Ever wondered what religious practices your African ancestors followed before arriving in America? While many observed indigenous tribal beliefs, Islamic historians estimate that between 7 and 30 percent of African slaves brought to America were Muslims. As a classic example, in the television series Roots, Alex Haley portrays his black immigrant ancestor as a follower of Muhammad. Historians recognized this interesting and little known fact by identifying historic American texts written in Arabic, pinpointing the location of prominent slave recruiting grounds in Africa, identifying Muslim given names amongst American slaves, and uncovering personal accounts of prominent Islamic African-Americans.
At the time Columbus discovered America, Islamic Empires held greater power in the Western World than European kingdoms. They controlled the overland trading routes that transported oriental goods from the Far East to Europe, ruling from India to Western Africa. According to Allan D. Austin in African Muslims in Antebellum America, Islam had penetrated areas such as Senegal, Timbuktu, and the Lake Chad area in Africa by 1100 C.E. From these localities westward to the Atlantic Ocean, slave traders kidnapped the majority of their victims. The rise of European maritime trade in the 16th and 17th centuries triggered the decline of Islamic political supremacy and introduced new nations as world leaders.
Historians have identified many authentic Arabic texts written in the United States before the Civil War. Many of these manuscripts have been reproduced in the books listed below. When translated, most turn out to be memorized sections of the Qu'ran, revealing slaves' struggles to maintain differing religious beliefs in an oppressive Christian nation. These writings also reveal high levels of education attained by the authors in Africa prior to enslavement and forced emigration. Unfortunately slavery has largely silenced our present knowledge of these educated people. It is known that slave masters often placed Muslim slaves as supervisors over their fellow bondsmen.
How can you know if your ancestors were Islamic? Many people may never be able to prove this fact. One way to determine an ancestor's religion is by studying his or her given names. Many slaves were forced to accept Christian names; however, some kept their Muslim names. Austin discovered men living in the Antebellum South named Abd ar-Rahman, Bilali Mohammed, Salih Bilali, Umar ibn Said, and Yarrow Mamout, who clearly maintained Islamic names. One of these men, Abd ar-Rahman, after gaining his freedom, went as far as to meet President John Quincy Adams on his trek back to his native Africa. An important concept to keep in mind is that when non-Muslim American scribes phonetically spelled Islamic names, what they wrote may show little similarity to actual spellings. For example, Austin believes that a runaway slave named "Osman," was actually a misspelling of the more common Muslim name "Usuman."
Although the American system of slavery largely silenced the religious practices of African-American Muslims in the past, current research is shedding new light on this interesting topic.
Read more about it:
Austin, Allan. African Muslims in Antebellum America, a Sourcebook. New York: Garland Press, 1984.
Khan, Shoilee S. "Muslim Africans: A Past of Which to Speak." Internet, available at http://youngmuslims.ca/articles/display.asp?ID=92. Accessed: July 6, 2004.
Quick, Abdullah Hakim. Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean from Before Columbus to the Present. London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd., 1998.
Weiner, Leo. Africa and the Discovery of America. Philadelphia: Innes and Sons, 1920.