Dr Yusuf Progler’s review of the new, abridged edition of Allan D. Austin’s African Muslims in Anti-Bellum America (Crescent International, February 1-15, 1999) highlighted an issue of which few Muslims are aware. But Austin’s work - a pioneer in the field when it was originally published in 1984 - suffers from drawbacks which limit its appeal, particularly for Muslim readers. One is that Austin is hazy on Islamic beliefs and practice. Another is that he focuses on a few individual Muslims who left substantial literary and other records, without extrapolating to the broader Muslim experience.
Sylviane Diouf’s new book, Servants of Allah, is far broader in its approach, examining the Muslim experience thematically, using a far wider range of sources. The result is a presentation which is far more reader-friendly.
Diouf begins, very usefully, by looking at the situation in west Africa during the period when Africans were shipped to the ‘new world’ as slaves, explaining that ‘the history of Africa... cannot be dissociated from the history of the people of African descent in the New World.’ By the time of the first shipments, in 1501, Islam was well-established in the region even though it was not the religion of the majority. There were both Muslim rulers governing largely non-Muslim populations, and large Muslim communities living peaceably under non-Muslim rulers. Having come to the region with traders, ulama and rulers, in many areas Islam had become a religion of the masses, regarded and accepted as an indigenous faith.
At the same time, the west African Muslims were part of the larger Islamic world, which stretched from the Atlantic and Europe to Central Asia, China and south-east Asia. West African Muslim society, Diouf points out, ‘had direct economic, religious and cultural ties to the Maghreb, Egypt and the Middle East, and was evolving in what would today be called a global market of ideas and goods.’ In particular, she emphasises that Islam and literacy were directly linked. Arabic was the common language of scholarship, trade and politics, education was almost entirely in the hands of the Muslims, and Islamic law was the norm even where non-Muslims ruled.
Diouf’s account of how European slavery came to these regions is cool and detached, but moving nonetheless. The first west African Muslims to become slaves to the Europeans were being taken to Spain even before the last Muslims rulers in Iberian peninsula were defeated in 1492. These slaves were forcibly converted to Catholicism; the Spanish were wary of the power of Islam. The same fear later led them to ban the direct transfer of slaves from west Africa to the ‘new world’; slaves were first to be brought to Spain to be converted.
Diouf also emphasises that ‘Muslims did not arrive in the New World by accident. There were political, religious and social reasons that they were victims of the slave trade.’ One major reason she highlights was the disintegration of the Muslim Jolof empire between 1490 and 1512. This had ruled much of what is now Senegal through vassal kingdoms, some Muslim and some non-Muslim. As some of these kingdoms revolted against the Jolofs, jihad movements led by ulama emerged to resist the break-up of the Muslim polity and to demand its reform (as they did in virtually every part of the Muslim world as political power declined).
As Jolof fell, many of these mujahideen were captured and sold into Spanish slavery, along with large numbers of Muslim peoples, such as the Wolof, Mandingo, Tukulor and Fulani. Time and again this pattern is repeated, notably after the Tubenan jihad of Nasir Al-Din in 1673-74, and decades later during the jihad of Uthman dan Fodio. Not only were so many African slaves Muslim, therefore, but among them were the most committed and learned of the community. Diouf’s discussion of this African background is one of the strongest parts of the book.
Most of it, however, is concerned the Muslims’ experiences in America. The ground Diouf is treading here is not new; but her marshalling of sources, and her thematic organization of her findings, are exceptional. She begins by discussing the ways in which Muslims maintained their faith and rituals, in the most appalling living circumstances and often despite being forced to convert to Christianity. While many of the literate and educated Muslims were discriminated against, or even killed, ordinary Muslims showed remarkable fortitude.
Diouf tells the stories of several slaves who were forced to convert, but reverted to Islam decades later, when circumstances permitted, having presumably remained Muslims in secret in the meantime. Notably, many of the strategies the slaves developed in these circumstances are similar to those developed by other Muslims forced to live under non-Muslim rule, such as in Andalusia and Tartaristan.
Under these circumstances, the Islam which came from Africa eventually died out; the most recent signs of it that Diouf can find are in the memories of elderly African Americans that their elders performed rituals which seem similar to those of Islam.
But cultural clues to the slaves’ origins and faith are easier to find. As recently as 1949, for example, linguists recorded the ‘day words’ used by some former slave communities in Georgia as Altine for Monday (from Ithnain), Talata for Tuesday, Araba for Wednesday, Alkamisa or Aramisa for Thursday, and Arajuma for Friday. Versions of Islamic names were also widely used by African-Americans long before the arrival of modern Islam in America.
Muslim slaves did more than just try to maintain their personal Islam. Diouf reports numerous episodes of Muslim slaves having organized themselves collectively to provide for their Islamic needs, and to protect and promote Islam through education, da’wah and even jihad efforts which were brutally suppressed. This area of her book is relatively weak; the reader is left hungry for more information and analysis. Another weakness is that Diouf is unable to reflect the full range of Muslim experiences in different parts of the ‘new world’ and at different times.
The paucity of knowledge in this area of history - in the historiographies of both America and Islam - requires more than a single book to be made up. Sylviane Diouf’s book is, however, a major contribution to this task, which other Muslims must take up.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999