Muslim Africans: A Past of which to speak

by Shoilee S. Khan
(Tuesday February 24 2004)

Christopher Columbus, the infamous Spanish explorer, is credited with “discovering” North America. Of course, “discover” implies that the territory Columbus landed on in 1492 had never been explored before, was devoid of any civilization, and the people devoid of any sophistication. This is simply not true.

Before Columbus even stepped onto his boat, Native Americans had 2000 separate languages, a distinctive array of religions, a system of interaction with nature and other human beings. By 1492, the entire northern third of North America was already occupied, and hence already “discovered” by these hunting-gathering societies.

The notion that Columbus, if not the first person to discover America, was the first person to make contact with Native peoples, is another common myth. There is extensive and irrefutable evidence that points to ancient North American cultures having been in contact with voyagers from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean before Columbus. They exchanged knowledge, influenced each other, and traded products. Although more research is needed, evidence such as sculptures, oral history, eye-witness accounts, Arabic documents, coins and inscriptions serve as undeniable claims to North African Muslim contact with Natives in the Americas as early as the 7th century CE. This remains a hidden and often neglected part of history that needs further research and clarification, but definitely suggests undeniable possibilities.

Mandinka voyages — by Muslim explorers and merchants from the West African Islamic Empire of Mali — were significant and extravagant. Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick in his book, Deeper Roots, relates that “examination of inscriptions found in Brazil, Peru, and the United States, as well as linguistic, cultural and archaeological finds offer documentary evidence of the presence of these Mandinka Muslims in the early Americas.” There is even extensive evidence of Mandinka cities of stone and mortar that were seen by early Spanish explorers and pirates. A document written by a land-pirate from Minas Gerais in 1754 relates that the remains of a city near a river there had remarkable buildings, obelisks and statues. Columbus, quite obviously, arrived in the Americas a little late, but just in time to rake in the credit.

Slavery and Exploitation:

When the Spanish crown granted the right to buy slaves in Africa early in the 6th century, the stage was set for centuries of exploitation. Millions of Africans were taken from the shores of West and Central Africa and transported to the Americas and the Caribbean, where they were forced to spend their lives working for others. Early in the 17th Century there was a rapid growth of sugar plantations, which resulted in an increased demand for slaves, which in turn transformed Africa into what Quick calls the “chief victim of exploitation.” What many Muslims, whether they have an African heritage or not, and what many African-Americans and African-Canadians, whether or not they’re Muslim, fail to realize is that seven to thirty per cent of slaves taken from Africa and brought to the Americas, were Muslim.

Islam had flourished and developed in Africa before and during the Atlantic slave trade. Muslims in Africa were literate, having been educated in the Arabic language, and were culturally connected with other literate nations within Africa as well as around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. When slave traders began transporting African people to the Americas and the Caribbean, a culturally diverse group of Muslim Africans -- including members of the Mandinka, Fula, Susu, Ashanti and Hausa tribes -- lay side by side in the dark holds of English, Spanish, French and Dutch ships.

One of the most popular symbols of the Muslim slave is Kunta Kinte, immortalized in Alex Haley’s saga, Roots. Kinte’s struggle to maintain his culture and religion as a Muslim reflects the struggle of numerous Muslim slaves in the Americas. The fact that Haley embarked upon a journey to discover his roots, reflects perhaps the success of millions of Africans like Kinte, who would not give up their own roots.

Despite the extremely restrictive policies — among them, The Code Noir of 1685 — designed to destroy the will of slaves, control every meaningful aspect of their lives, and convert them to Christianity, Muslim slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean fought both external and internal battles to keep their culture alive. A clear example of Muslims maintaining their faith lies in Bryan Edward’s work "The History, Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies," written in 1794. He describes the practices of “an old and faithful Mandingo servant” in these words:

"…he has not forgot the morning and evening prayer which his father taught him. In proof of this assertion, he chants, in an audible and shrill tone, a sentence that I conceive to be part of the al-Koran. La illa, ill illa…"

La ilaha illah Allah — there is no god but Allah — an assertion of faith, and proof that African slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean did continue to carry on their religious practices. There are numerous other examples of white masters recording the peculiar practices of their slaves, among them the ability of many to read and write in Arabic.

Although Muslim Africans tried to maintain their faith, the suppressive and debilitating laws of slavery forced most to conform to the wills of their masters, and assimilate themselves into the cultural norms of the society in which they lived. Islam, after generations, became a distant memory and in most cases it ceased to exist at all.

The tribulations and triumphs of Muslim Africans translates into a rich and vibrant history, a past of honour and a future of hope. From their exploratory voyages in early centuries, their cultural assimilation under the scourge of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean, to their triumphs as re-defined citizens in today’s world, Muslim Africans — today African Americans, African Canadians, and Caribbeans — have a past of which to speak.


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

The Islam Awareness Blog

Contact for further information