Makkah, Medina: Ties with early inhabitants
Islam in America: Part 2
Muslim explorers came to America two centuries before Columbus. Some of them settled down there, coexisting with native tribes. They did not kill the natives, unlike the European settlers who came after Columbus. Afro-American Muslim historians claim that there is evidence to prove that many of the early Muslim settlers merged with the Native Americans, who were by and large monotheists. An ongoing fascinating line of research is on how Native American tribes came to be known by Muslim names such as Makkah (a Washington tribe). Besides, there are Medinas in Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, North Dakota and New York State. Arabic literature and historical travelogues show that Muslim contacts with the other side of the Atlantic were made more than 500 years before Columbus.
Most of these early Muslims or Moors, Muslim historians say, perished along with the natives as the European settlers launched their bloody land grab. Not only did these early European settlers kill the natives, they also branded them savages, showing scant respect for their right to live in the land they had been living in from time immemorial.
Amir Nashid Ali Muhammad, author of ‘Muslims in America: Seven Centuries of History’ says that among the early Moors – the second wave of Muslim migration to America – were those who were fleeing persecution in Spain after the collapse of Muslim rule. They were forced to convert to Catholicism but the persecution did not end. So they crossed the Atlantic.
The author, whom I met in Chicago during the annual convention of the
American Society of Muslims, says that English explorers from Jamestown had seen a colony of bearded people, Moors, who wore European clothing, lived in cabins, and engaged in mining and smelted silver. They lived on the mountains of what is now North Carolina and he had observed them dropping to their knees to pray several times a day.
This young researcher says Muslims came to America in four different waves – first as explorers, then fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, during the Barbary Coast wars (which were incidentally the first conflict the newly independent United States of America waged against armies of North African Muslim states) coinciding with the enslavement of Africans and finally by immigration starting in the mid-to-late 1870s.
Mr. Muhammad – also several other researchers – says that the descendants of some of these early Muslims to America are members of many of the present day native American tribes such as Alibamu of Alabama, the Apaches, Anasazi, Arawak, Arikana, the Black Indians of the Schuylkill river area in New York, the Cherokees, Makkahs, Mahigans, Mohegans and the Zuni.
Renowned American historian and linguist Leo Weiner of Harvard University, in his book ‘Africa and The Discovery of America (1920)’ says that West African Muslims were trading and inter-marrying with Iroquois and Algonquin Indians in North America long before Columbus.
Today, although the US constitution guarantees equal rights to all its citizens, Native Americans and descendants of early Muslims along with their brethren who migrated later still face racial attacks from both institutional and non-institutional quarters.
The word ‘Redskin’ is still defined in many of the English dictionaries as “offensive and derogatory.” The ‘r’ word does not mean ‘respect’ in any dictionary, says Ann N. Dapice, a member of the Tulsa Indian Coalition against Racism and Vice President of T. K. Wolf Inc., a Native American rights group, which we visited during our tour of the United States.
In an article in Tulsa World appearing on June 1 this year, Ms. Dapice says that from the 1600s to the late 1800s, cash bounties were posted by both the British and the US governments for the delivery of ‘redskins’, scalps and body parts. “Indians were often killed for sport, which included the taking of testicles and vaginas for souvenirs.”
When we met Clark Inkanish, a philosophical chief of Native Americans, he related us a number of incidents where they felt Native American culture had been scoffed at. In one incident, he said a doormat at a school depicted a picture of a Native American in his full regalia while in another a teepee, a hallowed Native American symbol, had been used as a game mascot. Another ongoing controversy centers on the Washington Redskin football team. To their (Native Americans) dismay, a federal court this week overturned a 1999 ruling
by the US Patent and Trademark Office, which found the word ‘Redskin’
offensive to Native Americans.
Dawn E. Pratt, a Native American Attorney and human rights activist, told us that despite the historical injustice done to the Native Americans with deaths coming through aid packages that included small pox-infected blankets, Native American youths joined the US military in large numbers and won many a war for the United States. And this trend continued to date, she said.
The very existence of groups such as the Tulsa Indian Coalition against Racism shows that the 2.5 million Native Americans’ struggle for social justice is far from over.
In their struggle, they are not alone. With them are Muslims and of course the descendants of European settlers or the ‘other Americans’ who do not tolerate injustice in whatever form. We attended a meeting of the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry’s Say No To Hate Coalition. Among those who attended the meeting were members of law enforcement authorities, inter-faith dialogue groups, human rights campaigners, Native American activists and religious leaders.
Representing the Muslims of Tulsa, Oklahoma at this meeting were Sheryl Siddiqui and Khadijah Jandhli of the Islamic Society of Tulsa, two outspoken voices against racism in whatever form. Ms. Siddiqui was at the forefront of a campaign against a recent racial attack on a Jewish cemetery.
Signifying the Muslim reawakening in America, the approach of American Muslims such as Ms. Siddiqui to win their demands and assert their rights is through integration – not isolation. Muslim human rights activists are active members of organizations such as the National Conference of Community and Justice (NCCJ), a group that promotes understanding and respect among all races, religions, and cultures through advocacy of conflict resolution and education.
In spite of increasing racial attacks in the aftermath of 9/11, the Muslims are optimistic that their reawakening struggle will bear fruit within the framework of the US Constitution which they believe is based on principles compatible with Islam and ideals Islam stands for.
(Originally appeared in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on Friday, October 10th 2003)