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 : http://www.glynngen.com/history/sapelo/slaves.html.
For information about Sapelo Island culture the following website: http://sapeloislandbirdhouses.com/life-in-hogg-hammock-on-canvas.html
- How and when did Muslims come to live on Sapelo Island?
- Why were people able to keep many elements of their African culture?
- Why was Thomas Spalding different than many slave owners?
- What are some of the contributions of the Gullah/Geechee families on the islands?
- What are the Bilali Documents, and what is the significance of these documents?