Muslims in British America

The English world has known Islam for centuries; we recall the Islamic scholars who appear in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales of 1386. After the Crusades, Britain established relations with some Islamic countries, and the Ottoman Sultan Murad helped Queen Elizabeth I with her campaign against the Spanish Armada. A few Englishmen converted in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and a 1641 document mentions "a sect of Mahomatens" in London. In 1649, Alexander Ross translated the Qur'an into English. By the early eighteenth century, Muslim sailors employed by the East India Company established communities in English ports.

A True and Faithful Account of the Religion & Manners of the Mahometans by Joseph Pitts is an early account of the Muslim world from the perspective of one Englishman who experienced it firsthand. Arab pirates captured the teenaged sailor Pitts in 1678, and he spent fifteen years as a slave in Algeria. Pitts converted to Islam (under duress, he said) and went to Mecca in the day when one got there by sea or in one of four great caravans sweeping across Arabia from the corners of the Muslim world. Perhaps the only Englishman of his time to see Mecca, Pitts published his adventures in 1704, after he escaped and returned home to England.

George Sale produced the first English translation of the Koran, published in London in 1734. Thomas Jefferson purchased the 1764 two-volume, second edition of Sale's translation when he was a student in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765. It was among the books Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress in 1815 (In January of 2007, Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U. S. Congress, borrowed Jefferson's copy of the Koran on which to swear his oath of office).

Muslims arrived in North America through the forced migration of slaves beginning in the 1520s. As many as 20 percent of slaves transported from West Africa to Colonial America might have been Muslim. Most probably converted to Christianity-like Williamsburg's only known resident of Muslim extraction, Selim of Algeria-although some maintained their religious identity and spoke or wrote in Arabic. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a slave who lived in Maryland from 1731 until 1734, received from his master a private worship space after a white child threw dirt in his face as he prayed.

While Muslims could be held as servants or slaves in British America, some legislatures also restricted free Muslims from owning white servants. In its 1705 revision of its laws, the Virginia legislature relegated to slavery all non-Christians brought there, except "Turks and Moors in amity with her majesty, and others that can make due proof their being free . . . in any other christian country, before they were shipped." The same legislation further prevented any "negros, mulattos, or Indians, although christians, or Jews, Moors, Mahometans [Muslims]" from purchasing white indentured servants and freed any white servants belonging to any person who married a non-Christian. The virtual absence of Muslims from early Virginia made the law regarding them moot.

At least a few free Muslims lived in the South in the early days of the Republic. In 1790, the South Carolina legislature conferred special legal status on a community of Moroccans; twelve years earlier, the Sultan of Morocco had become the first foreign head of state to recognize the United States. In 1796, President John Adams signed a treaty declaring the United States had no "character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen." American perceptions of Muslims deteriorated a few years later, though, as President Thomas Jefferson waged his naval war against Barbary pirates from 1801 to 1805. No further significant influx of Muslims occurred until after the Civil War.

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