The Gullah-Geechee People of Sepelo Island, Georgia


The first community of Muslims in America that have artifacts as proof of their Islamic practices are the descendants of Bilali Muhammad, who lived on Sepelo Island, Georgia. The barrier islands off the coast of the Georgia and South Carolia were characterized by the a slave culture that was unique to the area.  The geographic characteristics of the islands created isolation of these communities which allowed the people to preserve a rich African culture.  For example, some of the most iconic cultural contributions of the Gullah and Geechee are the song, Kumbaya, which is sung in the creole language of the people, Br’er Rabbit stories, and foods like gumbo and shrimp & grits. Although the people of the island are Christians, as reflected by the Christian origin of the song, Kumbaya, many of them have are descendants of practicing Muslims, who were followers of Bilali Muhammad, one of the first residents of the Island.

The culture of the people of these island came to be known as “Gullah” and “Geechee.”  The Gullah people of Sapelo Island originally came from West Africa, where the people were experts at growing rice, indigo, and cotton.  They were the slaves of Thomas Spalding.  Spalding was a Georgia state senator and then a US congressman representing Georgia between 1798 and 1806.   He is reported by the New Georgia Encyclopedia to have owned 350 slaves, but to have disliked slavery.

Unlike many slave owners of the time, Spalding gave his slaves many rights that most slaves did not have.  For example, he required the slaves to work only 6 hours of hard labor a day.  He also allowed one of his most trusted slaves, Bilal Muhammad, or Ben Ali Muhammet, to supervise  the other slaves, and even gave him arms to defend the property when he left to serve in the  War of 1812.  In addition, he allowed Bilali Muhammad to continue to practice Islam while serving as a slave on the property.  In a 1933 interview,  Bilali’s great granddaughter described the Islamic behaviors of her great grandparents according to the stories that had been passed down to her through her grandmother.  She describes her grandmother as having warn a scarf, “prayed on the bead,” and to have recited words of devotion to God and the Prophet Muhammad.  Bilali Muhammad wrote fatwa’s and scribed memorized Qur’anic verses in documents now referred to as the, “The Bilali Documents.”  These are regarded to be the first set of Islamic American fiqh, or jurisprudence, making Bilali Muhammad the first Muslim American scholar.  These documents are currently stored at the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.

Up until about the 1980’s, a community of up to about 500 descendants of Bilali Muhammad maintained their culture, though their Creole Fula/English language, storytelling, and handicrafts.  However, currently there are only about 50 of his descendants living in an area called Hog’s Hammock, on the island.  Sadly, a lack of public resources and a very high tax rate have caused the families to move inland.  Islamic artifacts from the community are displayed at Hogg Hammock’s Public Library.  Today, many of these descendants carry the “Bailey,” “Hall,” and, “Walker” surnames.


One fun fact about Bilali’s descendants is that one of his sons is believed to have been the inspiration of the character, Aaron, in the Uncle Remus/Br’er Rabbit stories.  Bilali’s immediate descendants included his wife, Phoebe, and his daughters, Hester, Margaret, Bintou (or Minto), Medina, Yaruba, Charlotte, and Fatima.  A more complete list of his descendants can be found on the Glenn County genealogy website :

For information about Sapelo Island culture the following website:

  1. How and when did Muslims come to live on Sapelo Island?
  2. Why were people able to keep many elements of their African culture?
  3. Why was Thomas Spalding different than many slave owners?
  4. What are some of the contributions of the Gullah/Geechee families on the islands?
  5. What are the Bilali Documents, and what is the significance of these documents?








Muslims in the American Revolutionary War


Picture: Two out of three British killed in the above pictures were credited to have been shot by freed slaves who changed their names to Muslim names while fighting in the Continental Army.


The first evidence of Muslims contributing to the success of the Continental Army in America’s revolutionary war was the friendship made between George Washington and Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah who was the Sultan of Morocco.  Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah offered George Washington the ports of Morocco as a place to dock American ships. This friendly relationship allowed for the Treaty of Marrakech of 1790 and gave America greater security in their independence from England.  The friendship also signifies George Washington’s attitude toward Muslims and his potential willingness to welcome them to help fight in his Continental Army that helped free the US from Britain.

Fighting on American soil, some of the Muslim names that appear in George Washington’s rosters include Benjamin Ishmael, Bampett Muhammad, who fought for the “Virgina Line,” and a man named Peter Buckminster who changed his name to Peter Salem and became a hero when he was able to kill British Major John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and then later served as a commander at the Battles of Saratoga and Battle of Stoney Point.  In addition, a man named Salem Poor was originally slave to a man named John Poor. He purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds, and shortly after left to join the Continental Army. He is best known for his service at Bunker Hill, and was recognized for his bravery at the General court of Massachusettes in 1775. He was credited with killing British Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie.  US Postal Stamps feature Salem Poor commemorating his accomplishments.  All three of these men were believed to have been slaves who were freed when they agreed to join the Continental Army of George Washington. They were reported to have changed their names to names that represented their Muslim heritage. However, there is no historical evidence besides their name change and the fact that they were freed slaves to prove that these soldiers were actually Muslims.

The greatest evidence of Muslims fighting in the Continental Army lies in the historical records regarding Yusuf Ben Ali or Joseph Benehaley.  Benehaley was reported fought with General Sumter, and his name appears on George Washington’s roster of soldiers as well.  Benehaley was considered a “free person of color” under the recently passed South Carolina Sundry Act of 1790. His name appears in the census of 1810, and his family’s home is reported in every census after that with possibly about 100 families After the revolution, he settled on Sumter’s South Carolina plantation, where it was believed he was given permission by Sumter to have settled his land. Joseph and his brother Scott Benehaley are reported in the book, Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend as a Caucasion man of Arab descent who was originally a pirate, but who later became a scout for General Sumter. The US Journal of Sumter County, SC also reports the Benehaleys to have be Moors, who at that time were often referred to as, “Turks” because of their associations with Muslims and the Ottoman Empire. More evidence of the Benehaley’s family presence in Sumter South Carolina can be found in the geneology research of the Benehaley family reported on a website called South Carolina’s Information Highway (or sciway3). It is possible that this family remained Muslims until the early 1900’s when the Turk church, Long Branch Baptist church, was reported to have been established.

  1. What kinds of interactions did George Washington have with Muslims?
  2. What evidence is there that George Washington was tolerant of Muslims?
  3. Who are three people who are believed to have been Muslim soldiers in the American Revolutionary War?
  4. What was the significance of being a “free person of color” in 1790?
  5. Of the people with Muslim names in the Continental Army, which soldier was most likely to have been a practicing Muslim living in the US in the early 1800’s?

Our Founding Fathers Considered Islam


Most Americans know the names of our founding fathers, and that they believed in Peace, Liberty, Justice, and Freedom for all.  However, most Americans do not realize that the founding fathers considered Islam among other religions when they were establishing our country.  With the British no longer protecting their shores, one of the first tasks of the newly independent colonies was to create a defense from the Barbary pirates.  This led to several diplomatic as well as several not so diplomatic relations with Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the areas where most of the Barbary pirates were given refuge. As a result of these conflicts, Morocco became the first nation to recognize the US independence from England, but also became the first foreign country to have ever flown the American flag.

These interactions with Muslims were a source of great debate among the founding fathers.  In their debates, they would conclude that Muslims needed to have their rights protected, even if they (founding fathers) saw the views of Muslims as being extreme.  The best compilation of quotes and research in this area was conducted by Denise Spellburg, author of Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. 

In 1784, Richard Henry Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in a letter regarding the of the formation of the constitution, “The declaration of Rights, it seems to me, rather contends against forcing modes of faith and forms of worship, than against compelling contribution for the support of religion in general. I fully agree with the presbyterians, that true freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo as well as the Christian religion.”


Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Vice President of John Adams, and third President of the United States, owned a copy of the Quran. Today this copy of the Quran is stored at the National Archives.  It was used to swear in the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison.  Jefferson bought the Quran while attending William and Mary College in Virginia.  He was so interested in the Middle East that he created a department at William and Mary College to teach “oriental languages.”  (At that time, oriental referred to the Middle East.)  In 1786, Jefferson helped to write the Virginia Statue for Religious freedom.  During the writing of this statue, Islam and other religions were included in the discussions that led to the formation of the statue.  Jefferson was so proud of his contribution to this statue, that he asked for this to be listed as one of his three greatest accomplishments on his tomb.

In  In 1805, Jefferson hosted an Iftar in his home in Monticello, changing mealtime from 3:30 to sunset to accommodate his guests, a Tunisian envoy led by the Moroccan Sultan Sidi Soliman Mellimelli.  The topic at the dinner was the protection of American coasts and ships from the attacks of the Barbary pirates.


John Adams, the second President of the United States said, “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation.” He named the Prophet Muhammad one of the world’s great truth seekers alongside Socrates and Confucius. He said that Prophet Muhammad was a “Sober inquirer of the truth.” He helped to write the Massachusetts constitution, which indicated “the most ample liberty of conscience for Deists and Mohometans.”  He did not change his view even when the United States was fighting the second Barbary War.


Benjamin Franklin dreamed of creating a place of worship where people of all religions could freely teach the principles of their religion.  He said, “Even if the mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Muhammadism to us, I would find a pulpit at his service.”  Benjamin Franklin’s stand on the topic developed as a reaction to the Petition of Sect of Erika.  The Erika were a sect of purists who prayed for the abolition of Muslims, mostly because of their hatred for the piracy and slavery practices of the Barbary pirates.  He wrote a letter to the Federal Gazette in opposition of the petition, stating that it was, “problematic.”  In the letter, he quoted the Muslim prayer, using the phrase, “Bismillah” (In the Name of Allah).  In an article for the Huffington Post Religion, Frankie Martin wrote that when Franklin was told of how Native American slaves were treated, he said that they would be safer being prisoners in a Muslim country. Martin also says that he went on to praise Muhammad and Saladin for their justness and compassion.

Looking at the various statements and reactions of our founding fathers, it becomes apparent that the founding fathers found policies that took the liberties of people from a specific religion, including Islam, at the very least, to be problematic.  They respected Islamic principles even though they did not agree with all of their practices. When they went to war with Muslims, they did not change their opinion about them.  They negotiated with them, and made and effort to learn about Islam. This is an important lesson for our children to learn about our founding fathers.

  1. Who is Denise Spellburg? Research her works, her background, and her accomplishments.
  2. Who were the Barbary pirates? Why did they become a problem when America gained independence from England?
  3. What was the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom?
  4. What two events led Benjamin Franklin defend Muslims in his writings?
  5. Why did Thomas Jefferson host an iftar?
  6. Which country was the first to recognize America’s independence from England.











Anthony Van Sale

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Anthony Van Salee was a known Muslim who was the first settler of Brooklyn, New York.  He came to New Amsterdam, the first and only Dutch colony in the New World, from Morocco in 1622.   He first settled near Queens with his wife and had four daughters.  His neighbors referred to him as a, “Turk,” a term Europeans tended to use for just about any Muslim who came from the Ottoman Empire and it’s surrounding areas.  Anthony Van Salee’s first farm was described as being located near present day Wall St.  In fact, Wall St. is believed to be named after his farm, which was referred to as, Wallenstein, in honor of a great general of that time.  Because he was so different from his Dutch neighbors, Dutch records of New Amsterdam’s church hearings recorded disputes between him and the other colonists.  After refusing to pay the salary of Reverend Bogardus, it was decided that Anthony should be banished from New Amsterdam, so he was sent to live in what is now Brooklyn.  He was granted land in what is now Gravesend, New York, making him the first settler there. Coney Island was referred to as, “Turk Island,” because it was just south of his property.   The above pictures are the mark of Anthony Jansen Van Salee, and the map of his burial spot, which would not be somewhere near the 26th block of Broadway. To this day, several Americans (including my mother who is a convert to Islam) claim Anthony Van Salee as an ancestor. These include people include Warren D. Harding, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Jackie Onassis.

Anthony Van Salee is believed to be the fourth son from the second marriage of Jan Jansen.  Jan Jansen was a Dutch privateer around the late 1500’s and early 1600 who began his career as a privateer during the 80 Years War between Spain and Holland.  During that time, privateers were paid to “harass” Spanish ships.  This meant that they would capture the ship and take all of the passengers as captives. They usually sold their captives as slaves.  As the 80 Years War began to end, Jan Jansen and several other privateers found themselves out of a job and began to turn to pirating as a way of life.  While Jan Jansen also did some pirating, he also continued privateering, but he turned his allegiance toward the Ottoman Empire instead instead of Holland.  During this time, he converted to Islam and convinced the entire crew of his ship to do the same.  He took the town of Sale in Morocco and was elected leader of the town.  He left his wife and children in Holland, and married a Morisco princess, who some refer to as “Margarita.” Thus, Anthony likely grew up in a wealthy family, and because of the wealth was likely highly educated.  He continued to purchase real estate in New Amsterdam until he died around 1676, just after the British colonies took New Amsterdam and changed it’s name to New York.  Below is a portrait of Jan Jansen.


While it may seem strange for a Dutch privateer to have converted to Islam in the early 1600’s, Jan Janson was not the only European pirate to have converted to Islam. Their names included, Rais Chafer (Jafar), Chaban Rais, Ahmed ed Cortobi, Case Mareys, Ali Campos, Uluj Ali, Yusuf Rais, and Sulayman Rais. Many of the pirates had both European and Arabic names.  For example, Jan Jansen was known as Murad Rais the Younger,  Uluj Ali (Italian born) was originally named Giovanni Dionigi Galeni, Sulayman Rais (Dutch) was born Ivan De Veenboer. Yusuf Rais, born Jack Ward and was also referred to as Jack Birdy.  He was a British privateer who converted to Islam.  In fact, in the move, Pirates of the Caribbean, the character, Jack Sparrow, is based on his life.

Like many colonists, Anthony could have been seeking religious freedom and prosperity  by coming to New Amsterdam.   Being half Dutch himself and having traveled with his father, he and his father likely knew well of the Holland’s advertisements to award land to those wishing to settle in New Amsterdam.  Evan Haefali writes about the ideas of religious freedom that the Dutch brought to the Americas in his book, New Netherlands and the origins of American Religious Liberty (2012).   The 13th article of the Union of Utrecht, which acted as the laws for New Netherlands stated, “each person shall remain free in his religion, and no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion.”  Enemies of Spain, the Dutch likely disdained Spain’s harsh religious exodus of massive numbers of non Catholics in 1609.  New Amsterdam was known to teach tolerance of other religions and gave residency to Jews and Quakers, who were expelled from other colonies at the time. They were given haven in New Amsterdam until the General Peter Stuyvesant was the first to attempt to bar them in 1657.

If you would like to learn more about the life of Antony Van Salee, see this site: Anthony Van Salee, which contains work from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record by Hazel Van Dyke Roberts, dated October 1969 & January 1972.

  1. What significant world events were occurring during the turn of the 17th century?
  2. Who was Jan Jansen? Why did many privateers turn into pirates?
  3. Where was Anthony Van Salee’s first farm?  Why did he leave that area?
  4. Where was Anthony Van Salee’s second farm? What is the name of the island that is closest to it?
  5. Why was Anthony Van Salee well known in New Amsterdam?
  6. What was the original belief that the Dutch had about religious freedom, and how did that compare to Spain’s views?  Which person ended religious freedom in New Amsterdam?
  7. Name some people who are claimed to have been ancestors of Anthony Van Salee.





A Melungeon is an ethnic group of people who are distinct from African Americans, Native Americans, and White Americans. They have lived in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  The first documented reference to the word, “Melungeon” was in 1810.  The people were described as not Negro or Native American, but of foreign descent.  The Melungeon people have an oral history of their Portuguese ancestry.  Their customs were described by Elizabeth Hirschman in her book, Melungeons, The Last Lost Tribe in America. She describes Melungeons as people who preferred coffee to tea, played a stringed instrument very similar to those played in the Middle East. She describes the way they planted their gardens to be similar to that of the Portuguese, and described the women as wearing long dresses and scarves or bonnets.  In this book she gathers DNA samples from several people who identified themselves as Melungeons and found that most of them had a mixture of Native American, Irish, and Portuguese genes.

The existence of Melungeons proved problematic in a racially divided America.  Melungeons refused to be relocated to Native American reservations because they did not identify themselves as Native American, threatening their right to vote. They were not accepted by White people, and were not known to be African American. Instead they insisted that they were Portuguese. Because of this claim, the Moor Sundry Act of 1790 was passed in South Carolina.  This act concluded that Melungeons were in fact descendants of Morocco and should be treated as Free Persons of Color.  Understanding the race of the Melungeons was important at that time because it was forbidden for people to marry from outside their race. Therefore, many Melungeons intermarried for several generations.  Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley are believed to have Melungeon ancestry.


How Melungeons came to live in the Appalachian mountains is a mystery.  Some claim that Moors sailed to the Americas to escape the Inquisition of Spain between the 1200’s and 1500’s – perhaps before Columbus.  Many site the frequent use of the word Allah and in the Cherokee language, Cherokee chiefs of the 1800’s with Arabic names, and the Cherokee’s use of the turban as some hints of the encounters between Cherokees and Muslims.

Most people refer to the Lost Colony of Roanoke. This was England’s first attempt to settle in the New World.  The English were in fierce competition with the Spaniards and did not want to allow the Spaniards to claim all of the New World and its riches. This colony was established first established in 1584, but the people returned to England after experiencing an Indian attack.  In 1587, John White, an artist, brought 150 Englishmen and several slaves to Roanoke Island to attempt to create an English settlement once again.  The ships were captained by Sir Francis Drake, who wrote about his adventures.  Through White’s drawings and Drake’s writing much of the documentation of the events of Roanoke were recorded.  Drake wrote that John White brought about 200 Moors. The Moors were galley slaves, enslaved after the Inquisition of 1492.  He told them he would take them to Morocco, but instead, he took them to Roanoke. John White left the colonists to return to England for more supplies.  He did not return right away because Spain was attacking England and his passage was blocked. When he finally did return in 1590, he found the colony deserted.  No skeletons or even sign of attack was evident.  The only clue was the letters CRO etched in a tree.  While assumed from this that the colonists had joined a friendly group of Native Americans named the Croatians. To this day, many people are mystified about what happened to the colonists.


While it is clear that Melungeons are not Muslims, it is clear that they were significantly influenced by the culture of the Muslims from Spain and Portugal.  According to DNA testing, it appears true that they were descendants of Portuguese Muslim slaves. Their ancestors came to America for the same reason other Europeans did. They wanted to find religious freedom and escape being persecuted by Catholics for refusing to be Catholic.

  1. What are Melungeons?
  2. What are some of the descriptions of Melungeon culture as described by researchers?
  3. Summarize the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
  4. What evidence is there to support the claim that Moors were brought to Roanoke?
  5. Why weren’t the names of the Moors who came to Roanoke recorded?
  6. List some famous Americans who are likely descendants of Melungeons.
  7. Why was being a Melungeon problematic in early America?



Estevanico was an explorer who lived between 1503- 1539 who was reported to have explored the Gulf Coast, some of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Estevanico was a slave of Andres Donates de Carranza, who joined an expedition for the Governor of Mexico to find wealth in neighboring lands.  When several hurricanes hit, the captain of the ship deserted them and left 250 passengers stranded.  Four of them, one of whom was Estevanico, survived and landed near what is now Galveston, Texas.  During their travels back to Mexico, all four were taken as hostages by Native Americans.  While in captivity, Estevanico learned the languages of several natives. He also learned to communicate with them with Native American hand signs. After escaping, he made it back to Mexico by posing as a Native American medicine man.   He came back to Mexico and was asked to tell his stories.  His stories were so remarkable that  he  was asked to lead an expedition north into what is present day Arizona.  He was killed by Zuni Native Americans before he could return to Mexico tell his more stories of his great adventures.

Although Estevanico was a slave, he was not the kind of slave that one typically thinks about when slavery is mentioned in America.  Instead Estevanico was considered to be a Morisco.  A Morisco is a person who is a descendent of someone who lived in Spain under the Andalusian Empire,  but was exiled or forced to become baptized as a Catholic after the Inquisition of 1492.  The Andalusian Empire was ruled by Muslims for about 700’s years and consisted of both light skinned and dark skinned Moors, some of whom came from Arab descent, and some of whom came from Spanish descent, but converted to Islam during the time when Muslims were flourishing in Spain.

When Moriscos were expelled from Spain, most of them went to live in Morocco or Algeria. Some stayed in Spain as galley slaves until they were exported to Morocco in the early 1600’s.  Before the 1700’s any one group of people who lost a war likely became slaves of the people who had won.  Therefore, Estevanico was not snatched secretly from his home in Africa as most would imagine how most African Americans became slaves at the time.   Instead, he came from among a group of Muslims who were first living in Spain and then  persecuted because of their religion and ethnicity.  For this reason, it is difficult to know just how much Estevanico really practiced Islam.  Although, it is documented that he was born in Morocco and was considered to be a Morisco, very little else is known about his personal life.  Such was the case for most Moriscos at the time.


  1. What is a Morisco? Why were most of them slaves?
  2. What skills did Estivanico have that his slave owners did not?
  3. Research the other names of Estivanico by searching the web. List them.
  4. Research the Andalusian Empire. Describe the area it controlled, the names of it’s leaders, it’s rise and fall, and some of the contributions of its people.
  5. Describe the terrain of Arizona and New Mexico and list some of the challenges the Estivanico must of faced as he explored the area.
  6. List the cities or landmarks that Estivanico traveled to in the order that he arrived there.
  7. Why is there little known about Estivanico’s personal life and his religious practices or beliefs?

Is California Named After a Caliph?


The oldest historical documents that refer to the western coast of North America by the name, “California,” come from the records of voyages of two Spanish explorers, Hernan Cortez and Fortun Ximenez,  who sailed up the Baja coast from Mexico on orders from the Governor of Mexico some time between 1550 and 1556 AD.  The explorers referred to the area as an island, and in fact, California appears in later maps as an island. In their journals of their travels, they referred to the area as, “California,” as if the name was commonly used by Spaniards of the time.

Although there is no tangible documentation available to prove how the state of California got it’s name, most historians agree, that the name of the state likely came from the word, Caliph which is the title of a Muslim political leader.  Some theorize that the Moors knew of the New World, perhaps from explorers such as Khashkhash Ibn Saeed (see an earlier blog), and that an Andalusian Caliph claimed it for as his own territory.  While there is no evidence of a Muslim caliph claiming California, several references of a mystical place called California are referenced in French and Spanish literature well before the arrival of Cortez and Ximenez.

Around the year 1510, a Castilian author named Garci Rodreguez de Montalvo wrote romance novels (perhaps based on tall tales of the time) entitled, The Adventures of Esplandian.  In the story, a regal black woman referred to as, “Calafia,” rules a tribe of other black women on a beautiful island guarded by man eating griffins. She is meets a Muslim warrior and he convinces her to join him in a battle against the Christians who are attempting to take Constantinople. Calafia takes her griffins and sails to Constantinople,  but becomes frustrated when she realizes that her griffins attack all men, but not women, whether they are Christian or Muslim.  The story is so legendary that it was made into a Disney film called, Golden Dreams, in which Woopi Goldberg plays the role of Queen Calafia. Cortez referred to the novel when he spoke of the area. Today, the story is so legendary that it was made into a Disney film called, Golden Dreams, in which Woopi Goldberg plays the role of Queen Calafia. Regardless of whether or not black women lived in the west coast of North America, the story is a small piece of evidence that the name of the area was influenced by the culture of the Moors of the time.

This is a picture of a sculpture of Queen Calafia:


Study Questions:

  1. When was the earliest historical document to use the word California to refer to the current day area written?
  2. Why did the Spanish Explorers refer to California as such? Where did they likely get the idea to name it California?
  3. Who was Queen Calafia? Write a basic story of the life of Queen Calafia.
  4. Why do you think people used to think that California was an island?