By Shamsudden Sani
Author: Sylviane A. Diouf
Date of Publication 2013 (15th Edition) Number of Pages 341
Publisher New York University Press
Transatlantic slave trade has enjoyed significant academic attention for decades. However, not much has been written about the African slaves that identified themselves as Muslims throughout the course of the slave trade history. This is what Servants of Allah explored in considerable details. It examined the role of Islam in the lives of both individual practitioners and in the American slave community as a whole, while also shedding light on the legacy of Islam in today’s America. This book was originally written in French, sometimes around 1995, but never saw the light of the day and not until 3 years later before it was translated into English in 1998 but continued to suffer extremely weak patronage due to lack of interest of the academic community in the subject matter.
Systematically, this book delved into the historical background to how the African Muslims existed prior to the slave trade and explored in great detail the intellectual depth of the Islamic society with literacy being signicantly widespread across West Africa at the time. This contrasts sharply with the European slave owners. It analysed the multiple facets of circumstances for the enslavement of Muslims doomed for the transatlantic route. With abundant amount of bibliographic details, one could see how Muslim slaves didn’t just get to the Americas by accident. Rather through a complex web of political, religious and social factors. The author argued that, without this proper understanding, many scholars continued to ignore the meat of the history of African Muslim slaves and the diaspora in general. Some of these factors, explained carefully in the book, that resulted in who sold who and how, may not be palatable to many of us.
With the extensive background of sound Islamic literacy, many of the Muslim slaves struggled to uphold the cardinal tenets of Islam despite the abhorrent circumstances they found themselves in the New World. The book traced evidences of Muslim slaves observing the Ramadan fasting even in captivity and maintaining orthodox Islamic practices. It substantially demonstrated the African Muslims to have remained devout believers and actively organised in their West African sociocultural milieu even while at the New World.
As the book explored, despite all the horrors of subjugation, humiliation, rape and chastisement in captivity, the African Muslim slaves maintained their sense of community through efforts to retain names and identity, observing dietary rules, dress code, and social interactions with non-muslims.
Sylvia dedicated an entire chapter of the book to discuss. She highlighted how Muslim slaves in the Americas engaged in writing religious texts, occult protection through talismans, correspondence, plans for uprising and autobiographies. These practices were greatly helpful in preserving their literacy, religion and their dignity. It’s emotionally touching to have read accounts of a Muslim slave who was originally a marabout from Kano and recognised to be vast in Islamic knowledge in then Bahia, in what is now modern day Brazil! Similar heart wrenching account was narrated in the same chapter of a Muslim slave that wrote down excerpts from ablution and call to prayer section of Risala by Ibn Abu Zaid Al Qayrawani. This manuscript was not actually decoded until around 1939-1940 by an American anthropologist, Joseph Greenberg while on a field trip to Kano, Nigeria.
Later chapters of the book took a detailed look at the tumultuous years of resistance and revolts by the Muslim slaves as well as subsequent returns to Africa by a number of them. It also explored the legacy of the African Muslim slaves in the Americas taking a critical look at how the growth of Islam as brought in to the New World faced a number of obstacles. The religion certainly couldn’t endure substantial vertical and horizontal growth as the author demonstrated citing a number of sources and arguments.
Overall, this is a really good book that was beautifully written. The author clearly wrote very passionately about the subject and you could definitely sense her expertise of the subject matter while reading the book. She took real jabs at some Western anthropologists and historians who have written about slavery in the past. And for a fantastic academic work as it is, I haven’t in recent times, read a book with such a huge amount of further reading list! Bravo Sylvia!!!
The author had written other books on slavery in the past and herself, French of African descent, probably from Senegal. She’s an award winning historian specializing in the history of African diaspora, African Muslims, the slave trade and the slavery.