Issue 10 / April - June 1995
The Historical Development Of The Islamic Community In The United States
M. A. Al-ahari
In the following historical survey I cover some basic realities of the Muslim experience in the US. I have adopted different ways of looking at our present reality and past experiences. Some of these are case studies, some are from personal experience and others are from my readings of history.
Today, as a community, we are at a point where we can either succeed or fail to a much greater extent than in the past. We have schools, professionals, Islamic centres and knowledgeable Muslims. However, we lack a core of brothers and sisters willing to try to organize the Muslims into cohesive voting blocks and into strong neighborhoods and communities where the Muslims are visible and where they will have a voice in the destiny of the greater society as well as, to some degree, in the foreign policy of America.
There are, by various estimates, between two and thirteen million Muslims or non-practising descendants of Muslims in America. Unfortunately, some of them are not well-versed in the literature and doctrines of their religion. Most of them would like to pass Islam on to their children and grandchildren, but this is unlikely if parents do not have sound knowledge about the Islamic faith, nor practise it in their daily lives. One way of understanding our current situation is to study our past. In order to develop my theme along this line, I will divide the history of Muslims in the United States into five eras: before 1800, 1800-1890, 1890-1910, 1910-1950 and 1950-present.
Before 1800 there were five Muslims in America who deserve mention:
1 The navigator of Columbus who, during the famous voyage, brought a copy of a travel narrative about Portuguese Muslims who had sailed to the New World in the 12th century. The narrative by al-Idrissi was called 'The Sea of Tears'. In it he discusses the voyage of 80 mugharrirun, explorers from Lisbon, Portugal, during the reign of the al-Murabit 'amir Yusuf ibn Tashufin. The narrative mentions visits to fourteen islands, half of which have been identified as belonging to either the Canaries or the Azores. However, the ones not traced could have been as far away as the Caribbean. An early voyage, from 942 ce, is mentioned in the annals of al-Mas'udi (see Arameo World, May-June, 1992).
2 Istafan the Arab was a guide for the Spanish settlers in the area of Arizona in l539. Istafan was from Azamor, Morocco, and had previously been to the Americas in the ill-fated expedition to Florida of Panfilo de Narvaez in 1527. He was a guide for the Franciscan friar. Marcos de Niza and was invaluable in this capacity until he was killed in an Indian attack in present day Arizona and New Mexico in 1539.
3 Another early Muslim of this period is Nasruddin. He is notable for having killed a Mohawk princess who refused to marry him and for being the earliest permanent Arab settler in the New World (see history of Greene County, N.Y., pp.l9-22).
4 Ayub Sulaiman ibn Diallo became a minor go- between with his people and the British after his repatriation. I mention him because he continued to practice Islam during his two years of slavery in the l730s in Maryland. He was well-versed in Arabic and wrote at least a half dozen letters in that language, translated coin inscriptions for the British Museum and drew a map of West Africa in which he wrote the place names in Arabic.
5 Salim the Algerian, who was a Muslim from a royal family of Algiers, studied in Istanbul. After returning from a visit to Istanbul, he was captured by a Spanish man- of-war and was later sold into slavery to the French in New Orleans, eventually escaping and regaining his freedom. He lived among American Indian tribes and settled in Virginia. Salim was found in rags, almost naked, and was taught English. Eventually, it was ascertained that he knew Greek, and he was given a Greek New Testament. Several future members of the US Congress befriended him, and he converted to Christianity. As a new convert to Christianity, he decided to go back home to spread the Gospel. Alter a disastrous journey to his homeland (where he was shunned as an apostate), he returned to America, met Thomas Jefferson, attended the 1st Continental Congress and, at the instigation of Congressman Page, his portrait was painted by an artist called Peale. Salim lapsed into insanity, perhaps brought on by his traumatic visit to his homeland. Salim's final months are a misery. Some accounts tell of him regaining his sanity while others say he died in an insane asylum. It is also unclear if Salim renounced his adopted religion but it is possible that he died a Christian and he remained on the Page estate until the cod of his life. (See Graham's magazine, 1857, pp.433-7.)
It should be noted that none of these men tried to spread Islam, and that only Ayub tried to preserve his own belief. An important point is that these Muslims were not unique in being able to read and write Arabic. In fact, in many slave quarters in the Caribbean and Brazil, there were clandestine Arabic and Islamic schools. One can find references to them in the works of Nina Rodriguez and in the two volume book Twelve Months in Jamaica by Robert Madden (1835).
During the nineteenth century, the presence of Islamic captives in slave quarters was documented by four individuals:
1 Theodore Dwight Jr wrote two articles about a slave named Lamen Kebe who had been a school teacher in Africa. Lamen Kebe gave Dwight a list of over twenty texts used in his schools and several pages of information on teaching methods (much of it still valuable today). At the end of one of the articles, he also attached one of the earliest glossaries we have of the Serrekuleh language. Dwight also mentions Abdul Rahman and Ayub b. Sulaiman Diallo.
2 James Cooper wrote the story of Salih Bilali, published with other ethnological writings in William Brown Hodgson's Notes on North Africa (1844). Salih was a Fulani (as are all the others mentioned) and his story is only found in a letter by Cooper. This letter has been reprinted in Africa Remembered by Philip Curtin. Here we have an oral remembrance of Africa and a vocabulary of Fula, but nothing about his training or practice in Islam.
3 William Brown Hodgson did perhaps the most important of these documentaries. The main characters Hodgson recorded were the following: Bilali Mohammed, who wrote the only extant book on Islamic Law written in America and who contributed several Islamic terms to the Gullah dialect of English. He gave his descendants Muslim names and taught them until the generation of his grandchildren. Umar ibn Sa'id was a butler for Governor Owens of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and he wrote an autobiography and thirteen pages in Arabic. What he wrote shows that he might have been a Qadariyyah Sufi, a trader, and a school teacher who feigned conversion to Christianity under difficult circumstances. Abdul Rahman Ibrahim Sori wrote two autobiographies, two copies of sura al-Fatiha, signed a charcoal sketch of himself that was done by Henry Inman (this picture was on the cover of Freedmen's Journal and is on display in the Library of Congress) and he dictated several letters to his family while travelling in the US to raise money to return to Africa. None of his Arabic writings show the least formal education, but it is surprising that he remembered the little Arabic he knew after forty years in slavery. Said eventually returned to Africa, where he died. His story is documented in Prince Among Slaves by Terry Afford (1977). A slave named London is described in a pamphlet by Hodgson (1844) called The Gospels Written in the Negro Patois of English in Arabic Characters by a Mandingo Slave Named London. This was perhaps the only systematic try at writing English in Arabic letters up to that point. London was held in slavery by the Maxwell family of Savannah, Georgia. They later moved to Florida where he died. An unknown slave correspondent from Georgetown, South Carolina wrote five chapters of the Qur'an from memory. This was translated by Hodgson.
4 William Carruthers, author of The Kentuckian in New York, tells of a slave who wrote sura al-Fatiha at the request of a traveller. He also mentions Ayub ibn Sulaiman Diallo.
One Muslim of this era not covered by these writers is Hadji Ali (Philip Tedro) who was a Greek convert to Islam and one of six camel handlers (three Arabs, two Turks and Hadji Ali) in the short-lived US camel calvary in 1856. The Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, introduced a bill in Congress, passed in 1855, to import camels for military purposes in the Arizona desert. During this experiment, 77 camels and six handlers were brought over from the East. When the Civil War broke out, this experiment was abandoned. Hadji Ali was the only one of the cameleers to remain in America. The others returned to their homelands. Circuses and zoos acquired some of the camels while others were turned loose. The camels that were turned loose in the desert terrorized live stock and wild animals for years. Hadji Ali became a prospector in the Colorado River Area. He eventually became a legend under the corrupted name, 'Hi Jolly', given to him by soldiers in the US calvary. The only legacies of this experiment are a highway grave marker for Hadji Ali and some US Army Manuals (see 'Report Upon the Purchase, Importation, and Use of Camels and Dromedaries, to be Employed for Military Purposes, According to Act of Congress March 3, 1855. Made under the Direction of the Secretary of War 1855, '56, '57'). A movie by Walt Disney called Hawmps, starring Slim Pickens and Denver Pyle, highlights this moment in history. Hadji Ali lived until 1903 in Quartzsite, Arizona, where he was a prospector and resident imam. His three daughters were raised as Muslims, but I have yet to verify how many generations of his family continued practicing Islam.
The Omani Embassy published a pamphlet about the exploits of the first Arab traders to the United States during the 1840s. (However, these traders did not settle here: see Eilts, 1962),
One other Muslim is Yarrow Mamount who was poorly covered by other writers. He deserves mention as he was perhaps one of the longest-lived individuals in this country; his reported age at death was over 130 years, and he was one of the first shareholders of the Washington, DC Columbia Bank, the second chartered bank in the United States.
During this period the only movement of great interest is that of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb. He is commonly believed to be the first white convert to Islam in America. Before he became a Muslim, he was a newspaper editor and from 1887-92, served as US Consul to the Philippines, he accepted the post of Consul in 1887. While a Consul, he began to read books on Eastern and Oriental religions. Soon afterwards he began written correspondence with Indian Muslims, and in 1888 he publicly declared that he was a Muslim. He resigned his post in 1892, and went to India where he made a lecture tour of four cities: Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Hyderabad. These lectures were published in the books The Three Lectures and Lectures in Various Locations. The topics for these lectures included:
'Islam, the Better Way' and 'Philosophical Islam'. Upon returning to the US, he set up the Oriental Publishing Company, which published at least a half dozen of his books including Islam in America (1892) and his short-lived periodical The Moslem World. He had a mosque on upper Broadway which failed prior to his death in 1913. His appointment as the Polish Emissary to the US and his writing of a still very pertinent book, The Armenian Problem and Its Solution, as well as the views of Webb on the war between the Turks and the Armenians, may have contributed to the decline of the group. Webb also failed to address the needs of the generality of the people; his was a movement for 'philosophers'.
Between 1910-1950 several Orthodox, Sufi, Ahmadiyyah. Bahia, Shia and Black Nationalist groups arose. However, I shall focus on the orthodox mosques (in Ross, North Dakota; Detroit, Michigan and Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and on Sheikh Dawood, Soufi Abdul Hameed, Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Mohammed. Two mosques were built in the early years of this century. In 1915 the Albanian community built a mosque in Maine and another in Connecticut, but little documentation has survived of their administration. In Brooklyn, New York, Polish-speaking Tatars built a mosque which was still in use in 1926. The Red Crescent was founded in Detroit in 1920 and the mosque built there was in regular use from 1926-1932. This organization appears to have suffered from lack of finances, rather than lack of numbers. Only a few brothers kept the masjid afloat but the Great Depression proved to be too much of a financial burden for them. Perhaps the most successful of these early, orthodox communities was the Ross Mosque, having a congregation of about 100 followers at its height. The mosque was built in 1930 and remained standing until 1978, and in regular use until the late l960s. At this time, conversions and mixed marriages had decreased the number of Muslims, and Arabic was no longer used. Also, there were no practising Muslims to attend Friday prayers and the cemetery had fallen into neglect.
The Lebanese masjid in Cedar Rapids is a success story. Started in 1935, the mosque is still in use. This community seems to have suffered fewer of the problems common to the others; going overseas to marry was common, finance was freer and fewer people drifted from Islam. Arabic continued to be used widely, language being an important factor in uniting a community.
Sheikh Dawood and Soufi Abdul Hameed represent home-grown orthodox Islam. Sheikh Dawood founded the Islamic Mission Society on State Street in 1934 in Brooklyn, New York. Over 75,000 people accepted Islam under his tutorship before his death in 1981. His theory of Islam being genetic was to be adapted by many later leaders such as Elijah Mohammed and Imam Isa. His success was due to his willingness to stiffer personal abuse and financial difficulty for the sake of Islam. His writings and theories are contained in his self-published book Islam the True Religion of humanity (1965). His contemporary, Soufi, and his teacher, Mandaly from Egypt, had similar successes in Harlem, but their work was cut short when Mandaly died following a heart attack, and Soufi perished in an aeroplane crash. Their problem was that they failed to train proper successors, and the movement died with them (see Ottley, 1968, pp.116-19).
Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Mohammed represent the Black Nationalist side to Islam between 1910 and 1950. Both movements outlasted these men. Ali started his move- merit, the Moorish Science Temple, in May 1913 with the short-lived Canaanite Temple. He gave an identity to the recently freed Africans and showed them how they could have self-esteem, and allowed them to take part in a movement that was not under the former slave masters' control. His main error was to fail to fully bring people into the reality of the Arabic language, the Qur'an and ibadah, but he gave them a clear concept of a Jesus they could accept and of tawhid, which Christianity had failed to give them.
Elijah Mohammed's organization, the Nation of Islam, was begun in Paradise Valley (a black ghetto in Detroit) on July 4, 1930 by Mr W.D. Fard. Fard was a mysterious peddler from the East and a one-time challenger to Drew Ali's leadership of Islamic Nationalism in Newark, New Jersey. Fard was reputed to have been born of a white mother and a black father (Mimi and Alfonso) on February 28, 1877 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He supposedly receiving his education at U.C.L.A. and Oxford. Fard was to have been a member of the diplomatic corps in the Hijaz, but he decided against it in order to go to the 'wilderness of North America to find his Uncle [the Black Man] and teach him Islam and the true history of the black man. After teaching for three years, he left the US for an unknown destination. He left behind a successor, Elijah Mohammed, and some written teachings which were set down in several lesson plans of which seven are extant today. This was a way of teaching that was not uncommon to church catechisms, Masonic degrees or Moorish American Qur'an Questionnaires. By 1934, Fard became a sort of hidden Imam common to the doctrines of the Druze and Isma'ili versions of Islam. He seemed to expound rhetoric similar to military manual directives, Moorish Science, Masonry and some vague eschatology as well as doctrines (such as blood atonement), similar to that of early Utah Mormons. His movement succeeded due to dedicated individuals and strong leadership that was willing to suffer for the movement. His weaknesses were failing to teach proper rules for prayer and fasting, and his preaching the concept of Ali reincarnated through the Imams and the Mahdi (later he was considered God incarnate).
The next forty years saw the rise and fall of the Nation of Islam and its rebirth (primarily with Silas Mohammed, Farrakhan, John Mohammed, W.D. Mohammed and Imam Isa). The groups that were resurrected tended to try to revolutionize the teachings. Silas works with the white community and calls Elijah Mohammed 'the Virgin Mary' and himself the 'Spiritual Son of Elijah Mohammed'. Farrakhan works with other minorities and has been working against the drug problem; he attacked a drug dealer after he found out his own son was a drug abuser. W.D. Mohammed works with the immigrant community in a liaison role. John Mohammed is the 'orthodox' Nation of Islam teacher, as he tends not to teach anything except what Elijah Mohammed distinctly taught. Imam is a Unitarian Universalist, Spiritualist, Jewish, Ansar, Black Nationalist successor to the self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah, Elijah Mohammed. All are in serious error because they fail to address the greater problem of developing the basic groundwork for a strong, growing and evolving Islamic community in America. Only W.D. Mohammed has begun the needed work of teaching sound Islam based on the Qur'an and the Sunna, but he is somewhat hindered by the legacy of his father, tending to give the teachings of the Qur'an as mostly symbolic as he was taught the Bible was. Others left the Nation of Islam, and we must remember them as true Muslims. These true Muslims include Mohammed Ali, Hamas Abdul Khaalis, and Malcolm X. Mohammed Ali went on to become one of the greatest sportsmen in this nation and a great Contributor to the spreading of Islam. Hamas Abdul Khaalis founded the Hanafi Mah-Hab Centre in New York in 1968. It was later moved to Washington, DC. At his height he had over a thousand followers and led protests for several Muslim causes. His famous follower is Kareem Abdul Jabbar. In 977, Khaalis and some of his followers seized a building in Washington, DC as part of a protest, and they held the people for some 30 hours. One hostage was killed and Khaalis is currently serving a prison sentence of 4l to 120 years. One of the greatest-ever Muslim leaders in America was, of course, Malcolm X (or according to his true Muslim name, Al-Hajj Malik at Shabazz). He started the political street organ of the Nation of Islam, the Mohammed Speaks newspaper, and influenced several generations with his eye-opening autobiography. Until the end of his life, he was dedicated to the struggle for the rights of all oppressed people of the world. He was killed at the hands of FBI-sponsored infiltrators from the Nation of Islam.
It is strange that the religion of peace is always forced into violence against itself. God says in the Holy Qur'an:
And thus, We have made you a middle nation that you may witness to all people and We made the Messenger a witness to you... (al-Baqarah, 2.143).
How could this history, with its successes, failures and disappointments exist, when we are instructed to be a middle nation of witnesses to mankind, and to propagate Islam?
In sum, this historical briefing on Islam in America focused on American Muslims and Muslims that were becoming Americans points to the need for da'wa, for Islamic schools, for fighting assimilation, for bilingual education, for masjids, and for taking part in the greater society.
The groundwork is da'wa, developing schools and businesses, youth and adult education programmes to teach Arabic and Qur'an to such an extent that our community here will become bilingual and stay that way. Next, we need to have Islamic holidays recognized in public schools in much the same way as Jewish holidays are. Finally, we need to make sure proper books on Islam are in every single public and private library in the US and that hooks on Islam are placed in as many non-Muslim homes as is feasible.