On Washington DC’s Hidden Islamic Trail

  • he American capital has a long and storied Muslim history, if you dig deep enough

LONDON: The ‘David’-like physiology and ‘Nike’ wings were Greco-Roman, but his turban, beard and ‘semitic’ face, were unmistakably of the East. He sat majestically with one arm under his chin and his right foot atop a distilling retort.

“Those figures represent the building blocks of Western civilization. There’s Spain, England, the Middle Ages, even Islam is there for its contribution to science. Look, ‘Islam’ is written under the turbaned man.”

The tour guide’s voice broke my meditative study of the Renaissance-style figures high up on the dome of the Thomas Jefferson building, inside Washington DC’s Library of Congress.

Painted in the 1890s by Edward Homeland Blashfield, “The Evolution of Civilization” suggests Islam played a far greater role in the development of America than popular US history would have you believe.

This fact is further reinforced by one of the library’s most prized possessions, the Jefferson Qur’an — a two-volume 18th-century leatherbound English translation of Islam’s holiest text that once belonged to the American founding father and third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Along with the library’s dome, “The Qu’ran,” by George Sale, is part of a series of clues alluding to Islam’s relationship with the US, scattered across Washington DC.

Around the corner, in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, an exhibit honors the man often hailed as ‘The Greatest’ American Muslim of all, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Northeast of this, on “Islamic Way” is a mosque linked to arguably America’s second-most-famous Muslim, Malcolm X. The Masjid Muhammad, now a Sunni mosque, began life as the Nation of Islam Temple No.4, and was built using money personally raised by ‘Brother Malcolm’ before his conversion to Islam.

It is not the capital’s only famous mosque. On the opposite side of town, the Islamic Center offers a nod to historic Islamic art and architecture. The exterior of its mosque — built in 1949 — is modeled on classic north African, Fatimid architecture while, inside, the walls are decorated with blue Ottoman-style Iznik tiles and Qur’anic calligraphy.

Meanwhile, on the corner of 21st and Q NW is the Moroccan Embassy — one of the earliest established in the US, to acknowledge that the Muslim country was the first to recognize America’s independence in 1776.

But the true gem sits in an unfashionable neighborhood south of the River Anacostia. America’s Islamic Heritage Museum on Martin Luther King Jr Ave W is the result of one man’s effort to unearth America’s Muslim history.

“It all began when I discovered a West African ancestor on my father’s side called Clara Higgenbotham, born in 1783 and enslaved in Brunswick, Georgia,” recalled Amir Nashid Ali Muhammad Ibn West, the museum’s founder. “She had a daughter called Amry Bakr — a familiar Muslim surname. Looking into their lives, I came across another Muslim slave born in West Africa, Salih Bilali, who lived nearby and managed 450 slaves for a John Couper.

“Bilali reportedly recited the shahadah on his deathbed, and his descendant, Robert Abbott, founded the Chicago Defender — one of America’s first black newspapers,” Amir continued. He went on to claim that America’s Muslim history goes all the way back to 1312, when West African Muslims from Mali landed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Amir also believes Muslims came to the Americas with Christopher Columbus.

“Columbus had two Muslim captains related to Sultan Abu Zayan Muhammad III of Morocco’s Marinid dynasty on his ship,” he said.

Evidence supporting his claims can be seen inside his modest museum. It includes slave ledgers, adverts for runaway Muslim slaves, and photos of ancient ‘Muslim’ tombstones, like the final resting place of ‘Mamohet’ (who died in 1735), which Amir found in Norwich, Connecticut.

The museum also has a copy of a painting of freed Muslim slave, Yarrow Mamout. The original, housed in Georgetown Public Library, was painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1819. Peale also painted US President George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Mamout was a devout Muslim versed in Arabic. After being freed he invested in the Columbia Bank and became a financier for white and black merchants. Peale noted that Mamout was buried at the bottom of his garden, where he prayed. Excavations are now underway at his former residency.

The move is a significant one, suggesting the US capital, like Amir, might finally be ready to embrace America’s forgotten Muslim heritage.

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