Enslaved and Freed African Muslims: Spiritual Wayfarers in the South and Lowcountry

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Religion and Enslavement in the Lowcountry

A view of the Town, J. F. W. Des Barres, Charleston, South Carolina, 1777.

A view of the Town, J. F. W. Des Barres, Charleston, South Carolina, 1777.

The colonial American South featured diverse religions and religious practices among both the European and the enslaved African populations. In the seventeenth century, Charleston’s European population included Calvinists, Anglicans, Baptists, Quakers, French Huguenots, and an emerging Jewish community. The Carolina colony was one of the first in British North America to grant freedom of religion to its European settlers, with the notable exclusion of Catholicism. Simultaneously, enslaved West Africans who were brought in chains to Charleston’s port stepped into their new surroundings with their own variety of religious and spiritual beliefs.

Like the European colonists, the enslaved African population came from a multiplicity of religious backgrounds that included traditional West African religions, Christianity, and Islam. However, holding onto religious identities and passing them on to future generations proved difficult under enslavement, and it seems particularly so for West African Muslims.

Enslaved people’s religious cultures were controlled and influenced in many different ways by the plantation labor systems in the Lowcountry and the South. Because plantation owners’ priority was economic success and American chattel slavery codified slaveholders’ total control over enslaved bodies, religious freedom among enslaved people was impossible. For the enslaved, some of their daily religious practices of were made difficult or impossible to plan for within the plantation slave-labor system. Plantations owners’ system of labor dictated how and where enslaved people spent their time, restricting their ability to practice their religions. In West Africa, for instance, Muslims prayed five times a day. Sufi Muslims spent even more time in private worship. In the monitored space of a plantation, on the other hand, an enslaved person caught halting their work, even if for prayer, could be met with violence or the threat of violence from an owner, overseer, or driver.

The plantation’s slave labor system impeded other aspects of religious practices, too. In West Africa, Muslims adhered to strict dietary proscriptions. While some enslaved Muslims were known for maintaining their diet, slaveholders used food rations to distribute food so that enslaved people’s limited access to certain types of food complicated the ability to faithfully practice aspects of their religion that dealt with diet.

Enslaved people unloading the rice barges, J. Wells Champney, in Edward King's<em> The Great South: A Record of Journeys</em>, 1875, South Carolina, courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Enslaved people unloading the rice barges, J. Wells Champney, in Edward King's The Great South: A Record of Journeys, 1875, South Carolina, courtesy of Documenting the American South. The labor-intensive work required of enslaved people on the Lowcountry's rice and cotton plantations did not allow time for religious practices during the day. In the limited evening hours, many enslaved people did turn to religion as a way to cope with the hardships of enslavement.

In addition to the control of their physical bodies, enslaved people also endured either a lack of opportunity to worship or slaveholders’ overt efforts to control their religious beliefs. Slaveholders did not allow enslaved people the time or sanction the practice of non-Christian religious education among themselves. With religion an important part of enslaved people’s culture, the circumstances of enslavement pushed many enslaved people's practices underground. The system of enslavement also left West African Muslims in the Lowcountry without the ability to participate in an Islamic education system or have Muslim scholars present to disseminate Qur’anic teachings.

Instead, Christian religious leaders, particularly Methodist preachers in the Lowcountry, sought to establish evangelical missions across the South, both to save the souls of enslaved and slaveholder and to Christianize the enslaved. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many slaveholders in the Lowcountry either did not allow or did not encourage the conversion of enslaved African people to Christianity. Initially, therefore, Muslim and other enslaved people did not directly interacting with Christian theology as frequently and took to practicing their spiritual beliefs away from the watchful eye of plantation owner or overseer.

Praise house at Sapelo, Photographs by Muriel and Malcolm Bell,  Sapelo Georgia, 1939, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Praise house at Sapelo, Photographs by Muriel and Malcolm Bell, Sapelo Georgia, 1939, courtesy of the Library of Congress. This praise house was located on the same island that an enslaved Muslim, Bilali Mohammed, lived on in the first half of the nineteenth century. To read more about Bilali Mohommed click here and to read more about Muslims on the Sea Islands of Georgia click here.

However, by the mid-eighteenth century, Southern slaveholders shifted their position on the Christian conversion of enslaved people. This shift occurred in the wake of several slave revolts, including the 1739 Stono Rebellion, where at least fifty people were killed, both black and white. Seeking to quell resistance and gain control over the enslaved black majority population, Lowcountry slaveholders employed Christian religious instruction not only as a system of control but also as a process of acculturation. Plantation owners began requiring enslaved people to attend Sunday Christian services to hear sermons written specifically for enslaved people. These religious talks encouraged, among other behaviors, obedience to masters. As the Christianization efforts of slaveholders intensified, established religious practices that enslaved people had brought from their homeland were increasingly marginalized.

The increasing presence of Christian beliefs caused many enslaved people to incorporate Christian beliefs into their lives, and plantations across the Lowcountry saw the development of praise houses where enslaved people worshipped. Interviews with enslaved people after emancipation provide evidence that while Sunday service was perfunctory for many, black-led worship and activity away from whites in the praise house were central to enslaved people’s culture. Praise houses were not only places of worship, but also judicial spaces in which elders held religious court to resolve disputes between enslaved people. With religion and law taught alongside each other in Islamic West Africa, it is possible that the system of adjudication there had an influence on the system of governance in Lowcountry praise houses. However, the Christian influence of plantation owners cannot be discounted either, as elders (and all enslaved people) had to cope with the enslavers response to all of their actions. Further scholarly examination of the socioreligious inner workings of praise houses could reveal more definitive evidence in the future. 

From "Recollections of a Southern Plantation and School," Mrs. William R Wister, 1860s, St. Helena Island, Courtesy of the Penn School Papers, The Southern Historical Collection.

"Recollections of a Southern Plantation and School," Mrs. William R Wister, 1860s, St. Helena Island, courtesy of the Penn School Papers, The Southern Historical Collection. This white Northerner woman's observation, written immediately following the close of the Civil War, reflects the intimate and private space enslaved people sought out for worship.   

Beyond the strong presence of Christianity and enslaved people’s required attendance at Christian services, there were additional factors of American slavery that made West African indigenous and Muslim religious retentions challenging. Slave sellers and slaveholders systematically tore people apart from those they shared a language and culture with; they separated parents from children so that specific religious heritage was often impossible; and they did not provide religious material culture to allow West Africans to practice their beliefs as they had in their homeland. The American South and the Lowcountry were absent of prayer rug sellers or Qur’anic texts, for example, and so practices among West Africans, non-Muslim and Muslims alike were forced to change. Many enslaved West Africans’ religious practices were more flexible, though, than the practices of West African Muslims. Enslaved Muslims, therefore, may have found it more difficult to blend their beliefs with the Christian beliefs they were confronted by without their Islamic practices becoming unidentifiable.  

As enslaved people in Colonial America and the United States were not a monolith, they responded in a variety of ways to the influence of the Christian religion on their lives. In the Lowcountry, they adapted and resisted to varying degrees. Just as some West Africans adapted their traditional beliefs to incorporate Muslims’ practices while others converted to Islam, many enslaved people in the Lowcountry began weaving together their old practices with newer Christian ones. From the seventeenth century on, the enslaved West African peoples along the coast and coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia resisted their bondage, in part, through the retention of West African practices. The isolation resultant from living on coastal islands caused a particularly high amount of West African cultural retentions among the enslaved in the Lowcountry. They combined their practices and languages with each other’s and with the Europeans around them, which resulted in a new and distinct culture.

Gullah Geechee culture, a rich tradition of language, music, food, and religious beliefs, emerged from enslaved people creolizing cultures and syncretizing religion; and religion was a notable foundation of Lowcountry enslaved people’s lives. The malleability of indigenous West African religions created a path for West African traditions to survive in the Lowcountry. Like Christianity and traditional African religions, Islam was one of the religions present throughout the Lowcountry as Gullah Geechee culture formed. While scholars have taken serious note of the impact of traditional West African culture on the Lowcountry, scholarly mention of Muslims' presence and potential impact on Lowcountry enslaved culture has been relegated to the margins. Islam's specific impact on the development of Gullah Geechee culture, then, is not yet evident, but what can be established is that many West African Muslims were present during the time period that Gullah Geechee culture was created by enslaved West Africans. 

Alongside religious practices that were developing among the enslaved people in the Lowcountry, a segment of them practiced their Islamic traditions to the extent that they were able. Without the West African Muslims’ schools to continue teaching new generations, without the freedom to pray according to Islamic requirements, and with only a minority of the enslaved and nearly no free people in the Lowcountry and the South sharing their faith, some enslaved Muslims sustained their religion by partially adopting the beliefs, whether West African or Christian, of those around them. Others resisted the new cultures, and their enslavement itself, by keeping their Islamic faith entirely intact. Historical records do not provide evidence of the precise ways in which most enslaved Muslims responded to pressure to convert to or take part in Christian practices. However, a scattering of cases and scant mention of Muslims in the historic records taken together reveal the noteworthy and enduring presence of Muslims in the American South.