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Too African to Be Muslim

A line drawing depicts a man in a high collared coat with Arabic text under the drawing.

Ibrahima abd-Al Rahman (Abdul Rahman; Abdul-Rahman ibn Ibrahima Sori) was a West African, Muslim prince who was enslaved in the United States.

Recently, someone working on an upcoming TV show asked me a few questions about enslaved African Muslims. One of them was “were they real Muslims?” And then about Bilal, one of Prophet Muhammad’s first companions and the first muezzin—the man who calls the Muslims to prayer—“He was Ethiopian. Are the Ethiopians considered Africans?”

This viewpoint was not new as I discovered twenty years ago when researching Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, which studies the enslaved African Muslim communities and individuals of twenty English, Portuguese, and French colonies in the Americas. I was simply naïve in thinking that I would never be asked these kinds of questions again. I thought the stereotype of the Africans who had received only a “tinge” of Islam—supposedly and inaccurately imposed by Arabs wielding swords—and diluted it with their innate “paganism” was a thing of the past.

For centuries Muslims—estimated at about one million Africans out of the 12.5 million enslaved—lived in the American world. They too were mostly invisible. In the Thirteen Colonies and the United States people like Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams had varying degrees of interest in Islam and the Qur’an for various reasons; but, their interest was not piqued by and did not extend to the Muslims in their midst.

The American world was dominated by racial slavery, and race and religion were intimately linked when it came to Islam. The known Muslims were the Ottomans, the Moghuls, and the Arabs: powerful, literate builders of empires. Imagining that Islam had spread through traders, clerics, and West Africans themselves; that Africans could be literate in Arabic; that Africans were urban builders of empires and travelers to the Middle East was all but impossible.

The stereotype of Africans as uncivilized idolaters used as justification for enslavement was so ingrained that in the United States the men—journalists and writers, even in the 20th century—who were aware of the Muslims’ presence assigned them a new “race.” No longer Africans, they became Arabs, Moors, and as one journalist put it in 1847 “descendants of the Arabian Mahomedans who migrated to Western Africa.” As Arab notables and former slave dealers themselves, they were said to despise “Negroes” and to naturally lord over them on the plantations. These recognized African Muslims were too Muslim to be African while the vast majority remained ignored and invisible, too African to be Muslim.

It is thus poetic justice that the story of the long forgotten and overlooked African Muslims of yesterday ended up being used to firmly root Islam and Muslim history in post-9/11 America. Their “discovery” at that precise time fit into a larger narrative at the intersection of history, religion, identity, race, and contemporary politics. As I mentioned in the introduction to the 15th anniversary edition of Servants of Allah:

“In the face of mounting suspicion of foreignness and supposed anti-Americanism, Muslims were eager to demonstrate that Islam was as much an American religion as any; one that had co-existed with others quietly for centuries, and whose followers had contributed to the development of the country. Perhaps more than anything else, at that moment, it was this mainstreaming of Islam and the Muslims that attracted those who found themselves on the defensive, asked to show their ‘Americanness.’”

Yet undeniably, many Muslims—in the United States and elsewhere—who now made theirs the history of Muslims in the Americas had not previously envisioned West Africa as a legitimate part of dar al-Islam, and had shown little or no interest in African American history. Nonetheless they now exalted enslaved West African Muslims as the standard bearers of Islam in the Western Hemisphere.

The anti-Muslim climate has now deteriorated even further. Islamophobia, of course, started in Mecca and led the Prophet to leave the city and settle in Medina in 622—known as the hijrah, this event marks the start of the Islamic calendar. But without having to go back that far, we know that if Africans were eagerly sought after during the close to 400 years of slavery in the Americas, in some parts of the New World, Muslims were not: their particular “rebelliousness” had been noted, feared, and denounced as early as the 1500s.

This was the other face of the encounter—far from the indifference of North Americans—and it pitted Spain against the Muslims. It was not by chance, of course: Iberia had definitely freed itself from more than seven centuries of Muslim rule when the last Muslim emirate, Granada, fell in 1492. The first Muslim ban, which did not try to hide its objective, was enacted in 1526 by the Spanish Crown. It prohibited the introduction into the Americas of Wolof from Senegambia, many of whom were Muslims; of blacks from the Levant; of those who had been raised with the Moors, and of people from Guinea. Four years earlier the Wolof had led the first revolt by enslaved Africans in the New World.

Within fifty years of invading the Americas, Spain enacted five Muslim bans. Muslims then inspired two major anxieties: the potential spread of Islam in the new lands and violence against the colonists. The current situation in the United States has thus an air of déja vu. But some things have not changed. The dissociation of sub-Saharan Africans from their religion endures. They are victims of racism while the stereotypes of turbaned Muslims and “animist” Africans have largely kept them under the Islamophobic radar. Sikhs, for example, have been the victims of brutal attacks. Not surprisingly, the West Africans’ Islamic clothing that differentiates them in Africa from non-Muslims is perceived here as simply “African.”

Today the American Muslim community is diverse and sub-Saharan Africans represent only a small minority in contrast to centuries ago when they were the only Muslims in the Western Hemisphere. Then they focused, notably, on the challenging task of sustaining their faith—this foundational part of their identity—upholding its practices, protecting and strengthening their communities, preserving their knowledge, and trying to pass on their religion and culture to the next generation. Some of their preoccupations find a distinctive echo among contemporary American Muslims, whatever their origins, in the face of mounting racism and Islamophobia.

Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, the author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (NYU Press, 1998 and 2013) is an award-wining historian and the Director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.