Waves from an Ocean of Light

قال الله تعالى: و تلك الأيام نداولها بين الناس

“And those are the times which We rotate among the people.”

(Sūrah Ālī Imrān, Āyah: 140)

We begin in the name of Allāh, the Mighty, to Whom belongs all praise, and Who gives dominion and power to whomsoever He wishes. We ask that He send blessings and mercy in abundance upon the leader of the Children of Ādam, and upon his family, his companions, and those who follow them in goodness until the Day of Judgement. 

One of the special characteristics of the Prophet ﷺ is that he was sent, not just to his people, or his family, but to every single human and jinn to come until the Day of Judgement. To this end, he trained his companions, may Allāh be pleased with them. Lit up with the nūr obtained from spending time with the beloved of Allāh, those blessed individuals went forth into the world in order to show humanity how to live in such a manner that would be of benefit to them in this temporary life as well as the everlasting one to come after death.

Fourteen years after the Prophet ﷺ migrated from Makkah to Madīna, Ribcīy ibn cĀmir, may Allāh be pleased with him, would inform Rustum:

“Allāh deputed us to bring out whomsoever He wishes from the worship of other slaves to the worship of Allāh, from the narrowness of the world to its vastness, and from the tyranny of other ways of life to the justice of Islām. Thus, He sent us with His dīn to His creation so that we would call them to Him.”

From the lands of the Persians and Romans, from France to China, from India to Italy, from Spain to Sumatra, spiritual and worldly benefit gushed forth as the radiance of Islām and the Muslims spread into the world. Deeply concerned with the worship of Allāh, they built masājid that were hubs in which worship took place alongside spiritual reformation and teaching.

Many of these old masājid, despite being far from the Kacbah, have been found to point towards the qiblah, something which is due, in part, to the Muslim’s development of Trigonometry, all of which was done in order to ensure they were praying in the correct direction no matter where they might find themselves. From their ranks emerged people of piety like Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, people of justice like Shurayḥ al-Qādhī, and brilliant minds like Abū Ḥanīfah (May Allāh have mercy on them all).


This same dispersal of benefit occurred when merchants and traveling scholars crossed the Sahara into West Africa, spreading Islām as they dispersed into Senegal and other areas of sub-Saharan Africa. During the course of their business transactions they impressed the inhabitants of West Africa by their manners and trustworthiness due to which many entered Islam. Furthermore, amongst those merchants were Muslims who were also learned, and when these individuals settled somewhere they would establish halaqah where they would teach Qur’ān, etc. and invite people to Islām; because of this Islām spread out from trading centers and cities into the more distant areas of West Africa.

These merchants intermarried with the local women, brought more culamā to teach, especially as the number of Muslims increased, and sponsored the best students amongst the locals to go study in the famous schools of North Africa and Egypt so that they would return to be the leaders in their land.

Amongst the areas and states which the merchants spread into was the kingdom of Ghana which Ibn Khaldūn says was the greatest kingdom they came across. The capital of this kingdom consisted of two cities [i.e. al-Ghābah and Kūmbī Ṣāliḥ] situated on the banks of a river. At its height, the Muslim section of this twin city would house imams, mu’adhdhin, as well as jurists and scholars. Within its walls sat twelve masājid, one of which was used for jumcah. Around the Muslim section were sweet wells which they drank from and used to water their crops. Houses made of bricks and the wood of the acacia tree occupied the six miles of intervening space between the two cities.

The non-Muslim section also possessed a masjid that was situated not too far from the king’s court of justice. Even though the king was a non-Muslim, his interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury, and majority of his ministers were Muslim. Along with this, the king had exempted the Muslims from the customary greeting of kneeling before him and throwing dirt on their heads as his other subjects did. Unfortunately, when the Ṣūṣū invaded a weakened Ghana in 1240 C.E. (circa 637/638 A.H.), the Muslims of that kingdom were forced to flee.


The Susu under the leadership of Sumanguru (Soumangourou), would  in turn be defeated by the founder of the Empire of Mali, Mārī Jāṭah (the Lion King; Soun Diata Kéita). Though, Ibn Khaldūn does not mention whether Soun Diata Kéita was Muslim, he does state that the succeeding king, Mansā Wālī performed Ḥajj. The author of Masālik al-Abşār Fī Mamālīk al-Amşār described this new empire as the mightiest of the black Muslims dominions, the most vast in terms of land, the largest in terms of military, the wealthiest, the most beautiful, the most dominant over the enemy, and the most capable of distributing copious favors. At the height of its power, under the rule of Mansā Mūsā, may Allāh have mercy on him, this new dynasty would become so massive as to rival the kingdom of Ghana. Within the shadow of Malī’s just authority, which stretched to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, sat cities like Jenne, Gao, Niani, and Timbuktu.

Mansā Mūsā’s patronage of the culamā encouraged the growth of indigenous Muslim scholarship. The wealth of Islamic knowledge in Mālī can be highlighted by the following anecdote. On Mansā Mūsā’s return from Ḥajj, there was an Arab scholar who accompanied him back to his empire and settled in Timbuktu, a place described in Tarīkh al-Sūdān as “the lodging place of the culamā and worshippers, the abode of the righteous and the ascetics”. This scholar found that the indigenous legal experts knew more than him, so he left for Fez, devoted himself to the study of law, and only then returned to settle once again in Timbuktu.

During that same pilgrimage to Makkah in the year 724 A.H. [circa 1324 C.E.], while in Egypt, Mansā Mūsā was asked how he acquired his empire. In reply, he mentioned that his predecessor did not believe the baḥr al-muḥīṭ (Atlantic Ocean) was uncrossable and had dispatched four hundred ships of men and supplies with an order not to return until they reached the other side. After a long time had passed, one ship returned, having been separated from the rest, whereupon Mansā Mūsā’s predecessor prepared two thousands ships and set out himself to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That Muslims had crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus, is also supported by the 1559 C.E. map of Ḥājī Aḥmad which details “surprisingly modern” shapes of North and South America.


Yesterday they were kings in their dwellings
And today they are slaves in the land of disbelief
-Sāliḥ Bin Sharīf Ar-Randī Al-Andalūsī

Despite assurances given to the Muslims who stayed behind after the fall of Andalūs that they would be able to retain their faith, serious attempts were made to suppress Islām in Spain, one edict going so far as to make it an offense to wear clothes cleaner than one’s normal clothes on Friday, face the east and say ‘bismillāh’, tie the leg of any livestock before slaughtering it, or abstain from eating things that weren’t slaughtered Islamically, amongst a number of other practices that were considered to be habits of Muslims. In the face of this and other horrific acts of oppression, the Muslims tried to pass the dīn on to their children in secret, and some even managed to reach America as soldiers, explorers, and laborers, where they began to openly practice their Islām and spread it amongst the Native Americans. The Grand Inquisitor of Spain is reported to have “complained that Islām was being practiced openly in the Americas, especially by Moriscos [i.e. Andalusian Muslims forced to accept Catholicism, and the descendants of such Muslims].” This movement of Muslims into the Americas continued with the trans-Atlantic slave trade which forcefully brought a conservative estimate of somewhere between 3-6 million Muslims to the Americas, and just like the preceding groups, these Muslims, some of whom where huffādh and culamā, continued to practice, and attempted to pass on, Islām.

Physical Revolt

In 1835 C.E., during one of the most visible Muslim uprisings, hundreds of enslaved Africans dressed in white with turbans on their heads revolted and took over the streets of Bahia, Brazil. When they were finally defeated and an investigation was launched, it was discovered that they had created masājid and schools, and were secretly teaching Islām, Arabic, and the Qur’ān to their youth and others. Pierre Verger considered this and other revolts to be “the direct repercussion of the warring events in Africa”, and claimed that Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio’s reformist movement “continued in Bahia in the form of slave revolts…”

In response to the barbarity perpetuated by the Atlantic slave trade in the power vacuum left by the fall of Songhay, the culamā  became involved in combating the scourge of kings who were engaged in the slave trade. Roughly seventy-six years before the Emancipation Proclamation, two Tukulor culamā, Sulaymaan Baal and Abdul-Qādir Kan, may Allāh have mercy on them, established an independent state in West Africa where the transportation of slaves was forbidden and slavery abolished.

One of the root causes of Shaykh Uthmān’s reform movements, and possibly that of al-Ḥajj cUmar Taal, was the trading of slaves. Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio’s Wathīqah lists a number of items which he claims were unlawful by consensus. One of those items was: “To enslave free men among Muslims, whether they reside in the domain of Islam or in the domain of war.” The Shaykh’s poem, Tabban Hakika, which his daughter, Shaykha Nana Asma’u, may Allāh have mercy on her and her father, translated to Hausa, also admonishes, “…do not enslave free men…”

Spiritual Revolt

A Qur’ān teacher from Guinea, Lamine Kebe, was kidnapped while traveling to purchase paper for his school where he taught between fifty-five to fifty-seven students. During interviews with an American of European descent, Lamine listed thirty books studied in the schools back home which covered topics such as Arabic grammar, fiqh, hadīth, and aqidah.  After three decades of slavery, he managed to return to West Africa in 1835.

Bilālī Muhammad, originally from Futa Jallon, was the leader of a community of Muslims on Georgia’s Sapello Island that included his wife, Fatima (Phoebe), and seven daughters. He is described as regularly wearing a fez and long coat; possessed a Qur’ān, dhikr beads, and a prayer mat, and wrote a 13 page manuscript in Arabic that reproduced parts of Ibn Abī Ẓayd al-Qayrawānī’s treatise on Mālikī fiqh: al-Risālah. During the War of 1812, Thomas Saplding, the owner of the plantation, gave Muhammad eighty muskets to defend the island from the British, while he hid somewhere else. It is reported that at this time, Bilali Muhammad had told his master that he would, “answer for every Negro of the true faith,” but not for the Christian slaves.

Imām Yunus (John) Mohammed Bath who was described as always appearing “in public in the dress of a Moslem priest” was the leader of the Free Mandingo of Trinidad, a group of Muslims who had bought their freedom and established schools in Port of Spain. This group’s numbers were bolstered around 1815 by members of an island near Sapelo where another Muslim named Salih Bilālī resided. May Allāh have mercy on them and the countless others who held onto Islām despite the obstacles. May He keep their descendants firm in His dīn, and return those who have been led astray.

America 1.2

Evening Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) June 3, 1902

Aside from the Muslims forcibly brought to this country during this time, there were others who willingly came to America, and European Americans who were drawn to the light of Islām. Reverend Norman, a Methodist missionary to Constantinople whom Allāh blessed with hidāyah is one of them; he returned to America circa 1875 in order to spread Islām. Another example is the Reverend James Laurie Rodgers, may Allāh put light in his grave, the former pastor of Gonzales Baptist Church in Santa Cruz, California, who wrote a letter to an acquaintance in which he announced his acceptance of Islām and expressed concern that his burial should be conducted properly.

In 1888, President Cleveland’s Consular Representative to the Philippines, Alexander Russel Webb, his wife, and three children accepted Islām. Four years later, Muḥammad Alexander Russell Webb returned to America where he started the American Muslim Propagation Movement which at one point had a school, newspaper, and a number of study circles across the country; he was the only Muslim to give an official speech on Islam at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.


Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) Dec. 12, 1893

Commenting on the āyah of sūrah Ālī Imrān in which Allāh mentions to the nearest meaning in English, “And those are the times which We rotate among the people,” Mufti Shafīc writes, “In this mortal world, the customary practice of Allah Almighty is to cause the days of hardship and ease, pain and comfort, suffering and peace [to] occur among people by turns. If, for some reason, a falsely motivated power succeeds in getting a short-lived upper hand, the group motivated by the truth should not lose heart and come to think that, from this point onwards, they are always doomed to nothing but defeat. Instead of taking this negative attitude, they should rather go find out the causes of that defeat, and once they have discovered those, they should take corrective measures and eliminate all possibilities of repeating those mistakes. In the end, the group motivated by the truth shall emerge as the ultimate victor.” The main reason behind studying history is to learn: where did past individuals acquire success so we can follow in their footsteps, and where did they go astray so we can avoid their mistakes. Ibn Mascūd, may Allāh be pleased with him, once said, “The fortunate individual is the one who takes a lesson from others.”


Abdullah Hakim Quick. Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean Before Columbus to the Present. London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1996.

cAbdullāh cAbdur-Raẓẓāq & Ibrāhīm Shawqī cAtallāh al-Jamal. Tārīkh al-Muslimūn Fī Afrīqiyyā Wa Mushkilātihim. Cairo: Dār al-Thaqāfah, 1996.

cAbdur-Raḥmān ibn cAbdullāh ibn cUmrān ibn cAmir. Tarīkh al-Sūdān. Paris: Librairie D’Amerique Et D’Orient, 1981.

Abū cUbayd cAbdullāh ibn cAbdul-cAẓīẓ al-Bakarī. Masālik Wa al-Mamālik. Qartāj: Dār al-Arabīyyah lil-Kitāb, 1992.

Allan D. Austin. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Carol Bargeron. Lecture notes for HIS 1121-03H Global History to 1500, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, August 2015.

Cheikh Anta Diop. Precolonial Black Africa. Translated by Harold J. Salemson. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.

Firas Alkhateeb. Lost Islamic History. N.P.: C hurst & Co. Pub. Ltd, 2016.

Ibn Khaldun. Tārīkh Ibn Khaldūn. Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 2000.

Ismācīl ibn cUmar ibn Kathīr. Bidāyah Wa al-Nihāyah. N.P.: Dār Hijr, 1997.

Ibraheem Sulaiman. The African Caliphate: The Life, Works and Teaching of Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio (1754-1817). London: Diwan Press, 2009.

J. F. P. Hopkins, Nehemiah Levitzion, eds. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Translated by J.F.P. Hopkins. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000.

Muhammad Shafi. Maariful Quran. Translated: Muhammad Shamim. Editor: Muhammad Taqi Usmani. N.P. N.D.

Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Port in a Storm: A Fiqh Solution to the Qibla of North America. Jordan: Wakeel Books, 2001.

Patrick D. Bowen. A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 1: White American Muslims before 1975. Boston: Brill, 2015.

Rāghib al-Surjānī. Qiṣṣah al-Andalūs. Cairo: Muassasah Iqra, 2011.

“Rev. J. L. Rodgers Found.” Evening Sentinel, June 3, 1902.

Robert Dannin. Black Pilgrimage to Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Rudolph T. Ware III. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Shihābuddīn Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā. Masālik al-Abṣār Fī Mamālīk al-Amṣār. Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-cIlimiyyah, 2010.

Sylvan A. Diouf. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.  N.Y.: New York University Press, 1998.

Toyin Falola. Key Events in African History: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Umar F. Abd-Allah.  A Muslim in Victorian America: the life of Alexander Russell Webb. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Umar F. Abd-Allah. “Turks, Moors, & Moriscos in Early America: Sir Francis Drake’s Liberated Galley Slaves & the Lost Colony of Roanoke.” Nawawi Foundation (2010). www.nawawi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/roots_of_islam_p1.pdf.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Waves from an Ocean of Light

  1. Sulaiman Abdul Haqq

    Alhamdulilaah jazakallaah khair…such islamic history is beneficial to shed light on hidden reality essential to understand Islam’s roots in the world as a whole…good job…may Allaah bless you and your family with strong din and long life…and accept all those who strive for din aameen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *