African American Muslim Experiences

Slavery - Colonial and Antebellum Periods

Introduction

In his book titled Exchanging our Country Marks, historian and scholar Michael A. Gomez states, “It is generally understood that in the course of contact between the Old and New Worlds, Christianity and Judaism were introduced into the latter and indeed facilitated its cultural transformation. For the most part, Europeans were the carriers of these religions, and given their success in colonizing the Americas, religions closely associated with them have received scholarly consideration at the expense of other, non-European (but nonetheless equally Old World) beliefs.” (“Prayin’ on Duh Bead,” 59)

Islam is the specific “non-European (but nonetheless equally Old World)” belief Gomez is referring to. In his book, Exchanging our Country Marks, Gomez devotes an entire chapter to Islam in early America titled “Prayin’ on Duh Bead.” (59-87) By comparing the areas of West Africa sending the largest numbers of enslaved Africans to British North America and the degree to which Islam influenced these areas, Gomez concludes “that of the 481,000 Africans who came to British North America during the slave trade, nearly 230,000 came from areas influenced by Islam. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Muslims may have come to America by the thousands, if not tens of thousands.” (“Prayin’ on Duh Bead,” 66)

This module provides resources for learning about and teaching the history of the spread of Islam to West Africa, the influence of Islam on West African civilizations, the transport of African Muslims to North America by Europeans during the transatlantic slave trade, the experiences of enslaved and free African Muslims, and ways in which the presence of African Muslims in colonial and early America continues to resonate today. Along with Christianity and Judaism, Islam is undeniably part of the cultural fabric of United States history.

Readings

Gomez, Michael L. “Prayin’ on Duh Bead,” in Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, Michael Gomez (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), (59-87).

  • Chapter 4, “Prayin’ on Duh Bead,” integrates the history of the expansion of Islam into West Africa, the extent and circumstances of African conversion, and the early presence of African Muslims in North America.

Gomez, Michael L. Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 29-55, 59-81,103.

  • Chapter 3, “Africans and the Islamic World,” presents an overview of the many roles Africans played beginning in the seventh century and throughout the spread of Islam across the Middle East, North Africa, Iberian Peninsula, and elsewhere. This reading provides an important foundation for understanding under what circumstances many West Africans adopted Islam and subsequently brought their faith with them as African slaves to North America.
  • Chapter 4, “Transatlantic Moment,” turns it attention to the New World with a discussion of the transatlantic slave trade. Gomez places important emphasis on the regions of Africa where slavers acquired their highest percentage of African people to be forced into the Atlantic slave trade. Other sources will speak to the relationship between these high yielding slave regions and the presence of Islam.
  • Although a focused study on the presence of Muslim slaves in British North American is not the purpose of this book by Michael Gomez, he does note on page 103, “Recent research has shown that the number of Muslims entering North America from West Africa was much higher than formerly believed.” Other scholars in this module will take up this topic.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah, African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998) See Chapter 1 “African Muslims, Christian Europeans, and the Atlantic Slave Trade” (4-48)

  • Chapter 1 of Diouf’s book includes a discussion of the establishment of Islam in West Africa, literacy within the African Muslim population, Islamic law and slavery, European approaches to slavery, Muslim captivity within an African historical context, and circumstances surrounding the captivity of Muslims for the slave trade.

Hanson, John H. “Islam and African Societies” (97-114) in Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara, Editors. Africa, 3rd Edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

“’There are Good Men in America, but All Are Very Ignorant of Africa’ – and Its Muslims” (3-29) in Allan D. Austin African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

“Across the Black Atlantic: The First Muslims in North America” (1-22) in Muslims in America: A Short History. Curtis IV, Edward E. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

“Muslims in Early America.” Michael A. Gomez (76-111) in Spickard, Paul, Editor. Race and Immigration in the United States. New York and London: Routledge, 2012.

GhaneaBassiri, Kambiz. A History of Islam in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). See Chapter 2, “Islamic Beliefs and Practice in Colonial and Antebellum America” (59-94)

Gomez, Michael A. “Africans, Culture and Islam in the Lowcountry” (103-130) in Philip Morgan, ed. African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

Curtis IV, Edward E. Curtis. The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014) See Chapter 6, “African American Muslims in the United States: Making Physical and Metaphysical Homelands” (135-146).

“Balali: African Patriarch in Georgia” (pp. 265-307) in Austin, Allan D. African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984.

“Sapelo Island” (158-172) in Drums and Shadows: Survival Stories Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. Georgia Writers’ Project, Savannah Unit, Work Projects Administration. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1940.

“God and Man: Religion” (134-143) in Pollitzer, William S. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Primary Sources

Omar ibn Sayyid, The Autobiography of Omar ibn Sayyid (1831), in Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States. Edward E. Curtis IV, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) (5-9)

“The Autobiography of a Muslim American Slave” (23-24) in Muslims in America: A Short History. Curtis IV, Edward E. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

“A Muslim Merchant, Ayubah Suleiman Diallo, Recalls His Capture and Enslavement (1733) (45-47) in Mintz, Steven, Editor. African American Voices: A Documentary Reader, 1619-1877. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Internet Sources

“Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa”
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa” is only one link in this impressive site created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the study of arts in Africa and Islamic influences. This site includes timelines, thematic essays, maps, and index terms. Historical records reveal that large numbers of enslaved Africans from sub-Sahara West Africa were brought to British North America. Prior to the growth of the Atlantic slave trade, Arab traders and travelers brought Islam to this region of African and the religion spread over time. Explore this link and learn how “Eventually, sub-Saharan Africans developed their own brand of Islam, often referred to as ‘African Islam,’ with specific brotherhoods and practices.” It is this “African Islam” that many enslaved West Africans brought with them to British North America.

“The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes”
315 years. 20,528 voyages. Millions of lives.
By Andrew Kahn and Jamelle Bouie
Each dot on this interactive site represents individual slave ships moving from African to a location in the western hemisphere. Pause the map and click on one or more of the dots to learn the country flag of the ship (for example, Spain, France, British), the origin and destination of the ship, the years it sailed, and how many Africans were transported on this particular ship. Click “MORE INFO” to learn more about each individual voyage. Scroll to the bottom of the interactive map for a rich, brief narrative about the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”
This website provides an abundance of information about more than 35,000 voyages across the Atlantic Ocean that transported over 12 million Africans into slavery in the Americas. Educators and students can explore and study timelines, maps, tables, a voyages database, images, and an African names database. There are also lesson plans and additional web resources for educators.

Echoes and Shadows of Islam and Africans in America – Late 18th Century

Introduction

By the late 1800s perceptible signs of Islamic religious practices by native-born black Americans had been effectively erased by the experiences of slavery. Mutations of Islamic cultural practices over time embedded in slave communities, however, were not so easily erased. Examples of such mutated cultural practices include naming patterns, religious customs, and musical traditions and instruments. Music is likely the most visible of these.

Voices of the Muslim World and Southern African American Blues”

Open the first link below and read Sylviane A. Diouf’s short essay discussing the West African Muslims who landed in this country as slaves (roughly 100,000) and how they were able to preserve their musical style that evolved over time as the blues. According to Diouf, “Two American specificities can thus explain the emergence of the blues. Of all the countries in the Western hemisphere, the United States received the highest proportion of men and women from Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Guinea; and it is also the only place where drumming was forbidden. So it is not by chance that the blues evolved only there. What makes this music so different from Caribbean and Afro-South American music is specifically the presence of Sahelian/Arabic/Islamic stylistic elements. They can be found in the instrument playing techniques, the melodies, and the singing style.”

After reading Diouf’s short essay and listening to the two audio experiences she provides at the end of her essay, open and listen to the following links:

Are you able to recognize rural Mississippi blues as one of the “most enduring and recognizable contributions of West African Muslims to American culture?” Why or why not?

For additional information see:
“Muslim roots of the blues/The music of famous American blues singers reaches back through the South to the culture of West Africa”

Readings

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah, African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998) See Chapter 6 “The Muslim Legacy” (179-210).

Kubik, Gerhard. Africa and the Blues (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999).

  • In his book, Africa and the Blues, Gerhard Kubik, ethnomusicologist and cultural anthropologist, meticulously traces the roots of African cultural music in 18 African nations located in regions of Africa where the greatest majority of enslaved Africans were brought to North American British colonies and the new United States. His research weaves together African musical traits, how these traits merged and mutated in America, and the emergence of the musical phenomena known as the blues. Kubik argues the roots of African American blues music are in the African cultural world.

Bailey, Cornelia Walker. God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia (New York: Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 2000).

  • Cornelia Walker Bailey has lived her entire life on Sapelo Island located in the Georgia Sea Islands. She is a direct descendent of Bilali Mohammed, a Muslim slave trained in Africa to be a Muslim leader. Bilali’s slave master on Sapelo Island appointed Bilali overseer of all other slaves on the island. This book is Bailey’s rich memoir of life on Sapelo Island infused throughout with the island’s Muslim slave history and evidence of Muslim traditions still present today. Because of the relative isolation of life on the island, slaves were able to openly practice and preserve Muslim traditions for generations.