A Muslim in Victorian America
Conflicts and controversies at home and abroad have led Americans to focus on
Islam more than ever before. In addition, more and more of their neighbors,
colleagues, and friends are Muslims. While much has been written about
contemporary American Islam and pioneering studies have appeared on Muslim
slaves in the antebellum period, comparatively little is known about Islam in
Victorian America. This biography of Alexander Russell Webb, one of the earliest
American Muslims to achieve public renown, seeks to fill this gap.
was a central figure of American Islam during the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. A native of the Hudson Valley, he was a journalist, editor,
and civil servant. Raised a Presbyterian, Webb early on began to cultivate an
interest in other religions and became particularly fascinated by Islam. While
serving as U.S. consul to the Philippines in 1887, he took a greater interest in
the faith and embraced it in 1888, one of the first Americans known to have done
so. Within a few years, he began corresponding with important Muslims in India.
Webb became an enthusiastic propagator of the faith, founding the first Islamic
institution in the United States: the American Mission. He wrote numerous books
intended to introduce Islam to Americans, started the first Islamic press in the
United States, published a journal entitled The Moslem World, and served as the
representative of Islam at the 1893 Worlds Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
In 1901, he was appointed Honorary Turkish Consul General in New York and was
invited to Turkey, where he received two Ottoman medals of merits.
this first-ever biography of Webb, Umar F. Abd-Allah examines Webbs life and
uses it as a window through which to explore the early history of Islam in
America. Except for his adopted faith, every aspect of Webbs life was, as
Abd-Allah shows, quintessentially characteristic of his place and time. It was
because he was so typically American that he was able to serve as Islams
ambassador to America (and vice versa). As Americas Muslim community grows and
becomes more visible, Webbs life and the virtues he championed - pluralism,
liberalism, universal humanity, and a sense of civic and political
responsibility - exemplify what it means to be an American Muslim.
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