The nation's capital is not just where history is made, but also where history is kept. Now, that historical treasure trove includes a museum dedicated to America's Islamic past.
On Saturday, April 30, 2011, America's Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center located at the former Clara Muhammad School at 2315 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Washington, DC opened its doors to the general public.
First conceived in 1996 as a traveling exhibit called “Collections and Stories of American Muslims” (CSAM), the non-profit organization went from masjid to masjid, gathering to gathering with scores of pedestals displaying photographic collections of old tabby ruins (slave quarters) from the old plantations of Muslim slave managers and other materials, artifacts, and stories of the first Muslims known in America. The CSAM is now part of the exhibits at America's Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.
This research project has been a passion and a labor of love for co-founders Amir Muhammad and his wife Habeebah Muhammad. During the early 1990s Brother Muhammad worked for the American Muslim Council where he met a diverse number of Muslims who didn't know their history and as such felt isolated from American historical narrative. This prompted him to begin researching his own family history, which ultimately led him to discover his roots with the Gullah people of coastal Georgia and South Carolina who had significant Islamic influences during the very early 1900s. This discovery encouraged Brother Muhammad to research the history of Muslims in America. He has traveled throughout the United States researching for this project, "whenever I heard of Muslim names in any old records anywhere in the United States, I would go there", he said.
All the digging and research done by the husband-wife team unearthed a wealth of information and revelations of hitherto unknown facts. The history of Muslims in America is a very rich history and it began as early as the 1300s with the expedition of Abu Bakr of Mali, West Africa. The exhibits in the museum are designed to give a century by century account of the developing history and story of Muslims in America.
“Views From the Windows of American Islamic History: Early Muslims to the Americas”, starts with some of the earliest arrivals to American shores. One of the first known Muslims to arrive in America was Estevanico (Esteban of Africa) who arrived with Spanish explorers in the early 1500s. Though he was a servant, he was just as much an explorer as the Spaniards he came here with. During the 1600s the Melungeons and the Moors from Spain were settled in America, and many Muslim West Africans arrived as slaves. The exhibiti continues with the 1700s and features Muslim personalities such as Job Ibn Dijallo, the first hafiz of Quran in America to Kunta Kinte, the ancestor of Alex Haley, the famous biographer of Malcolm X. The exhibit also features such unique artifacts as the 1753 and 1790 legal documents of Muslims from Morocco to runaway Muslim slave advertisements; evidence of Muslims amongst Native American tribes such as the Nanticoke and the Mohegans is also a part of the exhibit.
The 1800s portion of the museum, “Forgotten Roots:Muslims in Early America”, chronicles early Muslim communities using hand written census records, personal letters written in Arabic, and stories of Muslim personalities such as scholar Omar Ibn Sayyid and Muslim Civil War heroes.
The 1900s portion of the experience is titled “The Untold Story-Muslims of the 20th Century” and features Muslims in the U.S. census, tombstones, organizations, and personalities who contributed to the ummah such as Imam Warith Deen Muhammad and his life as he came full circle to universal Islam from the Nation of Islam. By the late 30s and 40s many different Muslim immigrant communities opened Masajid in cities across America. By the late 1900s the Muslim community had contributed and integrated into American society in many professions, which leads into the last major exhibit in the museum, called “21st Century”. In this exhibit, Muslim judges, lawyers, scholars, educators, achievers, businessmen, doctors, athletes, military personnel, and others are featured. It was also during this century that many Muslim schools, charitable organizations, entertainers, politicians, and indigenous and immigrant Islamic centers proliferated. All of the exhibits contain photographs, narratives, and artifacts.
Though there was moderate attendance at the grand opening, those who came had nothing but accolades of praise for the fine work done by the co-founders and their collaborators.
Two teachers from the former Clara Muhammad School in Washington, D.C. shared their thoughts. Sister Fareedah Mahdi stated, "its a blessing that Amir is here in our former school building continuing the tradition of educating, I'm happy that the museum is here," said Sister Fareedah Mahdi. "The museum is fantastic and the preservation of this space is energizing and hopeful, and a reminder of where we came from", added Sister Katara Aleem.
A visitor from Augusta, Georgia, Sister Anisah Monte, said, "as a new [Muslimah], this is enlightening and informative. Brother Amir's vision will educate Muslims and non-Muslims on the contributions of Muslims to American society and inspire youth to continue with the positive tradition of learning,” she said.
The museum intends to continue and expand with new exhibits in the future. Sister Ayesha Muhammad, Lieutenent Commander USN (retired) will be the curator for an upcoming exhibit about the history and contributions of Muslim women in the U.S. Another future exhibit, “the History of Muslims in the America's” will focus on Muslims of Latino and Spanish heritage. An exhibit on some of the Muslim organizations in the U.S. is being planned, and exhibits about various Muslim cultures from around the Muslim world will be on display in the future. The new exhibits will be added incrementally as funds become available.
The development and cost for the current space of the museum was a little over $40,000 and the projected cost for the first year of operation is over $150,000. The founders are seeking funding support for the museum operations, programs, and exhibit development.
"This is the first Islamic heritage museum in the country to tell the narrative of the life and history of Muslims in America," said Amir Muhammad. Donations are accepted in any amount and volunteers are welcome.
The museum is closed on Mondays, open 10am to 5pm Tuesday through Saturday, and open on Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Entrance fees are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, and $3 for children 6-12. Groups of 10 or more get a discounted rate of $3 per guest. To learn more, visit www.muslimsinamerica.org, or call, phone number 202 678-6906.