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Book Review – July 10, 2016

The American Revolution as affected by the Muslim World

 Author: Syed R. Mahmood

Published by: Montezuma Publishing, 2015, 488 pp

Reviewed by Prof. Abdul Jabbar

One will have to read at least a dozen books to gather the amount of information that Syed Mahmood has packed in his admirably thorough chronicle of an often-overlooked part of American history. The book shows that before the U.S. became a country, Muslims were here in America and have continued to play an important part through the centuries to the present day.

The author clearly states the purpose of his book: “The objective . . . is to reconstruct and explore the history of the American Revolution and its relationship with Muslims and the Muslim world” (15). Using authentic sources, the author persuasively supports his view that “Muslims in America represent a very diverse population and the history of Muslims is much longer than most Americans realize (140).

He documents Muslims’ presence in America at least 300 years before the U.S. statehood. In 1492, Columbus brought two Arab Muslim captains with him. A Muslim Arab black man came from Azamore on the Atlantic coast and led an expedition from Medico (32). He is credited with discovering Arizona and New Mexico. In the 1550s, an Egyptian prince settled near the Hudson River. In 1586, the English explorer and pirate Sir Francis Drake, who had raided Spanish and Portuguese ships to take hundreds of prisoners, left more than 200 Moors, Turks, West Africans, and Portuguese on Roanoke Island, North Carolina (32). Alex Haley, in Roots, chronicles the life of KuntaKinte, a Muslim, born in Gambia in 1750, brought to Maryland as a slave in 1767, and forced to give up his Islamic faith (32). Peter Salem, a former slave and a Revolutionary War decorated hero, was a Muslim. In 1970, he was honored by having a postage stamp in his name (142). There were about four million African slaves working on the plantations in 1860. 38,000 blacks sacrificed their lives in the Civil War. From 20 to 30 % slaves could have been Muslims. The Civil War records show 292 Muslim soldiers’ names, and at least 1,575 Muslim veterans’ names appear in World War II chronicles. The author makes the history of notable enslaved Muslims come alive. Some of them were from African royal families.

Despite Muslims’ notable contributions and sharing of their skills that they brought with them to the New World, there were some individuals who were biased against them. Those negative views of Muslims were the result of the influence of certain European Orientalists who, like the Orientalists of today, looked at cultures other than their own through a distorting reductionist prism. Edward Said has documented the genesis and systematic spread of prejudice against Muslims and Arabs in his famous 1978 book Orientalism.

Another very interesting part of the book narrates the U.S. encounter with Muslim states. Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the U.S. as a state. But the relationship between the U.S. and the Barbary Cost states of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis was very complex. Pirates captured Westerners and sold them as slaves in those areas. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, slave trade existed in Europe, the U.S., and the Barbary Coast. Some European countries also had Muslim slaves. Those Barbary Coast Muslim states were so powerful that “no nation could navigate that sea [the Mediterranean] without a treaty of peace with them” (41). During the U.S. Revolutionary Wars, most of the American ships had been destroyed by Britain. The 1796 Treaty of Tripoli paved he way for U.S. close ties with the great Ottoman Empire that prevented European powers from isolating the U.S.

Some of the book’s most moving parts are the author’s coverage of the horrors of slavery. They are seldom captured with such pulsating details (109). Today’s Black Lives Matter movement is directly connected to that disgraceful and shockingly uncivilized period of American history. Despite the blacks’ major role in every possible area to make this country great, they are still being treated as inferior. Tracing the connection between blacks and Muslims, the author points out that out of 6 million Muslims in America today, two million are African Americans. The book is full of fascinating and little-known historical facts that all Americans need to know to better understand the Black Lives Matter movement and to better acquaint themselves with facts about Muslims’ contributions to America. Blacks and Muslims are being subjected to the kind of treatment that no civilized nation should tolerate. Black youth are routinely murdered by white policemen for no criminal activity, and totally un-American Islamophobic rhetoric is being spewed forth by politicians and bigots. Sadly and dangerously, some of those prejudiced individuals have aspirations to lead – one should say mislead – this great country of ours.

Using his vast political experience and knowledge, the author, as a loyal and concerned American, also includes some very valuable advice to make our foreign policy worthy of the potential greatness of this country. He candidly points out some of the shameful and self-destructive double standards that have become routine in our relations with the Muslim world. Our foreign policy has miserably failed in Iraq and Afghanistan and we continue to transform friends into enemies with our belligerent actions in the Muslim world. 

The reviewer is a Professor Emeritus, Interdisciplinary and Middle Eastern Studies at City College of San Francisco.