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Muhammad Russell Webb: The first prominent Anglo-American Muslim convert

Early Life and Religion in Hudson Valley

Muhammad Russell Webb grew up in Hudson Valley, New York on November 20th 1846, and to understand Webb and his relationship with Christianity it is important to dive into religious movements in Victorian America. Hudson Valley was home to a plethora of branches of Christianity including; Methodists, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers (founders of Hudson Valley), and Webb’s family’s religious affiliation, Presbyterians. [1] Ironing out some of the theological differences between these groups is a must because these differences were one of the reasons Webb would later convert to Islam, Sunni Islam to be specific.

Quakers would get their start in Great Britain in the 1650s and would look to carve out a simplistic worshiping style. Quakers, are said to “quake in the name of Lord”, have no clergy, sacraments, and believe they can communicate with God directly. They also oppose war and oaths of legal office.[2] Lutheranism, a product of German reformer Martin Luther, hold the Bible as the only guide to doctrine and people come to God through Jesus. Baptists differ from these two; they believe primacy of the Bible and baptism should be reserved for adults only.

Webb would have been most familiar with Presbyterianism, the religion of the pilgrims who set sail for America and landed in Massachusetts. Presbyterians are governed by elders and have no bishops.[3] Early in Webb’s adult life he moved towards the Episcopal Church, a theology that mirrors the Catholic Church in hierarchy but, does not recognize the Pope.[4]

Webb’s Views on Religion and Christianity

Webb gives a few clues into his views on Christianity in his own words in his book, Islam in America (1893). He starts off by saying his purpose in writing the book is not to destroy or weaken anyone’s faith but, to “arose and encourage” English-speakers to investigate their beliefs.[5] Early on, Webb questioned the doctrines of The Trinity and the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was born of a virgin). Webb was in search for something that could fulfil his soul while standing the test of reason. Webb would ask “layman and clergyman” on the Trinity and afterlife, and their response was usually, “these things are mysteries.”[6]

Webb looked into Scientific Materialism to unlock the answers to the mysteries in his mind. Materialism would also come up short as he said, “they could tell me the name of every tree and flower but, could not tell me why the trees and flowers bloomed.” [7] Scientific Materialism was reasonable for Webb but, not spiritually fulfilling. A year before writing Islam in America, in an interview with a publication based in Calcutta called the Mohammedan Observer, Webb made his dissatisfaction with American Christianity very known, calling America “nominally Christian” and “reread under the drippings” of orthodoxy.[8] Webb went as far as saying that naming Christianity after Christ is improper. [9] In the end, Webb concluded that man was his own saviour and redeemer and placing someone between man and God was of no benefit to himself. Islam was the ultimate outcome of Webb’s questioning. [10]

Webb and Islam

In 1893, Webb was answering questions that still dumfounds the West today, “what do Muslims believe?” Webb states that there is no religion more unknown to The West than Islam, and no historical figure more misrepresented that Muhammad. [11] This was the basis of his interests in studying Islam, also whilst he was the United State Ambassador to the Philippines, he befriended a Muslim who also lived there. Webb in Islam in America is clearly talking to a non-Muslim audience, as he outlines basic doctrines of Islam that will not be exhausted here.

Muhammad Russell Webb Cover Photo

What will be exuviated here, is how Webb uses Christianity to explain Islam to his audience. In the mind of Webb, Islam is not an Eastern version of Calvinism, where predestination is a forgone conclusion. The only aspect of Islam that is predestined is the knowledge of God, humans are fully capable of straying or accepting the path of Islam.[12] What Islam did resemble was Christianity if stripped of three doctrines: The Trinity, The Immaculate Conception and vicarious atonement (the death of Jesus was theologically legal and necessary). [13]

Webb did not stop at comparing Islam to Christianity for his audience but, he also explained how Islam impacts society at large. Webb starts off be reminding the reader that if a German in America commits a crime, this is not a reflection on all Germans or Germans Americans. In a statement that is still repeated today, a Turk who is a Muslim does not reflect Turks or Muslims, when a crime is committed [14]. A religion should be judged by those who are most intellectual of said religion, according to Webb. Those who practice the five pillars of faith and strive to follow the Qur’an and The Prophet should be the gatekeepers of Islam. Islam should be judged by the art and science and coexisted and flourished in Muslim Spain.

Lessons for Today

Webb has a special place in history, for this was the first time in history, a native born white American pushed Islam to the centre stage. Webb would address the Chicago World’s Fair and the first Parliament of Religions where he would stress the need for open-mindedness and examination when looking for religious truth, for Webb believed even if a Christian examined Christianity honestly, the outcome would be a purer form of Christianity.[15] What is most telling about Webb’s works is that he was battling Islamophobia, just as many are today. If humanity is on a progressive trajectory, the discourse around Islam missed this. In 1893, Webb was explaining how Muslims pray and what Muslims believe to an audience who may have never met a Muslim. In 2016, in the time of globalization and rapid movement of information, what is the excuse for ignorance and bigotry? This is not just a questions for non-Muslims but, Muslims too have a responsibility to educate themselves. Muhammad Russell Webb’s name should not die in history but, should be invoked wherever inter-religious discourse is taking place.


References

[1] Umar Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2006), 27.

[2]  The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, (Dk Publishing, New York, 2013), 335.

[3] The Religions Book, 335.

[4]  Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America, 27.  

[5] Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, Islam in America and Other Writings, (Magrine Press, Chicago, 2006), 15.

[6] Webb, Islam in America, 20.

[7] Webb, Islam in America, 21.

[8] Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America, 49.

[9] Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America, 51.

[10] Webb, Islam in America, 22.

[11] Webb, Islam in America, 17.

[12] Webb, Islam in America, 24.

[13] Webb, Islam in America, 24.

[14] Webb, Islam in America, 92.

[15] Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America, 236.

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