The first Muslims in the United States
There is evidence that Moors (Arab Muslims in Spain are still called Moros or Moors) who were expelled from Spain after 1492 made their way to the Caribbean and the southern part of the United States. Historians believe 10 to 20 percent of African slaves were Muslim. While former slaves living on Georgia’s outer banks continued practicing Islam until the early years of the 20th century, the vast majority of these West Africans were converted to Christianity.
One notable Muslim slave story comes from the life of Omar ibn Said (1770-1864), a Muslim scholar and trader from the Muslim state of Futa Toro (on the south bank of the Senegal River in today’s Senegal). He studied with prominent Muslim scholars for 25 years, but was captured and enslaved. He arrived in Charleston, S.C., around 1807. His autobiographical essay, “Life of Omar ibn Said,” rediscovered in 1995, is the earliest preserved Muslim manuscript in the U.S.
The history of African-American Muslims is an integral part of the United States’ history. Many African Americans turned to Islam in the early 1900s as Black Nationalism and Marcus Garvey’s “return to Africa” movement gained in prominence. The faith continued to attract African American converts in the 1960s with the growing civil rights movement and continues to appeal to many African Americans well into the 21st century.
Scholars debate the date when the first Muslims arrived in the Americas. Some historians believe they came before Christopher Columbus, touching down in the Gulf of Mexico from the Senegambian regions of Africa in the early 14th century.
All agree, however, that large numbers of Muslims entered the U.S. through the Atlantic slave trade in the early 1600s. An estimated 15 percent of Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves came from Muslim tribes, according to Philip Curtin, author of “Economic Change in Precolonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade.”
Historians believe that many of these early African Muslims struggled to retain their faith, even in secret, despite the slave owners’ harsh efforts to convert them to Christianity. Some slaves were hafiz (one who has memorized the entire Quran), and presumably they could draw upon this knowledge, covertly if necessary. Some slaves reportedly kept their African names, wore Muslim clothing and prayed in the proscribed way, despite the obvious risks.
But their efforts proved futile. The brutality of slavery and the lack of religious freedom were insurmountable obstacles for the majority of slaves. Many eventually abandoned their Islamic faith. For some, Islamic beliefs and practices blended into an amalgam of religions that included Jewish and Christian teachings, according to Robert Dannin, author of “Black Pilgrimage to Islam.”