Enslaved Muslims Are a Remarkable Part of Islamic History | SoundVision.com

Enslaved Muslims Are a Remarkable Part of Islamic History

When most people wish to study Islamic History, they don’t think of the United States as a likely place to focus. While it is true that Islam did not begin in the West, it actually has deeper roots in the U.S. than most people imagine. There is a prevalent misconception that Muslims are newcomers to this nation, but actually, they were here long before the Pilgrims. According to Sam Hasselby, PhD., a university professor and historian of early America:  

“Muslims thus arrived in America more than a century before the Virginia Company founded the Jamestown colony in 1607. Muslims came to America more than a century before the Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Muslims were living in America not only before Protestants but before Protestantism existed. After Catholicism, Islam was the second monotheistic religion in the Americas.”1

Why don’t most Americans know about Islam’s long-standing presence in their country? This is mostly because of the way history books have been written and history classes have been taught. Haselby calls this distortion the “Puritan effect.” He writes:

“The writing of American history has also been dominated by Puritan institutions . . . But when it comes to the history of religion in America, the consequences of the domination of the leading Puritan institutions in Boston (Harvard University) and New Haven (Yale University) remain formidable. This ‘Puritan effect’ on seeing and understanding religion in early America (and the origins of the U.S.) brings real distortion. . .  “2

Enslaved Muslims 

In addition to the Muslims who came to the Americas as voluntary seafarers and explorers a century before the European colonists, hundreds of thousands were brought against their will from Africa in the bowels of slave ships during the 400 years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Historian Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf is the author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. In an article for Al Jazeera, she writes, “Estimates vary, but [Muslims] 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.”3

According to Diouf, many enslaved Muslims tried their best to maintain their religious practices, even though they risked severe punishment or even death if they were caught. Diouf writes, “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.’”4

For cruelly underfed and overworked people, fasting during Ramadan must have been an extremely difficult trial – one that makes most people’s sawm seem relatively effortless. Nevertheless, many enslaved Muslims tried their best to adhere to the fourth pillar of Islam. James Hamilton Couper wrote about Bilali, the human he enslaved: “[he] abstains from spirituous liquors, and keeps the various fasts, particularly that of the Rhamadan.”5

A Long-lasting Legacy 

The tens of thousands of enslaved Muslims in the United States made a lasting impact on American culture. According to Diouf: 

“The imprint of enslaved African Muslims can still be seen today. Arabic terminology survives in the Gullah language of South Carolina, in Trinidadian and Peruvian songs, in the Caribbean saraka, and in a variety of religions . . . Moreover, a significant Muslim contribution, the blues, has been acknowledged by major musicologists since the 1970s. The roots of the blues can be found in the field holler – a solo, non-instrumental, slow tune with elongated words, pauses, and melisma, all constitutive elements of the Islamic style of singing and reciting.”6

Even the rites of Hajj were reenacted by these sincere believers who had no chance to fulfill this pillar of Islam because they were confined to their “owners’” property: 

“The practice of ring shout, a form of religious dance in which men and women rotate counterclockwise while singing, clapping their hands and shuffling their feet, was directly inherited from enslaved Muslims such as Bilali Mohammed and Salih Bilali in the Georgia Sea Islands. It originally mimicked the ritual circling (or shaw’t) of the Kaaba in Mecca by Muslim pilgrims.”7

According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, enslaved Muslims combined their knowledge of Arabic and English, their literacy, and their faith to resist slavery, record history, and communicate strategically: 

“Despite significant obstacles, enslaved Muslims used their faith and bilingual literacy to build community, resist slavery and pursue freedom. They left numerous written accounts of their experiences in America in the form of letters, diaries and autobiographies, most of them in Arabic. And they strategically used Arabic to communicate with one another and to undermine slavery. They also wrote pages of Arabic for their slaveholders and their friends. But instead of writing what the recipients believed was a Bible verse or the Lord’s Prayer, they wrote Quranic verses that condemned slavery, made genealogical lists, and even pleaded to return home to Africa.”8


When most Americans think of the Revolutionary War, they probably don’t envision Muslim soldiers fighting alongside the likes of Paul Revere and Sam Adams. Nevertheless, there were several Muslims among the Patriots:

“African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.”9

It is remarkable how people who faced the worst conditions imaginable still managed to honor their faith, practice it in secrecy, and utilize whatever strength it gave them to survive, contribute to their community, and overcome obstacles. Muslims living in the U.S. today can look to our long-ago enslaved brothers and sisters in faith with admiration, respect, and gratitude. Truly they are remarkable role models and a fascinating, commendable part of Islamic history. 

End Notes

1 https://aeon.co/essays/muslims-lived-in-america-before-protestantism-even-existed

2 ibid.

3 https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/2/10/muslims-in-america-always-there

4  ibid.

5  ibid.

6  ibid.

7 https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/african-muslims-early-america

8  ibid.

9  ibid.

Laura El Alam is a freelance writer and editor and the author of the book Made From the Same Dough, as well as over 100 published articles. A wife and mother of five, Laura lives with her family in Massachusetts. You can visit her online at www.seaglasswritingandediting.com

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