Garry Wills’ Qur’an (Part One)

Is Islam as American as apple pie?  Both are early imports from Asia Minor – Islam from the Arabian Peninsula by way of Africa and Iberia, apples from southern Kazakhstan by way of Europe – that have grown deep roots in the New World.  Islam has directly affected the New World in ways that have been obscured for generations but deserve better understanding today.

The history of Islam in the Western Hemisphere has long been debated in the Near East.  There are some interesting, if apocryphal, suggestions that early Muslim navies traveled to North America from the Mediterranean before Columbus, but evidence is scarce.  Islam definitively arrived in the Americas with the Spanish conquista.  With them the Spaniards brought tens of thousands of African slaves, a large plurality of whom were likely Muslims, as early as 1501.

The conquista was profoundly affected by the Spanish experience of both Moorish rule and the reconquista that expelled Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century. The pursuit of gold in the New World was motivated in part by the financial burden of the war and the sheer fact of reconquest in Spain drove a self-fulfilling narrative for the brigands and ne’er-do-wells who led the pillage.  In their minds the conquest of the New World was an extension of the liberation of the old.

What the quran meant

But the Spanish could not purge the cultural influence of Muslim rule as easily as it could the population that brought it to them.  Just to start, the entire Spanish language was heavily influenced by Arabic including hundreds of adopted words.  You may never view Arnold Schwarzenegger the same when you consider that his characteristic line, “Hasta la vista, baby,” is a direct Arabic import from hatta meaning “until”.  Likewise, Spanish speakers from Argentina to Canada still use the expression ojala, invoking God, meaning the same thing as the Arabic inshallah:  God willing.

Consequently, the Spanish left an Islamic-inspired legacy across the hemisphere.  The geometric tile mosaics of Seville, Spain, were inspired by Islamic art whose legacy can still be found as far away as Mexico and California.  The famously beautiful enclosed balconies of Lima, Peru, are a direct import from North African moucharaby latticed windows.  Place names influenced by Arabic terms proliferate.  Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, means “Valley of the Stones” in Arabic.  The Catholic patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, has Arabic roots: Guadalupe is an Arabic-Latin mash-up meaning “Valley of the Wolves”.   The historical influence doesn’t stop there.  Matamoros, a Mexican border town opposite Brownsville, Texas, means “Moor-Slayer,” the epithet applied to Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known to Muslims as el Cid (el sayid), a Spanish holy warrior of the reconquista.  Santiago de Chile and San Diego, California, are named for St. James, a mythical hero of that war.

This influence persists even in the United States.  There is strong if not conclusive evidence that California’s etymology is rooted in the term “caliph,” which applies to a Muslim leader descended from the prophet Muhammad.  Similarly, it is possible that Albuquerque stems from the Arabic term Abu al-Qurq, meaning “father of the oak”.  Andalucia, Alabama, may have adopted a residual place name from the Spanish colonialists who explored the south during the 16th century.  Al Andalus was the name of Islamic Spain.

African slaves poured into the hemisphere shortly after the conquista.  At least 10 percent of the 400,000 Africans kidnapped to the United States were Muslims.  This is a fair if low estimate for the rest of the Americas.  The most notable slave uprising in Brazil, to which the Portuguese brought three million Africans, was led by a Muslim community known as the Malê.  While most Africans were converted to Christianity, it is well-documented that many of these men and women retained their names indicating Islamic roots: Muhammad, Fatima, Ayisha.

Two African American slaves, Ibrahim Abd Al-Rahman and Omar ibn Said, achieved modest fame in the 19th century when they demonstrated literacy in Arabic.  Through a dramatic political intervention, Al-Rahman was manumitted to Morocco with his wife.  (Sadly, not their nine children.)  Ibn Said remained property in the United States and died two years before the 13th Amendment was passed that would have freed him.

moors account

The Moor’s Account, a recent novel by Laila Lalani, tells the true story of Estevanico, a Moroccan slave who accompanied the Panfilo de Narvaes expedition to Florida in 1527.  Estevanico, whose real name was probably Mustufa Zemmouri, was one of four surviving members of the expedition whose numbers were decimated by shipwreck, disease, exhaustion, and native population raids on the invaders.  Before he died, probably in 1539 in what is now New Mexico, he traveled from Florida along the Gulf Coast, across what is now Texas and northern Mexico, all the way to Mexico City.  He was among the first non-natives to see what we now call the American southwest.

Muslims did not exist in individual vacuums in the United States: there were communities of Muslim believers, including one led by Bilali Muhammad in Georgia.  Muhammad was literate in Arabic and wrote a short treatise on Islamic law before his death.  He also commanded 80 men during the War of 1812.  Indeed, Muslim soldiers served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the Union Army during the Civil War.

jeffersons quran

Separate from the faith of the African population, which did not interest their owners, Islam conceptually and politically affected the founders of the American republic.  In Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, Denise Spellberg’s comprehensive survey of the influence of Islam on the Founders’ debate over religious freedom, tolerance, and political participation, she reveals a radical, if wholly theoretical, acceptance of plural belief in the early United States.  In contrast to Great Britain, whose monarch is also head of the Church of England, and most European countries with their own state church, the Americans imagined their new state purged of church influence and religious society protected from government action.  At that time, the country was utterly dominated by Protestant sects.  Catholics were a distinct Christian minority, except in Maryland (which they founded) and Jews were considered so rare as to be exotic.  The belief systems of the indigenous people of the Americas were barely acknowledged and the Islamic beliefs of the enslaved population virtually unknown.

The drafters, in sum, made an extraordinary concession to a future they only could imagine when writing the constitution to forbid religious discrimination explicitly.  The founders, in an extraordinary leap of faith, embraced the distinct possibility that future U.S. officeholders, including the president, may not be Christian.  At that time, in a country dominated by Protestants, Muslims were routinely lumped together with other religious and cultural minorities of the age, including Catholics, Jews, pagans, Hindus, Indians and “infidels”.  The political principle of religious inclusion is a cornerstone of revolutionary American democracy.  The vision of religious freedom appears, in retrospect, astonishingly clairvoyant – an almost science fiction vision of their country 200 years in the future that actually came to pass.  Today, in that envisioned future, Christians still predominate in the United States but Protestants do not.  Catholic justices now hold a majority in the Supreme Court.  Jewish Members of Congress serve at three times their representation in the population. And Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

While clearly none of the American founders was an Islamic scholar, they appear to have been better acquainted with Islam and the great Islamic civilizations than the contemporary generation.  The early Americans, in exalting “foundation,” placed the experimental United States alongside the world’s great civilizations, which included Rome and Athens but also the contemporaneous Ottoman Empire as well as ancient Egypt and Persia.  The founders knew their history and drew from the historical experience in crafting the government.

This homage is found in the physical structures that symbolize the republic.  A relief of Suleiman the Magnificent graces the chamber of the House of Representatives.  Islam is depicted as an allegory for physics on the ceiling of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.  And the Prophet Muhammad himself is depicted in relief in the U.S. Supreme Court as a great lawgiver.

Unfortunately, an intellectual caesura has opened up between the revolutionary generation and today’s leaders and thinkers.  Indeed, a concerted collective attempt by the Christian majority to understand Islam only occurred after September 11, 2001.  The gap in knowledge unfortunately remains evident.

But it was not universal.  Today about half of the U.S. Muslim population consists of American-born converts, and the largest representation of those are African Americans.  This American Islamic tradition dates back more than a century to the founding of the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1913.  A follower known as Wallace Fard Muhammad broke from the temple to establish the Nation of Islam in 1930.  Both organizations were syncretic religious/political movements with roots firmly sunk in African American history and experience.  Nevertheless, the Nation of Islam reformed itself into an orthodox Sunni Muslim organization, still dominated by African American converts, following the death of Elijah Muhammad.  No American today can claim absolute ignorance of Islam if they know the names Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam’s two most famous converts.  But these movements have always been considered fringe, both politically and theologically.

How can we account for this collective loss of knowledge?  One way may be examining the vaunted Western Canon, that corpus of literature spanning back to Greece two thousand years before Jesus Christ.  The definition of the canon varies, which is what makes Harold Bloom’s definitive list so important.  In The Western Canon, Bloom specifically extols the Qur’an as a source of law, ethics, and poetry as part of the Western tradition.  (Strangely, this is his only other mention of Islam in the book.  The Qur’an isn’t even noted in the index.)  He includes the Arabian Nights, The Poem of the Cid, the apocryphal Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, William Shakespeare’s Othello, as well as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose framing story involves finding the manuscript written in Arabic by an “Arab Historian”.  Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while not hospitable to Islam, nonetheless represents its core tenets accurately.  Goethe’s last work, West Eastern Divan, was inspired by the Muslim Persian poet Muhammad Hafez e Shirazi (and inspired Muhammad Iqbal to write an homage to Goethe in return).  Herman Melville’s character Ishmael in Moby-Dick (his name is the Biblical progenitor of the Arabs) describes the fasting and prayer of his harpooner bunk mate Queequeg as a kind of “Ramadan”.  Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, though not included in Bloom’s list, was widely read contemporaneously and involved descriptions of the Grand Tour that includes the Holy Land and Egypt.  Clearly, literate Americans were familiar with the Islamic world as late as the 19th century.

But all of that prologue is forgotten in the contemporary era.  The answers to why Islam’s cultural and philosophical influence in the United States fell away since can be explained in part by examining Bloom’s modern canon.  Not a single great 20th century American writer wrote on these themes.  This suggests a deterioration of collective knowledge and experience in American letters.  The Arabic writers Bloom cites, including the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, were largely secular in nature (a sin for which he was stabbed in the street by an Islamic extremist).  Other Europeans address these themes to a lesser extent: Albert Camus (The Stranger), Ivo Andric (The Bridge on the Drina), Amos Oz (The Perfect Peace), and Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet).  Still other writers aren’t included in the list but probably should be:  Rebecca West (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon), T.E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), Gertude Bell (The Desert and the Sown).

In the 20th century, American writers were grappling with modernity and affluence, war and peace, the immigrant experience and the African American struggle for justice.  After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 learned Americans had little reason to include the Islamic world in their thinking until that fateful second Tuesday in September 2001.  That is where the reckoning with our intellectual history began.

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About James Thomas Snyder

NATO fan, ex-diplomat, and former U.S. Congressional speechwriter. All opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government or any employer, past or present
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