Q&A: Professor researches the many paths Islam took to Tennessee and Chattanooga

Staff Photo / A.J. Marshall uses building blocks to replicate mosque construction during the America to Zanzibar event day at the Creative Discovery Museum in 2018 in Chattanooga. The exhibit highlighted African Muslim culture and history in a way that was accessible to children.

Jaclyn Michael grew up in Southern Illinois.

"In terms of diversity, there were like, Lutherans there," she said.

Off in college, she studied Arabic — and then came 9/11. She recalls feeling that a billion-plus people were being held responsible for the actions of a small few, and she began to study Islam.

She received her doctorate researching pop cultural representations of Indian Muslims. Now a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she's working to learn about the history of Muslims in the South. In a video call Tuesday, she said there's been little scholarship on the topic, which is widely misunderstood.

Q: You've written that many enslaved people brought over from Africa had Muslim backgrounds. What's the story there?

A: The scholarship tends to estimate that maybe 10% of the total slaves from Africa were Muslim, or identified as Muslim. The information for those kinds of statistics is people's names, people's family habits that we know about from their diaries or things they left. Those areas of West Africa that were involved in the transatlantic slave trade — they were at the time and still are today predominantly Sufi Muslim communities.

In 1933, as part of the New Deal, the Georgia Writers Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration, interviewed people who were living on the sea islands off of the coast of Georgia. Previously enslaved Muslims had made an island their home. We have stories of Muslim women, and people who didn't get as famous, yet were still part of that larger picture of early American Muslim history.

It's easy to think that, probably, African Muslims helped build the White House, literally. We know that African Muslims helped to build this country and that they were here in the United States before the U.S. was declared its own country.

Q: So there's African-American Muslims — that's one historic community here — as well as relatively recent immigrants. Obviously, among these immigrant communities, there's probably a lot of finer distinctions to be made.

A: There's the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities. They tend to congregate together. There's also a large Bosnian Muslim community in Chattanooga. There's a white convert community, too.

I was shocked to learn a couple of years ago that there's evidence in 1917 of Indian Muslims in not only Chattanooga, but other areas of the South, who registered for the draft.

If we're wondering about "when were the earliest Muslims in Tennessee or Chattanooga," that's hard to determine. Probably some of them were enslaved Africans. But nevertheless, we have draft cards that were signed by Muslims from India who had a peddling network.

Q: Pack peddling?

A: Yeah. This was the turn of the century. Some of those people stayed as they were migrating from New Jersey to New Orleans during the winter. There's a book, "Bengali Harlem." It's about the South Asian American history. It's by a researcher named Vivek Bald, and he documents this network of folks from Northern India that were marginalized from economic work because of British colonial policies. They started migrating to the United States to sell Indian goods like carpets, clothing, spices probably as well.

They started out in the summers on the Jersey Shore, but then it got cold. During the winters, they would migrate down to New Orleans. At that time — this is Vivek Bald's argument — New Orleans was trying to rehabilitate its image as a slave trading port, to more of a port of entertainments and exotica, that kind of thing.

So they opened up shops in New Orleans. And so they were coming through you know, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham.

Q: What comes next?

A: In 1917, and really 1924, the United States had been so overwhelmed by immigration from Europe, but also Asia, that they basically closed off all immigration, except to people who were from particular European identity categories.

That immigration regime was basically in place until the '40s and the '50s — 1965 was really the game-changer in immigration. You had immigration from major areas of the world that had major Muslim populations, the Middle East, South Asia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia.

The next historical marker, especially for Tennessee, would be the 1990s, when the United States was involved with the first Gulf War. A lot of current Kurdish communities were displaced in the Middle East, and the Clinton administration's policies were to repatriate those folks in the United States. Nashville became a place where a lot of those Kurdish refugees came to resettle.

Kurdish is an ethnicity. It's not a religious identity, but a lot of Kurds are Muslim. A lot of them are Christian, too. Nashville has the largest population of Kurdish folks outside of the Middle East.

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A lot of Muslims and Hindus have found the South to be really hospitable. Southerners generally are. So it's not surprising to see large populations of them, especially in areas where there are universities. UTC, for example: Some aspects of the engineering department are almost all Muslim instructors, from areas of Sudan and Somalia. They come here with their families, and then often students that they may know of come. That builds a whole community around things that are really prominent in Muslim spaces, like engineering.

Q: What is it about the prevailing religious cultures in the South that some Muslim immigrants might be able to relate to?

A: Anywhere in Asia, or especially the Middle East, any area of the world where these folks might be immigrating from, they've had contact with established Christian communities for a long time. The idea of having Christian neighbors — that's something that would be pretty common. Many, but not all, Asian Muslims have conservative-leaning dispositions, just in terms of how they practice their religion. If you have a more conservative disposition, you may feel more at home in an area where others do as well.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at [email protected] or 423-757-6431.