“Woven into the fabric of our country”? Islam In Early America

President Obama created controversy in a recent speech

“Part of the reason that the president gave few details about Islam and the founding era is that most of Islam’s role at that time was either in negative associations, or in real Muslim slaves. Neither gives much fodder, I’m afraid, for positive examples that the president might cite.”

 

President Obama created controversy in a recent speech when he asserted that “Islam has been woven into the fabric of our country since its founding.” He followed this statement with rather generic statements about Muslim immigrants coming to America and finding economic opportunity and freedom.

The point of the president’s comments is, of course, that millions of Muslims live and prosper in America, and that they, not ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or other jihadists, are representative Muslims. America, and the American government, welcomes these Muslims here as friends and fellow citizens. This, in my opinion, is correct, and is just the sort of thing that the president needs to emphasize over and over.

But what about the idea that Islam has been “woven into the fabric” of America since the founding? What role did Islam, and Muslims, play in colonial and Revolutionary America?

Part of the reason that the president gave few details about Islam and the founding era is that most of Islam’s role at that time was either in negative associations, or in real Muslim slaves. Neither gives much fodder, I’m afraid, for positive examples that the president might cite.

As I noted in a chapter on Islam which I contributed to Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall’s book Faith and the Founders of the American Republic,

There were actual Muslims living in America during the Founding period, but the vast majority of them were toiling as slaves in the South. Of course, Muslim traders and sailors also passed through American ports on occasion, but most American Muslims were Africans forcibly imported to work on American plantations. The exact number of Muslims, of course, is hard to discern, but historian Michael Gomez has estimated that perhaps 200,000 slaves came from African regions with significant Muslim influences. This does not mean that all of these were Muslims, but it does suggest that hundreds of thousands of slaves may have been at least marginally familiar with Muslim beliefs.

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