By: Mohammad Hassam Kang
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We are privileged to be part of a group in America that appreciates that its part of a racially diverse group of Muslims, but nearly a quarter of native American born Muslims are African Americans. The history of Islam in America is often misconstrued, as it dates back even to times of slavery, where known records suggest that some of the Africans brought here in the period of slavery and brutalized were in fact some of our Muslim brothers. They were forced to convert at the hands of their masters in puritanical American society.                 

The fear of Islam was seen of course in the Enlightenment to be a threat to Christianity and Republicanism. However, in the meetings of Philadelphia there was considerable dispute of whether or not to include the freedom of religion clause. Some contested Islam was not to be tolerated and argued, fearing an Ottoman insurgency, that a Muslim might obtain presidency. However, it was the Deist philosophy and the non-denominational meetings inspired by Ben Franklin that set the tone for freedom of religion, as he said, "even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." 

The openness of religion was maintained in the coming years by the political elite. John Adams, the second President of the United States wrote in his "Thoughts on Government," that the Prophet (PBUH) was a "sober inquirer of truth," listing him among other notable thinkers such as Confucius, Zoroaster, and Socrates. George Washington also wrote regarding hiring "Mahometans," as well as people of any nation or religion, to work for him, citing that he did not discriminate based on race or religion. In 1797, President John Adams signed a treaty granting special legal status to a community of Moroccans in South Carolina and declared that the United States had no, "character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen.” This differs greatly from the fear of Islam in the present age where two states (Louisiana and Tennesee) have banned sharia law, and dozens of other states are working on it. Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson famously had iftar with an Ambassador from Tunisia and wrote elsewhere about his acceptance of Muslim people.                

Most notably the sixth President John Quincy Adams famously released Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, a Muslim Prince from West Africa, after the Sultan of Morocco ordered Secretary of State, Henry Clay, to release him from  slavery after spending 40 years as a slave. He was the leader of one of his father’s army divisions in Fula and studied in Mali. Ibrahim was famously known as the Prince among slaves. Sadly the history of Muslims on this continent also began with slavery.                

However, even earlier accounts of Islam that detail the precedents for Islam were seen as explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca brought along his indentured serveant Mustafa Zemmouri (known in the west as Estavanico of Azamor), to a Spanish expedition to North America. On this expedition, they explored the regions of Arizona and New Mexico. He was a slave, but spent most of his life as an Arabized African Moor, raised in the Islamic tradition and became the first known African to set foot on Continental North America. It was after an ill-fated expedition to Cuba which led them to seek refuge along the coast of Florida, when they were actually attempting to sail to Mexico, that they found themselves shipwrecked. These events took place as early as the early 1500s. After many of their crewmembers starved, drowned, or died by contracting illnesses, the only ones to survive were Álvar, Mustafa and a few other men. They eventually traveled across the present day U.S territory back to their countrymen in Mexico, encountering many Native tribes along the way.               

Lesser known are lives of the Muslim slaves brought here and forced into slavery, and others even forced to convert to Christianity. This is a minor detail in the great life of Omar ibn Sayd, also known as Prince Omeroh, who was an Islamic scholar born in West Senegal to a wealthy family of nobility. He spent over twenty five years of his life studying with Islamic scholars in theology and arithmetic. He was brought across the Atlantic during a military conflict in 1807 and was brought to Charleston, South Carolina and forced into slavery where he would eventually escape his cruel master. However, he was recaptured on his travels in Fayetteville, North Carolina and sold to James Owen. Although he was forced to convert to Christianity, Sayd's own autobiographical accounts that were later found suggest he maintained his practice of Islam, and begins his autobiographical essays with Surat al-Mulk. Another Muslim slave from Senegal is Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who also published memoirs and was a learned scholar. Yet another account is of Bilali Muhammad who was brought to Sapelo Island, now part of Georgia, from his home in Timbo Futa-Jallon in present day Guinea-Conakry. He became the Imam for 80 other Muslim men on his plantation and led daily prayers. During the war of 1812 him and his 80 Muslim brothers protected their master’s home from British attack. He is the author of the Bilali document, which is an Arabic Risala detailing basic laws of Islamic etiquette, which is kept at the University of Georgia.            

Of course this isn't the first instance of Muslim slaves helping to fight in American wars, as many Muslim slaves were listed among the ranks of those who fought and died in the Civil War. Muhammad Ali ibn Said who was a teacher from Detroit who came to the U.S in 1860 enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment in the United States Army and rose to the rank of sergeant. Max Hassan, an African who worked for the military as a porter is another example of an early Muslim American soldier. Hajj Ali was employed by the United states cavalry in 1856 to raise camels in Arizona and New Mexico. He later became prospector  and serves as another example of Muslims being in America since the very development of the modern Union.The soldiers at the University of Alabama, which was burned down in the Civil War by General  Croxton who maintained a scorched earth policy, saved but one momento from its  historic collection. When a sympathetic officer pleaded not to have it burned down, a rare copy of the Quran that was found among the debris was saved. Since the import of at least as many as 500,000 slaves from Africa, 15 to 30 percent of male African slaves and less than 15 percent of women, were Muslims. The places in Africa where slaves were abducted generally maintained at least a minority population of Muslims, which would guarantee that more than half of the slaves that reached North America were influenced by Islamic teachings in some way. 

Notably, historians have said that these slaves stood out from their fellow enslaved men in terms of "resistance, determination and education." Tens of thousands of African slaves are estimated to have been practicing Muslims upon reaching America. Some spoke arabic and wrote various risalas and manuscripts. Behind the veil of oppression, the quiet struggle of many enslaved Muslims will never be known and will forever be relegated to footnote status in the history books, but it is our duty to preserve the history of our people.  

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