ING Celebrates Black History Month: Explore the Roots of American Muslims in the United States

In celebration of Black History Month, ING is honoring the more than 400 year history of Muslims in the Americas.  The first major population of Muslims in what is today the United States were enslaved West Africans that were brought to the Americas beginning in the 16th century.   Each week during Black History Month we will feature historical figures and stories from the African American Muslim experience that are featured in the ING presentation A History of Muslims in America and our soon to be released curriculum supplementing the presentation. The information we will share with you during month is from that curriculum.

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Who were the Muslims in the Early Americas?

The historical record is clear that the Muslim population of West Africa had been growing since the 10th century.  Some of them were enslaved and brought to the Americas during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from the 16th to 19th centuries.  While Muslims did not comprise a majority of the enslaved Africans, they were a significant minority, estimated at between ten to thirty percent with large concentrations of Muslims in places like South Carolina, the Georgia Sea Islands, and Louisiana.  These Muslims struggled to maintain their religious practices and heritage with varying degrees of success.  Many of these enslaved Africans were highly educated leaving full copies of the Qur’an which they wrote from memory, and even autobiographies written in the Arabic language.

A prominent example of an early African Muslim enslaved in the Americas, Ayyub ibn Sulayman (1701-1773). ).  He was born into a prominent family of Muslim religious leaders in 1701 in Bondu, which is in present day Senegal.  He was captured and sold to a slave master in Maryland, but due to his prestigious background, he was soon able to return to his home in West Africa.  An American named Thomas Bluett wrote a biography of Ayyub which documents his struggle for freedom which he called Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon.  Ayyub was highly regarded for his good character, cheerful nature, learning, and devotion to Islam. On his way home to West Africa he captivated people by his recitation and his writing of the Qur’an from memory, his public prayers five times a day, his adherence to dietary rules, and his etiquette with the officers and crew.

The presence of enslaved African Muslims like Ayyub can be found throughout American literature in the nineteenth century.  Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick, speaks of them in his story, Benito Cereno. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, writes about an African American Muslim slave in Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. George Washington Cable—a friend of Mark Twain—wrote of the presence of what he called “Arab-Africans” in Louisiana—“West African Muslims who knew Arabic.” Likewise, Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the Uncle Remus stories, described some slaves as “Arabs and not Africans.”

Many of these early African American Muslims are discussed in depth in our presentation A History of Muslims in America and our soon to be released curriculum supplementing the presentation.  This interactive curriculum includes presentation notes, discussion questions, and accompanying films, which are related to the topics discussed in each lesson.

For more information about this important period of American history see Sylvian Diouf’s book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the America’s and this short film from America’s Islamic Heritage Museum:

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