A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 6 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 6: Muslim Slaves

While many of the Founders expressed tolerance for Islam, they expressed no such compassion for the only followers of Islam they would ever meet: African slaves. Of the hundreds of thousands of Africans abducted and shipped to America as part of the slave trade, as many as 30% were Muslim.

For good or ill, most of them either abandoned their religion or practiced it in the privacy of their hearts. Inevitably, given the privations of slave life and the pressure from Christian slaveholders, the children and grandchildren of Muslim slaves were raised as Christians.

While the vast majority of Muslim slaves lived and died in anonymity, a few of them are noted by history. Among the more celebrated Muslims of the slavery period are:

  • Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701-1773), a Senegalese who was brought to Maryland as a slave and eventually freed and returned to his homeland with the help of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia.
  • Yarrow Mamout (~1736 -1823), a slave freed in 1796 who settled in Washington, DC, owned land, had shares in a bank, and as a result of which recovered from bankruptcy three times.  He was so well known locally at the time that his portrait was painted TWICE, once by Charles Willson Peale (who also painted George Washington) and another time by an artist named James Alexander Simpson. Peale wrote of Mamout, “he professes to be a mahometan, and is often seen & heard in the Streets singing Praises to God — and conversing with him, he said man is no good unless his religion comes from the heart . . . The acquaintance of him often banter him about eating Bacon and drinking Whiskey — but Yarrow says it is no good to eat Hog — & drink whiskey is very bad.”
  • Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864), another Senegalese and Islamic scholar who was enslaved in the Carolinas, and who wrote FOURTEEN Arabic transcriptions from the Quran from memory while serving as a slave in the South. Some of his papers are owned today by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
  • Ben Ali Muhammad, also called Bilali Mohammed, a slave brought to Sapelo Island, Georgia in 1802 or 1803, served as the imam for a congregation of 80 fellow slaves and even wrote a 13-page commentary on Islamic law and conduct that is currently owned by the University of Georgia.

By the way, nearly 300 Muslim last names appear in the rolls of soldiers who served in the American Civil War. Unfortunately, I do not have a breakdown of how many served in the Union vs the Confederacy, how many were slave vs freedmen, how many were immigrants vs born in America, etc.

At the very least it shows us the small but perceptible participation of American Muslims throughout the country’s history.

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