muslim slaves in america -- 5/12/14

Today's selection -- from Rebel Music by Hisham D. Aidi. Many slaves in the New World were Muslim, and brought their religious practices with them:

In 1501, less than a decade after Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola, Queen Isabella of Spain issued a decree instructing the governor of Hispaniola to ban Jews, Moors, 'New Christians,' and heretics from entering the Americas. The queen had just quelled the Morisco rebellion of Alpujarras (1499-1501), and as Muslims and Jews fled eastward toward the Ottoman Empire, the Spanish monarchs feared that these religious outcasts would board ships in Seville and escape to the Americas. The last thing Ferdinand and Isabella wanted was for their centuries-old battle with Islam to continue in the New World. And they took great measures to ban the importation of Muslims. Several church decrees, cedulas, were passed (in 1501, 1532, 1543, 1550, and 1577) to stop the flow of 'white slaves' (esclavos blancos), as Moors were called, and to deport those who had trickled into the New World. The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors saw the Moors as 'agents of Islam,' 'intractable and rebellious,' and feared their radicalizing influence over West African slaves.

"But Moorish women did not face the same persecution. In 1512, King Ferdinand issued an order to send moriscas to the Americas in order to avoid 'carnal relations between the colonists and native women.' Spanish and Portuguese officials issued licenses to have these mujeres publicas ('fallen women') transported from Iberia to the Americas to serve in brothels. No sooner had they arrived than the colonists established these casas publicas throughout the Americas. In 1526, Charles I authorized the establishment of a brothel of moriscas ('casa de prostitutas blancas') in San Juan, Puerto Rico, again to avoid mixing between Spaniards and indigenous women. The demand for Moorish women actually made the Church decrees difficult to implement. In 1543, when an order calling for the deportation of enslaved Moors was issued, settlers in Hispaniola requested its annulment, 'because slaves and free persons from this background were few and very useful in a variety of occupations.' The order was rescinded in 1550. ...

"[In spite of Isabella's proscription], a significant number of the slaves -- 7 to 8 percent by some estimates -- brought to the New World were Muslim. In the last two decades, historians have uncovered texts written by Muslim slaves in Arabic, English, and Portuguese, shedding light on a far-flung population of Muslim Africans enslaved across the Americas. Many of these individuals were literate in Arabic and struggled to maintain their faith, fasting Ramadan, writing out the Quran from memory, sometimes even launching jihads against their overlords. Since the late 1980s, most of the scholarly writing on Muslim slaves has centered on North America; but in the last decade, scholars of Latin America -- partly inspired by American academic debates -- are revisiting their region's early colonial period. Historians point out that in North America and the English-speaking Caribbean, Muslim slaves were often given relatively privileged positions on the plantation, whereas in Latin America, the lives of Muslim slaves were characterized by 'severe political repression.' The Iberian colonists, as mentioned, saw Moorish slaves as particularly intractable and would shift to importing West African slaves. Yet even the latter were persecuted when suspected of being Muslim. The French and English settlers, on the other hand, viewed African Muslims positively; their encounter with Islam in the Americas was new, and not a continuation of the Reconquista.

Bilali Muhammad

"The fascination with the African Muslims in the antebellum American South was due to the latter's literacy in Arabic. Bilali Muhammad, a slave on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, made a lasting mark on the American cultural imagination. Due to his literacy and leadership qualities, he would be appointed the manager of his master's plantation, overseeing approximately five hundred slaves; he gained notoriety after the War of 1812, during which he and eighty slaves successfully fought and prevented the British from invading Sapelo. He is also remembered for an Arabic text that he wrote about Islamic law, which he had placed in his coffin along with his Quran and his prayer rug. Bilali's literacy was always a source of fascination; he would become the subject of children's books, praised in contemporaries' memoirs, but his learnedness also posed a challenge to the ideology underpinning the system of bondage that saw Africans as incapable of reason.

"The experience of Muslim slaves in Latin America was radically different. There was no popular fascination with the writings of Muslim slaves; they were not co-opted upward. 'The Spaniard was accustomed to the threatening presence of Islam,' writes the Colombian historian Jaime Borja, describing the persecution of African Muslims in the country's northern coast. 'But Islam and blackness were truly a dangerous combination.' Repression, in the name of Catholic purity, however, only fueled defiance."


Hisham Aidi


Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture


Pantheon Book a division of Random House


Copyright 2014 by Hisham D. Aidi


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