African Muslims in Early America

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The National Museum of African American History & Culture website has a very informative feature on African Muslims in early America.  Online exhibits of this nature will go a long way toward debunking the myth, popular among many conservative evangelicals today, that the arrival of Muslims in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon.

Here is a taste:

While we do not know exactly how many African Muslims were enslaved and transported to the New World, there are clues in legal doctrines, slaveholders’ documents, and existing cultural and religious traditions. African Muslims were caught in the middle of complicated social and legal attitudes from the very moment they landed on our Eastern shores, and collections at the Museum help provide insight into their lives.

African Muslims were an integral part of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as part of colonial expeditions. One of these explorers was a man named Mustafa Zemmouri, also known as Estevanico, who was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far west as New Mexico.

African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

The founding fathers were aware of Islam and the presence of Muslims in America. Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Qur’an, included Islam in many of his early writings and political treatises. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson argued in the proposed “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” that, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Unfortunately, this language was amended before ratification to remove references to non-Christian groups. Jefferson was not the only statesman who recognized religions other than Christianity in his work. However, their knowledge of and theoretical openness to Islam did not stop them from enslaving African Muslims.

Read the piece and see the artifacts here.

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