The Islamic faith began with a perceived revelation from God to a merchant named Muhammad in western Arabia in the year 610. Other revelations followed, eventually leading to a compilation in the form of the Quran, a holy book consisting in part of Old Testament-like precepts and considered by believers to be the very words of God.
Muhammad became the founding prophet of Islam. “Muslim” emerged as a designation for adherents of the Islamic faith.
Within a few short decades Islam spread from Arabia into Africa. So rapidly did the upstart religion grow and expand that in the centuries thereafter it competed and clashed with dominant Christianity, most spectacularly in the series of bloody holy wars of the 11th through 15th centuries known as the Crusades.
In the New World, Muslims preceded Baptists, Quakers and other Christian religious dissenters. Some evidence suggests a brief Muslim presence prior to Columbus and long before the English established lasting colonies. Whether before or after Columbus, however, the New World’s earliest Muslims faced a bleak future in what would become the United States of America.
Founded in 1607 as the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Jamestown offered opportunity for agricultural riches. Tilling and tending the land, however, required enormous amounts of labor. In need of cheap workers, the colony’s elite landowners imported African slaves.
The initial “20 and odd” group of Africans (some or most Muslims) that stepped off a boat at Jamestown, Va., in the summer of 1619 were quickly put to work in nearby tobacco fields of the Christian colony charged with “propagating the Christian Religion” to people living “in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God.” Unable to understand English, the Africans knew only that their pale-skinned overseers were cruel people.
White, English religious dissenters faced persecution of a different kind. Whether capitalistic Anglicans to the South or theocratic Puritans northward, colonial leaders of the New World did not tolerate religious dissent. Death, banishment or imprisonment comprised the common lot of the few who dared voice unapproved religious sentiments.
In 1635 the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Separatist Roger Williams, one of the more notorious of dissenters, for advocating “newe & dangerous opinions.” Fleeing into the wilderness, Williams purchased land from local Native Americans and established Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island) as a place of refuge for any and all religious dissenters. Converting to the Baptist faith, in 1638 he founded America’s first Baptist church, located in Providence.
The following decade Quakers arrived in the New World. Persecuted in Massachusetts, they soon found refuge in Rhode Island. Although Williams made it known that Muslims, too, were welcome, any who may have set foot in Rhode Island probably arrived as slaves, their religion beforehand suppressed by their Christian captors and/or colonial owners.
Profits from slavery helped New World colonists reconcile the institution with Christianity. Crafting a self-serving narrative of dark-skinned persons as inherently inferior to the superior white race, in the late 1660s Virginia decreed that all enslaved persons imported into the colony, “whether Negroes, Moors [Muslims], Mollattoes or Indians … shall be converted to the Christian faith.”
Restricting the ability of enslaved Africans to earn freedom, the colony sought the salvation of Africans’ souls by forcefully eradicating public expression of the Muslim faith.
Baptists, while persecuted throughout much of colonial America, maintained defiant demands for freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all. As did some other dissenting sects, they often voiced anti-slavery views. Quakers, however, most insistently opposed slavery.
Determined to contain religious non-conformists, theocratic colonies often wielded violent means of persecution into the Revolutionary War years. Perhaps dissenters’ dangerous but persistent commitment to religious freedom caught the attention of some Muslims.
In 1777 the Muslim country of Morocco became the first nation to recognize America as an independent nation. During the war a handful of Muslims fought on the American side, including Yusuf ben Ali and Bampett Muhamed, both of whom there is little known.
Baptists and other religious dissenters triumphed in the enactment of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. Providing religious liberty for all and church-state separation nationally, the First Amendment paved the way for more human liberties, including the 1807 abolishment of the importation of slaves. The legislation closed a chapter of American history that witnessed the forced migration of more than 500,000 Africans.
Meanwhile, America’s diplomatic relations with Muslim nations expanded. A 1796 treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripolitania (the Treaty of Tripoli) affirmed “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Thomas Jefferson in 1805 hosted a Muslim envoy from Tunis. A treaty in 1815 ending the Second Barbary War declared that the U.S. had no animosity toward Muslim nations.
Within the United States, Muslims comprised an estimated 20 percent of all African slaves, about one-half at least influenced by Islam in their homeland. In the antebellum South, a decided minority of African Muslim slaves successfully retained their Islamic faith and practices, while many in private observed a synergistic form of religion incorporating American Christianity, African traditions and (in some instances) Islamic influences.
Among the few openly practicing Islam was Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864), an educated slave from Futa Tooro (modern Senegal) who lived on a North Carolina plantation. He seemingly converted to Christianity in 1820, an event touted by southern Christians as evidence of the benefits of slavery. A celebrity in the white South, in an autobiography Said spoke of the importance of receiving a Bible translated in Arabic, but nonetheless did not profess faith in the Christian God.
Nearly 300 Muslims from northern states fought in the American Civil War, a war fought over slavery. The highest-ranking Muslim officer, Capt. Moses Osman, served in the 104th Illinois Infantry. Nicolas Said, a teacher from Detroit, served in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment of the United States Army.
Union troops at the end of the war in April 1865 set the University of Alabama ablaze, but saved a copy of the Quran found in the university’s library, one of only a few then known to exist in America.
Perhaps the first white Muslim in America, Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, born in New York in 1846, converted from the Presbyterian faith. Appointed U.S. Consul in the Philippines in 1887, he studied and embraced Islam. In 1893 he established a Muslim mission in New York City and represented Islam at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
Several other Muslim organizations were established in New York City in ensuing decades. In addition, Albanian Muslims opened an American mosque in 1915 in Biddeford, Maine.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the earliest large-scale wave of Muslim immigrants. Primarily from Lebanon and Greater Syria, most settled in the Midwest, far from the nation’s population centers.
Ross, North Dakota, in 1929 became home to America’s first mosque devoted to serving a Muslim population. The isolated location reflected lingering white Christian fears of the Islamic faith.
Founded in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, America’s oldest surviving mosque became the center of a thriving Islamic community. Local Muslims established their own grocery stores and other businesses. The Muslim National Cemetery, founded in Cedar Rapids in 1948, distinctively placed all graves facing Mecca, the holiest city of Islam.
Many Muslims served in the U.S. military during World War II, including Abdullah Igram, a teacher of the Quran at the Cedar Rapids mosque. Upon enlistment, the only religious affiliation options for dog tags were (P) Protestant, (C) Catholic and (J) Jewish. Following his service, Igram successfully petitioned President Dwight D. Eisenhower to have (M) added for Muslims.
Muslim immigration increased again following World War II. Many arrived from Palestine after 1948, the year of the establishment of Israel as a nation. By the late 1950s more than a hundred mosques existed in America.
The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, opening America’s shores more broadly to immigrants of many nationalities, triggered an even greater influx of Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The legislation transformed the U.S. into a truly multicultural nation.
Some white American Christians, suspicious and fearful of Muslims and other non-European immigrants, still waged a post-Civil War campaign of domestic terrorism against black persons in an effort to preserve white supremacy.
Terrorism, too, arose in the Middle East. Fundamentalist, militant Islamic groups, angered at Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria, fostered regional wars and acts of terror in retaliation. Continuing to the present day and vastly greater in scope, Islamic extremists using mass violence are bent upon establishing Old Testament-like theocracies in the Middle East and portions of Asia and Africa.
Historically strained, America’s public perceptions of Muslims took a turn for the worse in the deadly Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. All told, Islamic terrorists, primarily Saudis, hijacked four commercial airplanes and used them as weapons, killing more than 3,000 Americans, including Muslims. Affiliated with an extremist group known as al-Qaeda, the terrorists acted from a hatred of America’s Western culture.
Since that horrific day, many Americans have come to view all Muslims as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. The reality, however, is far different.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation data and other studies, the vast majority of terrorist attacks in America are domestic and carried out by non-Muslims, including Christian extremists. As with Christians, most American Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens opposed to terrorism and respectful of other faiths. Increasingly multicultural in their worldview, many celebrate the Christian holiday of Christmas.
Some three to five million Muslims currently live in the U.S., the largest concentrations in Illinois, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Texas.
More educated and affluent than the general population, about 60 percent of American Muslims hold an undergraduate college degree. Collectively, American Muslims make great contributions in the fields of politics, business, science, arts, literature, entertainment, sports and religion.
About two-thirds of U.S. Muslims are African American, and one-quarter white. Ethnically, one-third are South Asian and one-fourth Arab. Approximately one-fourth converted to Islam, primarily from Protestant faiths.
The most famous American convert to the Muslim faith, Louisville native and boxing champion Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) who passed away in June 2016, set a public example of the peaceful, generous nature of mainstream Islam.
The Islamic Society of North America is the largest Muslim organization in America, representing about 25 percent of the roughly 2,500 mosques in the U.S. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in America, represents mainstream Islam, condemns acts of terrorism, and works in collaboration with the White House on “issues of safety and foreign policy.”
From their earliest experiences as slaves in America’s Christian colonies, Muslims now thrive in a pluralistic United States, appreciative of the freedoms they share with other Americans. Yet they live a guarded, scrutinized existence. Their accommodation of Western culture makes them enemies of Islamic extremists. At the same time, many non-Muslim Americans look upon all Muslims as potential terrorists.
Baptists and other religious dissenters of the colonial era persevered through violent persecution and ultimately triumphed over Christian theocracies, instilling religious liberty for all and church-state separation in America. Today’s mainstream Muslim Americans, often hated by theocratic-minded Muslims and Christians alike, may well play a critical role in a future, global victory over 21st-century religious terrorism. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley