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Literacy Among Enslaved Muslims


As a rule, slave societies in the Americas forbade -- either legally or through intimidation -- the people they kept in bondage from learning to read and write because of the subversive nature of literacy. But there was nothing they could do against the African Muslims' knowledge because they arrived with it. Actually, literacy was sometimes at the origin of some people's deportation to America. Qur'anic teacher Lamine Kebe of Timbo in Futa Jallon was seized while he was on a trip to buy paper for his students, and he spent the next thirty years enslaved in the American South. Another teacher, Ayuba Sulayman Diallo (known in the West as Job ben Solomon), a father of four from Senegal, was kidnapped at a British post by the Gambia River, where he had gone to buy paper and sell captives.

Job ben Solomon

On the other side of the ocean, although engaged for life in manual labor, some African Muslims still considered themselves scholars and maintained their identity as Muslims and intellectuals through the written word. Perhaps the most moving attempt at communication through writing was done by Omar ibn Said, a teacher and trader from Senegal who landed in Charleston, South Carolina in late1807. About a month after he had run away from his owner's rice plantation, he was captured and thrown in jail in North Carolina. Unable to communicate in English, he tried to do it in the only other way he could think of. With some coals he had found in his cell, he filled the walls with petitions to be released, written in Arabic. As a literate man, his first reflex had been to express himself through writing. Omar wrote his autobiography in Arabic in 1831.

Omar ibn Said

Bilali Mohammed from Timbo, enslaved on Sapelo Island in Georgia with his wife and daughters, left a 13-page religious document in Arabic. It is part of a 10th century treatise on jurisprudence. Ibrahima Abdul Rahman wrote a letter in Arabic that was sent to the sultan of Morocco, and several copies of al-Fatiha (the first chaper of the Qur'an) to raise money to buy his children's freedom. Job ben Solomon, at fifteen, "could say the whole Alcoran by heart, and while he was here in England he wrote three Copies of it without the Assistance of any other Copy, and without so much as looking to one of those three when he wrote the others." Three years after he had arrived in Maryland, he was freed, thanks to a letter in Arabic he had written to his father in Senegal asking to be redeemed, and he returned to Senegal in 1734.

Arabic writing by Omar ibn Said