Robert Azzi: Islam and the American tapestry

  • Cotton Mather

For the Monitor
Published: 10/16/2016 3:25:09 AM

As Americans struggle to make sense of political tensions currently roiling our nation, I think it’d be helpful to contextualize our communal experience, especially with regard to Islam and religion in the Public Square.

I believe that the rise of Islamophobia compels us to understand that Muslims did not just arrive in America on 9/11 like Topsy – speaking a language no one knew, professing a religion few knew anything about – but that they’ve been part of our historical and cultural experience for nearly 400 years.

In 1706, Cotton Mather, a Puritan church minister in Boston, received a present from his congregation – they bought him a slave.

A church bought a preacher of the Word a human being.

Mather “named” him Onesimus after the runaway slave found in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon and described him as “a very likely Slave; a young Man who is a Negro of a promising aspect of temper.”

Onesimus was a slave whose knowledge of smallpox inoculation was instrumental in perhaps saving thousands of lives in early 18th-century New England.

Writing in 1716, Mather described how Onesimus had revealed to him a method of smallpox inoculation that “whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.”

In 1721, despite opposition, Mather used that knowledge, acquired from Onesimus and supported by other foreign sources, to advocate for mass inoculation when a smallpox epidemic struck Boston.

Some at Harvard’s Divinity School opposed inoculation because “only sinners got smallpox” and some at Harvard’s Medical School opposed it because it wasn’t “Western” medicine.

Mather’s position prevailed and, as a result, the preacher best known for his inflammatory role in provoking the hysteria and intolerance of the Salem Witch Trials, who had often excoriated Muslims as “Mahometan Turks, and Moors and Devils,” was caught, in 1721, in a clash of his own instigation between crescent and cross.

He received death threats, “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam (sic) you! I’ll inoculate you with this; with a pox to you,” and a sort of primitive grenade was even thrown at his house.

Mather may have acted on Onesimus’s knowledge of smallpox – and thousands may have been saved because of that knowledge – but Onesimus remained a slave.

Only after repeated attempts to convert his Muslim slave to Christianity did Mather, who felt the slave was acting rebelliously, allow Onesimus to buy his freedom, cruelly conditioning his release by insisting that even as a free man he remain available to “shovel snow, pile firewood, fetch water and carry corn to the mill.”

Mather was deaf to Paul’s message about that slave named Onesimus in the Epistle to Philemon. Though Paul urged Philemon to accept Onesimus “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved,” Mather, his mind colonized by the institution of slavery, worshipped the profane rather than the sacred and the Word of God.

Mather, who believed that Christianity “wonderfully Dulcifies, and Mollifies, and moderates the Circumstances” of slavery to the very end failed to acknowledge the humanity of the man who may have saved much of Boston.

Popular public recognition for Onesimus’s contribution came in 2016 when, in a Boston Magazine survey, he was named one of the “Best Bostonians of All Time.”

While there are contradictions between the limited privileges of a nation built upon the exploitation of slaves like Onesimus and a nation whose Founding Fathers aspired to be created upon Enlightenment principles espousing belief “that all men are created equal,” we’ve certainly moved from the exploitation, prejudice and hysteria of Mather’s days closer to fulfilling the aspirations of peoples “yearning to be free.”

Closer to fulfilling the aspiration of Theophilus Parsons, one of the authors of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, that America was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience” for “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”

In 1842, missionary Charles Colcock Jones wrote that many “Mohammedan Africans” had found ways to “accommodate” Islam within their new lives in bondage. “God, say they, is Allah, and Jesus Christ is Mohammed. The religion is the same, but different countries have different names.”

While Jones didn’t get the theology exactly right, he recognized an essential truth: that many Muslims and their descendants found ways to overcome the systemic proselytization and cruelty of slave owners to both sustain their Islamic faith and embrace the aspirations of this nation.

One veteran of the American Revolution at Concord and Bunker Hill was a freed slave named Peter Salem, who’s believed by some historians to have been Muslim. Other soldiers with Muslim names include Salem Poor, Yusuf Ben Ali, Bampett Muhamed, Francis Saba and Joseph Saba.

Muslims fought and died in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Muslims died in the twin towers on 9/11 and died as first responders trying to rescue the victims of that terrorism.

Muhammad Ali ibn Said (aka Nicholas Said) enlisted in the famed all-African-American 55th Massachusetts Regiment in 1863, where he rose to the rank of sergeant.

From within America’s slaves to early immigrants who built a mosque out of sod on the North Dakota plains to the millions of Americans who daily contribute in commerce, education, arts and the security of this nation, Muslims are tightly woven into our common fabric – and that’s a good thing.

Dwight Eisenhower, at the Islamic Center of Washington dedication in 1957, eloquently affirmed America’s bedrock principle of religious freedom: “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.”

Too many are too often susceptible, as was Mather, to the corrupt benefits of privilege and power, stuck in thinking institutionally instead of humbly embracing justice and truth.

Islam’s not just a religion, it’s not just the faith of slaves, of immigrants and of many African-Americans reclaiming and naming it as their own – as did Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali – it’s part of who we are. In an America of diversity, pluralism and individual freedom, we should recognize that Islam is part of our national patrimony. And that that’s a good thing.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at and his columns are archived at On Oct. 26, he will be in Concord at South Congregational Church for a program titled “Confronting Islamophobia: Confronting Fear of The Other – An Evening of Conversation with Robert Azzi.”)

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