Before isis: What Early America Thought of Islam

In: Sociology of Islam
Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet University of Pennsylvania,

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Early America engaged with Islam through multiple channels. As American missionaries traveled abroad in search of converts, and lived among Muslims, they often viewed the religion and its adherents through the lens of Christianity. For some, Islam’s prophet was a false hero, “an impostor,” and the message of the religion was an unfortunate pastiche of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Simultaneously, American scholars of religion and the ancient Near East in the nineteenth century approached the Islamic world out of an academic desire to understand Middle Eastern antiquity. Through this process of intellectual inquiry, the American academy eventually developed an interest in the study of Islam itself. Thus, two dominant strands of thought emerged that led to divergent discourses about Islam in the United States. These two discourses—an academic one versus a popular one rooted in missionary experiences—have endured and shaped the contemporary understanding of Islam in America.

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