The Jihad for Identity

Muslim Africans are the forgotten chapter in the history of American slavery. Although most narratives about slavery focus exclusively on the liberation efforts of certain black Christians, Islam was instrumental in both the black struggle and cultural continuity. Enslaved Muslims in the New World waged a cultural jihad (struggle) to preserve their religious identity against the effacement of slavery. The result of this clash of cultures was a syncretism between African Islam and Anglo Christianity that helped foment what became known as African-American culture.

For example, look the 1730-1860 period on the plantations of Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina. There, we see that Muslim slaves invented ingenious ways to preserve their native dress, names, and religion through “signification.” This allowed them to disguise their identity using the slave master’s culture thereby grant Islam invisibility.

Slaves were deliberately outfitted with poor clothing to accent the master-slave relationship. This contrasted sharply with Islam’s master-slave etiquette, where slaves had to be clothed with the same clothing as their master. Men and women protested their degradation by adorning the white turban or headscarf. After Abdur Rahman Ibraheem earned his freedom in 1828, he toured the northern cities wearing a “white turban topped with a white pantaloons gathered at the ankles, yellow boots–and, sometimes, a scimitar,” writes Allan D. Austin in African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles (New York: Routledge, 1997). Omar ibn Said, while a slave in Charleston, SC, wore a white turban and sometimes a white kufi, and Bilali of Sapel “always wore a cap that resembled a Turkish fez”. Muslim women continued to wear the keemar (khimar) during slavery. Ben Sullivan recalled an enslaved woman who, would “weah loose wite veil on the head.” The slave Salali Bilali’s wife was described by her grandmother: “…she weah a loose wite clawt da she trow obuh uh head lak veil an it hang loose on uh shouldah. I ain know wy she weah it datway, but lak a tight ting roun uh head,” reports the Works Progress Administration (WPA) study Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986). Most slave masters, ignorant of the symbolism of Muslim dress, assumed that their subjects were simply shielding themselves from the sun, observes Georgia Bryan Conrad (“Reminiscences of a Southern Woman,” Southern Workman [May 1901]: 252). However, their coreligionists knew what they meant.

Traditional Africa and Islam regard naming a person as a serious event. In traditional African Islam, a child was not recognized as a complete human being until he or she received a name, says P. Robert Paustian (“The Evolution of Personal Naming Practices among American Blacks,” Names 26, no. 2. [1978]). Many English names tended to have material connotations, like blacksmith or carpenter. However, Muslim slaves could use some Christian names to signify themselves Islamically. For example, they chose Biblical equivalents of Islamic names as their disguise. The Gullah people of Georgia took names like Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa), Solomon (Sulayman), and Adam. Lorenzo Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect states that there were over 100 Christianized Islamic names concentrated in that region. Again, only their coreligionists understood what was meant. This is what made it effective.

The Christian slave masters had a Crusader mentality, and so Christianity was not an option–it was the only option. Many Muslims resisted proselytization in the same way they resisted other forms of acculturation–they signified. According to Georgia preacher-historian Charles Colcock Jones, slaves were “known to accommodate Christianity to Mohammadanism.” “God, say they, is Allah, and Jesus Christ is Mohammed–the religion the same, but different countries have different names.” This is how we should understand “Old Lizzy Gray’s” statement. A slave in South Carolina and a reported Methodist, she said in an 1860 interview “that Christ built the first church in Mecca and he grave was da.” There are a number of accounts of such wild theological combining that suggests, as Pastor Jones said, that it was an established practice. Only their coreligionists recognized the true believers.

These individual testimonies by Muslim slaves were the exception only in that their personal stories survived anonymity. Many Muslim slaves were able to remain inconspicuous. Although Islam did not carry over in a viable way into Reconstruction, it did transfer certain cultural artifacts in those areas were the struggle was waged. In terms of dress, we can trace the bandanna, durag, handkerchief and headwrap to the turban and keemar worn by people like Salali Bilali and his wife, writes Sylvaine A. Diouf in his Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York Universal Press, 1998).

In the case of surnames, for example, the name Sambo is traceable to the West African Fulani word Samba, which derived from Thambi. The name Abu Bakr became Booker, and Jafar became Jeffrey. The records from Talbert County of the Sepalo Islands lists the name Baily as an exclusively black name, an Anglicized form of Bilali, a famous Arabic-speaking slave in the region during the nineteenth century, says Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick (Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas before Columbus [South Africa: Sound Vision, 1993]). Michael A. Gomez (Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South [North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998]) writes that the same Sapelo Island had a church whose congregation prayed–and buried their dead–facing the east.

Many Islamic idioms are trapped in everyday African-American practices as a remnant of the cultural jihad. When using the art of signification under constant duress in an intolerant society, an unavoidable syncretism takes place wherein the signified merges with the signifier. Eventually, they become indistinguishable to the latter generation. Hence, the descendants of Muslim slaves only had oral accounts of their parents and grandparents, along with “empty” rituals and obscure characteristics from a religion that has disappeared from their collective consciousness. What remains of the cultural jihad is its signature waiting to be interpreted.