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The Muslim Community Muslims in America during slavery strove hard to keep their religion alive, in both the enslaved community and the larger Christian society. But to be a Muslim was more than just respecting the Five Pillars of Islam. It implied a distinctive lifestyle. Especially for West Africans, with their community-based traditions, Islam is a highly communal, public , and visible religion. It dictates and regulates the daily life, material culture, and demeanor of the faithful. To be a Muslim entails following strict dietary rules, behaving in a certain way, dressing in a particular fashion, and interacting with coreligionists and non-Muslims in the manner deemed appropriate. The Africans enslaved in the Americas were no exception; they formed close-knit communities and distinguished themselves in numerous ways, as they had in their homeland. As a minority scattered all across North and South America and the Caribbean, and with an ethnically mixed population on any given plantation , the possibility of the Muslims forming coherent communities may seem to have been remote. Much has been said about the cultural disruption that the mixing of people from different areas induced. Recent research has shown, however, that the magnitude of this fragmentation has been overstated. For some new crops, such as rice and indigo, slaveholders relied on the expertise of Africans who were already involved in or familiar with such cultivation in their homelands. Large groups of Africans from the same area were thus transplanted as specialized units.1 In the United States, for example, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana slaveholders had a predilection toward Senegambians, who knew how to work the rice paddies and indigo plantations, and slaves from this area represented between 20 and 40 percent of the workers. Furthermore, pseudoanthropology was rampant during slavery and assigned particular qualities and defects to specific African peoples, so planters often chose their laborers from among a precise ethnic group and bought them in quantities. As the slave owners’ choices were based on ethnicity, even a thorough 3 71 mixing did not mean that individual Muslims were inevitably isolated. Ethnic groups who belonged to different geographic areas can be classi- fied as one group if religion is used as the criterion. There may have been as many as twelve nations on a single plantation, but if the Muslims were counted together, they sometimes represented the largest single group. The case of a plantation in Saint-Domingue can serve as an illustration. It employed seventy-nine slaves: among them were eleven Nago, five Fulani , three Senegal, and four Hausa, or twenty-three potential Muslims. The other largest single group was made up of seventeen Congo.2 The study of the Islamic vocabulary of the Gullah language reveals that the Muslims who introduced it were Wolof, Pulaar, Mandingo, Vai, and Hausa speakers.3 Though they came from different countries, these Muslims all shared a religion, a language, a writing system, a set of values, and habits that transcended the traditional categories of identification and belonging, such as the ethnic group, the caste, or the region. European and American observers noted this Muslim communality and cohesiveness. One of the first to mention it was Father Sandoval, who wrote in 1620 that the Wolof, Mandingo, Berbesie (Mandingo from Sine), and Fulani of Cartagena, Colombia, had different languages and were of different “races” but communicated well with one another because they all belonged to the “cursed sect of Mahomet.”4 A traveler to Brazil in the mid-1800s observed the same phenomenon and stressed that the Muslims were “more united among themselves than the other nations .”5 The Muslims certainly sought out one another, though they still regrouped along ethnic lines—there were Hausa and Mandingo subcommunities , for example. But whatever their origin, they all shared a number of characteristics that made them stand out. The Muslim Dress Code in the Midst of Slavery The most visible distinction was the way in which they dressed. Slaves were poorly outfitted with British-made “Negro cloth”; “osnaburg,” another coarse fabric, manufactured in Germany; or, in the nineteenth-century United States, homespun fabric. Whatever their country of servitude , they usually received, at the most, two changes of clothes a year or enough fabric that they could make their own garments. Provision of clothes or fabric was not an obligation, however, and numerous planters did not do so. The slaves were thus compelled to work overtime, rent 72 | The Muslim Community themselves out in their free time, or sell...


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MARC Record
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