Islam in History

Muslims in the Anti-Bellum South

Job Ben Solomon Jallo was kidnapped from his home in Africa and ended up in America in 1730. He was sold into slavery and became increasingly angry with such a station in life. In a biography written about him, Job said his unhappiness led to much praying, and that once, when he prostrated himself in prayer in public, as was his religious custom, a boy threw mud in his face. Not only was he unhappy with his treatment, he was also dismayed that he had no place to pray five times a day, as was the custom of the Muslim faith that he brought with him from Africa. So, he ran away from Maryland to Pennsylvania.

There, he was imprisoned for lack of documents showing he was either free or indentured and was eventually returned to his master. Upon his return, his master was told that Job Ben Solomon wanted to be treated better and wanted a place to pray. He got both.

But he was not content to remain a slave. He wrote his father in Africa a letter in Arabic asking for help. James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, became aware of the letter and helped secure a bond for Job's release from his master. Job was later sent to England with the Royal African Co., his new owners, and was introduced to a number of wealthy Englishmen who eventually paid for him and set him free. These same friends paid for his return to Gambia.

Job Ben Solomon's story and dozens of others like his are told in "African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles," by Springfield College (Springfield, Mass.) professor Allan D. Austin. It's a condensation and updating and unfolds the lives of more than 80 African Muslims who were slaves in America between 1730 and 1860.

They came from Nigeria, Gambia, Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali and other surrounding countries, where many of them had been political, religious, commercial, or military leaders. They were valuable as slaves because of their intelligence and skills. Some were able to return to Africa, while others, like Bilali Mohammed on Sapelo Island, became leaders on plantations.

Austin, a noted scholar of antebellum black writing and history, visited Savannah recently and gave a lecture on his book at the Beach Institute. As a professor of Afro-American Studies, Austin said he knew there were a number of slaves who were Muslims because of his research of the antebellum writings of blacks. So, he planned an essay on the subject. But his essay grew into a 700-plus page book as he discovered much more information about the slaves who were Muslim.

Wealth of Information

The data Austin gathered provides a realistic portrayal of Africans, contrary to the portrayal they were given by white writers of the day. It is not yet possible to tell how many Muslims were taken out of Africa during the era of international slave trade, Austin contends. But by looking at available records, he estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of all slaves taken from Senegal and the Bight of Benin were Muslims. Half of all Africans sent to North America came from this region, Austin said. "If the total number of arrivals were 11 million, as scholars have concluded, then there may have been about 40,000 African Muslims in the colonial and pre-Civil War territory making up the United States before 1860." Job Ben Solomon was typical of the Muslims who found themselves in the South. Their spirituality, manners, sense of dignity and intelligence impressed slave owners and others. Some erroneously thought these slaves had received these gifts from their masters. Not so, Austin said. A memoir of Job Ben Solomon's life was later published in 1734 by lawyer Thomas Bluett. "It was a very dignified statement about an African who did not find America, its Christianity, its modernization all that wonderful, and wanted to return to Africa," Austin said.

"He struggled with his master to get the right to pray publicly and to not have to do the field work his master wanted him to do. He was in prison temporarily and started writing on the walls in Arabic. Somebody recognized that here was a man who had principles and they eventually realized this man was a Muslim. He was literate in Africa, he knew the Koran by heart, he was literate in Arabic."

The Strength of Their Faith

Austin also wrote about other slaves who also didn't give up their Muslim faith. For instance, around 1831, one Muslim slave, Umar ibin Said, wrote an autobiography thought lost until 1995. According to his writings, he was originally from Senegal. He was purchased in the early 1800s by a slave owner who recognized his intelligence and didn't put him in the fields. He wrote nearly 22 manuscripts in Arabic, among them the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Said did not deny Islam, but "added Christian prayers to his spiritual stock, not an uncommon practice for religious Muslims among Christians," Austin writes in his book.

In another case, "by the time you get to the turn of the century, around 1800, there are a number of people, Bilali Mohammed and Salih Bilali, who set up their own Muslim communities on Sapelo and St. Simons Island," Austin said. Imam Maajid Ali, leader of the Masjid Jihad mosque in Savannah, explained why Muslim slaves would adopt the Christianity often forced upon them. "If we are forced to assimilate another faith, other ideas, another concept of God, we are allowed to verbalize that, as long as we don't give our heart to that particular position," Ali said.

But how did Austin's subjects, in the face of such oppression as slavery in America, maintain their faith with such urgency? "In Islam we don't have that division between secular and sacred, which means that Islam is really a total way of life," said the Imam.

"Those individuals who were Muslim and also brought here for slave labor, I could very well understand why it was that they insisted upon the practice of certain tenets in the religion such as the prayer five times daily, (refusing to do certain) types of labor.

"In Islam we have the belief that all people, men and women, are the slaves of God, therefore, no human being can be the slave of another human being. That would be one of the driving forces in the Muslim's life, so I could see how they would have rejected the common status of servitude that was accepted by other non-Muslim slaves."

A Muslim in servitude would never really accept being shackled and his or her behavior could be interpreted by other slaves or the slave-master as being insubordinate, Ali said. "He or she wasn't rebelling against the person or the institution, as much as living his or her religion. If that conflict came up between religion and institution, they would choose their religion in defiance of the forced institution of slavery."

So the men Austin wrote about were moved by the dictates of their faith, not out of fear of losing some eternal reward, Ali said. Even on the issue of not eating pork, the Koran makes allowances, stipulating that if a Muslim is dying of starvation, he or she can eat enough pork to survive the threat of death.


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September 1999
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