America’s relationship to Islam goes back to the early 1800s, when Muslim slaves fought for their freedom — and there are lessons in it for America today.
In 1835, a young Muslim slave participated in a revolt in the Brazilian city of Bahia. Their group was led by Ahuna, an elderly religious leader who organised the rebellion hoping to free them from bondage. The young man, a devout follower of Ahuna, didn’t survive the rebellion, but his body was found with a folio around his neck. It contained an inscription and prayer from the Quran which said,
Our Lord, and make us Muslims [in submission] to You and from our descendants a Muslim nation [in submission] to You.
Almost a century and a half later, Margarita Rosa’s research led her to the struggles of this community, and the price they were willing to pay to live free. Though that community eventually withered away, Margarita believes that today’s large African-American Muslim community is “Allah’s response” to that prayer.
Fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic, Margarita is a PhD candidate in the Comparative Literature department at Princeton University, studying and exploring the forgotten history and experiences of enslaved Muslims during and after the transatlantic slave trade.
She was born in the Dominican Republic, so speaking about the transatlantic slave trade for Margarita isn’t a detached exploration of history, but is a personal attempt to reclaim a lost and forgotten story, drawing from its spiritual resources and “its legacy of resistance”.
When Christopher Columbus first docked in the New World, he arrived on the shores of what we now call Dominica establishing it as the first colony. But the Americas more generally have “always been a site of colonisation.”
“Our entire race exists because of colonisation,” she says. “Our entire existence has been under a framework of colonisation, so naturally the study of colonisation appealed to me”.
Her Dominican background has influenced her academic interests in another way too. Dominica was “also where the first slave rebellion took place in 1521 by Wolof people from the Sene-Gambian region,” Muslims, who were kidnapped from their homes in West Africa and had to live in bondage in the New World.
According to David Eltis and David Richardson’s comprehensive study of the transatlantic slave trade, roughly 12.5 million Africans were abducted between 1501 and 1867, in an enterprise that involved almost every country with an Atlantic coastline. Estimates according to Margarita’s research would indicate that between 10-30 percent of that population was Muslim. (That would put the number between 1.25 – 3.75 million people). The majority of those ended up in Brazil, the country which received the most slaves.
Not only was the voyage perilous, carrying a serious risk of death, disease or at the very least extreme discomfort, abductees would have no hope of seeing their homes or families again.
Recreating a community, with the institutions needed to support that community is difficult enough in a foreign country, but according to Margarita, the chips were stacked against them in ways we can’t imagine.
“The enslaved Muslims”, much like other enslaved people in the Americas, “were under the most oppressive conditions possible,” she said. “They literally had no dominance over their will, their lives, over their material conditions or even over their geographical location.”
You could be excused for assuming that despair might have crept in, but the abductees demonstrated an incredible ingenuity, initiative and cunning to protect themselves and practice their faith in the New World.
Muslims were naturally the most visible population of religious observers in the enslaved period.
According to some accounts Margarita unearthed, there were records of slaves praying and observing Ramadan, as well as giving Zakah (mandatory alms) to poorer slaves to offer relief and sometimes freeing each other.
This greater visibility, a direct result of the large role that Islam plays in the public lives of Muslims, meant slaves in Bahia would have to meet at night following the completion of their days work to avoid arousing suspicion. This is when their religious classes would often take place.
“It is extremely difficult to imagine this situation – in which in order to take classes, in order to learn Quran, and this is well explicated in the 1865 manuscript that I mention – you would have to finish all your days’ work, escape from your plantation, get to the teacher who is also likely enslaved and may not have finished his duties, then you might have a lesson between those very few hours that you had to sleep.”
The plantation economy in the Americas was largely based on the slave labour throughout the 19th century. (Courtesy of: Marc Ferrez Moreira Salles Institute Archive)
To practice their faith, secrecy was crucial among the Muslim slaves. In Brazil, Margarita said, “there was a special consideration for clothing,” as the slaves donned their traditional tunics and white robes during their revolts to reclaim their freedom. The connection between the revolt and those items of clothing led to a total ban of any attire associated with Islam in the public space.
There was an interesting case of an Iraqi man, whose Turkish fleet arrived into Rio De Janeiro after sailing around Africa in 1865. The slaves, second generation by now, requested that he re-teach them Quran which he accepted, but they insisted he change his garments to avoid drawing undesirable attention.
The Muslim slave revolts were different because they were born out of these spaces of Islamic education.
It was during these clandestine meetings that Muslims who often shared ethno-linguistic ties organised their revolts. This was also a demonstration of the continued importance of religion in the lives of Muslim slaves. These classes kindled a revolutionary fire, and religion was one of the driving forces spurring them on.
Continuing the legacy
“Hate gives identity,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in “Between The World and Me”. An African-American journalist, he’s all too aware of how prejudice is used to construct and maintain identities and exclude groups. “The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man”.
This border which Coates refers to in the US context exists to protect privilege and exclude the undeserving. As a result, Coates describes the US as a “cannibalistic” democracy. For Margarita this is “intrinsically tied to the prison system,” which through aggressive policing and incarceration preserves and protects the privileged caste.
A teacher of World Literature at a prison in New Jersey, Margarita’s interactions with her student inmates, usually young men of colour, have convinced her that not only do structural features of racism still nakedly operate, but that “slavery hasn’t been abolished in the United States as per the 13th Amendment.”
In 1979, Congress passed a bill using the 13th Amendment which permitted US companies to exploit prison labor. This program generated $500 million in sales in 2016, with some prisoners being paid as little as 34 cents an hour. When thought about alongside a penal system that aggressively incarcerates men and women of colour, we get an ugly picture.
Though African Americans make up 12-13 percent of the US population, they comprise 34 percent of the prison population.
A manuscript written by a Brazilian slave in an Arabic script. (Arquivo Publicodo Estadoda Bahia)
Margarita is careful to draw a direct analogy between the historical experiences of slaves and this new form of labour exploitation, but when one of her students bragged that he was due a pay rise to $2 an hour, she said she was “so sad that he felt that was a lot.”
Unable to contain her sympathy for her students, the drastic contrast between her life and theirs saddened her when one of her student’s greatest joys was a meagre pay rise to $2 an hour.
And this is where Islam fits into the picture for Margarita, which personally motivates her to seek justice and help those less fortunate.
Islam is not just about spirituality. Islam is also an identification with a morality, a morality that is anti-imperialist and anti-racist.
Though the Trump presidency has mainstreamed a form of unconcealed bigotry, which many believed was confined to the pages of American history, “It’s important to remember that this is not the worst it’s ever been. And we know this because the first American Muslims were enslaved people too.”
But this wasn’t a call for complacency or undue gratitude to contemporary white America for changes in attitude.
Though the US has come a long way in recognising the rights of minorities, especially African Americans, Margarita argues that we should make the most of this privilege by achieving all the things they were “unable to.”
The history of Africans, including Muslims, who were brought to the American continent, is a strong reminder of a struggle to be free, a journey that offers significant lessons.
“That is the legacy we’re inheriting whether one is Bangladeshi, Chinese or Dominican like me.”
“A legacy of resistance.”