I've been enjoying reading Khaled A. Beydoun's new article on Muslims in the Pre-Civil War south and in particular their relationship to law. It is called "Antebellum Islam." Cribbing now from his abstract:
America’s first Muslims were slaves. Social scientists estimate that 15 to 30 percent of the Africans enslaved in the Antebellum South practiced Islam. Research indicates that the Muslim slave population could have been as high as 1.2 million. Despite their considerable presence in the Antebellum South, the history of Muslim slaves has been largely neglected within legal scholarship.
This Article argues that the omission of Muslim slaves from legal scholarship is a consequence of the legal segregation of Black and Muslim identity during the Antebellum Era. Two factors brought about this segregation. First, the law remade Africans into Black slaves, and state slave codes criminalized their religious activity and stripped slaves of their religious identities. Second, the state adopted a political conception of Muslim identity that converted it from a religious into a racial identity in the narrow profile of “Arabs” and “Turks” – a non-white class that racially restrictive naturalization laws barred from accessing citizenship. Muslim slaves lived at the intersection of these two irreconcilable racial configurations.
There is a lot to talk about here. First off I want to note Khaled's emphasis on the southern state laws that limited the religious rights of enslaved people. While he is obviously correct that the legal system -- statues and police practices -- sought to limit meetings of enslaved people for worship when they were unsupervised by white people, there was also great emphasis in the white community on encouraging African Americans to participate in Christian churches under the supervision of white people. Thus, I see the story as the wiping out of prior religious ideas and the substitution of Christianity for those ideas. (I've written some about the ways that church meetings were used to supervise and how white ministers attempted to control free and enslaved people in the context of the Nat Turner rebellion.)
Second, the article begins with a vignette about an enslaved man, Omar ibn Said, who wrote an autobiography, which begins with his life in Africa and then carries through to his life here in North Carolina. A lot of people use the autobiography because it is such an amazing story and because there are so few other sources like it. But what I'm really excited about is that a story about Said (also known as Uncle Moreau) was published in the University of North Carolina's student literary magazine, the North Carolina University Magazine in the 1854. The magazine introduced the autobiography with a short biographical statement, which spoke of his conversion to Christianity (though that is now in doubt). Though, of course, it has been reprinted many times since then. One thing that I think might also worth looking at is the treatment of Muslims in the fictional literature of the old south. I'm now not remembering where I saw this, but I recall a novel that had a paragraph written in Arabic in it, I think that was supposed to have been written by a slave. I need to look through my notes on this one; I want to say it might have been in George Tucker's Valley of the Shenandoah. And I think southern proslavery Christian literature also will convey the sense that the religious ideas of enslaved people was one marker that justified (in the minds of the slaveowners) the subordination of enslaved people. That is, I think there may have been more realization among the leaders of southern society than we now know realize about enslaved people's religious background -- even though they did not respect such ideas.
Third, there is a growing fictional literature that places enslaved people in the context of Islam. For instance, Sharon Ewell Foster's The Resurrection of Nat Turner deals with Turner's ancestors and their religious beliefs in Africa. And fourth, as I've thought about this some more, one of the few books that remains from the University of Alabama's pre-Civil War library (most of it was burned during the War, but a few books that were checked out have survived), is a copy of the Koran. Perhaps that's an indicator that there was more interest -- perahaps inspired by the religious of ideas of slaves? -- than we have previously appreciated. Along those lines, I think that it's worth looking again at the writings of proslavery academics like Thomas R. Dew of William and Mary to see what they saw about Islam and then ask how those views might be related to the cultural exchanges they had with enslaved people.
Anyway, take a look at Khaled's paper. I think you'll really find this exciting in a lot of ways.
The image is of one of the literary society buildings here on the UNC campus, which was built before the Civil War. Thus, it is a building in existence when the students here were reading about Said in the North Carolina University Magazine.
H/t Rob Luther.