JERALD F. DIRKS
Sunday, September 24, 2006
IT WAS a year before 9/11, and my wife and I were waiting for our luggage at the baggage claim of our local airport. A man looked over at us, noticed my long, untrimmed beard and my wife’s scarf, and said, “Where are you from?”
I answered, “About 40 miles north of here.” He shook his head and tried again, “No, I mean from where are you originally?” I again replied, “About 40 miles north of here; that’s where I was born.” He then nodded at my wife and said, “Well, where is she from?” More than a little bemused, I responded, “My wife was born about 50 miles north of here.” A look of bewilderment growing on his face, he turned and walked away. He just couldn’t fathom that the two Muslims he had just encountered were Americans.
The above encounter took place a year before 9/11 and involved two American-born, Caucasian converts to Islam. Despite the fact that my wife and I are each at least fourth-generation Americans in our shortest ancestral lines in America, the inquisitive man at the airport was wanting to strip us of our American heritage and place us in some foreign camp because we were Muslims. Post 9/11, the effort to rob Muslims of their American heritage has become much more pronounced, especially for immigrants and for second- and third-generation Muslims in America.
For our own sakes and especially for the sake of our children who are struggling to develop identities as both Muslims and Americans, it is past time that we begin to reclaim our centuries-old heritage as Muslims in America. There is a long and glorious history of Muslims in America, and we need to grasp onto that history and teach it to our youth. A few examples may help illustrate that point.
Mustafa Zemmouri (aka Estevanico of Azamor) was a Muslim born circa 1500 in Azamor, Morocco. Little is known about his life prior to 1527, at which time he was a slave owned by a Spaniard, Andres Dorantes. On July 17, 1527, Mustafa and his owner sailed to the New World from Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain. Arriving in Hispaniola in the Caribbean, Mustafa and his owner then joined the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition to Florida. Unfortunately, the de Narvaez fleet of five ships was partially destroyed by a hurricane in route to Florida. Finally landing in Florida, many of the survivors of the hurricane were killed by hostile Indians and disease. When they finally reached an Indian village, the expedition’s original compliment of 500-600 men was down to a mere 80.
For the next nine years, Mustafa served as guide to the survivors and as the go-between with the Indians they encountered along the way. He led the struggling survivors across what would later become the southern United States, a 5,000 mile journey from Florida through Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Along the way, they were captured and enslaved by Indians in Texas before eventually escaping. In 1536, Mustafa finally led his three fellow survivors into Spanish headquarters in Mexico.
Two years later, Mustafa was drafted into the de Niza expedition to hunt for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. Serving as a guide and interlocutor with whatever Indians the expedition encountered, Mustafa led the Conquistadors into both New Mexico and Arizona before being killed by Zuni Indians in 1539.
A fact seldom mentioned in history books is that a substantial number of Muslims and Moriscos (Muslims who were forced to convert to Christianity during the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, most of whom secretly continued to practice Islam) were part and parcel of almost every expedition of Conquistadors to the New World.
As the above example illustrates, Muslims are not Johnny-come-lately to America. We Muslims have been here for over two centuries before this country was even founded. Muslims fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War, helped maintain that independence during the War of 1812, fought to hold the Union together during the Civil War, and helped tame the American Wild West in the latter half of the 19th century. We Muslims have a rich and proud religious history in this country.
God willing, next week’s column will offer a few more examples, all of which are taken from my latest book, Muslims in American History: A Forgotten Legacy.