While the vast majority of stuff on Ummahsonic focuses on all things British, we occasionally like to turn our eye to the United States to see what Muslims are up to across the pond.
Over the past few years, the political discourse in the US has peddled something of an ‘us vs. them’ narrative, overshadowing the reality that Muslims have been a part of the fabric of American society for over a century.
In an effort to rectify this and exhibit the rich—if largely unknown—history of Islam in the United States, Amir Muhammad founded the America’s Islamic Heritage Museum & Cultural Center.
The tiny space in Washington D.C. got its start in 1996 as a traveling exhibition called Collections and Stories of American Muslims. Since moving to its established location in the nation’s capital in 2011, it has welcomed upwards of 50,000 through its doors, introducing them to artefacts, photographs and other documents that recount the contributions of American Muslims, with some items dating back to the Revolutionary War.
Muhammad, 64, curates the exhibitions and conducts most of the museum tours himself. It isn’t always an easy, or particularly well attended, task. Along with being in a part of town Muhammad described to USA Today as “the hood of the hood”, events of the last two decades have convinced many Americans to either ignore Islam or treat it as ‘un-American’.
Yet the notion that ‘Muslim culture’ is a novel interloper into ‘American culture’ goes against the very history of the country.
Firstly, scholars believe anywhere from a quarter to a third of enslaved Africans brought to the country against their will were Muslim. Like many stories from this egregious period, details of the slave experience have often been scrubbed from history.
However, these early Muslims in America practiced a faith that would, in the years that followed, result in two towns in the United States called Mohammad; a Palestine, in Texas; an Aladdin, in Wyoming; while influencing everything from Blues music to Moorish architecture in the South.
Of course, their longest legacy would be the three million Muslims who currently live in the United States, who have contributed to arts, academia, business and—to use newly elected Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as examples—politics, among many other things.
But for now, Muhammad is fighting a battle to tell people this story. Fortunately, other Muslim Americans are too.
Along with the success of Omar and Tlaib, this month’s midterms saw at least 145 Muslims run for public office in the US. According to Abdullah Hammoud, who is serving his first term in the Michigan House of Representatives, this is because the political climate has inspired them to take action:
“For almost two years people have been witnessing the direction our country is going in” and they don’t like it, he explained to USA Today.
Away from politics, musicians and performers are attempting to reclaim the narrative. Philadelphia comedian Moses the Comic—real name Musa Sulaiman—recently started a ‘Super Muslim Comedy Tour’ in an effort to counter stereotypes while delivering the laughs.
“It’s about going into public places and subverting the stereotypes by making people laugh….Art and entertainment can combat ideologies of racism and bigotry.”
As long as people like Sulaiman, Omar and Muhammad keep up the good work, the history and contributions of Islam in the United States may no longer be confined to a small Washington D.C. museum.
For more information about the Islamic Heritage Museum, check out the website.