Ever wondered what religious practices your African ancestors followed before arriving in America? While many observed indigenous tribal beliefs, it has been estimated that between 7 and 30 percent of African slaves were Muslims. Handwritten verses from the Koran found in frontier Kentucky, portrayals of Alex Haley’s black immigrant ancestor as a follower of Muhammad in the television series Roots, locations of slave kidnapping grounds, and Muslim given names amongst American slaves all hint at this hidden past.
At the time Columbus discovered America, Islamic Empires held greater power in the Western World than European kingdoms. They controlled the overland trading routes that transported oriental goods from the Far East to Europe, ruling from India to Western Africa. According to Allan D. Austin in African Muslims in Antebellum America, Islam had penetrated areas such as Senegal, Timbuktu, and the Lake Chad area in Africa by 1100 A.D. From these localities westward to the Atlantic Ocean, slave traders kidnapped the majority of their victims. The rise of European maritime trade in the 16th and 17th centuries triggered the decline of Islamic political supremacy and introduced new nations as world leaders.
Historians have identified many authentic Arabic texts written in the United States before the Civil War. Many of these manuscripts have been reproduced in the books listed below. When translated, most turn out to be memorized sections of the Qu’ran, revealing slaves’ struggles to maintain differing religious beliefs in an oppressive Christian nation. These writings also reveal high levels of education attained by the authors in Africa prior to enslavement and forced emigration. Unfortunately slavery has largely silenced our present knowledge of these educated people. It is known that slave masters often placed Muslim slaves as supervisors over their fellow bondsmen.
How can you determine if your ancestors were Muslims? Many Americans may never be able to prove this fact. One way to determine an ancestor’s religion is by studying his or her given names. Many slaves were forced to accept Christian names; however, some kept their Muslim names. Austin discusses men living in the Antebellum South named Abd ar-Rahman, Bilali Mohammed, Salih Bilali, Umar ibn Said, and Yarrow Mamout, who clearly maintained Islamic names. One of these men, Abd ar-Rahman, after gaining his freedom, went as far as to meet President John Quincy Adams on his trek back to his native Africa. An important concept to keep in mind is that when non-Muslim American scribes phonetically spelled Islamic names, what they wrote may show little similarity to actual spellings. For example, Austin believes that a runaway slave named “Osman,” was actually a misspelling of the more common Muslim name “Usuman.” Analysis of your DNA may also pinpoint that certain ancestors originated in African nations where Islam was practiced.
Although the American system of slavery largely silenced the religious practices of African-American Muslims in the past, current research is shedding new light on this interesting topic.
- Austin, Allan. African Muslims in Antebellum America, A Sourcebook. New York: Garland Press, 1984.
- Investigations: Koranic School Book, History Detectives, PBS, Season 2, Episode 11.
- Virginia African Americans, FamilySearch Wiki, accessed 3 July 2013.
Originally published in GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.