BY MARY-JANE DEEB
On Jan. 29 the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division and the Office of Scholarly Programs co-sponsored a symposium on "Islam in America." This was the eighth in a series of symposia on Islam made possible in part by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Raja Sidawi Fund.
Carolyn Brown, assistant librarian for Library Services and acting director of Area Studies, welcomed more than 100 attendees. She also thanked the organizers of the conference and talked about the need to bring to the capital a historical perspective to the understanding of current events. The symposia, she maintained, assembled multiple perspectives and viewpoints from many different cultures, reflecting in a way the Library's own vast multilingual collections.
The first panel, chaired by Marieta Harper, an African-area specialist, focused on the historical roots of Muslim immigration to the United States. The first speaker was Derrick Beard, a preeminent collector of 18th, 19th and early-20th century African American decorative arts, photography and rare books. He talked about a unique manuscript, the autobiography of Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese who was captured and brought to America at the end of the 18th century as a slave. Omar bin Said had been a well-educated Muslim who wrote in Arabic and left behind a number of manuscripts, 13 of which are extant. Some scholars believe that perhaps as many as 10 percent of the slaves who were brought to America between 1711 and 1715 were Muslims and the majority probably literate. The Life of Omar ibn Said was displayed in a glass case for the attendees to see.
The second speaker was John O. Hunwick, professor of history and religion at Northwestern University, who is a world renowned scholar on Arabic manuscripts from Africa. He discussed the very old tradition of education in Africa, where for hundreds of years, children from the age of 6 began learning the Koran, passed exams, "graduated" and went to higher educational levels. Arabic in Africa was like Latin in Europe, and African languages were written using the Arabic script. He said that Timbuktu in the 16th century was one of the greatest centers of learning on the continent, and that records of scholars such as Ahmed Baba (1564-1627) from Mali who wrote treatises on law, astronomy, religious hadith and biographical dictionaries exist to this day and are used by scholars.
The Muslim Arab-American experience was covered by Yvonne Y. Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations at Georgetown University. She described the various stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, including that of the terrorist. She praised President Bush for having made clear from the onset that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the United States was at war against terrorism and not against Islam.
The second panel, "Islam in Contemporary America," was chaired by Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs. He introduced Akbar S. Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, who had also been Pakistan's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. His presentation on "A New Andalusia? Muslims in America After Sept. 11" tried to address how people of different faiths will live together in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He chose Andalusia as an example of a time more than a thousand years ago when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and thrived together in Andalusian Spain. Mr. Ahmed said he believed that there is now a great opportunity for members of all faiths in the United States to begin a new dialogue of cooperation. The "dialogue of civilization is the greatest challenge we face today," and it is taking place in a land "where people are respected for who they are" and not discriminated against for their beliefs, he said.
Sylviane A. Diouf, a research scholar at the Schomberg Center for Research on Black Culture and an award-winning author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, discussed the backgrounds of slaves who were brought to America between 1560 and 1860. At least 100,000 were Muslims, political and religious leaders in their communities, as well as traders, students, Koranic teachers, judges and, in many cases, more educated than their American masters. As slaves, they were prohibited from reading and writing and had no ink or paper. Instead they used wood tablets and organic plant juices or stones to write with. Some wrote, in Arabic, verses of the Koran they knew by heart, so as not to forget how to write. Arabic was also used by slaves to plot revolts in Guyana, Rio de Janeiro and Santo Domingo because the language was not understood by slave owners. Manuscripts in Arabic of maps and blueprints for revolts were found here as well as in Jamaica and Trinidad.
The last speaker was Amir al-Islam, executive director of the Center for Professional Education at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, where he also teaches African American history and world civilization courses. He described himself as an "activist-scholar" working with the Muslim African-American community. He spoke on "Contemporary African-American Islam." He said that between 1900 and 1960 there was a proto-Islamic movement that appropriated certain theological texts to oppose racism and oppression. Later, some of those groups became radicalized, and a number of movements such as Nation of Islam emerged. Today African-American Muslims are trying to create a more open and pluralistic society that embraces and celebrates its differences and in which interfaith dialogue plays an important role.
Ms. Deeb is an Arab-world area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.