Muslims in American History: A Forgotten Legacy
By: Dr. Jerald F. Dirks
Reviewed by: Shad Imam
“In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”
…and conventional wisdom, as taught to us in our childhoods, tells us that America wasdiscovered with his expedition.
For most of the twentieth century, this “conventional wisdom” went unchallenged. But in his years of research, Dr. Jerald Dirks – a former Harvard Divinity School Minister turned Muslim Comparative Religion scholar – began to see the “Age of Exploration” in a new light. His research and the analysis he brings forth in Muslims in American History: A Forgotten Legacy, goes into some of the historical evidence that contemporary researchers have discovered with regards to the sizable Muslim contributions to the New World, prior to Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic. His book is nicely written (read: easy to read) and highly annotated by the research that others of have contributed into this field of study, including a plethora of references to Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick’s book, Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean from before Columbus to the Present. Dirks, himself a meticulous master of research methodology, confronts the prevalent myth that Islam in America is a relatively recent phenomenon. “In reality,” he asserts, “there is a centuries-long history of the Muslim presence in America.”
The book is divided into logical sections that delineate an ongoing Muslim presence in America since about the mid-12th century and before. His chapters include sections on “The Pre-Columbian Era” which touches on various groups of Muslims in America prior to Columbus. This section is deeply insightful and quite thorough, with stories of Muslims from Andalusia, the Ottoman Empire and Muslim Africa. He then continues to define some of the “European” explorers who may have actually been Muslims, although are not credited as such (an example would be the Moriscos of Spain). Then, he confronts the harsh realities of the genocide of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and even discusses African-based Native American tribes in the Americas (the ethnically-mysterious Melungeons are given a chapter to themselves in this book). Finally, Dr. Dirks discusses the contemporary role that Islam plays in shaping the American culture and context, taking into consideration everything from Islamic rituals among non-Muslim African Americans to the waves of Immigrant Muslims to America in the last half of the last century.
What is most impressive about Dirk’s book is that in the past there have been individual scholars who have addressed the issue of pre-Columbian explorers to the New World (including Sylviane Diouf, Abdullah Hakim Quick and others), but Dirks compiles the various research that has been done up to date into one volume. At times, there does seem to be quite a bit of “circumstantial” evidence, as opposed to hard evidence, but Dirks’ premise is that the circumstantial evidence is simply too much to ignore. For me, one of the most compelling “evidence” for a continued Muslim presence in the New World were the numerous references to world maps that were created by Muslims in the early 16th century, showing details such as the Andes Mountain range and South American rivers.
At the end of the day, what is the real value of such a book (or even such a class)? Aside from challenging conventional wisdom and the “status quo”, Muslims in American History: A Forgotten Legacy depicts a part of our own tradition that has been overlooked, and indeed re-written, over the centuries. In order for us to understand where we, as an American-Muslim Ummah are going, we need to clearly understand where we come from – and the struggles of those in this land before us. The book is peppered with personal biographies and stories of individuals that contributed to the exploration and advancement of the Western world. For anyone who is interested in truly realizing the wisdom of Ali’s (radhiAllahu anhu) statement, “A man who knows history has added ages (wisdom) to his age”, this is a must-read.
Dr. Dirk’s own personal history is as intriguing as some of the facts that are presented in this book – his personal journey to become a Christian theologian and minister led him to accept Islam as the true calling of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him). Yet – perhaps it is most fitting that Allah chose a religious Christian American who thought he was rejecting his American roots by becoming a Muslim to tell the story of how Islam may be just as integral to American history as “American Pie.” SOURCE