Is Islam a new Religion in America?
Mohammed H. Abdishakur

‘‘Will you be surprised at hearing that Islam has been a piece of the American religious fabric since when the first settlers arrived in North America? Historians estimate that between 10 and 20 percent of the slaves who were brought from West Africa by force were Muslims. (See the Ref. list at the end of the article).

African Muslims were an integral part and parcel of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as a part of the colonial expeditions. One of these explorers, Mustafa Zemmouri (also known as Estevanico), was sold by the Portuguese Colonials to the Spanish Expatriates as a slave in the year 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent (see the reference list at the end of the article). He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far West as New Mexico.

The founders of the American continent were aware of Islam and the presence of Muslims in America, and that is why some of them were interested in learning Islam. Thomas Jefferson, to take a noted figure in American history, purchased a translation of the Quran in 1765, more than a decade before he drafted the Declaration of Independence. He included Islam in many of his early writings and political treatises. Thomas Jefferson, campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, argued in the proposed “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” that, “neither a Pagan, nor a

Mahomedan [Muslim], and nor a Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” Unfortunately, this format of human rights was amended, before ratification, by removing all the religious names other than Christianity by rephrasing the declaration as to “Non-Christian Groups”. Jefferson was not the only Statesman who recognized religions other than Christianity in his work. However, due to the Congresses’ limited knowledge of world religions, especially Islam, and theoretical openness, they did not stop enslaving African Muslims and did not recognize the existence of other faiths.

African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Innumerable men with Muslim names such as Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba appear in the list of the military muster’s rolls. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. Outstandingly, these men were often distinguished in the battlefields “I knew several [people] who must have been, from what I have subsequently learned, Mohamedans [Muslims]; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohamed. There was one man on this plantation … who prayed five times every day, always turning his face to the East, when in the performance of his devotion” (Charles Ball. 1837; Richard Henry Lee. Letter to James Madison. 1784).

Despite significant obstacles, enslaved Muslims were used to build community,

resist slavery, and pursue freedom with their faith and bilingual literacy. They left numerous written accounts of their experiences in America in the form of letters, diaries, and autobiographies, most of them in Arabic. And they strategically used Arabic to communicate with one another and to undermine slavery. Bilali Mohammad and Salih Bilali were known to be “intimate friends”; Omar ibn Sayyid and Lamine Kebe wrote letters to one another, and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo sent a letter written in the Arabic language to his father in Africa. They also wrote pages of Arabic for their slaveholders and their friends. But instead of writing what the recipients believed was a Bible verse or the Lord’s Prayer, they wrote Quranic verses that condemned slavery, made genealogical lists, and even pleaded to return home to Africa.

Title page from the life of Mohamet (1805) by Edward Gibbon. like this provided the West with limited, and sometimes faulty, information about Islam. “True freedom embraces the Mahometan [Muslim] and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion. Indeed I wish to be seen [again] in our land called Africa in a place of the sea called Gambia” (Omar Ibn Sayyid. 1819). These two documents, incorrectly labeled the 23rd Psalm and The Lord’s Prayer, provide insight into the methods of resistance used by enslaved Muslims (Loan courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina).

Muslims also used literacy to leverage their freedom through their labor. Slave owners exploited Muslims’ ability to read and write, as well as their professional backgrounds. The enslaved Muslims were used for

handling office jobs such as bookkeepers, coachmen, and other personnel services as personal servants. Through these services, they would learn how to run American business practices, and they had had access to information, which they would normally share only within the white society. Besides those advanced activities, they would also complete services of physical mobility.

Yarrow Mamout of Georgetown, Washington, D.C., was one of the most famous Muslim men in and around Washington, D.C. Mamout was enslaved by the Beall family who recognized him as a jack of all trades. He used to make the charcoal utilized to fuel the engines of the

ships operating in Maryland. He also used to weave baskets and make bricks. He was able to earn his own money from these endeavors, and a brick-making agreement with Beall’s wife eventually led to his manumission in April 1807. After 44 years of being enslaved, Mamout became an entrepreneur, bank investor, and homeowner in Georgetown, where he would walk the streets singing the praises of Allah. “Yarrow owns a House & lots and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown … he professes to be a Mahometan [Muslim] and is often seen & heard in the Streets singing Praises to God” (Charles Willson Peale. 1818).

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819

Muslims also experienced open hostility and hardship when practicing their faith. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, for instance, was pelted with dirt by a white boy in Kent Island, Maryland when performing his prayer; others were forced to wear sacrilegious clothing, ignore dietary rules and religious fasting, or abstain from the required prayers.

An unnamed “Moorish slave” in Louisiana confirmed this hardship in 1822 when he “lamented … that his situation as a slave in America prevents him from obeying the dictates of his religion.” Nevertheless, they persevered and lived their faith.

Many became pseudo-converts to Christianity (called taqiyah) to protect themselves and their families and they had to hide their true beliefs. Lamine Kebe pretended to convert to Christianity to secure passage back to Africa through the American Colonization Society. However, after returning to Africa, Kebe disappeared into Sierra Leone, surely “still retaining his Mohammedan creed.”

Others, like Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, refused to budge in their faith and were rewarded for it. His faith impressed his master – the slave owner – so much until he freed him and provided for him a passage back to Africa, and on his way to Africa, he received a royal welcome in England.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

Islam was brought to America by enslaved Africans but even though it left traces that are still visible to this date, it did not survive long. The practice of ring shout, a form of religious dance in which men and women rotate counterclockwise while singing, clapping their hands, and shuffling their feet, was directly inherited from some of the enslaved Muslims such as Bilali Mohammed and Salih Bilali in the Georgia Sea Islands. It originally mimicked the ritual circling (or shaw’t) of the Ka’aba in Mecca by Muslim pilgrims.

Interviews of formerly enslaved people collected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s contain reminiscences of rice cakes called saraka, which were handed out during rituals and feast days. From the Arabic word sadaqah, or a freewill offering, this charity is an aspect of zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. And early blues singers, like those recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in “Levee Camp Holler,” employed singing styles reminiscent of the call to prayer called ‘adhan’. They use sweeping and extended vocalizations.

Enslaved Muslims were brought to the United States with distinct cultural and religious beliefs. They succeeded in forming networks and communities, and they maintained their religious identity despite overwhelming odds. The material culture Muslims left behind

– books, writings, clothing, beads, and rugs – helps to tell their stories today.

As Katie Brown, the great-granddaughter of Bilali Mohammad recalls that these objects were an integral part of their religious practice and identity. “Belali and his wife Phoebe pray on the bead. They were very particular about the time they pray and they were very regular about the hour. When the sun comes up when it is straight overhead and when it set, that is the time they pray. They bow to the sun and have [a] little mat to kneel on. The beads are on a long string. Belali he pull bead and he say, ‘Belambi, Hakabara, Mahamadu.’ Phoebe, she says, ‘Ameen, Ameen.’ (Katie Brown. 1940).

Objects remain essential to the African American Muslim community today. Islam has always been an important religion in America, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture is building a collection that honors how the call to prayer has been sounding for more than 500 years ago.

As Islam was fading among communities of slaves and former slaves, millions of immigrants began arriving on America’s shores toward the end of the 19th century, and especially the early 20th century. They

included tens of thousands from Muslim- majority countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. They were spurred in part by the Industrial Revolution that erupted once America finally emerged from the ashes of the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

According to the historian (Sally Howell. 1893) America’s first mosque was built in Chicago, part of the “Cairo Street” in

the attraction of the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. It was meant to be a “close replica of the Mosque of Sultan Qayt Bey in Cairo,” she says, and to “display Islam for American audiences.”

The scene at the Chicago “Cairo street” mosque provides a glimpse of the Islamic experience in America in the 1890s, both among Chicago’s Muslims and as a sort of exercised curiosity for Non-Muslims.

C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham (Project Gutenberg/public domain)

The Muslim workers and performers at the exhibition, including the trained imams were encouraged to remain in their “native costumes” by the fair’s organizers. But it was on their own initiative, and to the apparent delight of the public, that when the adhan (call to prayer) was made from the mosque’s minaret five times a day, the visiting Muslims would duly gather inside and perform their obligations. At the exhibition’s close, the mosque was torn down, and the staff and


the performers at the “Cairo Street” exhibit, who had been imported to the United States as objects of spectacle, returned to their more prosaic lives in Egypt, Morocco, and Palestine, where the ritual of prayer would draw little comment (Howell. Nd).

The second mosque built in the United States wouldn’t show up for several more decades: It was located in Highland Park, Michigan, and was completed in 1921. It was built by Muslim migrants to use it as a

place of worship. This mosque, like the one on “Cairo Street,” was intended to represent Islam to American observers, but the Muslims of Highland Park hoped to create a very different impression of their faith. The Islam to be practiced in the Muslim Mosque of Highland Park would not be exotic, foreign, or a thing of spectacle. It would be an American faith tradition not

unlike those found in nearby churches and synagogues. It would attract worshipers who were American citizens (Howell. Nd).
This article was prepared and compiled by Mohammed SH. Hassan ThePublisheroftheMessageofPeaceMagazine Toronto, Canada.

Part 2 of this article will be published in the 2nd Edition


  1. Sylviane Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (NYU Press, 2013).
  2. Allan Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles (Routledge, 2011).
  3. History of African American Muslims (audio), NPR’s “A History of Black Muslims in America” (Aug. 23, 2005)
  4. Backstory with the American History Guys’ “Writing on the Wall: the Story of Omar ibn Said(link is external)” (Oct. 29, 2014).
  5. The Rise of Charm City’s “Can’t We All Just Get Islam?(link is external)” (July 22, 2016).
  6. National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560

Recent posts

The War in Europe 2022-2023 

By Mohamed Sheikh Hasan, Writer and Publisher  On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in an unprecedented full-scale escalation, which most of the Western world

Read More »