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.


Cannes announces lineup for a festival canceled by COVID

Updated 54 min 14 sec ago

Cannes announces lineup for a festival canceled by COVID

From an empty movie theater in Paris, organizers of the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday announced the films that would have played at there in May had it not been canceled by the pandemic.

The selections were an exercise in what-might-have-been for Cannes, the international French festival that for the last 73 years has been one the most prestigious and glitzy annual gatherings of cinema. Cannes, originally slated for mid-May, initially considered postponing to July but ultimately gave up on a 2020 edition.

Hearing what would have premiered on the Crosiette this year offered a tantalizing picture of a canceled Cannes. Two films by “12 Years a Slave” filmmaker Steve McQueen — “Mangrove” and “Lover’s Rock” — had been headed to Cannes, said festival director Thierry Fremaux, as was Wes Anderson's “The French Dispatch” and Pete Docter’s Pixar film “Soul.”

Fremaux announced 56 movies that were selected from a record 2,067 submissions that poured in despite the health crisis. “I can see that film is alive and kicking,” said Fremaux, sitting on the stage of the UGC Normandie cinema in Paris alongside Cannes’ president, Pierre Lescure.

The selection announcement, usually made in an April press conference before teeming throngs of international journalists, was instead presented during a TV interview that streamed online and aired on Canal Plus. Lescure noted the unprecedented situation had some upside: It was much quieter and Fremaux didn’t have to fend off questions from various nations whose films were overlooked.

Fremaux didn’t distinguish between which films had been slated for its main selection, in which some 20-25 films compete for the Palme d’Or, the Un Certain Regard sidebar or out-of-competition premieres. Some films, he noted, opted to wait until next year’s Cannes.

The announced selection included 16 films directed by women, an increase of two from 2019. Cannes, where only one female filmmaker (Jane Campion) has ever won the Palme, has often come under criticism for not selecting more movies directed by women.

Spike Lee, whose previous film “BlacKKKlansman” premiered at Cannes, had been set to preside of the jury that would select Cannes' top prize. Last year, it went to Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” which went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards.

“This time, everyone will be able to give his or her own Palme d’Or,” Fremaux said.

Also among the selections: Francois Ozon’s “Summer of ’85”; Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers”; Hong Sang-soo’s “Heaven”; Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round”; Maïwenn’s “DNA”; and Sang-ho Yeon’s “Peninsula.”

The films will be able to brand themselves as part of the official 2020 Cannes Film Festival selection. If accepted elsewhere, the films can still have their premieres at other fall festivals — should they happen — like those in Toronto, Telluride, New York and San Sebastian. The Cannes label will be particularly helpful for films from lesser-known filmmakers; 15 of the films announced Wednesday were directorial debuts.