Coming out next year, is the most comprehensive book, no, encyclopedia on Muslims in America. The general editor, Professor Edward E. Curtis IV was kind enough to answer a few of my questions and give us a brief overview of this important work!
Would you be willing to write a small note or article about your upcoming book for my blog?
Adapted from "Introduction to a History both Muslim and American," from Edward E. Curtis IV, general editor, Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2010).
The Encylcopedia of Muslim-American History, featuring the work of nearly 130 contributors who penned 330 entries, is the largest scholarly work ever produced on the Muslim-American experience. In addition to biographies of Muslim Americans and entries on Muslim-American groups, the encyclopedia offers information on Muslim-American participation in major historical events such as the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (the Chicago World’s Fair), critical court cases such as Fulwood v. Clemmer (1962), important sectors of the U.S. economy such as healthcare, and familiar organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. It charts the impact of Muslim Americans on cities such as Atlanta and Cleveland and Muslim-American contributions to American jazz, film, poetry, and hip hop.
The encyclopedia also features the most comprehensive chronology of Muslim-American history ever published. This chronology should be especially helpful to students, teachers, community activists, and others who wish to incorporate Muslims into their understanding of U.S. history. It details obscure events such as the 1803 conversion of white Americans to Islam during the course of First Barbary War, the 1847 escape of Muslim slave and sailor Mahommah Baquaqua from his captors at the port of New York, and the 1910 arrival of Inayat Khan, the Sufi missionary and Hindustani musician who toured America. It also charts the opening of mosques in Boston, Massachusetts; Detroit, Michigan; and Ross, North Dakota. More well-known happenings such as the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975 are noted as are cultural milestones such as Life magazine’s 1948 cover story on Muslim jazz artists and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement from the National Basketball Association with the most points of any player in history. The encyclopedia also contains dozens of historical illustrations and photographs that help readers better imagine the people, events, and places that are part of the Muslim-American past. Finally, it concludes with a master bibliography, perhaps the most definitive compilation published sources on Muslim-American history.
As a whole, the articles, original documents, chronology, and images make it possible to recover the essential role of Muslims in U.S. history and to incorporate them into our common notion of who we are as Americans. Such a task is critical in our age. By conjuring these American ancestors and unearthing our shared past, the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History provides us all with new memories of who we have been and new hopes for what we might become.
1) When did you first come up with the idea of writing this encyclopedia?
I was contacted by Facts on File, Inc., and invited to be general editor of the project.
2) What kind of impact do you expect your encyclopedia to have?
Since Facts on File has a lot of success in placing their encyclopedias in high school and college libraries, my hope is that the encyclopedia becomes the first place to which students will turn when trying to understand how Muslims have been a part of U.S. history. Teachers of advanced placement courses will be able to incorporate original documents from Muslim Americans into their courses and integrate discussion of Muslims into their coverage of everything from the Civil War to U.S. foreign relations. On the scholarly level, I hope that it does its part to change the presentist bias in "Islam in America" studies; an historical perspective is generally lacking in this growing subfield.
3) What can we learn most about the Muslim Americans of the past?
Muslims have been part of the American story from before the republic was founded and have shaped the unfolding of U.S. history. They were multi-ethnic and multi-racial and subscribed to various forms of Islam from the beginning, too. Rather than seeing Muslims as separate from U.S. history, the encylcopedia's most important contribution is to integrate Muslims into the stories that make us Americans.
4) Was there a story/article you found most interesting?
There were so many! I did not know that thousands of Muslims had served in the U.S. military from the Revolutionary war to World War I. I also discovered that Muslim Americans have been vitally important for the last hundred years to the history of American jurisprudence, so the entry on law is really important. The history of Muslim contributions to jazz demonstrates how Muslims changed American culture. And I found even more evidence that our common narrative of Islam among African Americans is all wrong. It didn't start with the Nation of Islam. The Nation was only one of several black Muslim organizations competing for converts before World War II.
5) Did you find that the Muslim-Americans faced the same challenges Muslim-Americans face today?
Most Muslim Americans in 1820 were enslaved, so of course circumstances have changed since then. Muslim Americans who moved from Syria to North Dakota in 1900 struggled to stay warm in the winter, especially when they had to use the outhouse, but today, with the exeption of homeless Muslim Americans, there are few Muslim Americans who do not have heat and indoor plumbing. Muslims still face some of the same stereotypes that they did in 1800 and first generation Muslim immigrants, like the European, South Asian, and Arab Muslim immigrants who came before World War I, are still hard-working members of their community who contribute their culture and know-how to cities such as New York and Cedar Rapids, Iowa--both of which have entries in the encyclopedia.
6) Were the Muslim-Americans of the past politically active? If so, how? If not, why not?
Again, we have to reference slavery. Slaves did not have the right to vote, so most Muslims in the colonial, Revolutionary, and antebellum eras could not participate formally in governance. Muslims have always played an irreplaceable symbolic role in U.S. politics, however. In addition, if you define politics in its classical sense--that is, the search among community members for an ordered life together--Muslims have always been active. One of the first prominent black men to visit the White House was a Muslim. Abdul Rahman Ibrahima met John Quincy Adams in the 1820s.
In the 20th century, it was a different story. Muslims were politically active in the Dakotas, where they sent their boys to join the American Expetionary Force in World War I and joined political parties and agricultural associations. In the 1920s, Arab American Muslims in New York formally organized against Zionism, and drew hundreds to a protest in Brooklyn. Several African American Muslim leaders were sympathetic toward the Japanese in World War II; they considered the Japanese to be fellow people of color. But many Muslim Americans, African American and immigrant, once again supported the United States by joining the army. By the 1960s, of course, there was no more important voice in debates over civil rights and Vietnam than Muslims such as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
Dr. Edward E. Curtis is the IVMillennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and is a Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. His homepage is http://liberalarts.iupui.edu/rel/curtisweb/curtishome.htm.