Do You Know America’s First Muslims?

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Published February 16, 2016

By Imam Khalid Griggs

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Estevanico (Stephen the Moor)

Estevanico, also known as Stephen the Moor, was born in Morocco around 1503 and raised as a Muslim. He was sold into slavery and in 1527 his owner, Andres de Dorantes, took him on an expedition to Florida, along with six hundred colonists and soldiers. During his time with Dorantes, Estevanico converted to Christianity. After encountering hostile Native Americans, the surviving contingent of colonists and soldiers escaped by barge, sailing toward Mexico, but ended up in Texas. After being enslaved by Indians, only four men survived — Estevanico, Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and Alonso Castillo. These four traveled for eight years across northern New Spain (present-day U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico), reaching Spanish forces in Mexico City in 1536. He is said to have been the first African man in North America.

Omar ibn Sayyid

Omar ibn Sayyid was born around 1770 in what is present-day Senegal. He was an educated Muslim man who was kidnapped from his home at age 37, transported to South Carolina and sold into slavery, remaining enslaved until he died, in 1864. He converted to Christianity while a slave, but wrote heartfelt reminiscences of his early days as a Muslim and some scholars maintain that he stayed true to Islam throughout his life. He wrote 14 manuscripts, all in Arabic, including his autobiography which begins with verses from the Quran.

Adbul Rahman Ibrahima Sori

A man who spent 40 years as a slave in Natchez, Mississippi, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, was born in 1762, a prince from the Kingdom of Futa Jallon, a territory in present-day Republic of Guinea. He was sold into slavery in 1788, at the age of 26. Upon being freed in 1829, he and his wife set sail for Timbuktu, his birthplace, but they made it only as far as the American colony in Monrovia, Liberia on the west coast of Africa. He died soon after arriving, while his nine children remained enslaved in America. His remarkable story is told in a 2008 film, “Prince Among Slaves” which includes the reunion of Abdul-Rahman’s descendants, from both Liberia and the U.S., in 2003.

Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq

From a family of learned and prosperous Muslims in Mandingo (now Ghana), Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq was taken as a prisoner of war at the age of 15, sold into slavery and sent to Jamaica in 1807 to work on a plantation. He was forced to change his name and convert to Christianity, but he always thought of himself as Abu Bakr, maintained his faith as a Muslim, and years later wrote a short autobiography in Arabic. Abu Bakr compiled detailed lists of trade routes in Western Africa, and some of his works were later translated into English.

Salih Bilali

Most of his life was spent as a slave on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, a long way from where Salih Bilali was born, in Massina (present-day Mali) in the 1770s. Then he was kidnapped and sold into slavery around 12 years old, ending up in the Bahamas where he worked as a slave until he was purchased by the Couper family of Georgia. Bilali was characterized by his owner’s son as the most religious man he had ever known, stating that Bilali’s last words before his death were “Allah is God and Mohammed his prophet.” (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 Mohamed was born in Timbo, Guinea around 1770. His family was Muslim and highly educated. He was enslaved as a teenager and taken to the Caribbean where he worked for 10 years, and then sold to a planter on Solepo Island, Georgia. Among the slaves, Bilali was seen as a leader and a teacher and some of his writings are preserved in the Georgia State Library in Atlanta. Upon his death in 1857, a 13-page Arabic manuscript was found and it has come to be called the Bilali Mohamed Document. It is a statement of Islamic beliefs. Bilali is also known for motivating his fellow slaves during the War of 1812 as they defended the island from the British. (Image of Bilali Mohamed descendant, Shad Hall of Sapelo. Photo circa 1930s, from African Muslims in Antebellum America.)

Ayuba bin Sulaiman

Ayuba bin Sulaiman, known in Europe and the U.S. as Job Ben Solomon, was born in 1701 of a religious Muslim family, was well-educated, and became a merchant. He was captured and sold into slavery in 1731 and sent to Annapolis, Maryland where he spent two years on a tobacco plantation. He was briefly imprisoned after attempting to escape from the plantation. He was later purchased by a British man and granted his freedom, and in 1734 he sailed back to Africa where he stayed until he died, in his seventies. He was known for his intelligence and conveyed a great pride in his African and Muslim identity.

Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua

Born around 1830 in Djougou (now Benin in West Africa), Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua was from a Muslim family of merchants. He was captured and shipped to Brazil as a slave in 1845. After two years, his owner, a ship captain, took him on a voyage to New York where abolitionists secured Baquaqua’s freedom. He made his way to Haiti and worked there for a time, converting to Christianity. He returned to New York in 1849, enrolled in college, but in 1853 he moved to Canada and collaborated with a local writer to produce his biography.

Mahammed Ali ben Said (Nicholas Said)

Mahammed Ali ben Said, later named Nicholas Said, was born in 1836 in northern Africa. When Said was around 15 years old, he was enslaved and transported across the desert, subsequently being owned by masters of various nationalities including Arab, Turk, and Russian. He was eventually hired as a valet to a European man and traveled with him to America. Said became a teacher in 1862 in Michigan and fought in the Civil War as part of the 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Colored Volunteers. His autobiography was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867 in which several references to Allah are found. He died in 1882.

Avatar photo Imam Khalid GriggsAuthor Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs is the Imam of the Community Mosque in Winston-Salem, NC. and ICNA Vice President for Social Justice and Civic Engagement.

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