Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

Africans in America

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Bilali

Arabic text written by Bilali (http://www.muslimsinamerica.org).

It is not known specifically when and where in Africa Bilali (1760?-1855) was born, but the available evidence shows that he was sold into slavery in the latter half of the eighteenth century and brought to Georgia in 1802. Bilali was a devout, literate Muslim and was resolute in maintaining his religious practice while enslaved. He is also said to have been buried with prayer beads, a prayer rug, and a copy of the Qur'an, all items that he would have somehow had to have brought with him from Africa on the treacherous Middle Passage.

Bilali worked for the prosperous plantation owner Thomas Spaulding while in Georgia and eventually became the sole manager of Spaulding's 500-slave operation on Sapelo Island. Bilali is not mentioned by name in contemporary accounts of the plantation, but he earned a reputation for running the planation efficiently, even in Spaulding's absence.

Bilali was also the leader of Sapelo Island's Muslim community, and he is best known today for having written a 13-page manuscript in which he set down descriptions of Islamic rituals, rules for prayer, and general spiritual encouragement. This extraordinary manuscript, known alternately as the Bilali Document and the Ben Ali diary, is written in Arabic script but contains many oddities, perhaps because it is in fact an Arabic transliteration of Bilali's native African language. As such, it has not been translated in its entirety and remains a fascinating object of study for scholars of both Islam and American history.

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