The legacy of African Muslims in America, a deep and rich history, has been left unmentioned in the history books and forgotten by historians. For 400 years, Muslims from Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Mali among other nations were taken from their homelands and brought to the United States, the Caribbean and South America as slaves. These slaves, however, were not ordinary; they were scholars, warriors, princes and teachers. They were distinguished by their literacy, education, manners and dignity. Umar radi Allahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) said after the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, “we are a people who Allah has honored with Islam.” These Muslims carried with them the honor of Islam, and they continued to practice their religion as not only racial but religious minorities.
It is reported that 30% of slaves may have been Muslim. They were those slaves who organized and participated in the only successful slave rebellion. They were those slaves who wrote out the whole Qur’an, wrote their own biographies and who had biographies written about them. These were our Muslim brothers and sisters, whose status was raised because they carried with them the character of a true believer.
While today’s Muslims are seen as “un-American,” these African Muslims brought Islam to America as the second monotheistic religion after Christianity. They were a religious minority in a harsh environment. Some accepted Christianity out of fear while practicing Islam secretly, but many did not give up their religion under any circumstance. Some returned to their homes, while others remained in the United States until they died—taking their legacy with them.
Their story begins in West and Central Africa, hailing from nations that boasted Qur’an schools in nearly every city, wealth and a strong Islamic community. Although these Muslims were not Arab, they learned Arabic at a young age and Arabic became the language of their education and their business. When European travelers would visit these nations, they would be in awe at how educated the citizens were and how organized their country was. They noted their women scholars, their level of education and peaceful environment living with non-Muslims. Baron Roger, a governor of Senegal, said in 1828, “there are villages in which we find more Negroes who can read and write the Arabic, which for them is a dead and scholarly language that we would find peasants in our French countryside who can read and write French!”1 In fact, when these slaves were brought to the United States, the slave owners could not believe that they were African!
As Muslims in the West, we can learn many great lessons from our forgotten brethren. Their stories ignite within us a love for them and a bond to them that the believers have for one another.
There are elaborate and detailed explanations as to why Muslims were taken as slaves, such as war between tribes, and their conditions in Africa before their lives as slaves. However since these topics are beyond the scope of this article, we will post resources at the end for our readers to continue learning this history. This article will cover the stories of a few select slaves in honor of Black History Month and as a reminder to us, hundreds of years later, to not forget our past and the legacy of the African Muslims in the United States, the Caribbean and South America.
These biographies have been summarized from the book, “African Muslims in Antebellum America.”
“The Prince among Slaves”: Ibrahim Abd ar-Rahman
Ibrahim Abd ar-Rahman is well-known today from the documentary and book titled, “Prince among Slaves.” Even during his lifetime, he was a celebrity in the United States. He was born around 1762 in Timbo, what is now present day Guinea. He was a 6’2 strong man who came from an honorable tribe. His father was a famous military leader, and Abd ar-Rahman followed in his footsteps by training as a warrior and becoming a colonel in his twenties. He was also trained in the Islamic sciences, studying in famous centers of Islamic knowledge like Timbuktu.
While returning from one of his military expeditions, Ibrahim and his men were ambushed and captured by an enemy tribe. His captors sold him to the British who then took him on a long journey from Africa to New Orleans. It was a grueling journey that took about 6 months, ending in 1788.
When Ibrahim was sold, he was given the name “Thomas Foster” by his purchaser. Ibrahim, however, did not give into this name easily. He told his purchaser through his translator that he was a prince.
Naturally, his transition from a military leader to a slave was a difficult one. After a few weeks as a slave, Ibrahim ran away but eventually returned after realizing he had no plan or people to help him. Ibrahim was known to his masters and fellow slaves as someone of good character. They described him as someone who was never intoxicated, mean or lazy2. He eventually converted to Christianity because of the hostile environment, although historians note that he never gave up Islam. Ibrahim eventually married and had children.
Ibrahim came close to freedom when he met a man that knew his father in Gambia. In 1807, John Coates Cox recognized Ibrahim when he was buying vegetables from him. Cox happened to have been in Timbo while Ibrahim’s father was ruling. He became ill during his journey and Ibrahim’s father nurtured him back to health. After Cox recognized Ibrahim, he tried to arrange for his purchase and freedom but Ibrahim’s owner refused to sell him.
After this encounter, word traveled of Ibrahim’s story and he became somewhat of a celebrity. He was taken around the country in “Moorish” costume, giving interviews and receiving personal as well as public invitations to visit with people. Although these appearances gave Ibrahim a chance to tell his story, he endured the ignorance of the people who described him as a barbarian. These public appearances helped Ibrahim gain freedom for him and his wife. Through the monetary funds he raised, he and his wife left for Africa after 40 years in slavery.
On February 7th, 1892, at the age of 65, Ibrahim and his wife left for their long journey back to Africa. It is reported that he immediately reverted to Islam when he stepped foot on African soil. He died in his hometown of Timbo on July 6th, 1829.
“African Nobleman”: Job Ben Solomon
The story of Job Ben Solomon is a fascinating and inspiring one. He was born as Ayyub ibn Sulayman ibn Ibrahim around 1702 in present day Senegal. He hailed from a family of religious scholars, and followed in these footsteps by studying under his father. At the young age of 15, he was co-Imam with his father and married soon after. While on a trading expedition, Job was captured in enemy territory by men who shaved his head (the sign of a prisoner of war) and sold him to the British. He was then taken and bought to work on the tobacco fields of Maryland.
He was from those Muslim slaves who did not convert; rather he openly worshiped Allah by praying in public and adhering to the Islamic dietary guidelines. Like Ibrahim, Job ran away from his plantation only to be captured and put in jail. He was returned to his master shortly afterward.
Job sent a letter to his father about his condition and his sadness that found its way into the hands of a British man who was a philanthropist. This man, James Oglethorpe, helped free Job. He was a very lucky person, having only spent three years as a slave. In 1733, Job began his journey back to Africa by first going to England.
While on his journey to England, he wrote the Qur’an from memory. One of the men who were traveling with him was inspired by his religious devotion and overall friendly countenance with others on the ship so he taught him English. In less than three weeks, Job was already able to write single syllables.3
Upon reaching England, Job spent more than a year there and was treated with great respect and was beloved by many; receiving gifts and donations for his journey back to Africa. While in England, Job left his mark by writing the Qur’an three times from memory, and is to have reported to have helped with the famous George Sale translation of the Qur’an. He even called people to Islam by refuting their claims of Jesus’ divinity. He was also elected to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, which may have put him in the company of Sir Isaac Newton and Alexander Pope.4
Job finally returned to Africa on July 4th 1734. It took until February 1735 for him to return home, because of a tribal war taking place near his hometown. His father had passed by that time, and his first wife had re-married. Job still received a grand welcome home party. He died in 1773.
His narrative has reached us through the conversations a painter had with him while painting his portrait. His date of birth, death or life in Africa is not known, but we know from his slave master’s wife that he was a well-mannered man and spent nearly a century in America. She mentions that she bought him while he was a teenager. Due to his good behavior, he was freed after finishing the task of laying the bricks for his master’s home in Maryland. He eventually bought his own home in Georgetown and was known to the people of his town for praying in the streets and sobriety.
In December of 1807, S’Quash, as he was called, was brought to South Carolina. He was a huge man who had to be hog-tied to keep restrained. He was known to be an excellent horseman and literate in Arabic. Historians point to his marriage to a Muslim slave from Sudan to show that he was also a Muslim.
This man, whose name is unknown, is the only man who detailed his horrible journey from Africa to America to an interviewer, Charles Ball, hence why historians refer to him as “Ball’s Muslim.” One of his famous quotes about the “ugly” appearance of his white captors was referenced to him as “the man who prayed five times a day.” He narrated a 19 page narrative to Ball, who was moved by his deep religiosity.
Historians say that this man was probably a Tuareg Muslim from Mali, who ended up as a slave by other Muslim enemies.
He spoke of the terrible sights he saw while on the slave ship, such as witnessing newborn babies being thrown overboard and then their mothers leaping after them, and the death of many caused by the hot temperature. He went on to narrate how scarce the food was and by the time he landed in South Carolina around 1807, he was unable to stand or straighten his limbs for a week.
Abu Bakr as- Siddeeq
Abu Bakr was born in the famous Islamic center of Timbuktu in 1794 to a rich and high level Mandingo family. He was a student until he was captured as a prisoner of war in present day Ghana around 1807. He was of the many Muslims forced into a baptism in Jamaica.
In 1833, an abolitionist Richard Robert Madden was given the role of overseeing the new freed slaves of Jamaica, and he gave special attention to the Muslims because he had experience with the Arabic language. Madden noted that Abu Bakr was one of the literate slaves who wrote his own biography in Arabic, where he mentioned, “the faith of our families is the faith of Islam.”
Shortly afterward, Abu Bakr was asked by an explorer to lead him on an expedition from Morocco to Timbuktu. He was then able to return to his homeland and to his family.
These few and short biographies only offer a glimpse into the deep and poignant history of the African Muslim slaves, and their journey from freedom to slavery and sometimes back to freedom.
We hope that with this extremely brief introduction to this profound topic that you are able to appreciate the legacy of these Muslims and that you continue in learning about them and their heritage.
Some resources on this topic:
1. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf
2. African Muslims in Antebellum America by Allan D. Austin
3. Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean from before Columbus to the Present by Abdullah Hakim Quick
4. Muslims in American History: A Forgotten Legacy by Jerald F. Dirks
5. Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas by Michael A. Gomez
6. Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia by Jose Reis.
7. Muslims in America: Seven Centuries of History (1312-1998) by Amir Nashid Ali Muhammad