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NYC Masonic Lodge of U.S. founding fathers welcomed Muslims as “friends and brothers”

Holland Lodge No. 8 on religious freedom

Holland Lodge No. 8 on religious freedom

Author and award-winning speaker Precious Rasheeda Muhammad wrote recently a very interesting piece for Patheos on her latest “Muslim detective” escapade in New York City.

Muhammad begins her article by sharing the 1793 speech on the “universality of masonry” by Dewitt Clinton, who included Muslims among those considered “friends and brothers” (in the same speech he also warned against “the madness of religious hatred.”) The speech was delivered at New York City’s Holland Lodge No. 8, one of the country’s foremost Masonic Lodges.

Muhammad suggests that it is likely that Dewitt gained some of his brotherly spirit, for harmony across religious divisions, from working with his uncle, founding father George Clinton, for whom he served as a personal secretary from 1790-1795.

George Clinton, as Muhammad notes, was surrounded by strong proponents of religious freedom, among them George Washington, who he had traveled with in 1790 on a campaign to gain support for ratification of the Bill of Rights. It was during this campaign when President Washington gave his famous “To Bigotry No Sanction” speech to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island.

The important link here is that George Clinton and George Washington were both members of the Holland Lodge, wherein Dewitt had made clear that Muslims were welcomed as “friends and brothers.” Muhammad also notes that the Qur’an is among the religious scriptures welcome in Masonic assemblies.

I also want to bring attention to George Washington’s “Masonic character” speech, which is also highlighted by Muhammad. Washington stated:

It must be made obvious to a mind of the least reflection, that were Masonry to prescribe particular tenets and opinions in religion for her votaries, that it would be utterly incompatible with the universality of the Order. For this, and the reasons before mentioned, she has wisely avoided an explicit patronage of any theological creed.

To which Muhammad responds:

The commitment to unity across religious divisions articulated inside the walls of the Holland Lodge was not unlike the commitment to religious freedom outside the walls, clearly defined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Right’s adopted just two years earlier… Like the Masons, America too had “wisely avoided an explicit patronage of any theological creed” in order to preserve its union and universality.


George Washington’s “Abrahamic tradition” letter to the Jews

George Washington's letter to Jews in Rhode Island

George Washington‘s letter to Jews in Rhode Island

George Washington, first president of the United States, reached out to the small Jewish community in Rhode Island in 1790. The letter was addressed to Moses Seixas and the Hebrew Congregation at Newport. The letter is the origin of Washington’s famous “to bigotry no sanction” quote.

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Washington’s letter is important in light of current relations between non-Muslims and Muslims in the United States. Although Washington was not writing specifically to Muslims in his letter, he was speaking to a broader connection between Christianity and Judaism in the Abrahamic tradition, which Islam is also part of. In addition, Washington made it clear that American identity is based on civil liberties and citizenship and not ethnic or religious components.

Benjamin Franklin on interfaith engagement


In 1739, Benjamin Franklin became involved with one of the earliest documented places intended for interfaith use in America. From its inception, it was built with the idea of being inclusive of all—including Muslims. In his writings, Franklin made clear the intent: 

Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

In other words, the “preaching-house” was to be a meeting place open to people of all faiths, including a
representative from the religious hierarchy of the “Muslim world,” even so far as allowing him to “preach” Islam in America.


President Obama comments on the Jefferson iftar

President Obama addressing Jefferson iftar

President Obama addressing Jefferson iftar

Ramadan,” said President Obama at a White House iftar dinner in 2010 (full transcript), “is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America. The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan — making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.”

The dinner to which the president referred took place on December 9, 1805, and Jefferson’s guest was Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, an envoy from the bey (chieftain) of Tunis who spent six months in Washington. The context of Mellimelli’s visit to the United States was a tense dispute over piracy on American merchant vessels by the Barbary states and the capture of Tunisian vessels trying to run an American blockade of Tripoli.

Mellimelli arrived during Ramadan, and Jefferson, when he invited the envoy to the president’s house, changed the meal time from the usual hour of 3:30 p.m. to “precisely at sunset” in deference to the man’s religious obligation.

Jefferson’s knowledge of Islam likely came from his legal studies of natural law. In 1765, Jefferson purchased a two-volume English translation of the Quran for his personal library, a collection that became, in 1815, the basis of the modern Library of Congress.


A Muslim country was the first to sign a treaty with the United States of America

Sultan Abdallah of Morocco and George Washington

Sultan Abdallah of Morocco and George Washington

According to an article by Fred Barnes over at The Weekly Standard:

Before the United States had a president or a constitution, it had the Treaty of Marrakech with Morocco. That diplomatic pact has the distinction of being the longest standing treaty between America and another country. Tomorrow, July 18, marks the 225th anniversary of its ratification.

In an article on George Washington and Muslims for the Huffington Post Religion, Craig Considine sheds light on the origins of the friendship between the Moroccan and American governments:

In late 1777, Washington’s army suffered defeat after defeat against the British and were forced to surrender the major city of Philadelphia to the enemy. Washington’s worst day during the Revolutionary War came as his men were encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on December 19 of that year. Washington stressed in a letter to his friend George Clinton of “the dreadful situation … for want of provisions, and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity.” Just as his army reached its most desperate state, Washington learned of the news of a Muslim man named Sultain Sidi Muhammad ben Abdallah of Morocco, who showed interest in helping the Americans in their fight against the British Empire.

Upon learning of Washington’s conflict, Abdallah assisted Washington by listing the newly independent United States of America as a country whose trading ships would be welcomed in the ports of Morocco, a move which offered the potential for supplies to be shipped to Washington’s army. In 1778, shortly after his initial effort to help Washington, Abdallah appointed Etienne d’Audibert Caille, a French merchant, to serve as an ambassador to unrepresented countries such as the United States of America. These early diplomatic relations between the United States of America and Morocco culminated in the ratification of the Treaty of Marrakech in 1786, which remains to this day the longest standing foreign relations treaty in American history.

You can continue reading more about the Treaty of Marrakach here

The Muslim friend of James Madison

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.  

When Benjamin Franklin criticized Christian frontiersmen and praised Muhammad and Muslims

Frankie Martin wrote an important piece for the Huffington Post Religion where he reminds us of the value of tolerance in a country (the US) forged by men who cherished the value of freedom of worship:

“For the Founding Fathers, religious freedom was at the very core of being American. As America’s first president George Washington wrote, America was open to receive “the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions”, including Christians, Jews and Muslims. However, throughout its history America has sometimes failed to live up to this ideal, most recently after the 9/11 attacks.”

I have chosen to write about Martin’s article for its particularly interesting reference to a fascinating story about Benjamin Franklin:

In December 1763, a group of 50 Pennsylvania frontiersmen, seeking to prevent Native American attacks on their homes and frustrated that the government had not taken action against hostile tribes, tortured, mutilated and murdered a group of peaceful Christian Native Americans in the most horrific fashion.

The supposedly Christian frontiersmen, wrote an outraged Franklin, were more barbaric than those to which they claimed superiority.

Franklin went on to assert that Native Americans would have been safer had they been living in a Muslim country, as Islam shows even prisoners more humanity than the frontiersmen had shown free men. Franklin praised the compassion of the Prophet Muhammad, writing that the Prophet had applauded the humaneness of soldiers who treated their captives well. Franklin also spoke of his admiration for the 12th century sultan Saladin as a ruler who demonstrated both justice and compassion.

As Martin notes, the outlook of the Founding Fathers could not be more significant considering the current American environment where feelings against Muslims are precarious.

Martin ends his article in the egalitarian spirit of the founding fathers: “… both Muslims and non-Muslims can benefit by considering both the American ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Islamic ideals for which they had such admiration.”

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