder and CEO of Telecom Technologies, Inc. (TTI). On September 18, 2006, Ansari became the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station. Her memoir, My Dream of Stars, co-written with Homer Hickam, was published in 2010.

MARK SALMAN HUMAYUN, MD, PhD, is an ophthalmologist, engineer, scientist, and inventor. He is also a researcher, clinician, and professor of both ophthalmology and biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, in addition to other positions. President Obama awarded Dr. Humayun the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his work on the Argus Series retina implants, which help restore sight to the blind. 

AHMED ZEWAIL was an Egyptian American scientist. In 1999, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making him the first Arab scientist to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific fled. He is the Lines Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry and Physics and the director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology at the California Institute of Technology.

MEDIA FAREED ZAKARIA is an Indian American journalist and author. He is the host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS and served as contributing editor of Time and editor of Newsweek International.

ALI VELSHI is the former host of Ali Velshi on Target on Al Jazeera America. He was previously Cannes chief business correspondent, anchor of Cannes Your Money, and a co-host of CNN International’s weekday business show World Business Today.

MEDICINE DR. MEHMET OZ is a Turkish-American surgeon, author, and, most famously, the host and commentator of The Dr. Oz Show. 

ELIAS A. ZERHOUNI is an Algerian-American radiologist and medical researcher. He was appointed by George W. Bush as the 15th director of the National Institutes of Health in May 2002. He served for six years before stepping down in October, 2008.

SPORTS KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR is a renowned former professional basketball player, and the all-time leading scorer in the NBA. He was selected by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be a U.S. global cultural ambassador in 2012. He is also an actor and author.

IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD is a saber fencer and member of the United States fencing team. She is the first American Muslim woman wearing hirable to qualify for the United States Olympic team. She also owns her own fashion brand, Luella.

HAKEEM OLAJUWON is a Nigerian American who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008 and into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2016. He led the Houston Rockets to NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. In 1996, he played on the Olympic gold medal winning U.S. national team and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

DALILAH MUHAMMAD won a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2016 Summer Olympics. She is also a four-time All-American at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, a medalist at the 2007 World Youth Championships, and the 2009 Pan American Junior Athletics Championships

RYAN HARRIS, a Minnesota native, helped the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers to win Super Bowl 50 in 2016. In 2017, he announced his retirement after spending ten years in the NFL, far longer than the average player’s career. Harris has seamlessly transitioned from football player to public servant, using his status to speak ardently against the travel ban and hate crimes committed against American Muslims. A devout Muslim, Harris has exemplified integrity, honor, and compassion both on and off the field. 

ENTERTAINMENT AASIF MANDVI is an Indian American actor and comedian. He has been featured in The Daily Show and recently launched his own new web series called Halal in the Family.

HASAN MINHAJ is an American comedian, actor, and writer of Indian descent. He is a correspondent on the The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. His one-man show Homecoming King debuted in October 2015.

DAVE CHAPPELLE is a stand-up comic, screenwriter, producer, and actor. He is best known for his television series Chappell’s Show. Although the show ran for only two years, it continues to be rebroadcast by stations around the world.

YASMINE AL MASSRI is an actress of Palestinian and Egyptian descent. She made her movie debut in the 2007 film Caramel. In 2015, Massif began starring as Nimah and Raina Amin, identical twins in the ABC drama series Quantico.

MAHERSHALA ALI won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film Moonlight. He has also appeared in films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Hidden Figures, and the Hunger Games series, as well as television shows such as House of Cards and Luke Cage.

KUMAIL NANJIANI is a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian, actor, and writer now known for his role in the autobiographical romantic comedy film The Big Sick, which has received critical acclaim from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Though he was shy in college, Nanjing gained confidence to perform stand-up comedy after his friends encouraged him to perform at an open mica. After that experience, he worked in IT by day and performed comedy by night. Though when he started out he played small roles, he landed a more substantial role in the Emmy Award nominated series Silicon Valley.

AUTHORS KHALED HOSSEINI is an Afghan-born American novelist and physician. He is the author of three bestselling novels, most notably his 2003 debut, The Kite Runner.

MOHSIN HAMID is a Pakistani novelist and writer. His novels include Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). The Reluctant Fundamentalist was adapted for film and released in 2012.

AYAD AKHTAR is an American playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and actor of Pakistani descent. He is best known for his play Disgraced, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, and was the most produced play in America in the 2015ñ2016 season.

AZAR NAFISI authored the New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. She is currently the Director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

MUSICIANS Q-TIP (born Jonathan Davis) is a rapper, record producer, and DJ. He was a founding member of the prominent hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. Since the group broke up, Q-Tip has continued to write and produce music.

LUPE FIASCO is a rapper, record producer, and entrepreneur who owns two lines of clothing. He is also a philanthropist who recorded a benefit single for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

ICE CUBE is a rapper, record producer, actor, and filmmaker. He began his career as a member of the hip-hop group C.I.A. and later joined the gangster rap group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). After leaving N.W.A in 1989, he has built a successful solo career in music and film.

DJ KHALED is a Grammy Award nominated record producer, radio personality, record label executive, and author. He has released 10 albums and hit songs such as "All I Do Is Win" He has collaborated with a wide range of other artists, including John Legend, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, and Nicki Minaj.

POLITICS/PUBLIC SERVICE HUMA ABEDIN is the vice-chairwoman of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton. She previously served as Secretary of State Clinton's deputy chief of staff at the State Department. Prior to that she was traveling chief of staff and served as Clinton's assistant during her campaign in the 2008 presidential election.

KEITH ELLISON is a lawyer and the nation’s first American Muslim congressman (Democrat), first elected in 2006 as a representative from the state of Minnesota. He is a co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus and a member of the House Committee on Financial Services. 

ANDRE D. CARSON became the second American Muslim congressman (Democrat) when he was first elected in Indiana’s special election in 2008. He is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Black Caucus and serves on the House Armed Forces and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees.

ILHAN OMAR was elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives and was the first Somali- American lawmaker in the United States. Born in Somalia, Ilhan and her family fed the country’s civil war when she was eight years old. The family spent four years in a refugee camp before coming to the United States. In addition to serving in the legislature, Ilhan Omar is the Director of Policy Imitates at Women Organizing Women, where she empowers East African women to take leadership roles in their community.

BUSINESSMEN AND ENTREPRENEURS SHAHID (SHAD) KHAN is a Pakistani American business tycoon and owner of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. He is president and owner of an automotive parts corporation where he began working when still in college. In 2012 the billionaire was featured on the cover of Forbes magazine as the face of the American Dream.

TARIQ FARID is the owner and CEO of Edible Arrangements. In 2009 he was recognized as Entrepreneur of the Year by the International Franchise Association.

HAMDI ULUKAYA is a Kurdish-American entrepreneur and businessman and the owner, founder, chairman, and CEO of Chobani yogurt. In April, 2016, Ulukaya surprised his employees with the announcement that he was giving them 10 percent of Chobani shares.

SALMAN KHAN is an American educator and entrepreneur of Bengali descent. He is the founder of Khan Academy, a free online education platform with over 6,500 video lessons on a variety of academic subjects, with an emphasis on mathematics and sciences. In 2012, Time named Salman Khan as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

ARMED FORCES KAREEM RASHAD SULTAN KHAN was a twenty-year-old U.S. Army Specialist who died in combat in Iraq in 2007. He received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

HUMAYUN KHAN was a Pakistani-American soldier who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart after his life was cut short during his tour of duty in Iraq. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, he became known to the public after his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, spoke of his courage and commitment to keeping Americans safe.