Is The Story of Islam In America As Old As America Itself?

By Hugh Fitzgerald

Since the month of Ramadan is drawing to a close, the Muslim period of fasting, when each night, Muslims hold what is called an “Iftar Dinner” to break the fast, this might be a good time to discuss the truth or falsehood of the claim, made by Muslims, that Jefferson held the first “Iftar Dinner” for a Muslim guest in the White House. Barack Obama was particularly fond of that story, but then, history has never been his strong suit. And it’s not a minor matter.

It has been important to Muslims to enroll themselves as early as possible in the American narrative, “as part of America’s story,” and to backdate, too, what appears to be the sympathetic recognition of their existence in American life. The idea is to convince Americans that Islam has always been here, is not some kind of exotic and recent import, insufficiently noticed until the day before yesterday. One such example is the claim that Jefferson held an “Iftar Dinner” for the Muslim envoy sent by the Bey of Tunis to Washington. It’s a tall tale that refuses to die. For Jefferson did no such thing.

The real story of that “Iftar dinner” is this:

The envoy from Tunis came to Washington in 1805 just as Ramadan was already underway. And as it happens, during that time, President Jefferson invited that envoy, one Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, for dinner at the White House. This was not meant to be an “Iftar dinner,” but just a dinner like any other. It was originally set for three thirty in the afternoon (our Founding Fathers dined early in the pre-Edison days of their existence). Mellimelli responded that he could not come at that appointed hour of three thirty p.m. but only after sundown.

Jefferson, a courteous man, simply moved the dinner forward by a few hours. He didn’t change the menu, he didn’t change anything else, he did not see himself as offering an “Iftar Dinner” (the phrase never came up) and there are no records that suggest that he ever thought of it as such. He only knew that Mellimelli was observing a fast until after sundown. Barack Obama, 200 years later, tried to rewrite American history, referring to Jefferson as being the first President to give an “Iftar dinner,” in order to flatter or please his (Obama’s) Muslim guests. But in so doing, he misrepresented American history to Americans, including schoolchildren who are now being subjected to all kinds of Islamic propaganda in newly-mandated textbooks that both favorably depict Islam, and present it as an integral, and longstanding, part of American life.

Another tale that has been circulated by Muslims, that involves a similar rewriting of American history, is the claim that “30% of the African slaves who came to America were Muslims.” Historians have offered guesses as to the percentages — 5%, 10%, 15% — of the African slaves who may have been Muslims. Someone plucked out of the air the highest figure, 30%, that anyone (i.e., Prof. Sylviane Diouf) had dared propose, and decided to take that as historical truth without offering any convincing evidentiary basis for so doing. Furthermore, it is known that for those slaves who brought Islam with them, that faith was not retained, and usually did not last for more than a generation. Without Qur’ans, mosques, madrasas, in an overwhelmingly Christian and proselytizing environment, Islam could not last more than a generation or two. But the insistence that “30% of African slaves in America were Muslims” – instead of that “5% of African slaves came as Muslims and by the second generation almost all had lost that faith” — is repeated by Muslim apologists, who in turn are quoted by non-Muslims, and no one asks for the evidence that supports that “30%” figure instead of, say, “5%,” or that supports the idea that Muslim slaves continued to remain Muslims through successive generations. Thus does the exaggeration of Islam’s significance in our early history take on a life of its own, based not on fact, but on a tendentious guess. Surely, if 30% of the black African slaves who arrived in America were Muslims, someone – among all those slave-traders and slave-owners – would have noticed and recorded such a sizable number of Muslims. No one did. In fact, almost no one recorded the presence of any Muslim slaves, which leads one to suspect their numbers were far smaller than is now being claimed. Once this story got started, it became accepted by the credulous, and helped make “Islam even more a part of the American story.”

The most egregious fable told about American history by Muslims is when they attempt to convince us that Islam is no late arrival to our shores, but that – this is a constant theme — “the story of Islam in America is as old as America itself.” Perhaps your host will claim at this mosque outreach that “you probably did not know that there were Muslims travelling with Columbus– one even served as his navigator.” Many will not question this claim, but be pleased to be made aware of what they now believe is Islam’s real place in our history, one that had for so long had been kept hidden from us. Take that, Islamophobes!

Let’s consider the claims made that Christopher Columbus included Muslims in his crew. Not only is there not a shred of evidence to support this, but what evidence there is goes the other way. Columbus undertook his voyages because he wanted to discover an alternate route for Europeans to Asia, i.e., India, with its spices, precisely because Muslims had, with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, managed to seal off the old routes to the East from Christian Europe. Columbus would never have taken on members of the enemy camp (of Islam) for his crew, but especially would not have entrusted the critical job of navigator to a Muslim. But so effective has this Muslim rewriting of history been that, in 2004, a State Department employee put out a claim about Columbus’s Muslim crew members: in a press release entitled “Islamic Influence Runs Deep in American Culture,” Phyllis McIntosh of the State Department’s Washington File claimed: “Islamic influences may date back to the very beginning of American history. It is likely that Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, charted his way across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of an Arab navigator.”

Why did McIntosh make this absurd claim, even though “may date back” and “it is likely that” are weasel words providing an escape-hatch of deniability? How did she make the leap from no evidence to “may date back” and “likely”? And even if, which did not happen, one crew member had turned out to be an “Arab” and thus a Muslim, how does that translate into “Islamic influences run deep”? What kind of “Islamic influence” would a single crew member have had on the whole epic of Columbus’s voyages, and the subsequent discovery and settlement of the New World? McIntosh was pulling rabbits out of an ahistorical hat. She, and the State Department, either felt there was no harm in trying to curry favor with Muslims (history is silly putty to some; they shape it as they will), or were under pressure to rewrite history, possibly from Obama’s office (he was constantly prating about how “Islam has always been a part of the American story”) as part of a feelgood-outreach campaign to American Muslims. But where did this particular story, about Columbus’s “Arab navigator,” come from?

It came from Muslims themselves. And it is based on a case of mistaken identity. For it was Muslims who, when they learned of an “Arabic-speaking Spaniard” on Columbus’s first voyage, decided that this must refer to a Muslim Arab. In fact, the reference was to one Luis de Torres, a converso (a Jew who accepted Catholicism). Luis de Torres knew Hebrew, Spanish, and some Arabic, and was taken on not as a navigator but as an interpreter by Columbus, who thought Torres’s knowledge of Hebrew would be useful if they ran into any Jewish traders (who were known to travel far and wide) or members of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. But Muslims, in their eagerness to put themselves into the picture with Columbus, committed two grievous historical errors: first, they confused the interpreter, the “Arabic-speaking Spaniard” Luis de Torres, with the navigator (who was, incidentally, also a converso) and then they assumed that if someone on Columbus’s crew spoke Arabic, as Torres did, he must be an Arab and a Muslim. Wrong on both counts. But even more bizarre is that the only support for McIntosh’s remark about the “Arab navigator” supposedly accompanying Columbus comes from Muslims themselves, who made up the story on the sole basis of that “Arabic-speaking Spaniard.” If the State Department employs historians, as it surely must, those historians were not in evidence to put a stop to those wild stories about the “Muslim navigator” that were being bruited about. One wonders how many people have been led to believe this tall tale, not realizing that there is nothing to justify it. A tale even taller than that about Jefferson’s “Iftar Dinner,” (that is, a regular dinner simply postponed by a few hours, out of courtesy to the Muslim envoy) or the other tale, the one about those “30% of slaves who were Muslims” (though, strangely, no one seemed to notice them at the time). These claims will continue to be made but, it is my earnest hope, in the future may not quite be so readily believed.