In the third aspect of this series I will further address the argument that the West African ancestors of contemporary Blacks did not retain their original faith because the White slave masters. To me this narrative communicates that our forebears was not intelligent enough to either outwit their masters when it came to faith. It ultimately questions their level of intelligence and their ability to reason.
To begin this examination of the West African’s intellectual prowess I will look at literacy. We are often taught that our ancestors was illiterate for the most part. That is false because one of the most valuable innovations Muslims brought to the “New World, was literacy. Islam emphasizes literacy, though Muhammad himself could not read or write, and the Qur’an is very explicit about the need to study . . . In West Africa, literacy and the spread of Islam went hand in hand” (Diouf; 23). Also West Africans because of Islam was light years ahead of the Europeans in a number of social areas such as the education of females. “Contrary to the norm in Europe at that time, both parents and girls were taught how to read and write” (Ibid.).
At the very least the first generation of West African slaves was intellectually astute and in many regards they were superior to their captors and owners (at the very least the Islamic West Africans were). At this time it is worthwhile to introduce a few noteworthy examples of how these individuals demonstrated their intellect especially in the religious arena.
We begin with an African Muslim named Omar Ibn Said who was born in 1770 near modern-day Senegal’s northern border with Mauritania. Omar Ibn Said was an Islamic scholar was later captured and transported to North Carolina in the United States. There he rebelled and escaped from the plantation, later captured and jailed. While imprisoned a jailer saw him writing “strange” characters (Arabic) on the cell wall with coal thus making said jailer recognize that it was something exceptional about Ibn Said. Eventually the governor heard of this exceptional “slave” and his brother purchased Ibn Said. Now this where the story gets interesting and relevant to this present argument.
Omar Ibn Said is then believed to have converted to Christianity, but some signs indicate that this was either a fake conversion . . . or a blending of the two Abrahamic faiths. For instance, several of the Christian texts written by Omar, such as the Lord’s Prayer or the twenty-third Psalm, are all preceded with the Bismillah, the introduction to the suras of the Quran: ‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful’ (Westerlund and Svanberg; 423).
Earlier another victim of the slave trade that is of note is Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job Ben Solomon (1701–1773) who was born in Bundu, Senegal. Solomon was an exceptional mind from the start. While still a child he “could read and write Arabic easily; by the time he was fifteen this exceptional student had committed the Koran to memory and could copy it by heart” (Wood; 40). Later as a slave he “managed to write at least two complete copies of the Quran from memory” (Westerlund and Svanberg; Ibid.).
In due course for many years because of the eventual “forced” exposure to Christianity in the manner of Omar Ibn Said African adherents of Islam passed through a syncretistic stage in certain areas. That is there was a faith in existence among West African slaves and their eventual descendants that was a mixture of Christianity and Islam prior to Christianity becoming the chief faith of Blacks in America. Thus in some instances conversion was not as forced as many want to claim.
From all of this we see that the Conscious Community’s account of Black people’s relationship with slavery religion in general and Christianity does not present a people that when even under duress they still determined their path and brandished an exceptional intellect.
David Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg, eds., Islam Outside the Arab World. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999.
Peter H. Wood, Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 40
Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, 15th ed. New York: New York University Press, 2013.