In the summer of 1863, newspapers in North Carolina announced the death of “a venerable African”, referred to, in a paternalistic manner, as “Uncle Moreau”.
Omar ibn Said, a Muslim, was born in 1770 in Senegal and by the time of his death, he had been enslaved for 56 years. In 2021, Omar, an opera about his life, will premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.
Muslims are usually thought of as 20th-century immigrants to the US, yet for well over three centuries, African Muslims like Omar were a familiar presence. They had grown up in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria where Islam was known since the 8th century and spread in the early 1000s.
Estimates vary, but they were at least 900,000 out of the 12.5 million Africans taken to the Americas. Among the 400,000 Africans who spent their lives enslaved in the United States, tens of thousands were Muslims.
Though they were a minority among the enslaved population, Muslims were acknowledged like no other community. Slaveholders, travellers, journalists, scholars, diplomats, writers, priests and missionaries wrote about them. Founder of Georgia James Oglethorpe, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State Henry Clay, author of the US national anthem Francis Scott Key, and portraitist of the Founding Fathers Charles W Peale were acquainted with some of them.
Visible manifestations of faith
Part of the Muslims’ conspicuousness was due to their continued observance, whenever possible, of the most noticeable tenets of their religion. Prayer, the second pillar of Islam, was one of these visible manifestations of faith noted by enslaved and enslavers alike.
In his 1837 autobiography, Charles Ball, who escaped slavery, related in great detail the story of a man who prayed aloud five times a day in a language others did not understand. He added, “I knew several, who must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans; though at that time, I had never learned of the religion of Mohamed.”
Charles Spalding Willy had this to say about Bilali from Guinea, enslaved by his grandfather on Sapelo Island, Georgia: “Three times each day he faced the East and called upon Allah.” He witnessed other “devout Mussulmans, who prayed to Allah morning, noon and evening.”
Yarrow Mamout, another highly visible Muslim, was taken from Guinea in 1752 when he was about 16. After 44 years of slavery, he was freed and bought a house in Washington, DC. Mamout was a kind of celebrity who was “often seen and heard in the streets singing Praises to God – and conversing with him,” stated noted artist Charles Willson Peale.
In the 1930s, men and women formerly enslaved in Georgia described how their relatives and others prayed several times a day: they knelt on mats, bowed, said strange words, and had “strings of beads” or misbahs. As Bilali pulled the beads, one descendant recalled, he said “Belambi, Hakabara, Mahamadu.”
It is hard to imagine how people in dismal poverty could give alms, the third pillar of Islam, but still, charity proved to be the most widespread and resilient of all the Muslims’ religious practices.
In the Sea Islands, the women left their mark on this tradition. In the 1930s, their descendants recalled with fondness the rice cakes their mothers gave to children. There was a word for it: Saraka, followed after the sharing by “Ameen, Ameen, Ameen.”
Rice cakes are the charity still offered by West African Muslim women on Fridays. The cake is not called saraka, but the act of giving is a sadaqa, a freewill offering, and that word is uttered as the women give it.
Reflecting the Muslims’ influence, non-Muslims all over the Caribbean to this day offer saraka, unaware of its Islamic origin.
Fasting and dietary requirements
There is no doubt that Islam’s fourth pillar, fasting, was exceedingly hard for people underfed and overworked. Nevertheless, Bilali and his large family used to fast during Ramadan. And so did his friend Salih Bilali. Abducted in Mali when he was about 14, 60 years later he was still “a strict Mahometan; [he] abstains from spirituous liquors, and keeps the various fasts, particularly that of the Rhamadan” wrote his “owner”, James Hamilton Couper.
Omar ibn Said was said to have fasted too. Others whose lives were not recorded may have used the same subterfuge as Muhammad Kaba in Jamaica: Whenever he had to fast, he pretended to be sick.
Several testimonies mention Islam’s dietary restrictions. Throughout his long life, Yarrow Mamout told people, “it is no good to eat Hog [and] drink whiskey is very bad.”
In Mississippi, the son of a prince acknowledged the difficulty of adhering to these rules since slaveholders provided the food. He said “in terms of bitter regret, that his situation as a slave in America, prevents him from obeying the dictates of his religion. He is under the necessity of eating pork but denies ever tasting any kind of spirits.”
In South Carolina, a man only known as Nero was more fortunate, he drew his ration in beef instead. By fasting and refusing certain food Muslims were not only remaining faithful to their religion, they were also asserting a degree of control over their lives.
Distinguished by their dress
In addition to respecting the tenets of Islam, Muslims distinguished themselves, when possible, by the way they dressed. In Georgia, some women wore veils while men sported Turkish fez or white turbans.
An 1859 article described how, each morning, Omar ibn Said nailed the end of a long strip of white cotton to a tree and, holding the other end, wrapped it around his head, fashioning a turban. Daguerreotypes show him with printed fabric around his head or a wool hat. In his portrait, painted in 1819 by Charles W Peale, Mamout wore the same kind of hat as Omar’s.
In 1733, the Senegalese Ayuba Suleyman Diallo insisted on being immortalised in his “country dress” with a white turban and a robe. Likewise, some Muslims in Trinidad, Brazil, and Cuba were described as wearing “flowing robes”, skullcaps and wide pants.
By short-circuiting the coarse, demeaning slave clothes, the Muslims who could do so were reclaiming a bit of ownership of their own bodies, while stating their fidelity to their religion.
Curiosity and literacy
Besides being visible, Muslims generated much curiosity because of their literacy, an Islamic requirement because believers need to read the Quran.
This literacy was acquired in schools and, for the most educated, in local or foreign institutions of higher learning. This particularity set them apart from the non-Muslim Africans as well as many illiterate Americans, enslaved and free.
A slaveholder looking for a 30-year-old recent arrival listed only one characteristic in an 1805 runaway notice: he was a man “of grave countenance who writes the Arabic language”.
Two years later, Ira P Nash, a physician and land surveyor, brought to Thomas Jefferson’s attention – in three letters and one meeting – the tribulations of two Muslims. Captured in Kentucky, they escaped to Tennessee where they were jailed and escaped twice more. He gave Jefferson two pages they had written in Arabic. They included the last surah (chapter) of the Quran, al-Nas, Humanity, which speaks of refuge with Allah and evil, a perfect analogy to their situation.
Looking for a translation Jefferson sent the papers to scholar and abolitionist Robert Patterson. He thought the writings were about the men’s “history, as stated by themselves”.
Presumably, based on what that story would reveal, the president was willing to “procure the release of the men if proper”. However, their trace was lost before he could intervene.
Writing for fellow Muslims
Today, manuscripts, from Brazil and Panama to the Bahamas, Trinidad and Haiti still exist. Written by anonymous Muslims and a few known ones, they cover Quranic chapters, prayers, talismans, invocations, and admonitions for the Muslims to remain faithful to Islam. Several are linked to the 1835 Muslim uprising in Bahia.
In about 1823 Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu, who had been captured in 1777 on his way to Timbuktu and deported to Jamaica, wrote a 50-page document in Arabic. Addressed to the “community of Muslim men and women,” it is an instructional manual on praying, marriage and ablutions, and contains commentaries and references to classic Islamic texts.
In contrast to autobiographies by formerly enslaved people, including Africans such as Olaudah Equiano, the Muslims were writing for their own community, not a Western audience.
In the US, Bilali wrote a 13-page document, part of a work by the 10th-century Tunisian Ibn Abu Zayd al-Qairawani. It was written on paper produced in Italy for the North African market, which raises intriguing questions as to how he acquired it.
Salih Bilali, wrote his owner, “reads Arabic, and has a Koran (which however, I have not seen) in that language, but does not write it.” Similarly, Bilali who “kept all the plantation ‘Acts’ in Arabic … was buried with his Koran and praying sheep skin.”
These casual mentions of Qurans on remote plantations beg the question of where they got them. Perhaps, as other memorisers of the Quran did in the Americas, they wrote them themselves.
The Muslims who became famous were only a handful but many others, as accomplished, remained nameless.
William Brown Hodgson, a former diplomat posted in North Africa and a slaveholder, stated in…