Perspective: I thought a lot about America’s religious diversity. Then I heard a Muslim call to prayer in the blue notes of jazz
There are remarkable stories of faith in American history that involve Muslims, African Americans and others
Consider these names: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton. The European founders of the 1776 generation. The men who put the furniture in the room, as the saying goes. On many dimensions of identity they made mistakes, even committed sins. But with respect to religious identity and diversity, they came pretty close to getting it right.
Washington told a Jewish leader that the United States would give bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance, that the children of the stock of Abraham would be free to sit under their own vine and fig and there would be none to make them afraid.
Adams signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with a Muslim nation.
Franklin made personal donations to every established religious group in Philadelphia and helped build a large hall in that city, declaring that the pulpit should be open to preachers of any persuasion.
Jefferson and Madison wrote the laws that allowed for freedom of religion and prevented a government-established church, the architecture for the world’s first mass-level religiously diverse democracy.
But these men were not the beginning, their actions not the first. That happened more than a century before: Roger Williams and his cry for soul freedom. Anne Hutchinson and her insistence on freedom of conscience. John Bowne and the Flushing Remonstrance.
Those remarkable people established a tradition in which multiple spiritual expressions could flourish, and encouraged good will amongst varied people.
But walking through the National Museum of African American History and Culture a few years back, on a tour of remarkable religious artifacts led by the Rev. Yolanda Pierce, I began to reconsider.
Over the course of that tour, through the remarkable objects she showed us and the mesmerizing narrative she delivered, the Rev. Pierce illuminated for my group a different story, a story of the Black contributions to American religious diversity.
There was a book by Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, a photo of Black Jews with Torah scrolls, Nat Turner’s Bible. There were pulpits from famous churches and prayer rugs of renowned Black Muslim leaders. There were stories about Black spiritual traditions ranging from West African animism to Haitian Voodoo.
I knew virtually nothing about the history that the Rev. Pierce was sharing. My tale of American religion was mostly a white Christian story with a single Black chapter: Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
I had to explore further. What I discovered did not disappoint. Indeed, it had me reconsider the entire story of American religious diversity.
In the early 16th century, more than 100 years before Roger Williams landed in Boston, a Muslim from Morocco named Mustafa Azemmouri (known also as Estebanico) was enslaved and taken to the New World with a Spanish expedition seeking the famed seven cities of gold. The expedition hit upon hard times and the men were captured by native American tribes. It was Azemmouri’s knowledge of North African healing practices and Muslim rituals that earned the respect of the Indigenous people, causing them to think of him as a medicine man, and keeping his group alive.
Over the course of the next several centuries, millions of human beings would be ripped off the coast of Africa and brought here via the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade. Twenty percent, maybe more, were Muslim. And in the fields where they toiled, some would find comfort in reciting the azhan, the Muslim call to prayer.
There is an unmistakable bending of a note in that prayer.
Talented ears on enslaved bodies heard the quiver and shake in those lines, and integrated them into the songs that they were singing to keep their spirits alive.
And so it is that a Muslim prayer was the source for the blue note, the soul note, that gave rise to what we now think of as American music — blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll. That is a source of pride for me, an American Muslim of the Ismaili tariqah, and should be for others of my faith, and indeed all people of faith.
The organization that I founded, Interfaith America, specializes in these types of explorations. We believe religion is — or at least ought to be — a positive force in civic life, and that proactive interfaith cooperation is the best way to unlock the magnificent potential of America’s religious diversity. One of our initiatives is the Black Interfaith Project, which we will be celebrating on the evening of Nov. 3 with a special event at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The purpose is not to minimize the contributions of Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and others. Rather, the goal is to widen our aperture, to recognize the contributions of all those who contributed and to convey to a wide variety of others that their contributions, too, are welcome — and something that we all can celebrate.
Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.”