Muslim Africans: A Past of Which to Speak

Category: Americas, Life & Society Views: 14613

An area of history, which still remains in the shadows of today's ingrained and accepted tale of Western dominance is the history of Muslim Africans. The tribulations and triumphs of Muslim Africans translates into a rich and vibrant history, a past of honor and a future of hope. From their explorative voyages in early centuries, their cultural assimilation under the scourge of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean, to their triumphs as re-defined citizens in today's world, Muslim Africans-today African Americans, African Canadians, and Caribbean's-have a past of which to speak.

Early Explorations

Christopher Columbus-the infamous Spanish explorer-is credited with "discovering" North America. Of course, 'discover' implies that the land Columbus landed on in 1492 had never been explored before, was devoid of any civilization and the people devoid of any sophistication. This is simply not true. 

Before Columbus even stepped onto his boat, Native Americans had 2000 separate languages, a distinctive array of religions, a system of interaction with nature and other human beings and by 1492, the entire northern third of North America was already occupied, and hence already "discovered" by hunters. 

The notion that Columbus, if not the first person to discover America, was the first person to make contact with Native peoples, is another common myth. There is extensive and irrefutable evidence that points to the idea that ancient North American culture had been in contact with voyagers from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean before Columbus. They spread knowledge amongst each other, influenced each other and exchanged products. Although more research is needed, evidence such as sculptures, oral history, eye-witness accounts, Arabic documents, coins and inscriptions serve as undeniable claims to North African Muslim contact with Natives in the Americas as early as the 7th century CE. This remains a hidden and often neglected part of history that needs further research and clarification but definitely points at undeniable possibilities.

Mandinka voyages-Muslim explorers and merchants from the West African Islamic Empire of Mali-were significant and extravagant. In 1324 CE, the ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa was en route to Makkah when he informed the Governor of Cairo that his predecessor had taken two voyages into the Atlantic Ocean to discover what lay beyond. Shihab ad-Din al-'Umari, an Arab geographer, reported from his informant that the Mandinka monarch's voyages reached at least the North Equatorial or the Antilles current which from the West African coast would lead straight to the Americas. Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick in his book, Deeper Roots importantly relates that, "examination of inscriptions found in Brazil, Peru, and the United States, as well as linguistic, cultural and archaeological find offer documentary evidence of the presence of these Mandinka Muslims in the early Americas. "There is even extensive evidence of Mandinka cities of stone and mortar that were seen by early Spanish explorers and land pirates. A document written by a land pirate from Minas Gerais in 1754 relates the remains of a city near a river in Minas Gerais had remarkable buildings, obelisks and statues. Columbus, quite obviously arrived in the Americas a little late, but just in time to rake in the credit.

Slavery and Exploitation

It seems almost unbelievable that a culture and heritage full of such vibrancy and power remains hidden in the dust and shadows of other histories that are commendable, yet easily refutable. Perhaps, as the sixteenth century rolled in and brought the scourge of exploitation and the plague of slavery with it, the greatness of African empires was slowly forgotten-or perhaps just brushed aside. 

When the Spanish crown granted the right to buy slaves in Africa early in the sixteenth century, the stage was set for centuries of exploitation. Millions of Africans were taken from the shores of West and Central Africa and transported to the Americas and the Caribbean where they were forced to spend their lives slaving for others. Early in the 17th Century there was a rapid growth of sugar plantations, which resulted in an increased demand for slaves, which in turn transformed Africa into what Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick calls the "chief victim of exploitation". What many Muslims, whether they have an African heritage or not, and what many African-Americans and African-Canadians-whether or not they're Muslim-fail to realize is that seven to thirty percent of slaves taken from Africa and brought to the Americas, were Muslim.

Islam had flourished and developed in Africa before and during the Atlantic slave trade. Muslims in Africa were literate having been educated in the Arabic language, and were culturally connected with other literate nations within Africa as well as beyond, in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. When ships began transporting African people to the Americas and the Caribbean, a culturally diverse group of Africans lay side by side in the darks pits of English, Spanish, French and Dutch ships. Muslim tribes included the Mandinka, Fula, Susu, Ashanti and the Hausa. One of the most popular symbols of the Muslim slave is Kunta Kinte, immortalized in Alex Haley's saga, Roots. Using oral tradition as a basis, Haley traced back his lineage to Kunta Kinte an African from the Mandinka tribe who was kidnapped from his village and brought to the United States in the mid 1700's. Haley traces Kinte's life, from his birth in the village of Juffure, to his struggle to live in the United States as a slave. Kinte's struggle, to maintain his culture and religion as a Muslim, reflects the struggle of scores of Muslim slaves in the Americas. The fact that Haley embarked upon a journey to discover his roots, reflects perhaps the success of the millions of Africans like Kinte who would not give up their own roots.

Despite the extremely restrictive policies-among them, The Code Noir of 1685-designed to destroy the will of slaves, control every meaningful aspect of their lives and convert them to Christianity, Muslim slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean fought both external and internal battles to keep their roots alive. A clear example of Muslims maintaining their faith in Islam lies in Bryan Edward's work, The History, Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies written in 1794. He describes the practices of "an old and faithful Mandingo servant": 

...he has not forgot the morning and evening prayer which his father taught him. In proof of this assertion, he chants, in an audible and shrill tone, a sentence that I conceive to be part of the al-Koran. La illa, ill illa...

La ilaha illah Allah-there is no god but Allah-an assertion of faith, and proof that African slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean did continue to carry their faith with them. There are numerous other examples of white masters recording the peculiar practices of their slaves, among them the ability of many slaves to read and write in Arabic.

Although Muslim Africans tried to maintain their faith, the suppressive and debilitating laws of slavery forced most to conform to the wills of their masters, and assimilate themselves into the cultural norms of the society in which they lived. Islam, after generations became a distant memory, and in most cases it ceased to exist at all. 

But perhaps, the efforts of Muslim Africans are not fruitless. Like Alex Haley and his Roots, the search for roots, of heritage and beginnings is becoming more widespread by many African-Americans, African-Canadians and Caribbean of African descent. The American Muslim Council states in its Zogby poll of August 2000 that 23.8% of American Muslims are African American. Resurgence in the number of people reverting to Islam has also become apparent in recent years and is coupled with the rise of Muslim organizations. Although much of the Muslim population in the Americas can be credited to immigration, the individual journeys taken by people like Alex Haley to revisit their heritage attests to the strength of African Muslims remaining stoic in the face of adversity, and passing whatever knowledge they had of Islam on through the centuries.


Quick, Dr. Abdullah Hakim. Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean 

From Before Columbus To the Present. London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd. 1998.

"American Muslim History"American Muslim Council, The Sabr Foundation 1998-2003.

  Category: Americas, Life & Society
Views: 14613
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Older Comments:
Alhamdulillah! My husband talks to our kids about this a lot. He is an African American who had re established his religion that his ancestors were forced to deny.

Excellent and informative. So little is known about African Muslims, but their faith in Allah was rewarded as evidenced by the African American Muslim really bringing Islam to the forefront in America.

Sadly, Muslim African history is also overlooked, really totally disregarded, in accounts of the spread of Islam after the death of the Prophet. How was it spread to Africa? Who were the believers that took on this mission? What was the history of the beginning development of the great W. African empires? These are just a few questions. Much we need to know and inject into the "mainstream" of Islamic history the way it is taught.

I read about it once previously and was amazed because it is so little known, and yet when you think of it, makes perfect sense. It is fascinating history, and it is wrong to keep it hidden.
As for Columbus being credited with the discovery of America, that's because he's the first *white* person who discovered America. And anyway he was aiming for India and either genuinely believed it was India he found, or he knew it was not but told his queen otherwise anyway - I learned this (that he told his queen he actually reached India) when I visited Spain.

Thanks for doing this and please print articles to show everyone that we the (Black moor muslims) were here before Christopher columbus and Vespucci,do tell of our ciilization here and the rich culture we had,before it was stolen.



Assalam Alaikom,

my brother phil this article hold new informations for many moslems who come here. if you see not much answers, that's not because people make difference between African moslem and others.

personaly, when the information is new for me or I don't have that much to say about it. I just read, learn and stay quiet.

I believe the article shock any moslem who doesn't know that much about this history. since they did not answer, that's mean they have nothing to add neither they see something wrong with it.

don't assume negative things on your brothers? it is not good in Islam.

Alhumdulillah, when you are a moslem. if someone want to discriminate against you, it is his problem not yours. he is the one taking the highway to get out from Islam.

the first time I read this crticle, I went to that website given by the author and I learnt too many new things.

thanks to the author of this article.

and Assalam alaikom

As salaamu alaykum!
Great article.
We need more knowledge of African Muslims.
I am an American Muslim and I hunger for
information about my ancestors, my lineage
and my peoples struggle.
Peace and Blessings,
(Columbus was a vagabond and a pirate.)

excellant human process

Salam Alaikum,
I absolutely love this article. Actually, it was partially through a Black History course, and a friend who was Muslim, that I decided to become Muslim. Mashallah. It is important that we know our roots. Some may be surprised in what they may find.
I have recently read articles about many muslims in America reverting back to Islam. Everytime I visit with my daughters back in North Carolina, I usually meet at least one African American male inquiring about Islam.
We need more articles about this. This is the type of stuff that needs to be taught in elemantary and high schools. Good article.

Sister Fatimah

I have made several comments. Whom ever is running this website whether Muslim or non-Muslim needs to examine your owe racial views. Bigotry and racial indifference exists within Islam during the time of the Prophet and now.
May Allah guide to the straight path.

This is a good article and addresses a long overdue aspect of Islamic history.

It is interesting that there are no comments regarding this article. Islam indicates that brotherhood is the bedrock of Islam and that there is no superiority attributable to ones race or lineage in Islam, however, many immigrant and non-immigrant Muslims assume that to mean that we should not ever discuss race or recognize its existance or work to erradicate it. When in fact one of the key methods for the erradication of race an issue is dialogue. To me racism is an analog on shirk, in that it is harder to recognize than "a black ant, on a black rock, on a moonless night"

This is an intersting article, however I believe that the percentage of Muslims in America are greater than 20%. Also, there appears to be a racial bias amoung, although very subtle, towards winning over white converts to Islam as appose to Americans of African decent. This is not supprising in light of the color ladder that is present world wide favoring lighter skin. This is avidence by the sale of bleaching creme world wide, including Africa.

Immigrant Muslims appear to be adopting the American dream as well as the American nightmare of racial supremacy.

Allah knows best.