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An Imagination of Muslims and Native Americans

Historian Alan Mikhail considers how from the time of Columbus, America imagined Muslims and Native Americans. Alan’s latest book, God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World is out today.
Published on August 20, 2020

A View of Jerusalem A View of Jerusalem from Mark Twain’s book, Innocents Abroad
God’s Shadow Alan Mikhail’s book, God’s Shadow is available to buy now

After the Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, discussed a trip to recuperate from the terrors and tragedies of the war. They considered a journey to California or perhaps Europe. Lincoln had always vowed to visit Jerusalem, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to fulfill this longtime desire. His assassination cut short any plans, though just before his death he and Mary had reportedly settled on Jerusalem. In Lincoln’s mind, California and Jerusalem existed on a continuum. Each represented both a spiritual destiny and a geographic destination for Americans.

This notion of a redemptive journey to gain the promises of a Promised Land taps deep in the history of Europeans in North America, in fact all the way back to Columbus’s beginnings in the so called “New World.” As every schoolchild learns, Columbus set sail with India on his imagination’s horizon. Rarely, though, do schoolchildren learn why Columbus crossed the Atlantic. It had little to do with the mythology of a secular Western march of progress. Rather, hoping for an alliance with the Grand Khan of the East, thought by some to be a Christian, he aimed to retake Jerusalem and destroy Islam; more prosaically, his voyages promised an end run around the trade monopolies of the major Muslim empires of the day, the Ottomans and Mamluks.

When Columbus arrived in the Americas, fresh from the battle which marked Spain’s final defeat of the Muslim kingdom of Granada, he saw — or, more accurately, imagined — Muslims everywhere. Spanish conquistadors would claim to see mosques in Mexico, American Indians wearing “Moorish” clothing and performing “Moorish” dances, Turks invading New Spain from the Pacific, and West African slaves attempting to convert America’s indigenous peoples to Islam. Filtering their experiences in the Americas through the lens of their wars with Muslims, Europeans in the New World engaged in a new version of their very old Crusades, a new kind of Catholic jihad. From this start and ever since, Islam would continue to forge the histories of both Europe and the Americas and their understandings of cultural difference.

The nineteenth-century American writers who, unlike Lincoln, did eventually cross the Atlantic to the Middle East not only shared this vision of Jerusalem but also articulated the way in which Americans in that period and later came to understand the East — by yoking Muslims to Native Americans. In a mirror image of Columbus’s effort to understand the indigenous peoples of the Americas by means of the Islam of the Old World, nineteenth-century Americans fell back on what they knew of Native Americans — as derogatory and scant as that knowledge was — to comprehend what they saw in the Holy Land. Thus, on the road from Damascus to Jerusalem, Mark Twain writes in The Innocents Abroad (1869) that the “dusky men and women” he saw “reminded me much of Indians ... They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.” Later, he says, “These people about us had other peculiarities, which I have noticed in the noble red man, too: they were infested with vermin, and the dirt had caked on them till it amounted to bark.” If for Columbus Muslims represented the ultimate other through which to understand all difference anywhere, for Twain Native Americans played this role.

In his epic lyric travel poem Clarel (1876), Herman Melville describes pyramids in Egypt’s Nile Delta as:

Three Indian mounds
Against the horizon’s level bounds

Of an encounter with a group of Arab bandits on a road near the Jordan River, he writes:

Well do ye come by spear and dagger!
Yet in your bearing ye outvie
Our Western Red Men, chiefs that stalk
In mud paint—whirl the tomahawk.

Above all, neither Melville nor Twain could ever assimilate Islam to their world. Islam was always other and only enemy, useful for literary and rhetorical purposes, but not worthy of serious or nuanced engagement. For example, the existence of Arab Christians in Bethlehem, Christ’s birthplace no less, was a detail that befuddled and seemingly annoyed Melville:

Catholic Arabs? Say not that!
Some words don’t chime together, see

In Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), one of the sequels to his masterpiece, Tom explains to Huck that a Muslim “was a person that wasn’t a Presbyterian,” to which Huck responds that “there is plenty of them in Missouri, though I didn’t know it before.” This is, of course, satire. Embedded in the joke, however, is the historical truth that even in the nineteenth century—as it was for Columbus and his men — Islam remained beyond the frontiers of Americans’ conceptual universe, a limit-case for Twain to make the point that only Presbyterians matter in Missouri. Everyone else is so beyond the bounds, they might as well be Muslims.

Alan Mikhail is professor of history and chair of the department of history at Yale University and author of the book God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World (Faber)

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