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Islam and Early American Liberalism

Posted: 07 Dec 2007 08:28 AM CST


The portrayal of Islam and Muslims in early American literature is not as bad as you’d think. There are, of course, studies and doctoral dissertations on the topic, and they essentially usher in some unfavorable news. But that apparently is not the whole story. A credible and well documented book (almost 30 years old) suggests — actually insists — that Islam and its themes and heroes were instrumental in inserting “liberal” ideas in the political and religious thought life of early America which, at the time, was viewed as hopelessly fatalistic and closed.

The book is Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America, by David S. Reynolds (Harvard University Press, 1981). Reynolds posits: “[S]ome American authors between 1785 and 1820 found in Oriental religions, particularly Islam, a safe perspective from which to comment on American religion in a way that was often liberal and sometimes freethinking.” The narratives linked “Oriental doctrine and progressive American ideas.”

He also proffers that the doctrines of Islam were found “to be analogous to certain tenets of American liberalism.” Because of this, several writers wrote “Oriental” tales to promote toleration in America in the face of clenched “orthodoxy," especially Calvinistic.

Reynolds offers many examples. For one, he cites a “sympathetic use of Islam” in a tale originally published in New York Magazine (1791) called “Mahomet: A Dream.” The protagonist of the story is somehow given the ability to call up from the dead anyone of his choosing. And behold, he chooses Prophet Muhammad, whose “spirit rises majestically before him. The Prophet holds a copy of the Koran that emits ‘a luminous ray, which convinced [the protagonist] that it was full of the Deity whose power and glory it so awfully announced.’” A Christian character reflexively calls the Prophet an imposter, “but a heavenly voice defends the prophet.” The voice says that the Prophet taught “the idea of the Divinity who observes all of our actions” and brings people to justice. Reynolds goes on to say, “The tale makes daring use of Islam to endorse divine benevolence, human morality, and religious fiction. The statement that Muslims initiated the idea of a God who dispenses just retribution on the basis of man’s works implies a rejection of the doctrines of divine wrath and human depravity.” (Humanity condemned to depravity undermines the sheer possibility of human progress, which is the foundation of original liberal thought.)

Reynolds mentions several other narratives, like “The Meditation of Cassim the Son of Ahmed,” “The Arabian Tale” (by good ole Ben Franklin), “The Algerian Captive,” “Humanity in Algiers,” and others that found in Islam and its ideals a portal through which to comment (often acerbically) on an unrelenting religious view that damned humanity and disconnected the possibility of "works" as a means to higher development. As long as the doctrine of essential depravity held ground, progressive and liberal ideals were doomed. In Islam’s emphasis of faith coupled with deeds, and that deeds can be favorably viewed by God Himself, then human beings and their societies are indeed capable of progress.

Reynolds also mentions some unflattering responses to the tales and their Islamic content, as well as some of the authors who themselves had to make mandatory inclusions of statements that affirm the superiority of Christianity, lest the authors be accused of apostasy or called infidels.

Some of the narratives are surprisingly bold, especially when considering the tenor of contemporary public discourse about Islam, even by those who seek high office. Reversed tides and other metaphors clearly apply: today Islam and its figures are often portrayed to instill clenched religious and political grips on the minds of many. If you have a pulse, you know this already.

In its treatment of Islam, the weight-bearing parts of Reynolds’ book are the first two chapters. The book is likely out of print. So look for it used, if you're interested. I found it years ago at a library book sale, where you buy a box for five dollars, and whatever you can place in the box is yours. The photocopier wouldn't fit.


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