Bilali Muhammad, the author of the first fiqh book written in the United States, was an African who was abducted from his country and brought to America. He was born in Timbo, present day Guinea, in the late 1770s. He came from an educated family. He could speak Fula and Arabic and was knowledgeable in the Islamic sciences in the fields of hadith (the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings/deeds), fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and tafsir (Qur’anic commentary).

He was captured and brought to the Caribbean when he was only 14 years old. There he worked as a plantation overseer on the Bell Plantation owned by Dr. John Bell. Later, in 1803, he came to Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia and began working on the Spalding Plantation. Spalding, the owner, was known for giving his slaves some freedoms found nowhere else including not forcing them to work more than six hours a day and allowing Muslim slaves to practice their religion openly. He even allowed Bilali to build a small mosque on the farm.

Bilali’s education and leadership skills caught Spalding’s attention and made him trust Bilali enough to put him in charge of much of the plantation. So much so that he gave arms to Bilali to defend Spalding Plantation against the British in the war of 1812. While Spalding and his family left the island and fled to safety, Bilali fought with his 80 people and defended the plantation against the British. Bilali also helped protect hundreds of slaves by directing them to African-style bunkers during the severe storm of 1824. 

Bilali Muhammad was married 4 times during his time in the Turks and Caicos Islands/Caribbean and had 12 sons and 7 daughters from these marriages. His grandchildren used the name Bilali or the surname Bell in relation to the family with whom he worked before. In the 1880 census conducted in Sapelo, the name of one of Bilali’s daughters Binto or Binty (bint means “daughter” in Arabic) and her mother Minto Bell are mentioned. His great-grandson used the name Bilali Smith, which was recorded in the census records as William Smith. The fact that they often used two names or the names were written in different ways makes genealogic tracing somewhat difficult.

Georgia Conrad mentions Bilali in the reminiscences she wrote for a monthly journal called Southern Workmen:

“I knew a black family who believed in Muhammad on the island of Sapelo, near Darien. They were tall and good-looking. They spoke in English with us, and a foreign language among themselves. The chief of the tribe was an old man named Bi-la-la. He wore a headdress resembling a Turkish fez. These people distanced themselves from others as if they were aware of their superiority.”

Bilali wore a long jacket and a fez on his head. He prayed five times a day, fasted, did not eat pork, did not drink alcohol, and celebrated religious holidays. When he died, he was buried with his prayer mat and the Quran, which is a symbol of the faith that he maintained throughout his life.

Katie Brown, granddaughter of Bilali’s daughter Margaret, remembers this about her great-grandfather:

“Belali and his wife Phoebe pray on the bead. They was very particular about the time they pray and they very regular about the hour. When the sun come up, when it straight over head and when it set, that the time they pray. They have [a] little mat to kneel on. The beads is on a long string. Belali he pull bead and he say, ‘Belambi, Hakabara, Mahamadu.’ Phoebe she say, ‘Ameen, Ameen.” 1

Brown also mentions a recipe made with rice, which she remembers eating at the end of Ramadan when she was little. In addition to this recipe, which is a family tradition, it is said that some words of African-Islamic origin that have become commonplace in today’s Gullah* language are also from Bilali. But the most important legacy Bilali left behind is his manuscript on Islamic jurisprudence. (You can read detailed information about his manuscript in our article named “Bilali’s Risala”.)

 

 

As we mentioned above, this work, which has the distinction of being the first fiqh book written in America, is the beginning of a long story of effort, endeavor and perseverance that has been going on for centuries. Even though the manuscript is only 13 pages long, it is still a major accomplishment. May the heroes of this true story and one of the first representatives of Islam in America, Bilali Muhammad rest in heaven.

Researched by Nurgul Çelik

Translated by Filiz Arslan

January 2022

*Gullah language spoken primarily by African Americans living on the seaboard of South Carolina and Georgia (U.S.), who are also culturally identified as Gullahs or Geechees

Resources:

  1. African Muslims in Early America-Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture