American History Incomplete without Muslims
This September, the First Cleveland Masjid in Ohio will celebrate its 75th anniversary and honour Hajj Wali Akram, its founder and visionary leader. Akram, an African American who was born in Texas, moved to Cleveland and set up this vibrant Sunni Muslim community – which has continued to this day.
When listening to today’s popular media and even the opinions of some elected officials, however, one could easily assume that Akram must have been an immigrant to the United States – and that Islam is foreign to the American landscape. We too often hear that Muslims only recently arrived and are not “real Americans”, unlike Protestants, Catholics or Jews.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As the Muslim population in America increases, it is especially important to look back on the history of Islam in America and to acknowledge and appreciate Muslim American contributions.
The scholarship of Dr Sylviane Diouf of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Dr Michael Gomez of New York University and Amir Muhammad of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum has confirmed that some of the slaves brought to the Americas from West Africa were Muslims. The transmission and sustainment of the faith over several centuries among their descendants has been documented through artifacts, paintings, writings, and even gravestones depicting a connection to the religion.
Given their enslavement and heavily restricted mobility, these early believers could neither avail themselves of American citizenship nor did they have the liberty to transform their presence into communities and institutions. However, there is evidence that American leaders of the time, including the founding fathers of our nation, such as John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were quite familiar with Islam and possessed copies of the Qur’an in their personal libraries.
In the 1930s, Akram, of the First Cleveland Masjid, was one of many Muslims who fostered strong Muslim communities. He developed a visionary 10-year plan, including strategies for economic self-sufficiency and a focus on education, particularly about Islam and the importance of the Arabic language. He even owned a printing press to allow for the timely and relevant dissemination of information to community members.
More directly connected to contemporary Islam in America is its transformation from a fledgling presence to a vibrant, dynamic and firmly-rooted Muslim American community during the 1960s. The Muslim population in America also increased sizably during this period. These shifts were due in part to the efforts of Imam Warith ud Deen Muhammad, who put forward the adoption of Sunni Islam to thousands of African Americans who had formerly been followers of his father, Elijah Muhammad.
The arrival of an unprecedented number of Muslim immigrants from North Africa and South Asia, following reforms in immigration policy in 1965, also contributed to this transformation. During the decades which followed, Caucasian, and most recently Hispanic, Americans have also converted to Islam.
This diverse group of Muslims and now their descendants have helped to build American cities as engineers and architects; serve the sick and needy as doctors, psychiatrists, and social workers; advocate for the rights of the oppressed and vulnerable as lawyers; and educate children and youth as teachers and professors – as well as contributing through many other professions.
A study of American history would be incomplete without the mention of Islam and Muslims. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, Muslim Americans are continuing to enrich the American landscape as proud citizens who call America home.
Altaf Husain is an Assistant Professor at the Howard University School of Social Work, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a member of the board of trustees of the Islamic Society of North America. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 4 September 2012, www.commongroundnews.org – See more at:
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