- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

Indiana University religious studies professor Edward Curtis’ recent book, “Muslims in America,” is, according to his publisher, the first single-author history of American Muslims from Colonial times to the present.

There is not a whole lot of competition. I don’t know of any textbooks that mention how there were Islamic names like Hassan and Ali in documents from our Spanish colonial period (in the American Southwest) in the 1600s.

In 1730, roughly 280 years ago, the first identifiable Muslim arrived on the Eastern Seaboard.

He was Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. The hapless man was enslaved by Muslim slavers in present-day Senegal and put on a slave ship that landed in Annapolis. From there, the African was taken to a nearby tobacco farm. He became known as Job, and he could read and write Arabic and had memorized the Koran.

Somehow, he got a letter circulated asking for his release. It fell into the hands of James Oglethorpe, a member of the British Parliament who arranged to have Job freed and eventually returned to Africa.

Given that Islam had nearly 1,000 years to expand into West Africa before Protestant missionaries began arriving in the 19th century, it seems only logical that many of the slaves captured and sent across the Atlantic were Muslim. I called Mr. Curtis in Jordan, where he’s doing research on a Fulbright scholarship, to ask why so little has been said in our history books about Muslims in America.

“There’s a lot of street knowledge that Islam is part of the black American past,” he said, “but there is little sense of America’s Muslim past among the general populace. There’s a sense today one can’t be Muslim and American.

“But Thomas Jefferson was quite a scholar of Islam. He had his own Koran. The Founding Fathers saw Islam as a rational religion in contrast to Roman Catholic popery.”

Mr. Curtis chronicles the stories of several Muslim slaves who, although in America against their will, made the best of their situation and either became overseers of other slaves or joined anti-slavery movements.

After the Civil War, Muslims — mostly from Syria and Lebanon — began to trickle in. There were only a few white converts, the first being Alexander Webb, the U.S. consul to the Philippines, who accepted Islam in the late 1870s.

Islam’s most famous American convert, Malcolm X, didn’t discover the faith until the 1940s, while in prison. In 1952, the year he was released, there already were 20 mosques in North America, thanks to some savvy proselytizing among blacks.

Mr. Curtis says that started in the 1920s, when American Muslims achieved enough mass to constitute a religious denomination. In 1920 itself, Indian missionary Mufti Muhammad Sadiq immigrated here to convert people to the Ahmadiyya movement in Islam.

Although most Muslims view the Admadi Muslims as heretics because they believe their founder, Ghulam Ahmad — not Muhammad — was the final prophet for Islam, Mr. Sadiq’s efforts made up the first successful Muslim missionary movement in the West.

“I honestly believe part of the tensions between Muslims outside of the United States and inside the United States is due to ignorance,” Mr. Curtis says. “My hope is that by conjuring up our American ancestors, we will think of ourselves in the present differently.”

Julia Duin can be reached at [email protected]

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