Muslims in the Americas

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Muslims in the Americas

Approximately twenty percent of Africans brought to the Americas between the 1500s and 1900 ce were Muslims. By the fifteenth century, Muslims, almost constantly at war with Christians across the Mediterranean Sea since Islam had begun to spread across North Africa around 660 ce, had traveled to well below the Sahara Desert. Arabs and Berbers came first as commercial and religious agents, mixed with locals in the eleventh century, and by the late eighteenth century their black progeny and followers had become jihadists and nation builders. Since then, Muslim spheres of influence, control, and struggle have enlarged to cover much of West Africa. Their extensive trading and educational networks, demonstrating and teaching Muslim principles and practicesincorporating some indigenous waysnecessarily adjusted to or conflicted with local non-Muslim powers such as the Bambara, Ashanti, Dahomeyans, and Yorubans. These conflicts involved slave trading of one another and people caught in the middle. Multi-ethnic Muslim-led nations, opposed to slavery of their own people, including self-asserting theocracies, rose and fell as they worked out their changing political, economic, and religious relations with rival Muslims as well as non-Muslim peoples. These struggles led to four centuries of the capture and sale of non-Muslims by Muslims, and more to the point, of enemy Muslims by Muslims and of Muslims by non-Muslims to European and American purchasers in trading posts along the Atlantic Coast and along the banks of a few rivers.

Like many non-Muslim captives who were not peasant Africans but from wealthy, powerful trading or ruling families and potent age-group brotherhoods accustomed to being leaders in social, political, religious, military, or agricultural matters, many Muslims embodied senses of spiritual selves, dignity, and pride that gave problems to their purchasers. Unlike non-Muslims, however, Muslims stood out because of their insistence on covering their bodies, on avoiding alcohol and pork, on praying to one god, on appearing to look down on both white and black non-Muslimsand when discoveredon writing and reading Arabic. Such attributes inspired both respect and apprehension and some exploration and exploitation of their grave, even haughty manners, mix of acceptance of their fate and demands on their purchasers, antipathy to field labor, recognizable management skills, and aptness as personal servants. The extent of their influence is only recently being calculated, but to those who recorded contacts with them in the era of the Atlantic slave trade, many African Muslims were impressive people.

African Muslims came from below the Sahara Desert between Lake Chad and the continent's closest point to the New World. They were Kanuri, Hausa, Songhai, Kassonke, Manding, Serahules, Fulas, Wolofs; few were Moors or Arabs. At least two hundred are known by references, names, short notices, longer accounts by others, or from their own writings. Some thirty manuscripts in Arabic written in the Americas and at least as many translations or as-told-to stories in European languages provide even more information. Many are assertions of the writer's faith, of recognition of African teachers and texts in Arabic or local languages using phonetic Arabic letters, or letters urging fellow Muslims to uphold or to fight for their faith.

A few of these documents written in North America (elaborated on below) tell about lives and educations in Africa, about capture, marches to the sea, the bitter Middle Passage, and adjustments to and by purchasers, missionaries, and amanuenses. Many are informative and corrective relative to the careless ignorance of nearly all non-Africans about their homelands and histories. These are often the only firsthand accounts by African-born individuals on relevant transatlantic conditions, events, and attitudes upon which historians and litterateursuntil very recentlyhave provided only surmises and generalizations. Lamine Kebe, freed after thirty years of slavery in Georgia, put this succinctly in 1835: "There are good men in America, but all are ignorant of Africa" (Dwight, 1864). The most important accounts are by Job Ben Solomon from Senegal (1734), Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman from Guinea (1828), Umar ibn Said from Senegal (1831), Abu Bakr es-Siddiq from Ghana (1835), Salih Bilali from Mali (1843), Mahommah Baquaqua from Benin (1854), and Mohammed or Nicholas Said from Chad (1867, 1882).

Further individualizing and authentication may be found in nine surviving portraits: two of Job Ben Solomon, enslaved in Maryland and freed in 1733; two (including a marvelous 1819 painting by Charles Willson Peale) of Yarrow Mamout, probably also from Senegal, slave and self-purchased freeman in the District of Columbia; two engravings of Mahommah Baquaqua, enslaved in Brazil, freed and educated in New York, part author of his Biography; an 1856 drawing of Osman, a Maroon in North Carolina; an 1828 etching from a Henry Inman crayon portrait of Abd al-Rahman, enslaved for forty years in Mississippi before being freed at the age of sixty-five and undertaking a partially successful campaign extending from Natchez to Boston to buy his children before his return to Africa; a daguerreotype of Umar ibn Said, taken shortly before his death in 1864 to accompany his several manuscripts in Arabic produced in North Carolina; and an 1863 ambrotype carte de visite of Nicholas Said in the Union Army uniform of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment.

Though uniquely legislated against in Spanish regulations, and despite leading the first slave revolt (Hispaniola in 1522) and numerous others in the Americas, Muslims accompanied the first discoverers and conquistadores from Columbus on. Some were apparently selected, probably after a pretense of conversion, for various purposes, including personal servanthood in the New World. Hundreds, perhaps only recently Islamized, and thousands of their children fit into the new scheme, but there were those who resisted Christian slavery in various ways. There were antislavery and anti-Catholic/anti-Christian renegades and preachers, some of whom, called "Mandingas" were suspected of being "sorcerers" who made and sold Muslim amulets or gris-gris across Latin America. Theirs was a popular but clandestine operation in the punishing mining and agricultural slave regime imposed by Christians. Some preaching came with the amulets, but this had to be carefully done. Lope de la Pena was imprisoned in Peru for preaching Islam in 1560. Similar punishments were imposed everywhere in following years.

Many ran away; some formed their own self-reliant, self-help communities in the hinterlands. In the 1750s Haitian Maroons under Macandal (after whom illness-preventing and death-defying amulets were named), a Muslim who offered a remarkably extensive revolutionary plan, preceded several other Muslim-influenced revolts, including those that militarily ousted the French in 1804. Early in the 1800s Muslims revolted in Brazil; their most widespread and well-thought-out slave revolt, involving at least a thousand Muslims and allies in Bahia, occurred in 1835 (see Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil, 1993). After it was put down, many Muslims were executed, but others were exported or paid their own way back to African ports between the Gold Coast and Nigeria. This repatriation continued until late in the nineteenth century. Many of these returnees founded trade relations across the Atlantic Ocean extending familiar African commercial routes intercontinentally to before unimagined and only recently investigated lengths. Latin American Catholicism, and African syncretic religions surviving today such as Candomblé, vodou, and Santería, display Muslim elements. Indeed, Fredrika Bremer, a respected Swedish journalist, thought in the early 1850s that Muslims were the main teachers and preachers outside Havana in Cuba. Gilberto Freyre wrote that Brazilians had insufficiently noted the influence of African Muslims in their national dress, language, religion, diet, sexual mores, self-help organizations, rebellious ways, and continued relations with Africa (Freyre, 1956). The same could be said for many of the surrounding South American and Caribbean countries.

Outlines of some of these individual African Muslims more particularly illustrate what may be learned from them about their homelands and lives. Macandal, Job, Mohammad Kaba from Guinea, Muhammad (Jonas) Bath, probably from Guinea, Anna Moosa from Mali, Abu Bakr es Siddiq from Ghana, Abd al-Rahman, Umar ibn Said, Kebe from Guinea, Bilali Muhammad from Guinea, Mahommah Baquaqua from Benin, and Nicholas Said from Chad were from prominent clerical, mercantile, military, or educational families. Job was a trader and religious leader, Al-Rahman a cavalry officer, Kebe and Umar teachers. All were husbands and fathers before their capture. Job, Macandal, al-Rahman, Kebe, Bilali, Charno, Umar, Abu Bakr es Siddiq, "William Rainsford," "Charles Larten," a "Moorish" slave on the Mississippi River, "Capt. Anderson's slave," Salih Bilali, and others noticed above learned to read in Arabic in Africa. All but the last wrote Arabicand often their own languages using Arabic characters. Manuscripts from Job, Muhammad Kaba, Capt. Anderson's slave, al-Rahmann, rebels in Brazil, Bath, Abu Bakr, Bilali, Charno, Umar, and Sana Sy in Panama are extant. Many others are reported. London used phonetic Arabic characters to write black English in antebellum Florida. Abu Bakr kept Jamaican plantation records in similar style. Job, Umar, Mahommah, Salih Bilali, Abu Bakr, Anna Moosa, and a Muslim from Charles Ball's slave narrative told of captures in Africa. Abd al-Rahman, Umar, and Kebe were taken in battle, the others kidnapped. Job, Abd al-Rahman, Mahommah, and Kebe told their stories to amanuenses. Abu Bakr followed his own autobiography in Arabic with an extended travelogue describing his family's trading posts from the Atlantic Ocean on the Gambia River to Katsina in northern Nigeria and from Timbuktu to the Gulf of Guinea (1835). They wrote of marches to the sea and of their sea voyages.

Job, Abd al-Rahman, and Umar ran away from their first masters, as did others, but the majority had no place or allies to go to. Sambo and Osman in North Carolina were more successful in swamplands. Job and Jay were returned to Africa after fewer than five years of slavery because Job impressed the gentlemen and intelligentsia of 1730s England with his dignity, intelligence, and spirituality. Abd al-Rahman and Kebe were returned after thirty-some years of slavery in Mississippi and Georgia, respectively. Mohammed from Antigua was freed because of his evident religiosity, and Abu Bakr was freed because of his exemplary service. The latter became a guide for an unsuccessful English exploratory expedition toward Timbuktu. But Bath, imam of the Mandingo Society of Trinidad, was not able via prayers and petitions to the king of England to gain African repatriation. Muhammad Kaba's letters on maintaining the faith while under great pressure to convert in Jamaica have only recently come to light (Addoun and Lovejoy, 2004).

Abd al-Rahman, Bilali, and Salih Bilali took American wives and became parents here; Yarrow Mamout, Kebe, and Umar apparently chose not to do so. Abd al-Rahman, Abu Bakr, S'Quash, King, Bilali, and Salih Bilali became trusted slave managers.

All of those named above remained true to their Muslim faith, with the possible exceptions of London, Umar, and Mahommah. London transcribed the Gospel of John; Umar was regularly mentioned in North Carolina papers because he was willingly baptized and wrote the Lord's Prayer and Christian avowals in Arabic. None of his available eleven manuscripts, however, are without Quranic elements, including the Bismillah, which precedes all Muslim endeavors. His last pastor, probably correctly, expressed some doubt on the totality of his conversion. Mahommah proposed a return to Africa to preach Christianity, but his 1854 biography-autobiography emphasizes his desire to go home. Abd al-Rahman and Kebe made similar promises but both reverted upon their landing in Africa. Abd al-Rahman declared that Christianity was a "good law" but not followed in America. Once a captive joined the religion of his master in Africa, he was freed. That had not happened to him under Christians. The "Moor" on the Mississippi was even more critical as he proudly claimed that Americans were not as polite, hospitable, comfortable, or learned as his people.

More impressively, Jonas Bath helped create a Muslim society in Trinidad; Brazilian Muslims had their own organizations, and Bilali and Salih Bilali each created Muslim communities on Sapelo and St. Simon's Islands in Georgia. The last two leaders, their praying on beads and rugs, their relatives with Muslim names and practices, were recalled as late as the 1940s. Bilali's thirteen-page "book" in Arabic attempted to codify basic requirements for Muslims. The church on Sapelo retains important Muslim aspects today (Bailey, 2000). Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust both refer to Bilali.

Sources of information had been widely scattered. Mentions of African Muslims in Latin America were scarce, as were mentions of Muslims in Iberian history until very recently. Inclusions in North American histories have been only slightly better. The most often noticed were Job, who was treated so well by the British; Abd al-Rahman, because he was thought to be a prince; and Umar, the devoutly wished-for (by Christians) convert. Often they were called Moors, de-Africanized, despite contrary portraits and descriptions. In the U.S. antebellum era, only one New York ethnologist (Theodore Dwight Jr.) sought to collect Arabic manuscripts and paid serious attention to Kebe's knowledge of education in Africa. Only one geographer, Frenchman George Renouard, drew from an African (Abu Bakr) in the New World information about a wide sphere of West Africa largely unknown elsewhere. Only one southern linguist, William B. Hodgson, attempted to gather African Arabic writings. Only one abolitionist, Irishman Richard R. Madden, became sincerely involved in finding out what he could about African Muslims in Jamaica. Only one southern newspaperman, Cyrus Griffin, and later, a few missionaries and Colonization Society people made notes about Abd al-Rahman's Africa, hoping to convert him into a Moor and a Christian. No westerners asked them to tell about their experiences in slavery in the New World.

Literary references are also rare. Herman Melville stripped Islam from the historical black rebels he fictionalized in Benito Cereno. Harriet Beecher Stowe made her hero in Dred a Mandingo but not a Muslim. Joel Chandler Harris made his hero Aaron, based upon white and black Christian-denouncing Bilali, into an Arab who denigrated black people. Mark Twain opined in his sketch of Abd al-Rahman that his subject was a cannibal. It was not until 1976, with Alex Haley's novel Roots, that African Muslims began to be fairly included in the New World's story.

See also Islam


Addoun, Yacine Daddi and Paul E. Lovejoy. "Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu and the Muslim Community of Jamaica." In Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam, edited by Paul E. Lovejoy. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2004.

Austin, Allan D., ed. African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook. New York: Garland, 1984.

Austin, Allan D. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Bailey, Cornelia W., with Christena Bledsoe. God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island. New York: Anchor, 2000.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Dwight, Theodore, Jr. "Condition and Character of Negroes in Africa," Methodist Quarterly Review (January 1864).

Freyre, Gilberto. Masters and Slaves. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Law, Robin, and Paul E. Lovejoy, eds. The Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2001.

Reis, Joao Jose. Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

allan d. austin (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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