Khadija Abdl-Haleem a Muslim-American takes a look at the extensive history of Islam in the United States of America.
At some point, every Muslim American wants to know how far back Islam goes in America. Something in the endlessness of the Truth that is Allah and His religion makes it impossible for a Muslim not to believe that Islam must have reached everywhere, even America.
A bona fide attempt to feel like a real American and proclaim the presence of Islam as a legitimate part of America then ensues: “See, we really belong here too!”
And so the search begins.
Nothing could seem earlier to me than the Native Americans. The Native Americans I envisioned were the ones Christopher Columbus met on that fateful day in 1492. They were, in fact, native tribes, only my calculations were off. Roughly 500 years pre-dating America as we know it now, unknown to me was that the Muslims had a stead in the discovery of America well before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
Dr Barry Fell (1917-1994), born in Sussex, England, is most well known for his controversial book, Saga America (1982). Fell introduced in his book what he considered to be scientific evidence indicating the arrival, centuries before Columbus, of Muslims from North and West Africa. His works were prolific but incited debate and disbelief. I would have to go back several centuries to discover the works of someone universally accepted as a reliable reporter that confirmed Fell's theory.
Abul-Hassan Ali Ibn Al-Hussain Al-Masudi (871-957), a noted historian, geographer, and intellectual, records in his book, The Fields of Gold and the Mines of Treasure, that Kashkash ibn Saeed Al-Aswad, a Muslim navigator from Cordoba, Andalusia, sailed from the Spanish port, Delba (Palos) in 889 AD, during the reign of the Caliph of Spain, Abdullah Ibn Muhammad (888-912) in search of the other side of the forbidding waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Al-Masudi records that Ibn Al-Aswad, crossed the Atlantic and reached an unknown territory that Al-Masudi coined ard majhoola, or unknown territory, and returned with stunning treasures.
Al-Masudi's map of the world contains a large area in the ocean of darkness and fog. We now know this unknown land to be the Americas. Al-Aswad arrived in America in the year of 889 AD. While this is a heavily debated occurrence, al-Masudi's book has survived for 1100 years. The first extant version is an earlier draft from 947, but the later revised edition in 956 has survived. His revised book has been published for hundreds of years by publishers in Lebanon and Egypt. Roughly 889 pages furnished with details concerning Islamic history and relevant persons is, in its own right, a veritable gem.
Al-Masudi writes in his book, The Fields of Gold and the Mines of Treasure:
"In the ocean of fogs [the Atlantic], there are many curiosities which we have mentioned in detail in our Akhbar az-Zaman, on the basis of what we saw there, adventurers who penetrated it on the risk of their life, some returning back safely, others perishing in the attempt. Thus a certain inhabitant of Cordoba, Khashkhash by name, assembled a group of young men, his co-citizens, and went on a voyage on this ocean. After a long time, he returned back with booty. Every Spaniard knows this story."
I was humbled and shown the extent of my very limited knowledge of the world. My understanding stopped short at America’s discovery in 1492. Well, not quite so short—of course, I believed in the Prophet, pbuh, 1400 hundred years ago, but America was a beginning and an end in my mind. It was as if I was disconnected from the time of Adam and the prophets thereafter, no matter how much I believed. Being able to see and read from the works of Al-Masudi and other notable scholars shed light on my constrained world-view.
Al-Masudi’s deliberation and meticulous recording of history introduced me to the formation of Columbus’s monumental voyage. Columbus was inspired by the genius of renowned Muslim geographer, Muhammad Al-Idrissi (1100–1165). Al-Idrisi was born into the large Hammudid family of North Africa and Al-Andalus, who claimed descent from the Idrisids of Morocco. The Hammudid dynasty boasted the Arabized-Berber Caliphate of Cordoba for a short time.
Before modern day Muslims settled in America, the stormy, unknown Atlantic Ocean pricked the curiosity of scholars and explorers. Not necessarily religious scholars, but people of questioning minds. Muhammad Al-Idrissi (1100-1165), a formidable Arab geographer and cartographer, is a prime example of that daring thinking. The execution of his thoughts was solid silver, literally. He compiled a map for the Norman King Roger II of Sicily in 1154 inscribed on solid silver. For his map, Tabula Rogeriani, he used the recorded knowledge of Muslim merchants and their Islamic maps from Africa, the Far East, and the Indian Ocean. He also included information brought by Norman Voyagers, thus creating one of the most accurate world maps of pre-modern times.
Al-Idrissi’s silver plated maps called to the seafaring mind of Christopher Columbus. Columbus, in what many said was allegorical praise describing the beauty of Cuba, wrote that he saw a mosque on a beautiful mountain-top on the coast of Cuba. The reference to a mosque denoting beauty showed the presence and appreciation of Islamic architecture. Islam was not foreign to Columbus, and Muslims still held prestige in the minds of people and countries of the time.
Al-Idrissi’s description of the pre-Columbus, Andalusian-Americas contact in his geographical text, Nuzhat al-Mushtaq, is as romantic as it is compelling:
"Beyond this ocean of fogs, it is not known what exists there. Nobody has the sure knowledge of it because it is was very difficult to traverse it. Its atmosphere is foggy, its waves are very strong, its dangers are perilous, its beasts are terrible, and its winds are full of tempests. There are many islands, some of which are inhabited, others are submerged. No navigator traverses them but bypasses them remaining near their coast"
In a time when the roundness of the Earth was at the debate, Al-Idrisi was directly questioned about the shape of the Earth. Al-Idrisi answered: “An equilibrium which experiences no variation, keeps these bodies of water in place.” Delineating the almost exact locations of the bodies of water across his solid silver map of the world—rivers and oceans alike—Al-Idrisi’s knowledge of the existence of the Americas brings no wonder.
After the knowledge that Al-Kashkash, Al-Masudi, Al-Idirisi and several others imparted to the world, learning that in the 1300's Muslims from West Africa travelled the seas to North America and used the Mississippi River to travel the interior of America was almost expected.
In her book, African American Islam, Aminah McCloud writes that in 1312 African Muslims (Mandinga) arrived in the Gulf of Mexico to explore inland America by travelling the Mississippi River to discover this new land. From Mali and other parts of West Africa, Muslims were in America.
What would follow in America as centuries passed is not shocking, considering the inhumane propensity of the human race: "Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority". They (Angels) said, "Will you place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood?" (2:30).
In 1530, the weakness of humanity the Angels worried about upon our creation reared its ugly head. Unbeknownst to the traders who enslaved people of the African population, the first American Muslims literally built the American nation. Of the nearly 10 million enslaved Africans who were uprooted from their homelands, at least 30% were Muslim. Hailing from the areas of Fulas, Futa Jallon, Futa Toro, and Massina, as well as other areas in West Africa, they were sent to Mexico, Cuba, and South America. They became a part of the backbone of the American economy of that period.
In 1539, Estevanico of Azamor, or Mustafa Zemmouri, a Moroccan Muslim, was enslaved by the Portuguese and given to a Spanish nobleman. Zemmouri became part of the Spanish Narváez expedition in 1527. He was among the first people to enter what we now know to be Florida. He stayed on in America joining many expeditions traversing across America. From Arizona to New Mexico his navigation continued on. History records the presence of Spanish Moors, or Muslims, living in South Carolina in 1790.
Not too long after the African Muslims and the Spanish Moors, the glitter and promise of America called to continents at large, the Muslim world included. From the Middle East, to the Subcontinent and Eastern Asia, Muslims found their way in.
Arabs migrated to North America predominantly as single men. Then the first real wave of Arab immigrants began arriving in America in the 1870's mostly from Greater Syria. Greater Syria was comprised of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The glory of the Great Ottoman Empire was crumbling around the people of Greater Syria, and they sought to find a better life, believing in the hope America promised to provide. This period of migration lasted until roughly 1924.
That same time witnessed the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North from the South after the Civil War. This helped the African-American Islamic revival and the growth of the African-American Muslim Nationalist Movement that is still in existence today.
When the Muslim immigrants from their native lands made it into The Land of Hope, they were sadly awakened to the trials of living in a foreign land. Ellis Island and New York were starting points for the newly arrived immigrants. The tragic stories of immigrants from across the world in Ellis Island are the stuff of stories, many recorded in books. America, with its beckoning lights for many, Muslims included, was an empty promise.
Of those who survived the trials, many stayed in New York. Others were attracted to different cities with booming industries, Chicago to Los Angeles. The immigrants were not afraid of hard work and were willing to stay in uncomfortable circumstances just to try and live a good life.
Success in the clothing industry was high, and many did realise their hope of wealth and comfort. The booming factory industry in Midwestern America was a gold mine for the Arab men and women willing to work honest, hard jobs. The car industry, mainly Ford, provided another relief that the immigrants from Greater Syria capitalised on.
By the time the 1930's and 40's arrived, Arab immigrants found a new home to claim as their own. Leaving the struggles of perceived areas of non-progress," back home", they established religious communities and built Mosques and community centres. African American Muslims had already built their own mosques, and by 1952 there were 1,000's of mosques in North America.
The United States opened its doors again in 1952, and an entirely new group of Muslims came from Palestine, connecting with the immigrants already there from the aftermath of the 1948 formation of Israel. Still, more immigrants came from Iraq and Egypt. The 1960's saw masses of South-east Asian Muslims also making there way to America. Muslims came from Africa, Asia, and even Latin America.
New Islamic centres and mosques were built for every new community. Stores and restaurants particular to each ethnicity began to appear. From 1965 and into the 70's and 80's, there was a steady increase of Muslims immigrating to America. Things were relatively good. The concept of Islam as a religion, even in the face of reports of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-80, and the Beirut Barrack suicide bombing attacks in 1983, Muslim Americans were still considered Americans and did not suffer much.
The influx of immigrants flocking to America only increased through the '80's and into the '90's. The immigrant Muslims came virtually from every continent around the world. Their mark was made in every city, unabashedly. The freedom America allowed them, the progress they could realise was a very different thing than what their countries of origin allowed. The largest group of Muslims in the world, South Asia, naturally is the largest group of Muslim immigrants in America.
Muslim tended to live in the major hub cities when they began immigration in the late 1800's, and still, now immigrants come to large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Texas and Detroit. Muslim Americans, now affluent and educated, successfully assimilated into American culture.
The westernisation of the Muslim immigrant population succeeded in the melding of Muslim culture and Western culture. Despite the reality of citizenship, passport holding, and general social connection, Muslim Americans are not quite mainstream. Muslim Americans are different in their practices, and their beliefs. A very fine line is thus drawn between Muslim Americans and others.
The difference, though, does not make Muslims unduly uncomfortable. The average non-Muslim American never out rightly rejects citizens based on religion. If you are American, you are American and free to live your life as you see fit. Each to his own seems to be the motto of American society. And so Muslim Americans entered the 1990's with their eyes wide open and smiling.
Muslims flourished in the land their Muslim brethren of old sailed to and tread upon. It seems only fitting that the land Al-Masudi knew existed and wrote about and that Al-Kashkash Ibn Al-Aswad sailed across on the Mississippi River, and the silver-plated maps Al-Idrisi made of the world, would be home to Muslims from every corner of the Earth.
Author: Khadija Abdl-Haleem
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