Islam: As American as Apple Pie
By Dr S.M. Ghazanfar
Emeritus Faculty
University of Idaho
Moscow , Idaho


(Presentation at the UNITARIAN-UNIVERSALISTS Fellowship, Moscow, Idaho; November 28, 2010)

Let me first express my profound appreciation for this opportunity. And my topic this morning, though not Islamic religion as such, truly reflects a widely-quoted verse from the Holy Qur’an: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another" (Sura 49:13). And such conversations are so critical and, of course, so in accord with the UU’s eight principles. In fact, I think one of the most popular songs of the late 1950’s, “Getting to Know You” ( King and I movie) should become the spiritual song of today.

Please allow me to preface my remarks by providing a brief historical perspective to our cultural connections.

First, I want to emphasize that we are all part of the Judeo-Christian-and-Islamic Civilization–and there are even faith-related historic linkages. And when we mention our Greek heritage, the conduit was the Islamic civilization, along with its own huge contributions. But this is a topic for another occasion. Despite such connections, the “love-hate” relationship between the West and Islam has persisted for centuries, so much borrowed and learned from the Islamic world and yet the demonized image.

Second, even prior to Columbus’s 1492 journey, there is evidence of Muslim presence on this side of the Atlantic; Muslims had already explored the “ Sea of Darkness and Fog,” as it is called in some writings. There were 14 th-century Muslim travelers from Mali, and even Chinese imperial fleets, led by Muslim admiral Zheng, traveled ahead of Columbus. And, further, Spanish Muslims had a key role in Columbus’ voyages, in that his were facilitated with Arab navigational documents and instruments; and Muslims guides accompanied him. In fact, he specifically acknowledges his “Moor” helpers.

Thirdly, evidence suggests up to 25-30 percent of the slaves were Muslims – and that heritage links with contemporary Afro-American Muslims. Some will remember Kunta-Kinte in that Alex Hailey epic, The Roots; he was a Muslim, as were many others. There are still old church structures in the South which face toward Mecca. Relatedly, a recent article in the Mother Jones magazine points to archeological evidence of slaves buried at Ground Zero, some of whom were Muslims – and this has its own implication for that NY Islamic Center controversy.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, our Founding Fathers, as they formed a new pluralist identity for the new nation, acknowledged Islam and Muslims, despite Glenn Beck, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and other zealots and despite the “Civilizational Clash” nonsense. Outlining his vision in 1783, George Washington wrote, “The bosom of America [was] open to receive...the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions .... They may be Mohammetans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists.” And the 2 nd President John Adams, in signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, wrote, “The US has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Muslims.” And Benjamin Franklin expressed his respect for Islam when extending financial support to an interfaith center, he said that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”

They even praised Islam’s Prophet Mohammed as one of the world’s “sober inquirers after truth,” and a “model of compassion.” As for Unitarian Jefferson’s pluralism, there stands a statute of an angel at the entrance of the University of Virginia that he founded, carrying a tablet entitled “Religious Freedom, 1786,” and the tablet has the name “Allah” along with that of God and Jehovah, as well as Brahma. Believe it or not, there are even Islamic linkages to our Constitution.

So much for this brief historical background to our cultural linkages. Before narrating some contemporary linkages relevant to the topic, however, let me quote President Obama from his Cairo speech last year: “As a student of history, I know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.” As for our contemporary links, he said, “And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel prizes, built our tallest buildings, and lit the Olympic Torch” (Cairo speech, June 4, 2010).

Now as for those contemporary manifestations, some more visible than others, yet hardly part of our consciousness, let me narrate just a few.

There is, of course, our language, not only as our everyday vernacular but as the language in various academic disciplines. From A to Z, there are thousands of English words whose etymology links with Arabic, directly or via other European languages, especially Spanish, including the word ‘alphabet.’ Some scholars suggest Arabic as 6 th among the top ten languages that contributed to English, and “there are perhaps over 500 words which impregnate our everyday speech,” says one scholar. Columbus, of course, spoke Arabized-Spanish and always signed his name as “Al-Amirate Columbus. “Al-Amirate” is derived from Arabic “Al-Amir,” which means ‘leader,’ and is also the root of Admiral and Mayor. I sometime affectionately refer to our local mayor with this title.

There are so many other words of Arabic origins, e.g., apricot, algebra, decipher, cipher, gauze, giraffe, alcohol, alcatraz, lemon, magazine, orange, lemon, tangerine, orange, candy, saffron, syrup, chess, etc. And talking of chess, the phrase ‘check-mate’ derives from Arabic ‘shah-mat,’ which means ‘the king is dead.’ And there are numerous towns and cities with Arabic names – Aladin, Wyoming; Arabia, Nebraska; Baghdad, Calif.; Cairo, Ill.; Koran, Louisian; Mahomet, Ill; Mecca, Calif.; Mecca, Indiana; Palestine, Texas; Sultan, Washington; etc. etc.

And curiously, there are native-American tribes whose names have Arabic origins. And here is a shocker: One source informs me, that even the word ‘ California’ is traceable to Arabized Spain, linked to the word ‘Caliph’ which refers to ‘Khalifa.’ Talking about Khalifa, I recently read of another interesting cultural connection; Father Nesti of the Univ. of Houston’s Catholic Church informs us that St. Francis of Assissi brought the idea of the bell-tower after he saw the prayer-calling minaret when visiting a Caliph in Baghdad.

And there are academic disciplines – mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, etc., which not only share their origins in the Islamic world, but which incorporate numerous words of Arabic vocabulary – e.g., algebra, logarithms, elements in chemistry (the word al-chemy originated in 1362, meaning the remixing of various elements into a new and improved one), names of numerous stars, etc. We have Arabic numerals, of course, whose origin in turn is linked with early India.

And, of course, the origins of the blues music lie in our history of slavery; slave trade lasted from 1619 to 1865, of course. There is considerable documentation for this cultural heritage. Witness stories tell us that African-Muslim slaves would sing melancholy songs, using their instruments of African origins, and their laments would include Islamic recitations, as they would wonder about the cause of their captivity.

“Their shouts and hollers begat blues music,” says one scholar. When filmmaker Martin Scorsese documented the roots of the blues in his 2003 seven-part documentary series, he traced the origins to West Africa, and there are ethnomusicologists who inform us that Arabic musical and religious modulations were part of the West African culture for centuries. “The music of African-American blues singers is based on a collective memory of Africa that carried forth in slavery,” one source informs us. And then there is the Flemenco music and lyrics, rooted in eight centuries of Islamic Spain. And there is Bob Dylan’s 1964 hit song, “Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,” the man was playing the Arabic musical instrument.

There are various other cultural connections, of course. There are some of our foods, drinks, and other products. Among the food drinks are popular -- shish-kababs, bakhlawa, hamas, kus-kus, etc., but perhaps most notable is coffee, or qahwa.

Originating in the Arabian peninsula in the 1400s, coffee then found its way to Europe 200 years later and became fashionable in Paris, London and Boston in the 1600s. Popular among the sufis, and once banned in Europe as “the drink of Muslim devils,” the Pope later blessed it as OK. Mormon faith still discourages it. It was brought to America in 1607 by one John Smith, an adventurer and mercenary who fought against the Ottomans in Hungary. Licensed to be sold in Boston in 1607, and New York in 1696, a century later, America was a full-fledged nation of coffee drinkers, and now the liquid is an iconic part of the culture. We consume over 400 million cups daily, making us the world’s leading coffee-drinkers – thanks also to Star-Buck.

And then, at the St. Louis’ 1904 World’s Fair, Arab food and culture were inseparable. Holy water from River Jordon was popular, as was zalabia–a flat, gridlike pastry. An Arab-Christian vendor, Abe Doumar from Syria, saw another vendor selling ice-cream on plates and offered his zalabia to be shaped into a cone for the ice-cream–and thus emerged the ice-cream cone! Later, he invented the first cone-making machine and went into ice-cream business. His machine is still in use at the Doumar family’s Cone and Barbecue Restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia.

And, among various other similar products with Arab linkages, there were, of course, cigarettes – only surviving brand is the Camel. But there were others – Fatima, Cairo, Mogul, Omar, Sultan. And in the early 1900s, there were “ Garden of Allah” candy boxes. And there are numerous items of jewelry, clothing, perfumes, etc. that link to the Arab-Islamic world. (Continued next week)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.