Muslim Slaves: America’s First Muslims

With the approach of Black History month, rising Islamophobia, and the portrayal of Islam as a religion that is foreign to America, it is important for us to look back at the history of Muslims in this country. The identity of slaves who came to America is rarely mentioned in the media, movies, or history books. Most of the time African slaves are simply portrayed as non-Christians and their religion is rarely identified. The beginning of Islam in America and its association with African slaves is yet to receive the attention that it deserves. When we read about slaves in America, very little attention is given to who these slaves really were, what they believed, their morals and values. This is due to the fact that most who wrote about them were ignorant about such things themselves. Many historical works write about slavery from the master’s point of view. Such negligence in determining the culture and beliefs of slaves is very unfortunate given the fact that one of America’s most illustrious sons, Frederick Douglass, may have himself been a descendant of Muslims. [1]

We have limited material on the subject because the colonial and antebellum observers, who were ignorant of the Islamic faith, did not accurately record the religious and cultural expressions of the African slaves. However cumulative evidence does show that such observers were able to distinguish Muslim slaves from other slaves, but they had no interest to record detailed information about them.

Muslim slaves in America were quite significant in number, probably reaching into the thousands. Historian Michael Gomez points out that between 400,000 and 523,000 Africans came to America during the slave trade, at least 200,000 came from areas influenced by Islam, thus Muslims may have come to America in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. [2]

Many of the advertisements for runaway slaves had Muslim names on them even though they were rarely identified as such because their masters associated them with supply zones; however they were identified by name, place, or origin. Both of these sources tell us that these slaves were Muslim. Additionally, Muslim slaves made a genuine effort to practice and maintain their religious beliefs; they also educated fellow non-Muslim slaves about Islam, many of whom converted [3]

In the New World, African Muslim slaves were noted for their resistance to the institution of slavery. In Brazil, hundreds of African Muslim slaves planned and executed a major uprising in Bahia in 1835, they fought soldiers and civilians in the streets of Salvador. Additionally, some Muslim slaves played a role in the revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad in the Caribbean in 1839. [4]

Muslim slaves were also known for their strong adherence to Islam and even at times converting others to Islam. The slave Mohammad Sisei, was manumitted by his master because of his stubborn adherence to Islam and returned to Africa in 1811 [5]. Ex-slave Charles Ball, one of the first African Americans to publish an autobiography was in awe by the religious discipline and resistance to Christianity of a 19th century Muslim slave. He wrote:

At the time I first went to Carolina, there were a great many African slaves in the country. . . .I became intimately acquainted with some of these men. . . .I knew several, tho must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohammed. There was one man on this plantation, who prayed five times every day always turning his face to the East, when in the performance of his devotions. [6]

It is without a doubt that Muslim slaves and Islam have been part of this country since its creation. This is a fact that is deliberately or unintentionally overlooked and ignored by many. Islam and Muslims are constantly made to appear “new” or foreign to America. In actuality, Muslims were part of the many slaves brought to this country by force. Muslim blood, sweat, and tears have fell on the land of the Americas much earlier than the arrival of immigrants from other European countries. These slaves were separated from their families, homes, and childhood memories. They were robbed of their physical freedom, but their souls continued to be free. Although their bodies were enslaved by white masters, their souls always remained slaves to God.

In this month, we remember these souls who have suffered while laying down the foundations of the country that continues to demonize and dehumanize African Americans, Muslims, and other minorities. In this month, we celebrate their resilience, religious dedication, and resistance to injustice. Although many of these slaves are forgotten as part of American history, God will always remember them as He will others who have been oppressed for no reason other than being what God made them: And when the girl [who was] buried alive is asked. For what crime was she killed? (Q. 81: 8-9).

[1] Gomez, Michael. 1994. Muslims in Early America. The Journal of Southern History 60, no. 4: 671

[2] Ibid 683

[3] Ibid 672

[4] Turner, Richard B. 1997. Islam in the African American Experience. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 23.

[5]Turner, Richard B. 24[6] Ball, Charles. 1854. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man. Pittsburgh: John T. Skyrock 143.