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Islam and the African Slave Trade


>>> Item number 1526, dated 96/04/18 21:33:05 -- ALL

Date:         Thu, 18 Apr 1996 21:33:05 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade

Date sent:      Wed, 17 Apr 1996
From:           Becky Shumway, Emory University
                <CATSEC@catinc.com>

In a report on NPR this morning about the growth of the Islamic religion in Chicago, an African-American who has converted to Islam was interviewed. He explained that many African-Americans are converting to Islam because it was the religion of their ancestors. He also said that it is common knowledge "to most people" that most of the slaves brought from Africa to the U.S. during the Atlantic slave trade were Muslim.

This raises a number of questions for me. Were not most of the slaves transported to the Americas practicing "traditional" African religions? Is there any evidence of Islamic practice or behavior among slave communities in the U.S. South during the period in which slavery was practiced? And, perhaps most importantly, why is the notion that the African slaves were Muslims "common knowledge" to some people?


            Editor's Note:
            Some aspects of the topic were
            discussed on H-AFRICA in August
            1995.  Those messages can be found
            on the H-AFRICA home page:
              <http://h-net.msu.efdu/~africa>
            by selecting discussion logs, and
            then logs for August 1995.
            Nonetheless, there are questions
            raised here--which especially bear
            on the production of knowledge--
            which could fruitfully be discussed
            now.
                                    mep
            ***********************************

>>> Item number 1537, dated 96/04/20 12:38:40 -- ALL

Date:         Sat, 20 Apr 1996 12:38:40 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Fri, 19 Apr 1996
From:           Doug Deal, SUNY-Oswego
                <deal@Oswego.Oswego.EDU>

I would suggest that Becky Shumway was listening to was a discussion of heritage, not history. The "facts" presented by heritage rarely accord with those accepted by historians as true. A marvelous piece contrasting heritage and history appeared in the American Historical Association newsletter PERSPECTIVES in January 1994. The author is David Lowenthal, an eminent geographer and West Indies specialist.

Let me quote some of the most salient passages:

History and heritage alike apprehend the past. But what they find and transmit, and why, are quite different. History tells all who listen what supposedly happened, suggesting how things came to be as they are. Heritage passes on exclusive myths of origin and continuity, endowing a select group with power and prestige.

History is constrained by specific rules of inquiry and discourse. Historians know they can never shed bias, but they are bound to try. As validity rests on open scrutiny, others can inspect their sources. Their conclusions can be verified or refuted.

Heritage is not like this at all. It seeks a past that will unify adherents and promote joint aims. Its goal is not shared knowledge but self-esteem....

Heritage is immune to criticism, because it is not erudition but catechism; not what IS but what OUGHT to be true. What counts is utility.... Heritage demands uncritical endorsement and precludes dissent....

Heritage demands faith in a mystique exclusive to devotess. It need not, indeed cannot be proven to outsiders, whom it is meant to mystify or offend. To this end, heritage deploys facts not only unprovable but often demonstrably wrong. Were they not wrong, outsiders could share them. Hence heritage thrives on empirical error....

Sharing misinformation excludes those whose own heritage encodes different catechisms. 'Correct' knowledge could not so serve, because it is open to all. What is generally accessible cannot become a criterion of exclusion; only 'false' knowledge can do this. Hence heritage mandates MISreadings of history.

Again, the author of the material just quoted is David Lowenthal. I think his observations might help explain why some people take it as "common knowledge" that most slaves arriving in America were Muslims, despite the absence of historical backing for such a claim. The NPR conversation was about the construction of identity and heritage in the late 20th century, not about the actual history of slavery.

>>> Item number 1539, dated 96/04/20 12:49:23 -- ALL

Date:         Sat, 20 Apr 1996 12:49:23 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Fri, 19 Apr 1996
From:           Doug Deal, SUNT-Oswego
                <deal@Oswego.Oswego.EDU>

The full citation of the Michael Gomez article is:

"Muslims in Early America," *The Journal of Southern History*, 60:4 (November 1994), 671-710.

On numbers, Gomez concludes that "Muslims may have come to America by the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Beyond this general statement, a more precise assessment of their numbers is difficult to sustain at this time" (682). This, out of the half a million or so slaves imported into the mainland colonies and US up to 1808....

>>> Item number 1540, dated 96/04/20 12:53:02 -- ALL

Date:         Sat, 20 Apr 1996 12:53:02 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Sat, 20 Apr 1996
From:           Peter Caron, Tulane University
                <ahpc@mailhost.tcs.tulane.edu>

I am not sure what "mis-information" Ken Dossar is referring to but I feel compelled to comment on the influence of Islam in the African slave population.

While I certainly agree that Muslims, or people enslaved from Islamicized areas of Africa did not make up the majority of the slave trade to the Americas, I beleive that the influence which Muslim slaves may have had on the slave populations of the Americas far exceeded their numbers.

Consequently, Ken Dossar's blanket comment that "the evidence however point to the fact that the majority of Africans transported to the New World brought with them traditional belief systems" somewhat misleading. Part of the reason Muslim slaves and Africans who originated in Islamicized areas are perceived as such a small percentage of the total population is twofold.

The first has to do with the failure of contemporary observers to recognize them as such. Recall Charles Ball's self-confessed ignorance of Islam in the actions of a slave whom he encountered in his travels.

The second is the failure of modern historians to recognize Muslims among the enlsaved African population. Like Ball, many Americanists do not recognize signs of Islamic inlfuence amongst slaves. This is changing and I beleive that within the next years we will see more evidence of how Muslims may have influenced other Africans and how their presence will influence historical understanding of African identity and communal formation in the New World.

Muslims came to the Americas from two distinct regions. First, in the early eighteenth century the Senegambia was an avenue from which the sons and daughters of Allah were sent to the Americas.

Later, in the early nineteenth century, captives from the Central Sudan states began to appear in the Americas. The latter group landed primarily in South America and in the Caribbean because they came, for the most part, after the prohibition on slave imports into the US.

Nevertheless, within the boundaries of the modern United States there is eveidence of Muslim slaves in South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana (the region in which I do my own work).

The question of the numbers of Muslim individuals among the African population is, in the end, perhaps not as important as the influence these individuals may have had on the development of African and ultimately African-American (North, South and Central) communities and indeed European communities.

Islam and the influence of Islamic beliefs, in whatever form, cannot be taken lightly and I believe has been seriously underestimated by scholars especially in the United States south. I am confident, however, that this will change.

>>> Item number 1541, dated 96/04/20 18:40:35 -- ALL

Date:         Sat, 20 Apr 1996 18:40:35 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Sat, 20 Apr 1996
From:           Ken Harrow, Michigan State University
                <harrow@pilot.msu.edu>

As I am not a historian, I refrained from commenting on this exchange. However, Peter Caron's intervention would be misleading to non-historians if it were to stand by itself.

The thrust of the argument that he is responding to is that Muslims were also, and largely, victims of the slave trade. To make this point, it is necessary for the argument to hold that Muslims comprised a majority of the slaves, an important percentage of the slaves, or occupied as special place in the community, etc.

Curtin's study of the Atlantic Slave trade reveals that the bulk of the slaves were brought from the Congo basin and the Guinea coast--non-Muslim regions. A small percentage came from the Senegambia, and even those numbers would not have been necessarily Muslims as they included people brought down to the coast from the interior.

The regions from which most of the slaves were taken was not Muslim. It did include great numbers of Yoruba and FOn and related peoples, whence the existence of Voodoo (Vodun) in Haiti and the Caribbean, and the worship of Yoruba gods to this day in Brazil and throughout the Caribbean and even the American south.

Curtin's figures have been challenged, and now are thought to be about two-thirds of the right number--but the proportions of who came from where are approximately correct.

What this argument clearly ignores is the ideological optic on which it is based--an optic that chooses to ignore the realities of the trans-Saharan slave trade. Hostility between sub-Saharan Africa--reflected in Armah's bitter novels about the white Arab slave traders, or in Sembene's indictment of the Moors, in *Ceddo* or in a number of short stories, or in the figure of the shopkeeper in *Mandabi*--and the Muslim north is indeed profound.

One could mention racist attitudes on the part of those who named the Zenj coast (where in Arabic Zenj came to mean black and slave), as well as reciprocal feelings from those on the other side of the desert. Consider, again, Diop's short story "Maman Caiman" for this hostility.

Present-day fundamentalist politics will seek to falsify this history, but only people of good will will be able to transcend the wrongs of the past by beginning with a recognition of what occurred and a desire to move beyond it.

> > Date

sent:      Sat, 20 Apr 1996 > From:           Peter Caron, Tulane University
>                 <ahpc@mailhost.tcs.tulane.edu>

>
>
> I am not sure what "mis-information" Ken Dossar is > referring to but I feel compelled to comment on the > influence of Islam in the African slave population. >
> While I certainly agree that Muslims, or people enslaved > from Islamicized areas of Africa did not make up the > majority of the slave trade to the Americas, I beleive > that the influence which Muslim slaves may have had on the > slave populations of the Americas far exceeded their > numbers.
>
> Consequently, Ken Dossar's blanket comment that "the > evidence however point to the fact that the majority of > Africans transported to the New World brought with them > traditional belief systems" somewhat misleading. Part of the > reason Muslim slaves and Africans who originated in > Islamicized areas are perceived as such a small percentage > of the total population is twofold.
>
> The first has to do with the failure of contemporary > observers to recognize them as such. Recall Charles Ball's > self-confessed ignorance of Islam in the actions of a slave > whom he encountered in his travels.
>
> The second is the failure of modern historians to > recognize Muslims among the enlsaved African population. > Like Ball, many Americanists do not recognize signs of > Islamic inlfuence amongst slaves. This is changing and I > beleive that within the next years we will see more evidence > of how Muslims may have influenced other Africans and how > their presence will influence historical understanding of > African identity and communal formation in the New World. >
> Muslims came to the Americas from two distinct regions. > First, in the early eighteenth century the Senegambia was an > avenue from which the sons and daughters of Allah were > sent to the Americas.
>
> Later, in the early nineteenth century, captives from the > Central Sudan states began to appear in the Americas. The > latter group landed primarily in South America and in the > Caribbean because they came, for the most part, after the > prohibition on slave imports into the US. >
> Nevertheless, within the boundaries of the modern United > States there is eveidence of Muslim slaves in South > Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana (the region in which I do my > own work).
>
> The question of the numbers of Muslim individuals among > the African population is, in the end, perhaps not as > important as the influence these individuals may have had > on the development of African and ultimately > African-American (North, South and Central) communities > and indeed European communities.
>
> Islam and the influence of Islamic beliefs, in whatever > form, cannot be taken lightly and I believe has been > seriously underestimated by scholars especially in the > United States south. I am confident, however, that this will > change.
>

>>> Item number 1542, dated 96/04/20 18:47:45 -- ALL

Date:         Sat, 20 Apr 1996 18:47:45 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Sat, 20 Apr 96
From:           Ken Dossar, Temple University
                <KNDOSR@VM.TEMPLE.EDU>

I agree with Peter Caron when he writes, "Islam and the influence of Islamic beliefs...cannot be taken lightly and has been seriously underestimated by scholars...I am confident, that this will change." As evidence emerges, as scholars recognize and identify Islamic influence we will have a more com- plete picture of what happened in the Americas. Do we have it just now?

Caron agrees with me when he writes, "Muslims, or people enslaved from Islamicized areas did not make up the majority of the slave trade to the Americas." I wrote: "the evidence points to the fact that the majority of Africans transported to the New World brought with them traditional belief systems, which essentially remained intact..." I'm not certain why he sees this statement as "somewhat misleading" if the majority of captives were neither Christian or Muslim, what were they? Even if enslaved Africans had converted to Christianity of Islam, did they not put these beliefs on top of deep structured traditions?

The questions of what happened to African belief systems in the Americas is complex, as is the idea of the influences. I don't have an issue with the influence of Islam in the Americas. As Caron indicates our understanding of this is changing. I think it would be interesting if a connection could be made between the Males in Bahia, and the image of Islam reflected in Julie Dash's film "Daughters of the Dust". Sure the film is an artists representation of a historical reality, but the film has so much in it.

As I said, the notion of influence is important, but it is not what generated this discussion. The initial discussion came about because someone said that, it was common knowledge "to most people" that most of the slaves brought from Africa to the U.S. ...were Muslims. I think Plato would characterize that statement as opinion which is something different than fact. One member of this list noted the difference between heritage and history. It is a useful distinction.

And concerning mis-information, I had in mind things such as: negroes have tails, they are savage heathens; or that voodoo and other African traditions are evil and black magic; or the prevelant notion that my God, my gender, or my ethnic group is not only better than yours, it is the best.

For the tapestry of our history to be reconstructed with its thouands of threads, it will take time, hard work, honesty and no ego.

>>> Item number 1544, dated 96/04/21 13:14:24 -- ALL

Date:         Sun, 21 Apr 1996 13:14:24 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Sat, 20 Apr 1996
From:           Peter Caron, Tulane University
                <ahpc@mailhost.tcs.tulane.edu>

Ken Dossar's point is well taken. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of slaves brought to the Americas were neither Muslims nor Christians, but ordered their lives accoring to a belief system not based upon Eastern or Western beliefs. So what were they? he asks. Good question.

They were, as he points out, practicioners of beliefs indigenous to Africa. But these beliefs were not homogenous and despite similarities in basic cosmological structures, they were as distinct from one another as perhaps Islam was from Christianity. Unless of course, one attempts to argue that they were all the same, which Dossar has not implied.

This point is important. For if someone exported from Kongo, with its many centuries of exposure to Portuguese-inspired Christianity is compared to a practicioner of vodun from Dahomey who then is compared to someone from Senegal, whose exposure to hundreds of years of Islamic influences but who nevertheless maintains a "traditional" belief system what have we then?

What I suggest - and here I concede Dossar's point that the research remains before us - is that the potential influence of a cohesive Muslim community which could, in some cases even constitute a plurality, becomes very great indeed.

Numbers do not tell us everything. True, most slaves over several centuries originated in the Congo/Angola region of Africa. Does this mean that Congo/Angola culture dominated in the Americas? No.

Dossar is absolutely correct that history is a complex weave and here is a perfect example. As African beliefs meshed, meged and indeed competed in oppressive slave systems throughout the Americas, religious beliefs changed and adapted. One cannot assume that Vodun in Haiti was the same as Vodun in Whydah or in Abomey.

If one sees all African religious beliefs - excluding Islam and Christianity - as the same, the percentage of Muslims is small and seemingly uninfluential. But if one acknowledges the differences in what Dossar has labels "the rest" the influence of even small numbers of Muslims who remained faithful could have very important indeed.

Dossar has not actually said anything with which I disagree. In fact, I agree with him more than it may appear. The original thread supposed that Islam was a primary influence among the African slave population. This is clearly untrue. But, the influence of Islam has been ignored and downplayed for a long time in part because of the perspective of scholars of North American slavery who could not, or would not, see Islamic influences.

Historians need to be aware Islam and learn to recognize signs of it among New World African populations.

>>> Item number 1555, dated 96/04/22 17:39:56 -- ALL

Date:         Mon, 22 Apr 1996 17:39:56 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Tue, 23 Apr 1996
From:           John Edward Philips, Akita University
                <philips@Air.akita-u.ac.jp>

Perhaps we should take some time to define "Muslim."

In North Africa just saying the shahada is considered enough. In West Africa, where there is arguably an underlying monotheism, and where belief in the power of Islamic magic and charms is strong, almost anyone could subscribe to the shahada (There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger.)

Some kind of practice, at least the daily prayers, is usually considered necessary to be considered a Muslim. In Hausa you don't ask "Are you Muslim?" You say "Do you pray?" By this standard there are far fewer Muslims in North Africa than is usually claimed in the census statistics.

The issue of who was a Muslim has always been a vexing one for West Africans as well. There is a famous summary article about this problem by Murray Last and M.A. Al-Hajj, "Attempts at Definging a Muslim in Nineteenth Century Hausaland and Bornu" in *Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria*, v.3 no. 2 (1965). More recently John Hunwick has published *Shari`a in Songhay: the Replies of al-Maghili to the Questions of Askia al-Hajj Muhammad* (OUP; 1985).

Perhaps it would be better to consider how much of what kinds of Islamic beliefs and practices which slaves were influenced by, as well as what positions they had in the plantation system (overseers, house servants, field hands, etc.) instead of just trying to do a cliometric "head counting" of how many were literate Islamic scholars.

>>> Item number 1557, dated 96/04/23 07:41:36 -- ALL

Date:         Tue, 23 Apr 1996 07:41:36 GMT-5
Reply-To:     H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
Sender:       H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU>
From:         H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject:      Islam & the African slave trade--Reply

Date sent:      Mon, 22 Apr 1996
From:           Doug Deal, SUNY-Oswego
                <deal@Oswego.Oswego.EDU>

On Mon, 22 Apr 1996, John Edward Philips suggested:

Perhaps it would be better to consider how much of what kinds of Islamic beliefs and practices which slaves were influenced by, as well as what positions they had in the plantation system (overseers, house servants, field hands, etc.) instead of just trying to do a cliometric "head counting" of how many were literate Islamic scholars.

These are indeed important questions, but as one who is more familiar with African American than with African history, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that we'll never know the answers. The evidence just isn't there. It's hard enough for historians to agree about the extent to which Christianity, let alone Islam, was embraced by American slaves (compare the works of John Boles and Sterling Stuckey, for example).

The cliometric "head counting" is therefore best seen as a rough attempt to get an "order of magnitude" fix on the size of the Muslim (or Muslim-influenced) slave population. True, it does nothing to answer the questions above or the other fascinating queries introduced by other contributors to this discussion. But it may at least allow us to speak cautiously about the probable, or possible impact of Muslim beliefs and practices, once the surviving evidence about particular Muslims in particular times and places has been examined thoroughly.

No doubt more evidence will come to light, or previously "known" evidence will be read in new ways. But I would humbly suggest that, at the "end" of all this work, we still won't know what we'd really like to know about the subject.


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