Muslims lived in America before Protestantism even existed


EXCERPT: The first words to pass between Europeans and Americans (one-sided and confusing as they must have been) were in the sacred language of Islam. Christopher Columbus had hoped to sail to Asia and had prepared to communicate at its great courts in one of the major languages of Eurasian commerce. So when Columbus’s interpreter, a Spanish Jew, spoke to the Taíno of Hispaniola, he did so in Arabic. Not just the language of Islam, but the religion itself likely arrived in America in 1492, more than 20 years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door, igniting the Protestant reformation.

[...] Islam served as a kind of blueprint or algorithm for the Spanish in the New World. As they encountered people and things new to them, they turned to Islam to try to understand what they were seeing, what was happening. Even the name ‘California’ might have some Arabic lineage. [...] Across the Western hemisphere, whenever they arrived at new lands or encountered native peoples, Spanish conquistadores read the requerimiento, a stylised legal pronouncement. In essence, it announced a new state of society: offering Native Americans the chance to convert to Christianity and submit to Spanish rule, or else bear responsibility for all the ‘deaths and losses’ that would follow. A formal and public announcement of the intent to conquer, including an offer to the faithless of a chance to submit and become believers, is the first formal requirement of jihad. Following centuries of war with the Muslims, the Spanish had adopted this practice, Christianised it, called it the requerimiento, and took it to America. Iberian Christians might have thought Islam wrong, or even diabolical, but they also knew it well. If they thought it strange, it must be counted a very familiar strange.

[...] By 1503, we know that Muslims themselves, from West Africa, were in the New World. ... On Christmas morning 1522, in the New World’s first slave rebellion, 20 Hispaniola sugarmill slaves rose and began slaughtering Spaniards. The rebels, the governor noted, were mostly Wolof, a Senegambian people, who have been Muslim since the 11th century. Muslims were more likely than other enslaved Africans to be literate: an ability rarely looked upon with favour by plantation-owners. In the five decades following the 1522 slave rebellion on Hispaniola, Spain issued five decrees prohibiting the importation of Muslim slaves.

Muslims thus arrived in America more than a century before the Virginia Company founded the Jamestown colony in 1607. Muslims came to America more than a century before the Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Muslims were living in America not only before Protestants, but before Protestantism existed. After Catholicism, Islam was the second monotheistic religion in the Americas. The popular misunderstanding, even among educated people, that Islam and Muslims are recent additions to America tells us important things about how American history has been written. In particular, it reveals how historians have justified and celebrated the emergence of the modern nation-state.

[...] The forgetting of early America’s Muslims is, then, more than an arcane concern. The consequences bear directly on the matter of political belonging today. Nations are not mausoleums or reliquaries to conserve the dead or inanimate. They are organic in that, just as they are made, they must be consistently remade, or they atrophy and die. The virtual Anglo-Protestant monopoly over the history of religion in America has obscured the half-a-millenium presence of Muslims in America and has made it harder to see clear answers to important questions about who belongs, who is American, by what criteria, and who gets to decide.

[...] Ayuba Suleyman Diallo is the best-known Muslim of 18th-century North America. He was of the Fulbe, an Islamic people of West Africa. ... Diallo was born in Bundu, an area between the Senegal and Gambia rivers, under an Islamic theocracy. He was captured by a British slave trader in 1731, and eventually sold to a Maryland slaveowner. An Anglican missionary recognised Diallo writing in Arabic and offered him wine to test if he was a Muslim. Later, a British lawyer who wrote an account of Diallo’s enslavement and transport to Maryland anglicised his first name Ayuba to Job and his surname Suleyman to Ben Solomon. In this way, Ayuba Suleyman became Job Ben Solomon.

In such a fashion, the experience of enslavement and passage to America saw many Arabic names Anglicised; Quranic names rendered into something familiar from the King James Bible. [...] Re-naming slaves (sometimes in derogatory or jesting ways) was an important tool of planter authority, and rarely neglected. Nonetheless, across North America, Arabic names remain part of the historical record. [...] It is difficult to know to what extent the persistence of Arabic names related to continued religious practice or identity, but it seems unlikely to be totally disconnected.

[...] Out of fear, Spanish authorities had tried to ban Muslim slaves from their early American settlements. In the more established and secure slave society of 18th- and 19th-century Anglo-America, some planters preferred them. In both cases, the reasoning was the same: Muslims stood apart, possessed authority, and exerted influence. One publication ... advised that Muslims ‘are excellent for the care of cattle and horses, and for domestic service’ ... The author noted that on the plantations: ‘Many of them converse in the Arabic language.’

An early 19th-century Georgia slaveowner who claimed to represent an enlightened approach to slavery advocated making ‘professors of the Mahommedan religion’ into ‘drivers, or influential negroes’ on plantations. He claimed that they would exhibit ‘integrity to their masters’. He and others cited instances of Muslim slaves siding with the Americans, against the British, in the War of 1812. Some Muslim slaves in 19th-century America had themselves been slaveowners, teachers or military officers in Africa.

Ibrahima abd al-Rahman was a colonel in the army of his father, Ibrahima Sori, an emir or governor in Futa Jallon, in what is now Guinea. In 1788, at age 26, al-Rahman was captured in war, purchased by British traders, and transported to America. Al-Rahman spent nearly 40 years picking cotton in Natchez, Mississippi. Thomas Foster, his owner, called him ‘Prince’. [...] Al-Rahman was a Muslim and he prayed as a Muslim.

[...] The details of al-Rahman’s story might be unusual. But his experience as an American Muslim facing an Anglo-Protestant monopoly bent on manufacturing a ‘Christian’ country is not. Islam developed, in part, to exist above the great linguistic and cultural differences of Asia and Africa: al-Rahman spoke six languages. Anglo-American evangelical Protestantism is, by contrast, a younger, narrower religion. It took shape in the culturally circumscribed region of the North Atlantic and in a dynamic relationship with both capitalism and nationalism. It aims not at transcending heterogeneity but rather (as Gallaudet and Tappan were attempting with al-Rahman) to homogenise.

How many people shared al-Rahman’s basic experience? How many Muslims were there in America between, say, 1500 and 1900? How many in North America? Sylviane A Diouf is the great historian of the subject. In what is probably a conservative figuring, she writes in Servants of Allah (1998), ‘there were hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the Americas’ and ‘that may be all we can say about numbers and estimates.’ ... (MORE - details)

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