The Muslim legacy in African American history is receiving a lot of scholarly and popular attention lately. Even Hollywood has had to include Muslim characters in its historical reconstructions. But this was not always the case. Though Muslim historians have written for decades about the Islamic identity of Africans kidnapped into American slavery, mainstream historians ignored or downplayed this research in their work.
Then, in the early 1970s, when prominent American historians rejected out of hand novelist Alex Haley’s assertion that the lead character in his acclaimed work Roots was a Muslim, a young professor of English and Afro-American Studies became intrigued and embarked on his own research into African American Muslim history. That was over 20 years ago, and since then Allan D. Austin has become a respected scholar in the field, recently serving in the Dubois Institute at Harvard for his work.
Austin’s original research led to the ambitious and oft-cited reference work, African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook (1984). But that volume soon went out of print and became a hard to find item. It also suffered from poor translation of Arabic documents, and some confusion with respect to Islamic doctrines. However, the original work did attract a number of Muslim historians and enthusiasts to Austin’s cause.
Since the publication of the sourcebook, many people have helped unearth additional sources for African American Muslim history, and have improved the translation of Arabic documents and aided Austin’s overall understanding of Islam. The author thanks in particular Muhammad al-Ahari of Chicago, as ‘an indefatigable tracer of lost Muslims.’ The present volume, newly extracted and bridged from the original sourcebook, is a long awaited and carefully updated return to print of Austin’s valuable research.
Austin begins by discussing obstructions to knowledge of African Muslims in the Americas. From literature and history, to missionary polemics, there seems to have been a collective denial about the presence of African Muslims. Part of this is due to the way in which African Muslim histories and lives were intertwined with other aspects of American history.
The presence of Muslims in the slave population challenged and confused white slave owners, who had constructed a paternal and self-serving image of Africans as without religion, culture, or language. This is not to suggest that Africans had none of these attributes - quite the contrary - but that Muslim expressions of what was considered to be ‘civilization’ were uncomfortably similar to white norms.
Muslims had a literary tradition and believed in Holy Books, and they knew Biblical stories of Jesus and Moses (upon them both be peace), which were recognized by Christian captors. Yet, Muslims also had the Qur’an, which was in a non-European language, and which superseded the Bible, so many whites could not see Islam as anything but a Christian heresy.
Despite these prejudices and obstructions, knowledge of African Muslims has survived. A growing collection of Arabic documents provides the most solid evidence for the presence of African Muslims in the Americas. Buried in archives and libraries for decades, many of these valuable documents are now seeing the light of research.
Ranging from letters and autobiographical statements, to personal reflections and quotations from the Qur’an, African Muslims made ample use of their literary tradition while in American captivity. Sometimes, their ability to write Arabic was seen as a novelty by whites, who on occasion asked slaves and freedmen to reproduce the exotic looking twists and turns of Arabic script.
In other instances, Africans in captivity wrote eloquent letters in Arabic to Muslim rulers overseas, asking to be manumitted from their Christian owners. While many of these Arabic documents were no doubt intercepted, lost or destroyed, many others have survived, and Austin reproduces several of them in photographs and in translation. And, as similar work continues, more will likely be found.
Being recognized as a Muslim in American slavery had its difficulties, and this must have provoked many Muslim slaves into hiding their faith to protect their skin. Still, many persisted and there are some ironic cases on record. In one notable instance, the cruel son of a white slave owner constantly tormented a Muslim slave as he bowed in prayer. When the Muslim got an eye infection from dirt kicked in his face, a doctor who treated him took an interest in his story, which eventually led to his repatriation to Africa. Other Christian slave owners and missionaries incessantly tried to convert Muslims to their Christian faith, sometimes even providing Bibles in Arabic in the hope that Muslims would make the switch to a new faith in the same language.
But many Christians did not know anything about Arabic. In one case, missionary zeal in converting an African Muslim, coupled with ignorance of Arabic, led to an interesting example of the subversive use of language. After working with his Muslim charge on Christian doctrine, a white man asked that the Christian Lord’s Prayer be written in his native African tongue. The Muslim, Abdul Rahman, wrote several lines in Arabic. The Christian then wrote that he witnessed the ‘foregoing copy of the Lord’s Prayer’ on December 1828, and then filed the letter away. But many decades later, when someone who knew the Arabic read it, the letter was revealed to contain the ‘Fatihah.’ Abdul Rahman had duped his Christian interlocutor.
In addition to their language, Muslims were often known by their names: Abdul Rahman, Ayyub Sulayman, Abu Bakr Siddiq, Muhammad Ali, and Salih Bilali, to name only a few. While many Muslims were given Christian names by their owners, as was general practice in slave America, and while others must have dropped their Muslim names in dissimulation, Christians also seem to have used the Biblical spelling of Muslim names. So, for example, we find Ayyub Sulayman referred to as Job Solomon.
Austin notes that this name-switching may be a factor in further identifying African Muslims in the historical record. He suggests, for instance, that a slave name like Bailey could have been a corruption of Bilali, which in this case is significant, since famed African American abolitionist Frederick Douglas’s full name included Bailey. Reading through the chapters with this in mind, one wonders if a name like Ben Sullivan was from Ibn Sulayman.
Other Muslims are recognizable by their actions, with slave owners and descendants of slaves noting and recalling many practices and habits of Black men and women which suggest that they were Muslims. For example, a plantation owner in Georgia noticed that each morning at dawn, one of his slaves would bow down facing East. On other occasions, practices resembling ablution and fasting suggest a Muslim presence.
During the 1930s, descendants of slaves on the Georgia Sea Islands recalled their ancestors as praying on mats and using beads in prayer. While the jihad tradition of West Africa played an important role in slave rebellions in Brazil, few researchers seem to have noticed that this might have been a factor in North America. Even so, some sources suggest that the Amistad slave ship revolt included Muslim participants.
In the 1970s, a group of musicologists traced Black musical traditions to Qur’anic recitation and to the music of West African Muslims. In short, there remains much material to be mined, and Austin’s work ought to be seen as a beginning, as an invitation into the study of what will continue to be a rich legacy.
Muslimedia: Feb.1-15, 1999