Remembering (and forgetting) African Muslims in the Americas

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

J A Progler

Dhu al-Hijjah 04, 1418 1998-04-01


by J A Progler (Features, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 3, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1418)

Hollywood’s latest extravaganza, Amistad, is about Africans sold into slavery in 1839 who revolt and commandeer a slave ship with the intention of sailing back to Africa. Intercepted off the coast of New York, they are arrested and get entangled in a court case pitting abolitionist against pro-slavery forces.

The film’s director Steven Spielberg, like the makers of other ‘great white hope’ American films such as Dances with Wolves, focuses on the white man hero, former US president John Quincy Adams, who champions the Africans’ case and eventually secures their freedom. (Hooray for the Great White American savior!)

When Alex Haley asserted in his 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, that its main character Kunte Kinte was a Muslim, he was dismissed by many American historians.

What is overlooked, however, is that among the slaves who revolted were men who spoke and understood Arabic. One even responded in kind to a missionary who tested him with the traditional Islamic greeting, Assalamu ‘alaykum. Whichever way the story is told today, Amistad is a powerful reminder of the presence of Muslims in America during the period of slavery. If this part of the story sounds surprising, it is probably because of the confused and contradictory ways the Islamic legacy of African Americans has been handled by writers and historians.

When Alex Haley asserted in his 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, that its main character Kunte Kinte was a Muslim, he was dismissed by many American historians. James Michenor, for example, labeled Haley’s assertion as a ‘sop’ to contemporary developments and that it was not a ‘true reflection’ of the past, implying that Kunte Kinte’s past reflected Haley’s present, and especially his earlier collaboration on the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Even people who generally saw the overall value of Haley’s work refused to appreciate the Islamic aspects of the story. Black nationalists usually distance themselves from the stories of African Muslims in slave America, as do most Christian-oriented thinkers of African descent. Islam is either denied as a part of Afro-American history, or, when its presence is acknowledged at all, it is invalidated by being labeled as ‘just another slave religion’ - this time of the Arabs. But despite what its detractors claim, Islam is a significant part of African American history and should be included in multicultural inspired revivals and remembrances.

This is not to say that historians are not aware of a Muslim presence in early America. For example, noted historian John Blassingame, in his classic work, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1979), found that ‘Muhammadan’ slaves continued to pray to Allah in the slave quarters. But this brief admission is overshadowed by a long polemic about slavery and Islam in North and West Africa.

Adding to the confusion, Blassingame lumps together and freely interchanges terms that seem to mean the same thing, whereas they are in fact - the way he uses them - practically meaningless. Using the terms Arabs, Moors, Bedouins, Moslems, and Berbers in ways that are not clear, he also refers to religious wars between ‘Christians and Moslems,’ and to ‘Arab privateers’ and ‘Moorish pirates’ in the Mediterranean. His unexamined assumptions on these issues, coupled with their limited relevance to the topic at hand, seem to do nothing but reinforce preconcieved notions of the Islamic world as a savage and barbarous place.

But were the wars which Blassingame speaks of solely ‘religious’? Is Blassingame willing to place ‘pirates’ in the context of the Spanish Reconquista and Inquisition, or European colonization? Who were these ‘pirates’ and ‘privateers,’ and who do they represent? No context, no explanation; this borders on the exploitation of powerful and emotional images that have deep roots in Euro-American civilization, reaching back to the Crusades.

Blassingame uses very limited and selective sources to tell his story of slavery in North and West Africa: a handful of travel or other writings by people who escaped from ‘pirates’ and ‘privateers,’ and two books on slavery in the region. There is a lot of spurious and politically motivated scholarship on this, and Blassingame appears to be using sources at face value that support his own pre-conceived notions, instead of using a critical eye to appraise them within the political context in which they may have been written.

Tales of Arab, Moorish, Moslem (sic), Berber, Bedouin slavery, forced conversion of innocent Christians, lascivious sexual behaviour, and overall mindless and violent acts read like nothing more than a compendium of Crusader and Inquisition phantasms.

Another noted American historian, Eugene Genovese, in Roll Jordon Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1976), also mentions Islam in the lives of African Americans. In his discussion of slave religion, he notes that slave interpretations of the prophets Moses and Jesus [upon them both be peace] were different than those of the white preachers, and notes that these interpretations might also have applied to the Prophet Muhammad [upon whom be peace]. Genovese states that Muhammad followed Jesus as Jesus followed Moses [upon them all be peace], but that slaves had ‘too strong a grip on reality’ to be concerned with the benefits of the afterlife, and were more concerned with the here and now.

Genovese also notes that black preachers re-interpreted some of the messages of the Judeo-Christian prophets, for example the migration of Moses. He also mentions the Muslims’ migration from Makkah to Medina. While Genovese’s observations are somewhat sound (his portrayal of Muslim-led rebellions in Brazil in his book From Rebellion to Revolution is better than most), he is nevertheless operating under some assumptions that need to be clarified.

Genovese seems to accept without question the notion that ‘Muhammadan’ slaves often equated the Prophet Muhammad with Jesus [upon them both be peace]. But this comes right out of antebellum Christian polemics by the likes of Rev. Charles C Jones, author of a notorious 1843 manual for slave holders, The Religious Instructions of the Negroes.

Here is a misconception. Most Christian ministers did and do indeed give heavier weight to the afterlife, and often instruct their followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the face of injustice and oppression. Genovese realized that this was obviously not seen as sound to many slaves, but when he asserts that Africans developed a modified form of Christianity based on their experiences, he forgets the possible influence of Islamic ideology on Christianity as it came to be practised among them.

Islam does not teach turning the other cheek; instead, it calls upon its adherents to stand up and seek justice, and to protect themselves if necessary. Anyone who has read the Qur’an - whether they be African, Arab, Berber, Moor - will get this same message. So, while Genovese admits that Islamic ideology may have played a role in the Brazilian uprisings, he does not try to see how that ideology might have also had an impact - albeit in a different setting - upon at least some of the slave rebellions and other forms of resistance in North America.

There are other clues to consider. Research in musicology has shown a strong possibility that Islamic musical sensibilities may have found their way to the ‘new world’ via the slave trade. However, if one insists on lumping all slaves together into one mass - which is still done by some scholars - then it becomes easy to deny the Islamic influences. No one will argue that there were not African influences on music in the Americas, but it can be argued that, while not always easy to disentangle what came from where, there must have been some kinds of Islamic influences on Afro-American musical forms and practices, especially regarding forms of liturgical chant.

This is overshadowed by scholars who uniformly emphasize drumming and dance among many African peoples, usually giving this as the main contribution to Afro-American musics. African Muslims do not rely as much on drumming or dancing for their musical expressions. Muslims have developed and continue to develop musical forms using string instruments and relying on complex and embellished solo vocal lines - both features being very prevalent wherever one goes in the Muslim world. Some musicologists have tried to note this with varying degrees of success, but none of these ideas ever makes it into works such as Blassingame’s or Genovese’s.

Arguments can be made for other Islamic concepts and practices being mingled with African, Christian and new world cultures. For example, there is the practice of ‘conjuring,’ which is often noted but not thought through. It is possible that some forms of conjuring - in particular those which rely on a written charm of some sort - are clearly Islamic in origin. Muslim holy men and women in Africa are noted for making such charms, sometimes called hijab or hatumere, and which can consist of specially chosen verses from the Qur’an written on some medium and worn or carried by the believer for protection.

While not all ‘conjuring’ can be described as from Muslim sources, by lumping it all together the historian denies an important aspect of diversity in the African-Islamic experience in the Americas. As a case in point, Makandal, who led a slave rebellion in Haiti and who remains an important figure in Haitian history, is often labeled as a ‘conjurer,’ practising voodoo. What is not usually mentioned is that he had a strong command of the Arabic language, which is strong evidence that Haiti’s national hero was a Muslim.

Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1998

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