Religion and American Slavery
Lesson II. African Muslims Enslaved in America
Step 1. Enslaved African Muslims in America
Hello! My name is Eleesha, and I am here to talk to you today about a part of our history that most people don’t know about. From the time the very first Europeans came to American soil, they brought with them slaves – some of which were Muslims. These Muslim slaves came from the north-western part of Africa, in countries like Gambia and Guinea, where the primary religion of that time was Islam. People who practice Islam are known as Muslims. Even though you might think of the Islamic religion as being from the Middle East, it spread to Africa shortly after it was created in the seventh century.
Muslims Trapped in Slavery and Transported to America
African Muslims were unique in many ways. Education was very important to their religion and culture, and most boys were sent to school at a young age. Most people in the world were not educated at this time. They learned reading and writing, and were also taught to memorize their holy book, called the Quran, which is a religious book like the Christian Bible. By the time they were teenagers, most of them could recite the entire Quran from memory!
Both students and teachers were required to travel a great deal in order to reach schools and other places of education. Muslims were also expected to travel on religious pilgrimages to far away lands. Traveling away from their homes and communities left people vulnerable to bandits who would often steal people away in order to sell them into slavery. There were also many disputes between tribes and small countries which led to war. Often, the losers – which included men, women and children – were captured and sold into slavery. These were the main circumstances by which African Muslims were enslaved.
These enslaved people were loaded onto ships that had been built specifically to transport large numbers of people across the ocean to the Americas. This journey was called The Middle Passage. Conditions on board these ships were as terrible as you could imagine. Most of the slaves were chained to one another in order to slow any chance of escape or attempts at jumping overboard. The spaces they were assigned were very cramped, and they were given little food or drink. Conditions were so terrible that many died from disease, injury or starvation while they were aboard these ships.
For many Muslims, their religion served as their defense against the personal humiliation, disgrace and suffering. This helped them through the horrors of the Middle Passage, as well as the difficulties they faced in their lives of enslavement.
There are many examples of Muslim slaves who held to their religious beliefs and practices during their enslavement in America. Many continued to wear clothing expressing their religion and culture, including men who wore turbans or hats that symbolized the turban, and women who fashioned veils to wear over their faces. Many refused to eat pork or to drink alcohol which were rules central to Muslim beliefs. This must have been especially difficult for them because slaves, generally, did not get much to eat in the first place, so refusing any kind of food would have been a sacrifice. Muslims also traditionally pray five times throughout the day. Some enslaved Muslims continued this practice during their enslavement.
Though enslaved Muslims were a small percentage of the total slaves brought to America, they left a lasting impression and legacy. They often stood out because of their religious practices and their ability to read and write. It is important to remember their impactful place in American history.
Join us to explore the portraits and stories of four Muslims documented to have lived through slavery in colonial America.
Questions: Check for Understanding
Answer these questions on your own paper.
- How were African Muslims usually trapped into slavery and sold to America?
- How did enslaved African Muslims seek to still express their religion while enslaved?