Pioneers in American Islamic Education

By al-Ahari, Muhammed Abdullah | Islamic Horizons, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Pioneers in American Islamic Education


al-Ahari, Muhammed Abdullah, Islamic Horizons


New Muslims shared many of the same struggles as regards educating their children.

Efforts to transmit an Islamic or Muslim identity in America, Brazil, and the Caribbean, which started during slavery (1600-1865), were largely ineffective because Muslim slaves could pass on only a handful of Arabic manuscripts and a few words, songs, or religious concepts. For example, Bilali Muhammad of Sapelo Island, GA, preserved a thirteen-page manuscript on Islamic belief, prayer, and ablution; however, no one could read it. He also transmitted several recipes and Arabic and Fulani words into Gullah (the AfricanAmerican Georgia Sea Island dialect) and the "Ring Shout" or "Buzzard Lope" (a dance representing the circumlocution around the Ka'bah). This translation of a pilgrimage ritual into a highly formalized dance was designed for an enslaved population who could not undertake the hajj. The dance continued as part of the Gullah cultural troupe after the end of slavery.

Paul E. Lovejoy and Yacine Daddi Ad- doun (The Arabic Manuscript of Muham- mad Kaba Saghanughu ofjamaica, c. 1820 in "Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Ka- mau Bratiiwaite," eds. Annie Paul, Kamau Bradiwaite;University of the West Indies Press, 2007) report diat Jamaican Muslim leader Muhammad Kaba Shaganugu wrote a book "The Book of Prayer," enti- ded "Kitab al-Salat" by die trans- lators, to guide a fledgling Muslim community recendy freed from slavery. This hand-written and hand-bound work of over sixty pages, written in 1820, was origi- nally listed as being a selection from the Qur'an and is preserved in Jamaica's Trinity College Library. After 1865, when slavery legally ended in America, laws against teaching slaves (now former slaves) how to read were abolished. However, so few enslaved Muslims had been able to pass on an Islamic identity that no new Islamic education system developed.

Isolated Muslim families and individuals came before the Civil War and assimilated within a generation or so. In the 1870s, immigrants began arriving from die declining Ottoman Empire; however, they did not organize until Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916), an American diplomat, embraced Islam while living in the Philip- pines and opened a short-lived press and reading room in Manhattan, NY. Recendy, several books have appeared on his writings and methods: Dr. 'U. F. Abd Allah, "A Mus- lim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb" (2006); M. A. al-Ahari, "Mohammed Alexander Rus- sell Webb: Islam in America, and the American Islamic Propagation Movement" (1998); and M. A. R Webb and B. D. Singleton, eds., "Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb" (2007). Dr. Abd Allah established a Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb Society to preserve the heritage of Muslims in America as a way to continue his work studying Webb's life and da 'wah programs.

First Arrival. In the early decades of the twentieth century, thousands of immigrants arriving from areas now known as Lebanon, Bosnia, Turkey, and Albania established some of America's first Muslim organizations, both ethnic and multiethnic. They tended to be isolated from the indigenous Muslim African-American groups that had arisen before WW II, such as Sufi Abdul Hamid's Temple of Tranquility, founded in die early 1930s in Harlem; Paul Nathaniel Johnson's (Sheikh Ahmad Deen) Fahamme Temple in the 1920s in St. Louis; the Nation of Islam in Detroit's Pleasant Valley in 1930; the First Mosque of Cleveland in 1943; the First Mosque of Pittsburgh in 1945; the International Islamic Society in the 1930s in Harlem; the State Street Mosque (Islamic Mission - Brooklyn) in 1928; and the Academy of Islam (Harlem) in 1936. However, diese mosdy new Muslims shared many of the same struggles as regards developing an Islamic identity, educating their children, demanding civil rights, and acquiring an economic and political voice in mainstream America.

Immigrant Lebanese farmers in Ross, ND, built America's first mosque in 1929; however, their legacy disappeared because the absence of a formal education system restricted it to the prayer rituals and some selections of the Qur'an. …

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