Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas

By Sylviane A. Diouf | Go to book overview
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3
The Muslim Community

Muslims in America during slavery strove hard to keep their religion alive, in both the enslaved community and the larger Christian society. But to be a Muslim was more than just respecting the Five Pillars of Islam. It implied a distinctive lifestyle. Especially for West Africans, with their community-based traditions, Islam is a highly communal, public, and visible religion. It dictates and regulates the daily life, material culture, and demeanor of the faithful. To be a Muslim entails following strict dietary rules, behaving in a certain way, dressing in a particular fashion, and interacting with coreligionists and non-Muslims in the manner deemed appropriate. The Africans enslaved in the Americas were no exception; they formed close-knit communities and distinguished themselves in numerous ways, as they had in their homeland.

As a minority scattered all across North and South America and the Caribbean, and with an ethnically mixed population on any given plantation, the possibility of the Muslims forming coherent communities may seem to have been remote. Much has been said about the cultural disruption that the mixing of people from different areas induced. Recent research has shown, however, that the magnitude of this fragmentation has been overstated. For some new crops, such as rice and indigo, slaveholders relied on the expertise of Africans who were already involved in or familiar with such cultivation in their homelands. Large groups of Africans from the same area were thus transplanted as specialized units.1 In the United States, for example, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana slaveholders had a predilection toward Senegambians, who knew how to work the rice paddies and indigo plantations, and slaves from this area represented between 20 and 40 percent of the workers. Furthermore, pseudoanthropology was rampant during slavery and assigned particular qualities and defects to specific African peoples, so planters often chose their laborers from among a precise ethnic group and bought them in quantities.

As the slave owners' choices were based on ethnicity, even a thorough

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