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Published on 17th November, 2002

African Muslims in the Americas

By Steven Malik Shelton

Photography by Steven Malik Shelton and Lucy Karger

Published with the kind permission of the One Ummah Network

Malik SheltonContrary to the accounts of conventional historians, at least a third of the Africans enslaved and brought to the New World had a highly cultivated religious life and tradition; a tradition not animistic or superstitious. In fact, it was and is a religious heritage far superior to that of their European enslavers. This religion is Islam.

During the height of the slave trade in sub-Saharan Africa, there were thousands of languages spoken by hundreds of tribes and clans. These linguistic and cultural barriers made it easier for predators to isolate, kidnap and enslave. It also made the European tactic of using one nation or tribe of Africans to enslave another more feasible and successful. Yet those Africans who, although divided into different groups and tribal backgrounds, were nevertheless, united under their universal adherence to Islam, proved themselves to be consistently the most staunch resisters and indomitable warriors against the institution of slavery and the enslavers who facilitated it.

The following letter, written in Arabic to the French governor of New Orleans in 1789, clearly indicates this warrior spirit and devoutness to Islam:

“We are warning you that all those who will come to our land to trade in slaves will be killed or massacred if you do not send our children back. Would not someone who was very hungry abstain from eating if he had to eat something cooked with his blood?

We absolutely do not want you to buy Muslims under any circumstances. I repeat that if your intention is to buy Muslims you should stay out and not come to our country anymore. Because all who will come can be assured that they will lose their life.”

This legacy of resistance to chattel slavery continued in the “New World”. Numerous uprisings and revolts, both planned and spontaneous, have been recorded. Not the least of these was a well-orchestrated insurrection by a freedman and carpenter named Denmark Vesey.

During 1822, in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, Vesey planned the most sweeping and organized slave insurrection ever in the United States of America. Vesey was a man who spurned smoking and frowned upon drinking, and pork consumption - the staple diet of the slaves. He also closely associated with African Muslims from the West Indies. Some of whom became his co-conspirators. Although there is still much to learn about this courageous man, scholars have uncovered substantial facts which strongly indicate that he was a follower of the Islamic faith.

Quiet as it is kept; there is a long history of resistance to slavery by African Muslims in the Americas. The Wolof revolted on the sugar plantations in Hispaniola. They also revolted against slavery in Puerto Rico, Columbia, and Panama. The Mandinka played a central part in igniting and carrying out the Haitian Revolution. Eventually they defeated Napoleon's French forces and founded the second independent country in the Western Hemisphere. In 1835, Hausa and Fulani Muslims revolted in Brazil. And there is evidence that Frederick Douglas, perhaps the foremost abolitionist of the 19th century, may have been introduced to Islam through the influence of his beloved mother who was a Muslim.

Kenya. © Photo credit Lucy Karger.African Islamic Influences Before Columbus

Along the so-called “Ivory Coast” of West Africa, some 200 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad ('s), trade routes were established between Arab or North African Muslims from Magreb and Sub-Saharan Africans in the south. This trade was not limited to the barter of mercantile goods and services, but also consisted of the exchange of ideas and concepts. Eventually, universities were set up, madrasas established and millions of Sub-Saharan Africans became Muslims.

Arab Muslims had proven that the Earth was round as far back as 793 C.E. And there are indications that some African communities had knowledge of the Earth's circumference even sooner. There is also conclusive evidence that seafaring Africans along the western coast had excellent navigational skill and a distinct understanding of latitude and longitude. They also were aware that at certain times of the year an ocean current could pull them, almost effortlessly, toward the islands and main lands of the Americas. Statistics which shed more light on Muslim presence in America are:

  • In 1178, a Chinese document known as the Sung Document records the voyage of Muslim sailors to a land known as Mu-Lan-Pi (America). This document is mentioned in the Khotan Amirs, published in 1933.

  • Abu Bukari, a Muslim king from the Malian Empire, led a series of nautical voyages to the New World in 1310.

  • In 1312, African Muslims of the Mandinka Nation arrive in the Gulf of Mexico and explore the American interior via the Mississippi River.

  • In 1513, Piri Reis completes his first world map, including the Americas, after researching maps from all over the world. This map is unsurpassed in its practicality and artistry.

  • In 1530, African slaves arrive in America. More than 10 million were uprooted from their homes and brought to America, and more than 30 percent of these were Muslim. These enslaved people formed the backbone of American ingenuity and prosperity.

  • In 1539, Estevanico of Azamor, a Muslim from Morocco, lands in Florida and becomes one of the first to cross the American continent. At least two states owe their beginnings to this Muslim, Arizona and New Mexico.

These early Muslim inventors and explorers traded with the Native Americans, taught them the principles and practices of Islam, converted many of the tribes (most notably the Navaho, Cherokee, Seminole, and Blackfoot) and in many instances inter-married with the indigenous people. There are many archaeological proofs to support this, as well as treaties, paintings, letters and constitutional documents. (See the National Archives and information stored in the Library of Congress).

The languages of hundreds of Native American tribes contained Arabic words and Quranic injunctions. Consequently we find several cities in the United States named either Mecca (as in Mecca California) or Medina (as in Medina Ohio). Another example is Tallahassee Florida. Tallahassee is an Arabic word which means that: "Allah will deliver you in the future."

In 1866 the last Cherokee Chief to sign a treaty, carried the Muslim name Ramadhan ibn Wati. Also, in Inyo County, California there is an early American rock carving with the Arabic wording “Yasus bin Maryam” (Jesus son of Mary), a frequent description given to Jesus in the Holy Quran. Some scholars believe that this petroglyph is older than the United States.

See: "They Came Before Columbus" by Ivan van Sertima, 1976, "Saga America" by Barry Fell, 1980, "Servants of Allah" by Sylviane A. Diouf,1998.

Contemporary Islamic Influences On African Americans

I am often intrigued at the Arabic or Muslim names given to children of African American parents who have little if any knowledge of Arabic or the Islamic faith. I've also often wondered why African American youth have developed the curious habit of wearing their caps with the visor turned backward. (To better make sajada?)

African Americans also have a propensity to cover the hair on their heads with various wraps and turban-like accessories and the youth especially have taken to wearing their clothes loose and baggy.  Could these practices reveal a repressed sensitivity trying to assert itself ?

A memory of an Islamic reality which had been removed or suppressed but not forgotten? Sort of like an amputated limb which although physically removed, can still be sensed somewhere within the deep cavern of the mind. Or perhaps somehow leaving a permanent imprint on the genes?

This is all theoretical of course, but what is not theoretical is the fact that the Islamic faith is spreading rapidly among African Americans. Recent studies show that of the 8 million Muslims in North America, some 40 to 50 percent are African American. If this pattern continues in the next twenty years, the majority of Muslims on the North American continent could very well be Americans of African descent.

Published with the kind permission of the One Ummah Network

Steven Malik Shelton is a freelance journalist, articles writer and occasionally a poet. He is writing a book about Muslims in America and the unique challenges they face. When he is not writing, he works as a youth counsellor and community organizer in Detroit Mi. U.S.A.

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