Article on Bilali Muhammad for Chicago Crescent Newspaper

Bilali Muhammad: A Founding Father of American Islamic Literature
Bilali Muhammad who was born in the late 1770s in Timbo, Guinea near the Fula/Jahanke centers of Kaaba, Qayrawan, and Bani Israel. To date no one has attempted to write Bilali’s life story. According to most accounts, when Bilali was about fourteen years old, he was captured in tribal warfare and taken to as a slave to Nassau, Bahamas. Eventually he arrived on the Spalding Plantation on Sapelo Island, Georgia between 1803 and 1808, and became the main plantation overseer.
He practiced public praying and fasting despite ridicule and pressures to conform to the slave society. Bilali was “a proud leader of men and an equally proud leader of Islam.” Bilali was a capable worker and eventually became sole manager of Sapelo Island and overseer of up to 400 or 500 slaves.
He saved the inhabitants of the island on at least two occasions. The first was during the war of 1812. In 1813 the British failed to land on Sapelo Island because they were warned that Bilali and over eighty other slaves were armed with muskets. This was highly unusual because Georgia was the only colony that did not allow blacks to fight in the Revolutionary War. According to several sources, during the threatened invasion Bilali proclaimed to his Master Thomas Spalding, “I will answer for every Negro [sic] of the true faith [al Islam], but none of the CHRISTIAN DOGS you own.”
The second occasion was the Hurricane of September 14, 1824. “Bilali saved hundreds of slaves by directing them into cotton and sugar houses made of an African material, tabby.” Spalding was away at the time and it was Bilali’s duty, on an island where a white overseer was not to be seen, to direct the slaves to safety in his master’s absence.
Besides the above, little information on Bilali is available. He passed on no family name that might allow further tracing of his family roots. Likely born of a Merchant Warrior class, he had been raised to despise field labor. Due to this, he received an Islamic education and was [probably] being trained for either the clergy or the marketplace when he was captured in a battle on the frontier of Futa Jallon [in Guinea] in his early teens.
Bilali originally was a slave in the Middle Caicos, Bahamas. There he married his four wives (Fatima, Phoebe, Hester, and Margaret) and started his large family of twelve sons (some of them are listed among the Bell plantation records, but it seems none of them made it to Sapelo Island) and seven daughters (Charlotte, Fatima, Margaret, Yoruba, Medina, Binty, and Phoebe). When he came to America, he brought his large progeny and his several wives with him.
Spaulding wrote about growing Sea Island cotton, but nothing on his head slave driver. However, a unique brief contemporary first-hand notice was made about him and his family in the Southern Workman in 1901 by Georgia Conrad who described her “Reminiscences” of meeting with Bilali in 1860: “On the Sapelo Island, near Darien, I used to know a family of Negroes who worshipped ‘Mohamet’. They were tall and well-formed with good features. They conversed with us in English, but in talking among themselves, they used a foreign tongue. The head of the tribe was a very old man called Bi-la-la. He always wore a cap that resembled a Turkish Fez. These Negroes held themselves aloof from the others as if they were conscious of their own superiority”.
In addition to his children, a recipe, words of African Islamic origin in present day Gullah, and the Islamic practice of Tasbih (Remembrance of Allah), prayer and fasting, Bilali also left a small seemingly unfinished manuscript on Islamic Law.
This 13-page manuscript measures 3 ¾” by 6 5/16″ and the contents deals with dhikr, Wudu’, iman, aqidah, and Salat al Fajr. It is written in a script that confuses similar sounding letters in the Arabic language. Once the patterns are understood, Bilali’s text becomes more readily approachable, but the reader still has to overcome other problems of the text such as order that differs from the Risalah, ink bleeds that occur text, and missing pages.
Bilali passed this written legacy, sometime around 1859 (the year of his passing), onto a local author of the Sea Islands – Rev. Francis R. Goulding. The two often met on the mainland opposite Sapelo Island where this noble Islamic pioneer and patriarch spent his last years. If this account is accurate, the final resting place of Bilali is likely near Darien, Georgia on the grounds of Spaulding’s Ashantilly Plantation.
According to a family legend, Bilali was buried with his Qur’ān on his chest along with a sheepskin rug. His gravesite is not evident in the Sapelo Island Behavior Cemetery and likely exists near Darien or in the Sapelo Island’s Orleans Cemetery destroyed by the 1898 Hurricane. All of his descendants have not been traced and pages are missing from his manuscript. The cabin he lived his last years in my still exist, as may his other writings, but no researcher has yet considered these other avenues to document the life of this early Muslim leader and writer of Arabic in America.

Excerpts from Bilali’s “Meditations”
In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Most Merciful. Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon our Master Muhammad and his descendants and those that remember Allah. This was said by the Shaykh of Islamic Law (Shaykh ul-Fiqh) Abu Muhammad Ben Yusuf Ben Ubaid al-Qayrawandu, may the Mercy, Blessings, and Forgiveness of Allah be upon him. Ameen. By the power of Allah (qadr Allah), Ameen.
I am commanded to write a book that gives the obligatory rules at your hand. This is a very concise summary of the obligatory (wajib) actions of the religion (din). These actions are from the example (Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad. One of these is the example (Sunnah) and the obligatory (Sunnah muaqadah) and the optional (nafl) and the commendable (raghība) pertaining to good manners from the principles and rules (Usul al-Fiqh). And this is what was told and described about them to ease their instruction for those that want to understand. [Hopefully], this is the Will of Allah. (from page one)
The path (sirāt) 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 works.
I seek your protection from the trials of life and death, from the trials of the grave, from the trials of the anti-Christ (Massiah al-Dajjal), from the torments of the Fire and an evil end. Peace and kindness of God be upon you, O’ Prophet, peace be upon us, and the righteous servants of God. (from page six)

Muhammed A. Al-Ahari
Author of Bilali’s Meditations
Chicago: Magribine Press © 2017

Muhammed is a high school English teacher at CPSA in Lombard. He has written dozens of articles on Islam and Islam in America and has published over 20 books on American Islamic literature and history including Five Classic Muslim Slave Narratives, Bilali’s Meditations, and A Heritage of East and West: the Collected writings of Imam Kamil Avdich. He has a Masters in English literature and Secondary Education. Muhammed is currently completing a Masters in Islamic Theology and is all but Dissertation for a EDD in Education Leadership.


Published in: on July 4, 2017 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

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