Mohammed (Alexander Russell) Webb was a New Englander who had been a diplomat in Indonesia, where he embraced Islam. His remarks speak to what he felt to be the prejudice of many Americans toward the Islamic faith.
I wish I could express to you the gratification I feel at being able to appear before you today, and that I could impress upon your minds the feelings of millions of Mussulmans in India, Turkey, and Egypt, who are looking to this Parliament of Religions with the deepest, the fondest hope. There is not a Mussulman on earth who does not believe that ultimately Islam will be the universal faith. It may surprise you to know that five times a day, regularly, year in and year out, from every Mussulman’s heart goes forth the sentiment we have just sung–“Nearer my God to Thee.”
…With the gentlemen who first spoke, I am an American of the Americans. I carried with me for years the same errors that thousands of Americans carry with them today. Those errors have grown into history, false history has influenced your opinion of Islam. It influenced my opinion of Islam and when I began, ten years ago, to study the Oriental religions, I threw Islam aside as altogether too corrupt for consideration.
But when I came to go beneath the surface, to know who and what the prophet of Arabia was, I changed my belief very materially, and I am proud to say that I am now a Mussulman.
I have not returned to the United States to make you all Mussulmans in spite of yourselves; I never intended to do it in the world. I do not propose to take a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other and go through the world killing every man who does not say, La illaha illala Mohammund resoul Allah—“There is no God but one and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” But I have faith in the American intellect, in the American intelligence, and in the American love of fair play, and will defy any intelligent man to understand Islam and not love it.
…Now, let us see what the word “Islam” means. It is the most expressive word in existence for a religion. It means simply and literally resignation to the will of God. It means aspiration to God. The Moslem system is designed to cultivate all that is purest and noblest and grandest in the human character. Some people say Islam is impossible in a high state of civilization. Now, that is the result of ignorance. Look at Spain in the eighth century, when it was the center of all the arts and sciences, when Christian Europe went to Moslem Spain to learn all that there was worth knowing–languages, arts, all the new discoveries were to be found in Moslem Spain and in Moslem Spain alone. There was no civilization in the world as high as that of Moslem Spain.
…The Moslem brotherhood stands upon a perfect equality, recognizing only the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The Emir, who leads in prayer, preaches no sermon. He goes to the mosque every day at noon and reads two chapters from the holy Koran. He descends to the floor upon a perfect level with the hundreds, or thousands, of worshipers, and the prayer goes on, he simply leading it. The whole system is calculated to inculcate that idea of perfect brotherhood.
The subject is so broad that I can only touch upon it. There is so much unfamiliar to Americans and Englishmen in Islam that I regret exceedingly I have not more time to speak of it. A man said to me in New York the other day: “Must I give up Jesus and the Bible if I become a Mohammedan?” No, no? There is no Mussulman on earth who does not recognize the inspiration of Jesus. The system is one that has been taught by Moses, by Abraham, by Jesus, by Mohammed, by every inspired man the world has ever known. You need not give up Jesus, but assert your manhood. Go to God.
…A gentleman asked me if we had organized a mission in New York. I told him yes, but not in the ordinary sense; that we simply wanted people to study Islam and know what it was. The day of blind belief has passed away. Intelligent humanity wants a reason for every belief, and I say that spirit is commendable and should be encouraged wherever it goes, and that is one of the prominent features of the spirit of Islam…No man is expected to believe anything that is not in perfect harmony with his reason and common sense.
…In closing, I want to say this: that there is no system that has been so willfully and persistently misrepresented as Islam, both by writers of so-called history and by the newspaper press. There is no character in the whole range of history so little, so imperfectly understood as Mohammed. I feel that Americans, as a rule, are disposed to go to the bottom facts, and to ascertain really what Mohammed was and what he did, and when they have done so I feel that we shall have a universal system which will elevate our social system at least to the position where it belongs. I thank you.
[From Rev. John Henry Barrows, ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions, vol. 2 (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), 989-96.]