Did The U.S. Founding Fathers Encourage The Migration Of Muslims To American Soil?

Jefferson wrote a response to the bill, which noted how Muslims, alongside Jews, Gentiles, and Christian minority groups, would be “within the mantle of protection” in the state of Virginia as well as the United States.

Jefferson wrote a response to the bill, which noted how Muslims, alongside Jews, Gentiles, and Christian minority groups, would be “within the mantle of protection” in the state of Virginia as well as the United States.

In September 2015, Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson stated in a Meet the Press interview that he would not advocate electing a Muslim to serve as the president of the United States. Although the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids a religious test in Article IV, Section III, for would-be presidents, Carson said he would oppose any Muslim White House aspirant who was “not willing to reject sharia,” or Islamic law. Carson’s comment revived a conversation as old as the United States itself – how would U.S. citizens incorporate the Islamic faith into their nation?

The Founding Fathers deliberated this question in 1788 during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in North Carolina. One speaker during the convention, William Lancaster, spoke about what would happen when, a few centuries down the road, a Muslim would be elected to the highest office in the land, the office of the presidency of the United States. Lancaster told his peers that they needed to remember to “form a government for millions not yet in existence.” He stressed that in the centuries to come, a U.S. citizen of any religious background should be able to serve as president. Lancaster specifically mentions “Papists” (an 18th-century term used to identify Catholics) and “Mahometans,” or Muslims, in his defense. Lancaster’s views on who could or could not occupy the highest political office in the United States prevailed. The U.S. Constitution today does not exclude Muslims or members of any other religious faith or background from serving as president. Indeed, the Founding Fathers were fully prepared to make a place for both the Islamic faith and Muslims in the new nation.

The first U.S. president, George Washington, envisioned Muslims as part of U.S. society. Writing as president in March 1784, he stated in a letter that future U.S. citizens “may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans (Muslims), Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be atheists.” In 1783, he echoed these sentiments in a letter to Irish Catholic immigrants living in New York City, which is clear evidence of his welcoming attitude toward Muslims. Catholics, at that time, had few legal protections in any state and had no right to hold political office in New York. In a show of solidarity, Washington insisted that the United States is “open to receive… the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to participation of all our rights and privileges.” Moreover, his personal correspondence in December 1789 with Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, the Sultan of Morocco, revealed a president assuring a foreign Muslim ruler that the U.S. government would “not cease to promote every measure that may conduce to the friendship and harmony which so happily subsist between [us].”

Washington, however, owned Muslim slaves. His relationship with American Muslims can be further examined by turning to his private world and place of residence – Mount Vernon, Virginia. The Mount Vernon website, the official source of information for the National Historic Landmark, states that “elements of Islam” are found in the documentary and archaeological records of the plantation’s enslaved population. According to Mary V. Thompson, a research historian of the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, “Washington expressed little preference as to the religion practiced by the Mount Vernon slaves.”

Thompson also noted that the “names of at least three female slaves indicate an Islamic influence” at Mount Vernon, “if not the actual practice of Islam.” Two women – thought to be a mother and her daughter – were listed as “Fatimer” and “Little Fatimer” in a 1774 tithe table. The two names closely resemble the popular Muslim name Fatima, or “Shining One” in Arabic. Fatima also is the name of one of Prophet Muhammad’s daughters.

Another woman, named Letty, who lived at Muddy Hole Farm at Mount Vernon, gave birth in 1800 to a girl she called Nila. “Nila” is a variation of a Muslim woman’s name “Naailah,” which means “someone who acquires something” or “someone who gets what they want”. Thompson concludes:

Even if no one was actually practicing Islam at Mount Vernon by this time, this child’s name provides evidence that some knowledge of Islamic tradition or a familiarity with Arabic could still be found in the larger African-American community in Fairfax County or Alexandria, if not at Mount Vernon itself, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Historical documents also suggest that Sambo Anderson, an African-born slave, was a Muslim living at Mount Vernon. According to Thompson, the “name ‘Sambou’ is common throughout West Africa, and is used primarily for a second son among the Hausa people of what is now northern Nigeria and southern Niger.” The Hausa were impacted by their exposure to both Arabic and Islam, which reached them from Timbuktu, the capital of Mali, beginning in the late 14th century. Sambo was described as having a face “marked by both tribal cuts and tattooing.” He also is said to have worn gold rings in his ears.

Sambo stood out among the slaves at Mount Vernon. In an article entitled “Mount Vernon Reminiscence,” which was published in the Alexandria Gazette in 1876, “an old citizen of Fairfax County” contends that Washington and Sambo had a close friendship. The “Reminiscence” stated that Sambo was a “great favorite” of Washington, “by whom [Sambo] was given a piece of land to build a house on,” an unusual gift for a slave. The “old citizen” of Fairfax County also revealed that Washington allowed Sambo to keep a small boat or skiff to “cross over the creek in, and for other purposes,” another “rare privilege for a slave. Washington would sometimes use Sambo’s boat, but he never was the man to take it without asking [Sambo] if he could use it.”

George Washington may rightly be known as the Father of His Country. However, in the decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin was the world’s most famous American. A celebrated scientist, inventor, diplomat, and philosopher of the U.S. Constitution, Franklin also welcomed Muslims to the United States. Writing in his autobiography on the building of a non-denominational house of public worship in Philadelphia, Franklin called for the place of worship to be a space open to “any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia.” Franklin went as far as welcoming the mufti of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to preach Islam to Americans.

Like Franklin, Thomas Jefferson welcomed Muslims to the United States. In 1765, as a 22-year-old law student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Jefferson purchased a copy of the Qur’an. According to Denise Spellberg, author of Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, Jefferson’s purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between the United States and Islam. This connection suggests that the Founding Fathers had a more robust view of religious pluralism.

A few months after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned to draft legislation in Virginia. In his writings, he referred to “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” a political treatise that John Locke wrote in 1689. Jefferson noted: “[Locke] says neither Pagan nor [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted his satisfaction with the state of Virginia’s landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which passed in 1786. The passing of the bill meant that the Virginia legislature rejected, by a great majority, religious intolerance. Jefferson wrote a response to the bill, which noted how Muslims, alongside Jews, Gentiles, and Christian minority groups, would be “within the mantle of protection” in the state of Virginia as well as the United States.

A year after drafting the Declaration, Jefferson also helped write the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” in 1777. Part of the statute is inscribed on the northwest portico of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. The statute states: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” Jefferson’s words, as the Virginia Historical Society notes, represent a statement about freedom of conscience and the principle of separation of church and state, meaning that Muslims would not be subject to the rule of Christianity or Christians themselves. Indeed, the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibited federal acts, “respecting an establishment of religion,” a signal victory for Jefferson’s views that government has no power to interfere with the religious beliefs of American Muslims, or coerce them in any respect regarding religious affairs.

In fact, scholars have asserted that Jefferson’s fondness for the principle of freedom of religion and his study of the Arabic language, as well as his collection of books on the history of the Islamic faith and Muslim civilizations, suggest that he supported the academic study of Muslims in a way that could incorporate the Islamic faith in the American nation.

The large number of primary sources from the 18th and 19th centuries shows that the Founding Fathers subscribed to national values which promoted religious pluralism as well as civil rights and liberties. The pluralist approach of these early American leaders marked a distinct difference to previous generations of Americans. Early American Christians from Western Europe had argued that the land of the modern-day United States was given to them by God and they were to occupy it regardless of who was living there. This aggressive approach led to the oppression of Natives, Africans, and non-Christian minority communities, as well as an arrogance that made it easy to demonize and destroy the “latest enemy.” The Founding Fathers opened a new phase by welcoming Muslims to the United States and granting them full citizenship rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. President Barack Obama reminded Americans of this history in February 2016, during his first and only visit to a U.S. mosque during his presidency. He stated at this appearance that “Islam has always been a part of America.”

Without taking the Founding Fathers to be paradigms of universalist pluralism, one can situate them in a broad Enlightenment tradition that actually looked to Islam as a more “rational” religion and offered fairly positive evaluations of the Islamic tradition.

This was an excerpt from Muslims in America: Examining the Facts by Dr. Craig Considine can be purchased on Amazon.com or the ABC-CLIO website. Dr. Considine is currently a faculty member of the Department of Sociology at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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