Untold story of Islam in America, Muslim Must Know

In the summer of 1863, newspapers in North Carolina announced the death of a prominent African, paternalistically, as Uncle Moreau. He was Omar bin Said, a Muslim who was born in 1770 in Senegal and at the time of his death, he had been enslaved for 56 years.

Muslims are usually considered 20th century immigrants in the U.S. But for more than three centuries, African Muslims like Omar have been known.

A group of immigrants, mostly wearing fine fur, surround a large ship decorated with the symbols of the stars and crescents of Islam and Ottoman Turkey (1902–1913)
A group of immigrants, mostly wearing fine fur, surround a large ship decorated with the symbols of the stars and crescents of Islam and Ottoman Turkey (1902–1913)

They grew 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.

At least 900,000 of the 12.5 million Africans were brought to the Americas. Among the 400,000 Africans who spent their lives enslaved in the United States, tens of thousands were Muslims. Although they are a minority among the enslaved population, Muslims are recognized unlike other communities.

Omar ibn Said, born in Senegal in 1770, adhered to the practice of Islam while enslaved for decades in the U.S.
Omar ibn Said, born in Senegal in 1770, adhered to the practice of Islam while enslaved for decades in the U.S.

Slave owners, travelers, journalists, scholars, diplomats, writers, priests, and missionaries wrote about their lives knowing some early U.S. Muslims.

The authors include Georgia Co-founder James Oglethorpe, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State Henry Clay, U.S. national anthem writer Francis Scott Key, and founding fathers Charles W. Peale.

Part of the appeal of Muslims is the obedience of those who are istiqamah. Prayer is one of the visible and recorded manifestations of faith.

In his 1837 autobiography, Charles Ball, who escaped slavery, recounted in great detail the story of a man who prayed out loud five times a day in a language no one else understood.

Ball added, “I know some, for sure, from what I’ve learned, Mohamedans; Although at that time, I never learned about the religion of Muhammad.”

In his 1837 autobiography, Charles Ball, who escaped slavery, recounted in great detail the story of a man who prayed out loud five times a day in a language no one else understood.

Ball added, “I know some, for sure, from what I’ve learned, Mohamedans; Although at that time, I never learned about the religion of Muhammad.”

Immigrants from Africa who were brought to the United States as slaves were mostly Muslims.
Immigrants from Africa who were brought to the United States as slaves were mostly Muslims.

Charles Spalding Willy tells the story of Bilali from Guinea, who was enslaved by his grandfather on Sapelo Island, Georgia. “Three times every day he faced the East and cried out to God,” Willy said.

Another story comes from Charles Willson Peale, who portrayed the figure of Yarrow Mamout, a well-known Muslim at the time.

Mamout came to the U.S. from Guinea in 1752. He was 16 years old at the time. After 44 years of slavery, he was released and bought a house in Washington.

“Mamout is like a celebrity who is often seen and heard in the streets singing praise of God and conversing with him,” said renowned artist Charles Willson Peale.

During his lifetime, Yarrow Mamout told people, “It’s not good to eat Hog and drinking whiskey is so bad.”

In the 1930s, men and women who were once enslaved in Georgia described how their relatives and others prayed several times a day. They knelt on the mat, bowed, and said strange words.

It’s hard to imagine, too, how people in severe poverty can give alms. This practice of almsgiving proved to be the most widespread and enduring of all Muslim religious practices.

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In the Sea Islands, the women left their mark on this tradition. In the 1930s, their descendants were reminded of the rice cakes their mothers gave to the children. There’s a word for it: Saraka, followed after sharing with “Ameen, Ameen, Ameen.”

Rice cakes are a practice still offered by West African Muslim women on Fridays. The cake is not called saraka, but the act of giving is sadaqa (almsgiving), a voluntary offering.

That’s what I say when women give it away. Even non-Muslims throughout the Caribbean to this day still give alms and are unaware of its Islamic origins.

In addition, there are more stories about fasting by American Muslims who became slaves at that time. Of course, it was very difficult to fast for Muslim slaves because they had to work a lot and actually they were under-fed.

However, Bilali and his extended family, as Willy told him, used to fast in Ramadan.

So did his friend, Salih Bilali. He was taken from Mali when he was about 14 years old. And 60 years later he is still a devout Muslim.

“He abstained from booze, and practiced various fasts, especially ramadan fasting,” said James Hamilton Couper, owner of Salih Bilali at the time.

In Mississippi, the son of a prince admitted, it was difficult to abide by these rules of fasting because slave owners provided food.

“In terms of bitter regret, that his situation as a slave in America prevented him from obeying his religious orders. He had to eat pork but denied ever tasting any kind of alcoholic beverage,” the prince’s son said.

In South Carolina, a man known only as Nero was luckier, he took his ration with beef. By fasting and refusing certain foods, Muslims not only remain true to their religion, they also assert a degree of control over their lives.

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