Islam in Early America

Alexander Russell Webb(Left) and Omar ibn Said(right)
Alexander Russell Webb(Left) and Omar ibn Said(right)

Islam in America has a long and  rich tradition that spans over three hundred and fifty years.  Islam was a huge factor in foreign policy under Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson and Adams both had to deal with Muslim pirates off the Barbary Coast and try to come to a conclusion of the role Islam had on the situation. Not only was Islam a factor in foreign policy but; also Islam was a force domestically. Muslim slaves such as Omar ibn Said and Ibrahim Souri were local celebrities due to their Islamic knowledge while.  Muhammad Russell Webb is regarded as the first White American Muslim convert and was a very outspoken figure of Islamic theology. Islam as a personal religion and a foreign policy factor is nothing new for Americans.


Thomas Jefferson purchased a copy of “The Alcoran of Mohammed” by George Sale in 1765. Although this edition of The Qur’an had many translation mistakes such as literally being translated to “The The Recitation of Muhammad” this is the translation that Jefferson would use to inform himself on Islam.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on different occasions met with the Tripoli Ambassador, Abd Al- Rahman in 1786 over the piracy issue of the coast of the Barbary states. Focusing on the fact that Jefferson purchased his Qur’an twenty one years before his meeting with Al-Raham, Jefferson had time to write and produce ideas about Islam. Interestingly, Jefferson would place his initials by verses in the Qur’an dealing with warfare and fighting armed “jihad.”

The issue of piracy of the coast of the Barbary states was an early foreign policy concern for the early United States government.  Seemingly, America had the option to pay tribute to the pirates or take military action. While, Jefferson wanted to take military action, Adams wanted to pursue paying tribute.  Not only was there economic issues with the Barbary Coast pirates but, also a more pressing concern regarding the Americans that were on these vessels.

The Americans that were taken captive by the pirates were indeed slaves by the American definition of slavery, but not as much as the Islamic definition of slavery. The captives of Barbary pirates had a glimmer of hope of being released through payment or conversion to Islam. Although, Jefferson and Adams saw this as a form of slavery it is very different from the form practiced in America during the same time period.

The evils of American slavery were brought to Jefferson’s attention by those close to him including his daughter, Martha, who wrote to her father while traveling the south of France.  Martha Jefferson went on to explain how she wishes nothing more than to see “the negro” free and how Americans treated “fellow creatures” with such cruelty. Jefferson was not entirely ignorant about Islam or the anti-slavery position, but it seems he simply ignored facts that undermined his interests.

John Adams was a staunch abolitionist who went to the extent to only hire white people as house servants. His views on why Africans were enslaved were expressed in a letter to Marquis de Lafayette. Adams explained to Lafayette that Africans  that are enslaved are simply war captives in civil wars and the “foundation of the misfortune of The Negro.” Although, Adams believes slavery is an abomination, at the same time blames Africans for being enslaved.

Adams and Jefferson would fail to make a peace treaty with the ambassador from Tripoli but, one would eventually be signed in 1797, under Adam’s presidency.  Article 11 of the treaty says that America was not a founded as a Christian nation. Not only not a  Christian nation  but, not at odds with Muslim nations or Islam. It is noteworthy that Article 11 deals with America and Islam, not America and Tripoli.

While Jefferson and Adams were dealing with Barbary piracy and interacting with Muslim ambassadors; there were Muslims living in America as slaves. One of these slaves was sold to the British and brought to Mississippi in 1788 by the name of Ibrahim Souri. Souri received a traditional Muslim education in his home city of Timbuktu. Not only was he educated in Islamic jurisprudence, but also spoke three languages.

Souri managed the plantation for his master for thirteen years, and even married a Christian woman. By chance Souri would met Dr. Cox, a White traveller his father had found wandering Timbuktu, in the 1780s. Dr. Cox would try to buy the freedom of Souri and his family, but would fail.The campaign to free Souri made him a local celebrity.  Souri would be interviewed in the local Mississippi newspaper in the 1820’s and even quoted a verse from The Qur’an for his interview .

This interview found it’s way to the United States department and eventually into the hands of Sultan Abd Al-Rahman II of Morocco. Rahman II offered to pay for the freedom of Rahman and seemingly this was a softening of relations between America and the Barbary State of Morocco. Although, Rahman II payed for the freedom of Souri, he was not allowed to remain free by terms of his freedom contract. His only option was to take the offer presented to him by the American Colonization Society and have a free ticket to Liberia in return of spreading the Gospels and promote American Trade. A rather unethical deal to present to Souri, but one that he accepted. Souri and his wife on their journey to Liberia would tour the Northeast of America. When asked to prove his Arabic literacy would write the Christian “Lord’s Prayer” in Arabic. Souri was actually writing the opening verse of The Qur’an Al-Fatiha and presenting as a Christian prayer. Upon seeing the shores of Libera, Rahman publically began his Islamic prayers.

Omar ibn Said is another West African Muslim who found himself caught in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Said was born in 1770 and a  native of the Futo Turo region between the Senegal and Gambia rivers. Like Ibrahim Souri, Said was a Muslim scholar. Said was enslaved in Charleston, South Carolina and managed to escape to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Said, was captured in Fayetteville and jailed where he wrote Arabic script on the jailhouse walls. Omar would be purchased by General James Owen of Bladen County, only to be transferred to the estate of his brother Governor John Owen.

Said, openly admitted to converting to Christianity, and was even gifted an Arabic Bible by Francis Scott Key in 1822. Also to note Key was a member of the American Colonization Society, the same group that paid for Ibrahimia Rahman’s return to  Africa. Said was also baptized into the Presbyterian Church ten years before he would write his biography. Although, Said claims to have converted to Christianity, many scholars who have reviewed his work question the sincerity of his conversion because of his autobiography.

By examining Said’s autobiography, which is written in Arabic, many clues suggest that he still clung on to Islam. Also through his writings, Said reveals how he, a Muslim slave views Christians. Omar begins his autobiography by writing, from memory, The Sovereign, or as Said worte Surah Mulk. It is interesting that Said chose The Sovereign as his opening for his biography and not a Bible verse. What makes The Sovereign significant is also it’s message. The second verse says “He who created life and death to test you as to which is best in deeds, And He is the Exalted in might and most Forgiving”.

The chapter goes on to describe punishment from those who disbelieve and the reward for those who do believe. What is interesting is who Omar labels an unbeliever or kuffar. Omar’s first owner, Johnson is labeled an unbeliever and someone “who did not fear Allah at all”. Omar describes Johnson as a weak and evil man who would force him to do hard label work. Said then describes his two masters, The Owens, as Christians, or Nasrani in Arabic. Omar uses the word “unbeliever” not to describe someones religious affiliation, but their behavior and actions.

Said describes The Owens as good people who feed him what they themselves eat. He even gives The Owens a Qur’anic like introduction by saying, “O people of North Carolina, O, people of South Carolina, O, people of America, all of you: are there among you men as good and John and Jim Owen?”Said labels the children of The Owens as a good generation. Ten years after Said’s conversation he is still using Islamic phrases such as “O, people”.

Omar ibn Said and Ibrahim Souri  are individual examples of Muslims in slavery, but there were also communal Islamic practice in America during slavery as well. 15-20 percent of the Africans captured in the Transatlantic Slave Trade were Muslims. This percentage of people found themselves scattered in different areas including the Sea Island of the coast of Georgia. This island was worked by a mixture of Muslim and non-Muslim slaves and was too hot for the White slave owners to live year round. The Muslims were free to practice aspects of Islam including, sadaqa, or optional charity. The Muslims would give rice cakes to those who did not have enough food. On Fridays,  the Muslim congregational day, the rice cake output doubled. Muslim slaves still found a way to give charity and practice their faith. The isolation of The Sea Islands helped preserve this Islamic tradition within America.

Slavery in Christian America was vastly different to that practiced by Muslim Arabs during the time this time. Slavery in America was based on race not religion which is the opposite in Islamic theology. Islam captives and slavery into two different categories theologically. The Americans captured by the Muslim pirates could be ransomed and some even held jobs such as James Cathcart. Cathcart would rise from being a captive to a clerk for a Muslim official. Cathcart even negotiated his release and returned to America in a ship, that he purchased. As with slavery in  America, Blacks were not only enslaved but property.

The turn of the century brought a change in American Islam. By 1893 a European American would openly embrace Islam and spread its message through the country. Alexander Russell Webb is widely known as the first European American convert to Islam. Webb was not only a convert, but he also toured the States and preached the message of Islam. Webb is also unique, in the fact, his writings explain his relationship to Christianity, Islam and America.

The relationship between Muslims and Christians, especially Christian theology in America in the late 19th century was taboo as Webb explains in his writings. Webb writes that the story of the Immaculate Conception failed to arouse emotions in him because he doubted the truth of the dogma.  Webb makes it a point to tell his reader that his conversion to Islam was not impulsive, but one of unprejudiced study and honesty.

According to Webb, The Bible was an abused book that Christians look for logic in.  Webb, a native of Hudson, Missouri, was no stranger to The Bible or Christian theology. Hudson was home to Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists. According to Webb the only way to get a true understand of religion is to study religions and to question one’s beliefs. And this is exactly what Webb did when he was named American consul to the Philippines. While in the Philippines, Webb encountered a Muslim merchant from Bombay, who began to teach him Islamic theology. Webb’s international popularity also began to grow because the letters he wrote to the merchant were being published in Indian newspapers.

Webb would take his new found fame and religion back to America and take his career to new plateau. Upon returning to America, Webb would publish a number of mission journals and even a monthly publication called The Moslem World. The New York Times would label Moslem World a publication that praises Islam and explains why Islam is preferable over Christianity.

Indeed, it was Webb’s knowledge of American culture and America’s version of Christianity that made him popular enough to be mentioned in the New York Times. Webb often drew parallels between Jesus and Muhammad, to appeal to his American audience. Webb drew on comparing that both Jesus and Muhammad were rejected by their communities and enraged the elite class of their time.  Also, he would rely on the comparison that both Jesus and Muhammad rejected the “worldly life” and lived a life of poverty and charity.

Islam is much a part of America as any other ideology or religion. Enslaved Muslims worked plantations while also sharing their story through autobiographies. Islam flourished independently for decades as African Americans looked to cling to their Islamic heritage. When Islam touched Christian Americans it did so by reaching the pages of The New York Times. Islam is looked upon as an Eastern Religion but, Islam is as American as baseball. It has morphed and fused itself with American life.






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