Lessons from early American conversations with Islam

George Washington

By Mokhtar Ghambou

(Aug 10, 2009) – To hear Americans and Muslims talk about each other over the past years, you’d think the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world has been permanently belligerent. The violence and inflammatory polemics generated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make it difficult to think otherwise. But if intellectual history is any guide, no Western nation was as positively engaged with Muslim societies as the United States.

Let us take a few examples to clarify the history of relations between the United States and Islam. As US President Barack Obama recently acknowledged in his Cairo address, a Muslim-majority country, the Kingdom of Morocco, was the first nation to recognise the independence of the United States. In 1778, George Washington and the Alaoui Sultan Mohammed III signed a diplomatic treaty of friendship to protect all vessels carrying the American flag against piracy.

Judging from poems, plays or novels written during the early years of the post-colonial Republic, this first encounter with a Muslim-majority nation was an opportunity for 18th and 19th century Americans to gradually give way to an intense cultural dialogue with Muslims and Arabs. Considered the second oldest novel in America, Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive is a prime example.

Written in 1779, the book is about an American doctor from Boston who is captured by Muslim Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in Algeria. The main character, Doctor Updike Underhill, spends several years in captivity before gaining his freedom and returning to America.

Out of print for more than two centuries, the novel was revived with an unfortunate irony: it was reprinted in 2002 to provide a historical background to the 9/11 tragedy. As one critic wrote on its cover, the novel “lays bare a culture clash and diplomatic quagmire not unlike the one that [exists] between the United States and Muslim nations today.”

True, the novel’s tense atmosphere allows such a comparison, especially if one equates 18th century piracy to today’s terrorism. On closer inspection, however, the novel can serve as a solid reference to counter, not support, the clash of civilisation rhetoric: the narrative only dramatises political conflict with Islam to imagine possible ways to resolve it.

Tyler transformed the politics of captivity into a fascinating quest for knowledge. His protagonist initiates multiple dialogues over controversial issues – such as American slavery, stereotyping and conversion – with his Algerian captors, imams and other notables, eager at once to discover Islamic culture and promote his own Christian faith.

Royall Tyler paved the way for more famous writers—the pioneers of the American Renaissance—to expand their society’s knowledge of Islamic culture. Washington Irving wrote an intriguing book on Prophet Mohammad; Edgar Poe crafted an intriguing story on the Arabian Nights; and Hermann Melville drew extensively on Arabic texts in his classic Moby Dick, whose main characters are his companion, the Arabic-named Ishmael, the Ramadan-fasting Quequeeg and the Persian Fedallah.

By 1850, the Arabian Nights was so popular in the American imagination that Harriet Beecher Stowe, another major figure of the American Renaissance, exhorted American parents to tell Sheherazade’s stories to their children in order to cultivate their aesthetic values and appreciation for difference.

References to the Qur’an, the Prophet Mohammad and his companions were common practice amongst the founding fathers, writers and poets, from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Emerson, the father of American transcendentalism, described the Qur’an as the “kingdom of the will”, encouraging his American readers to view Prophets “Mahomet, Ali and Omar” as inspiring models of balanced “vigor” nurtured by “the sound mind in a sound body.”

Although transcendentalism was marketed as an American cultural brand, its pioneer — Emerson — acknowledged it as an Eastern Sufi philosophy originally inspired by Persian poets whom he read and translated.

These enlightening examples are worth keeping in mind as Americans and Muslims are about to open a new chapter in their relationship. To understand that our past traditions were much more tolerant of their mutual differences than we tend to think, will help us liberate the dialogue from the terrorists acting in the name of Islam and the conservative ideologues waiting for the latter’s bombs to set off their own clash of civilizations.

The challenge is certainly worth the effort by all Americans who believe in the richness of their own legacy.

*Mokhtar Ghambou is professor of post-colonial studies and American literature at Yale University and president of the American Moroccan Institute. This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).