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Saturday, 21 September 2013 18:32

America's First Muslim Celebrity

Implausibly, the first Muslim to be received at the White House who was not a foreign dignitary was in fact an African slave who had endured hard labor for thirty-nine years. Through a set of amazing “coincidences” Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim (“Abraham, son of the All-Merciful”) had been released by his Mississippi master to be sent back to Africa, but to the latter’s chagrin, not before a highly publicized speaking tour from Chicago to all the major cities on the east coast.

Terry Alford, a recent graduate with a PhD in history, was poking around in Natchez, Mississippi, looking for leads on American slavery for a new book project. Thanks to an enthusiastic clerk at the courthouse, he stumbled across the story of a man who was to occupy his research from Natchez to Washington, DC, and from England to Senegal.

You can read Alford’s book, finally published in 1977, in its thirtieth anniversary edition, Prince Among Slaves.

You can also view a 60-minute documentary on Ibrahima’s life (that was its spelling at the time) or comb through a nicely crafted website on his life and times, both in the Senegambia and the American south.

I didn’t just “stumble” on the book. I was assigned to read it and lead a public library discussion on it – in fact, the first out of five altogether. This is part of a wider nationwide program called “Let’s Talk About It” co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. This unit is entitled “Muslim Journeys: American Stories.” Only 125 libraries among the hundreds in the country who applied for the grant to facilitate these book discussions and film showings were chosen. Our group of about thirty participants was proud of this fact and the hour and a half we had together happily flew by!

In this blog I’ll just focus on three elements that came up for discussion: God’s providence as seen in both the very bad but also the good in Ibrahima’s life; the wider issue of slavery in Africa and beyond; the question of proselytism between Muslims and Christians.

 

God’s providence and Ibrahima’s unique story

Part of my fascination with Ibrahima’s life has to do with his father, Sori. In the same century (18th) that witnessed the sweeping success of an Islamic scholar teaming up with a military/tribal leader in the Arabian Peninsula (giving rise to the revivalist Wahhabi movement), Sori became the military and political arm of the Fulbe (or Fulani) scholar from Futa Jalon, Karamako Alfa. In fact, Sori became a religious leader in his own right, initiating a long line of like-minded “imams” (almaami) ruling an imamate from 1750 to 1898 in the Senegambia – parts of today’s Senegal, Gambia, and the two Guineas.

Ibrahima followed a traditional Muslim education from seven to twelve, reading the Qur’an in Arabic fluently and memorizing large portions of it. He also mastered reading and writing the Pular language of the Fulbe. He showed so much promise that his father sent him to study in the thriving scholarly city of Timbuktu (which in the 15th century was more populated than any other city on earth).

Ironically, it was his father’s jihad activities that honed his own military skills and eventually landed him in the ambush by coastal warriors that got him sold to a British slave trader in 1788. But just seven years before that, a fortuitous event took place, which many years later would seal his own emancipation in the American south.

A hunting party landed from a British ship included the Irish one-eyed ship surgeon, Dr. John Coates Cox. Unfortunately for Cox, he was separated from his group and the ship left without him. In time he was literally saved by Ibrahima’s father Sori, who had him nursed back to health and invited to settle for a time in Timbo, the capital of Futa Jalon. He was even given a wife and fathered a son before taking leave and, well guarded along the way, found his way back to Ireland. Soon thereafter he sailed to America.

You can imagine the shock and humiliation Ibrahima felt landing on a plantation as a slave, never having to work with his hands before. He managed to run away in the surrounding forest and survive a couple of months. But since suicide was not an option for him as a Muslim, he decided to go back to his master and surrender.

As Alford puts it, Ibrahima had just “hit the nadir of his existence.” Yet, his own educated guess is that Ibrahima’s faith must have led him to that point – striving “to accommodate the will of God as he understood it”:

 

“Each Muslim must give an account of his life. The Qur’an makes clear that the gates of Paradise are shut to those who murder themselves. However unfair his fate seemed, Ibrahima felt his misfortune came from God. This knowledge, this ‘fatalism,’ was sustaining” (p. 47).

 

Years later, when Ibrahima had been put in charge of the other one hundred slaves on his plantation and was able to travel to the local market to sell some of his own produce to help with the expenses of his large family, he ran into Dr. Cox, who after a string of financial mishaps in North Carolina had just come to seek fortune in Natchez – of all places!

I’ll let you read the details of the yet tortuous road ahead of Ibrahima, but that encounter eventually led him to garner national attention and in the end settle in Freetown, Liberia, with the intention to travel the extra 200 miles to his home town, Timbo. He died in his fourth month in Freetown, but his example helped to inspire many people both in West Africa and here.

 

The wider context of slavery

Both the Bible and the Qur’an assume the existence of slavery in the societies to which they spoke. And both seek to mitigate its more heinous effects on people, though without ever seeking to abolish it. Emancipating a slave in the Qur’an is a meritorious act, capable of atoning for certain sins. Jesus’ call to love even one’s enemies, to forgive all those who wrong us, and the way he treated women all point in the direction of emancipation. But he was no political leader, so that question never came up. Paul in his letter to Philemon asks his friend to take back his runaway slave and treat him as a brother, since he had ended up in prison like him and had come to faith in Christ.

Raiding enemy tribes and enslaving the resulting prisoners was a timeworn practice in many parts of Africa. Yale historian, originally from the Gambia himself, Lamin Sanneh wrote in his 1997 book, The Crown and the Turban, that “[t]he penetration of Islam in Black Africa seems to have encouraged the widespread practice of slavery.” He explains:

 

Trade and war in this context were not mutually exclusive means of acquiring or making slaves. The high demand for slaves, which was everywhere a feature of markets at one time or another, encouraged the forcible capture of weaker neighbors in the event of a dispute” (p. 49).

 

On the next page, he passes on the experience of a French officer in Futa Jalon (today’s Guinea), who in the 1830s explored this issue with the brother of the almaami:

 

“I desired him to tell me if these wars of devastation commanded by the Holy Book, were mot more frequently instigated by interest in the great profits his Mohametan countrymen reaped from the results. I gently insinuated my belief that he himself would not undertake to storm one of the well-fortified Caffree towns if not prompted by a successful booty of slaves. After a minute’s consideration he replied with some humor that Mohometans were no better than Christians; the one stole, the other held the bag; and if the white man . . . would not tempt the black man with them, the commands of the Great Allah would be followed with milder means.”

 

Here then is a good statement of how human greed on both sides – Muslim and Christian – came to be justified, or simply shrug off any ethical implications.

On a slightly different note, how many slaves who survived the deadly crossing to the United States were actually Muslims? Scholars generally estimate that they were between ten and twenty percent of all the African slaves exploited in this country. The PrinceAmongSlaves website offers several testimonies of Muslims who were able to continue practicing their faith. The harshness of their environment generally, and its intolerance of their faith specifically, explains why these testimonies were few indeed, and none of these Muslim practices survived in the next generations.

 

Mission, da’wa, and the scourge of proselytism

The Spanish, it turns out, “had prohibited the introduction of African Muslims into the Western Hemisphere, but that policy had long been forgotten.” Still, a higher percentage of slaves were brought into the United States and slaveholders were free to regulate their slaves’ religious rituals as they wished.

One negative example has come down to us. “Ayuba Sulayman, a Pullo [Ibrahima’s particular Fulbe tribe] who was a slave on Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay in 1730, was mocked and had dirt thrown in his face when he prayed.” But, adds Alford, there were signs of much tolerance as well. In fact, Muslim slaves had the highest reputation among their African brethren:

 

“The Muslims were to Western eyes, certainly, the most intelligent of the Africans brought to North America. ‘The active and intellectual principles of the Africans have never been completely unfolded, except perhaps in the case of the Foolahs . . . , a great part of the Mandingoes, and one or two other tribes,’ wrote Carl Wadstrom, who visited the Gambia in 1788. True or not, the planters agreed, for they turned to the Muslims for drivers, overseers, and confidential servants with a frequency their numbers did not justify . . . Sober, self-disciplined, and generally honest, a Muslim could be so useful that a planter might give him berth solely for financial advantage” (p. 56).

 

As for Ibrahima, all the sources point to his consistent and steadfast practice of his faith over the years, yet not without showing signs of great openness to learning from those who taught him Christianity. His wife Isabella, in fact, was active in her local Baptist church (only they and the Methodists would admit slave members) and their son Simon became a lay preacher. From 1818 on, Ibrahima even attended the Baptist church regularly with his family. Yet despite the social advantages and the promises no doubt made by the preachers he knew, he never converted.

Ibrahima remained loyal to his Islamic faith, though he professed to love the stories of Jesus and his ethical teachings, in particular. He was clear, however, that he could not accept Jesus being divine or the concept of the Trinity. Cyrus Griffin, a young attorney in Natchez whom Ibrahima visited often, wrote this about “Prince” in 1827:

 

“Prince speaks of the Christian religion with strong evidence of mature reflection. I have conversed with him much upon the subject, and find him friendly disposed. [He] admires its [moral] precepts. His principal objections are, that Christians do not follow them. . . . He points out very forcibly the incongruities in the conduct of those who profess to be the disciples of the immaculate Son of God” (p. 81).

 

This said, several influential people on this tour of the eastern seaboard put some effort into trying to "proselytize" Ibrahima. Perhaps I shouldn’t use that word. It has a negative ring to it, conjuring the idea of pressure, material enticements and other unethical behaviors with the goal of inducing someone to change their religious affiliation.

Let me be clear. As I understand their respective sacred texts, Muslims and Christians are called to witness to their faith, da'wa or mission, firmly convinced that their version of God’s revelation is true and that where differences are found, their faith brings correction to the other. That right to make known one’s faith to others in ethically acceptable ways and the real possibility that one’s interlocutor might switch his/her allegiance is protected by basic laws of religious freedom (e.g., Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And in real life, many do switch on both sides.

It may well be that the effort, for instance, of Reverend Thomas H. Gallaudet, known to us today as “the founder of deaf-mute education in America,” and who expended a great deal of his prodigious energy and influence to help Ibrahima raise money to free the rest of his family, might have stepped over the line. Not knowing all the details, I cannot say. But he did reward Ibrahima’s search for an Arabic Bible with a copy he acquired himself, along with an Arabic translation of a well-known book on Christian apologetics. He no doubt hoped and prayed that “Prince’s” return to Africa would “be the means of opening into the very interior of Africa ‘a wide and effectual door’ for the diffusion of that Gospel to which we are indebted for so many invaluable blessings” (p. 157).

My guess from reading Alford’s account is that the combined efforts of several benefactors to his cause amounted to the charge of “proselytism.” I personally suffered from this in Egypt (not in Algeria nor in Palestine). Perhaps it’s the Egyptian proud belief that they are still at the center of the world or their tendency to be passionate in all that they do. But dozens of times Egyptians would crowd around me in twos, threes or more and try to convert me to Islam. “You speak Arabic, you’re half way there!” they would often insist. One whole evening once in a Salafi home I was subjected to a 2 or 3-hour intense, one-way harangue to convert. To say it was an uncomfortable experience is an understatement. So I’m very sensitive about this issue, no matter who is trying to convert who!

Ibrahima never gave in to the “intense pressure to convert” (p. 193), as I said. In the end, Gallaudet saw Ibrahima in the same light as some of the Jewish believers in the early church of Jerusalem – “I made the same allowance for [his Islamic faith] that Paul did for the Hebrew converts, who still retained some of their Jewish notions and prejudices” (p. 161).

In his Afterword, Alford says this about Ibrahima’s faith, and I’ll let this be the closing thought.

 

“Friendly to [Christianity’s] moral teachings, he still adhered to his own religion. His return to Africa gave him the freedom to practice it openly. Once there he also resumed his religious studies. He read and wrote a great deal during the closing months of his life in Monrovia. When his widow Isabella showed the manuscripts to a visitor from Timbo, the man wept when he read them and begged her to go immediately to Futa Jalon with him” (p. 193).

Books

  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

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  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

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