Lecture examines Islam influence in American society
Clare Kossler | Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, said American Muslims have profoundly impacted American society in a lecture Tuesday titled “Islam and the Building of America.”
The lecture was hosted by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and took place in the Hesburgh Center for Peace Studies.
Hussain highlighted the significance of various Muslims — both famous and obscure — to American history.
“They’ve contributed something, and some things that I think are quite crucial, as you start peeling back the layers of the sports, of the activism, of, for me, the music,” he said.
Central to any discussion of Islam’s impact on America, Hussain said, is the understanding that Muslims have been part of American history since its conception.
“The rhetoric that one gets these days is that Islam is a new religious tradition in America and that it is somehow alien, foreign to American values,” he said. “And I’m going to turn that on its head and say, ‘How has America been influenced by Islam and by its Muslim population?’”
Indeed, Hussain said Muslims have constituted a significant percentage of the American population even before America declared independence in 1776. He said at least 10 percent of the slaves brought to America from West Africa were Muslim.
A clear example of Islam’s longstanding influence in America is in New York City, Hussain said, where the African Burial Ground National Monument is the final resting place for many Muslim Americans.
“For much of American history, Muslims have come to New York seeking freedom and opportunity, like every other group of immigrants that comes to New York,” he said.
But beyond the fact that Muslims have always been part of American history, Hussain said Muslims have made a lasting impression on American politics and culture. He said the life of Thomas Jefferson provides evidence of the pervasiveness of Islam in American thought.
“How many of us are aware that in 1765, Thomas Jefferson — in 1765 before America is America — purchases a Koran?” Hussain said.
Moreover, Hussain said in areas such as music, entertainment, architecture and popular culture, Muslim Americans have helped shape American society.
He referenced numerous examples of prominent figures in each industry, including Fazlur Rahman Khan, the structural engineer who designed the Hancock and Willis Towers, and Ahmet Ertegün, the founder of Atlantic Records, the record company that signed the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Ray Charles.
The presence of Muslims has been particularly strong in the sports arena, Hussain said, where athletes such as professional boxer Muhammad Ali or National Basketball Association (NBA) player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have greatly contributed to the legacy of American sports.
“I would argue that perhaps Muhammad Ali is the most famous person in the world,” he said. “And what does that mean, that the most famous person in the world is yet again an American — in this case another African-American —Muslim?”
Although Hussain said it is important not to overemphasize the influence of Islam in American history, he also said America would not be what it is today without the presence of its Muslim inhabitants.
“Can you imagine an America without Muhammad Ali? Can you imagine the contributions that people like Ali have made to what it means to be American, really rethinking that kind of thing?” he asked the audience.