Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb

 The American Islamic Propagation Movement

By Muhammed Abdullah Al-Ahari and Saffet Catovic

Sept/Oct 2023

Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb was one of the earliest European ancestry converts to Islam in the U.S. He also started one of the first Islamic Reading Rooms, three Islamic newspapers, and had a small bookstore and lecture series. One of my first introduction to the history of Islam in America was through the entry in Islam Our Choice on his life.

Webb was born on Nov. 9, 1846, in Hudson, New York. In his youth he worked in some of the finer jewelry houses of New York, but quickly turned to journalism.

He excelled in his college preparatory school (Claverack College) and later purchased a weekly newspaper in Unionville, Miss. His prowess as a journalist was soon apparent and he was offered city editorship of the St. Joseph, Missouri Daily Gazette. Over the years, he eventually edited or worked for seven newspapers in Missouri, New Jersey, and New York.

Webb married a widow, Ella G. Hotchkiss, who had a seven-year-old daughter Betsy. His family followed him when he worked for several newspapers in St. Louis. In 1887, while working for the Missouri Republican, he was appointed by President Cleveland to be Consular Representative to the Philippines at the U.S. office in Manila.

Webb’s path to Islam

He started his life as a Presbyterian but found it dull and restraining. As early as 1881 he started a search for his true faith by reading books from a well-stocked library of over 13,000 volumes. He started studying Buddhism and found it lacking. He then began to study Islam. He studied the writing of Sufis, Theosophists, Orientalists, and traditional Madhab. In 1886 he began to correspond with several Muslims in India.

In 1888, he formally declared himself Muslim.

At that time, he had yet to meet a Muslim but was put in contact with several Muslims in India by a local Zorastarian businessman. A newspaper publisher, Badruddin Abdulla Kur of Bombay, published several of Webb’s letters in his paper and in the Allahabad Review. A local businessman, Hajji Abdullah Arab, saw these letters and went to Manila to see Webb. This business became one of Webb’s greatest supporters, but with the fall of the Indian Rupee the support did not last long.

After the visit, Webb began plans to tour India and then return to the U.S. to propagate Islam. Webb’s wife, Ella G. Webb, and their three children had also accepted Islam. Hajji Abdullah returned to India and raised funds for Webb’s tour. Webb visited Rangoon, Poona, Bombay, Calcutta, Hyderabad, and Madras.

He resigned in 1892 and returned to the U.S. Webb’s family settled in New York, where he established the Oriental Publishing Company. This company published his writings (including his magnum opus Islam in America).

Webb as an Islamic Propagandist

Islam in America is Webb’s best edited and comprehensive work on the concepts of Islam and Dawah. This brief work contains 70 pages divided into eight chapters namely: I) Why I Became a Muslim; II) An Outline of Islamic Faith; III) The Five Pillars of Practice; IV) Islam in Its Philosophic Aspect; V) Polygamy and the Purdah; VI) Popular Errors Refuted; VII) The Muslim Defensive Wars; and VIII) The American Islamic Propaganda.

Along with this venture he started the organ of the American Muslim Propagation Movement called Moslem World. The first issue appeared in 1893. It lasted for seven monthly issues. He later published a three-issue newspaper named The Voice of Islam and a fourteen-issue run of the newspaper The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam.

Webb was the main representative for Islam at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago where he gave two speeches – “The Influence of Islam upon Social Conditions” and “The Spirit of Islam.” At the World Parliament of Religions, he was attacked by a Fundamentalist Christian minister named Cook because he dared to speak about polygamy and against the dating society of the West. However, the secretary of the World Parliament, Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, supported Webb’s work in his Unitarian-Universalist magazine Unity.

The Parliament

In August 2023, the Parliament of the World’s Religions returns to the birthplace of the modern interfaith movement after 30 years away to celebrate 130 years of history in the city of Chicago. Parliament Convenings attract participants from more than 200 diverse religious, indigenous, and secular beliefs and more than 80 nations. Registrants enjoy access to all the plenary sessions, hundreds of breakout sessions (including several on Webb), art & cultural exhibits, performances, a film festival, and countless opportunities to connect with individuals and organizations committed to justice, peace, and sustainability.  This Parliament will be the most important and largest gathering of the world’s religious and spiritual leaders, and practitioners, uniting in a collective, courageous, and clear reply to the most dangerous crisis confronting us today – authoritarianism.

This existential, expanding, global scourge is manifesting in tyrants who commit crimes against humanity, suppress fundamental freedoms, subvert democracies, and murder the truth with lies.  These bullies and despots are pursuing nationalist wars and winking at domestic terrorism. They are fostering hate and the resurgence of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, misogyny, and racism. And they are attempting to misappropriate religions to justify the unjustifiable.

This is not who we are.

Every faith has at its core, a summoning to ease the suffering of others and to contribute to a just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Today, the Parliament of the World’s Religions issues its Call to Conscience to people of faith and spirit, to the people of Chicago, to all people of conscience, to stand together in defense of the dignity, freedom, and human rights of all.

For the rest of Webb’s life, he was the main spokesman for Islam in America. Throughout the rest of the U.S., he started study circles in several cities.

Webb took what suited his purpose even from those who attacked Islam if he felt it could be used to prove his interpretation of Islam — an Islam which could be modern and American without rejecting its essential principles and points of doctrine. Islam, for Webb was an enlightened faith which held the possibility of solving the problems of the modern world. However, Webb sought first to give what he held to be a correct perspective of Islam for an American audience, rather than actively seek converts.

Furthermore, Webb was more of a Unitarian-Universalist-Sufi-Theosophist than a traditional Madhhab following Muslim or Sufi. His choice of associates and texts he studied, quoted, and paraphrased strengthens this view. Webb not only used works that supported his views in his writings, but he also recycled previous speeches and texts from his pen.

Webb after the close of his Islamic Mission

He is also known for writing two booklets about the Armenian and Turkish Wars from a Muslim point of view and for being appointed the Honorary Turkish Consul in New York by Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

From 1898 to the time of his death on Oct. 1, 1916, Webb lived in Rutherford, N.J. He died at the age of 70 and was buried in Hillside Cemetery on the outskirts of Rutherford. He was survived by his wife, a son Russell, two daughters –Mary, Nala, and an adopted daughter, Elizabeth. After Webb’s death, his wife became a Unitarian. His daughter, Mary remained Muslim and attended a 1943 ceremonial dinner to remember her father.

After Webb’s death, his efforts were largely forgotten until the work of Umar Farouq Abdullah (for writing a biography of Webb entitled A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb), Brent D. Singletary (reprinting Webb’s Diaries and his Three Speeches in his Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb),

Dr. Muhammed Abdullah Al-Ahari is an author, educator, researcher based in Chicago, who has collected and published almost a dozen works from Webb’s pen. He is preparing a two-volume edition of Webb’s Moslem World.

Imam Saffet Catovic is director of UN Operations for Justice For All (, the only Muslim run International Human Rights organization based in North America. He was the former programs manager and head of ISNA’s Office for Interfaith Alliances and Governmental Relations in Washington, D.C.  He also serves as a member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ board of trustees.

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