Muslims Came to America More Than a Century Before Protestants

MOHAMMED KHAKU: There is numerous contemporary mix of truth and falsehood in history about the “First” Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

So, should American Muslims celebrate or mourn on this day?

We should celebrate and remember the past history to contemplate the first Migration (Hijrah) of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina and our own journeys from different parts of the world to the USA.

Muslims should be thankful for all the blessings of the Lord as we celebrate a day of Thanksgiving, but we also need to commit ourselves to fight against poverty, racism, oppression, and economic justice.

Many Native Americans have observed this same day as a National Day of Mourning in remembrance of the theft of their lands by the Puritan Pilgrims, and the enslavement and subjugation of their ancestors.

Let’s make this a day of thanksgiving by remembering our heritage as American Muslims. Many Muslims are not aware of the first Muslim’s arrival on the Island of Sapelo, and their contribution.

Muslims have been part of the American landscape for centuries. American Muslim history can be traced to the day the first slave ship landed on Virginia’s coast in 1619.

Many do not know about Abd el-Kader, known as the George Washington of Algeria after whom a town (Elkader) in Iowa was named, or Anas Hamawi, a Muslim immigrant from Syria who helped create the American ice cream cone by selling wafer-thin Syrian pancakes at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904.

The great American landmark, the Washington Monument on the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC. was completed in the 1880s in part with the gift of funds from the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul.

The Washington Monument has Sultan’s commemorative plaque with a calligraphed poem in the Arabic script for the American people; “Let’s give thanks for wisdom, foresight, and small kindnesses in our leaders, communities, and families.”

The first Muslim slaves were coerced into converting to Christianity, but many retained their Muslim identity and maintained their religious lifestyle in the midst of a hostile environment.

They practice and preserve their faith, most notably during Ramadan with fasting and daily prayers. Islam provided hope for the Muslim slaves; it was their strength, courage, and dignity.

Education became the basis of their freedom. Muslim slaves resisted converting to Christianity and went to great efforts to practice Islam secretly, practicing and adhering to the pillars of their faith, praying and fasting.

A plantation owner in Georgia noticed many of the slaves would bow down in the early morning for prayers. Their Muslim lifestyle was never completely lost.

On the island of Sapelo, off the coast of Georgia, where many mosques which were converted to churches and cemeteries were built facing Mecca.

If one studies the history of the people of Sapelo Island, one will find that they are the descendants of Bilal Muhammad. He and his wife, Phoebe, and children, Medina and Fatema, resisted converting to Christianity.

Bilal could read and write Arabic and in 1829 he authored small books on Islamic beliefs and rules of ablution, morning prayers, and call to prayers.

These Bilal books, known as Bilali Documents, are housed at the University of Georgia. The descendants of Bilal Muhammad all have the surname of Baily, which is certainly a corruption of the name Bilal.

In the 1960s, boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam ignited pride and dignity not just within the black community but also among Muslims.

One of Malcolm X’s most inspiring lines regarding Muslim slave history was, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock landed on us.”

This Thanksgiving let’s remember the Muslims who arrived in America in the hulls of slave ships. Malcolm X did say, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us!”

Historians estimate that a quarter of African slaves brought to America were Muslim. Alex Haley in the movie “The Roots” traced the character of Kunte Kinte to a Muslim village in West Africa.

Let’s give thanks to those who lifted us out of slavery, and for the dignity in the struggle of the late Rosa Parks and her generation.

Let’s all remember our own shortcomings, and give thanks for the infinite mercy, forgiveness, and love of our Creator.

Let’s give thanks. Let’s pray and work for a future of peace, and justice.

President Obama summarized American Muslim history in his Cairo speech in 2009:

“I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize America was Morocco. … And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, and they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Quran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.”

Mohammed Khaku is a social and criminal justice writer