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“Woven into the fabric of our country”? Islam in Early America

“Woven into the fabric of our country”? Islam in Early America March 3, 2015

President Obama created controversy in a recent speech when he asserted that “Islam has been woven into the fabric of our country since its founding.” He followed this statement with rather generic statements about Muslim immigrants coming to America and finding economic opportunity and freedom.

The point of the president’s comments is, of course, that millions of Muslims live and prosper in America, and that they, not ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or other jihadists, are representative Muslims. America, and the American government, welcomes these Muslims here as friends and fellow citizens. This, in my opinion, is correct, and is just the sort of thing that the president needs to emphasize over and over.

But what about the idea that Islam has been “woven into the fabric” of America since the founding? What role did Islam, and Muslims, play in colonial and Revolutionary America?

Part of the reason that the president gave few details about Islam and the founding era is that most of Islam’s role at that time was either in negative associations, or in real Muslim slaves. Neither gives much fodder, I’m afraid, for positive examples that the president might cite.

As I noted in a chapter on Islam which I contributed to Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall’s book Faith and the Founders of the American Republic,

There were actual Muslims living in America during the Founding period, but the vast majority of them were toiling as slaves in the South. Of course, Muslim traders and sailors also passed through American ports on occasion, but most American Muslims were Africans forcibly imported to work on American plantations. The exact number of Muslims, of course, is hard to discern, but historian Michael Gomez has estimated that perhaps 200,000 slaves came from African regions with significant Muslim influences. This does not mean that all of these were Muslims, but it does suggest that hundreds of thousands of slaves may have been at least marginally familiar with Muslim beliefs.

But the typical Muslim appearing in Anglo-American writing during the Revolutionary period was not an African slave; more likely he would have been a Barbary pirate or a Middle Eastern despot. A close look at the uses of Islam in the Founding period and early republic shows reveals a well-established political and literary tradition: citing the similarities between an opponent’s views and the “beliefs” of Islam as a means to discredit one’s adversaries. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Americans’ uses of Islam became increasingly secularized. Early in the century, Islam was typically used for religious purposes in religious debates, while later commentators often implemented knowledge of despotic Islamic states to support political points. Real fears of Islam as a religion continued, however, appearing in episodes such as the ratification debates of the late 1780s, when the lack of a religious test in the Constitution theoretically opened a door to the election of Muslims to American political offices. Although one should hesitate to describe early Americans as conversant with Islam, they certainly conversed about Islam regularly.

Thus, African slaves were the most likely people in early America to have a Muslim background, but they did not shape most European-Americans’ views of Islam. These came from popular writings such as stories of people suffering captivity at the hands of the Barbary pirates, and biographies of the Prophet Muhammad (English-language biographies or translations that typically presented him as the epitome of a religious impostor).

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is seen here (left) during Congressman Ellison’s Swearing In Ceremony with Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an (2007); Michaela McNichol, Library of Congress; Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most furious public debate about Islam came during the ratification process, when many critics of the no-test oath clause of the Constitution said that it opened the door for atheists, or even “Mahometans” to serve in public office. Defenders of the ban on religious tests for national public service (evangelical Baptists were among the strongest advocates of the ban) argued that the government should play no role in policing people’s religious beliefs, and that if it came to pass that the American people wanted to elect a Muslim, then the will of the people should prevail.

It took quite a long time, but of course the ban on a test oath did ultimately lead to the election of Congress’s first Muslim, Keith Ellison, in 2006. Ellison swore his oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an (translations of which were also widely available at the time of the nation’s founding). Internet rumors about President Obama’s faith notwithstanding, we have yet to have a Muslim serve as president.

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