Indigenous Muslims: The Descendants of Slaves and Early Immigrants (1)
A not so widely known fact about the practice of Islam in America is that there is a segment of the African American community that has been living within the United States and practicing Islam for over 60 years, and not just immigrant Muslims from African countries but indigenous African American Muslims descended from slaves and entrenched within the fabric of American society. The history of Islam in the United States is much more complex and varied than many would assume and is composed of more than just Muslim immigrants from other countries, although Muslim immigrants have had an important and meaningful impact upon Islam in America. The stories of indigent African American Muslims are inspiring and encouraging and although some are well known and others are not, it is important that these stories be shared and remembered. Many of the indigenous African American Muslims, having come of age during the era of Jim Crow and having survived the tumultuous changes of the 1960’s and 70’s, are the descendants of slaves and freemen that have witnessed the dawning of a new century while realizing the fulfillment of old promises.
A small but significant proportion of African slaves from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, some estimate 10 percent, were Muslim.
One such Muslim named Yarrow Mamout was born 1707 (1118 AH) in Africa and was enslaved and shipped to the Americas in 1731 (1143 AH). He was owned by the Bell family, where he was employed as a brick maker and he was later emancipated. He was well known in Maryland, being an African free Muslim and was regarded as a diligent worker and successful business man. It was through his business dealings that he acquired his own house and the 1820 census listed Yarrow Marmout as having a family. Reports state that he was often observed singing praises to Allah in the public streets and he was known to stop whatever he was doing and perform the five daily prayers. Reports also record that he avoided Pork and alcohol.
In 1819 (1234 AH) Yarrow became known to the artist, Charles Wilson Peale who drew the portrait of Yarrow which is currently owned by the historical society of Pennsylvania. Yarrow Marmout was believed to be 112 at the time of the portrait.
Another Muslim from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade period is Omar Ibn Said (also known as “Sayyid,” ca. 1770-1864) who was born in Western Africa in the Muslim state of Futa Toro on the south bank of the Senegal River in present-day Senegal. He was a Muslim scholar and trader who, for reasons historians have not uncovered, found himself captive and enslaved. Omar’s notations on a copy of the Arabic bible, which offer praise to Allah, suggest that he retained much of his Muslim identity, as did some other first-generation slaves whose names have been lost to us. Omar’s Arabic bible, which has recently been restored, is housed in the library of Davidson College in North Carolina.