Faith Traditions Against Slavery
Mauritania's population is almost entirely Muslim. However, Mauritanian slave owners often distort the teachings of Islam in order to maintain control of their slaves. They tell them that Islam supports their brutal practice of slavery. This is not true and is disrespectful to a religion that has always counted notable abolitionists, and those who have struggled bravely against their own enslavement, as adherents.
The Abolition Institute, in coordination with the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago, recently organized a groundbreaking show of support by prominent American Muslim leaders for their fellow Muslims working against slavery in Mauritania. 70 American Islamic organizations, in an open letter published in Mauritania and covered by multiple Mauritanian news outlets, praised the Association of Mauritanian Oulema (religious scholars) for their strong statement that slavery is an illegal act with no basis in Islamic law and that working against slavery and its impact is a religious obligation. The letter also called for fair treatment of those Mauritanians speaking out against slavery and for an end to racism and discrimination in the country.
Islamic scholars note the Qur’an teaches against slavery and encourages emancipation of slaves. (See the Qur’an for these references, e.g., 4:92, 5:89, 58:3, 90:13, 24:33, 9:60, 2:177, 2:221, 4:25, 4:36.)
Sura 90 in the Qur`an states that the righteous path involves “the freeing of slaves.”
Below are relevant Traditions (ahadith) encouraging emancipation of slaves, Muslims and non-Muslims alike:
“Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sick and release (set free) the one in captivity (by paying his ransom).” - Muhammad (S) [Bukhari: Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari (RA)]
“Allah the Most High said, I will be the opponent of three persons on the Day of Resurrection. They are the one who makes a covenant in My name and then prove treacherous. Or the one who sells a free person (Muslim or non-Muslim) as a slave and appropriates his price for himself. And the one who hires a laborer and having taken full work from him, fails to pay him his wages.” - Muhammad (S) [Hadith Qudsi, Bukhari: Abu Hurayrah (RA)]
“There are three people whose prayers are not accepted. And one of these three is a man who enslaves a free person (Rajulun iitabada muharraran).” – Muhammad (S) [Abu Dawud]
Muhammad Asad, respected author and one of the leading translators and commenters on the Qur’an explains (Note 146 Qur’an Ref: 2:177):
“Ar-raqabah (of which ar-riqab is the plural) denotes, literally, "the neck", and signifies also the whole of a human person. Metonymically, the expression fi 'r-riqab denotes "in the cause of freeing human beings from bondage", and applies to both the ransoming of captives and the freeing of slaves. By including this kind of expenditure within the essential acts of piety, the Qur'an implies that the freeing of people from bondage - and, thus, the abolition of slavery - is one of the social objectives of Islam...the Qur'an stresses the great merit inherent in the freeing of slaves, and stipulates it as a means of atonement for various transgressions (see, e.g., 4:92, 5:89, 58:3). In addition, the Prophet emphatically stated on many occasions that, in the sight of God, the unconditional freeing of a human being from bondage is among the most praiseworthy acts which a Muslim could perform. (For a critical discussion and analysis of all the authentic Traditions bearing on this problem, see Nayl al-Awtar VI, 199 ff.)
Many of the earliest followers of Islam were slaves and former slaves. Slavery disappeared in much of the Islamic world, in accordance with the Qur’an’s teaching on equality and freedom. Throughout the centuries, Muslim advocates spoke out against slavery around the world.
African Muslims taken to the United States as slaves fought bravely to retain their religious identity and to speak out against slavery. The Abolition Institute is dedicated to commemorating the history of these brave men and women who struggled for freedom.
Muhammad Ali ibn Said (1833-1882) was born in the Kingdom of Borneo, West Africa near Lake Chad. He was kidnapped and enslaved at age 16, eventually working in Tripoli, Fezzan, Russia, Rome, Persia and France. Eventually freed, he left Europe in 1860 and travelled throughout North America speaking out against slavery. In 1861 he became a teacher in Detroit, Michigan.
Muhammad Ali ibn Said then joined the 55th Massachusetts colored regiment and fought bravely for freedom in the Civil War. He became a Corporal and then a Sergeant. He even learned knowledge of medicine serving with the Hospital Department. He died, a hero in the fight against slavery, in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1882 according to U.S. Army records.
Records from the United States Census show that nearly 300 men with surnames from Muslim areas fought for freedom in the Civil War.
Salih Bilali was captured in 1782 from the Temourah district in West Africa. He was brought to the Bahamas and then to Georgia. It was reported that, on his deathbed, his last words were “Allah is God and Mohammed his Prophet.” Robert Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender – one of the nation’s first and most prominent African-American newspapers - is a descendent of Salih Bilali.
Yarrrow (Mamout) Marmood had been kidnapped from Guinea in Africa before the American Revolution. On April 13, 1807 he was given his freedom and became a property owner in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. He thrived in business, establishing a hauling company, owning real estate on what is now 3330-3332 Dent Place, NW and was one of the first stockholders in the Bank of Columbia (the second chartered bank in the United States). His neighbor and friend Joseph Moor was a freed slave who became a respectable grocer in Georgetown. Two famous pictures of Yarrow Marmood exist today; an 1822 painting by James Simpson hangs in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library and an 1819 painting by Charles Wilson Peale that hangs at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Records indicate he was born in 1736 and died in 1844, making him one of the longest living Americans of his era. His story was an inspiration to Muslims throughout the United States who had suffered enslavement.
Omar Ibn Sayyid (Hajj Omar Ibn Sayyid) (Al Haj Umar Ibn Sayyid) (Omar Ibn Said) (1770-1864) was a Muslim scholar born in the state of Futa Toro in Western Africa to a Serahule family. He had learned Islamic studies and made Hajj in Mecca before his enslavement. He was captured at the age of 37 and arrived in South Carolina in 1807. He wrote many impressive items in Arabic during his enslavement, including verses from the Qur’an. He risked his life to escape slavery and eventually got his freedom. In 1836 he wrote an autobiographical manuscript which also included a summary of verses from the Qur’an. His manuscript was a powerful reflection on his life’s journey and his enslavement, expressing his deep faith and his desire for freedom. His last known writing was in 1857 – Surah 110 of the Qur’an.
Omar Ibn Sayyid had sent his 1836 book to another remarkable Muslim named Lamen Kebe who had also escaped slavery in South Carolina. Kebe was from a skilled family of Serahule who were trained to rule, advise, teach, protect, trade, translate and travel. His ancestors were among the founders of ancient Ghana and were among the earliest South Saharan converts to Islam. His mother was a Mandinga. Lamen Kebe had been a schoolmaster when he was captured. Kebe was a remarkable educator who helped keep the scholarly traditions of his homeland alive even during his enslavement. He corresponded with Omar Ibn Sayyid in Arabic in 1835, and gave Theodore Dwight of the American Ethnological Society valuable information about his native land and its advanced education system. After being freed, he returned to Africa at the age of 60.
The story of Abrahim Abdul Rahman Ibn Sori (1762 – 1829) has been well documented in films, books and artwork.
Sori was born in Timbo, located in present day Guinea. He was a Fulbe from the land of Futa Jallon. He left Futa in 1774 to study in Mali at Timbuktu. In 1788 he was captured and sold in to slavery at the age of 26. He was bought by a Natchez, Mississippi cotton and tobacco farmer. In 1794 he married an enslaved woman named Isabella and then eventually fathered a large family.
In 1807 a staggering coincidence took place that would have great repercussions for the abolition movement. John Cox, an Irish ship’s surgeon, recognized Sori in a market. He had seen Sori decades earlier when Sori’s father saved his life after a shipwreck off the coast of Guinea in Africa. Learning of his story and wanting to repay the kindness shown by his father, Cox began petitioning for Sori’s freedom. Sori had also written a letter to his relatives in Africa that was noted by a local newspaperman and forwarded to American diplomatic and political leaders.
Sori’s campaign for freedom became well known throughout the country; he spoke about slavery bravely in many parts of the United States and advocated for his children to be freed. In 1828, at the age of 66 and having suffered 40 years of enslavement, Sori gained his freedom. He and his wife set sail for Africa in February 1829 and he died a free man. He wrote two autobiographies and signed a charcoal sketch of himself by Henry Inman that was featured on the cover of Freedman’s Journal and is on display in the Library of Congress. His remarkable story raised public awareness about slavery and resonates to this day as people struggle for freedom.
Of course, the stories of many Muslims in the United States who worked against slavery centuries ago – and preserved their faith – have been lost to history. For many heroes such as “General Osman” – a runaway slave from Virginia who led the North Carolina Dismal Swamp community from 1852-1862 – and Sali-Bul Ali of James Cooper’s plantation who maintained strong Muslim traditions in the face of overwhelming odds – records are difficult to come by. But the Abolition Institute welcomes new information about these individuals from their descendants, educators and historians. They played a critical role in the history of Muslim activism against slavery. Please e-mail Info@StoppingSlavery.org if you have a story you would like to share.
Muslim activism against slavery has continued to the present day. For example, in 1964, the sixth World
Muslim Congress declared its strong support for abolition movements across the globe. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam was adopted by 54 countries in the 1980s and declares that, “human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them.”
The Abolition Institute’s work to end slavery in Mauritania today is inspired by people of all faith traditions and backgrounds who have been fighting for freedom since ancient times.