Knowledge in Bondage: Slavery & The Value of Texts

Knowledge in Bondage: Slavery & The Value of Texts on

Muhammad Noor

Imagine you are in your mid-twenties. You are a young seeker of knowledge from the cultured capital of Futa Jallon, an Imamate in the highlands of modern Guinea, 1727-1896.  You just completed a prestigious 7 year program in theology (Kalam), jurisprudence (Fiqh), logic (Mantiq), philosophy, linguistics (Sarf, Ballagha), Prophetic narrations (Ahadith), and scriptural exegesis (Tafsir). Moreover you just have been selected to start a great career as a  respected academic.  Now imagine that it will all be taken away as you spend the next thirty years as a chattel slave in the New World.


Left: Oldest mosque in West Africa. Right: Young Fulani man

This was the fate of Shehu Lamine Kaba, may Allah be pleased with him.  Precipitated by his ardent desire to advance sacred knowledge and obtain paper for the use of his pupils, Kaba ventured to coastal trading posts.  Knowing the risks posed by the Atlantic slave trade did not deter him in seeking the precious commodity of paper, a reality exploited early on by European traders.  An English trader in 1623 remarked, “the literate African Muslims, especially the Murabitun, spiritual and communal leaders, saw paper as a a rich reward."


Murabitun with paper

Kaba is not the only known African enslaved while on a quest for paper. Job ben Solomon, or Ayyub ibn Suleiman Diallo, (shown on right), best known as the first slave to return to Africa (in 1734), was first captured while on a trip to the coast to buy paper and trade in slaves. After having lived the majority of his life in the United States, Kaba eventually returned to Africa,  not to his homeland in Futa Jallon, but to Liberia, five hundred miles away. In the end, what saved Kaba and Solomon both from anonymous deaths in the United States was the fact that a few people took interest in their literacy.

The secret life of paper does not end here. Bilali Mohammed, a slave from Sapelo Island, Georgia, kept a thirteen page Arabic manuscript with him until his death in 1857. Originally thought to have been a diary, the manuscript, which now sits in the University of Georgia library, is now recognized as a transcription of  Ibn Abi Zayd’s legal primer, part of the dominant Maliki school of thought's curriculum in West Africa. It mixes Qur'anic Arabic with Pulaar words written in Arabic characters, a common technique of writing in West Africa at the time, where Arabic letters would be made to speak local languages (generically titled ajami and popular in Spain, Eastern Europe, and obviously in Eastern languages such as Persian, Turkish, and Urdu). The manuscript's interest does not end there; recent tests on the parchment itself have revealed its origins to be from late 1700's Venice, a time and place when Italian merchandise was finding its way into African trading posts. The paper itself must have originated from West Africa, opening up all kinds of questions as to where Bilali got his paper.  When the British anchored off the Coast of Sapelo Island during the War of 1812, Bilali Mohammad was placed in charge of roughly 500 of his fellow slaves and trained others in the use of muskets to defend the island. Fluent in Pulaar, French, English, and having working knowledge of Arabic, he passed on his faith and legacy.  Just prior to his death he was reported to have been buried with his Qur'an and prayer mat, may Allah be pleased with him.


Manuscript of Bilali Mohammed

The famed Omar Ibn Said (shown on right) was purportedly the most learned slave in the Carolinas.  In the 1820’s, Francis Scott Key, who authored America’s national anthem, sent Said an Arabic-language Bible, hoping it would help convert him to Christianity.  While Ibn Said did go on to translate the Bible, currently housed at Davidson College, he is famous for being the only African to have written his own autobiography.   Said began his autobiography with the 67th surah of the Qur’an, Al-Mulk (“dominion” or “ownership”). “In the Name of God…”, its text continues, “Blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath power.” Said’s meaning is clear: It is God who holds sway over creation.   Moreover, in his translation of the Bible, he placed surah Al-Fatihah (“The Opening” and first chapter of the Qur'an) even before he writes the Lord’s Prayer. The autobiography is written in correspondence with Shehu Lamine Kaba.  It is thanks in part to Kaba that we have Said’s words today. After Kaba received his freedom in 1834, but before his departure to Liberia, Said sent him the manuscript of his autobiography. Kaba passed it on to an abolitionist, and the document was later discovered in the mid 90’s in Virginia.

There are many other examples of the desire for the sacred word, in the United States and throughout the Americas. The infamous race-science pioneer Arthur de Gobineau found while traveling that in Brazil the Qur'an was:

"sold in Rio by French booksellers . . . [who] sell them for 15 to 25 millereis . .  . Slaves who are evidently very poor are willing to make the greatest sacrifices to acquire this volume. They go into debt to do so and sometimes take a year to pay off the bookseller. About a hundred copies of the Qur'an are sold every year."

In Trinidad, it was reported that about five hundred free blacks settled by the British after the war of 1812 had "relapsed into Mohammedanism." They lived in a Maroon community, on land untrodden by whites, and had a marabout (typically a Sufi and scholar) among them who kept a Qur'an in Arabic—from whence it came we don't know. We do know, however, that all over the Americas, Muslim Africans wrote the Qur'an and other sacred texts from memory, distributed selections to the faithful, converted others, and established networks.  What is pertinent to us as we contemplate our own legacy as American Muslims is what will remain of our contributions and faith when we have abandoned the curriculum of textual learning and continue to create socially fragmented institutions? Unlike our forefathers, most of us would be unable to write memorized passages of the Qur'an, or frankly even rudimentary rules that frame our practice.  At the same time we have to be enamored with awe by our enslaved brethren and their literary and spiritual achievements.  The paper trail they left behind should embolden us to seek, practice, and preserve knowledge.  Many of us, like our forefathers, are not scholars in the making, but by supporting institutions, individuals, and building strong communal networks we all have part to play in our collective legacy for generations to come.


Extracted and altered from:

  • Bayoumi, Moustafa. “Moving Beliefs: Migrations and Multiplicities in Black Atlantic Islam.” Brooklyn College, CUNY.
  • Cook, Ray. “Bilali-The Old Man of Sapelo Island: Between Africa and Georgia.”  University of West Georgia.
  • Ibn Said, Omar. “A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said." Translated from Arabic, edited, and with an introduction by Ala Alryyes.

 


By Muhammad Noor , 17 Feb 2014

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