By Joseph Richard Preville
What have Arabs and Muslims contributed to American history and culture? Jonathan Curiel considers this important question in his tremendous book, “Al’America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots” (The New Press, 2009, Paperback).
Jonathan Curiel is an American journalist, noted for his knowledgeable essays and entertaining reviews for “The San Francisco Chronicle.” His expertise was shaped by significant international travel and study, including a Reuters Foundation Fellowship at Oxford University and a Fulbright teaching Scholarship at University of the Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan. “If journalists are what they cover,” he writes, “then I’m an omnivore – someone as interested in Picasso and Seinfeld as I am in Washington politics and foreign affairs.”
Curiel aims to uncover the hidden Arab and Muslim roots of America. He begins with Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” the New World for the glory of Spain.
What is not well known in American mythology is that Columbus relied on the work of two Muslim scientists, namely, the theories of ninth-century astronomer Abu Al-Abbas Ahmad Al-Farghani and the world map of twelfth-century cartographer Abu Abdullah Muhammad Al-Idrisi. “Without Arab knowledge,” Curiel states, “Spain’s discovery of America could not have proceeded the way it did.”
Columbus opened the door to Spanish colonization, which left its imprints on America. It may come as a surprise to Americans that some of their beloved monuments and historic cities reflect the artistic and architectural styles of Arabs and Muslims, who had ruled Spain for nearly 800 years.
For example, the legendary Alamo in San Antonio, Texas and The Citadel, a military college founded in 1842 in Charleston, South Carolina, follow classic Moorish design. The famous French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana also displays beautiful reminders of a Spanish/Moorish past.
English is considered the world’s language, and it contains thousands of words stemming from Arabic, such as lemon, alcohol, zenith, chess, algebra and magazine. Many American cities have Arabic names, like these: Arabia, Nebraska; Bagdad, California; Mecca, California; Aladdin, Wyoming; Sultan, Washington; Cairo, Illinois; Medina, Ohio and Koran, Louisiana. Medina, Ohio (previously called Mecca) was given its name by Elijah Boardman, who fought in the American Revolutionary War.
Curiel notes that “whatever prejudices they may have had about Islam, Americans looked to the deserts and cities of Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt for names they thought signified hope, strength, perseverance, and history.”
Arabs and Muslims influenced two of America’s nineteenth-century literary giants. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau both drew inspiration for their great works from Islamic sources, including Persian poetry and the Holy Qur’an. Curiel makes note of Emerson’s prediction “that Persian poetry would skyrocket in the esteem of Americans.”
Emerson was correct: the most famous and best-selling poet in America today is Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273). Rumi’s books have sold more than 500,000 copies in the United States, and his many celebrity admirers include Madonna, Oliver Stone, Demi Moore and Donna Karan.
Arabs and Muslims are not strangers in the United States. They have helped to write the great unfolding story that is America. Their authorship of that story needs to be recognized and celebrated. As Curiel puts it, “In the 21st century, the United States is composed of not just Judeo-Christian roots, but Muslim roots too. Over the centuries, these roots have been badly disconnected from their original sources.”
Curiel calls for a “popular reassessment of America and its relation to Arab and Muslim culture.” This is already underway with the positive efforts of President Barak Obama at home and abroad. But, a re-imaging of America will require wider efforts to conquer ignorance, which is the enemy of social progress.
Jonathan Curiel’s book is sunlight for a new America that is emerging right now. Curiel makes three predictions for the future of America: Islam will grow to be the second largest religion in America; Arabic will be taught in all major American universities, and Arab and Muslim culture will truly become integral aspects of American life. Perhaps, then America will understand itself as a Judeo-Christian-Islamic nation.