Before the start of Black history month in February, it is timely to consider a religious take on the rich and diverse history of African-American heritage.
Authors Allen Austin and Sylvan Diouf state that a large portion of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were Muslim. In “African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook,” Austin explores the lives of 50 sub-Saharan, non-peasant Muslim Africans in the slave trade between 1730 and 1860. He provides evidence through portraits, maps and illustrations from that time period.
In Diouf’s book “African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas,” she writes about the 3 1/2 centuries during which Muslim men, women and children were victims of the Atlantic slave trade in West Africa.
“When they reached the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, after a horrific journey, they introduced a second monotheistic religion (after the arrival of Catholicism and before Protestantism) into post-Columbian America,” Diouf writes.
“Islam was also the first revealed religion freely followed—as opposed to imposed Christianity—by the Africans who were transported to the New World,” Diouf explains in the introduction.
“Turbaned men and veiled women, their prayer beads around their necks…in the midst of abuse and contempt, continued to…display pride in themselves, their religion, and their culture,” Diouf writes.
Maintenance of the Islamic tradition by the slaves is manifested in the oral traditions, written documents, pieces of heirlooms and art that were passed down by families. Slave registries and census records containing Muslim names verify Muslim presence in the earliest African communities in America.
One example is shown in a personal letter from Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima in the John Trumbull Papers in which he talks about his life.
“I was born in the city of Timbo…I moved to the country of Foota Jallo…I lived there till I was twenty-five years old—I was taken prisoner in the war..took me to New Orleans— took me to Natchez,” Ibrahima wrote. “I was sold to W. Thomas Foster. I lived there forty years. I got liberated last March-1828.”
The words written originally in Arabic tell the story of Ibrahima, the West African Muslim prince, who was from the thriving
community of Timbo, present-day Guinea. His story is described in a PBS article titled “Prince Among Slaves.”
The article explains the sheer luck of Ibrahima. He met with a local printer who had a friend in the U.S. Embassy in Morocco. His situation was brought to the attention of the Sultan of Morocco. This spotlight resulted in an exchange of letters between the sultan and President John Quincy Adams. The president appealed directly to Foster, the slave owner, and Ibrahima was freed.
Ibrahima was unable to free his children. His descendants reside in Monrovia, Liberia and in the United States.
In the 20th century, movements have sprung up that have drawn the African-American community closer. Two of these movements are the Moorish Science Temple, founded by Noble Drew Ali, and the Nation of Islam (NOI), founded by Wali Fard Muhammed and expanded by Elijah Muhammed.
The two groups preached that Islam was the original religion of African-Americans. This began a shift back to Orthodox Islam in some African-American communities.
In 1975, Warith Deen Mohammed took on the charge of NOI. Son of Elijah Muhammed, he reinterpreted and rejected what his father had taught from the mid-1930s until his death in 1975.
During Elijah Muhammed’s time, NOI had preached that God was a man. Warith Deen Mohammed reformed teachings, such as the belief “There is no God but God, and Muhammad [to whom the Koran was revealed to] is his final Messenger.” He also reintroduced and emphasized the Five Pillars of Islam and other reforms.
In 1977, Warith Deen Mohammed led about 300 Muslim Americans, mostly former members of NOI, on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which is a tenet of Orthodox Islam. He also changed the name of the organization to the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, which later became the American Society of Muslims, to stress the adoption of a global community.
As a result, today’s African-American Muslims are increasingly in-tune with their cultural backgrounds.
Sakinah Muhammed, a freshman from the John Cook School of Business, has been a Muslim her whole life.
“My parents were initially Christians that converted to [the] Nation of Islam in their mid 20s,” Sakinah Muhammed said. “They then switched to following Imam Warith Deen because they felt what was preached by [the] Nation of Islam was more of just empowering black people, whereas Imam Warith preached the practice of Islam,” she added.
Sakinah Muhammed said she follows Islam because of the broad understanding it has of other faiths.
“It embraces other religions and people of other faiths, and it doesn’t push itself on other people,” she said.
Zubairu Hamza, a student in Parks College of Aviation and Technology, grew up in the West African country of Nigeria. The country was colonized by the British, who abolished international slavery with the United States in the early 19th century.
“I’ve only heard a little. Growing up, we heard the usual: that Muslim slaves were taken from West Africa, forced to change religions and beaten,” Hamza said of Muslim African-American history. “But I’m sure there are many different versions to that story.”