A Muslim in a New York State of Mind—Part 3

Muslim History Detective’s log, 06/3/13

New York Times, December 11, 1893

At 11 A.M. on Sunday, December 10, 1893, the adhan (Muslim call to prayer), heard throughout the world wherever praying Muslims are found, could be heard three stories above New York City’s famed Union Square.

This was the same call, which, by the appointment of the Prophet Muhammad, had first been called and perfected in the seventh century by Bilal ibn Rabah, a Meccan ex-slave of Ethiopian origin. Bilal had become a close companion of the prophet and was among the first several people to embrace Islam as a faith.

In a New York Times article, headlined “New-York’s First Muezzin Call” and published December 11, 1893, the esteemed paper carefully documented the “melodious” call that sonorously floated out from the third-story window of the Union Square Bank building at 8 Union Square East.

This building faced Union Square where, among many other remarkable events, an estimated 200,000 people, or more, once rallied for the Union in 1861 just days after the start of the American Civil War.

It is also where Emma Goldman, the anarchist activist against poverty, injustice, and oppression, once told a crowd of 3000 unemployed, who had been affected by the economic depression known as the “Panic of 1893”:

Go into the streets where the rich dwell. Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.

And it is where, in the agonizing weeks immediately following September 11, 2001, people from all walks of life gathered to reflect, mourn, and pray for peace.

Appropriately then, it would be in such a place of historic precedence, with regard to collective action, that one of the earliest documented Islamic calls to congregational prayer in the history of the United States would take place.

John Lant, the muezzin (one who calls the adhan), who had leaned out the third-story window to give the call that Sunday in 1893, had been affiliated with the Islamic outreach programs of the nineteenth-century American statesman Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb. Webb, a New Yorker, remains one of the earliest documented converts to Islam in the nation’s history.

Of note, Webb was the main representative for Islam at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions (World’s Congress of Religions) hosted in Chicago. There, this former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines gave two lectures, one titled “The Spirit of Islam” and the other titled “The Influence of Islam on Social Conditions.” Today, the 1893 Parliament is “recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide.”

In his lecture on social conditions, Webb declared the following thoughts on religious prejudice that still ring true:

It is unfortunate, perhaps, that among the masses of believers religious prejudice is so strong as to prevent the exercise of a calm and just discrimination in the examination of an opposing creed … It would be neither just nor truthful to assert that every man who lives in an American city, town or village, is a Christian and represents in his acts and words the natural effects of Christian teachings. Nor is it fair to judge the Islamic system in a similar manner … If one or a dozen [people who call themselves Muslim but who are not truly knowledgeable about Islam] should commit an act of brutal intolerance or fanaticism, would it be just to say that it was due to the meritable tendencies of their religion?

In order to maximize attendance, the Parliament ran somewhat parallel to the Chicago World’s Fair (World’s Columbian Exposition). Interestingly, some of the Muslims passing through New York City from the Fair, and possibly the Parliament too, were also present at the religious services held at the Union Square Bank building on December 10th.

After the congregation prayed that day, the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Study of Islam ensued. Fittingly, the meeting closed with a discussion on “Islam in America.”

Today, some non-Muslim Americans view hearing the adhan in public as an encroachment on American culture, even though Islam and Muslims have been a part of the American cultural, religious and historical fabric since the before the birth of our republic.

For an example of anti-adhan sentiment, one need only look to the 2004 controversy involving a Hamtramck, Michigan, mosque’s request to broadcast the adhan over speakers in their once majority Polish and Roman Catholic city. This request set off a national debate, became international news and even ignited protests from, among many others, the National Alliance, a white nationalist and white separatist organization.

In the end, the mosque was allowed to broadcast the adhan daily after an unanimous vote from the City Council and a majority vote from residents on an amendment to Hamtramck’s noise ordinance.

The amendment made permissible “‘call to prayer,’ ‘church bells’ and other reasonable means of announcing religious meetings to be amplified between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. for a duration not to exceed 5 minutes.”

Many Americans would be surprised to know that 111 years earlier, a Muslim call to prayer in the heart of New York City’s Union Square did not seem to cause any controversy at all.

In fact, the author of the 1893 New York Times article appeared surprised that, “cosmopolitan as the city is, the melodious call of the Muezzin” had only just happened “for the first time in New-York’s history.”

***

Today’s post, adapted from an article I wrote in 2007, marks the final segment in my “A Muslim in a New York State of Mind” trilogy.  As discussed in Part I and Part II, the vision behind writing this trilogy came from my reflections on how, as a Muslim History Detective, I feel like a kid in a candy store whenever I am in New York because of centuries of amazing connections to the history of Islam and Muslims in America that can be found in this luminous city—wherever I turn.


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