“A Reform Which Has Stifled All Other Reforms:” Islam in the Nineteenth Century American Black Press

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In recent years, a number of political movements have sought to forge a connection between black Americans and Middle-Eastern Arabs, particularly in relation to the oppression of the Palestinian people in Israel and Palestine and the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. A small body of scholarly literature has recently developed which links African-Americans and Arabs in the nineteenth century. Few scholars, however, have noted the strong currents of anti-Islamic thinking in nineteenth-century African-American public discourse. African historian Teshale Tibebu has even gone so far as to attribute “Islamophobia” to nineteenth-century African-American Protestants. When seeking to find common ground among historically oppressed groups today, many scholars and activists see such groups as being naturally aligned by virtue of their status as “others” to the West. The treatment of Islam in nineteenth-century African-American writing should lead us to question that assumption. It highlights the constructed nature of these alliances. More importantly, it reminds us that oppressed communities have often identified with identities other than their oppression.

Negative views of Islam can first be seen in some of the first major African-American radical newspapers. A September 8, 1838 article in the Colored American (a major African-American newspaper founded by abolitionists Philip Bell, Samuel Cornish and Charles Ray), entitled “Why always harping at the Church?,” offers a glimpse at attitudes towards Muslims and Islam during this period. In the article, the editors rhetorically ask why abolitionists attacked pro-slavery churches. They did so, they explained, because no true Christian would ever hold slaves: “Slavery is A GREAT SIN, A NATIONAL DISGRACE to any people or government who upholds it. This is acknowledged by all. If it is a sin and a shame for a Turk to hold his fellow in bondage, it is a hundred fold more sinful for a Christian minister.” According to these authors, the system of slavery in the United States was not morally worse than that in the Ottoman Empire because of any difference in how the enslaved were treated (though such a difference did exist). It was worse because of the moral condition of the country: less was to be expected of an empire so far from God as the Ottomans’. But for the United States, which had found and espoused the “true” religion of Christianity, to hold people in bondage was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.

After the Civil War, distaste for Muslims and Islam became a more common trope in the African-American press, reflecting emerging ideas about race and empire among both black and white thinkers. One paper that espoused such notions of Islam was the Christian Recorder, which from 1848 served as the organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the second-largest black denomination at that time. By the Civil War, the paper was, in the words of historian Mitch Kachun, “a vital cornerstone of the denomination, the black press, and widespread African American communities.” After the war, members of the African-American community relied on the newspaper for news, correspondence, and debates, as well as in helping people find their newly-freed family members.

Writers in the Christian Recorder generally disparaged Islam and “Mohametans.” An 1878 article titled “Can Turkey Be Reformed?,” for example, argued that the Turkish people could never successfully achieve westernizing reforms. Published in the October 19 edition of the paper, this article was excerpted from an article in the Penn Monthly, a respectable periodical which devoted itself to “Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” The author compares the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms to a (pacifist) Quaker attempting to reform an army. The author declares that “to reform an institution or a system of government means to bring it into a closer conformity with its own normative idea”—to distill a system to its essence. However, the Ottoman reforms—in which the government sought to allow Christians equal rights with Muslims and to establish non-sectarian schools—represented “the introduction of principles utterly alien to its very normative idea.” Islam, the author argued, was inherently un-Christian and uncivilized.

Even articles in the Recorder that were ostensibly complimentary toward Muslims reflected the notion that Islam was an inferior religion. In an article titled “Remarkable Negro Muslims,” published on December 16, 1875, the unnamed author briefly describes various well-known black Muslims, and discusses the achievements of Sheikh Omaru Al Hajj, an educated Muslim leader from modern-day Mali. Describing his conquests and conversions of surrounding tribes, the author goes on to note that “To the Mohammedans of Negro land… the struggle for the ascendancy of Islam is… a struggle between light and darkness, between knowledge and ignorance, between good and evil.” This praise of Islam is, however, tempered with criticism. While their intentions are good, the article goes on to qualify, these African Muslims do not realize that “their faith makes them utterly indifferent to the sufferings of any who stand in the way of the dissemination of the truth, and patient of any evils they may have to endure in order to insure the triumph of their cause.” The article thus depicts these Muslims as being made into zealots by their faith, as lesser people in need of Christianity.

Captain Edward Wilmot Blyden was a rare proponent of a more positive view of Islam in the nineteenth century black American press.

Characteristically brazen, Edward Wilmot Blyden, a scholar, emigrationist, and early pan-Africanist, is the only defender of Islam I have been able to find in the major nineteenth-century black presses of America. Even he, however, saw African Islam as merely paving the way for the inevitable conversion of Africa to Christianity. Before becoming a renowned scholar, professor of Arabic and one of the major designers of the University of Liberia’s curriculum, Blyden first came to Liberia as part of the over four hundred African-American missionaries to Africa in the nineteenth century. Like other black intellectuals at the time, Blyden, as Tibebu points out, felt a “black man’s burden” to “civilize” Africa. In 1878, Blyden lamented that “men whose character, position and literary ability make them the guide of thousands” kept attacking Muslims and Islam. He argued that Protestant writers’ contention that Islam was “a reform which has stifled all other reforms” was mere prejudice. Rather, he maintained, the prejudice of white missionaries towards African peoples was the reason Christianity had not yet taken over all of Africa. The “Arab Missionary,” Blyden wrote, “often of the very complexion of his hearer,” did not have the same troubles getting used to Africans. Arabs, according to Blyden, held no prejudice against color. The notion of Arabs as “color-blind” was another nineteenth-century trope in both white and black literature, which does not quite hold up to the historian’s gaze. According to Blyden, American missionaries and African-Americans did not understand that “whatever it may be in other lands, in Africa the work of Islam is preliminary and preparatory.” Out of Arab Islam would soon flower American Protestantism. More so than any other people on the continent, “African Mohammedans” were most “willing to have Christian schools in their towns, to have the Christian Scriptures circulated among them, and to share with Christians the work of reclaiming the pagan.”

This relatively muted support of Islam as a natural precursor to Christianity led many to attack Blyden in the press. For years after publishing this article, Blyden remained a controversial figure—mentioned in the paper over two hundred times—often with the intention of questioning his Christian convictions. In a characteristic January 12, 1888 piece, a Sierra Leonese missionary even wondered, “Has Dr. Blyden Gone Over to Mo[ha]met?” In response, Blyden and his few supporters kept repeating their mantra: they did not hate Christianity, nor had they given up on it. Islam would soon give way to American Protestant advances, for theirs was the purest form of Christianity, which held—in the words of a supporter of Blyden’s writing in the Recorder on December 7, 1887—“that God is no respector [sic] of persons, and that which teaches, ‘That whatsoever ye would, that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.’” Blyden’s God did not care about a person’s race, or the circumstances into which they were born, but about their actions and their beliefs. Even with these many assurances, however, the Christian Recorder and the larger African-American community found Blyden, and his lukewarm support of Islam, hard to swallow.

Historians often overlook the impact that religions have on how people view the world. Historians of African-Americans are no different, as Laurie Maffly-Capp discusses in her most recent book, Setting Down the Sacred Past. Some African-Americans sought to take part in American Protestant empire-building in the late nineteenth century, and many supported the basis of that empire: the superiority of American Protestantism to all other religions. Although they were a part of an oppressed community in the United States, many African-Americans may have identified less with the labels placed upon them by the society in which they lived—“colored,” “black,” “Negro”—than with the labels they chose for themselves, such as “Methodist,” “Christian,” “civilized.” Indeed, many nineteenth-century AME preachers saw their immense suffering, and that of their ancestors, as suggesting that African-Americans were the truest Christians, placed on earth to spread the Gospel and rid the world of heathenism. Such ideologies explain why African-American Christians so often supported both missionary and British colonial ventures into Africa. It was these self- directed identifications, rather than imposed labels such as “oppressed,” that often carried the most weight for and were most decisive for the decision-making of nineteenth-century black Americans. Looking at historical actors’ genuinely held beliefs about ethics, goodness, and the divine can help us as historians better understand and explain why they advocate or have advocated enacting violence on others.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live.

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