From Slavery to Leadership: Muslims in North America

By Taha Ghayyur

Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Jameel Al-Ameen are perhaps a few names that cross our minds when we consider the evolution of Muslim identity and community in North America. What often escapes notice is the sacrifice, discipline, social justice, leadership, and cooperation modeled by such individuals and their communities.

The organized struggle of North American Muslims begins over seven centuries ago with the civil rights movement led by multitudes of Muslim African slaves. The spirit and movement continues today with the millions of Arab and South Asian Muslim immigrants, as well as the Latin and First Nations indigenous Muslim converts in North America.

Keeping Faith Alive in the ‘New World’

In the story of early African American Muslims, we find fascinating and empowering historical events. The story of Job ibn Solomon Jallo, in the early 1700’s, who was a well-mannered, intelligent, literate trader and Imam, reminds us of the Quranic and Biblical story of Prophet Yaqoob’s (Job) life. Captured in Gambia, Job wrote out three copies of the entire Quran from memory. He was later freed and reunited with his loving son and family[i].

The account of Bilali Muhammad (Ben Ali), an African scholar in the early 1800’s, captivates many as we read about the vibrant Islamic community he built in Georgia, as a slave[ii]. His determination to hold on to Islamic principles, regardless of his circumstances, inspires awe and admiration. In many ways his life parallels the life of Bilal Ibn Rabah, an early African slave convert to Islam in Makkah.

As Amir Nashid Ali Muhammad explains in Muslims in America: Seven Centuries of History (1312-1998):

In the ‘New World’, some of the African slaves suffered doubly tragic fate. Initially, they were enslaved because they were African, but when it was discovered that they were also Muslims, their suffering was compounded. They were tortured, burned alive, hung, and shot unless they renounced their religion and their names. At least 20% of the Africans brought to the U.S. were Muslims from ….the coastal and interior regions of the Islamic empires of Songhai, Ghana, and Mali.[iii]

Early Muslim Participation in America

We discover with pride that there were Muslims, who, in the War of 1812, helped defend America against the British[iv]. In a lecture held at Concordia University, Montreal, Imam Khalid Griggs, a political activist and leader of a North Carolina mosque, highlighted the role Africans played in the American Civil War. He related the stirring account of one African Muslim named Mohammad Ali Ibn Said, who moved to the U.S. from Africa to volunteer for the all-Black 55th division:

“Mohammad Ali said, ‘I do not want to just sit back and not do anything, I want to do something to help my brothers. The blood that joins me is deeper and stronger than the water that separates me from Africa to the United States,’…So he chose to come into a slave country at a time when he was risking his own freedom.” [v]

Did You know?

  1. The first person to request the freedom of all slaves in America was a Muslim.
  2. Muslims fought in many of the early wars.
  3. Muslims were known to live in at least 7 of the 13 original colonies, including Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.
  4. The early American Muslims have contributed many Arabic words found in English today, such as, admiral, algebra, atlas, banana, cable, camel, checkmate, coffee, cotton, jasmine, lemon, magazine, mask, rice, sofa, sugar, syrup, and zero to name a few.
  5. Columbus was not the first adventurer to travel from Europe to the Americas. Around 986 AD, Moors (people from North Africa) crossed the Atlantic Ocean in ships, bringing back with them people from the new world.

Sadly, the impact of Black, African, and Muslim cultures on world history is often neglected in historical discourse. There are pages of history which tend to get ripped out.

Towards Contribution & Leadership

While, it could be argued that faith in today’s secular world is receding to the private quarters, North American Islam is manifesting itself as an urban phenomenon. Dr. Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Philosophy at the College of Geneva, in his monumental study, To be a European Muslim, reminds us of our role and responsibility in the secular context today. He explains:

At this time of globalisation and internationalisation, when all nations are subject to a new world order which denies or forgets God,…based on an exclusive economic logic, Muslims are facing the same responsibilities… Assertive and confident, they have to remind people around them of God, of spirituality and, regarding social affairs, to work for values and ethics, justice and solidarity. They do not forget their environment but, on the contrary, once in security, they should influence it in positive way.[vi]

Contemporary North American Muslims possess a rich seven-century old legacy of dedication, activism, community empowerment, justice, peace, and tolerance, inherited from their Muslim forefathers in this land. They must now change their outlook from the reality of “protection” alone to that of an authentic “contribution” to the society. It is at this unique juncture of Islamic history, constituting the largest and most diverse Muslim minority that we need to study the contribution of African American Muslims as the models that produced the great leaders we long for today.


[i] Amir Nashid Ali Muhammad, Muslims in America: Seven Centuries of History, (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1998), 11.
[ii] A. Muhammad, Muslims in America xi.
[iii] A. Muhammad, Muslims in America, xiii.
[iv] A. Muhammad, Muslims in America, xi.
[v] The McGill Daily, Issue 46.
[vi] Tariq Ramadan, To Be A European Muslim(Markfield, Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1999), 144-145.

Also Re-published in The Muslim Voice (University of Toronto MSA)

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