1. In what ways were enslaved Muslims able to continue practicing their religion, culture and customs upon arriving in the Americas? What practices continued, and how were they able to live their religious lives in the face of extremely difficult circumstances?
One of the remarkable features of enslaved Muslims in the Americas is their high rate of literacy. Indeed, Diouf even contends that the literacy levels among the enslaved Muslim populations is even higher that that among their masters. Their proficiency in Arabic, possession of a few valuable copies of the Holy Koran and an ethos of communitarian solidarity ensured that Muslim slaves continued to maintain their religious identity. The threat of Islam was perceived differently in the North and South American colonies. Seeing Islam as a more potent threat, the colonialists in South American colonies imposed overt and covert prohibitions upon its continued practice. In the North, the ruling elite were more relaxed in their attitude to the Islamic roots of their slaves. Consequently a great degree of cultural expression was possible. This included the reading of the scriptures in private, keeping beards, wearing bandanas or head-bands (in place of turbans), wearing of veils, upkeep of sexual taboos, following fasts and feasts as per the Islamic calendar, and other uniquely Islamic social mores.
2. How did the slave system make certain religious or cultural practices impossible to follow, and what were some of those religious practices?
Christianity and its dissemination being part of the colonial mission, there was no room for the outward expression of Islam among the enslaved. Their observances and practices were mostly carried out in private for any form of institutionalized religion would have been swiftly crushed. In these circumstances, Islam continued to thrive underground without ostensible social markers like Mosques, the clergy and conspicuous celebration of rites and rituals. The other problem was the availability and affordability of cattle and poultry for religious sacrifice. Annual events such as Eid and Bakrid are marked by animal sacrifice, followed by a feast.
Moreover, the disruption of traditional family ties made it very difficult for the downward propagation of religious practices from one generation to the next. The fact that men comprised a disproportionately high number of slaves hindered the natural processes of progeny. Also, most religious and cultural practices were tied into family life with its attendant festivities and special occasions. For example, all the rites, rituals and celebrations related to marriage, child-birth, family reunion, etc virtually never arose in the new milieu of the Muslim slaves.
3. Diouf provides a few arguments as to why it is important to recognize and study the Islamic religion of these enslaved individuals. Give an accounting of at least one of the arguments that she utilizes to show why this story is important.
Although there is some suggestion of authorial bias toward her chosen subject, her biases are not unrelated to hard evidence. Diouf perceives the African heritage and the Islamic religion of the enslaved as superior to what had been imposed upon them in the New World. According to her, the idea of universal brotherhood and equality among the Muslim faithful was better than Christianity’s complicity with slavery and discrimination. The Arabic scholarship that the contingencies of slaves brought along is a tremendous source of Islamic wisdom. This was even acknowledged by white slave-owners themselves, who considered the literates as ‘Moors’ and treated them as a superior race to the ‘negroes’. Such classification is nothing more than retrospective justification for the institution of racial slavery. Moreover, the division of Muslim slaves into two groups is also problematic on ethnographic and native socio-cultural lines.
Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, New York: New York University Press, 1998, pp. 254.