Slavery is a well known part of American history, however, very little is ever mentioned about who these slaves were. It often surprises many that a significant number of slaves who were brought to the “New World” self-identified as Muslims.
What is interesting is that many accounts show that African slaves were strategically taken from different parts of Africa and different tribes so that they could not speak to one another and plan revolts or escape.
However, where many white colonists believed that these Africans to be different, it turns out many shared the common religion of Islam and therefore many were able to communicate or use Arabic as common ground.
Muslim slaves were able to preserve their liturgical language both through writing (where applicable) and through oral recitation and passing on of the religion to descendants.
Many slave owners fervently opposed this and required their slaves to convert to Christianity, take on Christian names or attend Christian religious services. A slave’s ability to read and write in another language (and foreign script) was seen as a threat to the power of a slave owner.
While it was dangerous for Muslims to openly practice Islam, many kept it within the home and had secret group worship. Many were forced to convert to Christianity and others falsely “converted” to adhere to rules and laws established in the colonies.
Others chose to defy those orders and publicly practiced Islam such as in the islands of Georgia and in the Caribbean. Although some Muslim slaves were forced to convert through physical force and abuse they did not easily renounce their religion and fought hard to continue following their faith including the fundamentals of Islam.
Their strong religious beliefs led them to refuse conversion to Catholicism or Protestantism. In cases of absolute necessity, they would outwardly convert.
Looking at this history of the treatment of the Islam and the Arabic language in colonial America, the derogatory view of these central aspects to Muslim and African slave identity remain in line with much of today’s views of Arabic/Muslims in America.
There is still an irrational fear of Arabic, both in reading and writing where several recent cases involve whole interruptions of airline flights because of phone calls in Arabic or even students holding Arabic flashcards (to name a few).
According to the traditions and teachings of Islam, each Muslim is obligated to pray five times a day, fast the month of Ramadan, perform pilgrimage, and give charity.
How could Muslim slaves be able to stay true to their beliefs while being coerced to change their name and to eat pork? The many stories of slaves remaining steadfast in the preservation of their faith in the most excruciating of circumstances are remarkable.
Some slaves, such as the famous Kunta Kinte never allowed his master to gain power over him and refused to change his name. As he was being lashed his master would ask him repeatedly what was his name, every time he answered, “Kunta Kinte.”
Some slaves such as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was forced to change his name to Job ben Soloman. Diallo put his faith in Allah and when found in a dangerous situation he would recite the Islamic testimony of faith (shahada).
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