Muslim American slaves

Muslim African slaves in America

Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?

I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.

Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.

They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.

Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.

Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.

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During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.

In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.

Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.

Secrets of the Lost Gospels of Jesus

There were more than just Four Gospels of Jesus but many other stories of his life rejected by the early church as heretical as Tony McMahon discovers

Imagine a completely different story about Jesus Christ – one that diverges from what we get in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It does exist. In all those lost gospels rejected by the early Christian church. The texts thrown out because they didn’t conform to orthodoxy.

Secret gospels that minority Christian sects held on to and copied assiduously. With very different views of Jesus – some that he was simply a man while others that he was a supernatural being with no human substance. These gospels were burned, suppressed and banned. And only thanks to chance discoveries and archaeology have we any idea that they ever existed.

Those who oppose any study of the Lost Gospels today will claim – breathlessly – that the reason our gospels were chosen was because authorship could be verified. But no serious bible historian (as opposed to literal evangelical) really thinks the gospels were written by the apostles. “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John” were names added later – and bear no relation to the illiterate followers of Jesus. In fact, the authors of the four gospels were Greek speakers – not Aramaic peasants.

Not just four gospels – but all the lost gospels too

For fifteen hundred years, Christians have grown used to the idea of just Four Gospels.  But these are the magic four that the early Church decided, for a variety of reasons, were acceptable to the faithful. The current compilation took a while to take root and to be universally accepted – and there are still differences between, say, Catholicism’s bible, Protestantism’s bible and that of the Eastern Orthodox church.

So what happened to the missing Gospels?   They were suppressed, burnt, condemned and so on.  But over the years, they have stubbornly turned up in other writings or simply been dug out of the ground.  A list of those Gospels and their translations can be found here.

Lost Gospels of James and St Peter

These include the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of St Peter and the Gospel of the Egyptians.  The latter was condemned for its insistence on sexual abstinence as a way of breaking the endless cycle of life and death and taking all our souls skywards to heaven.  This would not do as the church insisted we had to go through an earthly cycle to, as it were, prove our worthiness to go to heaven.  The earthy teacher and invigilator for this admittance exam for entrance to heaven would, of course, be the church.

In fact, any gospel that threatened the power and very raison d’etre for an earthly church was roundly condemned.  As were gospels – like that of the Ebionites – which presented Jesus as too mortal (and Jewish) or those that failed to present him as mortal enough (the Marcionites and Gnostics who saw him as a purely divine force to be understood through a kind of transcendental meditation).

Gaps in the life story of Jesus filled by the Lost Gospels

Interestingly, these gospels offer more information on key parts of the bible story.   The Infancy Gospel of James gives a whole heap of detail on Mary’s birth to an elderly couple who had given up hope of having children.  It explains why the Temple insisted on her marriage to the carpenter Joseph and then tells how Jesus was born in a cave with Salome acting as midwife.  As Herod’s troops approach, Jesus is hidden in an animal trough to avoid detection.

The Gospel of St Peter is at the more anti-Jewish end of the Gospel spectrum.  As the noted scholar Bart Ehrman has noted in his excellent books on biblical texts, you can crudely divide up gospels in to those that lean more towards a mortal and very Jewish Jesus and those that lean towards a more divine figure and tend to blame the Jews for his crucifixion.

In the Gospel of St Peter, Pontius Pilate is completely exonerated for the death of Jesus.  By washing his hands, he really has refused to have anything to do with the trial and it’s Herod Antipas who passes the death sentence.  The Coptic church took this interpretation a step further by looking at Pilate as a virtual saint.

Jesus the Vegetarian in the Lost Gospels

The Gospel of the Ebionites portrays Jesus and John the Baptist as vegetarians and Jesus takes a decidedly dim view of animal sacrifice in the Jewish Temple.   This makes Jesus a Jewish reformer – probably in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the soul searching that took place among Jews.

This event took place decades after the crucifixion but it shows how what was happening as these Gospels were written insinuated in to the stories.  Basically, the Gospels (including the four we know) were often part of a polemic between different Christian/Jewish groups.  They simply put words in to the mouth of Jesus and his apostles to support their view.

Mary Magdalene way more important in the Lost Gospels

The Gospel of Mary controversially places Mary Magdalene above the disciples – not just in the affections of Jesus but as a follower.  As with many of these Gospels and the four we know (mainly written in the very late first century and most in the second century AD), what we can actually discern here are some early disputes between Christians.

In this case – are women allowed to preach and hold high position in the church?   The argument is portrayed in a dispute within the Gospel between St Peter and Mary Magdalene.   Peter is obviously telling Mary Magdalene to get back in the kitchen and make some tea for the lads (I’m joking) while Mary has different ideas.  This same story of a bust up between the two appears in at least three other suppressed Gospels – the Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of St Thomas.

The latter gospel is very interesting.  St Thomas is said to be the apostle who takes Christianity to India.  While in India, he encounters a huge snake that reveals itself to be the devil.  I love this encounter where Lucifer explains the difficult relationship with a father who he feels has been rather unfair to him – here is a quote:

And he said unto him (devil to Thomas): I am a reptile of the reptile nature and noxious son of the noxious father, of him that hurt and smote the four brethren which stood upright.  I am also son to him that sitteth on a throne over all the earth, that receiveth back his own from them that borrow.  I am son to him that girdeth about the sphere and I am kin to him that is outside the ocean whose tail is set in his own mouth.  I am he that entered through the barrier in to paradise and spake with Eve the things which my father bade me speak unto her.  I am he that kindled and inflamed Cain to kill his own brother and on mine account did thorns and thistles grow up in the earth.

One thing to note about the Thomas gospel is that Jesus is rarely challenged as he sets down the law of his father.  But in Gospels that are regarded as earlier than Thomas – the so-called Oxryhynchus 1224 Gospel written very close to Jesus’ death – Jesus has to argue hard with his opponents in the market place.

Well, there’s plenty more than can be said about the Apocrypha – the term used for the Lost Gospels.  If you thought there were contradictions in the accounts of the four Gospels authorised by the Church (compare their accounts of the empty tomb discovery for example), then you’ll find plenty more confusion when you add these in to the mix.

The Spanish Inquisition – what was it really like?

What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?

And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily

In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.

But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.

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This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.

I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.

A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!

Muslim Spain – heaven or hell for Jews and Christians?

For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.

This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.

The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.

It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.

READ MORE: LGBT Muslims in history

But this view has been trashed in a new book called The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. He argues the following points:

  • It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
  • The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
  • The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
  • Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
  • Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics

I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.

His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:

  • Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
  • Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
  • Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?

It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.

Celebrating LGBT Muslims in history

Abu Nuwas – a great Muslim scholar who wrote unashamedly about LGBT love

Muslim LGBT visibility has been increasing in recent years. On Pride in London – Muslim LGBT groups are often very vocal and one carried a placard last year saying: “See ya down at the mosque!”

Obviously this scandalised many. But there is a strong LGBT tradition in the Muslim world going right back through the centuries.

It may come as a surprise to know this but in Muslim history, homosexuality was often considered as perfectly acceptable. And there were leading scholars and even members of the ruling elite who expressed love and affection for members of their own sex.

Many Muslims I know today are exasperated that bigoted views within Islam – especially from violent extremists – have clouded out the more exotic and colourful history of the religion. They also dispute claims that the Qur’an prohibits gay and lesbian love. In fact, it doesn’t even mention homosexuality.

The rulings that are often cited from anti-LGBT Muslims frequently come from later “hadiths” – claimed sayings of the Prophet – that range from reliable to totally unreliable in terms of authenticity. Or they originate in the schools of jurisprudence that arose centuries after the Prophet’s death in the Abbasid Empire.

I was surprised several years ago to find wall paintings in a bathhouse in Jordan dating back to the two hundred years after the emergence of Islam that depicted dancers and even animals like bears playing musical instruments.

It sparked my realisation that Islam was far more tolerant a thousand years ago than it is in many countries today. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to that version of the faith with its inclusivity and joyousness. Let me give you some examples of LGBT people in Muslim history.

Abu Nuwas was a poet whose full name was Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami and he lived most of his life in Baghdad – the incredible capital of the Abbasid Empire. Much of his poetry is too racy to quote here but this is one of his milder verses:

He sports a short tunic over his slender thighs
But his shirt is long of sleeve.
His feet are well-shod, and under his coat
You can glimpse rich brocade.

Other Muslim poets in history who publicly declared their homosexuality included the Persian Ibn Dawud (868-909 CE), the Andalusian Ibn Quzman (1080-1160 CE) and Ibn Hamdis (1053-1133 CE) who lived in Sicily when it was under Muslim rule. None of them faced a real threat of being put to death because in the “Golden Age” of Islam (when Muslim culture influenced the whole of Europe), the authorities turned a blind eye.

So why did things change?

The usual explanation is that the European powers introduced harsh anti-homosexual legislation in Middle Eastern countries when they ruled them in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s, however, part of the story. Because since then, the same European powers have liberalised their attitudes and laws towards LGBT people – while in contrast the Middle East has, if anything, got way more intolerant.

Why?

The main reason is the emergence of political Islamism which has characterised homosexuality as a western decadent phenomenon. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution – but even before that – there’s been a movement against LGBT rights that we can see getting worse in countries today like Indonesia.

It’s very sad to see countries that once had a vibrant LGBT scene – even if it was underground – now becoming fiercely homophobic. Take for example the detention in Lebanon last year of the organiser of a Gay Pride march. This in a country where the capital Beirut was once described as the “Paris of the eastern Mediterranean”.

This leaves many LGBT Muslims feeling marginalised and some even coming to believe that they might even be undermining their own faith by “tainting” it. Mercifully, there are those prepared to speak out bravely and advocate a reconciled Muslim and LGBT identity. Groups like Imaan in the UK come to mind.

And in many ways, they are helping to revive a traditional, pluralist and tolerant Islam that if revived, could help us all to move forward together in harmony.

Now isn’t that a nice idea?

Man in the High Castle: the real American Nazis?

The Man in the High Castle – does it tell us anything about the real American Nazis of the past?

2018 will see the return of the grim dystopian TV series The Man in the High Castle – an imagining of the United States conquered by both the Nazis and Japanese at the end of World War II. Several years after the conquest, the east coast is depicted as firmly part of the Third Reich. Americans in SS uniforms enforce Nazi race codes dictated to them by their masters in Berlin.

The real American Nazis

You might wonder what kind of American in real life would ever salute the swastika? Though since the 2016 riot in Charlottesville and the proliferation of extreme right wing accounts on Twitter – it’s getting sadly easier to imagine such a terrible thing.

The truth is that there has been a long history of Americans flirting with Nazism.

Just months before President Franklin Roosevelt took the country into World War II, American Nazis held a huge rally at Madison Square Gardens. The German American Bund, an organisation aspiring to be the Nazi party of the United States, was led by a naturalised American, born and educated in Germany, called Fritz Julius Kuhn.

A rally of American Nazis in the 1930s

Some of the footage of that rally has only recently been re-discovered and turned into an excellent film short by Marshall Curry. It’s truly chilling to watch:

Throughout the 1930s, he rallied a large number of German Americans and fans of Hitler. Click HERE to see some startling copyright images of Nazis marching in America at that time. You almost have to rub your eyes to believe what you’re seeing.

Although Kuhn staged some disturbingly well attended spectacles, he met opposition from other German Americans opposed to Hitler, the Jewish community and both federal and state authorities.

But in spite of protests by anti-Nazis, the fascists continued to openly recruit. For example, supporters of the German American Settlement League, another Nazi front organisation, organised a youth camp in Yaphank, New York state in 1938.

On that occasion, the assistant district attorney moved fast to arrest some of those involved on the grounds they were working for a foreign power….Germany.

He could not tolerate young people saluting the Nazi flag and pledging allegiance to the Fuhrer instead of the US President. Here is the assistant DA explaining why he had to take action against the youth camp:

Kuhn met Hitler in 1936 – the year Germany hosted the Olympics. But he got a cool reception. Most likely, Hitler didn’t want to provoke Washington when he was planning his various invasions of Europe.

Kuhn was eventually imprisoned in late 1939 for embezzling funds from the Bund. In 1943, he was stripped of his US citizenship. Then he was deported to Germany. Unfortunately for him, Hitler and the Nazis had been wiped off the face of the earth. Kuhn was put on trial and sentenced to ten years in prison. Here is a news report from the time where he tries to plead his innocence.

In the years after World War II, you’d have thought that being a Nazi would have been beyond the pale. Scenes from liberated concentration camps showing emaciated survivors disgusted millions of decent people across the world. But not one man: George Lincoln Rockwell.

Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazis of the 1950s

Rockwell formed the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists in 1959 – shortened a year later to the American Nazi Party. He is widely regarded as the founder of today’s white supremacist movement in the US.

Speaking with his trademark and rather cartoonish pipe stuck in his mouth, Rockwell opined that black people should be returned to Africa and unbelievably, advocated exterminating Jewish people. Unlike other Nazis, he didn’t attempt to deny the holocaust so much as embrace it.

rockwell
Rockwell meets the Nation of Islam in 1961

He also exhibited another common trait of the extreme right – rank opportunism. Convinced he could get elected US president, Rockwell decided to swallow his hatred of Latino and Slav-heritage Americans to build an anti-Jewish and anti-African American white power coalition. But more incredibly, Rockwell flirted with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X.

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In 1961, he and a group of fellow American Nazi Party members attended a Nation of Islam rally – with permission from the organisers – in the belief that they held a shared hatred of Jews.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that Malcolm X was present, though not NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. The Nazi leader fantasised about a grand alliance with the NOI:

Can you imagine a rally of the American Nazis in Union Square protected from Jewish hecklers by a solid phalanx of Elijah Muhammad’s stalwart black stormtroopers?”

Mercifully, this alliance never materialised. But it’s a stain on the history of the NOI. In the end, Rockwell’s hatred of African-Americans trumped his ability to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad’s racialised version of Islam. Malcom X later split with the NOI’s black separatist ideology and sent Rockwell a threatening telegram in 1965.

This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans….you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation…

Rockwell was assassinated in his car while on a launderette run. He’d apparently forgotten the soap powder and returned to his vehicle when he was gunned down in 1967. His assassin was John Patler, a member of Rockwell’s own party.

Patler’s real name was Yanacki Patsalos but he changed it to Patler in the belief that sounded a bit like Hitler! A social misfit from a Greek family that had migrated to the US. As a young man, he had fallen into gang activity as well as being discharged from the Marines for his Nazi activity. He got twenty years for the killing.

Today’s American Nazis

Anti-semitism and white supremacism are on the rise today in the United States. A recent media report highlighted the growth of hate crime against the dwindling Jewish population in Yaphank – the New York state town that planned to have a Nazi youth camp in 1938. Incredibly, the German-American Settlement League still operates in that town and only recently has a ban on non-German descent people buying property been lifted.

The 2016 riot at Charlottesville evidenced that the extreme right is still able to dragoon disaffected white males into action. Many of them dream of an America run by the jackbooted racially pure.

But that nightmarish vision is highly unlikely – even allowing for Donald Trump! Nevertheless, those of us who value democracy and harmony in our society must remain vigilant against a resurgence of fascist hate politics.

Here is the trailer for the forthcoming season 3 of The Man in the High Castle 

Filming with the History Channel in Templar Tomar

I’ve been busy filming with the History channel in the Portuguese town of Tomar for a thrilling new documentary series about the Knights Templar. It’s called Buried: Knights Templar and the Holy Grail and is presented by Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin.

This will accompany the new Templar drama Knightfall about to grace your TV screens.

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Buried follows the Templar quest for the Holy Grail and I caught up with the team in Tomar, the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal.

Tomar, in central Portugal, was on the frontier between the Christian crusader kingdoms of northern Spain and Portugal and the Islamic caliphate to the south. This is when cities like Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba were ruled by emirs. But slowly, the crusaders and Templars conquered the whole Iberian peninsula.

One Muslim army tried to storm Tomar and the cost of much blood, the Knights Templar held the city and pushed them back. One gate where a very vicious struggle took place between Knights Templar and Muslims is still called the Gate of Blood.

I’ve visited this town many times, dominated by its Templar fortress. It’s a hugely atmospheric and enigmatic place. Nowhere I’ve been to in the world captures the essence of the Templars like Tomar.

After the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, the Portuguese simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. And this is why we wondered in the programme whether Tomar could have been a safe haven for Templars worldwide? And could their treasure have been buried there?

Together with the team, we set out to unearth some Templar secrets and you can find out how we got on later in the autumn – or Fall for my American followers!