On Washington DC’s Hidden Islamic Trail

The interior courtyard of the mosque in Washington DC’s Islamic Center. (Shutterstock)
Updated 07 April 2019

On Washington DC’s Hidden Islamic Trail

  • The American capital has a long and storied Muslim history, if you dig deep enough

LONDON: The ‘David’-like physiology and ‘Nike’ wings were Greco-Roman, but his turban, beard and ‘semitic’ face, were unmistakably of the East. He sat majestically with one arm under his chin and his right foot atop a distilling retort.

“Those figures represent the building blocks of Western civilization. There’s Spain, England, the Middle Ages, even Islam is there for its contribution to science. Look, ‘Islam’ is written under the turbaned man.”

The tour guide’s voice broke my meditative study of the Renaissance-style figures high up on the dome of the Thomas Jefferson building, inside Washington DC’s Library of Congress.

Painted in the 1890s by Edward Homeland Blashfield, “The Evolution of Civilization” suggests Islam played a far greater role in the development of America than popular US history would have you believe.

This fact is further reinforced by one of the library’s most prized possessions, the Jefferson Qur’an — a two-volume 18th-century leatherbound English translation of Islam’s holiest text that once belonged to the American founding father and third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Along with the library's dome, “The Qu’ran,” by George Sale, is part of a series of clues alluding to Islam’s relationship with the US, scattered across Washington DC.

Around the corner, in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, an exhibit honors the man often hailed as ‘The Greatest’ American Muslim of all, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Northeast of this, on “Islamic Way” is a mosque linked to arguably America's second-most-famous Muslim, Malcolm X. The Masjid Muhammad, now a Sunni mosque, began life as the Nation of Islam Temple No.4, and was built using money personally raised by ‘Brother Malcolm’ before his conversion to Islam.

It is not the capital’s only famous mosque. On the opposite side of town, the Islamic Center offers a nod to historic Islamic art and architecture. The exterior of its mosque — built in 1949 — is modeled on classic north African, Fatimid architecture while, inside, the walls are decorated with blue Ottoman-style Iznik tiles and Qur’anic calligraphy.

Meanwhile, on the corner of 21st and Q NW is the Moroccan Embassy — one of the earliest established in the US, to acknowledge that the Muslim country was the first to recognize America’s independence in 1776.

But the true gem sits in an unfashionable neighborhood south of the River Anacostia. America’s Islamic Heritage Museum on Martin Luther King Jr Ave W is the result of one man's effort to unearth America's Muslim history.

“It all began when I discovered a West African ancestor on my father’s side called Clara Higgenbotham, born in 1783 and enslaved in Brunswick, Georgia,” recalled Amir Nashid Ali Muhammad Ibn West, the museum's founder. “She had a daughter called Amry Bakr — a familiar Muslim surname. Looking into their lives, I came across another Muslim slave born in West Africa, Salih Bilali, who lived nearby and managed 450 slaves for a John Couper.

“Bilali reportedly recited the shahadah on his deathbed, and his descendant, Robert Abbott, founded the Chicago Defender — one of America’s first black newspapers,” Amir continued. He went on to claim that America’s Muslim history goes all the way back to 1312, when West African Muslims from Mali landed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Amir also believes Muslims came to the Americas with Christopher Columbus.

“Columbus had two Muslim captains related to Sultan Abu Zayan Muhammad III of Morocco’s Marinid dynasty on his ship,” he said.

Evidence supporting his claims can be seen inside his modest museum. It includes slave ledgers, adverts for runaway Muslim slaves, and photos of ancient ‘Muslim’ tombstones, like the final resting place of ‘Mamohet’ (who died in 1735), which Amir found in Norwich, Connecticut.

The museum also has a copy of a painting of freed Muslim slave, Yarrow Mamout. The original, housed in Georgetown Public Library, was painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1819. Peale also painted US President George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Mamout was a devout Muslim versed in Arabic. After being freed he invested in the Columbia Bank and became a financier for white and black merchants. Peale noted that Mamout was buried at the bottom of his garden, where he prayed. Excavations are now underway at his former residency.

The move is a significant one, suggesting the US capital, like Amir, might finally be ready to embrace America’s forgotten Muslim heritage.

Birthday tributes for Halima Aden flood social media

Updated 20 September 2020

Birthday tributes for Halima Aden flood social media

DUBAI: Tributes from all over the world poured in for US-Somali model Halima Aden’s birthday this week. Models, actresses and designers have all taken to social media to wish the newly-minted 23-year-old a happy birthday. 

“Happy birthday, baby,” wrote Egyptian model and actress Salma Abu Deif on her Instagram Stories. “Love you always,” she added alongside a black-and-white snap of the two together.

Also taking to the photo-sharing platform to celebrate Aden on her big day was US designer Tommy Hilfiger, for whom the hijab-wearing catwalker recently starred in a campaign. 

Egyptian actress Salma Abu Deif wished the model a happy birthday. Instagram

American actress Larsen Thompson posted an adorable snap of the friends in an embrace, writing, “Happy birthday to my beautiful sis @Halima. You amaze me! Love and miss you!”

Meanwhile, US-Lebanese designer Eli Mizrahi posted an editorial from Aden’s instantly-iconic 2017 shoot with CR Fashion Book, captioning it: “Definition of a superstar! Happy birthday, @halima.”

“Thank you for all the birthday wishes,” posted the model on Instagram. “Alhamdulilah, 23 never felt so good.”


Thank you for all the birthday wishes alhamdulilah 23 never felt so good #jordanyear

A post shared by Halima (@halima) on

Many celebrities took to the comment section to share their well-wishes, including supermodels Shanina Shaik, Iman Abdulmajeed and singer Austin Mahone. 

Though Aden just turned 23, she has already achieved many career milestones.

The model, who grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp before migrating to Minnesota with her family aged seven, made headlines at the age of 19 when she was the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant, where she made the semifinals, in 2016.

Also taking to the photo-sharing platform to celebrate Aden on her big day was US designer Tommy Hilfiger. Instagram

She would go on to make her runway debut at Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5 showcase during New York Fashion Week in 2017, becoming the first model to wear a hijab on the international runway.

 After her debut, she walked for a number of prestigious brands such as Moschino and Max Mara and was the first model to wear her hijab on the covers of major women’s magazines, such as Allure, British Vogue, Teen Vogue and Sports Illustrated. 

When she’s not turning heads on the runways or pages of renowned magazines, Aden, who was announced as a UNICEF ambassador in 2018, uses her voice and platform to advocate for children’s rights. 

But despite all of her exceptional achievements, it is clear that Aden is only getting started and is certain to be breaking boundaries for years to come.