The Earliest Muslims in America
Jefferson’s concern to make sure that he included Muslims in legislation regarding religious freedom may say more about him than about America’s Muslim population at the time of the founding. There were probably very few Muslims in early American history, at least who were not slaves. Sadly, those who were slaves did not enjoy Jefferson’s protections, and many were forcibly converted to Christianity. Estimates as to how many slaves were Muslims are as high as 30% (not surprising, seeing as West Africa, where many slave traders kidnapped Africans and brought them to America to sell, is predominantly Muslim).
We know that Christopher Columbus was indeed not the first European to travel to the Americas; the Vikings would arrive on the shores of Canada 500 years before he sailed the ocean blue. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that the first Muslims may have come as early as the 12th century, well over 300 years before Columbus. They were probably Moors, Muslims who lived in Spain, who were fleeing religious persecution. Some evidence even suggests that when Columbus did make his famous voyage, he carried with him a book that Portuguese Muslims had written after navigating to the New World.
Ironically, religious freedom only extended to those who already had freedom of their own persons. In other words, Muslim slaves did not have the freedom to practice their religion. Things like the ritual prayer that Muslims perform five times a day and the Ramadan fast could be met with severe reprisals from slave masters. Efforts to carry on their heritage and pass it on to their children had to be done in secret. Many African-Americans today who descended from these West African slaves are converting to Islam as a means of rediscovering both their heritage and an essential aspect of early American history.
For many Muslims, the struggle for religious freedom was inseparable from the struggle for personal freedom from slavery. One statement that the Hanover Presbytery sent to the Virginia General Assembly regarding Jefferson’s proposed legislation on religious freedom read that: In this enlightened age, and in a land where all of every denomination are united in the most strenuous efforts to be free, we hope and expect that our representatives will cheerfully concur in removing every species of religious as well as civil bondage. The statement went on to specifically mention Muslims as being equally deserving of religious freedom as their Christian counterparts.
The quest for ensuring religious freedom throughout the newly-established country extended beyond the borders of Jefferson’s Virginia. Because Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism were considered minor religions next to the dominant Protestant denominations, some legislators in other states wanted a “religious test” for those who would hold public offices. They wanted to ensure that those of “inferior religions” wouldn’t be in authority over Protestants. The debate continued for nearly two centuries, all through the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, who would become the first non-Protestant to hold the office of President of the United States.