From Slave Revolts to Black Identity: The Historical Influence of Al-Islam and Muslims on the African American Freedom Struggle

Hakim M. Rashid, Ph.D.
Howard University


The Muslim presence in the Western hemisphere extends back to well before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It has been well documented that a large percentage of the slaves brought to the United States during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were Muslims. Muslims initiated numerous slave revolts and had a significant historical influence on Al-Islam and the African American Freedom struggle.  The majority of the enslaved came from the predominantly Muslim lands of West Africa. Their struggle for freedom was symbolized in the classic novel Roots by Alex Haley. It is a struggle characterized by efforts to maintain their identity as Muslims and pass on the legacy of Islam – submission only to Allah –  to their descendants. It is a struggle for liberation that has profoundly affected the overall struggle for African American freedom.  Muslims of African descent have had a presence in all of the major events in the United States including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and the continuing struggle for full citizenship. The impact of the religion of AL-Islam and Muslims on the historical struggle for African American freedom is a topic that must be explored if the freedom struggle is to be fully understood. This understanding is critical, particularly in light of contemporary efforts on the part of Western forces of Islamophobia to demonize Muslims and the religion of the majority of people of African descent.

In attempting to promote this understanding this paper has five primary objectives. They are as follows: 1) to explore the  historical presence of African Muslims in the Western hemisphere prior to the voyages of Columbus, 2) to describe the persistence of Islamic cultural practices in the lives of African Americans during slavery, 3) to examine the role of Muslims in major slave rebellions such as the Haitian revolt, 4) to examine the perspectives of prominent African American scholars such as DuBois and Blyden on Islam, and 5) to investigate the role of Islam and Muslims in the development of Black Nationalist thought from Marcus Garvey through Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement.

The Historical Presence of African Muslims in the Western Hemisphere Prior to the Voyages of Columbus

One myth that must be firmly laid to rest is that the Muslim presence in the Western hemisphere began with the arrival of the first Muslim slaves. This is a myth that is on par with the absurd notion that the history of African Americans began with the Atlantic slave trade. The Muslim presence in the Western Hemisphere, a largely African presence, prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus has been described by Van Sertima, Wiener and others. Muslims from Spain, West Africa and China are reported to have engaged in extensive trade relations with native populations, in some cases five hundred years before the voyages of Columbus.  Abdullah Hakim Quick in Deeper Roots quotes Muslim historian        from a book written in around 956 C.E. in which a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean is described.

“Adventurers have penetrated it at the risk of their lives, some returning safely, others perishing in the attempt. One such man was an inhabitant of Andalusia named Khashkhash. He was a young man of Cordoba who gathered a group of young men and went on a voyage on this ocean. After a long time, he returned with a fabulous booty. Every Spaniard (Andalusian) knows his story” (p. 15).  Columbus is reported to have had Muslim crew members on all of his voyages.

“The presence of a Morisco Pilot in the lead boat of Columbus and a good number of other Andalusian sailors suffice the dominant role played by Muslim mariners in navigating through the rough waters of the Atlantic into the Caribbean Sea and anchoring safely onto the shores of the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola in 1492.” (Afroz, 1999, p. 165).  A variety of artifacts, crops, monuments and other archaeological findings have documented the voyages of Muslims in the five centuries before Columbus.

The Persistence of Islamic Cultural Practices in the Lives of African Americans During Slavery

The persistence of Islamic cultural practices, both during and after slavery, has been documented among some groups of African Americans. Rituals revolving around birth and death, artifacts reflecting Islamic influences, as well as significant numbers of Muslim names have been found in places like the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina. There is evidence that Muslims persisted in their efforts to maintain Islamic dress styles, dietary practices. They also sought to preserve the cultural role of literacy.

“In the Americas, Muslims were engaged for more than three hundred years in reading and writing exercises that covered the production of religious texts, occult protections, correspondence, plans for uprisings, and autobiographies. They preserved their literacy with imagination and determination and made use of it in the various ways accessible to them. A long tradition of literacy, which in some parts of West African was already five hundred years old at the beginning of the slave trade, could not be erased, even in the most intellectually damaging environment. Knowledge acquired for religious and intellectual purposes in Africa was turned into a tool and a weapon in America by men and women who deliberately preserved and expanded it. The literate Africans used their knowledge not only to remain intellectually alert but also to defend and protect themselves, to maintain their sense of self, to reach out to their brethren, to organize uprisings, and, for some, to gain their freedom.” (Diouf, p. 144)

 The Role of Muslims in Major Slave Rebellions

Muslims played prominent roles in slave rebellions dating back to 1522 when Wolof Muslims from Senegal revolted on the plantation owned by the son of Christopher Columbus in what is now the Dominican Republic (Diouf, 145-46). After a series of other rebellions, Spain began to develop specific laws designed to keep the Muslim population in check.

“No fewer than five pieces of anti-Muslim legislation were issued by the Spanish authorities in the first fifty years of Spain’s establishment in the New World. Though the decrees issued prohibitions concerning Jews and mulattoes, only Muslims were targeted repeatedly and with extraordinary vigor. The Spanish Crown was worried for two reasons: it feared the expansion of Islam in America, and it was confronted with deadly rebellions fomented by Muslim slaves and maroons.” (Diouf,  146-147).

Diouf (1998) discusses the role of Islam as an organizing force behind the slave revolt in Bahia, Brazil.

“Islam was also a galvanizing force. It reinforced a sense of self-worth in human beings who were brutalized and constantly humiliated… To be a Muslim meant to be part of a close-knit, upwardly mobile community that looked after its members, offered them diverse activities and services, and was charitable and well organized. It was a world in itself, with its own particular sets of beliefs that did not depend on the slaveholders’ view of the world. To be light skinned had no value; to be a house slave or a field slave meant nothing. A free man in this context was not superior to a slave. Learned slaves were the teachers of free men; enslaved and jailed clerics were the spiritual leaders of the community. Islam was democratic and progressive in a society that was despotic, repressive, tyrannical, and racist.” (Diouf, p. 162).

“What the French did not realize was that their most profitable colony, Saint-Dominique (now Haiti), was fertile ground for Muslim maroons and rebels. The island had always had numerous maroon communities, and an average of a thousand runaways were advertised every year. The notices posted by the plantation owners, who listed the disappeared give a measure of the place of the Muslims among the maroons. Although large numbers of Muslims had been forcibly baptized, some had retained their original names, such as Ayouba, Tamerlan, Aly, Soliman, Lamine, Thisiman, Yaya, Belaly, and Salomon who appear in the notices. Female runaways, such as Fatme, Fatima, and Hayda, are also mentioned.” (Diouf).

“All of the American newspapers covered events in Saint Domingue, in a great deal of detail. All Americans understood what was happening there. It wasn’t that the revolution in Saint Domingue taught mainland slaves to be rebellious or to resist their bondage. They had always done so, typically as individuals who stole themselves and ran away sometimes in small groups who tried to get to the frontier and build maroon colonies and rebuild African societies. But the revolutionaries in Saint Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, were not trying to pull down the power of their absentee masters, but join those masters on an equal footing in the Atlantic world. And the revolt in Haiti reminded American slaves, who were still enthusiastic about the promise of 1776, that not only could liberty be theirs if they were brave enough to try for it, but that equality with the master class might be theirs if they were brave enough to try. For black Americans, this was a terribly exciting moment, a moment of great inspiration. And for the southern planter class, it was a moment of enormous terror.” (Edgerton).

The role of Islam and Muslims in the development of Maroon communities in the Americas has become increasingly clear over the past few decades.

“The use of Qur’anic terms, Islamic salutation, Islamic governance, Muslim names, and Islamic actions are indicative of the strong Islamic faith of the historical Maroons. These cultural practices are fundamental to understanding the Islamic heritage of both the windward and leeward Maroon communities in Jamaica.” (Afroz, p.2).

“Who, then, in Saint-Domingue could fail to be aware of marronage? Who did not experiences loses due to it? Desertions had begun with the arrival of the first African slaves brought to Hispaniola. It is these Africans whose first revolts were described in 1503, who infused the Indian with the spirit of revolt, and who indicated the way of the Maroons to Cacique Henry, for fourteen years (1519-33) in hiding at Bahoruco, accompanied by a number of black Maroons…

Since then, revolts occurred without interruption, over some three centuries, and, from Ovando to Barbe de Marbois, the alarm never ceased its clangor, resulting always in bloody repressions. How then deny the importance of marronage, something which in the words of Peytraud, constituted ‘an ever-present wound’ in the corpus of Saint-Domingue, sparing not even the good masters or the reputedly docile work gangs.” (Fouchard, p. 292).

The Perspectives of Prominent Black Scholars on Islam

One of the most influential discussions of Islam within the context of the African diaspora was Edward Wilmot Blyden’s Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race.  “The Koran is, in its measure, an important educator. It exerts among a primitive people a wonderful influence. It has furnished to the adherents of its teachings in African a ground of union which has contributed vastly to their progress. Hausas, Foulahs, Mandingoes, Soosoos, Akus, can all read the same books and mingle in worship together, and there is to all one common authority and one ultimate umpirage. They are united by a common religious sentiment, by a common antagonism to Paganism.” (pp. 6-7).  Blyden went on to say:

“To the Mohammedans of Negroland, far away from the complex civilization of European life, with its multifarious interests, the struggle for the ascendency of Islam is one great object which should engage the attention of a rational being. It is a struggle between light and darkness, between knowledge of ignorance, between good and evil. The traditional enthusiasm of their faith makes them utterly indifferent to the sufferings of any who stand in the way of the dissemination of the truth, and patient of any evils they may have to endure to ensure the triumph of their cause.” (p. 9).  Cassandra Mark (   ) noted that Blyden “became the first English-speaking Black author to praise Islam over Christianity, for the way it incorporated Black identity.”  Blyden has had a wide ranging influence on multiple strains of Black nationalist thought, from politics to religion.

“As an outstanding advocate of black North American repatriation to Liberia, Blyden has been recognized as well by black theologians as a contributor to the historical development of black theology… Blyden believed that black liberation would only come when a fierce ethnocentrism – especially in blacks with little or no white ancestry – produced a passionate desire to return ‘home’ to Africa. According to Blyden, Africa was the only place where blacks could achieve liberation. He believed his views confirmed by the white supremacist ethos of the United States.” (Young, p. 15).

W.E.B. DuBois was another scholar of African descent scholar who analyzed the impact of Islam and Muslims. He  noted in The Negro:  “To this ancient culture, modified somewhat by Byzantine and Christian influences, came Islam… The Mohammedans came chiefly as traders and found a trade already established. Here and there in the great cities were districts set aside for these new merchants, and the Mohammedans gave frequent evidence of their respect for these black nations. Islam did not found new states, but modified and united Negro states already ancient; it did not initiate new commerce, but developed a widespread trade already established.” (P.29)

DuBois noted that Islam “arose in the Arabian deserts, starting from Mecca which was in that part of the world which the Greeks called Ethiopia, and regarded as part of African Ethiopia.” (Cited in Young, p.212)

The Role of Islam and Muslims in the Development of Black Nationalist Thought

One of the greatest influences on Black Nationalist thought in the United States was Marcus Garvey. The influence of Islam on the beliefs and practices of Marcus Garvey can likely be traced to three sources: 1) the Maroon heritage of his parents, 2) the influence of Edward Wilmot Blyden, and 3) his association with Duse Mohammed Ali.

The greatest source of Garvey’s nationalism, however, is likely the Maroon origins of his family in Jamaica.

“Marcus and Sarah Garvey were of unmixed Negro stock, and the father was said to be descended from the Maroons, those escaped African slaves whose heroic exploits in defense of their freedom form an important part of Jamaican history and folklore. The Maroons have always had a greater prestige than ordinary Jamaican Negroes as a result of their successful struggle against slavery, a fight that was rewarded with a treaty of independence from the British in 1739. Garvey was later to glory in the fact that he was a full-blooded black man without any taint of white blood in his veins, a feeling of his superiority that may have stemmed in part from his Maroon heritage.” (Cronon, p.5).  Later Cronon discussed Garvey’s relationship with Duse Mohammed Ali:

“In 1912, Garvey journeyed to London to learn what he could about the condition of Negroes in other parts of the British Empire. Here he became associated with the half-Negro, half-Egyptian author, Duse Mohammed Ali. Duse Mohammed was greatly interested in Africa and published a monthly magazine, the Africa Times and Orient Review. One of his chief interests was the campaign for home rule in Egypt; but his part-Negro ancestry made him quick to notice the presence of an insidious color bar in England, and his writing reflected his bitterness at this insult to colored people. Garvey’s contacts with this African scholar stimulated a keen interest in Africa, its culture, and its administration under colonial rule. The young Jamaican learned a great deal about his homeland, absorbing much of the African nationalism so characteristic of his later activities.”  (Cronon, p. 15).

Concerning Blyden, Garvey said the following:  “You who do not know anything of your ancestry will do well to read the works of Blyden, one of our historians and chroniclers, who has done so much to retrieve the lost prestige of the race, and to undo the selfishness of alien historians and their history which has painted us so unfairly. Dr. Blyden is such an interesting character to study that I take pleasure in reproducing the following passages from his ‘Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race’.” (p. 57).

In the teachings of Marcus Garvey we find three factors that can be derived from his Maroon heritage: 1) a strong belief in a Supreme Being, 2) a fierce pride in his African cultural heritage, and 3) a strong desire to engage in self-determination at a variety of levels. These are characteristics that predominate those Muslims who were brought in chains to the Americas and fought to establish independent communities from the beginning of the dark period of chattel slavery. These are also characteristics of the ideological offspring of the Garvey movement, the Nation of Islam, and its charismatic spokesman El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, popularly known as Malcolm X.

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam served as the incubator for the Black Nationalist ideology of Malcolm X, and ideology that played a major role in the Black Consciousness movement of the mid to late 1960’s. Organizations like Ron Karenga’s US, the Republic of New Africa, the Black Panther Party; along with movements like the Black Student movement and the movement of African American professional organizations (e.g. the Association of Black Psychologists, the National Association of Black Social Workers, the Association of Black Sociologists, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the National Black Child Development Institute) forcefully asserted their independence and stressed self-determination among African Americans.


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