Muslims have been on American soil for hundreds of years, first arriving as explores, then being brought as slaves before having their status “updated” as a freeman in the mid-19th century.
My teen daughter and I previously learned about the Muslims taking care of the camels brought in to tame the American west. I had also shared the story of Estevanico, the escaped slave who explored most of the American Southwest on his own in 1528.
When we made a craft about the country of Morocco, we learned that in 1786 under Sultan Mohammed III Morocco became the first African state, and the first Muslim state to sign a treaty with the United States. No other country in the world had done so, because none yet recognized the country of America.
Today I wanted to dig further in African American slave history. I wanted to talk to her about the estimated 10 to 30 percent of slaves in the American south that were Muslims, brought to colonial America from Africa.
There is no way to gloss over the ugly period in time when Americans owned human bodies. A fantastic book, From Slave Ship to Freedom Road by Julius Lester shows how the slaves were carried in the ships and the lynchings that occurred, the pages really bring to home the horrid conditions Muslims endured to help build their new home.
To get some background for my daughter, I turned to my book shelves to read up on the Muslim slave subject and came across Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf. She goes into detail in how Muslim salves were literate, urban, and well-traveled, and how they drew on their organization, solidarity and the strength of their beliefs to play a major part in the most well-known slave uprisings.
A second book that has historical stories to share with her include A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said by Omar Ibn Said, the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic. It chronicles the tale of Omar Ibn Said, who was born to a wealthy family and abducted and sold into slavery in the United States.
It’s an important time to remind my daughter that Islam has been part of American history since the conception of the Constitution. In Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, Denise Spellberg shows us how Thomas Jefferson sought to understand Islam notwithstanding his personal disdain for the faith, considering he was a slave owner. Using the Quran to write major publications, even back in 1776 Jefferson wanted Muslims as future citizens of his new country.
To study the influence of music that the Muslim slaves had on African American history, I shared Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford with my daughter. This children’s book showcases how the Congo Square in New Orleans became a focal point for slave’s weekly gatherings to set up an open market, sing, dance, and play music.
I shared with her one of the dances they could have possibly performed at Congo Square, the Ring Shout. This dance consists of performers moving in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands, in a counterclockwise direction.
We watched this video of the ring shout together.
Some scholars, including Art Rosenbaum in Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia, suggest the influence may have originated among enslaved Muslims from West Africa as an imitation of tawaf, the mass procession around the Kaaba that is an essential part of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. If so, the word “shout” may come from Arabic shawṭ, meaning “a single run”, such as a single circumlocution of the Kaaba, or an open space of ground for running. It is interesting to note that the original ring shout songs had no shouting as part of the performance.
To read up more on Muslims in American, check out our book list of books on Malcolm X.
Be sure to stop by A Crafty Arab on Pinterest to see more book lists that teach about Islam and the Arab world.
This post was written as part of Multicultural Kids Blog series on Black History Month.
Welcome to our fifth annual Black History Month series! Follow along all month long as we explore the rich history and cultures of Africa and African-Americans.
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