Muslims were in America before Protestantism even existed

Jim Glanville

“The first words to pass between Europeans and Americans (one-sided and confusing as they must have been) were in the sacred language of Islam.” That is the first sentence of an essay by the historian Sam Haselby published online on May 20 this year in “Aeon” magazine.

Christopher Columbus’ interpreter in 1492 was an Arabic-speaking Spanish Jew.

Haselby titled his essay “Muslims of early America: Muslims came to America more than a century before Protestants, and in great numbers. How was their history forgotten?” It is a good question. Haselby is today a senior editor at “Aeon,” which describes itself as an online magazine of ideas, philosophy and culture.

Essayist Haselby graduated in 1993 from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a BA in Comparative Literature and History. In 2006, he obtained his history Ph.D. titled “The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, 1787-1832” from Columbia University. He was a Harvard fellow and taught at the American University in Beirut before becoming an “Aeon” editor.

This columnist had never heard of Haselby until he was sent the link to his Muslims article by the columnist’s friend Dan Kegley of Chilhowie.

Kegley, a former journalist and former president of the Archeological Society of Virginia, and now a deputy clerk in the Smyth County Circuit Court, sent the link knowing of the columnist’s interest in the early American Indians and Spanish history of southwest Virginia.

Haselby turns out to be a very engaging historian who has a notably refreshing and independent mindset across a range of American historical topics. Some of his work has appeared as op-eds in leading American newspapers (“Boston Globe,” “Washington Post”), at least two of his lectures can be viewed on Youtube, and he is the author of the book “The Origins of American Religious Nationalism” (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Haselby is a provocative historian in the best sense of the adjective in that he provokes his readers to think.

He argues that not just Arabic but the Islamic religion arrived in the Americas with Columbus in 1492, which was 25 years prior to Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittemburg and initiating the Protestant reformation.

In the year 711, Muslims from north Africa conquered most of modern-day Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula. It was not until 781 years later, in early 1492, that the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Christian reconquest of the peninsula’s Muslim kingdoms by capturing Granada. Haselby estimates that by the year 1500 the Spanish Inquisition had coerced 500,000 Muslims and 70,000 Jews to publicly convert to Christianity. Some of these “conversos” doubtless continued to secretly practice their old religion, and some, almost certainly, sailed in Columbus’s crew, “carrying Islam with them in their hearts and minds.”

Thus “Muslims were living in America not only before Protestants, but before Protestantism existed. After Catholicism, Islam was the second monotheistic religion in the Americas.”

Why are these matters not better known in present-day Virginia? As Haselby says “The past is those bits and pieces of history that a society selects in order to sanction itself.” In Virginia, the native writer James Branch Cabell wrote, Virginia history commemorates “not what did happen, but what ought to have happened.”

One of the first reasonably well documented Muslims to reach the modern-day territorial limits of the United States was Estebanico Zemmouri (approximate dates 1500–1539). That version of his name is favored by the Moroccan journalist Latifa Babas. Haselby calls him Mustafa Zemourri, but he goes by various names including Estevencio, little Esteban and Esteban the Moor.

Estevencio arrived on the Florida panhandle in 1527 as a Spanish slave on the disastrous Pánfilo de Nárvaez expedition. He was an Arab Muslim from the Moroccan coast.

Originally enslaved by the Portuguese, Estevencio was sold to a Spanish nobleman before being taken to Florida. He was one of just four survivors of the 300-man Nárvaez expedition. Thereafter, for eight years, he traveled with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (who documented their journey), and two other men, across the present-day U.S. Southwest and Mexico. He survived being enslaved by Native Americans to become a respected medicine man and finally reached Spaniards in Mexico City in 1536.

Later, Estevanico served as the guide for a return expedition to the Southwest that he did not survive. Some sources say that he was killed in the Zuni city of Hawikuh in present-day New Mexico in 1539.

In 2009, the historian Sylviane Diouf wrote “About 24 percent of the 400,000 Africans who landed in this country came from that West African area also known as Senegambia.” Among that 24 percent a large fraction were Muslims. Senegambia had strong Muslim connections, with Islam having spread there from the eleventh century onward.

Haselby reports that the scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner documented “about 150 names of Arabic origin” among the slaves on the Sea Islands off America’s southeastern coast.

Dan Kegley wrote that “After my ten days in Egypt in 2006 and hearing there five times daily the hauntingly beautiful adhan or athan, the Muslim call to prayer, I became aware of its influence in early American music. Muslim slaves’ field call and response chants resembling the call to prayers’ pentatonic scales and stylings formed the basis of early Blues music, whose influence is felt today.”

I plan to return to the provocative ideas of Sam Haselby in later columns.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia. He can be reached at jglanvil@blacksburg.net.

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