Nailing down the identity of the first Muslim to serve in the United States Navy is maddeningly difficult, but the presence of Muslims serving in our nation’s military can arguably be traced back to the Revolutionary War. In the annals of that conflict, we find at least six men—Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf Ben Ali (slave name Joseph Benhaley), Salem Poor, Peter Salem (slave name Peter Buckminster), Francis Saba, and Joseph Saba.. Although none of these men are identified specifically as Muslims, the names of Ali, Muhamed, and Saba make it highly unlike that they were Christian.

During the war of 1812, enlistment records reveal three soldiers with Muslim surnames: Jacob Amin, John Hamin, and Bilali Muhammad. Again, there is no explicit statement of their Muslim faith, but the chances of a Christian with the last name of Muhammad are practically nil.

Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States Army sought out the services of a Muslim named Hajji Ali for a very pragmatic reason: They wanted him to serve as a camel-driver for the U.S. Camel Corps, which Congress funded to the tune of $30,000 in 1855. Ali, a Greek by birth and a citizen of the Ottoman Empire at the time he came to the U.S., was tapped to lead the Camel Corps, which had been created as a means of dealing with the harsh, arid conditions of the American Southwest.

While the Corps made a successful trip from Texas to California and back, numerous issues, including the frightened reactions of other pack animals like donkeys and mules to the presence of the hulking “ships of the desert,” ultimately led to the dissolution of the Corps. Ali, who was nicknamed “Hi Jolly” and later known as Philp Tedro, was discharged in 1870 from his position in the Quartermaster Department of the Army. In all, over 290 soldiers with Muslim last names can be found in the rolls of troop listings of Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War.

The number of soldiers and sailors with last names associated with the Muslim faith dramatically increased during World War I, with recordings indicating more than 5,400 volunteers or conscripts likely to come from Islamic backgrounds; the most common last name, Muhammad, had 41 different spellings. War Department records from the time indicate that at least 13,965 Syrian Americans wore the uniform of one branch or another of the U.S. Military; estimates are that between ten to twenty-five percent of that number were Muslim.

Of course, there were no Muslim Chaplains in the Navy during World War I, but changes in regulations in 1893 had made it possible for Chaplains to assist clergymen of other churches to perform shipboard services when permitted on board by the Captain. In addition to the removal of the word “Christian” from the regulations, this opened the door for the possibility of religious services for Sailors from non-Christian faiths.

Perhaps the biggest step forward in the recognition of Muslim service in the Navy and other branches came in the early 1950s, when the request of a World War II veteran named Abdullah Igram to have the letter “I” for Islam printed on the ID tags of military personnel was finally granted by the Department of Defense. This marked the first time that Sailors and Soldiers who practiced Islam would be recognized and officially counted as Muslim, making their contributions to our nation’s defense a matter of permanent and undisputed record.

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