Here All Along

'Muslims and the Making of America'
Portrait of Ahmet M. Ertegun
Portrait of Ahmet M. Ertegun, photograph by William P. Gottlieb, The Library of Congress

In this short, readable book, Amir Hussain does not predict that Islam will flourish in the United States. This prediction has often been made, usually as part of an argument that Islamic and American values are compatible. Instead, Hussain has set out to prove that, far from being merely compatible with American values, Muslims have been at the center of the creation of American popular culture.

Hussain was born in Pakistan, reared and educated in Toronto, and now teaches at the Jesuit university in Los Angeles. Besides his professorial duties in the classroom, he has found time to serve as editor for the journal of the American Academy of Religion. (He is also, I should alert the reader, a friend and colleague at Loyola Marymount University.)In itself, Hussain’s claim is of interest. But I suspect that this book may be more significant than it seems at first. Knowledgeable observers like Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser have argued that Muslim communities in the United States are more likely to influence their countries of origin than the other way around, a view that is decidedly out of step with the Islamophobia of the Trump era. If Fuller and Lesser are right, then Hussain may be putting his finger on a phenomenon of lasting significance for our future: the influence that American Muslims have on their off-shore coreligionists will be driven in no small part by the fact that American Muslims have had a hand in the making of American pop culture.

Hussain wants to call into question three assumptions many Americans have about Muslims. First, that Muslims are newcomers to these shores. Second, that Muslims have brought a faith that is foreign to American ideals, and third, that Muslims are a threat to America. Thus the book is nothing if not timely, given the fact that we have officials in the Trump administration that have tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”

In recounting the history of Muslims in the United States, Hussain of course tells the story of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and the Nation of Islam. But we also learn that fully 10 percent of the slaves that survived the Middle Passage were Muslims. The first mosque that can be historically documented was built in 1915 in Biddleford, Maine. But we should assume that Muslim slaves were gathering for Friday prayer in the cotton fields of the South centuries before this. Park51, the so-called “ground-zero mosque,” was not allowed to be built. However, if it had been built, it would not have been the first mosque in lower Manhattan. There was a mosque south of 14th Street long before the Twin Towers were erected. Moreover, one of the chief engineers who built the towers was a Muslim, Frazlur Rahman Khan.

Hussain also tells the story of Ahmet Ertegun. In 1944, Ertegun decided to remain in Washington after the death of his father, the first Turkish ambassador to the United States. Ertegun had become an ardent fan of jazz and decided to start a record company after the war, once shellac was no longer rationed. Atlantic Records brought us jazz greats as different as Sidney Bechet, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The label also went on to give us rhythm and blues artists like Ray Charles. Ertegun had an ear not only for what music Americans would buy, but also for the music they should listen to in the future.

Hussain also documents conversions to Islam. Art Blakey became a Muslim in the 1940s. Not many of us are aware that his Jazz Messengers is a reference to the messengers (rusul) sent by God to give guidance to human beings. The impact of American Muslims on American music, and for that matter, world music, can also be seen in hip-hop and rap. Artists like Everlast, Busta Rhymes, Yasiin Bay, and the Perez Brothers are converts to Islam. Miss Undastood performs wearing the hijab. Perhaps with only a little exaggeration, Hussein can claim that “Islam is hip-hop’s official religion.”

Hussain looks at American sports as well. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam after reading the Autobiography of Malcom X for a class at UCLA. To date, the most prominent American Muslim ever is Mohammed Ali. He became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War for reasons of faith and held his course after being arrested and stripped of his titles, only to have the conviction overturned by the Supreme Court.

Hussain’s book is not an American Muslim version of John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths. His goal is not to work out a comprehensive theological vision of Islam in critical dialogue with American civil society and political institutions. A book like Murray’s remains for Hussain to write. Moreover, we need to hear more from Hussain as to what it is about Muslim faith that sets the contributions of these American Muslims apart as Muslim. There is something at once both Catholic and American in films like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Besides her hijab, what is it about Miss Undastood’s faith that is discernable in her hip-hop?

Hussain saves his most intriguing comment until last. He draws our attention away from Muslim Americans of renown, toward the ordinary Americans who embrace the “straight path” and who “live lives that give the lie to the popular prejudices that surround them.” These ordinary Americans are not violent or misogynist. They have repeatedly denounced terrorism. They in no way pose a threat to their country. In fact, these Muslim Americans are “an American success story” in a way that distinguishes them from the European and Canadian Muslim communities. What are we to say about this story of Muslim success? Muslims are taking their rightful place alongside Italian, Irish, Polish, and Mexican Catholics in the United States. And, once again, we see that the unspoken hope of the immigrant is also the immigrant’s wildest ambition. Certainly, the immigrant hopes that his dreams might find fertile soil and take root in these United States. But the hopes of the immigrant are considerably more ambitious. The immigrant hopes that his very success in realizing his dreams will show to America what is best within it.

In itself, Hussain’s claim is of interest. But I suspect that this book may be more significant than it seems at first. Knowledgeable observers like Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser have argued that Muslim communities in the United States are more likely to influence their countries of origin than the other way around, a view that is decidedly out of step with the Islamophobia of the Trump era. If Fuller and Lesser are right, then Hussain may be putting his finger on a phenomenon of lasting significance for our future: the influence that American Muslims have on their off-shore coreligionists will be driven in no small part by the fact that American Muslims have had a hand in the making of American pop culture.

Hussain was born in Pakistan, reared and educated in Toronto, and now teaches at the Jesuit university in Los Angeles. Besides his professorial duties in the classroom, he has found time to serve as editor for the journal of the American Academy of Religion. (He is also, I should alert the reader, a friend and colleague at Loyola Marymount University.)

Hussain wants to call into question three assumptions many Americans have about Muslims. First, that Muslims are newcomers to these shores. Second, that Muslims have brought a faith that is foreign to American ideals, and third, that Muslims are a threat to America. Thus the book is nothing if not timely, given the fact that we have officials in the Trump administration that have tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”

In recounting the history of Muslims in the United States, Hussain of course tells the story of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and the Nation of Islam. But we also learn that fully 10 percent of the slaves that survived the Middle Passage were Muslims. The first mosque that can be historically documented was built in 1915 in Biddleford, Maine. But we should assume that Muslim slaves were gathering for Friday prayer in the cotton fields of the South centuries before this. Park51, the so-called “ground-zero mosque,” was not allowed to be built. However, if it had been built, it would not have been the first mosque in lower Manhattan. There was a mosque south of 14th Street long before the Twin Towers were erected. Moreover, one of the chief engineers who built the towers was a Muslim, Frazlur Rahman Khan.

Hussain also tells the story of Ahmet Ertegun. In 1944, Ertegun decided to remain in Washington after the death of his father, the first Turkish ambassador to the United States. Ertegun had become an ardent fan of jazz and decided to start a record company after the war, once shellac was no longer rationed. Atlantic Records brought us jazz greats as different as Sidney Bechet, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The label also went on to give us rhythm and blues artists like Ray Charles. Ertegun had an ear not only for what music Americans would buy, but also for the music they should listen to in the future.

Hussain also documents conversions to Islam. Art Blakey became a Muslim in the 1940s. Not many of us are aware that his Jazz Messengers is a reference to the messengers (rusul) sent by God to give guidance to human beings. The impact of American Muslims on American music, and for that matter, world music, can also be seen in hip-hop and rap. Artists like Everlast, Busta Rhymes, Yasiin Bay, and the Perez Brothers are converts to Islam. Miss Undastood performs wearing the hijab. Perhaps with only a little exaggeration, Hussein can claim that “Islam is hip-hop’s official religion.”

Hussain looks at American sports as well. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam after reading the Autobiography of Malcom X for a class at UCLA. To date, the most prominent American Muslim ever is Mohammed Ali. He became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War for reasons of faith and held his course after being arrested and stripped of his titles, only to have the conviction overturned by the Supreme Court.

Hussain’s book is not an American Muslim version of John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths. His goal is not to work out a comprehensive theological vision of Islam in critical dialogue with American civil society and political institutions. A book like Murray’s remains for Hussain to write. Moreover, we need to hear more from Hussain as to what it is about Muslim faith that sets the contributions of these American Muslims apart as Muslim. There is something at once both Catholic and American in films like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Besides her hijab, what is it about Miss Undastood’s faith that is discernable in her hip-hop?

Hussain saves his most intriguing comment until last. He draws our attention away from Muslim Americans of renown, toward the ordinary Americans who embrace the “straight path” and who “live lives that give the lie to the popular prejudices that surround them.” These ordinary Americans are not violent or misogynist. They have repeatedly denounced terrorism. They in no way pose a threat to their country. In fact, these Muslim Americans are “an American success story” in a way that distinguishes them from the European and Canadian Muslim communities. What are we to say about this story of Muslim success? Muslims are taking their rightful place alongside Italian, Irish, Polish, and Mexican Catholics in the United States. And, once again, we see that the unspoken hope of the immigrant is also the immigrant’s wildest ambition. Certainly, the immigrant hopes that his dreams might find fertile soil and take root in these United States. But the hopes of the immigrant are considerably more ambitious. The immigrant hopes that his very success in realizing his dreams will show to America what is best within it.

 

Muslims and the Making of America
Amir Hussain
Baylor University Press, $24.95, 132 pp.

Published in the March 24, 2017 issue: 

James L. Fredericks is an emeritus professor at Loyola Marymount University.

Also by this author
No Easy Answers

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections