My Turn: Muslims woven into the fabric of America
This past week Muslims in New Hampshire and around the world celebrated the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, with Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son.
That celebration followed last weekend’s vitriolic attack, on Washington’s National Mall, by Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, who used the language of delegitimization and disenfranchisement to again try to marginalize Muslims in America.
In recent years I’ve spoken on America’s connections with Islam in a presentation called “President Jefferson’s Qur’an.” Today it seems timely to share some of those historical encounters in the Monitor’s “public square.”
Witness that in 1682 Virginia promulgated a regulation that defined slaves as from “heathenish, idollatrous, pagan and mahometan parentage,” and in 1685 the Spanish Council of the Indies ruled, “The introduction of Mohammedan slaves into America is forbidden on account of the danger which lies in their intercourse with the Indians.”
Oh, the dilemmas early settlers and colonialists had to confront – whether to enslave Muslims, or ban them in order to deny them “intercourse with the Indians.”
In my presentations, I emphasize that perhaps as many as 20 percent of America’s slaves were Muslim, many sold by Muslim slave-traders, and I attempt to track the path America has taken from a slave-holding nation to a democracy that promises equal rights and privileges to all citizens.
It has not been an easy path, and there are clearly contradictions between the privileges, profit and power of a nation built with slave labor upon stolen land, and a nation that aspired to be built along Enlightenment principles espousing a belief, “That all men are created equal.”
Two weeks ago at the Exeter Historical Society, I amended my presentation to note that New Hampshire law enforcement authorities were investigating a “bias motive” in the July vandalism at the Islamic Society of Greater Manchester construction site – vandalism that cost more than $30,000 to repair.
The perpetrators, aged 11 and 13, identified through video surveillance, allegedly posted comments on anti-Muslim hate sites and bragged of their actions.
What caught my attention, though, was how little was reported in the New Hampshire press, and how negligible the public response to a violent act against a small community aspiring to deepen its American roots, and I wondered why.
Perhaps if there were more awareness of the complexities and challenges of accepting America’s “others” over the past four centuries there would be less risk or danger of newcomers from non-European lands being isolated and demonized.
Historically, witness that Cotton Mather, fervent believer of witchcraft and well-known for his inflammatory role in provoking the criminal Salem witch trials, who had once excoriated the Barbary pirates as, “Mahometan Turks, and Moors and Devils,” was himself caught, in 1721, in a clash between crescent and cross. He was not an ignorant man: Regardless of his weaknesses and prejudices, he was a widely-read scholar who tolerated no theological limits on his learning.
Having read about the Ottoman use of inoculation against disease, he advocated for its use during the Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721.
His embrace of a foreign cure roiled entrenched segments of both the scientific and religious communities and angered many.
Muslims, Hindus and Christians
Witness that Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, a signer of our Declaration of Independence, wrote, “True freedom embraces the Mahometan and Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion.”
Witness that Theophilus Parsons, one of the authors of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, declared it was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience” for “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”
The Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President Adams on June 10, 1797, included, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims), – and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
President Thomas Jefferson hosted America’s first “official” Iftar, the sunset meal that marks the end of a day of fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan, on December 9, 1805. Jefferson, in deference to his Muslim visitor, Tunisian Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who was in Washington to negotiate continuing issues regarding the Treaty of Tripoli – and the continuing hostility of some Barbary Pirates – changed his mealtime from the usual 3:30 p.m. to “precisely at sunset.”
Our founding fathers were not averse to learning about Islam. The Library of Congress owns Thomas Jefferson’s 1764 edition of the Qur’an that he purchased while a law student at the College of William and Mary and which probably informed him in his negotiations over the Barbary pirates. John Adams owned a copy of the first Qur’an printed in America (obviously produced for commercial profit) which came from the press of Henry Brewer of Springfield, Mass., on behalf of publisher Isaiah Thomas in October 1806.
Americans are learning of slaves like Omar ibn Sayyid, a Muslim scholar who was kidnapped from his African home and ended up living in the American Carolinas. Sayyid may have been “one of the (if not the) most educated slaves in North Carolina, . . . the author of the only known autobiography of a slave written in a native language, and one of the most documented examples of a practicing-Muslim slave,” according to Davidson College.
When Dwight Eisenhower dedicated the Islamic Center of Washington in 1957, he affirmed, “America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church(sic) and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.”
From America’s first slaves, from the first mosque built on North Dakota’s plains to the Albanian Muslim textile workers who once worshipped in Biddeford, Maine, to today’s Muslims struggling to build community in Manchester, Muslims have been woven into the fabric of America.
And witness that when, on Jan. 4, 2007, Representative Keith Ellison was sworn into Congress as its first Muslim, using President Jefferson’s Qur’an, it affirmed the historical continuity of American pluralistic values.
Perhaps thinking introspectively, Cotton Mather once wrote, “Ah! Destructive Ignorance, what shall be done to chase thee out of the World?” The “Destructive Ignorance” of Manchester’s child-vandals was not self-inspired; it reflected the prejudices of adults who taught them, adults who do not embrace American values – values that embrace hospitality and envision an inclusive public square.
While it’s often true that, as George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” sometimes it’s necessary to look at history to reconnect with values we’ve forgotten or have come to ignore – in this case with the Founding Fathers’ pluralistic vision of inclusiveness and community.
In one of the most remarkable documents written by a founding father – a letter that should be taught in every American classroom – George Washington wrote to the Touro Synagogue in 1790, “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Finally, witness that George Washington’s affirmation of America’s foundational principle of religious freedom is a message not just to the Jews of Rhode Island but an eternal message to Americans of all faiths – indeed, to all Americans – and continues to this day.
(Robert Azzi is a writer and photographer living in Exeter. He can be reached at