America’s First Muslim Convert: Alexander Russell Webb


[Originally posted on U.S. Studies Online Blog on August 3, 2015.]


In a post-9/11 world, there are a variety of representations of Islam. From the US President, to academics, to twenty-four hour news talking heads, many praise Islam as peaceful or condemn it as a religion of hate. What many forget is that this love-hate representation of Islam goes back to over a century. While the current series on Islam in America focuses on a variety of representations of Islam, positive and negative, this post focuses on one of the earliest proponents of Islam in America, the tradition’s first American convert, Alexander Russell Webb.

The Nineteenth Century was a period of unprecedented religious innovation within the United States. Traditions such as Mormonism, Spiritualism, Christian Science, New Thought, Theosophy, as well as small religious movements based on charismatic figures all flourished. It was also at this time that America started looking east and paying attention to the religions of India, China, and Japan. By the end of the century, the first American Buddhist organization was founded by Japanese missionaries in California. It was during this period when so many eyes were looking east that Alexander Russell Webb found Islam.

Born in 1846 in the Hudson River Valley in the state of New York, Webb grew up surrounded by great diversity of people and religious traditions. It was in Upper State New York that Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed to be visited by the Angel Maroni, thus founding Mormonism, and it was also here that the Fox Sisters heard spectral wrapping that led to the emergence of Modern Spiritualism. While Webb was brought up a Presbyterian, by the time he reached maturity and attended Claverack College in Claverack, New York, which promoted free thinking and intellectual rigor, he had been exposed to a variety of religious traditions. Later in life he claimed to lose his religion in his mid-twenties, but it is fair to say he became disillusioned with the faith of his childhood and became a seeker. Webb’s biographer, Umar F. Abd-allah, calls this Webb’s “Spiritual Vagabond” period.[1] 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, as so many Theosophists did, 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 Mohammed and he began to study his history and the history of Islam. According to Theosophical sources, Webb gave a lecture in India about Mohammed’s orientalism explaining how it was compatible with Theosophical principles. Finally, Webb claimed that Mohammed had secret, esoteric teaching that only the privileged few knew.[2]

Webb began to correspond with a number of Muslims at this time from a variety of places. One important correspondence was with Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a controversial leader in Islam. He claimed that he was the fulfiller of the end times prophesies and that Islam was the final dispensation of the truth. While the correspondence was brief, lasting from 1886-1887, it was influential on Webb who seemed to decide that Islam was the best eastern religion to manifest the Ancient Wisdom of which Theosophy spoke. Webb writes to Ahmad, “I think I understand you to be a follower of the esoteric teachings of Mohammed, and not what is known to the masses of the people as Mohammedanism.”[3] Webb also corresponded with prominent American officials and through these connections was appointed Consul to the Philippines by the United States government in 1888.[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6] However, their support was intermittent and thus Webb often struggled to make ends meet.

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.[7]

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.

Seager, Richard Hughes, ed., The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World Parliament of Religions, 1893. La Salle: Open Court Press, 1993.


[1] Abd-allah, Umar F., A Muslim in Victorian America, 52.

[2] Abd-allah, Umar F., A Muslim in Victorian America, 59.

[3] Abd-allah, Umar F., A Muslim in Victorian America, 65.

[4] Curtis, Edward E., Ed. Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, 554.

[5] Webb, Islam in America, 9.

[6] Curtis, Edward E., Ed. Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, 554.

[7] Seager, Richard Hughes, ed., The Dawn of Religious Pluralism, 279.

What Happens When a Symbol’s Meaning Changes?

[Originally posted on Religion in American History blog, June 30, 2015.]

Much has transpired recently regarding the killing of nine African-Americans in South Carolina and its impact galvanizing those who see the Rebel Flag as a symbol of racism and hate. Living in the South since the early 1990s, I have seen the flag frequently in both Georgia and North Florida. I have heard the argument that it represents heritage and is not a symbol of racism. Assuming this is true, for the moment, such an argument still misses that symbols change and their meanings evolve. This is something that I have had to examine in my study of the Theosophical Society because another symbol of bigotry and hate, the swastika, is part of their organizational seal.

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York City and promoted Eastern ideals and traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. The swastika is a common symbol within these traditions and has been used within the iconography for centuries. Even today, if you are in some Asian countries and see a restaurant with a swastika on its sign, it means the restaurant serves Buddhist-friendly vegetarian food. Thus, it is not surprising that the society adopted the swastika as part of their logo. At one point, Blavatsky explained the swastika “is the summary in a few lines of the whole work of creation, or evolution.” It is a symbol of the dynamic aspects of creation, a point Theosophy stresses.

But we all know that the swastika was also adopted by the Nazi party as their emblem and is connected in the minds of most people to the racism and genocide of the Nazi regime. This was done fifty years after the Theosophical Society incorporated the symbol into its seal. Yet, now that the meaning of the swastika has changed, many claim that Theosophy, and in particular its founder Madam Blavatsky, is racist. Despite the fact that Blavatsky died two years after Hitler was born, there are numerous websites which use the inclusion of the swastika in the TS logo as evidence for its connection to Nazism.

The claims that Blavatsky was a Nazi are so common that Theosophists have had to respond. Much like those claiming the Rebel Flag is about heritage, Theosophists attempt to correct those with erroneous views connecting Blavatsky, the swastika, and Hitler. For instance in one essay, plainly entitled “Was Blavatsky a Nazi?,” the author begins stating the obvious: “H.P. Blavatsky was not a nazi. She lived and died in the 19th century when nazism didn’t exist yet.” Nevertheless, such connections between Blavatsky, Theosophy, and Nazism are not so easily assuaged. This is the problem for both Theosophists and those who attempt to uphold the flag as heritage: symbols change, their meanings evolve, and something that was acceptable in the past can come to mean something that is no longer acceptable.

Recognizing that educating the world about the history of the swastika is a losing battle, some in the TS have implemented a change to the seal to make the swastika less obvious. In an updated version of the Theosophical Society seal, the swastika turns from rigid right angles to swirls. While this version is used sporadically, I have noticed it becoming more common. I think this is because those in the organization recognize there simply is no rehabilitating the swastika. The symbol, at least for the foreseeable future, is associated with bigotry and hate in the minds of most. Similarly, the Rebel Flag being associated with racism is a fact those who promote the flag’s heritage are going to have to face too.

NBC’s The Voice finds Religion

[Originally posted on the Religion in American History blog on May 30, 2015.]

I don’t watch a lot of television. It’s not that I think TV is bad, it is just not a high priority for me. There was one exception these past few months, NBC’s The Voice. I, like millions of others, tuned into this singing competition weekly to hear the latest songs and watch the drama of contestants either surviving another week or leaving the show. I have been watching the voice for the last three or four seasons and I have never lost interest. A couple weeks ago season eight concluded with a new reigning artist who wins cash and a recording contract. This is how it is every season. In many ways, season eight was very much like season seven. However there was one way that season eight was different and that was the quantity of religious references, song choices, and appeals to religious constituency to support artists. This was such a change from the normally secular format of the show that one of the judges, Pharrell Williams, repeatedly thanked the show’s producers for allowing them “the freedom” to discuss religion.

Numerous artists performed songs with Christian themes. These included Meghan Lindsey performing “Amazing Grace” and Deanna Johnson performing “Down to the River to Pray”—made famous by the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. However the artist that was most overt about her Christian background was Koryn Hawthorne, a seventeen year old from a small town in Louisiana. While a number of songs generally spoke to her faith, it was her renditions of “How Great Thou Art” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” that has attracted the most attention. After singing “Oh Mary,” her coach, Pharrell Williams, said, “After seeing that performance, it’s like you realize that the impossible is just a word, because it can be done, and dreams can come true, and honestly, what you just did showed everybody back home the reason why not only should they vote, but anything is possible when you put God first.” It was this kind of language by which Williams appealed directly to Christians and “those who love gospel” to support Hawthorne that really mobilized a religious base to support Hawthorne and vote her into the finale. Moreover, their renditions of these songs continue to be popular within the Christian community even after the show has ended. As I write this, Megan Lindsey’s “Amazing Grace” is #1 on Billboard’s chart for Christian Digital Songs and Koryn Hawthorne’s “How Great Thou Art” is #1 on the Gospel Digital Songs chart and has been at #1 for multiple weeks. For the finale, Williams wrote a song just for Hawthorne, he said it was inspired by her faith. Entitled “Bright Fire,” Williams said that the song “feels good” because “it feels like sunshine.” He added, “just like the lyrics say, He is our bright fire, God!”

Social media is a huge component of The Voice, including the use of Twitter to save contestants for elimination, and for the rallying of fans to vote and support artists to keep them in the show. Again, here we find the repeated references to God and Jesus, especially in the fan base of Hawthorne. In all her twitter posts Hawthorne includes the hashtag “#TeamJesus,” and so do her fans. Moreover, she is overt in her discussion of her religious background, making it the foundation of her identity. In doing so, fans have responded. For instance, when she was close to being eliminated, the appeal when out to the Christian fan base to support her and they did, saving her to continue on the show. Her Twitter reply again accentuated her religious identity.

Moreover, her fan base does not hesitate using religious language to discuss her appearance on the show and the inspiration she has given them. Fan comments on Facebook include:

  • “you have been blessed with an amazing voice , always be thankful and be true to God, yourself, family and friends and you will go far.”
  • “Voted..Purchased and ssTiiLLLL praying for ya…keep the Faith..the doors will open after this Voice journey…your Gift has made room for you!:)”
  • “God continue to lift you up and use this opportunity to propel you to use that Blessed Voice to touch people’s lives and bring deeper inner healing to their souls. Be Blessed Chosen One!!!”
  • “Ur music is inspirational. You don’t perform u inspire! I’m vote for u every week. I pray that GOD continues to bless you.”

To all these comments, Hawthorne returns the religious language, “Going through some of the comments on Instagram and Twitter and seeing lots of people saying how much I have inspired them and it makes me want to cry. That’s all I live for, I’m so blessed and thankful for this opportunity! Thank you Jesus”

What is so significant is that this is the first time, to my knowledge, that a singing reality TV program has appealed to a religious constituency so directly. It is not uncommon in politics to see particular candidates appealing for certain religious community support, but competition reality shows generally remain quiet about religion, preferring to stay neutral religiously. This season of The Voice broke this model and it seems there was no backlash for its religiosity. In the end how did Hawthorne and the others do? Hawthorne came in fourth and Lindsey came in second. Lindsey already had a fan base from a previous musical career, but Hawthorne didn’t. There can be no doubt that it was her appeal to Christians that helped her reach the finals. Will others attempt to mobilize Christians in other reality competition shows? This remains to be seen, but if this season of The Voice is any indication, it is likely that other participants will call on a religious constituency to do well in the competition.