Friday, December 2, 2016

One Man's Quest for Spiritual Fulfillment and the Rise of Islam in America

Editors Note: I first wrote about Alexander Russell Webb and his work to bring Islam to the United States back in 2009 for the Register Star and later expanded on the subject in 2012 for Columbia County History and Heritage magazine. The following is adapted from the latter. I felt in the current climate of Islamophobia it was worth highlighting the nation's historical view of that religion and of the man who helped spread its message at the turn of the century. 

Alexander Russell Webb felt the sun on his face and listened to the birds chirping, glad to be out of Sunday school. Even then, just a young boy, he felt closer to God out of doors than in the stuffy confines of the church.

This restlessness of both body and spirit would lead Webb from Hudson, New York, where he was born in 1846, to Chicago, the frontier towns of Missouri, and later to more exotic locales. It would also take him on a spiritual journey from his staid Presbyterian upbringing to a total embrace of Islam, which he would help spread across America. And although he may not have known it, the city of his birth, by dint of time and place, may have planted the seeds that led him to his faith.

As a youth he was not inclined toward religion and by his twenties had completely given up on the church and was a self-proclaimed “materialist” whose only compass was the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Hudson, N.Y. about the time Webb was born there. 

His break with the church apparently came after the loss of his first wife and destruction of his jewelry business in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Webb had moved to the city after graduating from Claverack College. Webb, like so many other young men of his generation, had left the East and headed to the wild and bustling cities of the Midwest to seek his fortune. 

After the fire he moved to New York City before again returning to Chicago where he eventually made enough money to buy a small newspaper, the Unionville Republican, located in Unionville, Mo. Webb’s journalistic interests were likely due to his father’s influence. Alexander Nelson Webb had been the editor of the Hudson Daily Star for years. 

The younger Webb would eventually find himself drawn to a spiritual life and sought this out by reading such writers and philosophers as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Aldous Huxley. Webb found their theories, explanations and conclusions on spirituality wanting. His studies of Buddhism, Theosophy and Christianity likewise left him feeling unfulfilled.

While working as the editor of the Missouri Republican in St. Louis, Webb began corresponding with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of a Muslim community in India. There is some dispute on when exactly Webb converted, but by the late 1880s when Webb was consul general to Manilla, in the Philippines, he was publicly calling himself a Muslim and corresponding with a number of Islamic scholars in India.

President Grover Cleveland appointed Webb to the position as consul in 1887 during Cleveland’s first administration. Webb left the job five years later to travel in India in order to further study Islam. His second wife, Ella, and their three children went with him. 

Webb would later say of his conversion that it “was not the result of misguided sentiment, blind credulity, or sudden emotional impulse, but it was born of earnest, honest, persistent, unprejudiced study and investigation and an intense desire to know the truth.” He believed that Islam was “the best and only system adapted to the spiritual needs of the humanity.”

Webb never publicly addressed, what, if any, influence his hometown played in his quest for spiritual fulfillment, but the fact remains that Columbia County and its environs, especially Western New York, was a hotbed of religious fervor when he was growing up. Umar F. Abd-Allah in his 2006 book, “A Muslim in Victorian America,” believes that this era which saw an upswing of Christian off-shoots come to the fore may have played a part in Webb’s later embracing of the Muslim faith. 

“There is no question that the religious ambiance of the times helped form the attitudes and expectations that guided Webb through life,” he wrote.

In Columbia County, besides Roman Catholics and a number of protestant denominations, there were also the Shakers and Quakers, while in Western New York, during this period known as “the Second Great Awakening” there were a slew of new religious movements that sprang up. Known as the “Burned-Over District” so often had it been swept by religious fervor, the area was home to the Mormons, tent revivals, the Oneida Community — which practiced a form of free love — the Millerites, who believed the end of the world was nigh (the original 1843 date was incorrect and the end was pushed back a few times), and the followers of Jemima Wilkinson who believed she was the reincarnation of Christ in female form, to name a few of the spiritual and religious groups that came from this well-spring.

Webb’s spiritual rebirth was completed in India and he soon longed to return to America to proselytize. With the backing of a group of influential Muslim leaders in India, Webb set off from Bombay in December 1892 and was soon back in New York. 

In Manhattan he established a weekly journal “to be dedicated to an exposition of Islam,” according to The New York Times. He also had plans for founding a publishing company.

Back in the U.S., Webb was shocked by the lack of knowledge Americans had of Islam. 

“Since my return…I have been greatly surprised, not only at the general ignorance prevalent among so-called learned people regarding the life, character and teachings of the  [Muhammad],” he wrote, “but also at the self-confident readiness and facility with which some of these same people express their opinions of Mohammed and the Islamic system.”

Three months after he arrived in New York City the first copy of his “Moslem World” came out and although the journal would later fold, Webb would continue to promote Islam in America by writing, publishing and lecturing on his faith until his death in Rutherford, N.J. on Oct. 1, 1916.

Webb’s long quest for spiritual fulfillment spanned many years and took him to distant lands. But it was likely his early life in Hudson during a flowering of religious expression that provided him with the openness of spirit that helped lead him to what he had so fervently desired. 

Sources and Notes

Abd-Allah, Umar F. A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Pgs. 27-28.
Islam - Our Choice (Karachi:Begum Aisha Bawani Wakf, 1970).
Webb, Alexander R. Islam in America (New York, 1893).
Some information was taken from the transcript of a speech given by Nadirah Florence Ives Osman at a meeting of Muslims held in Steinway Hall, New York, in November 1943
There seems to be some disagreement on when exactly Webb became a Muslim. A letter from 1886 seems to indicate he was already following the tenants of the religion, but other sources have Webb self-declaring his faith publicly around 1889.
For more on Western New York's religious past see John H. Martin’s wonderful “Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited” from the Fall 2005 edition of The Crooked Lake Review.