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Anti-Muslim Bigotry

Five Surprising Places To Find Islamic History In The United States


By Furqan Shaikh

In the current climate of political rhetoric against Islam and Muslims, it can be hard to remember that the United States has always been a country that has respected and acknowledged the contributions of people, places and ideas from outside its borders. While we often think of its inheritance from Greece or Rome, here is a quick tour of five surprising places where Islamic history, verses, or symbols have been represented and recognized by US institutions.

harvard law school

1) Harvard Law School

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The tour starts just inside the entrance of the Faculty Library at Harvard Law School, where the Words of Justice exhibit presents 33 quotations representing history’s greatest expressions of justice. Displayed prominently at the entrance wall are three quotations, the first by Augustine of Hippo, the second from the Magna Carta, and the third a verse from the Holy Quran (Chapter 4, verse 135), which reads: “O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both.” The passages of the exhibit were chosen by Harvard Law faculty and students for their “testimony to the endurance of humanity’s yearning for fairness and dignity through law.”


2) The Supreme Court

Move from the renowned school of law to the highest court. Carved in marble inside the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C., directly above the courtroom bench, is a frieze showing eighteen of the greatest leaders in history who played a role in establishing laws. The line-up includes Justinian, Charlemagne, King John, and the Prophet Muhammad.

Although the frieze was carved in 1935, the inclusion caused a controversy in 1997. A Muslim group argued that the portrayal of the Prophet was forbidden and that the faof the sculpture should be sanded down. Chief Justice William Rehnquist responded that the sculpture was “intended only to recognize [Prophet Muhammad], among many other lawgivers, as an important figure in the history of law.” In addition, an Islamic legal scholar, Taha Jaber al-Alwani of the Fiqh Council of North America, wrote an extensive fatwa arguing that the sculpture was intended as a positive gesture and as an honor bestowed by non-Muslims. The group that raised the concern stated that they felt the issue was closed and the matter was behind them. As one article noted, the incident helped point out that not all taboos are eternal.


3) The U.S. Capitol

Walk across the street from the Supreme Court to the US Capitol building. Around the walls of the House of Representatives Chamber are twenty-three relief portrait plaques, depicting “historical figures noted for their work in establishing the principles that underlie American law.” Installed in 1950, the portraits include Moses, Grotius, Napolean, Blackstone, and Jefferson. At the North-East corner, between Maimonides and Innocent III, is a portrait of Suleiman, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566.
Best remembered today for the architecture he sponsored, including the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and the old city walls of Jerusalem, Suleiman was known during his lifetime as the qanuni, the one who gives “canon” or laws. Among some of his laws, according to historian Lord Kinross, he issued a ferman prohibiting blood libel against Jews, and developed a reform that reduced levies paid by Christian Rayas, “raising their status above serfdom to the extent that Christian serfs would migrate to Turkish territories to benefit.”


4) The Dome of the Library of Congress

Painted in 1897 by Edwin Blashfield, in the gigantic coffered dome above the main reading room of the Library of Congress is a mural of Human Understanding, depicted as a female flanked by two cherubs. Surrounding the mural are twelve winged figures representing epochs which were thought to have contributed to the evolution of Western civilization. The figures include Judea, Greece, Rome, Italy, Spain, England, France, and Islam. Islam is portrayed as a figure standing next to an alembic with a banner reading “Physics,” representing the contributions of Islamic physical sciences.

The impact of Islamic lands on the physical sciences is succinctly demonstrated by observing the number of scientific words that originated from or were transmitted through Arabic, many recognizable by the prefix “al”, which means “the.” The words include those used in mathematics (algebra, algorithm, average, zero, decipher, Arabic numerals), astronomy (nadir, zenith, almanac, and the majority of star names), and chemistry (alcohol, alkali, amalgam, benzene, elixir, and alchemy – the precursor word for chemistry).   JeffersonQuran550x358

5) The Library of Thomas Jefferson

Walk East into the Library of Congress’ Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. Here, amidst Jefferson’s personal library, one finds a two-volume copy of the Quran, translated by George Sale and initialled by Jefferson himself. Jefferson purchased the Quran in 1765 while studying to be a lawyer. The copy of Quran entered public awareness in 2007 when it was used during the swear-in ceremony by Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the US Congress.

Ellison said that using Jefferson’s Quran made an important point: “It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran. A visionary like Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a different belief system. This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of.”

That, perhaps, is what this tour can teach us. More than anything about Islam, these symbols are about America. They are about an openness to acknowledging America’s debt to a shared human heritage, a concept that seems to have been all but forgotten in today’s environment.

It is perhaps a lesson equally applicable now to both America and many Muslim-majority countries: it is only by recalling the best of our principles and traditions that we can defeat the worst of them.

Follow Furqan on Twitter @furqankshaikh

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.



  1. Mohammad

    April 21, 2016 at 12:16 PM

    Loved this! Excellent!!

  2. M

    April 23, 2016 at 9:10 AM

    JazakAllah for sharing this brother Furqan!

  3. Chris

    April 23, 2016 at 10:13 PM

    What about the fact that many, if not most, of the african slaves brought to America were Muslim, and were then forced into becoming Christian

    • Truth

      April 29, 2016 at 5:09 AM

      Garbage.You need to check your history. Most of the Africans taken into slavery were animist by religion not Muslim. The people who captured them were other black animist tribes or Muslim Arab slave traders

      • omar

        May 26, 2016 at 8:17 PM need to educate must be an american.mant africans that were taken WERE IN FACT fact read up on Ayyub ibn Sulayman ibn Ibrahim, Yarrow Mamout , S’Quash , Bilal fact look up bilali document which can be found at univ of georgia, or read Dr. Allan D. Austin’s book called African Muslims in Antebellum America etc etc…many were forced to convert to christianity..only thing you got right was that yes there were muslim arab slave traders working along side european and jewish slave traders..before you comment educate yourself

      • Truth

        May 27, 2016 at 8:59 PM

        As I said – MOST of the Africans taken into slavery were animist by religion not Muslim. This is a fact.
        Africans converted to Christianity for a variety of reasons, far more complex than just saying they were forced to.

        • Ali

          May 9, 2019 at 7:18 PM

          Many were Muslims.Alot of Africans were taken from West Africa as well as North Afica which was a Muslim stronghold.
          Some brought over Voodun,Spirit and ancestor worship.

  4. Lara

    April 24, 2016 at 8:08 AM

    Salaam Alaikum,

    What an important write-up. I had no idea about most of these, even as a US resident for 20 yrs. It does increase my sense of belonging as a Muslim woman in America. Thank you for offering us all this knowledge.

    I do agree with Mr. Chris that a mention of the enslaved African Muslims who played a huge role in building America (and in fact, probably built the buildings carrying the above-mentioned inscriptions), would have made the article more complete.

    Jazak Allahu Khayra.
    Lara A.

  5. Abdullah Muhammed

    April 29, 2016 at 9:20 AM

    History and the Muslim Experience seems to be strong.

    Check out this conference in Chi-town comming up– May 15th.

    Deals with Muslims and Political Activism as a core…

    The legacy of the Prophets of Islam from Adam (عليه السلام) to Muhammad (ﷺ) is deeply rooted in demonstrating activism through conveyance of the message from Allah (سبحانه و تعالى).

    We Muslims must arise to the call of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) when He commands in the Qur’an:

    وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَأُوْلَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

    And let there arise among you a group, inviting to all that is good (Islam), commanding al-Marouf (good) and forbidding al-Munkar (evil); and those are the ones whom are the successful. -[Translated meaning of Surah Al-e-Imran 3:104]

    Indeed the Prophet (ﷺ) has also stated in a Hadeeth as narrated by Imam Bayhaqi (ra), “There will be from the end of my Ummah a people that will be rewarded like the first generation as they enjoin the Maroof and forbid the Munkar”.

    Please join Hizb Ut-Tahrir-America at their annual Khilafah Conference titled “Muslim Political Activism- Aspiring to the work of the Prophets”.

    From Adam (عليه السلام) to Mohammed (ﷺ): continuing the call of the Prophets and Messengers
    “We have ALWAYS been here”: Recognizing our Muslim roots of Reverence and Perseverance
    Beyond Ballots: Political Activism in Islam
    Chicago, IL USA
    Sunday, May 15, 2016
    2-5 p.m.

    Hizb Ut-Tahrir-America

  6. Ayesha Mohammed

    May 24, 2016 at 5:18 PM

    Salam, thanks for sharing. This is sooo meaningful and timely. It needs to be publicized more so that people can reflect and be more tolerant in sha Allah.

  7. Omer Riaz

    May 26, 2016 at 6:11 AM

    MashAllah!! Simply Amazing and beautiful Places. .Thanks for Sharing

  8. Muhammad Lawal

    June 20, 2016 at 6:31 AM

    Jaz’zakumullahu khairah brother, may Allah increase you knowledge and grant you all form of goodness Aameen Insha’Allah


    August 30, 2019 at 2:09 AM

    Masha Allah, very nice and amazing post. I always want to learn more about Islamic History, I also offer Online Quran classes for kids in USA and Muslim kids can learn Quran with us free.

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