Muslim history in U.S. full of surprises

May 19, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

Where was one of the first mosques in the United States located?

You might think somewhere in Michigan, with its large Arab-American population. Or maybe cosmopolitan places like New York City or Chicago. You'd be wrong in all three cases. But in searching for the answer, you'd get steaming hot, if you thought of a place that gets very cold.

Some sources say the answer is the town of Ross, in the unlikely state of North Dakota. The mosque there opened in 1929. But others say two mosques opened in Maine and Connecticut as early as 1915. One of the oldest mosques still in existence -- it opened in 1934 -- is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The "Islam in America" exhibit currently on display at the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, in the 3400 block of W. North Ave., gives a surprising history lesson about Muslims in our country. But people need to act quickly if they want to see it: The exhibit is on display from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today and tomorrow. After that, it moves to other venues.

Islam's roots in America go back much farther than 1929, a fact that no doubt causes some discomfort to the professional Islam-bashers who have crept out of the woodwork since Sept. 11, 2001. These are the characters who, pulling selected lines from the Quran, have called Islam a violent, evil religion. Muslims can just as easily read the Bible, especially those Old Testament passages that seem like a handbook for -- and give divine approval of -- pillaging, atrocities, mass murder and ethnic cleansing, and make similar conclusions about Christianity.

But Earl El-Amin, the imam at the cultural center, said he wants to promote interfaith understanding. El-Amin said some priests and students from Loyola College toured the exhibit Thursday. Members of some Unitarian churches and synagogues also visited the center even before the exhibit went on display, he said.

"Come view this exhibit and enhance your knowledge of Islam," El-Amin said.

So I decided to do just that, although I was convinced that with books like African Muslims in Antebellum America and Prince Among Slaves on my bookshelves, I already knew plenty.

How wrong I was.

Amir Muhammad, who is with an organization called Collections and Storage of American Muslims, took me on a quick tour of the exhibit.

"We start with the early Muslims in America," Muhammad said, pointing to a painting of Estevanico, the Moor who accompanied Spanish explorers to the southwestern part of what would become the United States. I already knew Estevanico's name from reading several history books. When Muhammad got to the part of the exhibit featuring Bilali Muhammad and Salih Bilali, two Fula Muslim slaves in Georgia, I found I was somewhat familiar with the names. They're in the book African Muslims in Antebellum America.

Ditto for Abrahim Abdul Rahman ibn Sori, who's the subject of the book Prince Among Slaves. Rahman was also a Fula Muslim. There's a picture of him in the exhibit, and he bears a striking resemblance to Frederick Douglass, who some scholars say had Fula ancestors. One historian even suggested that Douglass' birth surname of Bailey was an Anglicization of the Fula name Belali, which is also spelled Bilali.

Sori was captured in Africa, became a slave in Mississippi, married and fathered nine children before he won his freedom and returned to Africa. (Rahman is referred to as Abd Rahman Ibrahima in the book.)

But I didn't know that Robert Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender newspaper, had an African Muslim ancestor. I didn't know that at least 292 Muslims fought for the Union during the Civil War. And I had no idea that when Union forces burned the University of Alabama, the only book saved from the school's library was a copy of the Quran.

Moving quickly from exhibit to exhibit -- Muhammad was taking time from his afternoon prayers to give me the tour -- my guide explained that a map of Saudi Arabia was found in the Quran rescued from the University of Alabama library. Then he told me about Maryland's Mahammitt family, who were descendants of Muslim slaves who settled in Frederick, according to the 1860 census.

By 1880, there were Mahammitts living in Baltimore. The exhibit features an obituary for Jerry Mahammitt, along with a photograph of his tombstone. Census figures from other years show that Muslims from Africa weren't the only practitioners of Islam in America: Others emigrated from countries like Albania, Turkey and Syria.

There were other fascinating tidbits of information: Muhammad explained that the name Sambo, which came to be a racial pejorative, is actually a Fula name that means "second son." Uncas, the last of the Mohicans made famous in the James Fenimore Cooper novel, had a grandson named Mahomet. (That happened from the intermarrying of blacks and American Indians. Those black folks who claim they are "part Indian" may, in fact, be part Indian.)

Admission to the exhibit is free. With so much engrossing history at such a price, giving it a look before it leaves town will be almost like stealing.

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