By Julia Duin
Indiana University religious studies professor Edward Curtis’ recent
book, "Muslims in America," is, according to his publisher, the first
single-author history of American Muslims from Colonial times to the
There is not a whole lot of competition. I don’t know of any
textbooks that mention how there were Islamic names like Hassan and Ali
in documents from our Spanish colonial period (in the American
Southwest) in the 1600s.
In 1730, roughly 280 years ago, the first identifiable Muslim arrived on the Eastern Seaboard.
He was Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. The hapless man was enslaved by
Muslim slavers in present-day Senegal and put on a slave ship that
landed in Annapolis. From there, the African was taken to a nearby
tobacco farm. He became known as Job, and he could read and write
Arabic and had memorized the Koran.
Somehow, he got a letter circulated asking for his release. It
fell into the hands of James Oglethorpe, a member of the British
Parliament who arranged to have Job freed and eventually returned to
Given that Islam had nearly 1,000 years to expand into West
Africa before Protestant missionaries began arriving in the 19th
century, it seems only logical that many of the slaves captured and
sent across the Atlantic were Muslim. I called Mr. Curtis in Jordan,
where he’s doing research on a Fulbright scholarship, to ask why so
little has been said in our history books about Muslims in America.
"There’s a lot of street knowledge that Islam is part of the
black American past," he said, "but there is little sense of America’s
Muslim past among the general populace. There’s a sense today one can’t
be Muslim and American.
"But Thomas Jefferson was quite a scholar of Islam. He had his
own Koran. The Founding Fathers saw Islam as a rational religion in
contrast to Roman Catholic popery."
Mr. Curtis chronicles the stories of several Muslim slaves who,
although in America against their will, made the best of their
situation and either became overseers of other slaves or joined
After the Civil War, Muslims — mostly from Syria and Lebanon —
began to trickle in. There were only a few white converts, the first
being Alexander Webb, the U.S. consul to the Philippines, who accepted
Islam in the late 1870s.
Islam’s most famous American convert, Malcolm X, didn’t
discover the faith until the 1940s, while in prison. In 1952, the year
he was released, there already were 20 mosques in North America, thanks
to some savvy proselytizing among blacks.
Mr. Curtis says that started in the 1920s, when American
Muslims achieved enough mass to constitute a religious denomination. In
1920 itself, Indian missionary Mufti Muhammad Sadiq immigrated here to
convert people to the Ahmadiyya movement in Islam.
Although most Muslims view the Admadi Muslims as heretics
because they believe their founder, Ghulam Ahmad — not Muhammad — was
the final prophet for Islam, Mr. Sadiq’s efforts made up the first
successful Muslim missionary movement in the West.
"I honestly believe part of the tensions between Muslims
outside of the United States and inside the United States is due to
ignorance," Mr. Curtis says. "My hope is that by conjuring up our
American ancestors, we will think of ourselves in the present
• Julia Duin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.