Bilali Muhammad, who was smuggled from West Africa and brought to America, was born in what is now Guinea. He received a good religious education in his country. The 13-page manuscript in which he recorded what he retained from his Islamic training after coming to America is the first fiqh book written in this land.  

In Bilali’s short manuscript, there are Islamic beliefs, and Islamic rules such as fard, sunnah and haram, which regulate a Muslim’s life. Also included is how to perform the morning prayer after the adhan and iqamah. In addition, the importance and necessity of making dhikr by staying awake after the morning prayer until dawn is stated.

The manuscript is written in ink on paper and is loosely bound. Although the language used is not what is known as standard or official Arabic, it is entirely written in the Arabic script. In the manuscript, the first word on the next page is written at the end of the previous page. From this, it is understood that some pages of the work are missing. The remaining 13 page manuscript has 15-20 lines of text on each page. J. Progler, who has done a detailed study on the work, says that Bilali uses Arabic in a unique way and thinks that the places that are thought to be typographical errors by some may be innovations rather than mistakes. According to Progler, the manuscript was written using an informal language and therefore should not be read or judged solely by the official constructs of a standard language. Some passages in the script are easier to read because they are taken from daily prayers. The fact that the ink has flowed onto the paper in other parts makes it difficult to read the text. In addition, the fact that some local words are expressed in Arabic letters in these parts is one of the factors that make it difficult to read.

Because the manuscript was in Arabic, it could not be read by most Americans for years, and was even thought to be Bilali’s personal diary, so it was called “Bilali Diary-Ben Diary”. However, It has been realized that the work, which can be read after years of efforts by many scholars, including Al-Azhar University in Egypt, is actually a partial copy of Ibn Abu Zayd al-Qayrawani (also known as “little Malik”)’s ar-Risala, in which he summarizes Maliki Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). The Risala of Ibn Abu Zayd, who lived in Tunisia in the 900s, was written according to the Islamic fiqh rules of the Maliki sect, and was very popular in the Eastern Islamic world as well as in North Africa and Andalusia, and was taught as a textbook. Bilali, who could not bring any of his personal belongings with him when he was brought to America as a slave, wrote down what he had learned in West Africa when he was a child, years later from his memory.

Bilali Muhammad gave this written legacy which is considered to be the “Main Text” of American Islamic literature to Francis R. Goulding, a southern writer, in 1859 before his death. Inherited from Goulding, a Presbyterian clergyman, by his son the manuscript finally reached the Georgia State Library in 1931. The work is currently in the University of Georgia Hargrett Manuscripts Department in the Francis R. Goulding collection under the title “Ben Ali Diary.” The manuscript is also referred to as the “Slave Diary” (Greenberg 1940, p. 372), “Ben Ali Meditations” (Goulding 1931, p. 1) and “Bilali Document”. We think it would be appropriate to call it the “Bilali’s Risala” since Bilali Muhammad used the ar-Risala of Qayrawani (as far as he remembers) as a source while writing his work.

Bilali’s Risala- summary of translation*

The manuscript begins with the following prayer:

“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Most Merciful. Peace and blessings of Allah be upon our master Muhammed and his descendants and those that remember Allah. This was said by the Shayk of Islamic Law (Shaykh ul-Fiqh) Abu Muhammad Ben Yusuf Ben Ubaid al-Qayrawandu, may the blessings and forgiveness of Allah be upon him. Ameen. By the power of Allah (qadr Allah), Ameen.”

He further stated that what he wrote was a very concise summary of the obligatory duties of the religion and that these were taken from the Sunnah of Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam).

On the second page of his book, he states that he will write in chapters in order to make it easier for those who want to read and learn, and adds; “There is no power but Allah. I seek refuge in Allah, the Almighty and the Exalted”. He mentions the names of Abu Bakr, Umar, Usman and  Ali (radiyallahu anhum) and sends prayers to them.

“Those that are not stubborn and who seek guidance and strength from Allah will take the gifts of his guidance and witness the knowledge giving to them through our Noble Master Muhammad.”

After saying that, he states that the people of Hell will fall into despair, that the wealth and luxury they have in this world will not benefit them, and that Allah is the One who has the power and might.

On the third page, he says that those who teach the religion of Allah and invite others to it will receive rewards, and he talks about the necessity of applying the ordered principles of fiqh and shari’ah, and that faith will settle in the heart more strongly with deeds.

On the fourth page, where he mentions that everyone will be questioned about their actions on the Day of Judgment, and that Allah will protect those who believe. He also states that their deeds are so numerous that they fill the heavens and the earth, that their good and bad deeds are written in their book of deeds and that these books will be given to them on the Day of Judgment.

On page five; mentioning that scales will be set up to weigh people’s deeds, he says “whose scales are heavy, it is good” and adds:

 “As for he that has been given his book with his right hand, he will be given an easy reckoning. As for he that was given his book with his left hand and behind his back, he shall be committed to flaming fire.”

On page six he states:

“The path (sirat) is real. Men will pass over it at different speeds, according to the measure of their works, being saved from the fire of Hell. But some will fall into the fire because of their work.

I seek your protection from the trials of life and death, from the trials of grave, from the trials of the Massiah al-Dajjal, from the torments of the Fire and evil end. Peace and kindness of God be upon you, O’ Prophet peace be upon us, and the righteous servants of God. Dhikr and adoration of Allah will increase our trust and attachment to Him…”

On pages seven and eight, he explains how to make wudu.

On page nine, after the prayers glorifying Allahu Teala, the adhan for the morning prayer is given.

The adhan continues on page ten. He talks about how to perform the two-rak’ah prayer (the sunnah of the morning prayer) after the adhan. Then, he recommends remembrance of Allah by saying Subhanallah, Alhamdulillah, Allahu Akbar thirty-three times each.

On page eleven, he states that the obligatory morning prayer will be performed by turning towards the qibla and following the imam after reciting the iqamah. And he gives place to explain how to recite the iqamah.

On page twelve, it is explained in detail how to perform the morning prayer.

On the last page, which is the thirteenth page, he mentions the importance of staying awake after the morning prayer:

“Only the true servants of Allah make prayer (salah) and give blessings upon the Prophet (Salaams). Say your prayers, and make tasbih a long time. Make as much supplication (dua) as you can.

It is disliked to sleep after the prayer of morning (Subh) and it is disliked to sit and talk after the prayer of morning except it (the talking) be in the remembrance of Allah, until the dawn and praise.”

*While conducting this study, we took the English translation of the Bilali’s Meditations from the book called Bilali Muhammad: Muslim Juriprudist in Antebellum Georgia by Muhammad Abdullah al-Ahari. The text above is not a literal translation of the work, but a brief summary of the translation.

Research by Nurgul Celik

January 2022

Turkish version of the article

The life of Bilali Muhammad