More American than apple pie, Muslims have been migrating to the US for centuries

Muslims have been coming to the US for centuries, but you wouldn’t know it by the intense debates that continue to surround the movement of Muslims across international borders.

Republican presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have called for the US to effectively ban Syrian refugees from entering the country. The South Carolina Senate passed a bill that would require all refugees to register with the state, subjecting themselves to surveillance. On social media, the hashtag #StopIslam trended internationally in the hours after the Mar. 22 terrorist attack in Brussels.

Together, these reactions contribute to the idea that Muslim migration to the US is somehow distinct from America’s history as a “nation of immigrants.” Columnist Mark Nuckols summarized the sentiment when he wrote in Townhall about “problematic immigrants” to the US.

The “most problematic,” he writes, are Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. “This most recent wave of immigrants are often more resistant to easy assimilation and more reluctant to accept this country as truly their own,” he says.

In truth, Muslims have been part of this country since before the thirteen original colonies even declared their independence and became a nation. The examples below offer a glimpse of the long history of their migration and contributions to the US.

Muslims were among the first to explore the “New World”

A circular map in black and white lines

In his book Meadows of Gold, published around 950 CE, Muslim geographer Al-Musudi described the experiences of Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad, a Muslim explorer who he claims sailed across the Atlantic in 889 CE. This reconstruction of a world map from Meadows of Gold depicts a world before Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Individuals like Christopher Columbus are often recognized as among the first to “discover” the Americas (despite, of course, the long presence of the indigenous).

But those explorations would not have been possible without Muslims.

Historian Leslie Brout Jr. notes in his book The African Experience in Spanish America: 1502 to the Present Day that many Muslim men accompanied European travelers clamoring to “discover” the Americas in the 1500s. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Hernán Cortés, Pánfilo de Narváez, Pedro de Alvarado, Francisco de Montejo, and other conquistadors all brought Muslims with them to aid in their early expeditions in the Western Hemisphere.

For example, a Muslim man named Estevanico was sold into slavery in the 1520s and brought to the Americas to aid Spain’s exploration of present-day Florida. Although he was a slave until his death, Brout writes that Estevanico became famous for completing an eight-year journey on foot from Florida to Mexico City.

The labor of enslaved Muslims helped build the United States

As historian Sylviane A. Diouf writes in her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, Muslim men, women, and children were among the first people taken by force from their homes in West Africa in the Atlantic slave trade.

It’s estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of all Africans forced into bondage in the United States were Muslims. These individuals, many of whom were among the most educated and renowned in their homelands, were forced to work as slaves in the Americas. Several of them published narratives about their time in captivity.

A framed portrait of an elderly man on one side; a stately oil painting on the other

Left: Omar Ibn Sayyid, a Muslim slave in the United States, published his autobiography in 1831. Right: The first known portrait of an African man by a British portraitist was completed shortly after Job Ben Solomon’s arrival in London in 1733.

Omar Ibn Sayyid, for example, was taken from his home in present day Senegal and forced into slavery in South Carolina around the year 1770. In 1831 he published his autobiography in Arabic, which was later translated into English.

Sayyid’s autobiography reveals in his own words his experiences being taken from his home, his life under slavery in the United States and his devotion to Islam. Today, a mosque in Fayetteville, North Carolina is named in his honor.

In his book Muslims in America, historian Edward Curtis describes the experience of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who became known as Job Ben Solomon after he was taken from West Africa in 1731 and sold into slavery to a tobacco farmer in Annapolis, Maryland.

Solomon was able to escape slavery after less than three years of bondage. He could read and write in Arabic, so he wrote a letter to his father with the hopes that he might send money to ransom his freedom. His father never received the letter. However, the letter did finds its way to the hands of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, who had it translated into English.

Oglethorpe was so impressed with Solomon that he purchased the freedom bond himself.

Slavery ends, Muslim influence continues

Historian Edward Curtis writes in his book Muslims in America that Alexander Russell Webb used Islam in America to “promote Islam as a religion that expressed some of America’s most deeply held values, especially those of rationality, human equality, broadmindedness, and acceptance of religious diversity.”

Muslims played important roles in securing a Northern victory in the United States Civil War and bringing about the end of slavery. Curtis’s Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History explains that nearly 300 people with Muslim last names fought in the Civil War.

Several became officers, including Moses Osman, a captain in the 104th Illinois Infantry. After being subjected to slavery in Turkey, Russia, and the US when he was forced to serve a European traveler who crossed the Atlantic, Mohammed Ali ben Said fought in the Civil War from 1863 to 1865 and earned the rank of sergeant in the Union Army. After his emancipation, Said went on to travel the world before settling in Alabama. He  published his autobiography in 1873 before passing away in 1882.

While emancipation allowed former Muslim slaves to practice their religion more freely, they were not the only ones who practiced Islam in the US after the Civil War.

Alexander Russell Webb, born in 1846, was a middle class white Protestant who converted to Islam in 1887 after traveling the world in his capacity as the US Consul to the Philippines. When he returned to the US in 1893, he started a newspaper called “The Moslem World,” published a book called Islam in America and was selected to be a representative of Islam at the Chicago World Fair.

Nativism and exclusionary immigration laws took hold in the early 1900s, but Muslims lived all over the country

Mother Mosque in Iowa, white building with green roof

By the 1930s, Muslims established mosques in Maine, North Dakota, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa. The Mother Mosque of America, built in 1934 by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants and their ancestors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, remains the oldest surviving mosque in the US.

Credit: RifeIdeas/CC BY-SA 3.0

With the turn of the 20th century came the rise of anti-immigrant feelings among Americans. Nevertheless, Muslim American communities continued to grow. In North Dakota, for example, Syrian and Lebanese Muslim immigrants worked as farmers in the Great Plains.

As part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration interviewed Mike Abdullah, a Syrian native, about life in North Dakota. Abdullah and his fellow community members in North Dakota were practicing Muslims whose experiences mirrored those of many farmers who worked the land in the American heartland from the 1900s through the middle of the century.

The Dillingham Commission formed in 1907 out of growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. The “Dictionary of Races or Peoples,” included in the 41-volume report that the Commission published in 1911, tried to legitimize ideas about racial difference, which were often intertwined with religion. The Commission’s report helped create laws that curtailed immigration from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe.

Credit: University of California Libraries via archive.org

Muslims lived and worked across the US. Historian Vivek Bald writes in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian Americans that Muslims labored not only as farmers but also as industrial and service workers. They immersed themselves in Creole, African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore and New York City. The growth of these diverse communities continued despite the passing of laws that didn’t bode well for Muslims hoping to come to the US.

The Immigration Act of 1917 barred immigration from Asia, and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 introduced numerical quotas that restricted the entry of immigrants according to their country of origin. Many countries with sizeable Muslim populations received low quotas and Muslims from Asian countries were excluded outright.

The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 eventually eliminated national origins quotas and made it easier for Muslims — at least those who were skilled and professional workers — to migrate to the US. This landmark legislation was just part of the continuation of Muslim migration to the US — not the beginning.

Laila Alawa: Do we really need mosques in America?

Laila Alawa, Associate Editor at Islamic Monthly, views the controversial documentary film Unmosqued and offers some observations on the mosque and its function and future in America. Situating her argument in a larger view of faith in America, Alawa writes, “There are buildings scattered across America, empty of purpose and congregations, simply because people left – and never turned back. For the future of mosques in America, Muslim Americans who have been unmosqued must make a decision. Alongside this sense of urgency, however, is a sense of freshness: the community, innovations and conversations taking place in third spaces is unlike any that happened within mosques – and for now, that’s okay. The future of faith in America might just not take place within a conventional center of worship. For many, that’s just how it’s going to be.”

"Mother Mosque of America," Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“Mother Mosque of America,” Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Iowa company: US probe into whether it falsely labeled items as halal could damage business

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The maker of a popular brand of food for observant Muslims says it is facing a potentially crippling investigation into whether it falsely labeled meat products as processed in compliance with Islamic law.

The Midamar Corp. said in federal court documents that investigators seized its main bank account and business records under search warrants executed last month. A judge last week upheld the government’s seizure of $454,000 in bank funds and rejected the company’s request to return the money.

No criminal or civil charges have been filed, and U.S. District Judge Linda Reade ruled that the government’s affidavit supporting its search warrant can remain secret so as not to “compromise an ongoing investigation.” The U.S. attorney’s office declined comment Monday on the investigation, which involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Internal Revenue Service.

Miramar said in court filings that the seizures relate to vague allegations that it improperly branded and sold meat products as meeting Muslim dietary requirements, called halal, when they did not. The privately held business, which has been in Cedar Rapids for 40 years, dismissed the allegations. And it claims federal investigators are trying to regulate something that must be left to religions under the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Midamar says the matter does not involve food safety. Still, its lawyers made public a letter from USDA that noted the agency stopped voluntary inspections at the firm in 2010, after seizing what it called misbranded meat products, before resuming them last year. Such inspections are done at Midamar’s request to ensure their products meet requirements for export.

Investigators seized thousands of pounds of beef products that came from an establishment not approved for export to a foreign country and found falsified export documents for shipments to Indonesia and Malaysia, among other problems, according to the letter.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service resumed inspections after approving Midamar’s “corrective and preventive measures,” the letter says.

President Obama’s Iowa campaign headquarters vandalized with ‘Muslim Lier’ sign

President Barack Obama’s campaign building in Des Moines, Iowa, was vandalized with the words “Muslim Lier” (intended to be “Liar”), spray-painted on a large banner.

The word “liar” was misspelled on the sign, officers said.

The blue banner is 16 by 8 feet and hangs on the south side of the building at 2307 Hubbell Ave. The words were written with red spray paint, police said.

The vandalism occurred sometime between 11:30 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. Thursday, when it was discovered, police reports show.  The same message was reportedly spray painted near the Iowa State Fairgrounds earlier in the week.  The damage was estimated at $500.

Dating back to his 2008 campaign, a faction of Americans have falsely believed that Obama is a Muslim, even though he has openly discussed his Christian faith. According to a poll released in July, 30 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of conservative Republicans identified the president as a Muslim.

A request for comment was not immediately returned by the Obama campaign’s Iowa office.

Hank Williams Jr.: ‘Muslim’ Obama ‘Hates the U.S.’

Country star courts additional controversy at Iowa State Fair

Hank Williams Jr. unleashed another round of invective aimed at President Obama last week at the Iowa State Fair, according to the Des Moines Register. Speaking to crowd on August 17th, Williams Jr. proclaimed, “We’ve got a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S. and we hate him!” The statement was reportedly well received by the audience.

In July, Williams Jr. told Rolling Stone that Obama “hates America in the first place, forget about the flag.” His latest album, Old School, New Rules, also contains plenty of charged lyrics directed at the president. Williams’ outspoken antipathy toward Obama hasn’t been without consequences: Last October, the country singer compared the president playing golf with Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, to “Hitler playing golf with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” prompting ESPN to pull Williams’ “All My Rowdy Friends” from its Monday Night Football broadcasts and end a 20-year relationship with the singer.

Iowa State Representative, Ako Abdul-Samad recieves threatening letter containing mysterious powder

A threatening letter containing a mysterious powder sent the Iowa Capitol into lockdown and delayed action in the House for several hours on Tuesday.

Ultimately, a hazardous materials team found the substance not to be dangerous and released a crowd of perhaps 300 lawmakers, staffers and observers who had been sequestered in the House chamber and elsewhere at the Statehouse.

The letter was received by Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, late Tuesday afternoon and was opened on the House floor in the midst of debate.

Abdul-Samad told reporters Tuesday evening that the letter contained “very threatening” language but declined to describe it in detail, citing an investigation now under way by state police.

“I cannot talk about what was in the letter at this point, because it’s turned over now to the State Patrol and also to DCI, but it was a threatening letter,” he said, referring to the state Division of Criminal Investigation. “This has now become a very serious legal matter.”

Kulsoom Abdullah honors Muslim faith, makes history at US weightlifting nationals

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Kulsoom Abdullah has become the first woman to compete in the U.S. weightlifting championships while wearing clothing that covers her legs, arms and head.

Abdullah was cleared to compete in accordance with her Muslim faith after the International Weightlifting Federation ruled two weeks ago that athletes could wear a full-body “unitard” under the customary weightlifting uniform.

Abdullah finished fifth out of six competitors in her weight class.

A matter of faith: Muslim woman wants to compete in weightlifting, but stay true to religion

ATLANTA — Looking to get stronger, Kulsoom Abdullah took up weightlifting a couple of years ago. She quickly grew to love the male-dominated sport, entering local competitions and even allowing herself to dream of one day making it to the Olympics.

She’d like to see how far this passion might take her, but not if it means compromising her religious beliefs.
Seems perfectly reasonable.

Yet Abdullah, a 35-year-old Atlantan, has been barred from entering the U.S. senior nationals in Iowa next month. The problem: Her Muslim faith requires that she cover her arms, legs and head — which violates international rules governing weightlifting attire.

Somalis fill vacant jobs at Iowa meatpacking plant

Almost three months after a federal immigration raid on a Postville, Iowa meatpacking plant resulted in the uprooting of nearly 400 employees, dozens of Somali immigrants are slowly but steadily filling the vacant ranks left by arrested workers. The Somali immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, discussed with the Associated Press some elements of their faith and culture concerning their new job. The meatpacking plant is kosher, and is run by several Rabbi’s. However, many including Ahmed Ahmed, a Somali who works in the plant’s sausage department, did not find his employment to be a contradiction, citing work is work. Many of the workers have transplanted not only themselves, but their family, including women and children. The Somali immigrants – numbering at an estimated 100-150, are also beginning for form their own community within the small town with a population of just 2,200.

Republican Congressman King: terrorists will “Dance In the Streets” with Obama victory

Speaking to a local Iowa radio station, Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, said that terrorist would dance in the streets if Barack Obama is elected president. Just before making that statement, King said I don’t want to disparage anyone because of their, their race, their ethnicity, their name – whatever their religion their father, father might have been. King clarified that his prediction is based on Obama’s pledge to remove troops out of Iraq, and that his heritage and middle name will strike a resonance in people in Muslim countries. In criticizing King, a spokesperson for Obama said that comments such as these have no place in our politics. He also called on Republican nominee John McCain to repudiate them. King is currently backing McCain, though McCain has condemned emphasis on Obama’s middle name, most recently when conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham repeatedly used Obama’s middle name in an introduction for McCain.