AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY MONTH: Islam and the American Slave Experience

Hey, I’ve moved! If you enjoy this post you can find more of my writing at Foreign Exchanges, a Substack newsletter covering a variety of topics in history and foreign affairs. Check it out today and become a subscriber!

As we approach the end of African-American History Month, I thought it worth discussing the one area where the general thrust of this blog sort of intersects with African-American history: African Muslims who came to North America as slaves. There aren’t great records as to the number of Muslims who came over to the Americas as slaves, but much of the slave trade originated in West Africa, a region that was (and is) home to large Muslim population and where the slave trade with Arab kingdoms to the north and east likely provided a template for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It’s likely that many American slaves were at least sold into slavery by Muslims, if they were not Muslim themselves.

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

We’re already pushing at the limits of my knowledge on this subject and I haven’t even really said anything. But two Muslim slaves in particular seem to be well-known to historians. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, or “Job ben Solomon” as he was known in America and England, came from Bundu in modern-day Senegal. He was captured and sold to a tobacco farmer in Maryland, where he was found by a lawyer named Thomas Bluett, who somehow learned that Job was literate (in Arabic). Turns out that Diallo was kind of an aristocrat back home. The head of the Royal African Company–upset that someone of high status had been sold into slavery–purchased Diallo and brought him to England. Eventually arrangements were made and he was returned home. Bluett wrote a book about his experience, called Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon, the High Priest of Boonda in Africa; Who was a Slave About Two Years in Maryland; and Afterwards Being Brought to England, was Set Free, and Sent to His Native Land in the Year 1734, and you can read it online here.

Omar ibn Said

Omar ibn Said wasn’t an aristocrat, though he was apparently a locally important Islamic scholar in his native Futa Tooro region (also in modern Senegal), and actually died a slave in 1864. We know about him because he wrote an autobiography, Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831. It was said that Omar converted to Christianity in 1820, though he continued to quote Quranic verses and make explicitly Islamic references in his writings after this time, and none of his references to Jesus (as “the Messiah,” for example) actually contradicts Islamic teaching. It’s possible that his conversion was coerced, or made in the hopes that it might earn him his freedom. Generally, slaves in the Islamic world (where slavery often was not intended to mean lifetime bondage) could hasten their manumission or, at the very least, get better treatment from their masters if they converted to Islam, so Omar may have (erroneously) assumed the same would apply in America with a Christian slave master. In his autobiography, Omar quoted Surat al-Mulk, which pointedly explains that God, not man, is in charge. An excerpt:

Do you not know from the creation that God is full of skill? That He has made for you the way of error, and you have walked therein, and have chosen to live upon what your god Nasûr has furnished you? Believe on Him who dwells in heaven, who has fitted the earth to be your support and it shall give you food. Believe on Him who dwells in Heaven, who has sent you a prophet, and you shall understand what a teacher (He has sent you). Those that were before them deceived them (in regard to their prophet). And how came they to reject him? Did they not see in the heavens above them, how the fowls of the air receive with pleasure that which is sent them? God looks after all. Believe ye: it is He who supplies your wants, that you may take his gifts and enjoy them, and take great pleasure in them. And now will you go on in error, or walk in the path of righteousness.

You can decide whether, in quoting that passage, Omar meant any commentary on the institution of human bondage, and the degree to which any one man should own the life of any other in a world where God is the ultimate authority.

If you’d like to read more on this topic by people who actually have some familiarity with it, there are several books on Islam and American slavery out there. For example:

Five Classic Muslim Slave Narratives, edited by Muhammad Al-Ahari
A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said, by Omar Ibn Said and Ala Alryyes
Muslims in America: A Short History, by Edward E. Curtis IV
Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, by Sylviane A. Diouf
African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles, by Allan D. Austin
Muslims in American History: A Forgotten Legacy, by Jerald F. Dirks


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.