America prides itself on being a pluralistic society — a society of many different peoples living together peacefully. Islam has been part of American pluralism for some time. We often speak of “Islam and the West” but should also speak of “Islam in the West,” since Islam and Muslims are with us and among us and, in fact, have been with us and among us for hundreds of years.
Some scholars believe that Muslims came to America from West Africa and Europe (Muslim Spain and Portugal) long before Columbus. The theory is still not widely accepted, but it is based on interesting evidence. There is no doubt that Muslims made up a considerable portion of the West Africans who were enslaved and brought to North, South and Central America during the four grueling centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Conservative estimates say they made up one out of every 10, but sometimes (in states like South Carolina and Louisiana) they made up as much as one out of every three.
The Muslim slaves of antebellum America left some of their culture behind. Many musicologists believe that the American blues and jazz traditions owe much to West African Muslim folk music, especially the beautiful West African Muslim songs sung with the 21-string kora.
When African-Americans began to rediscover their roots in the 20th century, jazz musicians were among one of the most important groups of converts and played an important role in the development of the “New Jazz,” combining African and Caribbean themes with the older blues tradition. Kenny Clarke (Liaqat Ali Salaam), Pharaoh Sanders, Dakota Staton (Aliyah Dawud), Yusuf Lateef, Ahmad Jamal and John Coltrane belong to a long and illustrious list of black musicians who embraced Islam or were favorably disposed toward it. Today, Muslim Americans are well-represented in rap music, one of the most important elements in contemporary popular culture.
Muslim immigrants have been coming voluntarily to the United States since the 1850s. Hi Jolly (Hajji Ali) came to America in 1856, before the Civil War. He came at the request of Jefferson Davis, who was then Secretary of War. Hajji Ali’s unfamiliar Arabic name was popularized to Hi Jolly, and he served as chief camel driver in the Army’s Camel Military Corps between 1856 and 1864. Hi Jolly’s desert tombstone outside Quartzsite, Ariz., remains famous to this day. Other early Muslim immigrants came as laborers, farmhands, farmers, small businessmen and door-to-door salesmen. Anas Hamawi, a Muslim immigrant from Syria, worked as a vendor in St. Louis and sold wafer-thin Syrian pancakes. He attended the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and helped create the American ice-cream cone.
The Immigration Act of 1965 opened the door to thousands of well-educated Muslims from Asia and Africa. The John Hancock Center and the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) of Chicago are good symbols of their contributions. Both buildings were designed by the Muslim American architect Fazlur Rahman Khan.
President Obama summarized the gist of American Muslim history in his Cairo speech: “I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second president, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Muslims.’ And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Qur’an that one of our founding fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.”
There are 7 million Muslims in America, and about 150,000 live in Minnesota.
Zafar Siddiqui is a co-founder and immediate past-president of the Islamic Resource Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.