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Ignore Islamic Studies at Our Peril

Ignore Islamic Studies at Our Peril
By Karen Jenkins

It is dismaying how many colleges across the country offer curricula that present at best a cursory acknowledgement of Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world. Too many programs pay lip service to the religion without delving into the diversity of the Muslim population or its impact on world history and culture. For example, Muslims have played a role in the United States almost from the beginning. Historians estimate that more than 30 percent of the 10 million people sold into slavery in this country were Muslim, most hailing from West Africa.

Two such examples can be found in early slave accounts. In both cases, the African Muslims wrote in Arabic about their capture and enslavement in the United States. Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori was brought to the United States in shackles in 1788 and spent the next 40 years as a slave before being freed on the orders of President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay.

While enslaved, Ibn Sori wrote two autobiographies in Arabic that brought attention to his plight. On Jan. 1, 1829, Clay noted in his diary that Ibn Sori “joined the Black citizens of Philadelphia as an honored guest in their New Year’s Day parade…” Ibn Sori, who had always maintained that he was a prince, returned to the continent of his birth later that year. 

Omar Ibn Said, born about 1770, was a Muslim scholar from the region of Senegal. He was captured and taken to Charleston, S.C., in 1807, and after escaping was recaptured and sold to an owner in North Carolina, where he died in 1864. Ibn Said wrote a biographical essay in Arabic that recounted his life and his firm adherence to Islam throughout his long years of slavery. Among his manuscripts were parts of the Koran, written from memory.

But slavery was not the only entryway for Islam in America. Around 1893, modest numbers of Muslim immigrants came to the United States from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. By the early part of the 20th century, European Muslims were coming from Lithuania, Albania, Poland and Russia. The first true mosque in the United States, built specifically for that purpose in 1935, was located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It is estimated that more Muslims, including those who converted to Islam, live in New York City and Detroit, than live in any city in the Middle East.

The growing presence of Muslims in the United States challenges educators to move beyond a Eurocentric curriculum. A careful reading of history shows that Western European Christians were not the sole influence on this country, as students are too often led to believe. When we focus overwhelmingly on White Europeans, we dishonor the contributions of American Indians and the millions of slaves and immigrants whose myriad religious beliefs helped shape the country.

Our academic isolationism becomes even more difficult to condone as technology shrinks our borders. Our young people graduate from college but still lack an understanding of other cultures and countries. How many colleges and universities give equal emphasis to Asia, the islands of Oceania, the Middle East and our many neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere? How many institutions of higher education enroll significant populations of diverse students, native born and foreign?

Over the past five years, the relentless power of government persuasion has preyed on lingering American xenophobia: people who are different hate the United States and do not belong here. A more deliberate and widespread effort to foster deep understanding of other cultures would help prevent fear from controlling U.S. national behavior. What would happen if national policy dictated that, for every soldier deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the same number of students and scholars were exchanged between the United States and the countries of the Middle East?

The current national focus on routing out terrorists now ominously includes getting rid of immigrants. During World War II, such fears led this country to discriminate not against people of German descent — who appeared more familiar — but against people of Japanese descent, many of whom were born in the United States. If we are not careful, we could find ourselves repeating the crimes of our fathers, only this time the victims would be people from Latin America or the Middle East. The harassment and racial profiling of Arabs should disturb us all. It should be of national concern when women wearing veils are viewed with suspicion and when guilt is presumed because someone “fit the description.”

The history of the United States is inextricably tied to the presence of millions of Muslims. Our educational institutions need to recognize this truth, and require courses that educate our students about Muslims and all the peoples that have contributed to this country.

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