When we were in Palestine a couple of months ago, I remember how astonished people were to find out that there was such a thing as indigenous American Muslims. For some reason, there’s a misconception running amuck overseas that all American Muslims are converts and need to be quizzed on their knowledge of certain surahs and informed that salat must be done in Arabic. But it’s worthwhile to know that not every Muslim American is a convert to Islam. And even those who are, often have a pretty solid, knowledgeable understanding of Islam before we even take the shahada. Shoot, sometimes I’m surprised at how much non-Muslims know about Islam here in America. And in D.C., it’s no rare feat to get salaams from non-Muslims. And that’s because as Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah said at the Seekers Guidance Retreat in Tennessee, Islam is a part of the history of America. But I really didn’t know how much of a part until Monday, when I happened upon America’s Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in Southeast D.C.
I originally found out about this museum from an article in The Muslim Link paper. Recently opening its doors on April 30th and previously a traveling exhibit, America’s Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center is located at the former Clara Muhammad School in Washington, DC’s Anacostia region…a significant location to be schooled on America’s Islamic past.
Inspired by Muslims who felt disconnected and dislocated from America’s history, the co-founders of the museum, Amir Muhammad and his wife Habeebah Muhammad, started researching their own family history which in turn encouraged them to research the history of Muslims in America. And this history begins as early as 1312 when Muslims from Mali came to the Gulf of Mexico to explore America. One of these explorers was the brother of Mansa Musa, the emperor of the Empire of Mali. His name was Abu Bakr–wouldn’t it be awesome to have an Abu Bakr Day on October 12th? Or see his name in school textbooks right alongside Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci? In fact, Christopher Columbus was heavily influenced by Muslim geographers, eight of which discovered America before him. And in Columbus’ papers, he wrote that he saw a mosque on top of a mountain near Cuba. It’s no lie–remains of masajid with Qur’anic verses have now been found in Cuba, Texas, Nevada, and Mexico.
But to learn more, well, you’re just going to have to visit the museum or read Brother Amir Muhammad’s book, Muslims in America: Seven Centuries of History 1312-2000 (Amana Publications). There is so much to learn and discover in the museum–seven centuries worth! I mean, have you heard of the Melungeons? They lived in the Appalachian valleys starting in the 1600s. In fact, we were right in their backyard at the SeekersGuidance retreat. They were the first people, besides the Native Americans, to penetrate so deeply into the Appalachians and were primarily of Portuguese ancestry. They were silver miners and minters, living in the mountains of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. We must have been standing in their footsteps at the Buck Bald Summit in Tennessee. If I knew then what I know now…
There is a story for everyone here…artifacts and legal documents of Muslim royalty and slaves alike…evidence of Islam amongst American Indians/Native Americans, as well as European Americans…more to the stories already known in mainstream America, such as those of Kunta Kinte (Alex Haley’s Roots) and Abrahim Abdul Rahman ibn Sori (A Prince Among Slaves). But there’s also many stories waiting to heard like those of the first communities of Muslims in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Illinois. There is a reason that there are cities named Mecca, Indiana and Mahomet, Illinois, after all. The museum is truly wholesome, offering the stories of the Nation of Islam, Templars, and Masons as well to demonstrate the diversity with which Islamic principles became a part of the American fabric.
But the 1800s portion of the museum, “Forgotten Roots: Muslims in Early America”, states it best. Many Americans have forgotten their roots. And it is a blessing to be able to fill in the gaps with the enlightening and informative narrative that the Muhammad family has exhibited for us. So take advantage of it, and be a part of the history this museum is making! Still to come are exhibits on the contributions of Muslim American women and Muslims of Latino and Spanish heritage, so I hear…
So if you’re in D.C., skip the Smithsonian and check out America’s Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. We so need this! And please note that the museum is closed on Mondays…we were very blessed that a brother who works in the museum was gracious enough to open the doors for us on an off-day. For more information, check out www.muslimsinamerica.org.