In this episode we continue our story of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb from his decision to resign as an American consul to his inauguration as an honorary consul-general for the Ottoman Empire!
We continue to wrestle with the intersection of politics and religion in Webb's career and the ways in which his legacy remains with us today, even if Webb himself faded from the American scene in the early twentieth century.
Ghaneabassiri, Kambiz. A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Howe, Justine. Suburban Islam. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Matzko, Paul. The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. HarperOne, 2005.
Webb, Mohammed Alexander Russell and Brent Singleton. Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb. Wildside Press, 2006.
Producer: Abby Mullen and Kris Stinson
Fact-checking: Brenna Reilley
Music: Andrew Cote
Research assistance: Matthew Sharp
Voice actors: Caitlin Gale and Paul Matzko
Don’t forget to check out Paul’s new book, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement, out now with Oxford University Press.
ABBY MULLEN: Welcome back to Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. This is part 2 of our episode about Alexander Russell Webb, so if you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, I’d recommend that you go back and do that first.
Before we get going, I also have a small favor to ask: We want to know what you think about this two-part format. So, let us know by emailing us at email@example.com, or reach out on our socials at Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Okay, so you remember: We’re working toward figuring out how Webb ends up at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.
So let’s go back to Manila, and pick up our story at the end of Webb’s consulship there. You remember that while he was in Manila, he was trying to learn more about Islam by corresponding with lots of Islamic scholars, mostly in India. So that’s where we’re going to start.
Webb wrote a lot to one Indian Muslim in particular: Badruddin Abdullah Kur. Through this relationship, Webb caught the attention of other Muslims in India. They thought Webb would be the perfect person for a new opportunity they wanted to try out in the United States.
And so, before Webb even resigned as consul, officially, he moved on to the next thing. Two Indian Muslims came to visit Webb in Manila in March of 1892. Their goal was to get Webb to form a new mission to introduce Islam to the United States, kind of like a successful mission that already existed in Liverpool.
Webb agreed enthusiastically to this idea, and thus the American Islamic Propaganda was born. Now, the word propaganda has a specific connotation today of sort of misleading information, but then it really just meant spreading information meant to persuade. So Webb’s goal with this organization was to go back to the United States and teach people about Islam, with the hope of persuading them to convert.
Webb didn’t actually resign from his consulship in Manila until June 1892. When he finally left the Philippines in September, he wasn’t going back to the United States, but to India via Singapore. Here’s Justine Howe and Brent Singleton again:
JUSTINE HOWE: Before he returns the United States, he goes to India to drum up support for his mission. So he achieved the backing of prominent Muslim, Indian Muslim merchants and scholars and decides that he really wants to propagate the message of Islam in the United States.
And this is in part in reaction to Christian missionary activities in the Middle East, and in South Asia, which were not particularly successful. But it did sort of inadvertently spark the idea that Muslims should be missionising back to Europe and North America. So this is, this is Webb, this is Webb, what he wants to do.
MULLEN: In fact, Webb openly made these connections when he sent fundraising letters to Indian Muslims from the United States in 1894:
The Christians spend millions of dollars every year to spread their false religion in the Orient; why cannot the Musselmans spend a few thousands to spread the true faith here?Alexander Russell Webb, Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, ed. Brent D Singleton (Maryland: Borgo Press/Wildside Press, 2007), 280.
MULLEN: Webb also already had a vision for how he was going to accomplish this mission.
We intend to establish a high class weekly newspaper, to be devoted to the real doctrine of Islam. We propose to establish a place for the issue of pamphlets and books, to establish a free library and a reading room for the masses, and a free lecture-room where lectures will be delivered twice a week. We propose to educate the English speaking people, and to overturn the false impressions that have been made by many writers. Also to establish in the various cities branch societies to propagate the Islamic faith.Webb, Yankee Muslim, 269.
JUSTINE HOWE: His main strategy is to promote the vision of Islam that he wants to see spread in the United States through publication. So he has a number of pamphlets, and he has a couple different periodicals, The Voice of Islam, The Muslim World, that he uses to try to reach a broader audience. So I think this is an important part of the story is the real impact that the print, right, the printed word is to have in this context, and then he also tries to open up reading rooms or salons to have people come and debate philosophical ideas related to Islam.
BRENT SINGLETON: So he basically started up these study circles, it was called the American Muslim Brotherhood, which were these little study circles that were, you know, was independent, completely independent of him, he would send them if they’d like, you know, different brochures and his newsletters and what have you. But they’d be set up in, you know, Washington, other, you know, boroughs of New York, most of it was was was arrayed along the east coast. So he did have some success having these these study groups formed. But they were more like the Theosophical Society – it would be people, you know, discussing Islam in a very, you know, you know, academic manner. It wasn’t really like you would if you went to a mosque, and were talking to, to Muslims, practicing Muslims, how they would talk about Islam.
MULLEN: Despite these somewhat passive strategies, Webb saw the United States as in dire need of missionizing, as he said in 1893:
One can scarcely open an American newspaper that he does not read of some revolting instance of man’s or woman’s immorality or disloyalty. For years the Christian church has fought crime and misery and immorality, but crime and misery and immorality still exists, yes, are even increased…I believe it can accomplish in America what Christianity has long attempted and so signally failed in doing.Alexander Russell Webb, “The World of Religious Thought: Preaching Islamism in America,” November 1893, Current Literature vol. Xiv., no. 3.
MULLEN: Webb’s plans for a mission got the attention of Muslims elsewhere in the world. And one of his final acts as consul was to actually write to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire–on consular stationery, as well — to make sure that he had the Ottomans’ attention. He was also trying to open the door for future funding. But this part of the story took a few years to unfold, so we’re going to come back to it.
Webb certainly had the attention of religious leaders in the United States from the moment he returned to the United States in February of 1893 as Mohammed Webb. In September of 1893, he got the biggest opportunity he’d ever have to spread the message of Islam. This was his big break. Lee Schmitt helps us understand what’s going on here at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois.
LEIGH ERIC SCHMIDT: Well, the World Parliament in September 1893 has a variety of agendas shaping it. I mean, one is pretty conventionally liberal Protestant, that we’re going to get all these representatives of different religions together here, and we know that liberal Protestantism will come out on top. It has that kind of missionary sensibility about it.
Now, there’s the other side of it is, is, you know, these things spin out of control, right, you think you’re going to just demonstrate the superiority of this liberal Protestant sensibility, and then you get these representatives who have a charisma of their own. You have someone like Webb who has, also has a certain charisma, I mean, that just a curiosity about him and so that you think you’re going to see clearly why Christianity is superior to, ultimately superior to Islam, and part of that very superiority is the tolerance these Protestants are displaying in hosting these representatives of other religions. But then, you know, Webb makes a solid case for himself, and he’s just kind of curious in appearance, he has this red fez, and there’s just something kind of alluring about him, and he holds his own. And he appeals to these American notions of fair play and kind of pluralistic open mindedness. And so the more controlling notion of what the parliament was going to do, gets subverted by these representatives of other faiths.
If you think, as a Protestant organizer of this, that this is going to have centripetal effects, it ends up having a lot of centrifugal effects, in that it just sort of sprays open lots of possibilities out there for people to explore.
MULLEN: Webb was selected to speak on behalf of Islam–he was the only practicing Muslim to actually get to speak at the Parliament. So he got to stand up in front of a big crowd, wearing that red fez. His talk wasn’t a “sermon,” per se – it was more like a lecture. He told the crowd about the practice of Islam and why he had converted.
I wish…I could impress upon your minds the feelings of millions of Musslumans in India, Turkey, and Egypt, who are looking to this Parliament of Religions with the deepest, the fondest hope. There is not a Mussluman on earth who does not believe that ultimately Islam will be the universal faith…I have not returned to the United States to make you all Musslumans in spite of yourselves…But I have faith in the American intellect, in the American intelligence, and in the American love of fair play, and will defy any intelligent man to understand Islam and not love it.As quoted in Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, A History of Islam in America (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 119.
MULLEN: As you can hear from this excerpt from his speech, Webb’s version of Islam sounded very rational – kind of like his theosophical roots. That theosophical background made his version of Islam potentially more appealing to his American audience.
HOWE: They were really attracted to this idea that Islam was a kind of common sense faith in that it emphasized moderation, rationality, thrift, frugality, like all these things that we associate with a kind of sober Victorian Protestant ethos. They thought that Islam was all of that and more.
Islam was a kind of common sense faith in that it emphasized moderation, rationality, thrift, frugality, like all these things that we associate with a kind of sober Victorian Protestant ethos. Click To Tweet
So, and which again, really strikes against most Americans perceptions of Islam today as this faith that is somehow inherently fanatical, or that is not open to other people of other religious faiths. And, you know, one of the things that Webb thought about Islam was that it was a faith and that you, that was not exclusivist. He thought it was incredibly open.
MULLEN: As we talked about in part 1, Webb’s version of Islam was also very modernist. On a global scale, this modernist type of Islam was a response to the colonization of many Muslim-majority countries by imperial European powers.
HOWE: One kind of response was to say that Muslims need to embrace modern values, modern principles, modern institutions, this was happening prior to colonialism in various ways, so this wasn’t completely new, but it was motivated by this sense that Muslims had lost something tremendous in the colonial, in colonization and that they needed to catch up. But modernism didn’t necessarily mean that Muslims needed to imitate European values.
Rather, the strain of modernism that Webb is embracing is that those values were already there in Islam, right, in Muslim texts, in the Quran, in various practices, and that if Muslims weren’t seeing those modernist values in their own societies, it was because they had been lost. And so they needed to then recover, it was a kind of act of recovery, not an act of creation, or making something new; it was that Muslims then needed to rediscover their own modern principles, which were there all along.
MULLEN: The Islam that Webb talked about at the World Parliament were shocking–to people in all places of the religious spectrum. His mission, and his particular way of practicing Islam, received a lot of criticism and even mockery. It’s worth noting here that though Webb was spreading the doctrines of Islam, but he had much less interest in most people who were already Muslim–he shared with his contemporaries a disdain for brown-skinned people the world over, especially non-intellectuals. But he even said a number of racist things about the intellectuals he had been rubbing shoulders with.
Now not all Muslims were particularly fond of Webb either.
HOWE: One way in which I would say Webb really diverged from a lot of Muslim thinking was his idea that Islam was not an exclusivist faith, or that it was entirely compatible with a whole range of other faiths. I think, in this he got a lot of pushback, because Muslim communities at the time, really, I think whether, and this was true even among a lot of modernist Muslims, wanted to preserve Islam as a distinct faith that was not, could not be subsumed under some sort of universalism. But his assertion of that universalism, I think, is part of his appeal to later Americans.
MULLEN: The target audience for Webb’s mission also had some reservations. Some listened and were intrigued; Some thought he was just crazy; and others, like the New York Times, thought his mission was going to succeed–and they weren’t quite sure whether he was a threat or not.
Muhammed Alexander Russell Webb is here. He is the American Mohammedan whom the wealthy Mussulmans of India and the East have sent to introduce the faith of Islam – the Religion of the Sword, as some have called it – among the ‘civilized’ Christians of the West…The leading men of Bombay made speeches and expressed the hope that Muhammed Webb would put the whole of America in the way of being proselyted to Islam. No Christian missionary ever started forth to go among the ‘heathen’ attended by such a concourse of his coreligionists and countrymen. Muhammed Webb’s Mission was undertaken in earnest, and is backed by unlimited wealth and zeal. The Mohammedans hope and expect to establish their religion in the United States. This is the first attempt and Muhammed Webb and those who are behind him in the movement are confident of its ultimate success.The ‘heathen’ have turned the tables. The Christians of this land have built churches in India and Arabia. Now the Mohammedans propose to build mosques in the United States.”“Muhammed Webb’s Mission,” New York Times, February 25, 1893.
HOWE: He actually arrives in the United States to a pretty positive reception, which I think speaks to the ways that again, these ideas around kind of exploring other faiths, seeking universal truths, promoting a religious orientation that is also intellectual and philosophical, that in the circles that he was able to operate in, which I think his status as consul could only have helped him I imagine in kind of his status. But he struggled, not always because of his religious beliefs, but because he had financial difficulties because he was sort of all over the place in what he was trying to do. He was very ambitious but didn’t necessarily follow through. So I think that that some of it is not necessarily around the rel- his religious message, per se, but also the kind of practical side of this and, you know, his Indian backers weren’t going to give him unlimited funds.
MULLEN: Webb had never been a particularly good manager, and cracks in his organization began to appear within just a few months of his greatest success. A few of his partners split off into their own organization, after they fought with Webb over how he was teaching Islam. And as his Indian sources of funding began to dry up, Webb needed new backers. So he started writing letters to wealthy Muslims all around the world.
The money seemed to start flowing in – but not everyone in Webb’s organization was happy about what he did with the money. The editor of one of his newspapers, The Voice of Islam, was especially angry at him for what she saw as embezzlement. In fact, she was so angry at him that she barricaded herself in the offices of The Voice of Islam and locked him out for days. This standoff made the news for several days in New York in July of 1894.
And then the question was, where was he going to get support within the United States for promoting Islam? Well, that wasn’t as clear.
Nafeeza M. T. Keep, the determined little American widow, continues to hold the fort against Mohammed Webb and the American Muslim Brotherhood at 30 East 23rd Street. Mrs. Webb sleeps on the premises and gets her meals from a basket lowered from an upper story window.
Several baskets of fruit were sent her this morning by reporters who have met her. She lowered the blockade sufficiently to permit an “Evening World” man and a pretty female representative of a morning paper, whom Nafeesa characterized as a jewel, to enter.
“Mohammed Webb claims I was sent here by the Roman Catholics to watch him,” Mrs. Keep said, “but that is as far off as all of his other statements. He is a Theosophist and under the alleged control of a Guru, but I don’t believe the Guru knows how he has been acting or he would sever the strings of control.”
Mrs. Keep is editor of the Voice of Islam and wants to be let alone by Mohammed Webb, who is head of the followers of the Mussulman belief here. She holds at the Post-Office inspectors are looking Webb up for using the mails to procure contributions to the work of spreading the belief here, and she does not want to be a party to any charge they may bring. For that reason, she has turned the key in the door with the high priest on the outside.
She is a determined little woman who went through an experience at the siege of Vicksburg which she thinks pales into insignificance in comparison with the present Siege of Twenty-third Street.“Mrs. Keep Holds the Fort,” The Evening World, July 14, 1894.
MULLEN: In the end, Webb busted the window in the office with his umbrella, and regained access to the offices. The American Muslim Brotherhood passed a vote of confidence in Webb, Mrs. Keep was charged with fraud herself, and order was, for the moment, restored.
What’s especially interesting about this story is that Mrs. Keep charged Webb with embezzlement of funds from one source in particular: money from the Sultan of Turkey. She threatened to write to the Sultan and tell him of Webb’s misdeeds (though it’s not super clear to me at least whether she did that or not).
It was true that the Ottomans had sent Webb a pretty substantial amount of money in March 1894. They had been following Webb’s activities in the United States for a while, and after the World Parliament of Religions, they had reached out.
There’s more than just religion at stake for this partnership between Webb and the Ottomans. Webb needed money, and the Ottomans needed a reputation boost in the United States. The Ottoman government knew that many Americans conflated Islam and Ottoman, so improving the image of Islam could help improve the image of the Ottomans as well.
Relations between the United States and the Ottoman Empire were complicated – and getting worse. So when the Ottomans gave Webb money for the first time in 1894, it was ostensibly for a religious mission, but there was certainly an undercurrent of political strategy.
The Ottoman consuls in the United States who actually gave the money to Webb knew that this was a political move, because they tried to keep their donations to the Webb mission a secret, or at least keep them from becoming widely known, because they didn’t want it to seem like they were trying to manipulate the political situation- which, of course, they were trying to do.
A one-time gift from the Empire in March 1894 turned into a monthly payout in 1896 through the end of the mission. By that point, the American Islamic Propaganda mission was falling apart.
Webb used the money from the Ottomans to keep the newspaper going a little while longer, until 1897. He combined the two papers he was running into one paper with both names: The Muslim World and the Voice of Islam. Even after the disintegration of the mission, Webb kept on good terms with the Ottoman consuls. In a somewhat ironic twist, the Ottoman Empire awarded Webb an honorary consulship as Consul General in New York in gratitude for his service to Islam in general, but the Ottomans in particular. And here again politics and religion intermingle.
SINGLETON: The thing that got him that honorary consulship was his defense of the Sultan across time. It wasn’t just one, one instance, but he wrote a number of newspaper articles, not just in his own paper, which he did, at some points some of his newspapers that he’s published seem dedicated to essentially defending the Sultan at the time he was coming under increasing attack for his treatment of Christians in, within the Ottoman Empire, specifically the Armenians, but also the Greeks and, and some other incidents that occurred during that time period, but it was mostly his defense of the Sultan, in regard to the Armenian situation, which is what they called it, “the Armenian situation”
MULLEN: Despite the backing of the Ottoman Sultan, the mission failed and Webb’s time in the national spotlight was over. He moved to New Jersey and got involved once again in local politics, and he did continue to speak locally about both Islam and theosophy.
So, why should we care about Webb now? Well, in part it’s because of how he thought about Islam, and taught about it in a way that resonates with a lot of American Muslims today.
HOWE: Webb understood Islam to be a very misrepresented religion, and he was not the only one, right, so many Muslims during the 19th century are writing this, right, that there are these distortions of Islam that are making people think that it is violent, or making people think that it is some sort of backward faith.
MULLEN: He told a Muslim audience in Madras in 1892,
There is no religious system known to humanity that is, and has been for centuries, so thoroughly misrepresented and misunderstood, by so-called Christians, as that taught by our Prophet. The prejudice against it is so strong among the English-speaking people of the globe, that even the suggestion that it may be true and, at least, worthy of a careful, unprejudiced investigation is usually received with a contemptuous smile, as if such a thing was too palpably absurd to be considered seriously. … The early fathers of the Christian Church lied most vigorously and persistently about our Prophet and his teachings, as well as about the Muslim Brotherhood, in the days when it was the crowning glory of the world.Webb, Yankee Muslim, 245-46.
HOWE: Webb had the view that Muslims needed to be out there explaining their faith to non-Muslims, like that was part of the mission. It didn’t matter if you converted people and in fact, right, so he wanted to convert people. But I think that his work was, he also recognized that that maybe wasn’t feasible.
MULLEN: Webb wasn’t particularly successful at actually drawing people into his American version of Islam. He got a lot of attention for a short while, but he didn’t have much to show for it at the end of his life. Even his wife unconverted from Islam, and when he died, she buried him in a Unitarian cemetery with a Unitarian burial service. But Webb’s work resurfaced in the later twentieth century when American Muslims had to once again defend their faith against accusations of violence and backwardness. For some Muslims today, like the Mohammed Webb Foundation in Chicago, educating people about Islam is just as important a goal as converting them.
HOWE: The difference is that in the contemporary, you know, twenty-first century United States, no Muslim is going around proselytizing openly to non-Muslims, that’s a really good way to get the attention of law enforcement. So they’re simply not doing it, not out in the open, like Webb was.
But on the flip side, what they’re doing is really trying to be educated, both to educate themselves in sort of how to represent Islam in a way that Americans aren’t scared by it, or in a way that is affirming, in a way that aligns their personal experience of Islam, which is that it’s a faith of immense spirituality, of community, of connection to God, right, they want to stress that to other Americans. The vast majority of Muslim Americans live in communities that are mostly non-Muslim, it’s just their neighbors and their friends and the schools their kids go to. And so they’re very much embedded, just like Webb was in the kind of everyday life as an American and they want others to understand that their faith is not threatening.
Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. You can find all our show notes, including bios of our guests, at consolationprize.rrchnm.org.
This episode was produced by Abby Mullen and me, Kris Stinson. Fact checking is by Brenna Reilley. Our music is by Andrew Cote.
Special thanks to our guests, Brent Singleton, Leigh Eric Schmidt, and Justine Howe, and we want to shout-out Matthew Sharp as well, whose dissertation contributed materially to our research.
Our voice actors this episode are Caitlin Gale and Paul Matzko–and don’t forget to check out Paul’s new book, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement, out now with Oxford University Press.
Brent Singleton is a faculty member and Coordinator for Reference Services in the John M. Pfau Library at California State University, San Bernardino. He is the editor of the book Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb (Borgo, 2007) as well as the author of many journal articles and chapters relating to Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, Abdullah Quilliam and the Liverpool Moslem Institute, West African Islam, and Muslim slaves in the Americas.
Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis where he is on the faculty of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. His previous books have ranged widely across American religious and cultural history, including Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman, and Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. His latest book, The Church of St. Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism, is due out next year from Princeton University Press.
Justine Howe is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Program of Women’s and Gender Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. She specializes in contemporary Islam with an ethnographic focus on Muslim communities in the United States. Professor Howe is the author of Suburban Islam (Oxford 2018), which explores the role of third spaces in shaping Muslim American community and identity after 9/11. The book’s primary case study is the Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb Foundation, one such third space community in Chicago. She is also the editor of the Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender (2020). Professor Howe’s work has received numerous grants and fellowships, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Association of University Women, among others.