BLACK ROUTES TO ISLAM – Book Sample
The Early Muslim Presence and Its Significance
In the name of God The Compassionate . . . I am not able to write my life. I have forgotten much of the language of the Arabs. I read not the grammatical, but very little of the common dialect. I ask thee, O brother, to reproach me not, for my eyes are weak, and my body also. —Omar ibn Said, Muslim slave in North Carolina, Letter to a friend in West Africa (1836)
A little known fact that continues to inspire incredulity is that America’s first Muslims arrived chained in the hulls of slave ships. In 1977, when ABC television broadcast the miniseries Roots to an unprecedented 130 million viewers, this skepticism came into full view.
The miniseries based on Alex Haley’s eponymous novel would spark a great interest in African cultural retentions and ethnic and racial genealogy, but also disbelief—particularly over the scenes showing how Kunta would avoid eating pork and kneel in prayer facing east.
A year after the novel’s publication, critic James Michener took issue with a scene that described Africans praying to Allah in the interior of a ship making the transatlantic crossing: “To have Kunta Kinte, or one of his fellows praying to Allah while chained in the bottom of a Christian ship is an unjustified sop to contemporary developments rather than a true reflection of the past.”1
Critics suspected that Haley had inserted the scenes of Kunta Kinte praying simply to lend some historical precedent and legitimacy to the Black Muslim and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s.2 This skepticism would obviously increase as various genealogists contested Haley’s claims that Kunta was his seventh-generation ancestor taken from the village of Juffure in the Gambia in 1767 and sold into slavery in Maryland.
It was long considered improbable that the African slaves in America may have been Muslim, and even more unlikely that they continued to practice their faith and transmitted their culture to their children in the New World. As one popular textbook put it, “what Muslim faith they [the African slaves] brought with them was quickly absorbed into their new Christian milieu and disappeared.”3
But scholarship over the last two decades, inspired in part by the debate over Roots, has revealed a “subtle Muslim presence” in America since the early 1500s.
Historians have unearthed texts written by Muslim slaves in English and Arabic, shedding light on a far-flung population of Muslim Africans enslaved throughout the New World, many of whom were distinguished by their literacy, and who struggled to maintain their faith through rituals and naming practices, by reading the Koran and writing Arabic, sometimes even launching jihads against their overlords.
While historians will continue to debate the number of Muslims enslaved in the New World,4 it has become increasingly clear that Muslim slaves in Anglo-America were treated comparatively better than their counterparts in Latin America, and their presence would shape not only racial categories and stratification in the United States but also inform early American views of the “Orient.”
The impact of the early Muslim presence on American racial discourse and representations of the Islamic world is critical to understanding the different Islamic and quasi-Islamic movements that emerged in early twentieth-century African America.
Texts and Retentions
The historical research on African Muslim slaves in the New World reveals a difference between the treatment of Muslim slaves in Spanish territories and those in French and English territories. Michael Gomez notes that whereas the experience of Muslim slaves in Latin America, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and Brazil was characterized by “severe political repression,” since these communities were often seen as threatening, the “Muslim communities in the United Sates were comparatively quiet and compliant.”
In addition, throughout the French- and English-speaking Caribbean and North America, Muslim slaves—who were often Mande, Fulbe, and from Senegambia—would be elevated above other slaves and given less arduous work. “Patterns of privileging Muslim individuals would develop all over Anglophone America,” writes Gomez, “and they stand out in sharp relief against the anti-Muslim mania of the Spanish and Portuguese domains.” Why this difference?
A central reason is that these “new” encounters were an extension of centuries-old interactions in the Old World, and the differing treatments of Muslim slaves reflect the European states’ disparate relationships to North Africa and the wider Muslim world.
The Spanish and Portuguese states, who were battling Islam within their borders, were obsessed with the Moorish threat and would take great measures to prevent the importation of Muslim Africans to the New World, even persecuting those slaves suspected of being Muslim.
If the relationship between Africans and Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America was a continuation of a history of violence that had existed on the Iberian Pen- insula for centuries, “England had no such tradition and therefore had no reason to anticipate religious hostility in any a priori fashion.”5 One indicator of this comparative tolerance—even preference—for Muslim slaves that existed in the United States was the considerable writing (journalistic, scholarly, and even fic- tion) that emerged about Muslim slaves and their narratives.
Slave narratives are a precious resource for understanding the experiences of Muslim slaves in America and how they were treated and represented. The Muslim slaves who captured the American imagination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were all distinguished by their leadership qualities and learning.
Some of these individuals would become local legends spawning a spate of literature trying to explain their literacy and supposed “Oriental” origins. The firsthand accounts of contemporaries who encountered Muslim slaves have turned out to be critical in shedding light on the lives and habits of Muslim slaves.
Consider the reference in Georgia Conrad’s memoir, Reminiscences of a Southern Woman, to a Muslim family she met on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, in the mid-1850s: “On Sapelo Island near Darcen, I used to know a family of Negroes who worshipped Mahomet. They were tall and well-formed, with good features.
They conversed with us in English, but in talking among themselves they used a foreign tongue that no one else understood. The head of the tribe was a very old man named Bi-la-li. He always wore a cap that resembled a Turkish fez. These negroes held themselves aloof from others as if they were conscious of their own superiority.”6
Conrad was referring to Bilali, a Muslim slave who would gain notoriety for his literacy and valor. Wylly Spaulding, the grandson of Thomas Spaulding, who was Bilali’s master, also writes about his grandfather’s slaves of “Moorish or Arabian descent, devout Mussulmans, who prayed to Allah . . . morning, noon, and evening.”7
The said Bilali would make a lasting mark in the American cultural and liter- ary imagination, becoming the subject of two children’s books by Joel Chandler Harris—The Story of Aaron (So Named) the Son of Ben Ali (1896) and Aaron in the Wildwoods (1897);
he would be invoked as a Muslim ancestor in Tony Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon (1977), and mentioned in Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. Bilali gained notoriety after the War of 1812, during which he and eighty slaves successfully fought and prevented the British from invading Sapelo.
He is also remembered for an Arabic text that he wrote and had placed in his coffin along with his Quran and his prayer rug. The text—a collection of pieces from the Maliki legal text ar-Risala—attempted to reconcile the law of Islam with leading a principled life and showed how the author was struggling to maintain his iman in the land of America.8 Because of his outstanding qualities, Bilali would be appointed the manager of his master’s plantation, overseeing approximately five hundred slaves.
Ethnographic work in the 1930s about the Muslim community of Sapelo and St. Simon’s Island during the antebellum period—by linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner and the Georgia Writers’ Project—showed that the islands’ relative isolation allowed for a preservation of Muslim traditions.
This decades-old research on the Georgia Sea Islands has proven to be an invaluable source on Muslim slave…..
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