By Juan Cole
If we take Muslim-Americans, who at about 3.4 million persons constitute some 1.1 percent of Americans, over 90% say they are proud to be Americans. Does that sound like hatred to you?
The conviction that Muslims are intrinsically hostile to the US comes in part from a misconception of Islam as a religion. I have tried to put some of the myths to rest in my new book. Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires.
You can’t generalize the world’s Muslims, since there are 1.5 billion of them, and they don’t have an over-all view of the United States. Some like American freedoms and principles but dislike US foreign policy toward issues such as Palestine. People in the eastern part of the Middle East have a negative view of the US under Trump. But a Muslim country like Senegal has a majority that views the US favorably and in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country population-wise, the favorables are 48% to 43% unfavorable. France, Sweden, Germany and Spain are all more negative toward the US under Trump than are these two Muslim countries.
The fact is that Islam is an American religion. It has been on North American soil for centuries. Some of the emigrants to the New World from Spain in the 1500s forward were secret Muslims who had pro forma converted to escape persecution by the Inquisition. (Southern Spain was mostly Muslim for 800 years, but by 1492 the Castilian Catholics, having conquered all of the south, announced that Muslims and Jews would be expelled. Some managed to stay by an outward show of Catholic piety while they secretly practiced their original religion, becoming known as Moriscos).
Moreover, many of those enslaved and brought to the Americas by slavers were Muslim, in places like Brazil as well as in the United States. To the extent that the US was built in part by slave labor, it was built in part by Muslim labor.
From the 1880s, a significant emigration to the United States began in what is now Lebanon and Syria. Tens of thousands of Arabic-speakers came until the racist immigration law of 1924 stemmed the flow. About 10% of these immigrants were Muslim, and some founded mosques in the Midwest, in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Dearborn, Michigan.
It is since 1965 that the Muslim-American community has grown to several million. The last 50 years of American history has seen substantial economic and cultural contributions to the US by Muslim-Americans. Just for an example, Elias Zerhouni served as head of the National Institutes of Health and presidential envoy for US scientific and medical exchanges with other countries. It is often forgotten just how many Muslim-American physicians there are, contributing mightily to the health and well-being of the nation.
The founder of the Muslim religion, the Prophet Muhammad, is someone whom you would think Americans would admire.
Here are five reasons why:
- Muhammad was a businessman, a long distance merchant who went up from western Arabia for trade in the Near Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, to Palestine, Transjordan and Syria. A quarter of Americans have thought about forming a business, and a majority view even big business favorably.
- Muhammad encouraged people to practice spirituality. Here is what the Qur’an says about the subject: “Righteousness is not determined by facing East or West during prayer. Righteousness consists of the belief in God, the Day of Judgment, the angels, the Books of God, His Prophets; to give money for the love of God to relatives, orphans, the destitute, and those who are on a journey and in urgent need of money, beggars; to set free slaves and to be steadfast in prayer, to pay the religious tax (zakat) to fulfill one’s promises, and to exercise patience in poverty, in distress, and in times of war. Such people who do these are truly righteous and pious.” (Al-Baqarah 2:177 [Muhammad Sarwar) Some 75% of Americans say they are spiritual.
- Muhammad praised people of other religions as well as of his own. The Qur’an (Al-A`raf 7:159) says of Jews, “And among the people of Moses is a community which guides by truth and by it establishes justice.” It says of Christians (Al-Ma’idah 5:82) “you will find the nearest of them in love to the believers [Muslims] those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.” It could be critical of both communities for their political positions or what it sees as doctrinal lapses, but it also contains high praise for them. Americans have increasingly warm feelings toward members of other religions, and even their warmth toward Muslims has increased in recent years.
- The Qur’an insists on freedom of belief and condemns coercion of conscience (which it terms ‘fitna‘). The chapter of Jonah 10:99 addresses a Prophet Muhammad who despaired of getting through with his monotheistic message to the pagans, saying “And had your Lord had willed, whoever is on earth would have believed, all of them, all together. Then, [O Muhammad], would you coerce the people such that they become believers?” Elsewhere, in the chapter of Al-Baqarah 2: 256, the Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. Certainly, right has become clearly distinct from wrong. Whoever rejects false idols and believes in God has taken hold of the unbreakable, firm handle. God is All-hearing and knowing.” Famously, the First Amendment of the US Constitution forbids Congress from making any religion the official religion of the state and then imposing it on Americans, ensuring their freedom of conscience.
- The Qur’an urges turning the other cheek and wishing peace on persecutors who orally harass the believers. The chapter of the Gilded Ornaments (Al-Zukhruf) 43:89 says of the militant pagans who rejected the Prophet’s message, “yet pardon them, and say, ‘Peace!’ Soon they will know.” (Arberry). When, however, militant pagans launched aggressive war on the early community of believers in Medina, the Qur’an permitted them to defend themselves by taking up arms. But it warned against engaging in aggressive, expansionist warfare, holding that only defensive war is legitimate. The chapter of Al-Baqarah 2:190 says, “And fight in the way of God with those; who fight with you, but do not commit aggression: God does not love aggressors.” A majority of Americans also feels that sometimes war is necessary but that it would be wrong to launch a war if the US were not first attacked by the other side (the Iraq War seems to have strengthened this sentiment).
1400 years of Christian polemics have demonized Muhammad, but a dispassionate consideration of his life and message makes it clear that there is much for contemporary Americans to admire in his life and teachings.
Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment and Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is author of, among many other books, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires.
Taken with slight editorial modifications from Informed Comment.