The Muslim Community
Chapter 3 of the book Servants of Allah by Sylviane Diouf reveals in what way American Muslims (mostly West Africans) were different from their fellows with other religious backgrounds during the slavery period. The text explains the special demeanor the community had through analyzing the influence of Islam on the lifestyle and morality of its followers.
Despite the rampant tendency towards the dehumanization and humiliation of slaves through nudity, Muslims strove to preserve their religious attire and accessorizes, which commonly included large cotton tunics, wide pants, turbans or skullcaps for men and veils for women. Clerics that had been taught and appointed both before and after the deportation, wore white turbans as a symbol of their spiritual leadership. Members of the community generally ignored the endeavor of non-Muslim Africans to copy and re-interpret European-style clothing. Instead, they sought to re-create the garments they wore before arriving at the continent.
Muslims also tended to resist continuous attempts of slaveholders to annihilate their sense of personal and religious identity by giving them new names after the disembarkation. Masters could also choose names for the children born from their slaves. There were two major techniques to oppose this tendency: either answering to two names or retaining the real names within their communities. Facts testify that Muslim slaves were pragmatics and could adapt to local conditions, when necessary. Many of them gave Christian names to their children, but it did not imply forsaking Islam. Therefore, one may conclude that the prevalence of Islamic names did not give a fair measure of the size of the community.
There were also dietary rules observed by the Muslims. Some of them (e.g., the abstention from alcohol) stemmed not only from religious injunctions, but also from the observations they made of the reality of slavery. The case was that abundance of ardent spirits served as a part of slaveholders’ program of increasing labor productivity. They supplied workers with alcohol, thus creating for them an illusion of freedom and well-being. Muslim communities broadly rejected such escapist attitudes and viewed drinking as a sign of weakness.
Since Islam also forbids eating dead meat (carrion), blood and pork, its followers suffered hard from their inability to control the quantity, type and quality of the food they received. Though pork was the meat most used to feed laborers, some Muslims still managed to reject its consumption. The task became a little easier when slaves gained the right to fish, hunt and cultivate their own small gardens. In such a way, they became able to escape the imposed diet at the cost of additional hard labor. Historical sources also testify that, in order to follow one more cannon of the religion with regard to food, namely the prohibition to eat the flesh of animals that had not been killed in a certain way, Muslim slaves renounced eating meat at all. Some of them had the opportunity to kill animals themselves, but that was a very rare case. Therefore, common suppers organized by some Muslim slave communities (e.g., in Brazil) often were the only chance for their members to eat meat. Such persistence in their dietary habits gave the African Muslims the sense of control over their lives; it prevented the owners from deciding what their slaves would eat and drink.
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Among the important practices that Muslim slaves also retained were circumcision and polygamy. Christian slaveholders and priests saw the latter as immorality but did not pay much attention to it. The major reason for this lied in the proportion of males and females among slaves: about seven men to three women.
Among the factors that led to a certain separation of Muslim community from their fellow slaves was the general disdain to non-Muslims that they often expressed. Having to interact with the larger world, some of the Muslim not only kept aloof, but also felt free to call Christians “dogs” and worshippers of wooden statues. However, the history of West Africa demonstrates that the Muslim easily interacted with Christians and animist communities before the deportation. Therefore, the reasons for the religious conflicts that sometimes happened between slaves stemmed from their poor social conditions rather that historical background.
It was obvious that Muslims did not respect Christianity despite the numerous attempts to convert them. In many cases, they saw that they were more sober and austere than their Christian masters and fellow slaves. This made Muslims think that their religion was far better than any other one. Cruelty and hypocrisy of slaveholders, who still claimed to have fellowship with the Son of the Living God through their faith, produced general disdain in the hearts of Africans Muslims. Even the Koran holds that if Christians did obey their holy books (the Torah and the Bible), they would behave in a quite different manner. Perceiving the whole culture as degenerate, the Muslims envied neither their owners’ riches nor the beauty of their women.
There was a tendency among Christians to express a certain favor towards African Muslims, claiming them to be somewhat superior to other Africans. Indeed, many Muslims (e.g., Salih Bilali or Ibrahima abd Rahman) were literate, very intelligent and diligent. The racist society, however, was not ready to admit that ethnic Africans could have outstanding talents. For that reason, if an African slave displayed any kind of brilliance, southern journalists and anthropologists would immediately claim that he was not African at all, but rather Arab or Moor. This tendency caused most spectacular perversions of the life histories of prominent slaves. Moreover, many European scholars (e.g., Richard Madden or Joseph Arthur de Gobineau) attempted to develop their own pseudo-anthropological classification of ethnic Africans, attributing different qualities to certain nations.
As we know, some of African Muslim slaves came from relatively big cities and were highly organized intellectuals. Moreover, the religion obviously managed to add to the discreetness, honesty, and, therefore, reliability of its followers. By improving the morality, Islam allowed them to build stronger communities and achieve more promotions than, for instance, polytheistic slaves did.