“Muslims have helped us to be more American, to be better Americans,” writes Loyola Marymount University theology professor Amir Hussain in his new book Muslims and the Making of America. Yet his volume offers little support for this multicultural, politically correct thesis.
“There has never been an America without Muslims,” Hussain states while noting Muslims among America’s African slaves both before and after the United States’ founding. Historians estimate their numbers at between ten and 20 percent of all slaves brought in bondage to America. He analyzes the subsequent “impact of Islamic practices on African American worship and music,” although, as other studies have noted, slave-master repression ultimately extinguished Islamic belief among American slaves.
Similarly examining the American founding, Hussain also concludes that Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s “owning a copy of the Qur’an and reading it is crucial to my argument that Islam is part of the history of America.” He “began learning Arabic in the 1770s, after he purchased a translation of the Qur’an in 1765,” namely the 1734 English translation of the Quranic Arabic by English Orientalist George Sale. “It was this Qur’an that Keith Ellison used when he was sworn in as the first Muslim member of Congress in 2007,” Hussain enthuses.
“To be clear, Jefferson was no fan of Islam,” Hussain writes, and Sale’s Quran offers reasons why. Sale’s introductory essay describes Islam as “so manifest a forgery” that has motivated “calamities brought on so many nations by the conquests of the Arabians.” Hussain also notes President Jefferson’s campaigns against North Africa’s Muslim Barbary pirates; thus the “founding of the modern American Navy is connected to the Muslim world.”
The worlds of entertainment and sports loom large in Hussain’s assessment of Islam in America. Therefore he dedicates his book to Ahmet Ertegun “and to Muhammad Ali, perhaps the two American Muslims with the greatest global influence.” While Ali dominated the boxing ring, Ertegun was “president and cofounder of Atlantic Records and the chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a man who shaped the music of the twentieth century.”
A strange Muslim role model, Ertegun’s biographies say almost nothing about piety, but note his elite background as a diplomat’s son who came to America when his father was Turkey’s ambassador. Using a truly broad definition of “Muslim,” Hussain concedes that Ertegun “wasn’t a ‘good’ Muslim. He lived the high life, was a bon vivant, drank, partied to excess, and had numerous affairs.” Ertegun himself noted in a 2005 interview that he “used to drink a bottle of vodka a day, every day, for about 40 years.”
Meanwhile, Hussain unconvincingly concludes that “Muhammad Ali’s life gave the lie to the ‘problem’” that “Islam is…comprised of adherents who are violent, ‘un-American,’ and a threat to our nation.” Hussain quotes Ali, who began his Muslim spiritual journey as a member of the rabidly anti-Semitic Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1964, refusing in 1967 military service during the Vietnam War. “We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers,” Ali stated, subordinating moral questions of patriotic duty and just war to pure Islamic sectarianism.
Although Ali moderated later in life as he moved away from the NOI towards more mainstream Islamic practice, he had a particularly conflicted relationship with Jews. His 1969 statement to television interviewer David Frost that “all Jews and gentiles are devils” foreshadowed a series of anti-Semitic/anti-Israel statements. By contrast, Ali developed friendships with Jews such as comedian Billy Crystal and sportscaster Howard Cosell, and attended the 2012 bar mitzvah of a grandson born to Ali’s daughter and her Jewish husband.
Hussain also profiles American professional basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who reflected Ali’s less than all-American behavior. Abdul-Rauf received a playing suspension in 1996 after he refused to stand before games for the national anthem. In a 2016 interview, he stated that as a “Muslim, I don’t believe in giving my allegiance to anyone or anything but God,” and that the American “flag represents…tyranny and oppression.”
The NOI and its bizarre offshoot cult, the Five Percenters, present more radicalism, yet Hussain’s analysis of their influence upon American rappers such as Ice Cube shows little concern. His past praise for the NOI exhibited an antisemitism often present in hip-hop music but ignored by Hussain. He likewise ignores Ice Cube’s lax understanding of Islam; Ice Cube stated in a 2000 interview that “going to the mosque, the ritual and the tradition, it’s just not in me to do. So I don’t do it.”
More appealing is Hussain’s description of the “Muslim engineer from Bangladesh, Fazlur Rahman Khan,” who “helped to redefine the American skyline” with design innovations that helped build the World Trade Center. “It was foreign Muslims, nineteen hijackers, who took down those buildings. But it was an American Muslim, Fazlur Rahman Khan, who made those magnificent buildings possible in the first place.” Yet as in the case of Ertegun, little Islamic faith appears in the biography of Khan, who married an Austrian non-Muslim. According to his daughter, he enjoyed “traveling and meeting people of different cultures and different backgrounds, listening to music, reading widely, from existentialism to writings about beauty, and learning about art.”
Hussain’s book ultimately reveals more about how America made various individuals from Muslim backgrounds rather than how Hussain’s Muslims, who often have Madonna’s depth of piety, made America. The radicalism displayed by various Muslims profiled by Hussain affirms his observation that “Islam often was an alternative to ‘White’ or ‘Western’ in African American movements.” Alienated by American racism, these movements often sought false redemption in Islam from historic sins like slavery.
In contrast, the Egyptian-American Ahmed Zewail, whom Hussain praises for winning a Nobel Prize in chemistry, valued America’s merits in a 2009 interview. “What America has given me is a system of appreciation and opportunity, and that is what we are lacking in the Muslim world. If I had stayed in Egypt, I would not have been able to do what I have done.”