12 Ağustos 2020 Çarşamba

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb and His Religious Journey


Dr. Celal Emanet

Alexander Russell Webb, the earliest prominent Anglo-American convert to Islam, was an American journalist, newspaper owner, and for a while, a Consul-General of the USA in Manila, Philippines who embraced Islam in 1887 and started an Islamic missionary movement in the USA around 1890s.

Alexander Russell Webb was born in Hudson, New York on November 9, 1846. His father, Alexander Nelson Webb, was a leading journalist at the time. Webb received his early education at the public school of his hometown in Glendale, Massachusetts, and completed his higher education at the Claverack College near Hudson. He made considerable progress in his college studies, and after finishing his education, followed in the wake of his worthy father and began life as a journalist, purchasing and publishing a weekly paper at Unionville, Missouri.

In late 19th century America, journalism was beginning to take off as an effective and influential medium for influencing the public. One of the men who helped spur this journalistic wave was Alexander Russell Webb. His great abilities and mental capacity made him very successful in his profession. His fame as a journalist spread far and wide. He was offered the city editorship of the St. Joseph (Missouri) Daily Gazette. He was then promoted to be the associate editor of St. Louis (Missouri) Morning Journal. He was afterwards made one of the editors of the Missouri Republican, at St. Louis. This paper is the second oldest and one of the largest daily newspapers in the United States. In September, 1887, he was appointed by President Cleveland as Consular Representative of the United States, at Manila, Philippine Islands.

Webb’s boyhood and youth were tinctured with the old orthodox Presbyterian training. By the time he had reached manhood, he had learned to look upon the prevailing forms of religion as irksome, erroneous and absurd; devoid of everything calculated to commend them to a thoughtful, intelligent, matter-of-fact person as means of salvation-granting that salvation was possible-whose principal virtue was their effectiveness in securing for their followers social standing and respectability.[1] As soon as Webb reached maturity he began the study of the various religions, and of the mysteries of life and death. The possession of some knowledge created a thirst for more, but he found nothing in orthodox Christianity that could win him over; and in later years he encountered convincing evidence of its grave errors and insufficiency as a means of securing salvation or of elevating and purifying the human character.[2]

In 1872, Webb gave up Christianity, as he found the religion not in harmony with reason and justice. He was devoted to the world and its pleasures, and managed to get no small degree of physical comfort out of it. For some years, he had no religion at all, but this state of mind could not last long. After he had fully satisfied himself of the immortality of the soul, and that the conditions of the life beyond the grave were regulated by the thoughts, deeds and acts of the earth life; that man was, in a sense, his own savior and redeemer, and that the intercession of anyone between him and his God could be of no benefit to him.[3] Webb began to compare the various religions, to ascertain which was the best and most efficacious as a means of securing happiness in the hereafter. To do this, it was necessary to apply each system, not only the tests of reason, but certain truths which he had learned during his long course of study and experiment outside the lines of Orthodoxy, and in fields which priest and preacher usually avoid.

Unconvinced about his Christian religion, and being a well-read journalist, he began to read extensively about other religions. A thought entered his mind that he should try to study the Oriental religions. He had access to a most excellent library of about 13,000 volumes. He had then at his disposal time to spend from four to seven hours a day in this new field lie began with Buddhism. He then encountered Theosophy, a spiritual movement in the 19th century devoted to the universal brotherhood of humanity and the underlying universal message of all world religions. Webb was ultimately attracted to Islam in part because of the same message of brotherhood and equality among all mankind. He converted to Islam after studying the creed and finding its simplicity and lack of self-contradiction very compelling, but he never cut his ties with the Theosophists.[4] He remained active in the Theosophical Society even after his conversion to Islam, and never saw a contradiction between the Theosophical creed and Islam. At the time when Webb embraced Islam, he had never seen a Muslim.

He became satisfied that Islam was the only true religion: “Islam,” to use his own words, “is founded upon that eternal truth which has been handed down to man from age to age by the chosen Prophets of God, from Moses to Mohammed. Because it is that eternal truth. Because it is the only system that will satisfy the longings of the soul for a higher existence. Because it is the only system known to man which is strictly in harmony with reason and science. Because it is free from degrading superstitions, and appeals directly to human rationality and intelligence. Because it makes every man individually responsible for every act he commits and every thought he thinks, and does not encourage him to sin by teaching him a vicarious atonement. Because it is elevating and refining in its tendencies, and develops the higher, nobler elements of humanity when it is faithfully, wisely and intelligently followed.”[5]

Alexander R. Webb is not a dry rationalistic Muslim. His heart is full of love for God and His Prophet. God has been pleased to open his heart to the secret philosophy of Islam. He knows the spirit of Islam. To him has been opened the sacred treasure of our religion—the treasure which was possessed by Imam Al-Ghazzali and Mawlana Rumi. One significant influence on Webb was Theosophy, and it was through this influence he went searching for a new religion. He was appointed Consular Representative to the Philippines at the U.S. office at Manila and while in the Philippines in 1888, he converted to Sunni Islam. From that time forward, he became an outspoken proponent for the tradition, establishing the American Muslim Propagation Movement in New York and an English based newspaper called Moslem World.

Webb’s writings about Islam challenged the stereotypical views of Muslims that were so much a part of American popular culture at the time. His defense of Islam as a rational, scientific, and progressive religion reflected the influence of his Asian mentors, who had fashioned a modern interpretation of Islam meant to combat the claims of Christian missionaries in British India and other colonized lands. Mohammed Webb’s Islam in America thus rejected images of Islam as the religion of the sword, defended the status of women in Islam, and sought to clarify the significance of polygamy to the average Muslim. In fact, Webb presents Islam as perfectly compatible, not only with the ethical principles that he views as common to all Abrahamic religions, but also with Victorian norms of propriety and cleanliness as well. Webb’s introduction to “Orthodox Islam,” as he called it, features an explanation of the five pillars of practice, including the profession of faith, prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage, including a summary of Muslim beliefs in God, angels, revelation, the prophets, the Day of Judgment, and God’s Omni-science. But Webb also indicates that these “exoteric” aspects of Islam are only part of the religion, suggesting that for him, the “esoteric” or philosophic aspects of Islam are equally important.

Webb’s religious journey represents an important counter-establishment response to the social changes and increased religious diversity of his time.[6] He wanted, through his mission, to educate intelligent, middle-class, white Americans about Islam, and dispel prejudices against this religion. He promoted Islam as a religion that expressed some of America’s most deeply held values, especially those of rationality, human equality, broadmindedness, and an acceptance of religious diversity.[7] Webb opens his speech pointing out the bias against Islam present in the West, especially America. He states, “There are several reasons why Islam and the character of its followers are so little understood in Europe and America, and one of these is that when a man adopts, or says he adopts, Islam, he becomes known as a Mussulman [i.e. Muslim] and his nationality becomes merged in his religion.” Webb continues, “If a Mohammedan, Turk, Egyptian, Syrian or African commits a crime the newspaper reports do not tell us that it was committed by a Turk, an Egyptian, a Syrian or an African, but by a Mohammedan. If an Irishman, an Italian, a Spaniard or a German commits a crime in the United States, we do not say that it was committed by a Catholic, a Methodist or a Baptist, nor even a Christian; we designate the man by his nationality. … But, just as soon as a membership of the East is arrested for a crime or misdemeanor, he is registered as a representative of the religion his parents followed or he adopted.”[8]

This brief summary of the life of a truly extraordinary man is full of lessons for today’s American Muslim community. Alexander Webb was an enthusiastic Muslim and made his best and sincere efforts to promote Islam in his homeland. When his best efforts failed, he could return to “ordinary life”, but he remained an active, useful, and popular member of his community until the end of his life. He never saw a contradiction between his deeply Victorian American identity and his religion, and he constantly sought ways to show Americans how Islam could beautify and perfect American society. His personality was friendly and optimistic. He used all his assets in the service of his religion and his country simultaneously. When he could not achieve what he had aimed to in his mission, he simply became an amiable, exemplary member of his community, a man his neighbors were happy to have around. He endeavored to correct the prevailing misperceptions of Islam in the United States during period in which American intolerance towards Islam was at peak levels due to anti-Islamic propaganda published by Christian missionaries. The predominantly Orientalist conviction was that the intellectual and moral caliber of the Christian West far surpassed that of Islamic East. The importance of such small things in the hearts and minds of our neighbors and acquaintances, as we make efforts to be engaged in dawah in our communities, cannot be overestimated.





[1] Alexander Russell Webb, “Two Remarkable Phenomena,” The New Californian, vol. I, no. 8, January 1892, p. 249.

[2] Howard MacQueary, (Saginaw, Michigan), “American Mohammedanism”, The Unitarian (A Monthly Magazine of Liberal Christianity), Ed. J.T. Sunderland, vol. VIII, no. 3, Boston, March 1893, p. 106.

[3] Alexander Russell Webb, Islam in America: A Brief Statement of Mohammedanism and an Outline of the American Islamic Propaganda, New York: Oriental Publishing Co., 1893, p. 14.

[4] The Theosophists believed that the core truths of all religions were the same. Webb most likely saw the parallel between this and the Islamic belief that all prophets were sent with the same message, but that many messages became distorted over long periods of time. Webb was comfortable writing for Theosophical publications and mentioning the commonalities between Islam and other religions, and encouraging others to moral behavior regardless of their religious convictions. The Theosophists likewise took great and benevolent interest in Webb’s newfound faith and work, and were supportive of his publications.

[5] Alexander Russell Webb, The Three Lectures, Madras: Lawrence Asylum Press, 1892, pp. 9-10.

[6] Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, A History of Islam in America, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 115.

[7] Edward E. Curtis IV, Muslims in America: A Short History, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 28.

[8] Houghton, Walter Raleigh (Ed.), Neely’s History of the Parliament of Religions and Religious Congress at the World’s Columbian Exposition: Compiled from Original Manuscripts and Stenographic Reports, Vol. 2. in one, Chicago: Frank Tennyson Neely, 1893, p. 544.

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