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Africa and the African Diaspora

The Americas' First Muslims

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This week, 1.2 billion Muslims will celebrate Eid-al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, or Tabaski as it is known in West Africa. Very few among them will have a thought for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved West Africans who, during almost four centuries, practiced Islam in the Americas. Although they left significant marks of their faith, cultures, and traditions, the Africans who first brought Islam to these shores have been mostly forgotten.

Muslims were among the very first Africans to be introduced into the Americas. They arrived as early as 1503 mostly from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria. Among them were teachers, students, judges, religious and military leaders, pilgrims to Mecca, and traders. The United States, where Senegambians represented almost 24 percent of the Africans, probably had the largest proportion of Muslims in the Americas, even though their actual numbers were higher in Brazil. 

Many Muslims were literate, reading and writing Arabic and their own languages in the Arabic script. From North Carolina to Georgia, from Brazil to Trinidad and Jamaica, they wrote letters, excerpts from the Qur'an, prayers, autobiographies, and other manuscripts that are still extant today.

Some Muslims who knew the Qur'an by heart wrote their own copies. Among them was Ayuba Suleyman Diallo, whose portrait opens this post. Part of the religious elite in Senegal, he was kidnapped and enslaved in Maryland in 1731. He wrote three copies of the Qur'an once in London after being freed in 1733 thanks to a letter in Arabic he wrote to his father asking to be redeemed. One copy, 223 pages long, has just surfaced (it was owned by a Californian since 1960) and was sold at auction on October 8 for $34,362.

In Georgia, Bilali Mohamed wrote, in Arabic, excerpts of an eleventh century Islamic text; and Brazilian Muslims operated underground Qur'anic schools. Sufism (the mystical side of Islam)was overwhelmingly present in West Africa and so too in the Americas where its influence can be seen in the Muslims' writings and practices.

Forgotten by the general public and, for the longest time, ignored by scholars, the Muslims are now the subject of several studies and the increasing interest in their story can be seen in the re-edition of three early books: Prince Among Slaves (1977 and 2007), African Muslims in Antebellum America (1984-1997) and Servants of Allah (1998-2013).

 Terry Alford's Prince Among Slaves retraces the life of Ibrahima abd al-Rahman, the son of the ruler of the theocracy of Futa Jallon in Guinea, who spent 39 years enslaved on a Mississippi plantation before sailing to Liberia.

In 1831, Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese teacher enslaved until his death in North Carolina wrote his autobiography in Arabic. It has been re-translated and commented in 2011 by Ala Alryyes. The 1854 Biography of Mahommah Baquaqua, which follows him from Benin to Brazil and to the U.S. has been annotated and contextualized by Paul Lovejoy and Robin Law.  

Allan Austin's source book, African Muslims in Antebellum America, gathers historical documents about Muslims in the United States and Jamaica. Joao Jose Reis' s Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia  presents the largest slave uprising in Brazilian history.

Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas details the religious, social, and cultural lives of individuals and communities in twenty countries in the Americas. As I discovered when researching this book, religions such as Vodun in Haiti; Candomble in Brazil; the saraka tradition in the Caribbean; and Palo Mayombe in Cuba have integrated Islam and the Muslims in their rituals. In the American South, enslaved women gave saraka (from the Arabic sadaqa, freewill offerings) to children in the form of rice cakes like their coreligionists continue to do in West Africa; and the early blues owes a lot to Islamic-influenced music and the call to prayer. 

As enslaved men and women and as Muslims in Christian lands, the West African Muslims faced daunting obstacles to maintain and express their faith; but their story-recorded by themselves, slaveholders, travelers, and others-adds fascinating, detailed, unique and invaluable information to our understanding of the African experience in the Americas. 

To Learn More (primary sources)

Autobiography of Omar ibn Said

Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua  also available online

Original documents of the Muslim uprising in Bahia, Brazil

Some Memoirs of the Life of Job (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) also  online

"The Arabic Manuscript of Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu of Jamaica, c. 1823" 

The Autobiography of Nicolas Said (enslaved in the Middle East and Russia, migrated to the US and enrolled in the Union army) also available online

"The Foreigner's Amusement by Wonderful Things" (Iraqi who visited the African Muslim communities of Brazil in 1865)

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