Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,June 1999, pages 105-109

Muslim-American Activism

Muslims in America: Seven Centuries of History

An exhibit created by Amir Muhammad, an internationally published poet and author of Muslims in America: Seven Centuries of History, was displayed in Washington, DC’s Martin Luther King Library from March 15 to April 26. The exhibit resulted from the creation, in 1996, by Mr. Muhammad and his wife, Habeeba, of an organization called Collections and Stories of American Muslims (CSAM) with the purpose of educating the general public about the Muslim presence, culture and history in America.

For CSAM, the final objective is to convey through collected artifacts and stories the fact that Muslims have been in America for as long as any of the other non-indigenous peoples. As Muhammad explained, “Muslims have throughout American history helped build and preserve America. Muslims fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and many other American wars.”

The exhibit traces this presence all the way back to 1492, documenting the presence of Muslim captains commanding the Nina and the Pinta, two of the three ships with which Christopher Columbus first set sail to the Americas.

Following this, the exhibit documents the founding and exploration, in 1527, of both Arizona and New Mexico by Estevanico, a Spaniard from Morocco. After Estevanico, Muhammad explains, the next wave of Muslims to come to America were termed the Melungeons. This group, like the Moors, left Spain and Portugal to escape the Spanish Inquisition.

After these accounts of the earliest Muslims to come to America, a particularly well-documented presence was established in 1730. It was at this time that Job ibn Soliman, a Muslim from Bundu, Senegal was captured and enslaved in Gambia. The following year Soliman was brought to Annapolis, Maryland. Historical reports indicate that Soliman was a Hafiz of the Qur’an, meaning that he had committed it to memory. In addition, Soliman had copied the Qur’an from memory three times.

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson and JohnAdams formalized a treaty with Morocco securing commerce and waterway rights. A similar treaty was signed with Algeria in 1795.

Although in this period most Muslims in America were slaves of African descent, some lived asfree men. Men such as Yarrow Marmood lived in Washington, DC in the early 1800s and were documented owners of large properties. Others such as Ibrahim Abdul Rahman ibn Sori were freed from their servitude by white Americans.

Ibrahim was an African Muslim who had left his native country to study in Timbuktu. Upon arriving there, he was captured by warring tribes and sold to slave traders at the age of 26. In 1788, Ibrahim was bought by a Mississippi cotton and tobacco farmer, and eventually became the overseer of the plantation. In 1807 Ibrahim had the good luck to meet John Cox, a surgeon whose life had been saved by Ibrahim’s father in Africa many years earlier. Cox, after hearing Ibrahim’s story, began petitioning for the freedom which Ibrahim won 25 years later, at the age of 66.

Another account is that of Bilali, the leader of one of America’s earliest-known Muslim communities. From 1806 to the late 1830s an estimated 80 Muslims lived and worked on a plantation owned by Bilali. Unlike other African Muslims who had been enslaved and forced to suppress their religious identity, the Muslims with Bilali were able to practice their faith freely.

The exhibit also documents in the late 1800s the conversion of many white Americans to Islam, such as Edward Blyden and Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, the first known white American convert. Prior to his conversion, Webb was a journalist and prominent American diplomat in the Philippines. In 1893, Webb represented the Muslim World at Chicago’s World Exposition Conference on World Religions. Webb also contributed to the progress of Islam in North America by establishing the American Muslim Brotherhood.

After moving through the lives of many of the early American Muslims, the exhibit concludes by documenting the traces they have left behind. Some are the names of American cities such as Medina, New York and Mecca, Indiana. More powerful than this, however, are the historic tombstones that have been found, dating as far back as 1884, depicting the Islamic symbol of God’s Oneness. This symbol of the raised finger dates back nearly 1,400 years to the life of an early convert to Islam, Bilal ibn Rabah.

Bilal, the slave of Omaiyah bin Khalaf, was severely beaten by his master when the latter came to know of his conversion to Islam. Omaiyah tortured Bilal in the blazing heat of the desert sun by placing a heavy rock on his chest and lashing him with a whip, all the while commanding him to renounce his belief in one God. Bilal could do nothing other than raise his one finger and say, Ahad, Ahad, one, one.

Sadia Razaq

Aqsa Girls School Preserve Islamic Heritage in Chicago

When the founders of the Aqsa School in Bridgeview, IL decided to establish an all-girls institution of learning, they also established a benchmark of excellence that has become a model for Islamic schools around the United States.

When classes began in 1987, students were taught in makeshift classrooms set up in the local mosque. The seemingly revolutionary idea of teaching the Arabic language and Islamic studies alongside standard physics and English literature courses caught the eyes of many parents who feared that their children would lose their Muslim heritage and religion through assimilation into the contemporary American school system.

A decade later, the Aqsa School opened the doors to a brand new building built exclusively for its use. Aqsa graduates have gone on to study at Yale, Harvard, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and a host of other universities.

“We have girls who graduated from Aqsa who are now doing their residencies at hospitals, girls who are taking their bar exams, and we even have two former students back here at Aqsa teaching in our elementary programs,” says Judy Maher, the Aqsa principal who has administered the school since its inception.

At present the school has 217 students in its classes ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The senior class of 17 is a delightful group of young women who see Aqsa as their second home, and their teachers and classmates as their second family. “The feeling of sisterhood and belonging is something I get here that I can’t get at other schools,” says senior Ronza Othman. Her classmates echoed her sentiment, adding that at Aqsa peer pressure is replaced by an overwhelming sense of unity.

While many Aqsa students plan to pursue careers in medicine and education. Amani Suleiman says she wants to study shariah (Islamic law). “I might use my degree to be a religion teacher, or maybe write books about Islam in English for children,” she says.

Although annual tuition of $3,000 to cover classes and books is very reasonable compared to many other private schools, the students say there are many things at Aqsa that they cannot get at other schools. “Here we learn Arabic, and we learn about Islam,” comments Sophie Hasan. “We are in an Islamic environment that insulates us from most of the social ills that inflict so many other schools.”

Although the students excel in their basic academic courses, many long for more elective classes that have yet to be taught at Aqsa such as home economics, art, and Spanish. “We just don’t have the financial resources to provide the students these electives,” says principal Maher. “We need a gym, a larger library, an adequate computer lab, and many others things, but we just don’t have the funds.”

Nevertheless, Maher says, “This school is not only good for the Muslim and Arab community, it is good for America. Our students get many advantages here that they cannot get in public schools, the biggest advantage being their ability to be recognized as individuals.”

The individual attention that students receive from teachers is one of the most important aspects of the learning process at Aqsa. While emphasizing the bond of trust and understanding between teachers and students that is nurtured at Aqsa, senior class members also have some advice for parents who are thinking about sending their children to Islamic schools. Aisha Mahdi warns that teachers alone can’t turn students into “super kids.” Sophia Adawy and Suha Yassin add, “the learning process must continue at home with positive reinforcement.”

When asked if they would send their daughters to the Aqsa School when they are parents, the response was unanimous: Yes!

Raeed N. Tayeh

Pakistani-American Council Calls for Islamic Heritage Renewal

The Council of Pakistani-American Organizations, an umbrella grouping in the U.S. national capital area, held a dinner program celebrating the rich heritage of Islam Feb. 28 in Springfield, Virginia. The program was organized around a discussion of the historic and beautiful Grand Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, one of the outstanding monuments of the more than 700 years of Islamic heritage in Spain that began within a century of Prophet Muhammad’s death and ended in 1492.

Council Chairman Al Haj Miraj H. Siddiqi thanked co-sponsors of the event, designed as a “reminder of the glorious past that we have lost.” Pakistan Muslim League (USA) President Shahzad A. Chaudhry introduced the speakers and moderated the discussion. A.A. Pirzada of the Voice of America Urdu Service recited a well-known poem by Pakistani poet Allama Iqbal celebrating the Cordoba mosque.

Mohammad Yusuf, president of the local chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America, noted that “with 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, together we could move mountains.” However, he said, first Muslims have to regain “respect in the world.”

Major Aftab Ahmad described Cordoba as “a city bubbling with activity and life,” with libraries containing 600,000 books, hospitals, charitable institutions for widows and orphans, and even animal hospitals. “What happened to those people, where are they, where did they go?” Major Ahmad asked. “What are the lessons that can be learned?

“Organize, educate, invest in your children. Select and elect the leaders at every level. We have to start with one person—ourselves, our families, our communities,” he said. “In this way we can have Cordoba with us all the time—in our hearts and in our minds.”

Executive editor Richard Curtiss of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs discussed Islamic empowerment in the United States through the electoral system, a peaceful and effective means by which all immigrant groups eventually can play a role in the American tapestry.

He noted that the U.S. foreign policies that most distress American Muslims—the unrelenting tilt toward Israel and resulting egregious violations of Palestinian human rights, and indifference to the unfulfilled United Nations promise of more than half a century ago of self-determination for the Kashmiris—all are the direct result of domestic lobbying by ethnic groups.

All such special interest blocs can be neutralized quickly by unified and effective political organization among Muslim Americans and, in the case of Palestine, coordination and cooperation with Christian Arab Americans, Curtiss said.

Washington, DC Attorney Mowahid H. Shah contrasted “the glory of Islam epitomized by the Mosque of Cordoba that inspired poet Iqbal” with some ignominious events of the past 50 years that have brought misunderstanding, weakness and even ridicule upon Muslims.

Muslims receive more than their share of bad press, he pointed out, because there is little understanding in the West of their history and their long list of accomplishments.

He deplored the term “Judeo-Christian heritage” that “implies that somehow Islam is outside.” This is misleading, he explained, because Judaism had much more opportunity to flourish and develop in the Islamic world than it did in the Christian world. “The Jews who lived in Christian countries were a minority and an unimportant one at that,” Shah said. By contrast, in the Islamic world Jewish communities thrived.

But there are opportunities all around for Muslims to raise the status and positive visibility of Islam in the United States. He described the positive remarks of then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the dedication of the Islamic Center in Washington, DC 42 years ago. He noted his pleasure much more recently when he was able to purchase Malcolm X stamps at a post office. It reminded him “that when you fight for the right, ultimately you prevail.”

In addition to Mssrs. Choudhary and Siddiqi, organizers of the well-attended program, held at the Chutney Party Hall in Springfield, Virginia, included Mr. M. Aslam and Dr. N. Faizi.

—Donna Bourne

Graham Fuller Speaks at UASR on Islamic Movements

The United Association for Studies and Research (UASR) in Springfield, VA hosted a roundtable discussion April 4 with Graham Fuller, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, on the Islamic Movements in Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt.

In his presentation, Fuller discussed the main focus of Islamic movements within each country. “More than any other case in the world, the Palestinian cause has the attention of the entire Muslim world,” Fuller pointed out. The Palestinian cause is the single biggest Muslim grievance against the West, he added. As national liberation has been the first single focus of the Islamist movements in Palestine, their entry into the armed struggle contributed to their popularity to a large extent.

Fuller also discussed changes in the fundamental debate among Islamists about whether the movement should focus on changing society, education, values, morality and other social issues, or whether it should be entering the political system as a competitor. The Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine felt, especially with the rise of the intifada in December 1987, that to remain outside of active politics would be harmful to the movement, Fuller said.

Fuller added that surveys he is conducting on this issue indicate that “Islamic movements felt increasingly compelled to enter into the political arena as either a movement or a party, if the possibility exists, as opposed to simply focusing on education or social programs.”

In Jordan, “Islam has been more successfully integrated into the political system than in any other place in the Arab world,” Fuller said. This is because Jordan has a partially democratic political order that has not yet emerged in most of the rest of the Arab world, he added.

The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ekhwan al-Muslimeen), being the dominant political force among Islamists in Jordan, has not been a revolutionary force, Fuller argued. “It may have some strong ideas about the way society should be organized, but certainly it is very conservative in its preservation of the status quo and on issues of land reform, among other things,” he said.

“The classic case that Egypt represents is state repression of Islamist movements and the use of quasi-democracy as a way of keeping Islamic parties out of power to a considerable extent,” Fuller argued. He further noted that the Islamist movement in Egypt has been artificially held together partly due to lack of judgment and wisdom on the part of the Mubarak regime. This regime has lumped together all Muslim movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood—which has not used violence for 30 or 40 years—to the terrorist Islamic Group (Gama’a el-Islamiya), whose violent acts against tourists are deplored by most Muslims.

Fuller criticized the Muslim world for the absence of democratization “permitting regimes that are incompetent, ruthless, corrupt, brutal and stupid to operate in a large number of countries.” On the other hand, he applauded the UASR for its “willingness to take dialogue with Westerners all the way to your harshest critics.” “Islam has nothing to fear whatsoever from this kind of open discussion,” Fuller noted. “The vision of Islam has suffered from lack of discussion, openness and education in many parts of the Muslim world.”

Fuller argued that almost all Islamist movements are going to face similar questions in the future. Among these is the question of an Islamic state and the positions these organizations are going to take on it. “Every single one of these organizations that I have talked about has in reality avoided the question of an Islamic state, simply because it is too complex a question and no one is really sure what an Islamic state really means in truly practical terms,” Fuller said.

Raja’ M. Abu-Jabr

Shaharazad Then and Now

The Freer Gallery and the Sisterhood is Global Institute co-sponsored on April 15 a lively panel discussion in the Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in Washington, DC. The panelists discussed the powerful literary character Shaharazad from 1001 Nights and related her “subversive” survival plan to present-day Muslim women and subversive methods they use to improve their lives.

Azar Nafisi, curator of Middle Eastern Art at the Freer Gallery, examined Shaharazad’s tales that mixed old oral traditions from India, Persia, Turkey and the Arab world. The stories survived various translations, Nafisi said, finally resulting in Sir Richard Burton’s 1001 Nights that made such a dramatic impact on the West.

Nafisi described the frame narration that is built around a king betrayed by his first wife who takes revenge by marrying a virgin each night and killing her each morning. After three years of this murderous routine, Shaharazad offered to wed the misogynist ruler. She told him a fascinating but unfinished story each night and thus survived three years and produced three children, by which time the king had decided to keep her around.

Shaharazad is a symbol of vulnerability and helplessness, while the king is the symbol of power to grant life or decree death, Nafisi said, Shaharazad deals with people peacefully and cleverly, just as Muslim women do today, Nafisi concluded.

The next speaker, Iranian Mahnaz Afkhami, director of the Sisterhood is Global Institute in Bethesda, MD, said that good literature has a universal message for all cultures. She said that in the first years after the Iranian revolution there was a reign of ideology in the name of religion. The victims were Muslims, Afkhami declared, because their private religion was confiscated and became part of the state’s ideology.

“Polarized societies target women and minorities,” Afkhami continued. Women who dressed or acted Western became agents of Satan, because they used signs and symbols from the Great Satan, or the United States. After 150 years of fighting for progress in Iran, women lost their identity.

Afkhami said Shaharazad couldn’t fight the king in his own domain, so she took him to her own. “Her fiction showed the king a different reality and made him curious and able to empathize with the world.” Iranian women took the veil, the object of invisibility, and turned it into beauty. But they are subversive, like Shaharazad, when it comes to words, reading works by Jane Austin and Emily Bronte and printing stories in newspapers published by women which subtly challenge the status quo. In Iran, Algeria and Afghanistan women are realizing that it isn’t Muslim to be flogged or killed or legally worth half of a man, Afkhami concluded.

Fatima Mernissi, a sociologist who teaches at University Mohammad V in Rabat, Morocco, is the author of Beyond the Veil, Islam and Democracy, and The Veil and the Male Elite (all available from the AET Book Club). She began by saying humorously that now that the best shariah scholars are her ex-students, she can concentrate on writing fiction. Using Shaharazad’s uniquely Eastern personality as an introduction, she warmed to her subject with pithy generalities and aphorisms.

“The images of women in Islam and in the West are totally different,” she said. “In Islam beauty is intelligence. In the West a woman must choose between beauty and intelligence: If she chooses intelligence she chooses masculinity. If she exhibits brains, she wipes out her charm.” Christians separate body and mind, Mernissi continued, while Islam integrates the body and mind.

Turning her focus to the Muslim world, she said men have the public space now and prefer that women be excluded. Mernissi said that men may fear that if women invade that space, the patriarchy is finished. Nevertheless, she continued, times are changing. In Iran, she pointed out, women have the vote and receive a state-paid education.

New communications technology has brought satellite dishes, computers, telephones and faxes to destroy the monopoly of interpreting information. Politicians may be allergic to women but sciences and technologies love women, Mernissi laughed. “Scientific manpower is women.” She concluded that women are stronger now than in Shaharazad’s day, for their dialogue can be in public places, not just in the bedroom. “Sexual apartheid will be erased.”

Delinda C. Hanley

AMA-New York State Chapter Honors Journalist

The New York State Chapter of the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) held a reception Feb. 20 to honor Roy Gutman, a 1999 Pulitzer Prize recipient. AMA members from all over New York, including Congressman Peter King (R-3rd Dist.) and more than 100 guests, celebrated Mr. Gutman’s heroic reports exposing the existence of Serb concentration camps in war-torn Bosnia which are credited with saving thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Mr. Gutman, his wife Betsy, and daughter Caroline, came from Washington, DC.

After a brief introduction about AMA, a video was screened featuring the testimonies of members of the Karcic family—Abdullah, Arsad, Emina, and Edin. These testimonials were extremely graphic and moving as the video revealed the horrifying details of the Bosnian genocide. The presentation was followed by remarks made by Congressman King and several well-known journalists. The highlight of the evening was Mr. Gutman’s insider’s account of how the news regarding the camps developed.

Capturing the spirit of the event, Congressman King said: “It’s the beauty of pluralism in America that an Irish Catholic is giving an award on behalf of American Muslims to a Jewish reporter “for saving the lives of Muslims!”

Ahmed Hussain