Shia Muslims form about 15-20 percent of the overall Muslim population in Americas who are less than 1% of the country population. The Lebanese and Iraqi communities are the largest ethnic groups from the over-30,000 Shia population to have moved in metro Detroit area. The Greater Detroit area is home to one of the largest, oldest and most diverse Arab American communities in the United States.
As the number of Shi’a immigrants in Americas increased in the 1970s, they envisioned the need to spreading Shiims in USA and establishing institutions that could reach out to non-Muslims and challenge the negative portrayal of Islam in the media. American Shias are making their presence felt in different spheres. Since the 1980s, they have realized that they cannot depend on Sunni institutions to represent their interests. So in many cities, they have formed their own institutions.
With increased immigration to America in the 1980s, some Shia centers and private individuals engaged in outreach activities aimed at spreading Shiism in USA. In the early 1990s, the Canadian based Islamic Research and Education Center started a correspondence course to teach Shiism to potential or actual converts. This outreach endeavor continued until the late 1990s.
Most Shia institutes in America lack the financial support that is afforded, for example, to the Saudi-backed Muslim World League (MWL). It is correct to state that Shia centers of worship are introverted rather than outward-directed. The activities of most centers are directed at providing such basic religious services as facilitating prayers, conducting marriages and funerals, and counseling members of the community. These indicate that most converts from the African American community convert to Shiism as a result of their own efforts and research, or because a friend approached them rather than from proselytization by the Shia community.
Start of Shia Institutes in America
To understand the role of institutions in promoting Shiism, it is important to differentiate between those Shia institutes that cater primarily to the needs of the faithful within the Shia community and those that focus on outreach programs oriented toward a non-Muslim audience and focused on spreading Shiism in USA.
Most Shia outreach activities began in the 1990s when Shia immigrants became aware of the success that the Sunnis had in converting Americans, both white and black, to Islam.
Since the majority of the Muslims in America are Sunnis, most Muslim institutions were founded by them. In the 1980s Shi as became aware that Sunni organizations had influenced how Islam in America was presented and perceived. Furthermore, due to the enhanced Sunni–Shi’a tensions in the 1980s, the Shias quickly realized that they could not depend on Sunni institutions to represent them or speak on their behalf. As more Shia immigrants settled there, they came to view the United States as a fertile place for promoting a better image of Islam and for seeking converts. Hence, the 1980s saw the establishment of Shia institutions that reached out to the non-Muslim community. In the next number of this article, we will discuss more about the Active Shia institutes in America.
Taken from: “ Shi’ism in America”
By: Liyakat Nathani Takim