America’s First Muslims Were Slaves

In 1807, a wealthy 37-year-old scholar was captured in West Africa, in what is now Senegal, and transported to the United States to be sold into slavery.

That man, Omar Ibn Said, lived the remainder of his life enslaved in the American South, and his story might have been forgotten if not for the handwritten autobiography he left behind.

Written in Arabic and recently acquired by the Library of Congress, "The Life of Omar Ibn Said is not only a rare handwritten personal story of an American slave, but it's also one of the first intimate accounts of the early history of Muslims in the United States.

Ibn Said was among the approximately one-third of American slaves who were Muslim. While the exact number of enslaved Muslims is unknown, up to 40 percent of those who were captured and enslaved came from predominantly Muslim parts of West Africa.

It challenges this notion of this being a Christian nation," says Zaheer Ali, an oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society and project director of the Muslims in Brooklyn project. "It opens us up to understanding that there were non-Christians present at the founding of this nation, and not only at the founding of this nation, but that helped build this nation...It challenges the idea that this was a quote 'Christian nation' from the beginning.

America's first Muslims were slaves

The subsequent erasure of the black Muslim identity among the enslaved people in the United States was part of a strategy to strip enslaved Africans of their individual identities and reduce them to chattel both legally and in the public imagination.

"The black classification was devised to mark enslaved Africans as property. So, if you were black, you were no longer a human being," says Khaled Beydoun, an author and law professor at the University of Arkansas. "If you acknowledge some of these religious identities, then you're in turn acknowledging their humanity."

During the antebellum period in the South, the Muslim identity took on very different identity from the stereotype of an African slave.

"When people thought of a Muslim at that time, they thought Arab, they thought Ottoman, they thought Middle Eastern," Beydoun says. "Enslaved Africans did not fit within that racial ethnic caricature or form."

This narrow understanding of both Muslims and Africans led to the widespread belief that the two identities could not overlap and helped hasten the erasure of Muslim African slaves from the historical record. In addition, the names of enslaved Muslims were often anglicized, which further obscured them from the history.

Writing themselves into history

Enslaved Muslims who left behind a written record challenged the idea that enslaved men and women were a brute workforce solely capable of physical labor because they lacked the intellectual capacity that would make them deserving of independence and freedom.

These were people who were essentially writing themselves into existence both in terms of leaving a record of their life but also in terms of challenging the racist assumptions about people of African descent," Ali says.

What we know about the masses of African Muslim slaves who left no written record can be garnered from the remembrances of their descendants and their names on bills of sale or runaway notices.

During the antebellum period in the South, the Muslim identity took on very different identity from the stereotype of an African slave.

"When people thought of a Muslim at that time, they thought Arab, they thought Ottoman, they thought Middle Eastern," Beydoun says. "Enslaved Africans did not fit within that racial ethnic caricature or form."

This narrow understanding of both Muslims and Africans led to the widespread belief that the two identities could not overlap and helped hasten the erasure of Muslim African slaves from the historical record. In addition, the names of enslaved Muslims were often anglicized, which further obscured them from the history.

Writing themselves into history

Enslaved Muslims who left behind a written record challenged the idea that enslaved men and women were a brute workforce solely capable of physical labor because they lacked the intellectual capacity that would make them deserving of independence and freedom.

These were people who were essentially writing themselves into existence both in terms of leaving a record of their life but also in terms of challenging the racist assumptions about people of African descent," Ali says.

What we know about the masses of African Muslim slaves who left no written record can be garnered from the remembrances of their descendants and their names on bills of sale or runaway notices.

Source: Voice of America