Islam WAS Part of the Fabric of Colonial Life

In his closing speech at the recent Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Barack Obama made a remark about Islam and American history that is bothering some of his opponents.  Here is what he said.  (I have highlighted the part of this passage that is drawing the most criticism):

And finally, we need to do what extremists and terrorists hope we will not do, and that is stay true to the values that define us as free and diverse societies.  If extremists are peddling the notion that Western countries are hostile to Muslims, then we need to show that we welcome people of all faiths. 
Here in America, Islam has been woven into the fabric of our country since its founding.  Generations of Muslim immigrants came here and went to work as farmers and merchants and factory workers, helped to lay railroads and build up America.  The first Islamic center in New York City was founded in the 1890s.  America’s first mosque — this was an interesting fact — was in North Dakota.   
Muslim Americans protect our communities as police officers and firefighters and first responders, and protect our nation by serving in uniform, and in our intelligence communities, and in homeland security.  And in cemeteries across our country, including at Arlington, Muslim American heroes rest in peace having given their lives in defense of all of us. 
I interpreted Obama’s remark about Islam being ” woven into the fabric of our country since its founding” to mean that Muslims have always populated the American religious landscape.  It could also be interpreted to mean that some eighteenth-century people, such as Thomas Jefferson, read the Koran.  I don’t think Obama was saying that Muslims specifically contributed to the political founding of the nation, that they were part of the religious mainstream at the time of the founding, or that Islam somehow informed the political philosophy of the founding. This was instead a statement about the United States’s historic commitment to religious freedom. 
Yet Obama’s critics hear what they want to hear.
For example, at The New American, Selwyn Duke says Obama is historically illiterate because, as we all know, there were no founding fathers named “Gamal bin Washington” or “Thamar Jefferson.”   At Breitbart.com, Ben Shaprio is a bit more nuanced. He admits that there were Muslim slaves in the colonies, but argues that this hardly affirms Obama’s statement that Muslims have been “woven into the fabric of the nation.” Shapiro is writing under the assumption that slaves did not contribute in some way to the making of the nation, as if their labor did not provide the wealth necessary for Washington and Jefferson to make their grandiose claims about freedom. (See Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom on this point). Meanwhile, David Barton, in an appearance on the Glenn Beck show, correctly notes that Muslims came to America as slaves, but like Shapiro he concludes that “it might be a stretch” to say that these Muslim slaves were part of the “fabric of the country.”

Indeed, about ten percent of seventeenth-century slaves in the colonies were Muslim (and they did not have freedom–religious or otherwise).  

Most British-Americans were anti-Muslim in the same way that they were anti-Catholic.  They viewed Islam as a false and tyrannical religion.  The founding fathers did not have nice things to say about Islam as a religious system.  This is all true.


In 1784, Virginia founder Richard Henry Lee wrote that he agreed with the premise that “true freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo as well as the Xtian religion.” There were few Muslims in British North America when he wrote this in a letter to James Madison.  But they did exist.  And as human beings they were part of the “fabric” of colonial life.  Did they have the power or the numbers to shape colonial and revolutionary life?  Of course not.  But I don’t think this was what Obama meant when he said that Muslims were part of the nation’s “fabric.”

Perhaps this discussion rests solely on how one defines the phrase “fabric of our country.”  If so, isn’t it true that all stitches are part of the fabric?

20 thoughts on “Islam WAS Part of the Fabric of Colonial Life

  1. Bill Fortenberry said…

    Yes, Jimmy, I was being very selective. When speaking of the various philosophies which were part of the fabric of our nation's founding, it seems reasonable to me to limit the selection to those philosophies which actually made such contributions. As I said, I am not aware of a single contribution which was made by the philosophy of Islam other than the incitement which the Islamic nations provided for the first build up of our navy. Can you point to any philosophical contributions which are traceable to the influence of Islam in colonial America?

    Crickets. Your definition wins.

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  2. Islam is not a workforce; it is a philosophy. If Islam itself made contribution to the fabric of colonial life, then we should be able to describe that contribution in terms of philosophical rather than physical edifices.

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  3. I can point to the plentiful structures built by Muslims in this country. They came over here as slaves. They made a contribution. Everything is a contribution whether it is positive or negative.

    I personally am not acquainted with Muslims in the early American Republic. However, if you would look to see what I posted earlier, Dr. Spellburg has something to say about that. I think she knows more about it than I do. Check with her research which does indicate a Muslim presence in that period. It definitely shows a contribution.

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  4. Yes, Jimmy, I was being very selective. When speaking of the various philosophies which were part of the fabric of our nation's founding, it seems reasonable to me to limit the selection to those philosophies which actually made such contributions. As I said, I am not aware of a single contribution which was made by the philosophy of Islam other than the incitement which the Islamic nations provided for the first build up of our navy. Can you point to any philosophical contributions which are traceable to the influence of Islam in colonial America?

    As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Americans agreed with Montesquieu's conclusion “that a moderate government is most agreeable to the Christian religion, and a despotic government to the Mahometans.” That doesn't mean that I think colonial Americans were opposed to the presence of Muslims in America, but rather that they were opposed to the philosophy of Islam and in favor of the philosophy of Christianity instead.

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  5. In colonial and early America, Islam and Muslims were neither “abstract” nor “a fog.” These are unsubstantiated value judgments. It is also incorrect to dismiss the president's remarks as “simply wrong.” As noted by MSC, political speeches often convey important truths even if they overreach (e.g., Obama's “Magna Carta” speech before the British Parliament in 2011).

    I can only share what I have read:

    1) Jews and Muslims in Colonial America “The authors argue, based on this data, that there was a much larger presence of non-Christian colonists in the early American colonies, and that they contributed greatly to the initial growth and economic prosperity of the United States.”

    “Hirschman and Yates analyzed naming practices, marriage patterns, business relationships and DNA testing revealing that a large number of early settlers were of Sephardic Jewish, Ashkenazic Jewish and Muslim (both North African and Ottoman) origin. This included settlers in Virginia (1587 Roanoke and 1589 Jamestown), Massachusetts (including settlers among the Pilgrims and Puritans), South Carolina (many of whose settlers originated in Barbados and bore Sephardic Jewish connections), New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania (where settlers had surnames such as Ali, Arif and Saladin).”

    http://www.business.rutgers.edu/news/2010/10/25/professor-hirschmans-book-jews-and-muslims-colonial-america-be-published

    2) The Founding Fathers and Islam
    Library Papers Show Early Tolerance for Muslim Faith
    by JAMES H. HUTSON
    Hutson posits that the founders and “ordinary citizens shared these positive views [of Islam and Muslims] is demonstrated by a petition of a group of citizens of Chesterfield County, Va., to the state assembly, Nov. 14, 1785: “Let Jews, Mehometans and Christians of every denomination enjoy religious liberty…thrust them not out now by establishing the Christian religion lest thereby we become our own enemys and weaken this infant state. It is mens labour in our Manufactories, their services by sea and land that aggrandize our Country and not their creeds. Chain your citizens to the state by their Interest. Let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every denomination find their advantage in living under your laws.”
    http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0205/tolerance.html

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  6. MSC: “His intention was no doubt an attempt to suggest that Islam was an important part of America's founding.”

    Your reply is entirely your (selective) interpretation of his words. Nothing wrong with interpretation, no matter how selective, but you do not get to dictate what another person actually means. You may only state how you interpret it.

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  7. It seems obvious to most observers that Obama's comment was extremely political. His intention was no doubt an attempt to suggest that Islam was an important part of America's founding. I think that is how the average American would interpret the “woven into the fabric” phrase. It was not intended to be parsed by professional historians. Furthermore, it suggests that if that thread was removed than America would unravel. That is hardly the case. I think the founders understood that religious freedom extends to all religions, but I doubt they ever thought Islam would have any kind of a profound impact, then or later, on shaping the nation; and that seems to be what Obama was insinuating by his comment. To suggest otherwise is wholly unconvincing.

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  8. Bill,
    You are being selective in your choices of who to include in the fabric. ALL are part of it whether you like their contribution or not. That means everyone, not just the ones you prefer.

    Slaves, Native Americans, the French, Spanish, Chinese, Germans, Japanese, Hawaiians, etc. were a part of the nation. In addition to Founding Fathers there were Founding Mothers. No one is left out from the inclusive narrative of American history.

    Everybody made a contribution whether it was positive or negative, useful or useless. Some valued religion while others did not. Just because a sermon was given on that day does not mean everyone agreed with it. I can point to the ratification of the Constitution as an example of a situation where something great happened, but a large number of people disagreed with ratifying it.

    You really are picking something to support your opinion while leaving out anything that does not. You are doing the same with the people that made up America.

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  9. Well, John, I would say that the patriotic preachers such as Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel Langdon, Samuel Cooper, and etc. would be an example of the kind of historical actors that contributed to the fabric of our nation. Samuel Cooper's sermon

    “A Sermon Preached Before His Excellency John Hancock, Esq; Governor, The Honourable Senate, and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, October 25th, 1780. Being the day of the Commencement of the Constitution and Inauguration of the New Government.”

    for example, contributed greatly to the prevailing view of biblical government held by the colonists, and Jonathan Mayhew's “Discourse on Unlimited Submission” contributed to their philosophy regarding the proper response to tyranny.

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  10. Even if you take the view that he was referring to the mere presence of Muslims on our shores during the founding era, that would not justify his claim that Islam is woven into the fabric of our nation.

    Bill Fortenberry is on solid ground here. Litigating the rapist part loses the thread, as is turning the question around on him.

    The title of this post, the debate topic, is

    “Islam WAS Part of the Fabric of Colonial Life”

    So far, the only evidence offered is that some of the slaves [20%?] were putatively Muslim.

    Does this qualify as “fabric?” Does this even qualify as “Islam?”
    __________________
    Bill: As a historian, I would have no problem claiming that thievery, rape, and murder are woven into the fabric of our nation

    Now THERE'S a debate!

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  11. Bill: As a historian, I would have no problem claiming that thievery, rape, and murder are woven into the fabric of our nation. I don't know why a politician would bring this up, but as a historian this kind of unseemly stuff is part of the historical record. But here is my question for you: What kind of historical actors do YOU believe make up the “fabric of our nation?” I am assuming that Muslims would be left off the list. Which leads to my next question: How would you classify the Muslims that were here at the time of the founding?

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  12. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why so many historians are attempting to justify Obama's comments. The President was simply wrong. Even if you take the view that he was referring to the mere presence of Muslims on our shores during the founding era, that would not justify his claim that Islam is woven into the fabric of our nation. There were also thieves, rapists and murderers on our shores at that time, but we would never claim that thievery, rape and murder are woven into the fabric of our nation. As far as I can tell, the only contribution that Islam made to America's fabric was the encouragement that it provided for building a strong navy.

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  13. If you want to know what Dr. Spellburg said about Jefferson and Islam as well as her opinions on Muslims in Revolutionary America, why not just use her own words instead of someone else's?

    “Jefferson and [George] Washington and others were theorizing about a future American population when, ironically and tragically, they never knew that real Muslims were already in America. But they were slaves, brought from west Africa against their will.

    “We don't know how many were the first American Muslims; we think they numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands. And it's not impossible that Jefferson actually owned Muslim slaves from Africa, but there's no direct evidence of it. That's not the case for George Washington, his neighbor in Virginia.

    “Washington, among his taxable items … someone on his plantation listed the names of Fatimer and Little Fatimer. And despite being spelled with an 'er' at the end, this is clearly the name of the prophet's daughter Fatima. So there were Muslim women working on Washington's plantation at the same time he was inviting people of all faiths to a protected religious liberty and rights in the United States.”

    This is from an interview with her on NPR at this link. http://www.npr.org/2013/10/12/230503444/the-surprising-story-of-thomas-jeffersons-quran

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  14. I think they're apples and oranges. Christianity was a reality, Islam was a fog. The president's remark that Islam was “woven into the fabric” of America just doesn't hold. You'd have a tough enough time arguing that for Roman Catholicism. Catholics, OK, but not Catholicism.

    Again, to return to my original demurral

    Shapiro is writing under the assumption that slaves did not contribute in some way to the making of the nation, as if their labor did not provide the wealth necessary for Washington and Jefferson to make their grandiose claims about freedom.

    there's a necessary distinction between the persons and the religion itself. Islam itself simply doesn't move the meter, and the Denise Spielberg quote supports this, that they didn't show “any inherent appreciation for Islam as a religion.”

    As for the separate question as to whether they did show an appreciation for Christianity substantively as conducive to the American experiment, it's not hard to find where they did. But a collegial discussion

    http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674032309

    might not be practical here at this moment. Thank you for your courteous reply.

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  15. Tom: “What little the Founders knew of Islam they didn't like.”

    I've no doubt that they found it distasteful in the extreme. However, the point being made here is that it was known, and at least accepted in that abstract.

    Unless you would argue that there was a similar distinction, in the minds of the Founders, between Christianity and individual Christians?

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  16. Islam in the abstract is well-known and well-quoted in the Founders' quest for religious tolerance. However.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/books/review/thomas-jeffersons-quran-by-denise-a-spellberg.html?_r=0

    As if reluctant to render her subjects too sympathetic, Spellberg counters instances of their rousing liberality with deflating evidence to the contrary. We are told again and again, for example, that Jefferson and company championed Muslim rights, but only hypothetically, as an extreme test case.

    Moreover, they lacked “any inherent appreciation for Islam as a religion.” Such qualifying asides rob the book of its power.

    Which is precisely my point. But I appreciate the courteous reply.

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  17. Shapiro is writing under the assumption that slaves did not contribute in some way to the making of the nation, as if their labor did not provide the wealth necessary for Washington and Jefferson to make their grandiose claims about freedom.

    There would be a distinction between Muslims and Islam itself. What little the Founders knew of Islam they didn't like.

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