“Muslim Propaganda in America” – as Ignaz Goldziher saw it

By Katalin Franciska Rac, University of Florida

In 1894, the magazine Budapesti Szemle (Budapest Review) published an article by the world-renowned Hungarian Oriental scholar Ignaz Goldziher about Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb’s missionary work in America.[i]  Goldziher gave his article the title “Muslim Propaganda in America,” which he borrowed from Webb’s book Islam in America: A Brief Statement of Mohammedanism and an Outline of American Islamic Propaganda published in the previous year, illustrating that in Hungary as in the US it was customary to use the word propaganda to describe active proselytizing work. Although it may sound curious that Goldziher felt it was important to inform Hungarian readers about a recent convert to Islam and Muslim missionary in the United States, the topic fit into his broader journalistic work and scholarly political agenda.


Since the early 1870s, he regularly published articles in the Budapest Review as well as other papers about recent developments in Muslim countries and, given the heightened European archeological interest in the Middle East, about Oriental and biblical scholarship. In fact, his first, 1881 Hungarian monograph on Islam Az Iszlám (Islam), in many respects, the precursor of his two-volume German monograph Muhammedanische Studien (Muslim Studies), discussed current developments in Muslim academic life as well as warned about and refuted wide-spread biases about Islam. The 1894 article about Webb likewise served as an opportunity to address broader questions about the state of western study and knowledge of Islam and the role of the religious scholar in it—an issue which was closely connected with Goldziher’s own performance as a public intellectual and Oriental scholar in Hungary.

Since this blog is intended for readers with scholarly interests and because students of his life and oeuvre rarely address Goldziher’s social engagement and work as a public intellectual, this contribution seems to be a fitting forum to discuss Goldziher’s views of the Oriental scholar’s contribution to public scholarship and discourse on Islam.

One can only wonder if Alexander Russell Webb was known at all in Hungary before the publication of Goldziher’s article. Umar F. Abd-Allah’s biography, A Muslim in Victorian America (2006), suggests that American audiences, in contrast, could have been familiar with Webb’s name even before he became a Muslim missionary. Having lost his jewelry business in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he moved to Missouri and became a successful journalist. He was an active Democrat too. President Grover Cleveland named him the United States’ consul to Manila in 1887. It was during his time in the Philippines that Webb, who had been studying Oriental religions for several years, became closely acquainted with Indian Muslims and consequently converted to Islam.

After his resignation from the consular position in 1892, he returned to the US as a Muslim missionary. He established his mission and a Muslim press in New York City, founded the periodical The Moslem World, gave public lectures, and wrote Islam in America to spread the word of Islam. Abd-Allah suggests that Webb’s approach to and interpretation of Islam, his missionary work, and public persona can only be understood when contextualized within the popular discourse and culture of fin de siècle America.

Over a century earlier, Goldziher was similarly interested in understanding the social context of the “Webb phenomenon.” In the article’s introduction, Goldziher explains that although Islam began to spread in a period of war, for most of its history, Muslim missionaries peacefully brought its teachings to even the most distant corners of Asia and Africa. Islam was not an unknown religion in the Americas either; however, it was established there through immigration rather than “propaganda.” This changed when Webb initiated “real Muslim propaganda in the New World … a year and a half ago.” Hence, using a rather dismissive voice, Goldziher asks: “How did this oddball (csudabogár) set his goal for himself in the society that surrounded him?” (p. 51).

To answer this question, Goldziher could only rely on the press and travel literature about the United States. (He ultimately visited America ten years later, in 1904.) Despite the magniloquent language, instead of examining American society, Goldziher turns to the examination of Webb’s biography and works, which were rather recent (and for Goldziher much easier to review.) Webb had established his mission less than two years before Goldziher’s essay and had published his aforementioned book and participated in the First Parliament of Religions, a very well publicized event of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, only a year before. Goldziher also exchanged letters with Webb, only to learn that Webb was unfamiliar with recent German scholarship, including Goldziher’s work, on Islam, Muslim peoples, and their history. (See Webb’s letter to Goldziher in the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences HAS GIL/36/25/01.)

Outlining his career leading from journalism to consulship, Goldziher focuses on Webb’s intellectual growth. Based on his autobiographical notes, Goldziher relays that Webb did not find the spiritual guide in ancient religions and western philosophy that he searched for and consequently turned to Islam. The words “what can we say about the fact that the materialism of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel lay heavy on [Webb’s] stomach?” articulate Goldziher’s disdain for what he viewed as Webb’s lack of understanding of modern Europe’s intellectual heritage.[ii]

Goldziher is also critical of Webb because of what he considered to be Webb’s superficial and inaccurate knowledge of Islam. He finds that Webb’s written statements about Islam lack any correspondence with “historical and objective scholarship.” Webb misinforms his audiences, argues Goldziher, and his “honest enthusiasm” for Islam does not make up for his ignorance about the positions of Muhammad and the Qur’an on women, polygamy, and slavery, just to mention a few examples.[iii] Goldziher contends that Webb’s “apology is so exaggerated that even a born Muslim, learned in the religious literature of his or her religion, would refuse to accept it.”[iv]

Goldziher justifies his expectation that religious missionary work should be based on “historical and objective” knowledge by comparing Webb’s movement to the “Muslim movement in England.” He finds the latter “less boisterous than its American counterpart enterprise” (p. 59). It does not have a periodical but has a mosque, Goldziher notes. Additionally, as the English Society’s (a Muslim association in London) advertisement in Webb’s periodical The Moslem World reveals, the Society aims to spread knowledge of Islam among Englishmen by organizing lectures, setting up a library, and other activities.

Goldziher emphasizes that it is the Society’s requirement that lecturers “must address their subjects in a historical and objective manner.” He further quotes the Society’s reasoning (in Hungarian): “In order for conversion to Islam to become valid, it first and foremost must be the result of a spontaneous decision. Hence, it will not be permitted to any Muslim person to endeavor to persuade others to accept a religion to which he or she does not belong” (p. 60). Goldziher’s rather ironic comment, “A rather suspicious excuse,” loudly speaks to his wholehearted identification with the sort of missionary work that regards scholarly interpretation as a guide to religious life. His diary and several writings on Judaism attest that it was his personal conviction that scholarly findings should be given primacy over traditional religious “truths.”

The example of the English Society and its comparison with Webb’s missionary work illustrate the invaluable service that, in Goldziher’s estimation, the Oriental scholar can render to society. In his capacity as a Hungarian public intellectual, Goldziher relies on his scholarly authority to hold the Muslim missionary accountable for spreading the “truth” of Islam. In contrast to the oft-characterized persona of the western orientalist abusing his or her knowledge to gain political influence over colonial matters and suppressed populations, this article by Goldziher highlights the importance of involving the western public in the production and dissemination of knowledge about a foreign religion and culture. Consequently, it illustrates how Goldziher wished to assert himself as an Oriental scholar in Hungary by stressing the relevance of his field in understanding contemporary developments in the western world.

Equally significant is Goldziher’s defense of western religious thought and modern philosophy against Webb’s deprecating judgement. Unlike Webb, he does not compare the teachings of western philosophy to those of Islam. Instead, Goldziher reminds his readers that exaggeration about Islam, even if it is meant to create a positive picture, is misleading and does disservice to any intelligent reader who genuinely wishes to learn about Islam. Moreover, it contradicts the fundamental tenets of Muslim proselytizing.

As in his other works, Goldziher suggests that the “objectivity” of knowledge unveils and preserves the truth of religion, therefore it should not be subdued to the subjective standpoint of the believer. The role of the religious scholar (of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or any other faith) is to guard and develop objective knowledge in the public sphere. Beyond remarkable feats of scholarly literature, I read Goldziher’s works as reminders that while scholarship, a genuinely public matter, presupposes, and even demands, an objective attitude toward the subject, religious practice is subjective and, therefore, a personal matter.

[i] “Muhammedán propaganda Amerikában” (Muslim Propaganda in America) Budapesti Szemle (Budapest Review) vol. 80 no. 214 (1894):45-60.
[ii] Ibid., 53.
[iii] Ibid., 52-55.
[iv] Ibid., 55.


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