Meet America’s First Muslim Convert: Alexander Russell Webb

By JOHN L. CROW

Born in 1846 in the Hudson River Valley of New York, Webb was brought up a Presbyterian. He attended Claverack College in Claverack, New York and was exposed to a variety of religious traditions. In his mid-twenties, he became disillusioned with the faith of his childhood and became a seeker. Webb’s biographer, Umar F. Abdallah, calls this period of Webb’s life the “Spiritual Vagabond” period. As with most seekers, he read about and investigated other religions, usually by reading various texts. This came to a head in 1880-81 when Webb joined the Theosophical Society and converted to Buddhism.

The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 in New York City, claimed that all religions derived from one ancient wisdom and thus all religions contained at least a portion of the truth. However, in the earliest years, the society promoted the view that Buddhism and Hinduism contained the truest forms of those traditions and thus Theosophists promoted these traditions, in opposition to Western traditions, especially Christianity. Webb became interested in these “Oriental” ideas and found a group of like-minded people who shared his rejection of Christianity and the materialism of Victorian America. At one point Webb traveled to India, the place where the Theosophical Society moved its headquarters, and met numerous Theosophists, some of which were Muslim. It was also within the context of Theosophy that Webb first learned about prophet Mohammed and he began to study his history and the history of Islam.

Webb began to correspond with a number of Muslims at this time from a variety of places. He also corresponded with prominent American officials and through these connections was appointed Consul to the Philippines by the United States government in 1888. It was during his time in the Philippines that Webb finally converted to Sunni Islam. After his conversion, his family who had also moved to Manila converted. Webb maintained his correspondence with prominent Muslim figures throughout India and the Middle East.

In 1892 Webb resigned from his position in Manila and traveled to India where he met up with Moulvi Hassan Ali and other Muslims to raise funds for American missionary work. Having been an American Consul afforded Webb many privileges as he traveled and he used these advantages towards furthering his cause. After a year of traveling throughout India seeking funds, Webb finally returned to America, arriving in New York City in February 1893. It was in Manhattan that Webb began promoting his faith, publishing a book entitled Islam in America. The purpose of the book, he claims is to “give to the English-speaking world a brief but accurate and reliable description of the character and purpose of Mohammed (pbuh), and a general outline of the Islamic system.” He also published an English language newspaper called, Moslem World, promoting Islam and giving news of various kinds relevant to the religion. All these efforts to promote Islam in a positive light were funded by his supporters South Asian Muslim and Ottoman supporters, including the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. However, their support was intermittent and thus Webb often struggled to make ends meet.

World Parliament of Religions, 1893, Chicago

Perhaps his most successful attempt to promote Islam positively and the event for which Webb is best known is his attendance as the only representative for Islam at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. The World Parliament of Religions took place in Chicago during the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair. During his speech, he criticized the bigotry against Muslims by Americans, noting how any Muslim who does wrong becomes representative of the whole religion. Webb also implored his audience to see the reason and logic behind Islam and to give it a fair chance by impartially studying it. Overall his efforts received positive, or at least polite responses, all except his mild defense of Islamic polygamy which was met with hisses and rebuke.

Webb returned to New York City to continue his missionary work, but he made little progress and continued to struggle to secure funding for his mission. In 1901 he travelled to Turkey where he was awarded a medal by the Sultan for his missionary work. Eventually he relocated to New Jersey where he lived out the rest of his life promoting Islam to the best of his ability.

Webb grew up at a time of great religious change and innovation. Not only were new religions being founded, but religions from Asia were seen as viable alternatives to traditional forms of Christianity. America was no longer isolated by two oceans, its citizens and religious traditions were being exported and new religions imported. His adoption and promotion of Islam offers a great example of the ways Islam has been represented within the public over the last century. After the American Civil War, the United States began a new spiritual quest, looking for renewal and rebirth. In Webb, one strand of that rebirth begins. While he was far from successful in his efforts to spread his newfound faith, his tireless missionary work laid the groundwork for those that followed.

For more about Alexander Russell Webb see:

Abd-allah, Umar F., A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Richard Hughes Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893: The East/West Encounter, Indiana University Press, 2009.

About the author

John L. Crow is an Instructional Development Faculty at Florida State University’s Office of Distance Learning and a PhD graduate student in FSU’s Department of Religion. He has an extensive background in information technology and is academically trained in American Religious History and Western Esotericism. His interests, however, are wide ranging, dealing with technology related to on-line active learning, digital humanities, body studies, the intersection of science and religion, and the development of eastern religions within the west, particularly Buddhism in the West.

Source: British Association for Americcan Studies www.baas.ac.uk/usso/americas-first-muslim-convert-alexander-russell-webb/

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