When the first Muslim elected to Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., put his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran at his swearing-in ceremony this past January, he made history. In becoming the first, however, he also sparked much hype in the United States, provoking a flood of shrill denunciations and criticisms about the role of Islam in America. Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., for example, offered his caveat of a future in which “there will likely be many more Muslims elected to Congress and demanding use of the Quran” unless Americans “wake up” and support stricter immigration laws.
As American Muslims, we found the unfolding of these events particularly disturbing. They were imbued with an ignorance of American history and a complete disregard for our Founding Fathers’ convictions and the values they embraced. After all, many of the seven million Muslims in the United States today — every bit as American as Rep. Goode — have been here for generations. The first Muslims in America were brought here as slaves, including the famous “Prince Among Slaves” Ibrahim Abdul Rahman ibn Sori, who was freed through the intercession of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay. The first wave of Muslim immigrants was in 1875, mainly from greater Syria and the Punjab area in India. The first mosque in America was built in 1915 by Albanian Muslims in Maine. Keith Ellison himself is an African-American Muslim who can trace his American heritage back hundreds of years. These are just a few of the examples of the history and roots of Islam in America. Unfortunately, these stories are forgotten, unheard and omitted from most American history textbooks. This is why we were excited to share the contributions that Muslims have all over the world, as well as in America, during this year’s annual Islamic Awareness Week.
Throughout this past week, we have tried to illustrate this rich history of Islam and Muslims to the Yale community. In the beginning of the week, we learned from Mas’ood Cajee about Muslims who showed moral courage in saving their Jewish brothers from the Holocaust, and we featured a film that spoke to the role the Paris Mosque played. During the course of WWII, over 1,700 Jews and resistance fighters were hidden in the mosque, and not one was captured. The actions of these Muslims represented the true intent of the Islamic tradition and spirit of compassion, highlighting the prophetic legacy of love and humanity that Muslims cherish today. We extended our discussion to include the importance of interfaith dialogue and the use of this history in promoting understanding, particularly in our post-9/11 world.
As Muslims, we know that there is a lot of misinformation out there about Islam. There are voices of reason within the Muslim community, and they are in the majority, but like the stories mentioned before, they are often unheard and overlooked for the sake of sound-bite news. As Muslims, we must be open and active within our communities. It is our responsibility to disseminate accurate information about our religion, and the Yale Muslim Students’ Association fully takes on this responsibility. At the same time, it is important for everyone, especially Yale students, to challenge their assumptions, engage in dialogue and learn from the Muslim community here at Yale. We encourage students to attend the open Friday prayers and the Branford Master’s Tea today, the last of our IAW series. The Master’s Tea will be hosting Farid Esack, a leading scholar in the field of social justice and pluralism in Islam.
We hope that these events pushed students to dig deeper, beyond stereotypical beliefs about Islam and Muslims, and that they served to promote the dialogue, reflection and discussion the Muslim Students’ Association wishes to encourage within our campus.
Altaf Saadi is a junior in Morse College and president of the Muslim Students’ Association. Zahreen Ghaznavi is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College and organizer of Islamic Awareness Week.