The First American Sufis

This week marks the publication of the first volume of Patrick D. Bowen’s three volume series A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States. The publisher’s website provides this description of the book’s contents:

A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 1: White American Muslims before 1975 is the first in-depth study of the thousands of white Americans who embraced Islam between 1800 and 1975. Drawing from little-known archives, interviews, and rare books and periodicals, Patrick D. Bowen unravels the complex social and religious factors that led to the emergence of a wide variety of American Muslim and Sufi conversion movements.

While some of the more prominent Muslim and Sufi converts—including Alexander Webb, Maryam Jameelah, and Samuel Lewis—have received attention in previous studies, White American Muslims before 1975 is the first book to highlight previously unknown but important figures, including Thomas M. Johnson, Louis Glick, Nadirah Osman, and T.B. Irving.

The publication date is September 14, but Google Books has had excerpts available online for several weeks. Fortunately for readers of this blog, large portions of the chapters discussing Thomas M. Johnson are available in previews. Here is a link to Johnson as a search term in the text. The second and third chapters provide more new information about the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the early Theosophical Society in US history than has been published in two decades. There is such a wealth of information that the book provides fodder for many possible blog posts.  Here I will highlight only the discovery that was most unexpected and was made by Patrick after we had already completed a first draft of Letters to the Sage: Thomas M. Johnson Selected Correspondence, The Esotericists. Although almost all the letters come from the Johnson family archives in Osceola, Missouri, the ones revealing the existence of a secret Sufic Circle  were written to and by Jonathan S. McDonald of Lockport, Illinois and were located by Patrick in the collections of the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. This group operated as a secret society within the secret society of the HBofL, and is the first known Sufi-identified group in the US.  As described in the book’s third chapter, on March 16, 1887:

Johnson, acting in his capacity as president of the H.B. of L.’s American Central Council, sent out an “ordinance” to six leading American members of the occult order, asking them to vote on the establishment of this organization…the objects of the circle were “the systematic study of Sufism, the practical application and realization of its teachings, and the dissemination of its precepts and doctrines.”

The group appears to have been short-lived and there is evidence that it immediately created dissension in the HBofL. But the timing of its creation is especially significant in relation to two other events that occurred in 1887. Thomas H. Burgoyne, Secretary of the HBofL, corresponded with Johnson about spiritual practices and initiatory rites of the Brotherhood, and mentioned that he had an inner-plane encounter with a man to whom he referred as “the Arabian,” suggesting that Johnson also might have such an experience during his initiation. 1887 was also the year that Max and Alma Theon moved from England to France and then to Algeria. Burgoyne refers to Theon and “the Arabian” as separate individuals and gives no details about the latter’s existence on the physical plane. But even though layers of mystery surround Burgoyne, the Theons, and Johnson, this new book sheds more light on the beginnings of the HBofL in America than has been available since the groundbreaking 1995 publication of many of its teachings as The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor: Initiatic and Historical Documents of an Order of Practical Occultism.

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