Moriscos, Marranos, Columbus, and Islamophobes

Moriscos, Marranos, Columbus, and Islamophobes

by Sheila Musaji


Pamela Geller was horrified by comments reportedly made at the recent Jumah at the DNC event.  She comments on an article in the Washington Times that quoted one of the organizers, Jibril Hough,  as saying :

“Muslims visited America prior to Columbus. It was a Muslim who guided Columbus on his voyage to the new world.”

Geller find this a “desecration of American history”, and “Islamic supremacist historical revisionism”.

Interestingly, on the same day that I read Geller’s comments, I received an anti-Muslim email titled “Muslim Heritage in America?” which opened with Have you ever been to a Muslim hospital, heard a Muslim orchestra, seen a Muslim band march in a parade, witnessed a Muslim charity, shaken hands with a Muslim Girl Scout, seen a Muslim Candy Striper, or seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life ????  The answer is no, you did not. Just ask yourself WHY ???.  It then claims that Muslims never contributed anything to America, never fought in any of our wars, never participated in the civil rights movement, etc.  It then went on to pretty much repeat the Can a good Muslim be a good American email that goes around every year or so.  Except for the Muslim band marching in a parade, I have seen all of these things. 

Geller’s comments (picked up and spread by the Islamophobia echo chamber on the web), and this email are part of the Islamophobes ongoing campaign to paint American Muslims as “the other”, and not part of American history, or for that matter part of American society at all.  Some time ago, I wrote an article Muslims are a part of our American heritage discussing the long history of Muslims in America.  That article clearly shows that they are wrong on all counts. 

Whether or not Jibril Hough’s comments are accurate historically is certainly a matter of debate for historians.  There are many theories about Norse, Irish (St. Brendan) **, Chinese, Phoenician, African, Arab, Japanese, etc. groups having reached North or South America prior to Columbus. **  None of these claims can be proven absolutely, and some have more evidence than others to be considered as possibilities.  There is certainly no supremacism involved in believing that any of these might be true.

1492, the year of Columbus’ voyage was the same year that Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista and captured Granada. At that time Muslims and Jews were given a choice to either convert, go into exile, or face the Inquisition.  Among both communities some became Moriscos (Muslims) or Marranos (Jews) who chose “conversion” to Christianity.  In some cases they were actually converts, but more often only pretended to convert in order to save themselves.

There have been many claims by both the Jewish and Muslim communities that there were Moriscos and/or Marranos who were on Columbus voyages.  In fact, some have even claimed that Columbus himself was a Marrano **

Some of those who have been identified as Morisco/Marrano are:  Luis Torres, a translator Columbus brought along to speak to people in the Far East (where he thought he was going) and who spoke Hebrew and Arabic **, Rodrigo de Triana, Maestre Bernal, Pedro Alonzo Nino, etc.  **

It would certainly not be outside the realm of possibility that Moriscos and/or Marranos were among those who sailed with Columbus.  Although both categories of people were forbidden to emigrate to the “New World” by Spanish law, Paul Lunde wrote a lengthy article explaining how this was probably overcome in the article Muslims And Muslim Technology In The New World.   

Another academic article Turks, Moors, & Moriscos in Early America: Sir Francis Drake’s Liberated Galley Slaves & the Lost Colony of Roanoke by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Ph.D. discusses

One very unusual and little-known event took place at the dawn of American colonial history in 1586. That year, Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596), the famous English seaman, discoverer, and privateer, brought at least two hundred Muslims (identified as Turks and Moors, which likely included Moriscos) to the newly established English colony of Roanoke on the coast of present-day North Carolina. The Roanoke settlement was England’s first American colony and constitutes the first chapter of English colonial history in the New World and what ultimately became the history of the United States. Only a short time before reaching Roanoke, Drake’s fleet of some thirty ships had liberated these Muslims from Spanish colonial forces in the Carribbean.  They had been condemned to hard labor as galley slaves.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wrote in an article Five myths about Muslims in America

Historians estimate that up to 30 percent of enslaved blacks were Muslims. West African prince Abdul Rahman, freed by President John Quincy Adams in 1828 after 40 years in captivity, was only one of many African Muslims kidnapped and sold into servitude in the New World. In early America, Muslim names could be found in reports of runaway slaves as well as among rosters of soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Muslims fought to preserve American independence in the War of 1812 and for the Union in the Civil War.

Karoline P. Cook, Ph.D. did a thesis at Princeton University titled Forbidden crossings: Morisco emigration to Spanish America, 1492—1650.  Here is the abstract:

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, emigration to Spanish America was restricted legally to old Christians, individuals who could prove they had been Catholic for at least three generations. Due to Spanish authorities’ preoccupations with spreading religious orthodoxy, Moriscos or Iberian Muslims, many of whom had been forcibly baptized at the beginning of the sixteenth century, were prohibited from settling in Spanish America. But these laws, like so many others during the period, were not fully enforced. Frequent royal decrees prohibiting Morisco emigration have led many historians to assume that no or very few Moriscos settled in Spanish America. However, the existence of a rich parallel historiography concerning Spanish and Portuguese conversos in the New World, who were subject to the same legislation as Moriscos, suggests that individuals evaded the restrictions by a variety of means and settled in the forbidden territories.
Through a careful analysis of colonial legislation, inquisitorial records and court cases I analyze how Morisco emigrants negotiated their status, religious practices and relationships in a transatlantic context. I examine the influence of the purity of blood statutes that permeated local conflicts over status and honor, the role of the Inquisition in enforcing religious orthodoxy and the jurisdictional difficulties inquisitors and local officials faced.

Following the lines drawn by colonial authorities, many historians of Spanish America have assumed that the idealized legal and social entities, the Republic of Spaniards and the Republic of Indians, remained separate. Recent studies show that Spaniards and indigenous peoples interacted on a daily level more than was previously acknowledged. They have also challenged the unified legal category “Indian,” by recognizing the diverse peoples who were designated by this label. My research questions the category of Spaniard in similarly rigorous ways, troubling its implication of an “old Christian” who possessed purity of blood and formed part of a unified Catholic society. I demonstrate that the presence of Moriscos and Muslims in the Spanish Americas, as well as the circulation of knowledge about them, complicates notions of what it meant to be a Spaniard and part of an early modern Spanish world.

The first Jew to be identified as such entering America was Joachim Gans in 1584. Some people would argue that the first Jew was Luis de Carabajal y Cueva, a Spanish conquistador and converso, who first set foot in what is now Texas in 1554. **

Estevan of Azamor (or Estevanico) may have been the first Muslim to enter the historical record in North America. Estevanico was a Berber originally from North Africa who explored the future states of Arizona and New Mexico for the Spanish Empire in the 1530’s. **

There were certainly many Muslim slaves in America, some relatively well-known like Omar ibn Said, Ibrahim Abd ar-Rahman,  and Bilali Muhammed.  From 1530 to 1865 during the slave trade, estimates are that between 10 and 30% of the slaves brought to America were Muslims. 

The Georgia Historical Society has a section on the Gullah/Geechee people of Georgia

The distinctive religious practices of the Gullah-Geechee communities contain influences from several cultures, much like the other aspects of their culture. The three main influences on the development of Gullah-Geechee religion were: Christianity, Islam, and traditional West African practices. This section will examine how these three influences coexisted in the Lowcountry and eventually fused to create the unique belief system of the Gullah-Geechee peoples.

... Islam is also a legacy that continues in the Gullah community. It began in early colonial North America where the Lowcountry hosted the largest community of African Muslims. These Muslims were primarily in the Sea Islands of Sapelo, Saint Simon’s and Saint Helena. Today the presence of Muslim slaves is often discovered through names and descriptions given in runaway slave ads. Charleston’s Royal Gazette, South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Charleston Courier and Savannah’s Georgia Gazette give accounts of identification for runaway slaves. Names appeared like Samba or Sambo meaning “second son” in the language of Fulbe and Hausa. Often times they were described as being a “yellow fellow” or “yellowish,” in keeping with the complexion of those from the Fullah country.

A plantation at Frogmore at St. Helena Island, South Carolina lists a register of slaves, some possibly having Muslim identity. The register lists slaves like “Sambo, eighty-five-years old and African-born; Dido, a fifty-six-year old (Moroccan)” and two children of separate families named Fatima and Hammett (Hamid or Ahmad). According to information given in the register, Sambo and Dido were probably Muslim and at least one parent or both parents of Fatima and Hammett were probably Muslim.

Despite the presence of Christianity and other African religions in the Lowcountry, Sapelo and Saint Simon’s Islands contained a large population of devout Muslims, and these areas are considered the most significant pockets of Islam in antebellum North America. In the history of those areas, two figures emerge as the best examples of a devout African Muslims, Salih Bilali and Bilali.

Salih Bilali was born around 1765 in Maasina, a place along the upper Niger valley. Captured and sold into slavery around 1790, Salih Bilali was sold to several different owners until his finally reached Cannon’s Point Plantation on Saint Simon’s Island. By 1816, he was fifty-one years old and the head driver on the plantation. He fulfilled that position due to his remarkable managerial skills. In fact, he was such a dependable driver that his owner often left the plantation for several months, leaving Silah Bilali in charge without any other supervision. He died in the late 1850s.

Bilali (pronounced Blali in Sapelo community) had other names such as Ben Ali or the Old Man. His great-granddaughter, Katie Brown, refered to him as Belali Mahomet. Bilali was born somewhere in Guinea and worked on the large plantation of Thomas Spalding (1774-1851) on Sapelo Island. Like Silah Bilali, he too was promoted to head driver and managed four or five hundred slaves. His is most notable for his collection of an Islamic Maliki text known as “Risala of Ibn Abi Zayd.”

Katie Brown, who was considered “one of the oldest inhabitants” on Sapelo Island at the time of her interview by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, recalls the large family of Bilali. There were seven daughters: “Margret, Bentoo, Chaalut, Medina, Yaruba, Fatima, and Hestuah.” Katie was the granddaughter of Margret. She explains the detailed lives of Bilali and his wife Phoebe through the oral history of her mother and grandmother Margret. Bilali and Phoebe would “pray on duh bead” and “wuz bery puhticuluh bout duh time dey pray and dey bery regluh bout duh hour…Belali he pull bead an he say, “Belambi, Hakabara, Mahamadu” and Phoebe she say, “Ameen, Ameen.” This practices are all indicative of the strict prayer practices of Muslims.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, Islam became less dominant as the non-Muslim population exceeded Muslims. Muslims were forced to marry those outside their religion. Also, under the horrible conditions of slavery, families were often torn apart as they were sold off to different slave owners. To effectively maintain the teachings of Islam, it had to be passed down through generations. As Africanized Christianity slowly became a force, Islam suffered. If Muslim children were sold away from their families they were often adopted into non-Muslim communities and soon ceased to practice that religion.

Muslims have been and are still part of the American experience. Some Muslim and non-Muslim historians hold the opinion expressed by Jibril Hough, and some would disagree.  To believe that even the possibility that Muslims may have arrived in America as other than slaves, and earlier than many believe would be a “desecration of American history”, and “Islamic supremacist historical revisionism” is simply bigotry.


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