Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas

By Sylviane A. Diouf | Go to book overview
Save to active project

A Distinction and a Danger

A large proportion of the Muslims arrived in the New World already literate, reading and writing Arabic and their own languages transcribed in the Arabic alphabet. As other Africans came from exclusively oral cultures, and as learning to read and write was either illegal or actively discouraged for all slaves in the Americas, literacy became one of the most distinguishing marks of the Muslims.

The Muslims' literacy clearly set them apart from the rest of the slaves and became as distinctive as a physical trait. A slaveholder was so impressed with his literate slave, for example, that he mentioned only this characteristic when he put a notice in the Charleston Courier of February 7, 1805, to advertise him as a fugitive. Thirty-year-old Sambo was a “new negro” who had absconded with another African and a nativeborn woman. He was, reported the owner, a man “of grave countenance who writes the Arabic language.”1 It would be interesting to know how the slaveholder came to learn about his new slave's literacy, as well as what, and under which circumstances, Sambo—a common name among Hausa—had been writing.

Illiteracy among men and women was not restricted to the slave quarters. Many male colonists and most women could neither read nor write, because literacy in European cultures was reserved for the wealthy males. The furthest some societies went was to allow the poor and women to read for religious reasons—so that the Bible could be accessible—but not to write. As a result, a large number of American colonists who came from what were considered the lower European classes were illiterate or barely literate. In the colonies themselves, education was reserved for the privileged few; the movement toward mass literacy started only in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, in Brazil for instance, “the simplest rudiments were so little diffused that not infrequently wealthy ranchers of the interior would charge their friends of the seaboard to secure for


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 254

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?