by Bret Windhauser
On Monday, April 8, Professor Jane McAuliffe presented for the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization’s 2019 Farhat J. Ziadeh Distinguished Lecture in Arab and Islamic Studies on the Quran in American.
Professor McAuliffe’s unique position as both a Quranic scholar and a Senior Advisor to the Library of Congress informed her presentation as an overlap of these two positions. In detail, Professor McAuliffe discussed the stories of three prominent enslaved African scholars who understood the Quran in Early America. Omar ibn Said and his legacy in the form of 42 documents now in the possession of the Library of Congress played an especially important role in this year’s presentation. Said was captured from his native Western Africa before being sold into slavery in the Carolinas. Later, he was encouraged to write about his experiences which resulted in the only self-written narrative in Arabic of an American slave. His writing begins with a segment of the Quran that Said had earlier memorized.
The second narrative told was that of Job Ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleiman Diallo), a Wolof speaking Muslim from modern-day Senegal. Job’s ability to read and write in Arabic provoked the interest of British businessmen who thought he could help improve trade to Arabic speaking African territories as a translator. After gaining the interest of wealthy men interested in Job’s story and potential for monetary gain, he was able to return to his home in Bundu.
The last of the three slave narratives of prominent early American Muslims was the story of Abdulrahman, also known simply as Prince. Abdulrahman was the son of the leader of Futa Jallon, an Islamic federation in Western Africa. He was captured and sold to a cotton plantation in Natchez, Mississippi where he earned a reputation as a knowledgeable farmer and hard worker. A local store owner took an interest in Abdulrahman after the enslaved found a Quran in the store and was able to read it in the original Arabic. After a long ordeal, Abdulrahman was able to return to Western Africa shortly before his death. With her presentation, Dr. McAuliffe also discussed the acquisition and management of delicate items in the Library of Congress’s collection including the writings of Omar ibn Said. This included details about the digitization of the collection in order to allow the accessibility of rare information to anyone interested. However, the Omar ibn Said collection is not the only source of Quranic influence in Early America. Professor McAuliffe also described how Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the holy book, how missionaries and Christian religious leaders engaged with the Quran, and evidence to show that famous American writers such as Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe had knowledge of its contents.
Through this talk, Professor McAuliffe explains that the text of the Quran and scholarship on its text have been concurrent with American history. The Quranic and Islamic history in America began with the country, growing simultaneously. Her presentation challenged the audience to not think about Early American history as an insular vacuum of Judeo-Christian or Anglo-Saxon though, but instead, to recognize the influences that the Quran played in American history since its conception. As Professor McAuliffe said at the beginning of her talk, her talk was merely to “discuss the history of the United States”, a history that developed in part with Islamic thought.
The 16th Farhat J. Ziadeh Distinguished Lecture coincided with the late Professor Farhat Ziadeh's 102nd birthday, April 8. The lecture is organized and presented by Dr. Hamza Zafer who led the lectureship committee that consists of Prof. Terri DeYoung and History and NELC Adjunct Professor Arbella Beth-Shlimon.
For more on the Farhat J. Ziadeh Distinguished Lecture series, please visit our link here.
Bret Windhauser is a first year MA student at NELC. His research focuses on identity formation, nationalism, and smuggling networks.
Photos thanks to Pedram Hazireh