By Kay Alameen
African American Muslim Scholar Enslaved
The Bilali Family Descendants (pictured above)
Bilali Mohamed: Bilali was an overseer on Sapelo Island, Georgia, where he was known for convincing his fellow slaves not to desert during the War of 1812, and whose master, Thomas Spaulding, showed his faith in Bilali by arming him and his men with guns to defend the island from the British. Bilali wrote in Arabic and was considered a leader of the Muslim community in Sapelo. Bilali’s children studied Islam under his leadership and some of his descendants remain on Sapelo Island today. He was buried with his prayer rug and a copy of the Qur’an, symbols of the Muslim faith he practiced throughout his life. Though translations of his work have proved difficult, his original writings are preserved in the Georgia State Library in Atlanta.Bilali Muhammad was a Fulani, and he was educated and believed to be from Timbo Futa-Jallon. His wife’s name was Phoebe, and they had twelve sons, whose fates are unknown, and seven daughters — Binto, Charlotte, Fatima, Hester, Margaret, Medina and Yoruba. In the 1820s, Bilali Muhammad hand-wrote a 13-page Arabic text of Islamic laws and traditions. That text is now in the archives of the University of Georgia.
Founded in the early 1800s, one of the first communities of African Muslims in the United States was located on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, where enslaved African Muslims struggled to hold onto their Islamic roots amidst the dehumanizing institution of slavery. Led by Muhammadu Bilali–a Muslim cleric and skilled agriculturist, the community at Sapelo preserved their Islamic heritage through surnames like Bailey, and Anglicized version of the name “Bilali”, common among the descendants of Sapelo’s Muslims, who often recall the religious piety of their ancestors. Additionally, churches facing east toward Mecca, and the existence of a handwritten Arabic manuscript on Islamic law, authored by Muhammad Bilali himself, are testimony to the persistence of Sapelo’s Islamic heritage. Sapelo, then, was historically a place whose people were at once African, American, and Muslim.