Capturing the Minnesota Muslim experience through oral histories


“Really?” was the first question Kathy Wurzer of the Almanac asked me when she featured the Muslim Experience in Minnesota oral history project on her popular TV show on TPT. Does the Muslim experience in Minnesota really go back to 1880s?

I think there are two main misconceptions about Muslims in Minnesota: one is that Muslims are new and alien to this land, and two is that they are monolithic. The oral history project that was carried out by the Islamic Resource Group demonstrates that neither are true.

Mrs. Wurzer’s question gives us a chance to address these misconceptions. Yes, Muslim history goes back to the early days of the establishment of the state of Minnesota. Muslims from the Ottoman Empire had come and settled in this area as early as the 1880s. We not only have pictures of these early Muslims in Minnesota, but some of the earliest mosques in the nation were built in the neighboring states of Iowa and North Dakota. One of the interviewees, Ms. Ferial Abraham, provided firsthand testimony to this fact by telling us about her father and her grandfather who migrated from Lebanon in 1913 and about her maternal grandfather, who came in 1903. After these early settlers, the next major migration of Muslims took place during the 1960′s. With a change in the legislation that focused on skilled immigrants, many South Asian and Arab Muslims, mainly professionals, migrated. Several interviewees, including Ahsan Ansari, Dr. Ghulam Haniff and Dr. Muhammed El-Akkad talked about the pioneering work that was done by this generation, especially in setting up organizations and building institutions. Then in the ’70s the African American Muslim community, moving from the Nation of Islam (NOI), came to the fold of mainstream Islam and established several mosques in the Twin Cities. Imam Makram El-Amin, whose father, Charles El-Amin, led the transformation in the Twin Cities, and other interviewees, including the former president of the St. Paul NAACP, Nathaniel Abdul-Khaliq, gave detailed accounts of this historic change that brought with it a historical depth and civil rights experience. The resulting interaction in recent years between immigrant and indigenous Muslims is proving to be a critical catalyst for defining the contemporary American Muslim identity.

More recent Muslim immigrants to Minnesota have enriched the diversity of the community further. In the ’90s, European Muslims from Bosnia arrived, and later East African Muslims from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. There is, of course, a sizable number of local converts to the faith as well. The diverse Minnesota Muslim community, with its Turkish, Iranian, Liberian, Nigerian, Malay, Indonesian, and many other members, is an integral part of Minnesota’s history.

The Minnesota Muslim Experience project started with the need to tell our story. Islam and Muslims are in the news daily yet authentic Muslim voices are missing. Through a legacy grant from the Minnesota Historical Society, IRG set out to partially fill this gap by capturing an accurate reflection of the Muslim experience in Minnesota.

This project provides a snapshot of the Muslim experience in Minnesota. The subjects reflect a rich cross section of the community – from imams to teachers, from doctors to a police officer, from a turkey plant worker to a Red Bull guardsman. We set up and used an interviewee selection matrix to ensure that we were achieving diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background, and race. We sought a diversity of locations and included over a quarter of the subjects from Greater Minnesota.

The project provides direct access to unpolished, unscripted, honest accounts of the experiences of ordinary Muslims. It articulates many thoughts and feelings that have not been spoken otherwise. It records the phases of growth of the immigrant community and the transition of the indigenous African American community from NOI to orthodox Islam. It captures personal journeys, whether a journey to a new land, a new faith, or to a new phase in life.

Please visit to learn more about the project and to listen to the interviews with 40 Minnesota Muslims.