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The first significant wave of Muslims arrived between 1875 and 1912 in USA and the period is a turning point in the history of Shiism in USA. Shias and Sunnis who got to USA at about the same time, worshiped together, shared similar experiences, and encountered the same challenges.

Among the early immigrants were also Shias who accompanied other immigrants from the Middle East and there were some Shias already present among the early Lebanese who settled in Ross. Other Shias settled in Michigan City, Indiana.

The Shia Community of Michigan City: Indiana

Most scholars of Islam in America have focused on Dearborn, Michigan, as the first city where the history of Shiism in USA can be traced back to. But the story of another area of Shia settlement, Michigan City, Indiana, remains largely untold. In the early twentieth century, the small communities close to the large urban areas of Detroit and Chicago were important areas of settlement for Shia immigrants. The nascent Shia community in Michigan City, made up primarily of Lebanese and Syrian merchants, built one of the first mosques in America in 1924 which proves the importance of this city in shaping the origins of Shiism in United States of America. .

Shia migrants settled in Michigan City, Indiana, rather than in Detroit, so that they could work in the car factory near there. A Shia whose parents were immigrants attests that there was a vibrant Shia community in Michigan City in the 1920s and 1930s, though many left for Dearborn when better employment opportunities arose there.

As the number of Shias in Michigan City increased, there was a need for a scholar who could provide religious guidance to the community members. The famous Lebanese Shia religious leader, imam Muhammad Jawad Chirri (d. 1994), who had migrated to Detroit in 1949, spent two years in Michigan City in the early 1950s after a dispute arose within the Shi‘i community in Detroit.

The Shia Community of Dearborn

Dating to the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Muslim presence in metropolitan Detroit plays a significance role in the history of Shiism in USA as well. Their presence goes back to the time when residents of the Lebanese Bekaa valley left an Ottoman province. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was a small yet burgeoning Shia community in Detroit as more Shias arrived to join their relatives who had settled here. Between 1900 and 1914 several hundred settlers comprising diverse religious communities migrated from the Middle East. Most of these early immigrants came from the Mount Lebanon area of what was then called the Ottoman Empire. Soon, a larger community of Shias started to crystallize in 1922 as other Shias arrived from areas like India and Iran.

During the second wave of Muslim immigration to America, between 1918 and 1922, immigrants from Arab countries poured into the Detroit area, as did people from different parts of the world.

When the early Shias arrived in Detroit, they tried to uphold their beliefs in an alien context, often with little institutional or religious support. The religious training available to their children and grandchildren was limited to Sunday services or religious classes. Neither schools nor businesses had facilities for daily prayers. Shias who wanted to fast during the month of Ramadan could expect no help or time off from their work. It was under such difficult circumstances that the Shias struggled to maintain their beliefs and distinct cultural and religious identities.

Having different Shia centers, some of which can be seen in the listings of our Shia directory, this area is still of high significance among Shia community of USA.

There were other immigrants who decided not to live in any of the areas mentioned above but since the numbers are too few, they are not discussed in this post.

Taken  from: “ Shi’ism in America

By: Liyakat Nathani Takim


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