Islam in America
By Nasser Sagheb
December 9, 1997
We came to America in 1974. It was the Summer Nixon quit. I was only twelve, but the television images of a president in disgrace, bowing to the findings of an inquisitive Congress, were the foundations of my democratic awakening.
The first were years of conformity and assimilation. I grew closer to my new surroundings, more comfortable with my new identity, consumed with the routines of daily life. Then, suddenly, in 1979, the Iranian revolution halfway around the globe shook our world and challenged all inner reconciliations of dual identity. I was confronted with questions: Who are you? To whom do you pledge allegiance? Why do you have a funny name? Where are you from? How do you really feel about us? Are you one of them? I could not answer. One night, during the American embassy hostage crisis, I saw an Indian Sikh at a bus stop get pelted by garbage flung from the window of a passing car. "Go home you god-damned Iranian" yelled the assailants. The incident gave me pause. Maybe they were right.
Thereafter, I became more attentive to people different from the norm. I found a new curiosity about Black Muslims, Indians in Saris, Amish farmers, Chinese restaurateurs, Hasidic Jews, etc. How, I asked myself, did they fit into the mainstream? Were they at ease with themselves? I began noticing new words, faces, symbols, names and associations more closely linked with my past, but with one qualifier: they were unique to America (Mohammad Ali, L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium, Persian carpets under colonial furniture, Yemeni farm workers in Central California, Andre Agassi, Senator James Abourezk, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ...).
I read about Howard Baskerville, a young Princeton graduate of 21 years age, who fate took to my hometown of Tabriz in 1909 to teach at the American-run missionary school around the time my Tabriz was a hotbed of constitutional revolutionary fervor then. The young American immediately committed himself to the cause of establishing "a government of the people, for the people." He organized a militia and began teaching the tactics used by George Washington's troops against the British. Baskerville was soon shot during a battle with loyalist troops. Thousands of armed militaimen and grieving women attended his funeral. Shops throughout town closed down on that day as Tabriz mourned the loss of a newfound compatriot. (In photos of revolutionary Tabriz of the time, the revolutionaries resemble armed men in the American West.) Baskerville's name entered the annals of legend. The anniversary of his death is still locally observed. He is seen in dreams accompanying the Shiites' Hidden Imam; the one who will return to establish justice. Lincoln and Jefferson are still my heroes, but now they share that title with some not-so-familiar Americans.
In 1990-91, between jobs, I tried jump starting the production of an introductory documentary film about the roots of Islam in America. The images of Iranian "students" storming the U.S. embassy in Iran had hardly been forgotten before the U.S.-Iraq conflict created a renewed set of myths and fallacies about people from Muslim countries.
The film was never made but some friends have suggested I turn the documentary proposal into this article. The documentary called "In Allah we Trust" was primarily intended to project Islam, or rather the Muslim, religious or not, in more palpable human terms, rather than as a raving lunatic bent on burning other nations' flags and effigies of foreign heads of state. The film was not going to necessarily be about Iranians but parts of its stories could provide a road map for how Iranian Americans will eventually evolve as a group. [It should be noted, however, that Muslim immigrants from other countries have come primarily from lower and uneducated classes, people seeking economic opportunities and preoccupied with sust non, composed of people also seeking better lives, but at the same time fleeing circumstances inhospitable for political and social reasons. Relative overall economic comfort can direct the evolution of an Iranian-American identity towards a path different from the ones the film would have portrayed.]
The American experience provides people with renewed opportunities for remaking or reformulating even grand world religions. Reform Judaism to which most American Jews adhere is a strictly American phenomenon such that its following in other countries is statistically insignificant. Another example is many American Catholics' resistance to Vatican orders regarding abortion and homosexuality. Iranian Shiism could spin itself into an Americanized version over time as well.
"In Allah We Trust" would have been about the origins of Islam in America, humanizing a story filled with otherwise dehumanized images. It was to focus on the history of Muslim immigrants mostly from Arab lands, Africa and Europe, as well as on surviving communities. An overview of African American conversion would have also been placed in historical perspective. The film would profile Islamic colonies and communities, surviving immigrants, their descendants, their relics and artifacts, all against the backdrop of America's ethnic, economic, political and physical landscape. Footage from ancestral lands, showing original customs, was to supplement analysis of the effects of assimilation on surviving Muslim-American practices.
Muslims will comprise this country's second largest major religious constituency by early next century (exceeding 6 million by the year 2000). In addition to Muslim immigrants continually arriving from around the globe, large numbers of African-Americans are rediscovering and adopting the religion of many of their forebears. Muslim African slaves preceded all other Muslim immigrants by two centuries. Some even spoke and wrote Arabic.
Migration of Arab Muslims to the United States dates back to the 1870's when groups left their homelands for the New World. Encouraged by tales of good fortune recounted by returning Christians, they set out for the dream of prosperity in a land little known.
There are many intriguing stories about Muslims in America. The following are glimpses of a journey into an American past seldom examined. They are a sampling of people and places associated with Islam.
Ramadan on the Prairie
In 1929 Muslim farmers built one of America's first mosques in Ross, North Dakota. The homesteader Hassen Juma had settled his free 160 acres in 1899. By 1902, twenty families had followed his path from Birey, Syria. The U.S. objected to their naturalization until 1909 when it withdrew the ban and the Syrians began claiming citizenship. Many fought and died in the two world wars. A descendant of one of the community's founders bulldozed the farmhouse-mosque in 1978. The cemetery on its grounds remains, however, entered through a gate arched by a crescent and star. Buried there are community elders including veterans of America's foreign wars.
Scant mention is made of this group in literature pertaining to North Dakota and Islam in America. What exists is superficial yet colorful. An example appears in a 1950 guide compiled by workers of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the state of North Dakota titled "North Dakota - A Guide to the Northern Prairie State." In describing Ross's points of attraction, the guide adds the following description of the Syrians:
[...Many Old Country foods are still used; one Syrian dish especially well- liked consists of durum wheat boiled, sun-dried, ground, and screened, and stewed with meats and vegetables or sweet oils. The dried grain is ground in a large horse-powered machine resembling a coffee mill.
In 1929 this colony built a basement mosque, and each Friday a member of the congregation conducts services. Each person carefully washes his hands and feet before entering the temple; the sexes are segregated during prayer. During Ramadana, the people fast for 30 days, taking food only after dark; the month ends with a feast. The wedding ceremony of the group is unusual, for the bride is not present. Before the wedding she selects two witnesses to act in her behalf, who state the amount of money to be exchanged between the bridegroom and her parents--the bridegroom gives the parents this amount and they return the same amount to him. During the wedding ceremony the bride retires to another room; the father places his hand in that of the bridegroom, a large kerchief is placed over the clasped hands, and a member of the congregation reads the service. It is a custom of these people to shake hands at any chance meeting, no matter how recently they have met.]
The prairie backdrop, the legacy of homestead pioneerism and its association with the American ethos, and the picture of "rugged individualists" roughing the harsh winters of North Dakota and fighting in foreign wars are quintessentially American images. In this case they are of Muslim Arabs adhering to remnant tenets of a religion practiced by no neighbors. This is a truly unique patch of America's ethnic makeup.
Surrounded by Christians, mostly from Scandinavia, the Syrians maintained their religion for decades. Of those who did not move away, most have now converted to Christianity. But Syrian food, prepared through original processes, finds its way onto dinner tables to this day and Muslim rituals and phrases remain in their vocabulary. The key to Islamic dilution in North Dakota was intermarriage and isolation.
There are instances of other small Muslim communities that assimilated without abandoning Islam. The following are examples:
-- In 1915, Albanian Muslims in Biddeford, Maine established the first effective mosque in North America. Most were bachelors working at the still-operating Peppermell Mills. A common meeting place was a red brick coffeehouse on Main Street (still standing today) where they used a back room for meetings and religious gatherings. Muslim Albanian families still reside in Biddeford and nearby Saco.
-- The Polish Muslims of Brooklyn came in the 1900s and still congregate in a mosque built in 1928. They are Asian Tatars whose nomadic ancestors helped Vitautas, grand duke of Lithuania, in his victory against the Teutonic Order in 1410. They settled in Lithuania and Poland with the status of nobility, and while remaining Muslim, adopted the local languages. They were nearly annihilated during World War II. Islam remains the strong basis for their ethnic identity. The feast of Kurban Bairam and Ramadan are strictly observed. They also have youth and women's organizations. Some maintain the Polish cuisine and language, but most prefer to associate with other Muslims, especially the closely related Kazan and Crimean Tatars.
-- There is a mosque established by Yugoslavians in Chicago in 1955. These Muslims also arrived in the 1900s and have evolved into an organized ethnic group with several institutions, including the Bosnian-American Cultural Association. The Poles and Bosnians are other examples of immigrant Muslim groups who kept in touch with the greater Muslim communities outside their own and thus achieved successful Islamic posterity.
-- In 1925 a Muslim group in Michigan City, Indiana purchased land designated as their cemetery. In the thirties, these Muslims added a Mosque/Community Center including a room for the instruction of Arabic. The building is still in use. Cedar Rapids, Iowa is the site of another of America's first mosques, built in 1934. It is also home to the Muslim National Cemetery. The early Muslim community of Cedar Rapids was predominantly Lebanese. Today, there remain practicing Muslims in Cedar Rapids. In Cedar Rapids and Michigan City Islam was kept alive by keeping in contact with larger Muslim communities in Detroit, Chicago, and Toledo.
Mohameds in Mississippi
Downtown Belzoni, Mississippi (population 3,000) is hardly the place one might expect to find H. Mohamed's General Merchandise, Mohamed ment Store. Moreover, it lies in a district unlikely to be represented in the Mississippi State Legislature by an Ollie Mohamed.
"Ethel Wright was just a young girl of 16 when she took on a summer job at Mr. Slatter's bakery in Shaw, Mississippi" writes Joseph Schechla in "Taking Root, Bearing Fruit (Volume II)" [This story is paraphrased from this book.]. "Mr. Slatter had instructed Ethel that the six specially-baked loaves prepared daily were for the Jewish families in town. Together with these was one loaf for another man, who Mr. Slatter explained is not Jewish, but he takes from the same bread. This man's name was Mohamed. Hassen Mohamed came in every day around lunch time to pick up his bread, and Ethel couldn't help noticing that this man had the most beautiful brown eyes...The year was 1923...But one day Hassen picked out some cookies to eat while he waited for his order. Ethel had already caught Hassen's eye, and he kept her in sight as he ate his cookies and waited. Finally Ethel found the nerve to speak. 'It seems you sure do like those cookies,' she remarked. Hassen replied, 'It's you I like. And you're going to be my wife.'" The story is told by Ethel Wright Mohamed who was married to Hassen for 42 years before he died in 1965.
Hassen Mohamed departed his native Lebanese Shiite village of Sir'een in 1911 for a temporary journey to America to earn more money. He settled in Mississippi as a peddler and eventually grew into a successful salesman and businessman. He is said to have "often extended credit to customers in need, and would never demand payment from a widow." Hassen and Ethel Mohamed moved to the Mississippi Delta town of Belzoni. Of the eight Mohamed children (including State Senator Ollie Mohamed), only one no longer lives in the area.
Hassen was preceded by another cousin already in the Delta and joined by two others who followed. The four cousins maintained their Islamic beliefs throughout. A deep appreciation for the values and heritage of Islam remain with the Mohamed today, family gatherings are highlighted by group dabkeh.
Since Hassen's death, Ethel Mohamed has become one of the Mississippi Delta's most renowned artists. Her embroideries include a depiction for the Smithsonian's annual American Folklife Festival. Her stitching was portrayed on the event's official poster in 1976. Her art has been exhibited by the Institute on four occasions. Included in her productions are a series on Hassen's life; his immigration; business; and children. She has also embroidered into image Hassen's tales from "A Thousand and One Nights," of Salahuddin and the Crusades.
The Lost-Found Nation of Islam
in the Wilderness of North America
There were reports in America dating back to 1717 of "Arabic-speaking slaves who ate no pork and believed in Allah and Muhammad" (quoted from "A Century of Islam in America" by Professor Yvonne Haddad). One such famous Muslim slaves was Prince Abdul Rahahman, a soldier in Africa and a slave manager in Mississippi, who worked his way out of slavery, earned enough to free his family and returned to Africa promising to preach the Christian faith. But he is said to have immediately reverted to Islam upon landing on African soil. He left behind several transcripts written in Arabic and English.
The most intriguing of the slave-written Arabic transcripts, mostly collected in the Georgia State Library, is a fourteen page risala, a collection of excerpts from a West African legal text of the Malekite school. The author, Bilali, slave of Georgia master Thomas Spalding, fathered nineteen children with Muslim names. His contributions to the efforts in the war of 1812 and the hurricane of 1824 made him a legend. He is the real character behind Joel Chandler Harris's children's stories depicting an African named variously as Bilali, Bu Allah, Ben Ali, or Belali Mohamet. Bilali's descendents still live on and around Sapelo Island, Georgia, where he made his home. As recently as the later 1930s, they recounted his name, ways, and tale. He was buried with his Qur'an and prayer rug.
African-American reversion to semblances of Islam, and thereafter normative Islam, began with Noble Drew Ali of North Carolina, born Timothy Drew in 1886. Noble Drew Ali saw in "Islam" a means of uniting Americans from Africa (a group he classified as Asiatics or Moorish). Founding the Moorish American Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey in 1913, he proclaimed Asiatics "people of Islam" and European whites "people of Christianity." Noble Drew Ali's Islam was effectively a combination of several eastern philosophies and religions, Christianity, anti-white racism, and metaphysics, all compiled in "The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America. " Moorish- Americanism was less a religion and more an outlet for the assertion of African-American pride and a means of uniting the oppressed. The movement spread to several northern cities and still exists in modified format.
African-American Muslim movements of lesser popularity ensued. Beginning in the 1920s, Ahmaddiyya missionaries from India preached a mixed bag of "scientific and rational precepts" (including Islamic tenets). A little-known organization called The Islamic Mission of America, Inc., started by Shaikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal in Brooklyn, New York in the 1920s, spread the message of Islam to African-Americans throughout New York City. Shaikh Faisal died in 1980.
The awakening of Malcolm X as a "mainstream Muslim," his pilgrimage to Mecca, and the mark he left on the black man's struggle for civil rights make him the single most significant figure in the history of African-American conversion (or in many cases reversion) to mainstream Islam. However, the story of African-American Islamicization does not begin with Malcolm X.
The evolution of African-American Islam in the twentieth century finds its origins among the ware of a Turkish or Persian silk peddler on the streets of Detroit in 1929 where he founded "The Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America." W.D. Fard was his name and in 1931 he revealed himself to one Elijah Poole from Georgia as the "greatest and mightiest God who appeared on the earth." So writes Malcolm X in his autobiography while paraphrasing the teachings of the man who became Elijah Muhammad and labeled by Fard "Messenger of Allah."
[Some accounts of Fard's origins identify him as half-Syrian, half-Jamaican, some say he was half-Persian, half-Turkish, and the FBI says he was half- Polynesian, half-Scottish. W.D. Fard's ideological motives remain a mystery. Who he was, where he really came from, and why he launched his movement also remain mysteries. On the pulpit he claimed half-European, half-Meccan genealogy. Was he admitting then, to being a cross-breed of good and bad, black and white? Might he have been connected with white segregationists? What remains of his belongings, with family or the Nation of Islam, may provide the key to unlocking the conundrum that is Wali, Wallace, or W.D. Fard; whichever was his real name. He also went by the name W.F. Muhammad.]
Elijah Muhammad built a following of hundreds of thousands of blacks claiming theirs the good race originated from Mecca and whites the product of a mad scientist named Yacub's genetic creation of Satan. After suspension from the Nation, Malcolm X would complete his hajj to Mecca and find an international Islamic community blind to racial and national distinction. Nobody had heard of Yacub nor the other precepts preached by Elijah. There, Malcolm X would confront fellow Muslims and blame them for not having ventured to America to spread the true message of Allah. Their complacency, he believed, was the root of what had become to him, by that point, the embarrassment of a marginally Islamic, racist movement back home; one he had helped propel into the limelight.
With the 1975 death of Elijah Muhammad, the group's mantle was passed on to his son Wallace (Warith) Deen Muhammad. Versed in Arabic and the Qur'an, W.D. Muhammad was more aware of the normative beliefs associated with Islam and by 1985, having renounced the claims of his father, his organization was fully absor into the mainstream Muslim movement. The original Nation's following did not die with that act however. Today, Elijah Muhammad's teachings are professed by the likes of the highly controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan. The transformation of the Muhammad family, however, is symbolic of the evolution of the majority of America's black Muslims.
[One of Elijah's sons, Professor Akbar Muhammad, is currently writing the biography of the first prominent Anglo-American convert to Islam, Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb. Webb was previously a journalist and U.S. diplomat to the Philippines. He represented the Muslim world at Chicago's World Columbian Exposition in 1893. At that fair's Conference on World Religions, a watershed event in U.S. intellectual history, he addressed an audience of the curious which included Mark Twain.]
There have also been other less known African-American Muslim movements. These groups' name include the Hanafi group, the Daral Islamic Movement, the Islamic Mission in North America, the Islamic Brotherhood Inc., the Islamic Party of North America, and the Ansaru Allah .
Toledo and Detroit
The largest and perhaps oldest of America's Muslim colonies were established in Detroit and Toledo. Various mosques, cemeteries and institutions survive the decades of assimilation since early arrivals established their communities before and around the turn of the century. The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, located in the farmland wheat fields surrounding the city, is today one of the largest mosques in the United States. It also houses one of the largest congregations.
The two cities' Muslims have evolved differently, however. Elkholy, in his 1966 study "Arab Muslims in the United States," provides detail into the contrasts between the Detroit and Toledo enclaves:
[...The different occupational patterns of Toledo and Detroit Muslims were found to be related to the difference in the two communities' assimilation. The members, who have become exposed to the American culture in their business and residence, are more assimilated into their new culture than the Detroit members. Working almost solely in the auto factories of Detroit, these Muslims live in a ghetto-like community in Dearborn...
The moderate attitudes of the Toledo first-generation immigrants, ... have helped bridge the gap between generations, and the community as a whole, through active social participation by the American-born generation, has gained a high degree of assimilation.]
In Detroit, in the 1970s, a group of Yemeni immigrants successfully sued for control of a Lebanese mosque built several decades before. At issue were violations of the mosque's bylaws concerning gambling, sex, and alcohol. Over the years, the mosque had hosted bingo games, singles nights, belly dancing sessions, and beer parties.
Along with the various Muslim sects of Arab origin, Detroit houses the Albanian-American Muslim Center founded by Imam Vehbi Ismail in 1949. Other Albanian-American Muslims in Detroit are followers of the Sufi order of Baktashi originating from Turkey. Their mosque and religious leadership have survived decades of assimilation and absorption of congregants into the surrounding society. Baba Rexhep established the Baktashi tekke (monastery) in Detroit in 1954. The tekke has recreated in America the traditional Baktashi monastic life revolving around agrarian routines (raising poultry and growing vegetables).
The Alawis of Newcastle, Pennsylvania
Like the Druze of Lebanon, the Alawis of Syria also follow a secretive Islamic-based religion. Generally thought to practice an eclectic blend of Shiite Islam and Christianity, the Alawis do not discuss their convictions with non-believers. They have come into power and prominence only in the last few decades due to their high concentration in the Syrian military and that institution's dominion over the country's political apparatuses on is clustered in the Latakia region of Syria and accounts for no more than a quarter of Syria's total population.
Syrian Alawis accompanied the Sunni and Christian arrivals to New Castle, Pennsylvania after the turn of the century. During the 30's, the Syrian community began forming its religious and social institutions. Included in these start-ups was the El-Fetyeh Aliween, the Alawi Youth. This group is still alive and functioning. In fact, the Syrians of New Castle are known for asserting ethnic pride. Theirs is an interesting case study in assimilation without complete abandonment of Old Country religions and values. Having cast aside sectarian differences, the Arabs of New Castle have succeeded in securing a proclamation of an annual Arab-American Day in Lawrence County. Arab-American day is celebrated at a picnic attended by representatives of all Lawrence County's ethnic groups, civic leaders, and prominent business figures. Classic food is served and Arabic dances are performed. Group elders tell many tales of racial discrimination in the pre-war days' hiring practices of local tin mills and factories. It is said the Arabs, Italians and Southern Europeans were singled out as "hunkies," a derogatory term usually reserved for Eastern Europeans. Valley View Cemetery provides eternal rest to many of the Alawi community's deceased.
In Allah We Trus" would have once again explored the American immigrant's inner pull between assimilation and ancestral heritage. In this case, it would portray the perspectives of several diverse Muslim groups. Their processes of assimilation are complicated by the current station of world politics and the negative images projected of their coreligionists in the Middle East. Some American Muslims have almost completely abandoned old country ways, some have accommodated varying combinations of ethnic and religious traditions mixed with newly adopted ones, and others have withdrawn into relatively unassimilated isolation. Given the increasing number of Muslim-Americans, "In Allah We Trust" was to highlight their place and history in this country's multicultural mosaic.
Few Americans recognize Islam's universality, stretching from the Philippines to Brazil, with over a billion adherents. Misunderstandings in the general U.S. population about Islam and "Arabs" per se, result from distorted media- generated images of Middle Easterners as terrorists and zealots. The American Muslim community finds itself frustrated and isolated, sensing a general public perception of Muslims as a "freak element" of society. Many American Muslims have come to regard themselves as outsiders in their recently adopted country.
Many non-Muslims from the Middle East (i.e., Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian Christians, Assyrians, Armenians, Egyptian Copts, etc.) also suffer from the stigmas attributed to their Muslim counterparts. Therefore, the history of Islam's American roots is as much a story about Arab (or Middle Eastern) migration altogether. The destiny of all Middle Eastern immigrants appears interlocked with that of Muslim Americans.
Maturation of American Muslims as fully participating citizens of the United States will require a greater self-awareness and definition of the Muslim individual's place in Western society. Most difficult is the practice of Islam where Fridays are a part of the work-week and fasting in Ramadan poses too many job-related complications. [The practice of Islamic ritual may find resurrection in the advancement of an unlikely ally; Western society's demand for more leisure time. The adoption of a three-day weekend freeing Friday (the Muslim Sabbath) as a holiday would ease considerably the difficulties of practicing Islam.]
A new, more constructive perspective may shed positive light upon the
Muslim American experience adding history, color and intrigue (based on
civilization, practices, concerns and values) to an otherwise divisive
image. This was the purpose of "In Allah we Trust."