Ben Ali and the Arabic Diary (Part One)

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Ramadan 24, 1420 2000-01-01

Occasional Paper

by Yusuf Progler

In the early nineteenth century, an African Muslim was living out the rest of his adult life in chattel slavery on a plantation in Antebellum America. Before dying on the eve of the Civil War, he left a handwritten Arabic manuscript with an acquaintance of his slave master. Since then the manuscript has been the object of considerable study and debate by a wide range of characters, including a famous novelist, a state librarian and a prominent Africanist, as well as a number of academics and a host of curious enthusiasts. These characters have variously suggested (and in some cases have even hoped) that the writer of the manuscript was an Arab slave trader, a Moorish prince or a Muslim jurisprudent, who went by the name of Ben Ali, Bilali or Bu-Allah, and whose manuscript was a diary, a set of meditations, a plantation log, or an excerpt from a book of Islamic law. Opinions as to the importance of this manuscript range from writing it off as indecipherable gibberish to suggesting that it problematises the entire canonical structure of African American literary studies. Some of the above suppositions are certainly more defensible than others, but what is remarkable about this manuscript is that it has generated such an engaging and wide-ranging set of responses. Beginning with a chapter in my PhD dissertation and a subsequent journal article (Progler 1996 and 2000), I joined the ranks of those who have attempted to "decipher" the contents of this mysterious manuscript. In Part One, the first of a two part series, I recount and update my earlier efforts to describe its author and contents. In Part Two, I explore tangential questions of how and why people have come to see its origins and its significance in particular and self-serving ways.

The name of the manuscript's writer still remains a debate, primarily between those who refer to him as Ben Ali, following the name used in a 1931 affidavit that accompanied the manuscript in the Georgia State Library in 1931, and those who have revised that name in light of historical evidence suggesting that he may have been a slave known locally as Bilali. In my work, I remain undecided on the point of his name and have used both. In this article, concurring with Judy (1993), I chose to use the name Ben Ali, as it appears in the library files accompanying the manuscript and in much of the literature to date. This is because I believe that in a study that moves beyond attempting to state "just the facts" about this manuscript, using the name Ben Ali also serves the purpose of providing a collective identity for all those who have had a hand, one way or another, in passing down both the manuscript and the stories associated with it. Having said that, the manuscript also goes under the name of "Bilali Diary" or Bilali Document. For our purposes here, these are all one in the same.

Identifying Ben Ali and His Manuscript

The conventional story about the life of Ben Ali is that he was a West African Muslim who was abducted into slavery as a young adult some time during the late eighteenth century from the city of Timbo, in a region known as Futa Jallon that lies in present-day Guinea (Couper 1844, p. 71; cf. Austin 1984, pp. 324-5). By that time, Futa Jallon had been founded as an Islamic polity (known locally as an imamate), with its capital at Timbo (Trimingham 1962, pp. 161-2), and it had libraries in which one could find Islamic texts in Arabic, including the Qur'an and books on Islamic law. Timbo itself had a reputation as a vibrant centre of learning, and students and scholars alike came from other regions to teach and study there (Alford 1977, p. 6). Other Muslims from Timbo also found themselves enslaved in America, notable among them a man named Abdul Rahman, who was able to read and write Arabic, and whose story is told in detail by Alford (1977). The story of Ben Ali's abduction is attributed to his great-granddaughter, Katie Brown, who at the time was still living on the same GeorgiaSea Islands where her grandfather toiled (Parrish 1942, p. 26). He reportedly spent time on a plantation in the Bahamas, as was common practice in the early nineteenth century, before he and his family were sold to a Georgia plantation owner, Thomas Spalding (Austin 1984, p. 272). Ben Ali had several daughters, some of whom had Muslim names, such as Fatima, Madina and Bintu, and they were all recollected by Katie Brown on Sapelo Island (Georgia Writer's Project 1940, p. 161). Ben Ali and his family could apparently speak English, French, Fulfulbe (a West African language), as well as some Arabic (Parrish 1942, p. 27; cf. Austin 1984, p. 272). The entire family became known as the "Negroes who worshiped Mahomet" (Parrish 1942, p. 28). Ben Ali died as a slave, and is estimated to have been in his early to mid eighties, on Sapelo Island on the eve of the Civil War that would soon destroy the institution of American slavery. Around the same time, in the late 1850s, Ben Ali gave his manuscript to an acquaintance of his master, a Dr. Francis Goulding, according to the affidavit filed by Goulding's son (Goulding 1931). It is from this affidavit that the writer of the manuscript has come to be known as "Ben Ali," although convincing attempts have been made in recent decades to link the writer of this manuscript to the historical figure of Bilali, as described above, a task complicated by the fact that there was apparently another slave, also by the name of Bilali, who lived on a nearby plantation (Wilks 1967).

The manuscript was for several decades in the collection of the Georgia State Library, where it was examined by many scholars and enthusiasts. My reading of it is based upon black and white photographs of the original, loaned by curators of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at University of Georgia Libraries, where it is presently catalogued as the "Ben Ali Diary" as part of theFrancis R. Goulding Papers. The manuscript has also at times been referred to as the "Slave Diary" (Greenberg 1940, p. 372), and the "Ben Ali Meditations" (Goulding 1931, p. 1), among other titles. It is written with ink on paper, loosely bound in what appears to be a soft leather cover. Martin (1994) identified the paper as an Italian make, based on his observation of a watermark, though this only tells us the origin of the paper, not how or when Ben Ali obtained it. The manuscript as it stands today consists of 13 pages, with 15-20 lines per page, written entirely in Arabic letters, although the language employed is not what is known as "standard" or formal Arabic. Rather, as I see it, the writer used Arabic in a personalised way, which may reflect an oral, rather than literary, sensibility. In their descriptions of the manuscript, Greenberg (1940, pp. 373-4), Parrish (1942, p. 26) and others use the terms "error," "mistake," "confusion" and "corruption" to describe Ben Ali's use of Arabic, but I will use instead the terms "innovation," "substitution" and "interchange," partly to avoid the negative connotations of the former terms, but also to emphasise that Ben Ali was engaged in a dynamic process of inscribing an aspect of his identity using a language that was not likely to be known by the people that he encountered in his life as a slave, including his owners. The latter terms also seem more appropriate because the manuscript, it can be argued, is written in a type of informal, oral or hybrid language and should not therefore be read or judged only according to the formalised structures of a standardised language; it is rather a sort of informal vernacular. Therefore, I avoid the linguistic notion of "correct" usage, and opt instead for the more anthropological approach of "utility." Even so, it is clear that many passages in the manuscript are closely related to formal Arabic, and whatever might be identified as innovations and substitutions in spelling, these passages are easily recognisable as included in or related to Islamic ritual practice, in particular the daily prayers. However, other passages are more difficult to recognise, not only because the ink is smudged and has bled through the paper, but also because they contain either highly regionalised Arabic phrases, or possibly even West African words written phonetically with the Arabic script.

Regarding spelling innovations in these passages, there is a certain degree of consistency and there are distinct types of substitutions. The most pervasive spelling innovation involves an interchange between letters of the Arabic alphabet that have a similar sound, but a different phonetic character. In standard Arabic, there are two "s" sounds, two "t" sounds, two "d" sounds, and two "z" sounds. In addition, there is a "q" sound and a "k" sound. These five sounds in general are among those that many non-native speakers of Arabic will tend to interchange, and they also account for regional variations among native speakers. Generally, it is often difficult for the beginning learner of Arabic outside of a native environment to distinguish between the like sounding letters. In the case of Ben Ali, I found many cases of letter substitutions that fit into this scheme. For example, he often substitutes one "s" for the other and uses the "k" instead of the "q." In most instances, substitutions of this kind do not obscure the intended word, and in cases where the meaning might be effected, the context offers clues as to which word was intended. A similar set of letter substitutions includes interchanging the character for "s" and "sh," and the substitution of "s" for the soft "th" (as in "think," as opposed to "this"). These are not out of the ordinary, either, especially the interchanging of "s" and "th," which one can often find in the Egyptian dialect among Arabic native speakers, as well as in other languages that employ Arabic characters, such as Persian and Urdu.

Other letter substitutions are less common and not as easy to explain, but may also proceed from an inclination to write by sound rather than sight. In the Ben Ali manuscript, there is a consistent use of the character for "y" in place of the character for "j" (which, however, is not uncommon in the Arab world, and can be found in some Gulf Arabic dialects), and the use of the "l" character in place of one of the "d" characters, the latter substitution also being noted by Greenberg (1940, pp. 374-5). These particular interchanges seem to be related to a regional pronunciation of Arabic, providing further clues that the manuscript may indeed contain words in an African dialect, which, in Ben Ali's time, was in the early stages of being written with Arabic characters. One example is the word masidi (p. 10, line 9), which replaces the word masjid, the Arabic word for mosque. Trimingham (1962, p. 169) notes a similar pronunciation of masjid in nineteenth century Futa Jallon, describing the word misidi as being what he calls a common "corruption" of masjid. In addition to interchanging and substituting letters, Ben Ali employed contractions, joining together short words that would not normally be joined in formal or standard Arabic, although this is common in regional dialects of spoken Arabic. Ben Ali's use of long and short vowels also differs from formal Arabic, and occasionally he uses a final form instead of the medial form of a letter in the middle of a word, which at first glance gives the impression of two words, or an incomplete word. His approach to writing in Arabic has a tendency to split a word occurring at the end of a line and continuing it on the next line. All told, these features make it challenging to read the document, in particular if one is expecting formal Arabic. For this article, I have made use mostly of my own translations from the original manuscript and opted not to include, except in a few circumstances, transliterations.

Reading the Ben Ali Diary

In this section, I provide my own reading of the manuscript, which is updated from but still based upon my earlier efforts noted above. I also intermingle comments by and about others who have previously attempted to translate the manuscript, primarily those instances where specific points of interpretation are noted. Ben Ali's manuscript begins with a formula known as the basmalah, which is most commonly translated as "In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful" (p. 1, line 1; citations follow page order of the manuscript). This is followed by the phrase, "Allah's blessings be upon our master Muhammad and his family and his companions, blessings and salutations" (p. 1, lines 1-2). These are standard Muslim invocations and most Islamic texts and orations begin with a similar phrase. Austin (1984, p. 303, n. 9) incorrectly identified the beginning of the manuscript as being the fatihah, the opening chapter of the Qur'an, and he appears to attribute this assumption to Glidden, who worked with the Ben Ali manuscript at some point, to which we will turn in Part Two. For now, we can say that this conclusion is spurious and may have been based on a hasty reading of the manuscript or upon an erroneous understanding of thefatihah. Next, Ben Ali introduces a name with the phrase "said the teacher of jurisprudence" (p. 1, line 3). The name that follows consists of eight parts, which I read as "Muhammad Abdullah Ibn Yusuf Ibn Abd al-Qarawanidu" (p. 1, lines 3-5), after which there appears an invocation, "Allah's mercy and His blessings, Amen" (p. 1, lines 5-6). Greenberg (1940, p. 373) concluded that the name Ben Ali had intended was Abu Muhammad Abdullah ibn Abi Zaid Al-Qayrawani, a Berber scholar of the Maliki school of jurisprudence whose books are well known in some parts of West Africa, in particular for the instruction of children. Greenberg's assumption needs to be verified, especially since several writers have cited this same conclusion and engaged in further speculation taking for granted his claim (e.g. Parrish 1942, p. 25; cf. Austin 1984, p. 272). More recent work has called Greenberg's assumption into question. Judy (1993) and Ahari (personal communication, 2002) both suggest that the name may refer to a place in West Africa, near Ben Ali's native Timbo. Ben Ali is most likely referencing a book or a teacher that he encountered in or near his home. The introductory paragraph provides important information about Ben Ali's familiarity with Arabic and Islam. He knew some basic and relatively universal Islamic phrases and formulas, and he knew the conventions that are followed by many Muslim writers, beginning with thebasmalah and sending blessings to the Prophet, and then mentioning the name of a scholar to whom one will be referring or with whose writings one has been familiar.

Pages 1 and 2 contain another series of salutations. We first find the phrase, "There is no strength except in Allah. I seek refuge in Allah most High and Mighty" (p. 1, lines 18-19 & p. 2, line 1), followed by salutations to the Prophet and his four political successors, known in Islamic history as the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. The order of these names is significant. The invocation reads: "Allah's blessings be upon our master. I bear witness that Muhammad is our protector, then Abu Bakr, then 'Umar, then 'Uthman, then 'Ali, may God be pleased with them all" (p. 2, lines 1-5). The names are written in what appears to be an oral transliteration, as noted above, rather than in formal Arabic. For example, 'Uthman is written as 'Ashmana and 'Umar is written as Amari. But there is a crucial point in the way Ben Ali wrote this list of names. When he reached the second name, 'Umar, he wrote instead the name 'Uthman (p. 2, line 4). However, a mistake in the conventional chronological order of names was realised, and 'Uthman was stricken and replaced with 'Umar. Judy (1993) suggested that this correction is evidence of a second hand in writing the manuscript, or that the manuscript might have been edited at some later date. Close examination of the handwriting is inconclusive, but since the correction is in the same line as the original word, rather than appearing in the margins, I am inclined to think Ben Ali made it himself. If we assume that Ben Ali was the sole writer, the correction suggests that he did indeed understand what he was writing, and was able to recognise the error in his chronology of the Four Caliphs, which would contradict the interpretation of some academics who have worked with the manuscript. For instance, Martinovich opined that Ben Ali "had only an imitative visual memory of Arabic" (cited in Austin 1984, p. 306, n. 46), and Greenberg believed that Ben Ali was "unaware of the meaning of much of what he had written" (1942, p. 374). Such opinions imply that Ben Ali wrote his manuscript without thinking about or understanding what he was writing. In light of the aforementioned obvious instance of correction (as well as other instances that we will encounter later), I think it is also a strong possibility that Ben Ali understood what he was writing, and that any assumptions to the contrary were perhaps hasty or premature. Beyond this, given the rudimentary nature of what he is writing, and the fact that any ordinary Muslim would know these formulas and phrases, Ben Ali was very likely able to connect the sound and the signs of what he was writing. This is further supported by the still common practice of learning Arabic orally, so it is entirely possible that he had recalled the sounds, but not necessarily all the signs, of the language.

On page 5 of the manuscript, we find excerpts and fragments from Qur'anic verses strung together into a single passage, the references for which I have provided in parentheses according to chapter and verse conventions of Qur'anic citation. One such passage (p. 5, lines 11-15) reads, "As for he who is given his book in his right hand (Qur'an 69:19 & 84:7), he shall be reckoned with by an easy reckoning (84:8). And as for he who is given his book in his left hand (69:25) and behind his back (84:10), he shall be committed to the flaming fire" (84:12). The left hand/right hand symbolism is found throughout the Qur'an, and generally refers to those who have done good (right hand) and those who have done evil (left hand), with the word "book" here meaning the cosmic book that contains the deeds a person has done throughout his or her life. The first phrase of this passage can be found in two places in the Qur'an, in one case it being the full verse, and in the other case it being part of a longer verse. The second phrase is a complete verse in itself, and the third phrase is part of a longer verse. The Qur'anic verses from which the second and third phrases are taken both begin with the same statement, "as for he who is given his book," so Ben Ali appears to have simply combined the verses and fragments together without repeating the common part. The fourth phrase is a complete Qur'anic verse in itself. In exegesis of the Qur'an, related verses such as these are often cited in conjunction with one another, and, although they do not appear in the Qur'an in this way, it is certainly plausible that Ben Ali was aware of their relationship. As an aside, one might wish to ponder the delicious, though speculative, irony that Ben Ali may have chosen these verses--a few out of thousands in the Quran--as a way of also somehow commenting upon the person to whom he would be giving has manuscript. The complete passage containing the Qur'anic verses is preceded and followed by a vertical stroke, which could indicate that Ben Ali was aware that he was quoting from the Qur'an and that he intended the passage to be read as a quotation. The writing style is generally similar to the rest of the manuscript, including some words that use alternate spellings.

The Qur'an is the foundation of Islam, and is considered by Muslims to be the direct word of God. Because of this, Muslims take utmost care when reciting the Qur'an to make sure that pronunciation is correct, and when possible to check the spelling of written Arabic against a recitation of the Qur'an by someone who has it memorised and who has learned it orally. Ben Ali, having innovated spellings for several words in his Qur'anic quotations, therefore may not have had it memorised visually at the time he wrote the manuscript, nor did he likely have access to a person who did. This finding seems to counter the oft-repeated notion that Ben Ali was buried with a copy of the Qur'an (i.e. Parrish 1942, p. 42; Thornton 1955, p. 229; Austin 1984, p. 265). If it one day becomes possible to show that he was indeed buried with a copy of the Qur'an or a portion thereof, then it would be probable that he wrote it from memory without the benefit of checking it to a complete copy. More likely, someone may have added a Qur'an at his funeral, or he may have been buried with some pages with Qur'anic verses on them, or, more intriguingly, with the missing pages of his own manuscript (to which we will turn later). It is also possible that later commentators had confused Ben Ali with another African Muslim who was known to have memorised and written the Qur'an.

The evidence above points to the conclusion that Ben Ali knew some Qur'anic verses from oral memory, but did not use the visual spelling and pronunciation of formal Arabic. Any practicing Muslim has at least a few verses from the Qur'an memorised, because they are to be recited (at times aloud) during the ritual prayers, so it is not surprising that Ben Ali was able to reproduce some Qur'anic verses. However, knowing and reciting a verse by memory does not imply knowing the visual spelling of each word. A native speaker of Arabic may be able in most cases to reproduce the correct spelling from memory, but a non-native speaker of Arabic, or someone who had not yet mastered the language, could have trouble with spellings. If he had the Qur'an memorised, or knew someone who did, Ben Ali would most likely have thought to check his spellings on verses from which he decided to quote. This point cannot be stressed enough. If Ben Ali were in his native Timbo, he would have been around many Muslims in an Islamic environment, and would have had access to Islamic texts in Arabic, in addition to teachers who could recite the Qur'an in Arabic from memory. However, in the situation within which he found himself in America--being a slave in a non-Islamic and more than likely hostile environment--none of these resources would have been available to him. This is not to suggest that copies of the Qur'an could not have been provided by American slaveholders. Most probably they could have, but they did not want to provide them. Some slaveholders were able to obtain Arabic language publications--in particular, the Christian Bible--and give them to slaves who demonstrated knowledge of Arabic. One example is Omar Ibn Said, a slave in South Carolina, who had been given a copy of the Bible in Arabic (Austin 1984).

The manuscript also contains other evidence of Ben Ali's use of Qur'anic words and phrases. For example, I found on page 6 (line 4) the phrase "the fires of hell." Although mentioning hellfire is found throughout the Qur'an in different forms (for example, it appears in the verses we have examined above), the particular form used here, nar jahannam, is a Qur'anic formula found only in a few verses, and those verses are all in chapter nine of the Qur'an, commonly known as the Chapter of Repentance (9:63, 9:68, and 9:81). So, thematically speaking, Ben Ali's evocation of hellfire as described in the Chapter of Repentance is a logical continuation of what he wrote on the previous page, again suggesting that he was aware of the meanings and relationships of the words he was writing. But rather than being memorised from a particular document, we can perhaps also say that this common phrase was reproduced from oral memory of well-known Islamic eschatology.

On page 6, we find a passage which appears to be a supplication, or du'a, which can be a Qur'anic or non-Qur'anic prayer that is said at various times and for various reasons, including directly calling upon Allah for assistance or mercy. I read the passage as follows: "Muhammad is Your prophet. I seek refuge in You from the temptation of life... and from the temptation of the disbeliever and from the temptation of the Christian... peace by upon you and upon the virtuous worshipers of Allah" (p. 6, lines 8-13). However, contrary to Qur'anic convention, Ben Ali uses the second person pronoun in this phrase. I have respectfully capitalised "You" and "Your" in this case (Arabic uses no capital letters), assuming that Ben Ali was referring to Allah. However, it is also possible to assume, perhaps more subversively, that Ben Ali was writing to another Muslim, a fellow follower of the Prophet Muhammad, seeking refuge from the trials and tribulations imposed by his Christian slave master. Remember that Ben Ali was enslaved by Christian Americans, who were often incessant in their attempts to convert their Muslim slaves to Christianity, so I again find his choice of verses intriguing. Recall also that the Qur'an includes many stories of Biblical figures, although sometimes evokes them in a different light than the Bible. In this context, it is possible that Ben Ali may indeed have been seeking refuge from these brutal and unfortunate occurrences that, although somewhat incongruent with the Qur'anic view of Christians, came to be associated with them due to his distorted experience of Christianity through the shattered prism of American chattel slavery.

There is another feasible alternative to the above reading. It is entirely possible to assume that there was a word omitted after the word "Christian," namely the Arabic word for "imposter." When "imposter" is used in conjunction with "Christian," the phrase takes on the meaning of "anti-Christ" (masih dajjal). This interpretation permits us to assume that Ben Ali was not seeking refuge from the temptation of the Christians, but rather from the "anti-Christ," placing the supplication in a more cosmic context. There are other reasons for considering this reading of the passage. It seems safe to assume that there could indeed have been a word omitted, as this does happen elsewhere in the manuscript. This reading may be more probable, because there are common Islamic supplications that do mention seeking refuge from the "anti-Christ," whereas there are few, if any, that portray Christians in this negative light. This depends upon whether we consider Ben Ali as having intentionally or unintentionally omitted the word that makes the difference. Unfortunately, authorial intention is difficult to determine so we are left with our own interpretations. That Ben Ali may be reproducing formulaic phrases is indicated in the last part of this passage, where he writes "peace be upon you and upon the virtuous worshipers of Allah" (p. 6, lines 12-13), a common formula repeated by practicing Muslims in the ritual prayers.

At this point, Ben Ali's manuscript proceeds to a rudimentary description of the preparation and performance of the Islamic ritual prayers. On page 7 he begins a chapter on wudu', or ablution. Various passages interspersed throughout pages 7 and 8 contain the following instructions:

Begin the wudu' in the name of God. Wash both hands three times (p. 7, lines 5-7), wash the face three times (p. 7, lines 13-14), wipe the right arm up until the elbow and wipe the left arm up until the elbow (p. 8. lines 1-4), wipe the right foot up until the ankle and wipe the left foot up until the ankle (p. 8, lines 9-11).

This is a typical procedure and sequence for performing wudu'. Ben Ali emphasises washing the hands and face three times by repeating the Arabic word for "three" (thalathan) thrice in succession. He also distinguishes between washing and wiping by using two different words with different shades of meaning, and the Qur'an uses the same words to differentiate between washing and wiping in the describing the ritual ablutions. But there is also an alternate reading of this passage, in which the word used for "elbow" is closer in meaning to "joint" or "heel," while the word used for "ankle" is closer in meaning to "knee." So Ben Ali could have intended that the arms be wiped to the "heel," which can be understood to mean "elbow." We must remember once again that Ben Ali is not a native speaker of Arabic, and so perhaps in the locale in which he learned some Arabic the words had taken on different shades of meaning than in other regions. Certainly this is plausible, and even probable, since we can find the same phenomenon with the usage of Arabic words in Farsi, Urdu or Hausa, as well as within the various regional dialects of Arabic. In the case of wiping the feet, it is possible that Ben Ali did intend that the foot be wiped to the knee, but it is more probable that he meant to the ankle, which is more conventional in ritual ablutions, and he would have doubtless observed other Muslims doing this from his childhood before being abducted into slavery. In any case, the instructions follow standard procedure, and it is possible that he is trying to find the words to describe a procedure he first learned by watching an elder perform and explain it, as is customary Islamic practice across cultures. In fact, like much of what is contained in the manuscript, Ben Ali could have learned how to perform ablutions through imitation and then rendered the procedure in writing after the fact, perhaps a reminder or even a set of instructions, for another Muslim reader.

These passages suggest that Ben Ali knew of and had probably seen the daily preparations for the ritual prayers. The passages marks the beginning of a new section of the manuscript (which he labels with the word bab, meaning chapter, following literary convention), in which he describes the ablutions performed before the prayers. Unfortunately, this is also the place where I found that there are pages missing from the manuscript (more about which later), so I cannot say how he made his way into this description, nor what may have led up to it. Ben Ali's attention to the ritual ablutions in the manuscript, as well as in practice, is perhaps corroborated by this odd and confused statement from his slave master, Thomas Spalding, who said, "for no Mahometan with his seven daily ablutions, is a greater enemy to dirt than sugar is" (cited in Austin 1984, p. 277). Aside from the fact that Muslims make their ablutions only when needed, and that there are five prayers per day, the general habit of washing seems to have been passed on to at least one of his daughters, who was recalled by some observers to be very particular about her grandchildren's cleanliness (Parrish 1942, p. 27).

In this section, there is further evidence of recognition and correction of an error. Upon examining the phrase "wipe the right foot," we find "wipe the left foot" (p. 8, line 9), but then the word "left" is crossed out with an arrow drawn into the left margin, where "right" has been written vertically. As observed above, these corrections suggest recognition of what is written, not mere imitation, but it could also suggest that there was another hand in the manuscript, because in this case the correction is clearly made after the phrase had already been written. In any case, imitation plays a role here; not verbal imitation, but practical, for in Islamic ritual ablutions, the right hand, arm and foot are always washed before the left, and recollection of this practice is indicated in the marginal editing of the manuscript. The difference between the two instances of editing is worth a note as well. In the first case, in his chronology of the Caliphs, Ben Ali may have realised immediately after doing so that he had written the wrong name, because the corrected name is written right after the crossed out name, on the same line. In the second case (the directions for wiping the feet), as noted above, an arrow is drawn into the margin where the correct word has been added, suggesting an after-the-fact correction. A minor point on its own, but important when viewed with similar instances, because it tells us that the manuscript was written and checked over with great care, either by Ben Ali himself or possibly by another Muslim who also knew some Arabic.

Following the description of the ritual washing, we find:

After wudu', say, oh Allah I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, alone and without partners. I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah. I bear witness that the kingdom is His, and all praise is His, and He resurrects and He causes to die and He is all powerful over everything" (p. 8, lines 13-14 through p. 9, lines 1-6).

These phrases express some of the basic tenets of Islam, that there is only Allah, the One God, and that He has no partners, and that Muhammad is His Prophet. No one can claim to be a Muslim without saying these simple phrases, and they are often called the "profession of the faith." When someone decides to accept Islam, these are among the first things he or she learns to say in Arabic. In addition to this, practicing Muslims repeat the phrase several times during the daily prayers.

In the margin on page 10, perhaps indicating an afterthought, or less clearly another revision or editorial incursion, we find the title of the "Chapter of Prayer" (bab fi salat), and on the next two pages, Ben Ali has written the Islamic call to prayer, which is perhaps the most easily recognisable and most cited section of the manuscript. On page 9, line 12, he begins this section with the Arabic word azan, which means "call to prayer," and then proceeds (p. 9, lines 12-14 to p. 10, lines 1-8):

Allah is Greater, Allah is Greater. I bear witness that there is no god except Allah, I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah, I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah. Come to prayer, come to prayer. Come to salvation, come to salvation. Prayer is better than sleep, prayer is better than sleep. Allah is Greater, Allah is Greater. There is no god except Allah.

Following conventional Islamic ritual practice, Ben Ali repeats each line of the azan. The insertion of the phrase "prayer is better than sleep" identifies this call to prayer as being for the morning prayer, the only one of the five daily prayer calls that contains this phrase. Moreover, this phrase identifies Ben Ali as a Sunni Muslim, since Shiite Muslims do not include this phrase in the call to prayer. The call to prayer that Ben Ali inscribes is the one used to announce the time of prayer and also to call worshipers to the place of prayers, usually, but not always, a mosque. There is another slightly different version of the call to prayer, known as the iqamah, which occurs just before the prayers begin. Ben Ali writes this as well, and we will turn to it shortly. Contemporary accounts that have come down to us indicate that Ben Ali did more than only write the azan; he also performed it, with one observer named Charles S. Wylly quoted as remarking that "each day Ben Ali faced East and called upon Allah" (cited in Parrish 1942, p. 28).

After the above passage on azan Ben Ali writes, "sit in the place of worship (p. 10, lines 8 and 9) and remember Allah thirty three times, and glorify Allah thirty three times, and praise Allah thirty three times, until the coming of the dawn" (p. 10, lines 11-14 and p. 11, line 1). The last phrases of this passage are especially significant because of the reference to "thirty three." There is a Muslim oral tradition, sometimes known as "Fatima's Glorification," which the Prophet Muhammad taught to his daughter Fatima and which has been handed down orally through the generations. It is a cycle of three phrases, "Allah is Greater, glory be to Allah, praise be to Allah," with each repeated thirty three times, although in some forms of ritual practice the first phrase is repeated 34 times. While many Muslims will count on their fingers in order to keep track of the number of repetitions, some Muslims also use a string of beads, known as a masbahah. There are two varieties of masbahah, a short one with 33 beads, and a longer version with 99 beads and a marker every 33 beads. Such glorifications are commonly recited before or after the ritual prayer, and are a very widespread tradition found throughout the Muslim world and among all major sects. There are several accounts of Ben Ali reciting what is probably a glorification, for which observers note that he used a string of beads. One account appears in Parrish (1942, p. 27), describing Ben Ali and his wife praying with beads. In another account (cited in Austin 1984, p. 278), his great grandson and granddaughter both recall Ben Ali and his wife praying "on the beads," and saying "hakabara," which could be their way of remembering the phrase "allahu akbar," Arabic for "Allah is Greater." A third account describes the whole family using beads during prayer (Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p. 166). In addition to Ben Ali and his wife and family, descendants of other Muslims on the Georgia Sea Islands reported that their grandparents used beads during prayer (as noted in Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p.165). It is important to note here that these glorifications occur after the prayer as an optional practice, but to an observer not familiar with the prayers they can be easily seen as part of the ritual prayer.

In Islamic ritual practice, there are varieties of the call to prayer. Just before the prayers begin, there is a version known as the iqamah that is essentially the same as the one we have already examined, but with a few minor differences. The phrase "prayer is better than sleep" is omitted, and in its place "the time of prayer has come" is inserted, not just for the morning prayer but for all five. Between the time of the first call to prayer and the second, the worshipers sit and can either read the Qur'an or perform glorifications, supplications or other remembrances. Upon hearing the phrase "the time of prayer has come" in theiqamah call to prayer, worshipers stand and make their intention for prayer. It is important to note also that, according to traditional ritual practice, all of these steps apply no matter how many people are present. In other words, even the person who is praying alone should perform each step. On page 11, we find that Ben Ali has written the iqamah form of the call to prayer, except this time he does not write each phrase twice, while including "the time of prayer has come" (p. 11, lines 8-13). Ben Ali writes (p. 11, lines 8-13) the iqamah as such:

Allah is Greater, Allah is Greater, I bear witness that there is no god except Allah, I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, hasten to prayer, hasten to salvation, the time of prayer has come, Allah is Greater, Allah is Greater, there is no god except Allah.

The way in which Ben Ali wrote the sequence of repetitions clearly identifies this iqamah as the form prescribed in Maliki jurisprudence, because with regard to the number of repetitions for each line the other schools of thought prescribe a different form for the iqamah (Maghniyyah 1992, p. 137). This indicates that Ben Ali was familiar with the Maliki rite, the form of Sunni Islamic ritual practice most commonly adhered to in Northern Africa as well as parts of sub-Saharan West Africa.

On pages 12 and 13, Ben Ali describes other aspects of the ritual prayer, in particular some of the phrases that are recited during the prayer. Combining description of the procedure with provision of the requisite phrases, Ben Ali writes, "You say 'glory be to the Sustainer Most High, glory be to the Sustainer most Mighty and praise Him' (p. 12, lines 6-8), and the imam says after bowing down, 'Allah listens to whoever praises Him' and then you say 'Oh Allah our Sustainer, for You is all praise' (p. 12, lines 9-11), and then the imam touches his forehead to the ground for a long time and says 'glory be to the Sustainer Most High'" (p. 12, lines 12-14). The word imam in this context is the person who is leading the prayer, although it can also mean a religious teacher or community leader in other contexts. For our purposes, the spelling for imam that Ben Ali employs here is significant. More specifically, the word he writes isalmami, which is found in the literature as being the word for imam in many parts of West Africa, most likely derived from combining the definite article "al" with the word "imam." Wilks (1967, p. 148) notes that the title almami was used to refer to a "high priest" in Jenne, an 18th century centre of West African Islamic learning, while Trimingham (1962, pp. p. 167-8) discusses the use of almami in Futa Jallon, in both its religious and political contexts. In these passages, then, Ben Ali seems to be describing the phrases that the imam and the worshipers recite while performing the ritual prayer, but with details that identify the text with a particular school of thought (Maliki) and with a regional pronunciation (West African).

In the accounts of several observers, similar to those noted above, there are descriptions of Ben Ali and his family praying together. The prayer was described by their great grandchildren as when they "got down flat" (Parrish 1942, p. 27), while other observers described Ben Ali and his wife as being very particular about the times that they prayed, and that they were very regular about the hour (Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p. 161). Katie Brown, one of Ben Ali's great grand-daughters, remembers the prayer times as being when the sun comes up, when it is straight over head, and when it sets, and that when they prayed, the family would bow toward the sun and kneel on a small mat (Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p. 161). The reference to bowing toward the sun was most likely a recollection of observing the morning prayers on the Georgia Sea Islands, which are on the eastern seaboard of the United States where the sun rises in the East. This is also the general direction of the prayers for that location (Muslims face toward Mecca during the ritual prayers, but it could be any geographical direction, depending on their global location). A similar recollection by a nephew notes that Ben Ali and his family would pray at sun up and face the sun on their knees, and bow toward it three times while kneeling on small mats (Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p. 166).

Austin (1984, p. 65) suggests that Ben Ali "prayed the obligatory three times a day facing the East on his carefully preserved prayer rug," although it is not clear what the primary sources are for this description. In addition, the "obligatory" prayers are actually five times a day in most forms of Islamic ritual practice, including those following the Maliki school, but the references to three daily prayers may be an example of a common practice among Muslims to combine the noon with the afternoon prayer and the evening with the night prayers while traveling away from home or while under duress. Aside from these details on times and repetitions of the ritual prayer, the significance of these accounts is that the prayers were performed at all, given the historical circumstances. In many cases, Muslims in Antebellum America were not given the opportunity to perform their prayers. Although Ben Ali and his family apparently were able to perform their prayers at least some of the time, as their descendants recalled above, other Muslims were observed to undergo harassment as they prayed. For example, there is an account of Ayoub Ibn Sulayman, an African Muslim slave in Maryland, who was harassed when he tried to perform his prayers. When he "withdrew to pray he was regularly followed by a white boy, who, amused by his prayers and the accompanying ritual of abasement, began to mock him and throw dirt in his face" (Grant 1968, p. 82). In any case, these observations suggest that the Ben Ali Diary was perhaps not a manual of instruction, although it could have been, nor was it necessarily a diary or set of meditations, since Muslim ritual practice is first and foremost known and learned by imitation and participation. In fact, the written document may play an incidental secondary role to the ritual practice, especially in such rudimentary matters that are not the subject of theological dispute in a given locale, although in the Diaspora such taken-for-granted practices may have seemed worth recollecting in writing.

On the last page of the manuscript, Ben Ali describes some of what is recommended and not recommended after the prayer. He writes, "Glorify and praise for a long time, and send peace and supplicate for a long time, but it is not recommended to sleep after the morning prayer, and it is not recommended to sit after the morning prayer, and it is not recommended to speak except until after the morning prayer, so remember Allah until the coming of the dawn and pray" (p. 13, lines 2-9). These are some of the traditional practices that any pious Muslim may do in the times before and after the morning prayer, and so Ben Ali has demonstrated to us that he knows the important aspects of the ritual prayer as well as the actions that precede and follow it. Although in the above passages he is describing the morning prayer, much of what is contained in this description can apply to the Islamic ritual prayer in general, at any time of the day. The recitations during the bowing and prostration are the same in each of the daily prayers, and usually after any prayer there is period of quiet contemplation and remembrance of God, though, as noted above, there are specific features that identify what he has written as belonging only to the morning prayer.

Before leaving my reading of the manuscript, it is worth noting that there is at least one double-sided page missing, and for all we know there could be several pages missing. At the bottom of every other page one finds that Ben Ali has written the first word of the following page. For example, on the bottom of page two we find the first word of page three, on the bottom of page four we find the first word of page five, and so on, establishing a pattern which is found in many Islamic texts, including the Qur'an. One of the reasons for doing this in the Qur'an is to allow the reader to anticipate the first word on the next page in order to facilitate a smooth transition while turning the pages during reading out loud, especially when a page break occurs in the middle of a phrase where there is no pause. More commonly, the convention is used to help order pages when numbers are not used, so one can determine which pages follow which by looking at the key word on the bottom of the preceding page, which is particularly useful in unbound and unnumbered manuscripts. Ben Ali adheres to this convention, except between pages six and seven. The word on the bottom of page six does not match the first word on page seven. This also happens to be the physical middle of the manuscript, which is the place where a page is perhaps more likely to fall out or be removed, since the manuscript appears to have been loosely bound with string. Ben Ali wrote on both sides of each sheet of paper (with the exception of the last page), so if a single sheet is missing, this most likely means that two pages of text are missing. If the missing sheet was a double page, folded in the middle, then that means that four pages of text are lost. It is possible to increase the amount of missing pages in multiples of two indefinitely, because we have no reliable historical record of how many pages the manuscript originally contained. The Ben Ali manuscript follows a somewhat predictable order and there is no internal evidence of any great amount of material missing, so the number of missing sheets is probably one, or two at most. That means that at least two, but maybe more, pages of text are missing. To my knowledge, no one has investigated what may have happened to the missing pages, or when and where they were lost, although some have speculated. Austin (1984, p. 275), for example, found one instance of the manuscript being offered for sale by its owner prior to it being deposit in a library collection, a possibility that I explore in Part Two. Extrapolating from that, it is possible to say that perhaps one or two pages, or maybe more, were removed and either sold, stolen or given away as samples or gifts, or that they were also simply misplaced due to carelessness, most likely prior to it being curated by the library.

From reading the manuscript alone, we can perhaps say that Ben Ali knew some of the basic rituals for a practicing Muslim, and that he committed this to oral memory, but that he was probably very young when abducted and sold into slavery and had not yet learned to write them in formal Arabic. He might have decided to write the manuscript later in life for posterity or to assert his identity while in Diaspora, or in order to set his knowledge down for the benefit of others, perhaps fearing it would be lost in the non-Islamic environment of Antebellum America. There is evidence that Ben Ali's descendants, although they may not have actually read Ben Ali's manuscript, did maintain elements of the Islamic ritual practice. For example, Parrish (1942, p. 27) refers to Ben Ali's great-grandchildren recalling having observed stages of the ritual prayer, and also remembering a fasting day. Austin (1984, p. 272) suggests that Ben Ali was perhaps asserting his knowledge of Islamic law, no matter how rudimentary, to his slave master Spalding, who was apparently a sometime lawyer. It could also be an example of Ben Ali using the written word to assert his identity in the literate culture of Antebellum America, by demonstrating that he too was literate in another language, no matter how rudimentary it may appear to us. This point of multiple literacies his been taken up by Judy (1993), who has suggested that the presence of African Arabic manuscripts in Antebellum America calls into question the entire notion of an African American literary canon.

Whatever the reasons for writing his manuscript, Ben Ali probably would not have needed to write these things at all if he was still in Futa Jallon, in an Islamic environment where there is little need to record the very basic things that he and his fellow believers already know and take for granted, and which they practice daily. In the particular situation in which Ben Ali was living, his writing of these seemingly basic things can be seen a very real assertion of his African Islamic identity. Beyond that, Ben Ali's writing in this context could be understood as an example of the subversive use of language. There are in fact several cases of African Muslims in Antebellum America asserting their identity in writing, often without their masters knowing what was happening. The most celebrated case is recounted in Austin (1984, p. 191), in which the African Muslim slave Abdul Rahman, after being persistently proselytised by his Christian slave masters, was asked to show them the fruits of their efforts by writing the Lord's Prayer" in Arabic. Abdul Rahman complied, and the requester promptly dated signed and dated the document on 29 December 1828, having labeled it as "The Lord's Prayer." Only many years later did some one notice that Abdul Rahman had actually written the fatihah, the first chapter of the Qur'an. Keeping these points in mind, it is possible to consider Ben Ali's manuscript as a sort of "diary," not as an intentional memoir, but by ascription. In other words, it may not be a diary in the strictest sense--with dated entries and daily reflections--but it could be thought of as a diary of sorts, in the sense that it represents a collection of recollections that were very important to Ben Ali, the Muslim. Likewise, as with any diary, Ben Ali's manuscript tells us something about the personality of its writer, who was boldly asserting his Islamic identity in an environment where it was almost completely unknown, where it was at best very much misunderstood, and at worst roundly feared or despised.


Alford, T. (1977). Prince among slaves: The true story of an African prince sold into slavery in the American south. New York: Oxford University Press.
Austin, A. D. (1984). African Muslims in Antebellum America: A sourcebook. New York: Garland Publishing.
Couper, J. H. (1844). "Letter of..." in W. B. Hodgson, Notes on northern Africa, the Sahara and the Soudan. New York: Wiley and Putnam.
Georgia Writers' Project, Savannah Unit (1940). Drums and shadows: Survival studies among the Georgia coastal Negroes. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Goulding, B. L. (1931). Affidavit of Capt. Benjamin Lloyd Goulding as to Arabic document. State of Tennessee, County of Hamilton, copy in University of Georgia Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Grant, D. (1968). The fortunate slave: An illustration of African slavery in the early eighteenth century. London: Oxford University Press.
Greenberg, J. (1940). The decipherment of the 'Ben Ali Diary': A preliminary statement. Journal of Negro History, 25(3).
Judy, R. A. T. (1993). (Dis)forming the American canon: African-Arabic slave narratives and the vernacular. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Maghniyyah, M. J. (1992). Salat, according to five schools of Islamic law (part 2). Al-Tawhid: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought and Culture, 9(3).
Martin, B. G. (1994). Sapelo Island's Arabic document: The "Bilali Diary" in context. Georgia Historical Quarterly, 78(3).
Parrish, L. (1942). Slave songs of the Georgia sea coast. New York: Creative Age Press.
Progler, J. (1996). Encountering Islam: Essays on cultural history and representation. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of American Studies, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Progler, J. (2000). Reading early American Islamica: An interpretive translation of the Ben Ali Diary. Al-Tawhid: Journal of Islamic Thought and Culture, 16(3).
Thornton, E. M. (1955). Bilali and his book. Law Library Journal, 48.
Trimingham, S. (1962). A history of Islam in west Africa. London: Oxford University Press.
Wilks, I. (1967). Salih Bilali of Massina, in P. Curtin (ed.), Africa remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the era of the slave trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

[I first became interested in the Ben Ali Diary in the early 1990s when I was a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. I discovered it in a sourcebook on African American traditions during my research for a paper on Arabic literary traditions in Africa, which I completed as part of a course with Maan Madina in the Department of Middle East Languages and Cultures. I was immediately attracted to the manuscript and the story of Ben Ali because they sat at the nexus of several interests of mine at the time: African American history, ethnomusicology, Arabic language, and Islamic Studies. The course paper, written in 1992, became the basis for a chapter in my 1996 PhD dissertation in American Studies at State University of New York in Buffalo. The research for this phase of the project was done in the pre-internet and pre-computer indexing age; I still fondly recall rooting around in the magnificent wooden card catalogues and dark musty old bookshelves of the Columbia University Libraries. I queried patient librarians in New York and by phone in Georgia, and made frequent use of what is now disparaged, or forgotten, as "snail mail" for most correspondences, waiting patiently sometimes weeks for replies. While I am happy to share this work now on the internet, it is in some ways bittersweet in that I am not sure if the work would have taken the same trajectory, or if I would have maintained the same fascination with it for so long, had it been initially undertaken in the hype and glut of the computer-driven "information age." It is a decidedly analog work that has been gradually digitised along the way. In its more digital manifestation, the dissertation chapter was revised and published in 2000 in Al-Tawhid: A Journal of Islamic Thought and Culture. I subsequently expanded the research, which had up until then been limited to analysis of the manuscript itself, to include the file of correspondences and related documents that accompany the manuscript in the University of Georgia Libraries. The analysis of those documents was then added to the reading of the manuscript and published as a single long journal article in 2004 in Muslim and Arab Perspectives, which included a photograph of the first page of the manuscript. The journal article was further revised and updated for a chapter in my 2008 book Encountering Islam. The book chapter forms the basis of the two parts presented here, which are illustrated for the first time with photos of the manuscript and the relevant documents. Part One covers the manuscript and Part Two, which will be available shortly, covers the correspondences.]

Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Use
Copyrights © 1436 AH
Sign In
Forgot Password?
Not a Member? Signup