African Muslims in Early America
Islam has been a piece of the American religious fabric since the first settlers arrived in North America.
While we do not know exactly how many African Muslims were enslaved and transported to the New World, there are clues in legal doctrines, slaveholders’ documents, and existing cultural and religious traditions. African Muslims were caught in the middle of complicated social and legal attitudes from the very moment they landed on our Eastern shores, and collections at the Museum help provide insight into their lives.
I knew several [people] who must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans [Muslims]; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohamed. 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 devotion.Charles Ball1837
African Muslims were an integral part of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as part of colonial expeditions. One of these explorers, Mustafa Zemmouri (also known as Estevanico), was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far west as New Mexico.
African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.
The founding fathers were aware of Islam and the presence of Muslims in America. Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Quran, included Islam in many of his early writings and political treatises. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson argued in the proposed “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” that, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Unfortunately, this language was amended before ratification to remove references to non-Christian groups. Jefferson was not the only statesman who recognized religions other than Christianity in his work. However, their knowledge of and theoretical openness to Islam did not stop them from enslaving African Muslims.
True freedom embraces the Mahomitan [Muslim] and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion. Richard Henry Lee, Letter to James Madison 1784
Despite significant obstacles, enslaved Muslims used their faith and bilingual literacy to build community, resist slavery and pursue freedom. They left numerous written accounts of their experiences in America in the form of letters, diaries and autobiographies, most of them in Arabic. And they strategically used Arabic to communicate with one another and to undermine slavery. Bilali Mohammad and Salih Bilali were known to be “intimate friends”; Omar ibn Sayyid and Lamine Kebe wrote letters to one another, and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo sent an Arabic letter to his father in Africa. They also wrote pages of Arabic for their slaveholders and their friends. But instead of writing what the recipients believed was a Bible verse or the Lord’s Prayer, they wrote Quranic verses that condemned slavery, made genealogical lists, and even pleaded to return home to Africa.
Indeed I wish to be seen [again] in our land called Africa in a place of the sea called Gambia. Omar ibn Sayyid 1819
Muslims also used literacy to leverage their freedom through their labor. Slave owners exploited Muslims’ ability to read and write, as well as their professional backgrounds. So enslaved Muslims used jobs such as bookkeepers, personal servants, and coachmen to gain physical mobility, learn American business practices, and access information normally only shared within white society. Yarrow Mamout of Georgetown, Washington, D.C., was one such example. Mamout, enslaved by the Beall family, was known as a jack of all trades: he made charcoal, worked on the ship Maryland, weaved baskets and made bricks. He was able to earn his own money from these endeavors, and a brick-making agreement with Beall’s wife eventually led to his manumission in April 1807. After 44 years of being enslaved, Mamout became an entrepreneur, bank investor and homeowner in Georgetown, where he would walk the streets singing the praises of Allah.
Yarrow owns a House and lotts and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown … he professes to be a mahometan [Muslim], and is often seen and heard in the Streets singing Praises to God. Charles Willson Peale 1818
However, Muslims also experienced open hostility and hardship when practicing their faith. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was pelted with dirt by a white boy in Kent Island, Maryland, as he prayed; others were forced to wear sacrilegious clothing, ignore dietary rules and religious fasting, or abstain from the required prayers. An unnamed “Moorish slave” in Louisiana confirmed this hardship in 1822 when he “lamented … that his situation as a slave in America prevents him from obeying the dictates of his religion.” Nevertheless, they persevered and lived their faith. Many became pseudo-converts to Christianity (called taqiyah) to protect themselves and their families and they had to hide their true beliefs. Lamine Kebe pretended to convert to Christianity to secure passage back to Africa through the American Colonization Society. However, after returning to Africa, Kebe disappeared into Sierra Leone, surely “still retaining his Mohammedan creed.” Others, like Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, refused to budge in their faith and were rewarded for it. His faith impressed his slave owner so much that he was freed and provided passage back to Africa, receiving a royal welcome in England on the way.
The Islam brought to America by enslaved Africans did not survive long, but it left traces that are still visible today. The practice of ring shout, a form of religious dance in which men and women rotate counterclockwise while singing, clapping their hands and shuffling their feet, was directly inherited from enslaved Muslims such as Bilali Mohammed and Salih Bilali in the Georgia Sea Islands. It originally mimicked the ritual circling (or shaw’t) of the Kaaba in Mecca by Muslim pilgrims. Interviews of formerly enslaved people collected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s contain reminiscences of rice cakes called saraka, which were handed out during rituals and feast days. From the Arabic word sadaqah, or freewill offering, this charity is an aspect of zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. And early blues singers, like those recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in “Levee Camp Holler,” employed singing styles reminiscent of the adhan, or call to prayer. They use sweeping and extended vocalizations to fill the words with intense emotions.
Enslaved Muslims were brought to the United States with distinct cultural and religious beliefs. They succeeded in forming networks and communities, and they maintained their religious identity despite overwhelming odds. The material culture Muslims left behind - books, writings, clothing, beads and rugs - help tell their stories today. As Katie Brown, the great-granddaughter of Bilali Mohammad, recalls, these objects were an integral part of their religious practice and identity.
Belali and his wife Phoebe pray on the bead. They was very particular about the time they pray and they very regular about the hour. When the sun come up, when it straight over head and when it set, that the time they pray. They bow to the sun and have [a] little mat to kneel on. The beads is on a long string. Belali he pull bead and he say, ‘Belambi, Hakabara, Mahamadu.’ Phoebe she say, ‘Ameen, Ameen.’Katie Brown1940
Objects remain essential to the African American Muslim community today. Islam has always been an important religion in America and the National Museum of African American History and Culture is building a collection that honors how the call to prayer has been sounding for more than 500 years.
Written by Ayla Amon, Research Assistant
Published February 21, 2017; updated January 11, 2019
Interested in learning more about the history of African Muslims in the United States? See Sylviane Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (NYU Press, 2013); and Allan Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles (Routledge, 2011). You can also find the WPA Interviews at the Library of Congress.
For short audio stories about the history of African American Muslims, see NPR’s “A History of Black Muslims in America” (Aug. 23, 2005); Backstory with the American History Guys’ “Writing on the Wall: the Story of Omar ibn Said” (Oct. 29, 2014); and The Rise of Charm City’s “Can’t We All Just Get Islam?” (July 22, 2016).
Want to learn more about the Quran? View this digital copy hosted by the University of Michigan.
Other institutions with collections related to African Muslims in America include America’s Islamic Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville, Md. If you would like to learn more about Islam in Africa, visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.