Slavery is a well known part of American history, however, very little is ever mentioned about who these slaves were. It often surprises many that a significant number of slaves who were brought to the “New World” self-identified as Muslims. What is interesting is that many accounts show that African slaves were strategically taken from different parts of Africa and different tribes so that they could not speak to one another and plan revolts or escape. However, where many white colonists believed that these Africans to be different, it turns out many shared the common religion of Islam and therefore many were able to communicate or use Arabic as common ground. Muslim slaves were able to preserve their liturgical language both through writing (where applicable) and through oral recitation and passing on of the religion to descendants. Many slave owners fervently opposed this and required their slaves to convert to Christianity, take on Christian names or attend Christian religious services. A slave’s ability to read and write in another language (and foreign script) was seen as a threat to the power of a slave owner.
While it was dangerous for Muslims to openly practice Islam, many kept it within the home and had secret group worship. Many were forced to convert to Christianity and others falsely “converted” to adhere to rules and laws established in the colonies. Others chose to defy those orders and publicly practiced Islam such as in the islands of Georgia and in the Caribbean. Although some Muslim slaves were forced to convert through physical force and abuse they did not easily renounce their religion and fought hard to continue following their faith including the fundamentals of Islam. Their strong religious beliefs led them to refuse conversion to Catholicism or Protestantism. In cases of absolute necessity, they would outwardly convert.
Looking at this history of the treatment of the Islam and the Arabic language in colonial America, the derogatory view of these central aspects to Muslim and African slave identity remain in line with much of today’s views of Arabic/Muslims in America. There is still an irrational fear of Arabic, both in reading and writing where several recent cases involve whole interruptions of airline flights because of phone calls in Arabic or even students holding Arabic flashcards (to name a few).
According to the traditions and teachings of Islam, each Muslim is obligated to pray five times a day, fast the month of Ramadan, perform pilgrimage, and give charity. How could Muslim slaves be able to stay true to their beliefs while being coerced to change their name and to eat pork? The many stories of slaves remaining steadfast in the preservation of their faith in the most excruciating of circumstances are remarkable. Some slaves, such as the famous Kunta Kinte never allowed his master to gain power over him and refused to change his name. As he was being lashed his master would ask him repeatedly what was his name, every time he answered, “Kunta Kinte.” Some slaves such as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was forced to change his name to Job ben Soloman. Diallo put his faith in Allah and when found in a dangerous situation he would recite the Islamic testimony of faith (shahada). Diallo would also leave his post with the cattle to go pray in the woods. It was due to education and his faith in Islam that saved him and freed him from his bondage. Although most of the praying was in private there were instances of slaves praying the five prayers in public. Some Muslims were even able to hold prayer groups, specifically on Fridays, which is quite remarkable.
A former slave by the name of Muhammad Yarrow has a remarkable story that remain unknown to many. Because he was able to read and write in Arabic, historians believe he came from a wealthy Muslim family in West Africa. He was enslaved and brought to Maryland where he served as a slave for 44 years before winning his freedom. He purchased 3324 Dent Pl. NW and became a financer who lent funds to merchants. He also owned stock in the Columbia Bank of Georgetown. Many slaves had the Quran already memorized, which helped them keep the Arabic language by reciting it and/or writing it. This helped them cope with the unimaginable pains of slavery. They used their knowledge of Arabic to communicate with each other, write things down for their masters, some were even able to write to their families back at home. For example Omar Ibn Said who was an Islamic scholar who was taken to become a slave in America. Omar Said wrote a chapter in the Quran about victory, while his master believed he was translating a Lord’s Prayer. Omar was able to keep his faith despite the difficult circumstances he was in.
To say that the slaves simply practiced Islamic rituals is an understatement, it is more accurate to say that they breathed Islam. Islam was their source of inspiration, hope, and consultation in the most trying of moments. These are the unknown and unsung heroes of American and Islamic history. Many slaves will never be known, remembered, or celebrated. But in this month when we reflect on black history, we send a prayer on their souls. May they be in a place of everlasting freedom, happiness, and bliss. May their pain and suffering in this world be replaced with joy and elation in the hereafter.