Donald Trump’s executive orders barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, coupled with the overall rising tide of Islamophobia, which has been an ever increasing current for the past sixteen years, has forced much soul-searching for many Americans and American Muslims alike. But, for all of its perceived ‘newness’ Islam has actually been part of the American story for centuries. Part of understanding America’s historical essence, therefore, means understanding its interaction with Islam.
Islam was certainly on the minds of the Spanish colonizers of the Americas during the 15th and 16th centuries. For Spaniards and Europeans in general, Christopher Columbus’s so-called discovery of the Americas in 1492 was considered an important victory for Christendom and a sign of its rising pre-eminence over the Islamic world. 1492 was the year Granada was stripped from the Moors, ending some 800 years of Muslim presence in Spain. For Columbus, the ‘discovery of the New World’ was also a sign of the end times, which would eventually culminate in a showdown with the Islamic world.
America was, thus, born against the backdrop of an-ongoing apocalyptic battle with the Muslim world. To claim that early American experiences with Islam, via Spanish conquistadors, was only about possible future conflict with Islam is to ignore the whole story, however.
Islam in the Americas
In his first account of his voyage to the Americas, Columbus compares a beautiful mountain in what is now Cuba and to a “graceful mosque,” revealing a rather peculiar attitude towards Islam. On the one hand, for Columbus, Islam was an evil force, while, on the other, it was this thing of elegance and beauty.
While Columbus used the word mosque metaphorically, it is not entirely clear whether Spanish conquers who came after him also did. In his writings about his journeys through Central America in the 16th century, Hernan Cortes made frequent references to building that reminded him of mosques. Hernando Pizarro’s letters to the Spanish royal court in 1533, about his conquest of the Inca civilization in Peru, also made numerous mention of mosques. Upon initially entering Peru and encountering the local Inca population, he wrote, “They never wished to speak to us of the mosque, for there was an order that all those who should speak to us of it should be put to death. But we had intelligence that it was on the coast, we followed the high road until we came to it…. The town of the mosque is very large, and contains grand edifices and courts…. Before entering the first court of the mosque, a man must fast for twenty days.”
It is hard to know why Spanish conquistadors kept referring to sightings of mosques. Were they uninformed about local religions and considered any non-Christian place of worship a mosque? Was the word a commonly used one in Spain to describe any place of worship that was not a church? Since Spain had a sizeable Jewish population, why did they not use the word synagogue, in a similar fashion? Did they believe Islam had arrived in the Americas prior to Columbus?
Historians of the early Americas tend to reject the last interpretation, in favor of the other explanations. But, there are those who reject this common historical view. Chief among them is associate professor of African American studies at Rutgers University, Ivan Van Sertima. In ‘They Came Before Columbus,’ Van Sertima argued that African Muslims began settling in the Americas in the early 14th century. According to him, Abu Bakr II of Mali, abdicated his throne to his relative Mansa Musa (reportedly the richest man in history), to go on a voyage and settle in the ‘New World.’ Islamic scholar and historian, Dr. Umar F Abd-Allah, is also a strong proponent of this theory. Like Van Sertima, he argues that there is much archaeological and ecological evidence of contact between Africa (Mali in particular) and pre-Columbian America, pointing to statue formations, boat technology, plants, and animals found it both Mali and Mesoamerica.
Islam and Slavery in the Americas
While the existence of Muslims in pre-Columbian America may be debated, the Muslim and Arab presence during the colonization of the Americas is not. It was not uncommon for conquistadors to bring their Arabic-speaking slaves to the Americas. Many of them were North African, and were tasked with interpreting and translating between Spanish and various Native American languages. It is not entirely clear why the Spaniards thought Arabs would be the best translators. Given Islam’s far flung reach, perhaps they assumed everywhere they went, someone, would surely speak Arabic, much like assumptions today about English. Or perhaps it was thought that because of the intellectual output of Islamic culture, Arabs could quickly learn and understand new languages. Whatever the reason, Arabs were some of the earliest translators from Native American languages into European tongues.
In her novel, The Moor’s Account, Moroccan-American writer, Laila Lalami, captures the complex conditions facing enslaved African and Arab translators caught between their masters and the newly conquered people. The novel explores Panfilo de Narvaez’s 1527 failed search for gold in Florida, through the eyes of the expedition’s real life Moroccan slave and translator, Estebanico. Of the 300 men who went on the expedition only four came out alive; Estebanico was one of them. “How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was.” Estebanico observes. “I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.” Estabancio understands the duplicitous nature of the conquistadors’ rhetoric, but, as a slave, has little choice but to translate it for the unwitting native people.
The interconnectivity between the Americas and Arab culture is similarly reflected in the very naming of the continent’s geography. The name “California” is, for example, believed to have originated in a novel by Spanish writer, Rodriguez de Montavio, called Las Sergas de Esplandian (The Adventures of Esplandian) published in the early 16th century. The novel was about a mystical island paradise populated by beautiful Black Amazonian female warriors; the Island was called California and ruled by Queen Calafia. The story was incredibly popular when Spaniards stumbled across the territory now known as California, whose landscape reminded them of descriptions in the novel. In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, American historian and novelist Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) claimed Rodriquez adapted the name Calafia from the name of Islamic rulers or Caliphs. American publisher and philosopher Ruth Putnam (1856- 1931) similarly argued that California and Calafia came from the Arabic word Khalifa (Caliph), meaning steward or leader, with the possibility Calafia was derived from the feminine of Khalifa, meaning female leader.
To accept Putnam and Hale’s theory would mean California means land of the caliph or possibly the Caliphate.
The Founding Fathers and Islam
It is well known that America’s founding fathers were keen students of Islam and Muslim history. Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Qu’ran, learnt Arabic, and was enamored of many Islamic teachings and histories. Benjamin Franklin greatly admired Islam, and expressed his desire to see the Mufti of Istanbul preach Islam in Philadelphia. In December 1763, when a group of fifty Pennsylvania frontiersmen attacked, tortured, and mutilated peaceful Native American Christian converts tribesmen, Franklin rebuked them and claimed the Native Americans would have been safer living in a Muslim country; he recounted stories of Muslims humanely treating prisoners and the Prophet Muhammad’s merciful actions, which he contrasted with the behavior of the white Christian frontiersmen.
In her book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qu’ran: Islam and the Founders, historian Denise Spellberg provides a different perspective on the Founding Father’s relationship with Islam. She argued that European ideas about secularism and tolerance fueled the Founders’ fascination with Islam. For them Islam and civil rights for Muslims were a litmus test for new ideas about liberty, freedom, and democracy. After all, tolerance and equal rights were only meaningful to the extent they applied to the most abhorred people and cultures; for Europeans, this meant Muslims and Islam. Notwithstanding this ideological commitment, the Founders were inconsistent in its application, especially when it came to the rights of West African Muslim slaves.
A History to Draw From
It is not romantic and has many dark spots that must be acknowledged, but Islam’s relationship with the “New World” can be traced back to its first “discovery” by European colonizers. The role of Islam and Arab culture in this founding moment, underscores the multifaceted nature of American culture and society, including in the United States. It means that for better, or worse, Islam is profoundly American, rather than some foreign body easily transplanted into and out of the American story. This history runs counter to ideas that America and Islam are two irreconcilable forces. In today’s world, it is of the greatest political urgency to remember this reality.