Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

In 1982, he left America to teach Arabic in Spain. Two years later, he was appointed to the Department of Islamic Studies at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, where he taught (in Arabic) Islamic studies and comparative religions until 2000.

During his years abroad, Dr. Abd-Allah had the privilege of studying with a number of traditional Islamic scholars. He returned to Chicago in August 2000 to work as chair and scholar-in-residence of the newly founded Nawawi Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation. In conjunction with this position, he is now teaching and lecturing in and around Chicago and various parts of the United States and Canada, while conducting research and writing in Islamic studies and related fields. He recently completed a biography of Mohammed Webb (d. 1916), who was one of the most significant early American converts to Islam. The book is scheduled for release Spring/Summer 2006 under the title A Muslim in Victorian America: The Story of Alexander Russell Webb (Oxford University Press). Dr. Abd-Allah is presently completing a second work entitled Roots of Islam in America: A Survey of Muslim Presence in the New World from Earliest Evidence until 1965 and is also updating his dissertation for publication.

 Articles by this Author

This paper is the first installment of a new Nawawi Foundation series titled “Roots of Islam in America,” bringing to light the largely unwritten but surprisingly rich history of Muslims in the Americas over the centuries. Turks, Moors, and Moriscos in Early America focuses on the first British colony in the New World, the so-called “lost colony” of Roanoke (1585-1590). Roanoke was established for the primary purpose of attacking Spanish ships bearing large amounts of gold and silver from Spain’s American colonies to imperial Spain, which, at the time, constituted England’s primary military, political, and religious rival. On his way to Roanoke in 1586, Sir Francis Drake led a large fleet of British privateers against the Spanish in the Atlantic and Caribbean and freed hundreds of Muslim galley slaves, who had been forced to serve in the Spanish navy.

Historical sources identify these galley slaves as “Turks” and “Moors.” But the galley slaves probably included Moriscos as well. The Moriscos were former Spanish and Portuguese Muslims (Moors) who had been forcefully converted to Christianity after the fall of Muslim Spain and often ran afoul of the Spanish Inquisition and were condemned to the galleys. As the article shows, Drake definitely had this large contingent of newly liberated Muslims with him when his ships came to the Roanoke colony in 1586. We know that many of the “Turks” were repatriated to the Ottoman Empire, which had friendly diplomatic relations with England at the time. What became of the hundreds of other former Muslim galley slaves remains an intriguing mystery. It is possible that some of them stayed or were left behind and became the ancestors of the Melungeons, Lumbees, and other enigmatic indigenous American populations who trace their origins to the Roanoke colony and have long claimed to have “Portuguese” and “Moorish” roots.

This article examines two fundamental concepts essential to the dynamic application of Islam: bid‘a (innovation) and ijtihad (critical thinking for solutions to new problems). Both concepts are meant to preserve continuity with Islam’s original sources while renewing the religion’s vitality as a dynamic faith. Correct understanding of bid‘a and ijtihad is an essential element of Islamic literacy, the basic understanding of Islam that all members of the Muslim community must have. Bid‘a serves as a regulatory mechanism for the elaboration of the religious law but is not meant to be an obstructive force, impeding new ideas and silencing open discourse. Bid‘a has different shades of meaning and is not always negative; it applies equally to innovations that are obligatory, recommended, or merely neutral. Ijtihad, on the other hand, is the creative dimension of Islamic law. The obligation to perform it falls on each Muslim community in the context of its particular time and place. Ijtihad is not solely an obligation of scholars; it also is incumbent on the Muslim rank and file, who are required to think critically about which scholars to follow.

One God, Many Names


Many Names

A Nawawi Foundation Paper

by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

©2004. All rights reserved.

From the standpoint of Islamic theology and salvation history,4 it is simply unacceptable to deem the Biblical God and that of the Qur’an to be anything but the same, despite the fact that, in recent years, many English-speaking Muslims have developed an ill-advised convention of avoiding the word “God” under the mistaken assumption that only the Arabic word Allah” carries a linguistic guarantee of theological authenticity. Beautiful names for God are not unique to the Bible or the Qur’an nor to any religion or group of human tongues. Semitic languages—like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic—possess rich glossaries of divine names, but those who invoke them have never possessed a monopoly on God. At a most fundamental level, all humanity shares in a legacy of knowing the Supreme Being and being able to designate him by appropriate names, which—from an Islamic point of view—reflect human-kind’s inborn knowledge of God, bolstered by its remote association with the primeval legacy of universal prophecy. As for our English word “God,” it reflects such primordial roots, belongs to the treasury of ancient divine names, and is among the most expressive designations of the Supreme Being. The continued aversion on the part of many English speaking Muslims to admit “God” into their vocabulary serves only to reinforce the groundless claims of the religious right. It is urgent for English-speaking Muslims to communicate coherently, and embracing the word “God” is an important step in that direction.

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