A Book review from Patrick D. Bowen Blog’s for Bilali’s Meditations

Patrick D. Bowen Blog
This blog will be used to keep people who are interested in my work updated on my research. I will also occasionally post videos, pictures, and links to websites of interest.
Book Received: “Bilali Muhammad’s Meditations”


One of the oldest and most intriguing mysteries in the field of the history of Islam in America was for many years that which surrounded “Ben Ali’s Diary”, a thirteen-page document authored by Ben Ali–or Bilali–an enslaved Muslim in the Georgia Sea Islands. Although the document was written in Arabic script, the language used was not modern standard Arabic: it contains what appeared to be misspellings, contractions, and non-standard letter formation, as well as African and other idiomatic terms that had been hard to identify. In addition to these difficulties, pages from the document are missing and ink blotches make the identification of some of the words nearly impossible. Beyond these issues, the text is clearly based on classical Islamic teachings, but, even when the excerpts are relatively easy to translate, no traditional sources fully and precisely match what was written.

After seven years of effort, in 1996 Muhammad al-Ahari, the well-known independent researcher of Muslim American history, published a “free flow” translation of the text, which, although some scholars have since that timed refined the analysis of the text’s language (see here, e.g.), has remained a respected translation. Using this and other versions, academics have more firmly established the text’s likely sources and have expanded on the value of the text as a piece of American/African American/Muslim American literature.

I was recently sent a copy of the new edition of al-Ahari’s translation, entitled “Bilali Muhammad’s Meditations”. The current version contains greatly expanded annotations as well as a significant amount of additional contextualizing information regarding classical Islam, Islam in West Africa, and research on Bilali and other early Muslims in America. As al-Ahari makes clear, the book is primarily written for American Muslims and calls them to use Bilali’s text as a source on which to help build a Muslim American identity. Al-Ahari’s discussions of the classical and West African Islamic backgrounds of topics covered in “Meditations” (a word written on the inside cover of Bilali’s otherwise untitled manuscript) provide readers unfamiliar to these topics–as surely many of the younger people in its intended audience are–with information that conceptually links the text to the larger Islamic tradition. Accompanying the main book are appendixes that include full, annotated transcriptions of Bilali’s text in both its original form as well as in standard Arabic.

Despite the fact that in a few instances Al-Ahari fails to directly and thoroughly address all of the aspects of the minor academic debates surrounding the text and Bilali’s life, such as whether the text should be considered a work of jurisprudence and the rumor that Bilali was buried with a Qur’an (for a summary of these critiques, see Progler), overall “Meditations” provides an enlightening and accessible introduction to Bilali’s manuscript and life for almost any reader. Those who wish to look into the subject deeper will be well-prepared after reading this book.


Published in: on July 4, 2017 at 9:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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