By the time of the American Revolution, a sizeable Moroccan Muslim community—known as “Moors” in the language of the era—had developed in and around Charleston, South Carolina. Some of the community’s members were likely former slaves, but many others had chosen to immigrate from Morocco, with which the U.S. had a so-called “Treaty of Friendship.” Morocco, indeed, was the first African nation to recognize the new United States during the Revolution. Worried about being denied rights due to South Carolina’s system of slavery, a group of Muslim Americans petitioned the state’s courts requesting that they be recognized as white. A tribunal of judges led by prominent South Carolinian Charles Pinckney agreed with their petition, and the state legislature passed the Moors Sundry Act (1790), designating this Moroccan Muslim American community white for purposes of the law.
That law was as complicated as race in American history has always been. It allowed members of this community to be counted more fully for state population and federal representation purposes. It also gave these Muslim Americans the opportunity to vote, to serve on juries and to gain and enjoy the benefits of citizenship, even as Black Americans were largely denied those same rights.
The Revolutionary history gets broader and deeper still. The only passage in the body of the Constitution as drafted in 1787 that references religion at all is the paragraph in Article VI that makes clear that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.” This profoundly progressive phrase, written in an era when every other constitutional government around the world featured an official state religion, was drafted by none other than Charles Pinckney.
After the Constitution was drafted, Pinckney was tasked with taking it before the South Carolina legislature for that state’s ratification debate. During the debate, he was asked by one of the legislators about that exact Article VI paragraph, and more exactly about whether it would mean that “a Muslim could run for office in these United States?” Pinckney’s answer? “Yes, it does, and I hope to live to see it happen.” His words are inspiring, and a challenge to those who say they believe in inclusion today. How many white, Christian elected officials today would say “I hope to see more Muslim Americans in elected office” the way Charles Pinckney did?
Frankly, I wonder if they could even pass that law in South Carolina today. And, of course, it's depressing how important it was to be considered officially "white" in the South back then.
But that's our history, and it shouldn't be forgotten - neither the good nor the bad.