I just this morning received a notice encouraging me to encourage students to sign up for a graduate-level course called “Islamic America,” which will be offered this fall by the English Department at this university. I should actually say that it may be offered, since the course is presently under-enrolled, and will be cancelled if this notice fails to have its desired effect. “Islamic America” is, I should add, the title of the “topic” that will (or may) be treated in a course officially known as “Topics in American Literature and Culture to 1900.”
The course offerings of the English Department are not really any business of mine, but it does seem that, of all the topics that might possibly be taught under the head of “American Literature and Culture to 1900,” Islamic America would rank very near the bottom. Americans of that era certainly enjoyed reading about Mohammedans, as they would have called them (consider Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra), and many also enjoyed looking at “orientalist” paintings (most especially of dishabille odalisques), but Americans’ liking for representations of the exotic East did not make America “Islamic” any more than Americans’ liking for representations of the Middle Ages made America medieval.
What follows is my off-the-cuff fisking of the English Department’s notice advertising “Islamic America.”
This course examines the role of Islam as a cultural force in the literary development of the United States, from the British colonial era to the turn of the twentieth century. As Denise Spellberg documents in her research into Thomas Jefferson and the Qur’an, the subject of Islam was foundational to the political debates surrounding the establishment of the new nation.
I have not read Spellberg’s 2013 book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, and have no intention of doing so, but I do have some passing familiarity with the intellectual milieu of the revolutionary period, and even with the mind of Thomas Jefferson. If Islam was “foundational to the political debates surrounding the establishment of the new nation,” it was doing this in such a profoundly subterranean position as to be invisible to the naked eye. The dominant political theorist of the day, Montesquieu, viewed Islamic countries as repressive, despotic, and stagnant. Admittedly, he attributed this to their sultry climate, but looking to the land of the Turk (as it was then called), essentially no one would have expected to find inspiration for a liberal republic.
In a 2009 article in Review of Middle East Studies, Dr. Spellberg indicates something of what I take to be the central thesis of her future book, then presumably in the works, in order to censure those who had impugned “Obama’s Muslim heritage” in the course of the recently concluded Presidential election. “As a historian,” she writes, she is compelled to expose the eighteenth-century roots of the “neo-Orientalist American assumption that no Muslim citizen could—or ever should—be president.” She claims that this prejudice is an outgrowth of “the dominant orientalist model in eighteenth-century America,” but that some of the founding fathers, most notably Jefferson, “our most iconic Founder,” rejected it. (That Spellberg regards Jefferson as more iconic than Washington tells us all we need to know about where she is coming from.)
Spellberg’s argument hinges partly on Jefferson’s ownership of a translation of the Koran, and on his written concurrence with the opinion of John Locke’s 1689 Letter on Toleration, which maintained—as a theoretical point—that there should be no religious test for full civil liberties. The bulk of her article, however, discusses a 1788 North Carolina debate over ratification of the Constitution, in which the possibility of a Muslim president was raised as a moot case to question the full implications of the Constitution’s “no test oath” clause. Apparently the Federalists at the debate argued that a Muslim could, in theory, become President, whereas the Anti-Federalists (Jefferson’s party, incidentally) argued that a Muslim could not, or perhaps should not. The debate included the related question whether a Catholic or a Jew could become president.
Most men in the early Republic understood that the “no test oath” clause meant that there was no constitutional bar to a Muslim, Catholic or Jew serving as president, just as there was no constitutional bar to a headhunter, Siberian shaman, atheist, or certified lunatic. The absence of such a bar did not trouble them because any aspiring occupant of the White House also had to pass the bar of citizenship (then limited to whites), and the bar of election by an American electorate that would most certainly reject a Muslim, a Catholic or a Jew (not to mention a headhunter, a Siberian shaman, an atheist, or a certified lunatic).
Dr. Spellberg’s evidence does not, in fact, show that some citizens of the early Republic were open to the idea of a Muslim President. Nor does it show us that they were receptive to the influence of Islam. It shows that the election of a Muslim president was so unthinkable that at least some Americans were willing to admit it as a theoretical possibility, while being altogether confident that it was a practical impossibility. And as every educated person ought to know–as even graduate students in English departments ought to know–the real point of this moot case was to keep the door to political office open to post-Christian deists and proto-Unitarians like Thomas Jefferson.
Even if Dr. Spellberg’s argument was sound, which it isn’t, it still would not provide a particle of support for the assertion that Islam was “a cultural force in the literary development of the United States.” The question argued in North Carolina was whether a Muslim could be granted civil liberties and political equality, not whether Islam had anything of value to say about civil liberties and political equality.
The notice from the English Department continues:
In the early national period, “Barbary” captivity tales, such as those by Royall Tyler and Susanna Rowson, were among the first popular novels and plays at a time when the United States was working to establish itself militarily and diplomatically in north Africa. Even earlier, dating back to the early eighteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth century, the African American tradition has important roots in Afro-Arabic narratives of Ayyub ibn Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon) and others. Additionally, recent scholarship has documented the significant influence of Orientalism on many canonical nineteenth-century American writers such as Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain.
I have read one such Barbary captive tale, James Riley’s Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig ‘Commerce’ (1817). The first thing I would point out to the English Department is that there is no reason to put the word Barbary in scare quotes, since the name is derived from the Berber people, and is at most remotely related to the word barbaric. The Barbary coast was simply the name of the settled strip between the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean, and is no more pejorative than words like “China,” “Africa” and “Europe.”
But it does so happen that the Berbers (more narrowly Sahrawi) were more than a little barbaric to Captain Riley and his crew, whom they enslaved, forced to drink camel urine, and worked very nearly to death. Riley’s Authentic Narrative, subsequently republished as Sufferings in Africa, attracted American readers because it was an adventure story spiced with the seemingly bizarre (but in fact quite common) fact of whites enslaved by blacks. If America was a teeny-weeny bit Islamic in 1817, Captain Riley’s book would have made it a teeny-weeny bit less so.
Royall Tyler was an American playwright, and author of “The Origin of Evil: An Elegy,” a 1793 poem about the Garden of Eden, in which the Tree of Knowledge is Adam’s tumescent penis, and its fruit was eaten by Eve in an act of fellatio. (No kidding! Look it up.) His Algerian Captive is a fictitious memoir that is generally regarded as one of the earliest American novels. The story is very similar to that of Riley’s Authentic Narrative, and likewise does nothing to excite admiration for Islam or Islamic culture. The same can certainly be said of Mark Twain, who dwelt at some length on the squalor and lethargy of the Islamic world in Innocents Abroad.
Back to the notice:
The confluence of these literary encounters suggests an American cultural tradition that is not exclusively Christian, European, or Anglophone, which raises important questions about how Islam has contributed to shaping the literary, cultural, religious, racial, and military identity of the United States. Such questions continue to shape contemporary literature including Laila Lalami’s award-winning historical novel The Moor’s Account, which will begin the semester. As such, this course, for which no prior religious knowledge is expected, will be of particular interest to students interested in American literature and culture, transnational studies, ethnic studies, and African diaspora studies.
Has “confluence” become a verb? I’ll have to check with the English Department, but according to my dictionary it is a noun denoting the meeting point of two rivers of approximately equal width. This is what the word means in geography (my field), and I think the general idea should be respected in all metaphorical applications. If there is a confluence of these “literary encounters” (many of which were based on no encounter at all), it is clearly limited to their presence on the syllabus of the advertised seminar, in which this dog’s breakfast of miscellaneous and misunderstood texts will be, I’ll venture to say, “interrogated.”
No doubt Islam has “contributed” something to the “literary, cultural, religious, racial, and military identity of the United States,” and no doubt any comprehensive cultural history would recognize this contribution, but this cultural tributary is by any honest estimate a mere rivulet or rill. There is no confluence of Islamic and American culture, only a trickle of the former into the later. That this is so may be seen by the exiguous list of obscure titles contained in the notice. And by the fact that the proposed seminar is obliged to begin with Lalami’s Moor’s Account, a 2014 publication that seems out of place in a course ostensibly devoted to “Topics in American Literature and Culture to 1900.”