African American Muslims make up a large part of the American Muslim community, constituting at least 30% of the population. You may be familiar with African-American Muslims of the twentieth century, but Muslims were here long before that--nearly as long as Europeans. Black History month gives us a great opportunity to look back at the rich history of the Muslim African American presence in our country.
There is no doubt that Muslims made up a considerable proportion of the West Africans who were enslaved and brought to North, South, and Central America during the four grueling centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Conservative estimates put the number to be one in ten, but in states like South Carolina and Louisiana, their numbers made up as much as one out of every three.
After Christianity, Islam was the second old world religion implanted in the American colonies. It came as part of the West African background of many slaves, and they tried to preserve their Muslim identity as long and as best they could under the circumstances.
Here are a few Muslim African American heroes of that period who, despite facing inhuman and degrading conditions, did not let it rob them of their dignity. Their bodies were enslaved but their spirit remained free and submitted only to God.
1. Ayyub Ibn Sulayman (Maryland, early 1700s) : Thomas Bluett wrote a biography of Ayyub (Job), which he called “Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon”, which constitutes the beginnings of African-American literature in the United States. Ayyub was highly regarded for his good character, cheerful nature, love for learning, and devotion to Islam. He was able to gain his freedom and return to West Africa. On his return through England, he met the king of England and his family and won their respect as well as many precious gifts. He may have advised George Sale in his 1734 translation of the Qur'an.
He wrote out three Qur’ans from memory and translated Arabic for Sir Hans Sloane of the British Museum. He was elected to the Spalding Gentleman’s society, where Isaac Newton was also a member at the same time.
2. Yarrow Mamout (Maryland, the Revolutionary Period, late 1700s and early 1800s): Also known as Yaro Mahmud, he belonged to the era of the “Founding Fathers.” He won his freedom and became a well-to-to businessman in Maryland real estate. A literary portrait of him was painted by Charles Wilson Peale. Peale wrote in 1819 that Yarrow Mamout, toward the end of his life, claimed to be well over a hundred years old; he was known to be “honest, courageous, serious, and well liked by everyone.” Peale added: “He professes to be a Mahometan, and is often seen and heard in the streets singing Praises to God—and conversing with him.”
3. Prince (Mississippi, early 1800s) Ibrahim ibn Abdar-Rahman: Ibrahim, who was originally an African Muslim prince, lived before the Civil War at a time when abolition had become a hot issue in American politics. He carried himself nobly and had high self-esteem. Ibrahim’s Natchez, Mississippi master noted his aristocratic bearing and named him “Prince.” After great difficulty and long struggle, Ibrahim won his freedom and that of his American-born wife, Isabella, toward the end of his life. In failing health, the two made their way to Liberia in 1828, but Ibrahim died the following year before being able to see his kingdom again. The PBS documentary "Prince of Slaves" offers an excellent insight into his life and struggles, as does a book of the same title by history professor Terry Alford.
4. Tom (Georgia 1800s) Salih Bilali : Salih worked on the Thomas Spalding plantation on Sapelo Island, Georgia. He served his fellow Muslim slaves on the plantation as an imam (religious leader) and wrote an Arabic religious manual for them. His community of Muslim slaves remains “the only known antebellum African Muslim community in the United States.” It is said that they built structures on the plantation. When you compare these structures to mosques in West Africa, you see a very close resemblance. Some would say these were the earliest mosques built in America.
Muslim slaves were “a distinctive minority”—very special people—as the four preceding examples have shown. They often could write Arabic and had in some cases, a great deal of education. They also came from “cosmopolitan” backgrounds—because of their political importance in Africa and their backgrounds in trade. They also had self-confidence and self-esteem. They became an important leadership element in the American slave population.