A History of Islam in America?

This piece originally appeared in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50:2 (June, 2011), pp. 427-428.

What do qualitative research, legal testimony, and sunlight shot through stained glass have in common? All of these benefit from, even demand, insider perspectives. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri is an American Muslim, a two-time Harvard graduate, and a Reed College Professor of Religion and Humanities supplying a historian’s insider account of Muslim and non-Muslim interaction in A History of Islam in America. Here he provides a macrocosmic complement to his microcosmic Competing Visions of Islam in the United States: A Study of Los Angeles (1997).

GhaneaBassiri offers A History of Islam in America as a relational-oriented history of Muslim and non-Muslim American “encounters and exchanges” (p. 8). His 10 chapters including an introduction and epilogue are primarily chronological with 20 pictures or other illustrations, plus 43 pages of bibliography.

GhaneaBassiri criticizes the “binary opposition” of “Islam and the West” (pp. 4–5) as needlessly dichotomous by setting a religion over against a loosely defined geopolitical construct. Instead of seeing Americans and Muslims as opposing Montagues and Capulets, GhaneaBassiri sees a dance with periods and points of contact, separation, and synergy where participant identities intertwine and at other times are inadvertently, purposefully, or artificially forced apart.

The first chapters survey Muslim presence from the beginning of the American colonial period through the Civil War. GhaneaBassiri differs in his emphasis with Baylor University historian Thomas S. Kidd in American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (2009) and others by focusing on “living Muslims,” rather than “literary and political images of Islam” (p. 13). GhaneaBassiri’s examples include multiracial or “liminal” communities embodying varying degrees of syncretism between Islam and Christianity, as well as Muslim slaves from North and West Africa.

Some of these African Muslims both slave and free ostensibly converted to Christianity. Others held Muslim identities quietly or nominally. Still others presented themselves candidly as Muslims, trying to dissociate from Christian African Americans and “negroid stereotypes.” One freed African slave, Abdul Rahman, garnered the attention of President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay, and may have pragmatically converted to Christianity to orchestrate his travel, political activism, and return to Africa. Yet Rahman exemplifies the black Muslim dissociative trend by claiming, “not a drop of negro blood runs in . . . [my] veins” (p. 22). Beyond the Civil War and into the 20th century, Muslim African Americans often presented themselves as Turks, Arabs, or “Moors,” and were sometimes perceived as such by European Americans describing them as “semi-civilized” compared to (other) African or Christian blacks.

GhaneaBassiri paints the post-Civil War era as facilitating shifts in American Muslim ethnic and national origins, with 60,000 immigrating to the United States from Anatolia, the Levant, Eastern Europe, and South Asia in 1900–1920 to seek employment and support their families back home; as well as to flee oppression, war, and political persecution. As with non-Muslim immigrants, Muslims banded together in ethnic or national enclaves, living communally and frugally to maximize savings for their distant families. GhaneaBassiri graphs statistics for thousands of these immigrants who regularly repatriated after World War I. Esoteric Sufism, sometimes explicitly extricated from Islam and incorporating Indian mysticism and “Theosophy,” also gained traction following the CivilWar through musical-gurus like Inayat Khan and the Royal Musicians of Hindustan. The predominantly Protestant inaugural “Parliament of World Religions” in Chicago (1893) additionally afforded a forum for Muslims like the rare white American convert Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb to contend for Islam as a truly universal, uniquely true, and superiorly progressive religion above and beyond all others.

GhaneaBassiri reports that this idealizing of Islam continued into the 20th century with indigenous Black Muslim nationalist movements: the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, in spite of their frustration with non-American Muslims treating them as subservient, and Louis Farrakhan later complaining, “I see racism in the Muslim world, clean it up!” (p. 290). In contrast, Arab, Eastern European, and other light-skinned Muslim and Hindu immigrants sought with limited success to legally and socially identify as racially dominant “whites.” For them, Islam was subsidiary to skin color or nationality. At the same time, Masons and largely light-skinned Shriners appropriated Islamic symbols and rituals to augment an air of “Oriental” mystique for their fellowships and to cultivate exotic Eastern personas.

GhaneaBassiri’s insider perspective is palpable when he examines late 20th- and early 21st-century Muslim American activism. He asserts this activism indicates an increasing willingness by Muslim Americans to take part in the American political process by vigorously influencing and contributing to the vital functioning of American society. But he also challenges groups representing Muslims to better reflect American Muslims’ ideological and ethnic diversity. GhaneaBassiri sees Muslim advocacy organizations as excessively swayed by foreign interests privileging political Islamist voices and “Puritanical” readings of the Qur’an and Hadith. He cites funding sources, petrodollars, and founders or leaders affiliated with or shaped by Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at-i Islami as underwriting this disparity and potentially aggravating discrimination against Muslims and dissatisfactory relationships with the American government. I only have one minor quibble. GhaneaBassiri appears to vaguely reference partisan sources regarding discrimination. He ought to also (or instead) cite official or more quantifiable data, critiquing where applicable. That said, I believe GhaneaBassiri modestly pens not The History of Islam in America, but A History of Islam in America splendidly.

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4 thoughts on “A History of Islam in America?

  1. Glad you posted this review. I read the book a few months back and thought it was a very needed and useful book in the field. The first couple chapters offer a narrative of Islam in America that is under appreciated and needs to be included in more survey courses on religion in American history. Great review!

  2. Thanks, Michael. I especially appreciate this comment coming from you as a historian of American religion. Sincerely, Ben

  3. Ben,
    Could you pass along to me a few leads about the New Atheist movement? I was told you might be very helpful on this subject and know of the best places to start the research. I’m beginning a paper on the possible interaction of the New Atheism movement with Christian mission.
    Thank you,

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