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Origin stories

Amir Hussain talks Muslims and the Making of America

Amir Hussain, author of Muslims and the Making of America, will speak Sept. 20 at the Philbrook Museum.

Jon Rou/ LMU

Introducing his book Muslims and the Making of America, Dr. Amir Hussain quotes Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes: “I, too, sing America / I am the darker brother.”

The spirit of Hussain’s project is contained in that iconic line of verse. Muslim Americans, he argues, aren’t simply among those “darker” siblings cast from the communal table of public life—their roots in the transatlantic slave trade, globe-spanning lineages and longstanding cultural influence make them an inseparable part of this country’s family unit. Just as Hughes extended Walt Whitman’s ode to include a broader swath of America, Hussain’s book enlarges the frame of the American origin story as it exists in the popular imagination.

Far from an exhaustive account of the Islamic threads of American life, Muslims and the Making of America is a targeted look at the contributions of “a few stand-ins for the many” across the playing fields of culture, from music to sports and points in between. 

Hussain spoke to me over the phone before his talk on Sept. 20 at the Philbrook Museum. The lecture will be followed by a Q&A with curator Susan Green, in conjunction with the ongoing exhibit, Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam through Time & Place, on display through Oct. 6. 

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Jezy J. Gray: Your book begins with a great line that says so much about the project: “There has never been an America without Muslims.” Can you unpack that for readers?

Dr. Amir Hussain: You hear this kind of rhetoric that says, ‘Well, Muslims haven’t done anything [in America]. Muslims are newcomers. Muslims are, at best, anti-American; at worst, they’re trying to deliberately overturn or destroy America.’ And that’s just not the case … Muslims have been here since before this country was this country. 

Even before the transatlantic slave trade—especially where I am, in Los Angeles—you have the Spanish conquistadors coming, many of whom have their own slaves … I was a kid when I saw Alex Haley’s Roots with Levar Burton as Kunta Kinte, and it was this moment of, ‘Wait—he’s a Muslim? There were Muslims who were slaves?’ Then you think, ‘Well, of course.’ You have Islam in West Africa coming in the 9th century, slaves being brought over from West Africa because of the location. Why are we surprised that some of those slaves were West African Muslims? 

Gray: Given that deep history, how did we develop such a radically different notion of American Muslims in the popular imagination? 

Hussain: I think it’s a couple of things. One is, maybe there’s some truth to the idea that Muslims are ‘newcomers.’ Because even though we have this history, a majority of us—people like me—came to this country after 1965, after Civil Rights and changes to immigration law. So we do have a lot of recent immigrants. The other part is, we tend not to tell the full range of stories about who we are. 

One of the really lovely things I’ve been able to do in the last couple years is work as one of the consultants to Mr. Morgan Freeman for his show The Story of God on the National Geographic Channel. We were able to have him come to [Loyola Marymount University] to give a talk … and I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said, ‘Look: I’m a black man. And if what I knew about American history was what we saw in films, I would think black people had nothing to contribute to American history.’ … You think about Octavia Spencer. When she gets the script for Hidden Figures, thinks, ‘Oh, this is a lovely story, but it’s completely made up.’ Then she realizes, no, this is a true story. Then she thinks to herself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m a black woman. If I didn’t know black women helped do the math to get John Glenn into space, why would anyone else know that?’

So when you have people say, ‘Muslims haven’t contributed anything to America,’ that’s part of the genesis of the book. To say, ‘Let’s look at some of those contributions.’

Gray: Muhammad Ali is a 40-foot tall example of the kind of figure you’re talking about. But who are some of the lesser-known heroes of your book, who’ve maybe not enjoyed the same visible legacy as someone like Ali? Someone like Ahmet Ertegun comes to my mind. I knew nothing about him, or really much about Muslim contributions to American music if I’m being honest. 

Hussain: He’s one of those people who should be a household name, but a lot of people don’t remember who he was. I would say very clearly that I can’t imagine the history of America in the 20th century—not American music, but America—without Atlantic Records. And you have this Turkish immigrant Muslim who, with his Jewish partner, took a loan from their dentist and created Atlantic Records. And I think the history of America would be very different without [him]. This is the chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. … But again, we don’t think about that, even though he’s this important figure.

My own hero—one of those “40-foot” people—is Kareem Abdul Jabar. I don’t think Kareem gets his due, you know? My students all think Lebron James is the greatest player ever. Generations before thought it was Michael Jordan. But there’s a guy who has just as many rings as Jordan, and more points. … [My students] vaguely remember him from the Airplane movies. They know him from the writing. They know him from the Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty stuff. They know him for his social commentary. They saw Barack Obama giving him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. So here’s this amazing guy for whom basketball is probably 20 percent of his world. You know, most athletes, they retire and that’s it. They’re never heard from again. This guy is probably more famous for the stuff he’s done since he retired from the NBA than he was while playing in the NBA. And I say he’s the greatest player ever. 

Gray: In 2006, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress. Can you talk about the history of the Quran he was sworn in on? 

Hussain: Yeah! That’s such an interesting thing. Thank you for that question. I was here teaching at LMU when Keith Ellison was first elected to Congress. And the practice is that all new members of Congress are sworn in together, but then they do their own photo-ops for their constituencies back in their offices. So for that he wanted to be, as the first Muslim elected to Congress, sworn in on the Quran. And this is Los Angeles—a fairly liberal, progressive town—but people went nuts. ‘You can’t be sworn in on the Quran. You have to be sworn in on the Bible!’ You want to say, ‘Actually, you don’t have to be sworn in on the Bible.’ That’s one of the things that makes America, America. We don’t have a religious test. You don’t have to belong to a religion in order to hold office. 

But what Keith Ellison did was great. He goes into the Library of Congress and gets Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, and that surprises people. … In 1765, before America is America, here’s Thomas Jefferson. Anyone’s gotta have him on the list of the greatest Americans … The fact that Mr. Jefferson, long before he was our third president, had a copy of the Quran. That he actually began—and this amazes me—that he actually began to teach himself Arabic. … I’m not at all saying Jefferson was a fan of Islam. He was not. He probably wasn’t a huge fan of organized religion, you know. But [he thought] ‘I need to learn about this. This is important.’ 

Gray: You’ll be coming to Philbrook in conjunction with the Museum’s current show, Wondrous Worlds, which is the most comprehensive exhibit of Islamic art ever shown in Oklahoma. What does it mean for you to give this talk in a city like Tulsa? Does it offer different opportunities than urban areas where Muslims represent a bigger chunk of the population?   

Hussain: Oh, absolutely. But even in those places … it surprises me how many times people will say, ‘You’re the first Muslim I’ve ever met.’ … so even in larger, more diverse cities, there’s that. Choosing [Baylor University Press] was really important to me [because] the people who need to hear this history of American Muslims are the people who may not have heard that history, may not have had that encounter. And Baylor, as a Baptist press, is able to get this out to folks in Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas. 

I think the Philbrook is doing this amazing thing of showcasing Islamic art. Because people have this image, as I’ve said before, of Islam as this violent religious tradition. They don’t think about the beauty. They don’t realize Islamic art isn’t just calligraphy. It isn’t just doing wonderful things with the letters of the alphabet. It’s textiles. It’s ceramics. It’s painting. It’s metal work. 

I grew up working-class poor, but you could go to museums, because museums were free back then. And you could see these kinds of things. For a poor kid, that’s how you transform the world. That’s when you think, ‘OK. The world is a much bigger place than my little small town.’ 

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