History > Muslim Immigration

Before Arabs started immigrating to the United States in the nineteenth century, earlier travelers of Muslim descent are known to have landed in this country. The earliest information we have about these Muslims date to pre-columbian expeditions.

An artist’s depiction of Al-Masudi.

Possible Pre-Columbian Expeditions:

  • Some Muslims may have reached the New World as early as the 10th century. Some of the earliest information we have about Muslims setting foot in the New World is from Muslim historian and geographer Al-Masudi (871-957 CE). In his work, Meadows of Gold, Al-Masudi tells of the expedition of a Muslim navigator (Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad) from Cordoba who sailed from Delba (Palos) in 889 CE, crossed the Atlantic, reached an “unknown territory,” and returned with fabulous treasures. In Al-Masudi’s map of the world, there is a large area in the ocean of darkness and fog which he calls “the unknown territory” representing the geographical space of the Americas.

 

 Participation in the Spanish Conquest of the New World:

Estevanico, or Stephen the Moor: raised as a Muslim and sold into slavery in 1513, he participated in the Spanish expedition to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Northern Mexico.

In the late 15th century, early Spanish and Portuguese explorers (such as Columbus) were able to cross the Atlantic and thanks to navigational and geographical instruments and maps developed by Muslims. It is said that Columbus travelled with two captains of Muslim descent during his first transatlantic voyage.

Much of this early Islamic presence in America is still being excavated and new research is likely to shed more light on Muslims in the Americas before the 19th century, as well as their trading and intermarriages with various Indian tribes (Iroquois, Algonquin in particular).

    • For more information, see Leslie B. Rout, Jr. The African Experience in Spanish America (Markus Wiener Publishers, 2003).

Muslim Slaves:

  • We have a better knowledge of the Muslims who came as slaves from Africa, they include:

Omar ibn Sayyid (1770-1864): Originally a well-educated Muslim scholar, Omar ibn Sayyid was sent to the the United States after he was abducted from his home during a period of African warfare. he lived in North and South Carolina and was one of the most famous early Muslims in the United States. His life spanned between 1770-1864, and he left behind at least 14 Arabic manuscripts, including an autobiography.

 

 

Adbul Rahman Ibrahima Sori (1762-1829): A West African Prince from the Kingdom of Futa Jallon (in the present-day Republic of Guinea) who was sold into slavery in 1788. He spent 40 years as a slave in Natchez, Mississippi before being freed and leaving for Liberia with his wife in January 1829. He died soon afterwards and was not able to free his nine children. His life is described in a biography by Terry Alford called Prince Among Slaves. Adbul Rahman’s story has also been made into a film (also titled Prince Among Slaves) produced and written by Andrea Kalin (2008). The film documents the story of the Prince’s descendants and the reunion of the Liberian and American families in Natchez, Mississipi in April 2003.

See a preview for the movie below: [vimeo]http://vimeo.com/19235584#[/vimeo]

Job Ben Solomon: In a fortunate, if uncommon, turn of events, Job was freed after only three years of slavery. He impressed Americans and Europeans with his intelligence, literacy, and strong sense of African and Muslim identity. His English friends, including Thomas Bluett who would go on to write Job’s biography, arranged for his return to Africa where he rose to an important position as a Royal African Company commercial agent. Bluett’s biography was the first memoir in a European language to tell the story of a sub-Saharan African. The book’s lengthy title gives an outline of its contents: Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon, the High Priest of Boonda in Africa; Who was a Slave about two Years in Maryland; and afterwards being brought to England, was set free and sent to his native Land in the Year 1734. The biography’s portrayal of Job’s thoughts and feelings on American slavery and African culture and religion was widely read and highly influential.

 

Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq: Born in Timbuktu in 1794, Abu Bakr was a member of a wealthy and sophisticated family in Mandingo (now Ghana). Captured during local warfare and sold into slavery in 1807, he wound up on a Jamaican plantation where, despite a forced baptism, he remained a devote Muslim. Abu Bakr authored a lengthy biography in Arabic, and was well known as an accomplished writer. He compiled extensive lists of trade routes in Western Africa, also in Arabic. Richard Madden, an Irish abolitionist in Jamaica, attempted translations of Abu Bakr’s writings. Later they were also translated into English by George C. Renouard, a Londoner deeply impressed by Abu Bakr’s deep Muslim faith and vast geographical knowledge.

 

Salih Bilali: Originally from Massina, Mali, Salih Bilali (also called “Tom”) was a slave on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. Well-known by his contemporaries for being a very religious Muslim man and a leader in his community, unfortunately many details of Salih Bilali’s life in the United States have been obscured by time. The story of his life in Africa was recorded by his master, James Hamilton Couper, in a letter Couper wrote and later published. Later, recollections of Salih Bilali were collected from ex-slaves. More is known about his friend, Bilali Mohamed, also a resident of Georgia.

(The above image is an artist’s rendering of a native of Hausa, said to resemble Salih Bilai. Image from African Muslims in Antebellum America.)

 

Bilali Mohamed: Bilali was an overseer on Sapelo Island, Georgia, where he was known for convincing his fellow slaves not to desert during the War of 1812, and whose master, Thomas Spaulding, showed his faith in Bilali by arming him and his men with guns to defend the island from the British. Bilali wrote in Arabic and was considered a leader of the Muslim community in Sapelo. Bilali’s children studied Islam under his leadership and some of his descendants remain on Sapelo Island today. He was buried with his prayer rug and a copy of the Qur’an, symbols of the Muslim faith he practiced throughout his life. Though translations of his work have proved difficult, his original writings are preserved in the Georgia State Library in Atlanta.

(Image of Bilali Mohamed descendant, Shad Hall of Sapelo. Photo circa 1930s, from African Muslims in Antebellum America.)

 

Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua: Born in Djougou (now Benin) around 1830, Baquaqua’s geographical story stretches from Western Africa to Brazil, and on to Haiti, New York, Canada, Michigan, and eventually England. His memoirs have been preserved in An Interesting Narrative: Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua, in which he describes his African homeland and which is also the only work documenting the life of a Brazilian slave at that time. After being freed in New York, Barquaqua worked for an abusive employer in Haiti and became a tenuous contort to Christianity by local missionaries. Baquaqua was literate in English, though could only write a few words in Arabic, and he was briefly educated at Central College in McGrawville, New York. He then moved to Canada and later collaborated with writer Samuel Moore and printer George Pomeroy to compose his biography.

 

Mahammed Ali ben Said (Nicholas Said): Said was the author of an expressive autobiography that testifies to his African Muslim heritage. After being subjected to a slave march across the Sahara Desert in 1849, he served masters in Turkey and Russia before he was hired as a manservant for a European traveling to the Americas. He eventually became a teacher in Michigan in 1862 and later served in the 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Colored Volunteers, a unit that fought in several important Civil War battles. His English autobiography was published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1867 under the title “A Native of Bornoo.” An interesting omission from the work is the subject of slavery. Though religion is also not addressed specifically in his memoirs, the perspectives relayed through his writing reflect an Islamic education and several references to “Allah” are included.

    • For more information, see Allan Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles (Routledge, 1997) and Sylviane Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (NYU Press, 1998).