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Enslaved African Muslims Helped Build America

A portrait of Omar Ibn Said around the 1850s. (Photo courtesy of Yale University Library)
A portrait of Omar Ibn Said around the 1850s. (Photo courtesy of Yale University Library)
Enslaved African Muslims Helped Build America
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In the year 1807, a wealthy scholar was captured in West Africa, brought to the United States and sold into slavery. His name was Omar Ibn Said. He was 37 years old at the time, and he spent the rest of his life enslaved.

Said was one of many enslaved Muslims in early U.S. history. Up to 40 percent of Africans captured and brought to the U.S. were from mostly Muslim countries in West Africa.

Said’s story might have been forgotten, but he wrote about it in a book called The Life of Omar Ibn Said. The U.S. Library of Congress recently received the book, which was written in Arabic.

The book is one of only a few personal stories written by a slave in America. It is also one of the first intimate reports of the early history of Muslims in the United States.

The book challenges the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation, says Zaheer Ali. He is a historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society in New York. Ali adds: the book “opens us up to the understanding” that people who were not Christian helped build the United States.

What records did enslaved Muslims leave?

Most enslaved African Muslims did not leave written records. But we can learn about their lives from public evidence and the memories of their families.

How long Muslim slaves practiced their faith is unknown. Some became Christians. Others acted as if they did to better deal with their captors.

But there is evidence that some remained Muslim.

Zaheer Ali points to burial places off the U.S. state of Georgia. Some markers of enslaved people have Islamic signs. Also there, are some churches -- Christian religious buildings -- that face east, the direction Muslims face when they pray. In addition, some family members say they remember their ancestors using Islamic rugs and prayer beads.

Leaving their mark

Sylviane Diouf is a writer and historian of the African diaspora, or movement from homeland. She says enslaved Muslims also influenced American culture. Diouf says slave work songs use beats like those used in Koran recitation and the Islamic call to prayer. She points to the song “Levee Camp Holler.” It helped give birth to the musical style called the blues.

And, Zaheer Ali says the banjo and guitar could have come from a traditional West African musical instrument.

But the most lasting evidence of Muslims in the United States may be a movement among modern African-Americans to join the Islamic faith. Black Muslims continue to make up the biggest part of the Muslim community in the U.S.

Ali concludes: “Islam is not new to the United States; it was here before the country was founded; it was present among the people who helped build this country; and it has very much been a part of the thread of America’s story.”

I’m Caty Weaver.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this report for VOA Learning English based on a blog by VOA's Dora Mekour. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

scholar - n. a person who has studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it

intimate - adj. having a very close relationship : very warm and friendly

challenge - v. to say or show that (something) may not be true, correct, or legal

practice - v. to live according to the customs and teachings of (a religion)

rug - n. a piece of thick, heavy material that is used to cover usually a section of a floor

beads - n. a small, usually round piece of glass, wood, stone, etc., that has a hole through its center and that is put on a string with other similar pieces and worn as jewelry or that is sewn onto clothing

thread - n. an idea, feeling, etc., that connects the different parts of something (such as a story)