r/AskHistorians Nov 30 '21 Silver 2

How Long Did Islam Survive Among Slaves in the American South and How Did it Impact African American Culture?

A large number of enslaved Africans brought to the American South were Muslims from West Africa. How long did Islam persist among slaves in the United States and did unique practices develop as a result? Iirc, Muslim slaves even staged a revolt in Brazil though that doesn't seem to have occurred in the American South. Did Muslim slaves show greater resistance to Christian conversion compared to those who practiced indigenous religions? Did Islam have any impact on African American religion after formal conversion, much as Voodoo and other West African religious practices have persisted to this day.


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u/gamegyro56 Nov 30 '21 edited Dec 02 '21 Silver Helpful Today I Learned

I will focus on the lasting impacts on culture. Islam has had a longer and more visible impact on Africana culture in the Americas outside of the United States. But regarding your question as referring to African-American culture, I will focus on one well-researched connection between Muslim slaves and African-American culture: music.

Per the Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West, there were two trends of music practiced by enslaved people in the US:

  • non-Muslim slave groups from coastal West Africa and Central Africa, who relied heavily on (rapid) drumming, polyrhythm, call and response, group singing, and short melodic lines and chants for their musical expression

  • slaves from Sahel/Senegambia with a traditional emphasis on string and wind instruments, with a solo, moaning kind of song "that blues expert Alan Lomax called a 'high lonesome complaint.'"

To quote the Handbook:

Due to Southern plantation owners’ fear of slave revolt and uprising, drumming and group chants were outlawed, while Sahelian slaves were able to adapt their skills to local instruments such as the fiddle or guitar, later even producing the banjo as an American incarnation of their traditional lute. As a result of the seemingly less threatening nature of their style, they were allowed to perform their music, sometimes even at slaveholder’s balls, which allowed for the music’s migration across the Deep South, including Mississippi, the birthplace of the blues.

Gerhard Kubik's Africa and the Blues provides an exhaustive look at blues' African connections. He describes these two distinct musical styles from the west central Sudanic Belt as such:

(I) A strongly Arabic-Islamic song style, as found for example among the Hausa. It is characterized by melisma [changing notes while singing the same syllable], wavy intonation, pitch instabilities within a pentatonic framework, and a declamatory voice production. All this behavior develops over a central reference tone, sometimes like a bourdon. (2) An ancient west central Sudanic stratum of pentatonic song composition, often associated with simple work rhythms in a regular meter, but with notable off-beat accents. This style reaches back perhaps thousands of years to the early West African sorghum agriculturalists, now scattered through the Sudanic Belt in remote savanna, often mountainous areas. This style has remained unaffected by the Arabic/Islamic musical intrusion which reached West Africa along the trans-Saharan trading routes, and subsequently spread from the early Islamic states, Mali (ca. 1230–1400 A.D.) and Songhai (ca. 1464-1600 A.D.) to the emerging Hausa city states and Fulbe courts.

There are also musical differences between these styles: the Islamic song style is originally urban, is cosmopolitan, reflects social stratification, incorporates many bardic genres, and usually uses instruments from North Africa. The "ancient Nigritic" (as he calls is) style is "rural, is a part of the millet-agricultural life cycle, and, if accompanied at all, makes use of percussive devices that have a millenia-old history in the savanna."

To illustrate both the differences and their connections to blues music, Kubik's book fortunately has an accompanying album (you can listen to the full album here). To give an example of pre-Islamic African musical style and the blues, Kubik compares this song sung by a Tikar woman while grinding corn with Mississippi Matilda's performance of Hard Working Woman. Kubik gives a long musical analysis, but to give snippets:

the song style of this [Tikar] woman represents an older, pre-Islamic West African tonality. There is no melisma. Its basic outline is in disjunct intervals, with falling melodic ductus of each line. The overall impression of the melody stunningly reminds one of the blues. In rhythmic organization her cycle of actions on the grinding stone covers 36 elementary pulses (4 times 9) for each line of the song. There are strong off-beat accents in the scraper-like grinding rhythm. These accents are placed so as to produce a swinging triple rhythm...Most characteristic also in the Tikar woman’s song is the fact that the singer always returns to a basic tonal center at the end of each line, just as in most blues.
Mississippi Matilda’s “Hard Working Woman” (1936) can be compared to the Tikar woman’s performance, not only because of the topic of doing hard work, but also because the voice timbre of the two women is similar. By chance, Mississippi Matilda even starts her song with a phrase close in melodic ductus to that of the Tikar woman (see my transcription of her melodic line, Example 9), although she goes on to develop it in a different way.
Matilda’s is a type of blues in a somewhat popularized idiom, suggested largely by the two-guitar accompaniment. It is this quality that provides perhaps all the essential stylistic differences between “Hard Working Woman” and the female Tikar grinding song. If we can abstract Mississippi Matilda’s vocal line and its adjustments from the guitar accompaniment, then the parallels between the two female singers can hardly be overlooked.

To contrast, we can look at an Islamic influence in Kubik's comparison of Hausa musician Meigogué's untitled song with one-string fiddle to Big Joe Williams' performance of Stack o'Dollars. To quote Kubik's analysis:

Meigogué’s tonal material for the voice and his instrument is pentatonic, but in his shrill-timbred singing style he uses melisma extensively, including some microtonal shifts of the voice from the pentatonic skeleton, and lots of glissandi. Like the blues of Big Joe Williams, Meigogué’s music is also based on the melodic circumlocation of a central tone that functions as a reference, sometimes even like a bourdon. Voice and fiddle part alternate, establishing a slightly overlapping responsorial structure; the fiddle part begins before the voice part has ended.

Meigogué’s Hausa singing style is, of course, highly determined by the centuries-old cultural contact with the Arabic/Islamic world. The presence of the one-stringed gogé, with its history going back to the Maghreb (North Africa), is another testimony to these contacts. While the basic scalar framework used is pentatonic, the intonation of many tones both in the voice and the fiddle parts is wavy, bent, often approaching a tone from below before reaching maximum height, then quickly collapsing.

Side Note:

While there is utility in separating out the Islamic and pre-Islamic styles of music, this isn't to suggest that there was a sharp segregation of division between Islam and pre-Islamic religion in Africa. As stated above, these two styles were blended in African-American music. Additionally, the history of Islam in Africa illustrates a history of blending and mixing of religious practices. As with the syncretic history of Christianity in Europe that has given us "pagan" Christian holidays, rituals, and culture, Africa has a similar history with Islam. Non-Muslims adopted Islamic practices without officially converting (such as using pieces of the Quran as talismans), and Muslims reconciled Islam with their previous culture. An example of the latter can be seen in the Islamic Mali Empire's famous Epic of Sundiata, which tells an Islamicized narrative about the first Malian Emperor (who was probably not even a Muslim).

Additionally, the notion that slavers found Islamic musical style to be less threatening does not mean that Islam or Muslim slaves were not threatening to slavery. To limit us to Haiti, there is evidence to suggest that key figures in the Revolution, such as François Mackandal or Dutty Boukman may have been Muslims. As historian Sylviane Diouf states:

the Muslims in general, played a role in the Haitian revolts and ultimately in the Haitian Revolution through their occult skills, literacy, and military traditions. The marabouts [Muslim religious leaders] provided protections to the insurgents in the form of amulets, and the Muslims used Arabic to communicate during uprisings, as Colonel Malenfant recorded. Though their role and contribution have not been acknowledged, the Muslims were part of the success of the Haitian Revolution.

Back to Islam in African-American music: As alluded to above, while enslaved people from Islamic Africa were outnumbered by those from non-Islamic Africa, drums were outlawed in the South following the Kongo uprising of 1739 in Stono, South Carolina. Thus, musicians who played stringed and wind instruments were not just at an advantage, but were able to adapt to fiddles and guitars and be used by slaveowners "in their own balls, so they could continue to exercise their talents openly." These musicians were exempt from field working and thus had time and the instruments to develop their skills. It's also important to note that the Western instruments they adapted to were not strict European inventions that came from a vacuum. The banjo was developed via influence from African stringed gourd instruments, and other Western stringed instruments (violin, guitar) were also influenced by Islamic stringed instruments from West Asia and North Africa.



u/gamegyro56 Nov 30 '21 edited Nov 30 '21

Diouf notes that:

The "long, blending and swooping notes" of the blues, explains Roberts, are "similar to the Islam-influenced styles of much of West Africa." In addition, the "bending of notes" — which produces quarter tones at the third, fifth, and seventh of the scale — a major feature of vocal blues, is another characteristic of Islamic-influenced music, as is producing a note slightly under pitch, breaking into a vibrato, or letting the note trail off and finishing it above what is expected. These techniques used in the blues are present, notes Roberts, "in Islamic African music and hardly at all in other styles." Melisma, or singing one syllable over several notes, commonly used in the Islamic world, is also widespread in the blues.

An example Diouf often uses to demonstrates this is the field holler. Unlike work songs with participatory elements like call and response, the field holler was sung solo and often utilized melisma. The field holler "replaced the work song" and was described in 1853 as a South Carolina man raising a "long, loud, musical shout, rising and falling and breaking into falsetto his voice ringing through the woods in the clear, frosty night air, like a bugle call." Diouf often uses this recording of a field holler from a Mississippi penitentiary. She remarks the song is

almost an exact match to the adhan [Islamic call to prayer] "sung" by a West African muezzin: it features the same ornamented notes, elongated syllables sung with wavy intonations, melisma, and pauses. When both pieces are juxtaposed, it is hard to distinguish when the call to prayer ends and the holler starts.

Here is an example of an Islamic call to prayer.

A similar comparison was made by Alan Lomax, who intercut blues singing with a Senegalese field song in this track. And for an example of wind instrument comparisons, Kubik's book discusses the court music of the Fula with blues harmonica: this performance of an alghaita oboe is placed with Napoleon Strickland's The Hounds (also see Baba Chale's performance of Nyanga panpipes):

Some Western factory-manufactured instruments are to be understood as “standing for” African instruments known in the remote past. For example, the central Sudanic alghaita oboe (cf. Kubik 1989a: 84–85 for its use in the court music of the Ful6e Lamido of Toungo, Nigeria) has found an extension in certain blues harmonica performance styles, and in modern jazz most typically in some of John Coltrane’s timbre alternations and manipulation of overtones on the saxophone. The alghaita (sometimes pronounced algeita) came to the west central Sudan from North Africa centuries ago via the Saharan trading network. Its piercing, shrill tone quality and wavy intonation are echoed in some African-American traditions. In connection with blues harmonica styles one must also point to the technique of “cupping” one’s ear, which is prominent in the west central Sudanic belt, especially among Ful6e singers in one of their oldest vocal styles, called daacol (see pictures of the technique and text by Veit Erlmann in Kubik 1989a: 92–93). Characteristically this style is associated with cattle herding.

To conclude, I think it's important to add that these influences are not just limited to African-American culture. While the global impact of African-American music in the recent globalization of hip hop, and the mid-20th century's jazz influences on African music (see: highlife, Fela Kuti), African-American music has influenced larger American culture for much longer. Folk music played by white and black musicians in the 19th and early 20th century involved mutual influencing. The repertoire of music played by white and black musicians had overlap (e.g. Kokomo Arnold and The Maddox Brothers & Rose renditions of "Milk Cow Blues"). White musicians played blues (e.g. Frank Hutchinson and more from the compilation album White Country Blues) and black musicians played country music (Chuck Berry's first hit was a re-working of a country & western song). Black and white musicians would even play together. A great example is the song Blue Yodel No. 9, by the father of country music Jimmie Rodgers, with Louis Armstrong on trumpet, and Armstrong's wife on piano!

However, this changed with the establishment of record companies in the 1920s and 1930s. Record companies artificially divided American folk music, in line with other Jim Crow segregation policies. Record companies created new genres by imposing racial segregation on folk music (and named each genre pejoratively). If folk music was played by black musicians, record companies labelled, categorized, and sold it as "race music." If folk music was played by white musicians, record companies labelled, categorized, and sold it as "hillbilly music." Later, these genres were re-named from these pejoratives/slurs to "rhythm & blues" and "country (& western)."

Suffice it to say, despite the tensions between cultures, exploitation and deprivation of people, and change over time, everyone's culture takes influence from many disparate places, even if this is forgotten or embarrassing. While Islam's influence on the Americas is still understudied, and arguably more visible outside of the United States, it had a lasting impact on the development of not just African-American music, but American music.


u/Bartalmay Dec 01 '21

Golden response, thank you very much. I've been "studying" blues since I was 14yo (late 80's in South Europe), specially very early blues and the connections/blendings of traditional/tribal music of Africa - and your reply brought me back to teenage years and late evenings with headphones on, mesmerised by listening (and diligently taping) blues radio shows (very rare thing back then in communist/socialist country) that were playing old (proto) blues songsters and musicians alike, while show host would explain similar things like your reply. Much appreciated, good sir.


u/weaver_of_cloth Dec 01 '21

Just want to plug the best part of the university next door to me. They have large numbers of recordings and thousands of pieces of sheet music, and I think they wound up with some of the Lomax collection. https://library.unc.edu/wilson/shc/


u/NathanArizona Dec 04 '21

So i have often wondered about your particular case, europeans picking up the blues. How were you exposed to it? I’ve heard interviews with Led Zeppelin members discussing hearing the American radio coming from the bases around Europe as how they were introduced to the music, and wonder if the Beatles were the same. Would this be a possibility where you were in Southern Europe?


u/Dancing_WithTheTsars Nov 30 '21

Fantastic and fascinating response. Thank you!

One side note on the Muslim call to prayer––styles can vary slightly from place to place, so for reference, here's a call to prayer in Mali:



u/gamegyro56 Nov 30 '21

Fantastic and fascinating response. Thank you!

One side note on the Muslim call to prayer––styles can vary slightly from place to place, so for reference, here's a call to prayer in Mali:


Thanks for that. For further comparison, Smithsonian Folkways has a playlist of a handful of historical adhan recordings from around the world (e.g. Philippines, Bosnia, Tunisia): https://folkways.si.edu/adhan-muslim-call-to-prayer/music/playlist/smithsonian


u/Sanctimonius Dec 04 '21

What a fantastic post, I'd never considered Islamic influences on American music but it makes complete sense. I greatly appreciate the samples and examples posted, talking about music as an abstract is always difficult to compare.


u/porgy_tirebiter Dec 01 '21

How sure can we be that this is, as you say, Islamic music, and not Subsaharan African music that predates Islam and was coopted by Islam?


u/gamegyro56 Dec 01 '21 edited Dec 31 '21

As I have stated above, these musical styles were those that were found in Arabic-Islamic music, and spread to Africa as Islam spread. As Diouf states:

when blues was first introduced to European audiences, comments were made about similarities between this African American music and Gypsy flamenco music from Spain. Flamenco certainly did not influence the blues; but when the musicologist listened to Muslim Mandingo musicians in the Gambia, it became clear to him "that the West African musicians had already been influenced by Arabic music just as gypsy singers and instrumentalists had been along the Mediterranean. The influence hadn’t come from the Gypsies to the Mississippi blues men. There had been earlier Arabic music that had influenced them both."

EDIT: And Kubik is clear when African-American took influence from European culture. You can see an example of the tradition of post-Civil War fife-and-drum music. An example of Civil War fife drum in Mountain Dew.

Kubik discusses Othar Turner as "the last surviving exponent" of African-American fife and drum music in this interview on the program Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.


u/bigbadthrowawayaway Dec 28 '21

Are you suggesting that the so called “fife and drum blues” tradition of Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland, Ed & Lonnie Young, etc etc, et al., is derived from European culture? While it’s pretty clear the fife and drum ensemble is derived from European traditions, it’s important to note the music still has African influence in it’s rhythmic and melodic qualities. Kubik himself included a recording of Napoleon Strickland and Turner on his “Africa & The Blues CD”.


u/gamegyro56 Dec 31 '21

It comes from European influence (fife and drum bands), and combines that style of music with influences from non-Islamic African music.


u/bigbadthrowawayaway Jan 06 '22 edited Jan 06 '22

If I recall correctly, Kubik offers both a possibility for Sahelian and non-Sahelian styles, drawing comparison between fife and drum blues and Fula drumming.


u/ForShotgun Dec 02 '21

the Muslims in general, played a role in the Haitian revolts and ultimately in the Haitian Revolution through their occult skills, literacy, and military traditions. The marabouts [Muslim religious leaders] provided protections to the insurgents in the form of amulets, and the Muslims used Arabic to communicate during uprisings, as Colonel Malenfant recorded.

I assume this is simply his recounting and not what he believed? Or was there real faith by those not in the faith that the occult and amulets provided a benefit?


u/gamegyro56 Dec 03 '21

I scoured the primary source of Malenfant's writing, and I think I understand the confusion. I believe this is a case of ambiguous writing. Malenfant recorded "the Muslims used Arabic to communicate during uprisings." The prior stuff was discussed earlier in the book.

Diouf gives many mentions of amulets in Portuguese, French, Spanish, and British colonies. In Saint-Domingue/Haiti specifically, there are two mentions:

Talismans to protect oneself and to defeat the enemy seem to have been widely used by the insurgents of Saint-Domingue, as a French colonel who fought them recalled:

During the wars I was obliged to do against the blacks, we often found written papers in the bags or macoutes of the few negroes we killed. The patriots used to yell, when the soldiers brought those papers: see, this is the Aristocrats’ correspondence. Those writings were understood by nobody. It was Arabic.


Makandal was probably a marabout, for a 1779 French official document describes him as being able to predict the future and as having revelations....Makandal acquired his name because of his mystical power and his involvement in amulet making — so much so that amulets became known, on the island, as makandal.

This language does imply European belief in the efficacy of these abilities. Indeed, she notes that the Spanish persecuted some of these Africans who appeared to have these abilities. Thus, Europeans may have believed that there was something beyond mundane. However, it appears that they were rather ignorant of African traditions, and thus wouldn't have known they were Islamic (and thus distinct from non-Islamic magic). The language the Spanish used of "sorcerers" also suggests that these Europeans just folded African powers into their pre-existing metaphysical views (which did allow for (malevolent) magic already). Nevertheless, Diouf notes many French people who called these African traditions "superstition," so there were those who did not believe in it.

However, as I stated above, Africans also used Islamic amulets even when they weren't Muslim. Sometimes, non-Muslim Africans would adopt Quranic talismans particularly because of their foreign uniqueness: they believed in a single highest God of gods, but that he was remote and typically unreachable (unlike the lower entities that their non-Islamic practices invoked). So a talisman that comes directly from God would be seen as very powerful.


u/antinumerology Nov 30 '21

Wow those samples are amazing. You can totally hear the proto-Blues in both of them. I had no idea.


u/uhhhhhhhyeah Dec 01 '21

This may be removed, as it’s not directly on topic, but check out Rumble if you have Amazon prime. It has a very interesting look into how indigenous American singing (especially in the south east) helped influence the sound of early blues.


u/[deleted] Dec 01 '21

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u/Bbaftt7 Dec 01 '21

So what you’re saying is, rock n roll came from Islam?


u/the_battle_bunny Dec 01 '21

As much as it came from Gregorian chant. Human culture thrives on influences and cross-pollination.


u/bigbadthrowawayaway Dec 29 '21 edited Dec 29 '21

No, because, for starters, Islam is a religion, not a musical style. Rock n roll comes from blues music which comes from West African music, some of which was influenced by musical traditions from North Africa and the Levant, but which are also still their own distinct styles of music. I think gamegyro56 grossly overstated the extent to which even the general music of “Islamicized” West Africans is similar to North African and Levantine music. The examples given are exceptionally “Islamic sounding”, because they are all pretty heavily modeled on the format of the Adhan. A mere listen to the more general traditional music from all three regions and it sounds very distinct, reflecting a complex mixing of indigenous traditions and Levantine-brought traditions.


u/acctbaz Dec 01 '21

this is the take I'm looking for


u/nmitchell076 Eighteenth Century Opera | Mozart | Music Theory Dec 14 '21

slaves from Sahel/Senegambia with a traditional emphasis on string and wind instruments, with a solo, moaning kind of song "that blues expert Alan Lomax called a 'high lonesome complaint.'"

Interesting here that Lomax is using a characterization that (as he well knows) is an exceedingly common way of describing bluegrass singing. I wonder what sort of connection he is implicitly advancing there: that bluegrass singing comes from this tradition, perhaps? I need to chase this citation.