Some years ago, Amir Muhammad began researching his family’s roots without any thought that it might lead him to America’s little-known Islamic heritage. Until then, he assumed that most American Muslims arrived in the 20th century, and he was unaware of any Islamic connection in his own family prior to his personal acceptance of Islam 35 years ago.
But Muhammad discovered he does have Muslim ancestors, as do many African Americans and Native Americans, and that the story of Islam in America reaches back much further than most people imagine.
In 1996, he established the nonprofit organization Collections & Stories of American Muslims (CSAM), of which he is president and curator. His goal is to uncover and preserve America’s Islamic heritage and to create a greater awareness of the Islamic experience in America.
CSAM exhibitions have been displayed at universities, public libraries and community centers in the United States and abroad, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, located in Washington. Muhammad is seeking a building to house his collection.
Muhammad begins his account of America’s Islamic heritage with Moors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. One of them was Estevanico, a Moor born in North Africa, who accompanied Spanish explorers in 1527 to what would become the Southwestern United States.
Slavery enters the story of Islam in America with the early European settlement. One of the myths Muhammad seeks to dispel is that enslaved Africans brought by the settlers had no organized religion and could not read or write.