CONTRARY TO WHAT is taught by some historians, many of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World were Muslims with highly cultivated Islamic religious traditions.
Given the proximity of Makkah and Madinah to the African continent, it is not surprising that Islam was introduced to the continent very early on; nor is it surprising that Islam became known primarily through travel and trade. Once introduced to Africa, Islam was embraced and spread naturally by the believers. In later years, through both voluntary and forced travel, Africans brought Islam to the Americas.
During the time of Prophet Muhammad the early Muslims introduced Islam to parts of Africa closest to Makkah and Madinah. Most notably, early Muslims fled to Ethiopia seeking refuge from persecution, and for some time Islam remained confined to the East Coast of Africa. It was later introduced to areas such as Sudan and Somaliland in addition to Ethiopia.
Islam then spread northward and by the 11th and 12th centuries C.E., had taken root in North Africa. Trade routes were then established between North African Muslims and the Africans south of the Sahara. North African traders traveled southward and exchanged not only goods and services, but ideas and concepts as well. Thus, by 1100 C.E., Islam had taken root in areas such as Timbuktu (Mali), Senegal and the Lake Chad area. Soon, Islamic schools and universities were established and millions of Africans became Muslims and leaders in their communities and countries.
By the 14th century, African Muslims were ruling in places such as Mali, with Timbuktu in West Africa and Harar (Ethiopia) in East Africa becoming seats of Islamic learning. With the spread of Islam in Africa, important Muslim leaders surfaced and well-known leaders such as Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire played an important role in the development and progress of Islam in Africa.
West Africans of this time were also known to be explorers, having considerable knowledge about the ocean. Through travel, these Africans continued the spread of Islam. Researchers such as Dr. Abdul Hakim Quick, have presented scholarly findings that indicate that Sultan Abu Bakr II of Mali (a relative of Mansa Musa) traveled with a crew from the Sene-Gambian region of West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico in 1312 C.E. These African Muslims who traveled to the Americas left traces of Muslim names among the native Americans.
However, it was the forced travel and enslavement of Africans by Europeans that brought the multitude of Africans to the western hemisphere. In the early 1500s Africans began arriving in the Americas by force and by the 18th century many thousands of them were working under brutal conditions on plantations as slaves. It is estimated that of the more than 10 million Africans enslaved in the Americas, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent were Muslims.
There are many stories of enslaved Africans who tried as hard as possible to hold on to and pass on their Islamic heritage. Historians have located writings in Arabic which indicate where in Africa these Africans were taken from, the Muslim names they had and descriptions of their experiences in America. Historians have also identified texts which are memorized sections of the Noble Qur’an, written by highly educated, enslaved Africans.
In a well-documented example, descendants of two Muslim slaves, Bilali and Salihi Bilali, were interviewed and described their ancestors as wearing Islamic-style clothing and practicing Islam. They described them as speaking and writing in Arabic and mentioned the Islamic names of their children.
During slavery, many Africans were forced to accept Christian names; however, some were able to keep their Muslim names. We know of such African Muslims as Ayub ibn Sulaiman Diallo who was freed in 1732 and went back to Africa in 1735. There was also Yarrow Mamout who was freed in 1807 and Abdulrahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a former West African prince, who was enslaved and then freed in 1828 by order of Secretary of State Henry Clay and President John Quincy Adams.
There are likely many African Muslims who were not recognized as such since oftentimes their names were mis-transcribed by the non-Muslims who brought them to the Americas. One such example is of a Muslim known as Hajj Ali, but whose name was transcribed as Hi Jolly.
Unfortunately, by the time slavery came to an end, there were few traces of Islam left among the Africans in the Americas.
In more recent times, Islam was brought to the US by immigrants who have traveled from distant lands. In the 19th century, Arab Muslims arrived and many settled in major industrial centers. In the early 20th century, several hundred thousand Muslims from Eastern Europe arrived and in the early 1900s, mosques were built in Maine and New York.
It was these new Muslim arrivals to the US that stirred the memory of Islam for many African Americans. Through contact with, and the influence of these Muslims, African Americans began to rejoin the fold of Islam and began to establish their own Islamic institutions.
For example, Timothy Drew, also known as Noble Drew Ali, established the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) in 1913. He taught that African Americans were of Moorish descent and that their original religion was Islam and not Christianity. It is estimated that 10,000 African Americans were affiliated with the MSTA by 1950.
The biggest influence of Islam on the African American community, however, was the Nation of Islam (NOI). This very influential organization was founded in 1933 and is credited with converting large numbers of African Americans to Islam. Fard Muhammad (or Wallace D. Fard), an immigrant, introduced Islam to Elijah Poole (later known as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad) who built the Nation of Islam into a strong African American movement.
Through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, many African Americans became members of NOI and later moved on to embrace Islam in its pure form. Soon after its inception, the NOI brought such people as the three-time heavy weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and the civil rights activist, Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik ElShabazz) to the fold of Islam.
Today, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the African American Community in the US and is also growing quickly in other parts of the African Diaspora. Thanks to the influence of Muslim immigrants throughout the last century, many African Americans and people of African descent in the Diaspora are returning to Islam. While the memories of Islam had been stamped out for the most part by the end of slavery, many people of African descent are now beginning to learn of the Islamic beliefs of their ancestors.
Through exposure to their history, people of African descent in the Diaspora are learning of the important role that Islam played in African history. They are beginning to realize that it was through the spread of Islam that many centers of knowledge and trade were developed throughout Africa. They are finding out as well, that the spread of Islam throughout Africa came mainly though trade and travel and not through coercion.
Contrary to what is taught by some historians, many of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World were Muslims with highly cultivated Islamic religious traditions. These Africans came from a long tradition of Islam in Africa, a tradition which in some areas of Africa is practically as old as Islam itself.