Islam: As American as Apple Pie - 2
By Dr. S.M. Ghazanfar
University of Idaho
Moscow , Idaho
And moving to some other cultural connections, there is the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, formed as a secret society in 1870, identified with the Free Masons, known simply as the Shriners. With their bright red Moroccon-Turkish fezzes (with an inverted crescent, topped by a sword), their elaborate buildings mirror Islamic mosques (now called temples) and Arabic inscriptions that are exact Islamic phrases, the Shriners present the Arab-Islamic world quite distinctly, though in a perverse fashion. From their very beginning, they dressed like medieval Muslim men and pretended to be part of a secret society that they traced to Mecca and their gathering places were called ‘mosques,’ with names such as Mecca, Medina, Al-Koran, Al-Malaikah, etc. They printed documents in Arabic, paraded down streets with camels and mechanical elephants, consumed lots of alcohol – the group began as an orientalist playground for partying and drinking – the mainstay of early Shriner events.
And Shriners would mimick Islamic greetings, “Salam-o-Alaikum” (peace be upon you). Their parades around the country continue till today. At a 1900 parade in front of the White House, President McKinley stood attention, as the Shriners Imperial Potentate addressed him in Arabic and greeted him with “Assalamo-Alaikum.” At another parade in 1921, President Harding spoke to the Shriners in Arabic, telling them “Wa-alaikum-assalam” (peace be upon you too). Then in 1923, Harding adorned his head with a bright red fez as he watched the Shriners parade.
Until recently, their parades presented the Arabs as distinct “others,” as sword-swinging desert nomads, dressed in the Bedouin garbs, with marching camels and scantily-clad harem girls, etc.-- all that one is also accustomed to seeing in Hollywood movies. Obviously, Shriners’ parades today are not quite different these days, and the former ‘mosques’ are now called ‘temples.’ Yet considerable nomenclature remains; for example, their governing body is called the “Imperial Divan.”
What started out as a huge party-club, the Shriners later assumed the role of charity and volunteerism and this philanthropic spirit legitimized them in the eyes of many Americans, including our more recent Presidents – Harry Truman and JFK, both of whom delivered speeches from the Shriners’ Syria “mosque” in Pittsburgh.
That mosque looks exactly like a mosque, with Arabic inscription “La ghalib il-Allah’ (‘there is no victor but Allah’) rimming the building top – and it is often mistaken as a genuine mosque by newcomers from the Islamic world. But more famous is the Al-Malaikah “mosque” in Los Angeles, which has hosted numerous Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys, and from its architecture and other representations (e.g., depictions of Muslim men on camels, next to palm trees, next to mosques with minarets and domes, etc.), this “mosque” seems straight out of the Arabian Nights.
And what comes to me as a huge surprise is this. Shriners’ best-known sports facility is the Medinah Country Club near Chicago. The main gate of this club tells visitors as they leave, “Allah be with you.” And with its Islamic domes, arches, and turbaned statutes, the Club offers a lake named after Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, Khadija.
Clearly, the Shriners saw the Arabs/Muslims through an “orientalist” prism – a denigration and “commodification” of a people, as the late Edward Said would call it, and clearly reflecting the “us vs.them” mentality. Yet, for good or bad, Shriners’ history and their various manifestations at least helped introduce the idea of Arabs/Muslims culture.
And then there are numerous historic and contemporary architectural wonders in America that distinctly reflect Arab-Islamic cultural linkages. The very first such wonder was built in 1847 by P.T. Barnum, the famous circus-man who built a mansion called “Iranistan” in Bridgeport, Conn. Its architectural design and all related paraphernalia, including some Islamic scriptures, were straight out of Islamic Spain. This “Oriental Villa,” as Barnum called it, was destroyed in a fire in 1857, and today the only vestiges of Iranistan are in Bridgeport’s Barnum Museum, located on a street named Iranistan Avenue.
There are, of course, numerous other structures that distinctly reflect Islamic architecture – often even in ordinary dwellings all around us, usually identified as “Spanish or Moorish design,” really meaning “Islamic.” And a rather famous such structure is California’s thoroughly ‘Moorish’ Hearst Castle. And there is Al-Hambra Palace hotel in Chicago, inspired by Granada’s Al-Hambra Palace of 13 th century Islamic Spain; and there is the city of Alhambra in southern California, as is the same-name movie house in Evansville, Indiana. And there is the Alhambra Department Store in Seattle. And then there is Donald Trump’s Taj-Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ, inspired by the Mughal Taj Mahal of India.
Perhaps less well-known are places with Islamic heritage in the South. However, one scholar notes, “Nowhere are the [Arab-Islamic] traditions seen more dramatically than in New Orleans and San Antonio, both of which were under Spanish control” before becoming part of the United States. Spanish style houses in New Orleans’ French quarter reflect a fusion of architectural norms (balconies, ironwork with geometric designs, courtyards, patios, etc.) which Spain had adopted from centuries of Islamic influence.
And in San Antonio, there is the Alamo. Aside from its battleground fame, Alamo was originally built in 1924 as a Catholic seminary in San Antonio. But what is Moorish/Islamic about Alamo? There is beautifully carved Moorish doorway, with intricate, geometric floral pattern, and its formal style architecture and design includes an Islamic element. “The archways, featuring alternating red and white bands, are exact copies of the archways from the Aljama Mosque” in Cordoba built in 784 by Spain’s Islamic rulers. During 300 years of Spanish presence in the Americas, Spanish architects adopted numerous “Moorish ideas into scores of churches, including sites in what are today Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico” (p.10, Coriel). And here is a surprise: Columbus was an admirer of Islamic buildings and during his first voyage to America, he saw a hill on the Cuban coast and he exclaimed, there is “a beautiful mosque.”
As one scholar notes, the Islamic connections to various structures of New Orleans and San Antonio do not mean that we should give them Islamic names, but at a basic level, “the Islamic past of the French Quarter and of San Antonio’s historic churches demands a reimagining of these cherished American icons” and their links to Arab-Islamic culture must be recognized.
And finally, there are, of course, deep connections between the Islamic world and the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. The “father of transcendentalism,” “America’s first public intellectual,” as the dissident pastor of Boston’s Second Church is sometime called, the eminent 19 th century Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson “embarked on a spiritual odyssey that would see him embrace the literary and religious traditions of the East, including Islam and including Sufi-Muslim poetry from Persia” – Hafiz, Saadi, Rumi, etc. He often agonized that more Americans were not familiar with those Islamic traditions, and that it was too provincial to ignore them.
He wasn’t alone; there were others –Walt Whitman, David Thoreau, etc. Further, a ‘google’ search revealed scores of such cultural linkages. I found a 2003 sermon by Rev. Roger Bertschausen, Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Wisconsin, in which he says, “Another similarity to Unitarian-Universalism is Islam’s view that religion is far more about practice and deeds than about theology and creeds. Islam is a religion primarily of action and works – just like UU. How we live in the world is the crux of both UU and Muslim spirituality. .... So take the Trinity and divinity of Jesus out of Christianity, get rid of belief in original sin and the resurrection of Jesus, focus on practice and deeds, and you have not just Islam, but Unitarian Universalism. Ours are truly kindred faiths.”
And finally I will conclude with this plea and wish – that, despite extremists of all varieties, someday Muslims and Arabs will be fully accepted as a vital, integral part of the American culture. From its very beginning, America intersected with the Islamic world, borrowing from it, admonishing it, fearing it, and co-existing with it. And indeed there are myriad contemporary manifestations of this intermingling.
For our co-existence and survival, we need people of various faiths whose vistas are broad and hearts capacious. So many of our boundaries are of our making. If we can’t undo them, we can at least enlarge their scope. By alienating those who are different, we end up alienating ourselves and diminishing our own humanity. Indeed, we do need generous heretics.