James Madison, like Alexander Hamilton, is one of those founding fathers who is overlooked by more popular revolutionary figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Yet Madison deserves much of the intellectual credit behind the vision of the United States as a country open to people of all backgrounds. He is also an important figure because he served as an exemplary friend for one of America’s first converts to Islam.
In looking more closely at Madison’s personal life, we find an interesting relationship with George Bethune English. English was an American diplomat, Harvard alum, soldier, and one of the first American converts to Islam. Born and raised in Cambridge (Boston), English encountered doubts about his Christian upbringing and published “The Grounds of Christianity Examined”, which was motivated by his curiosity in the validity of the New Testament.
In 1815, Madison appointed English to the United States’ Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. While he sailed the Mediterranean Sea, English had the opportunity to stop in Egypt, where he studied Islam among Egyptian Muslims. After a brief stint of contemplation, English converted to Islam and changed his name to Mohammad Afendi. Later in his life English learned Arabic, the Quran and the sharia. It is also reported that he became so fluent in Turkish that the Ottoman Ambassador to London could not figure out if English was a native of the Ottoman Empire or not.
After his stint in Egypt and elsewhere, English returned to the United States, where President John Adams appointed him to the Diplomatic Corps of the United States in the Levant. In Istanbul, English delivered a personal message from Adams to the sultan saying that Muslim Americans would be granted the same rights as Christian Americans. English was also able to finalize a trade agreement between the United States and the Ottoman Empire in 1822.
Madison’s friendship with English suggests that Madison saw no problem entering into a friendship with someone who practiced Islam. It also appears that Madison had no quarrel with appointing a Muslim American to one of the highest offices in the United States. Madison’s tolerance and appreciation for religious freedom is at the core of American identity. So too isn’t English’s brilliant life story.
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