31 Mar

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, Islam in America and “The Moslem World” and “Voice of Islam” (1890s)

In the introduction to Yankee Muslim, Brent D. Singleton outlines Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb’s Islamic mission to America from 1893 to 1897. The mission, officially known as the American Islamic Propaganda (AIP), was funded by Hajee Abdulla Arab and Moulvi Serajuddin Ahmed of Bombay. Webb stationed the mission headquarters in New York where he established a free lecture room, a library, and the Moslem World Publishing Company (MWPC). In 1893 the MWPC published Islam in America, a short book in which Webb explained why he became a Muslim. It also outlined the practices and beliefs of Muslims in other counties. The MWPC also issued the pamphlet “A Guide to Namaz,” and the newspapers The Moslem World (from May 1893 to 1893), The Voice of Islam (from November 1893 to June 1984), and The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam (from January 1895 to February 1896).

According to Singleton, financial exigencies and dissent among AIP members contributed to the dissolution of the mission in 1897. Singleton argues that Webb contributed directly to the failure of the AIP: “His main failure was the inability to truly imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race…It is clear that by choice and ideology Webb left himself only a small window for success, pinning his hopes on a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia” (47). Singleton’s comments are noteworthy because they suggest that the AIP failed because Webb reached out to the wrong audience, “a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia.” This suggestion is intriguing and deserves more attention. Did Webb reach out to the wrong audience with his publications?

To answer this question, I think scholars must situate Webb, the newspapers, and the Muslim mission in their historical contexts. Race and class were important to Webb, but not in the way that Singleton suggests. In other words, the newspapers and mission’s failure had little to do with Webb’s inability to “imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race.” Historians must move beyond recognizing Islam as a force that engulfs believers. Islam, like Christianity, has no one message about race and class. People practice religion, for better or worse, based on their geographic location, historical circumstances, and local and familial traditions. Webb probably believed that he imbibed the true teachings of Islam in Victorian America. This leads me to the second point. Scholars must situate American Islam within its American context to understand how and why Webb’s mission flourished or floundered. This investigation may start by examining the publications of the AIP and the historical context of 1890s America.

The publications are important for understanding Webb’s mission because late-nineteenth-century America was inundated with newspapers and missionary literature. In this light, I think scholars can ask: How did the form and content of the AIP publications work compared to other mission literature? Did the AIP publications do what readers expected them to do (i.e., relate the truth and Words of God, quote from scriptures, etc.)? Scholars should also examine the actual content of the publications for more evidence about the failing of the AIP. Articles written by Webb in The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam suggested that the mission failed for reasons other than those stated by Singleton. Singleton argued that Webb did not proselytize among the American masses, people who, Singleton suggested, would have accepted Webb’s Islam. However, Webb suggested in his articles that: 1) he was so popular in the American presses that damaging rumors spread about the mission before he could control them; 2) American Christian missionaries in the East were sending damaging reports about Muslims back to America; and 3) that the American press blamed unrest in the Ottoman Empire on Muslims and supported Armenian Christians. It seems that Webb was very popular among the intelligentsia as the presses published numerous articles about him (some serious, others mocking). Thus, it appears that Webb was more well-known in America than he has been given credit for. Rather than Webb’s unpopularity, targeting the wrong audience, and inability to practice Islam, the failure of the AIP appears to have more to do with the American and international context in which the AIP emerged.

By examining only a few the articles written by and about Webb, scholars have overlooked the contentious context in which the AIP arose in America. They have also ignored the surplus of American print media that Webb and the AIP would have had to contend with. This appears to be a general problem with studies of Islam in America. Muslim missions and movements are treated as anomalies that emerged in America and cannot be explained. American religious, historical, and international contexts (especially the cultural exchange between other American missionaries) are ignored. Scholars must recognize the American contexts in which groups and individuals practiced Islam. Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America were times of religious, spiritual, social, and economic restlessness and reform. Some upper-middle class, white Americans, like Webb, looked to non-Christian forms of religion for Truth. These men and women were formed by liberal Protestantism which lauded progress, whiteness, and respectability. Scholars cannot extract people from their historical context and expect to fully understand the success or failure of their missions. Like other Americans Webb and his followers were searching for their identities in new and thought-provoking ways. Webb targeted white, middle-class Americans who were also searching for Truth in religion and media. After all, this was the heyday of Spiritualism and spirit photography. The failure and floundering of the AIP must be explored in these historical terms and relationships.