Would you believe me if I told you that Islam was present in America before the U.S. constitution was written? What about two Muslim brothers from Morocco helped Columbus navigate to the New World? Or, that between 600,000 to 1.2 million enslaved Africans were Muslim?
Three years ago I would not have believed myself. These are three tiny facts that allude to the legacy of African Islam in America. Different from Orthodox Islam, African Islam was brought over by the hundreds of thousands of enslaved persons who were ripped from their homes, their families, their lives. Present in North Africa since the 8th century and firmly established by the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, African Islam is a unique blend of traditional religions and customs with Islamic beliefs and practices. Originally, Islam in West Africa was seen as an elite faith of traders and rulers before it was adopted by agrarian people.
So who were these people?
The Muslim men, women, and children brought over on cargo ships to the New World established the true roots of Islam in America. It was no mistake that they were sold into slavery. Scholars suggest that a number of political, religion, and social reasons why they were targeted. They were enslaved through a variety of military conquests, which established a regular slave trade, over a period of more than 350 years and sold as prisoners. Abductions were a less costly, less dangerous, but also less lucrative than military conquests. Regardless of how they were forcibly removed from their homelands, there are several key characteristics of this group.
A large majority of enslaved Muslims were urban, in many cases well-travelled, and literate. In Islam, literacy in Arabic is of prime importance because Muslims rely on the Quran to understand the religion and guide them in their daily life; provide them with the right prayers for different circumstances; and to instruct them on legal matters and proper social behavior. In fact literacy was so widespread in Senegal that the French estimated that as many as 60 percent of all Senegalese were literate in Arabic. In addition to their literacy, African Muslims were bilingual at the very least, speaking Arabic and their native tongue, and at best trilingual or better, having previously learned Turkish or one of the many other European languages.
In 2015, the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Office had a unique opportunity to explore the only currently known property that once belonged to an African Muslim. In 2012, James H. Johnston, author of “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family”, contacted Dr. Ruth Trocolli, the City Archaeologist for the District of Columbia, about the property at 3324 Dent Place, NW. Johnston and the immediate neighbors were concerned that the historical integrity of the property would be destroyed due to private and/or commercial development. In 1800, the property was purchased by Yarrow Mamout.
Not much is known about Mamout’s early life. He was born ca. 1736 in West Africa and was taken when he was around 16. He arrived in Annapolis, Maryland in 1752 aboard the Elijah and