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Aug 2, 2023

Identifying Enslaved Muslim Women

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Sylviane Diouf Cropped

Sylviane A. Diouf

Brown University

Sylviane A. Diouf is a social historian whose research interests include the trans-Atlantic and trans-Indian Ocean slave trades, West African Muslims, and resistance to slavery.

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Identifying Enslaved Muslim Women

In the article below, Sylviane A. Diouf explains how she identified enslaved Muslim women through their names and ethnicities for her main article, “The Untold Stories of Enslaved African Muslim Women in the Americas.”

Identifying enslaved Muslim women starts with finding their names in historical records. However, the names barely reflect the extent of the women’s presence, since almost all Africans were forcibly renamed. Still, some retained their original names, which appear, among other documents, in runaway ads and enslavers’ wills and inventories. For example, Alab (Al-Arbi¢ā’), Wednesday), Binta, Cadica (Khadījah), Fanta, Fatimata, Fatime, Fatma, Fatna, Fonta, Marita, Rabia, Raby, Salata (Salimata), and Yman were some names recorded in Martinique.1 Angouma (Al-Jumu¢ah), Awa, Fatima, Fatme, and Hayda were recorded in Saint Domingue; in August 1791, a Cécile Fatiman played a major role in the ceremony that marked the beginning of the famous revolution on that island.2 George Washington’s 1774 tithable list included Fatimer and Little Fatimer.3 Two Fatimas were listed in the 1801 inventory of Dr. John Bell, a Loyalist who took refuge in the Bahamas.4 In eighteenth-century Louisiana, Marie Baraca, Fatiment, Fatima, Fatterma, and Yacine appeared in various documents.5

The 1828 inventory of James Hamilton’s plantations on Georgia’s Saint Simons Island listed two Baracas, one Binta, and six Fatimas aged five to sixty-one, as well as two Mahomets and one Belale.6 Without a doubt, other Muslims on that list had imposed names. One of the most famous was listed as Tom; he was Salih Bilali, the plantation’s driver, a Pulo (plural Fulbe) from Mali, kidnapped when he was about twelve.

Several Muslims appeared in Georgia Lieutenant Governor John Graham’s 1781 inventory. Among the 262 people he enslaved were Magigen (Madjiguène), Barka, Fatima, New Fatima, and four Cumbas. Some women not only retained their first names but also their surnames, as did Cumbadie (Cumba Ndiaye), Cumbawad (Cumba Wade), Fantican (Fanta Kane), and Massudie (Meïssa Ndiaye). All last names indicate that the women were Wolof, except for Kane, who was Pulo. Among the men were Wally, Algima (Adiouma), two Mahomets, and three Sambas. Not one of them had a last name.7

A second way to identify Muslim women is through their ethnicity. Mandinka, Fulbe, Hausa, and people from other ethnicities were Muslims, so even when they were given Christian names, we know they were originally Muslims. Historian Gwendolyn Middlo Hall found that in Louisiana and Saint-Domingue, Mandinka, Wolof, Fulbe, and Moors from Mauritania had the highest percentage of name retention.8

Muslims were especially determined to keep their given names because Islam stresses the importance the Prophet Muhammad gives to beautiful and meaningful names, and the religion states that people will be called by their names and their father’s names on the Day of Judgment. Although slaveholders rarely acknowledged original names, Muslims and non-Muslims alike commonly kept their names within their communities. The most striking example of this practice was recorded among the Gullah of Georgia. Their isolated Sea Islands had, arguably, the highest concentration of Muslims, including veiled women.9 Over the years, the people, who were from a variety of cultures, developed their own language, which contains over four thousand words in thirty-two West and Central African languages and Arabic. Most had nicknames called “basket names.” Linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner, who compiled these names in the early 1930s, stressed, “So general is [their] use that many of the Gullahs have difficulty in recalling their English given-name.”10 About one hundred are clearly of Islamic/Arabic origin.

Of those, the female names are the most numerous. Most are original or West African adaptations of the names of the Prophet Muhammad’s relatives: Amina, Aminata; Famata, Fatima, Fatimata, Fatu, Fatuma; Jenaba; Kadidja; and Safiyata. Others are Binta and Bintu (from bint, daughter); Mariama and Marieta; Aniya; Awa; Baraka; and Magariba. Some are variants of days in Arabic: Altine (Monday/ Al-Ithnayn); Talata (Tuesday/Al-Thulathā’); Araba and Laraba (Wednesday/Al-Arbi¢ā’); Alkamisa and Aramisa (Thursday/Al-Khamīs); Arajuma and Jumare (Friday/Al-Jumu¢ah). Other names were the Soninke, Mandinka, Songhai, or Pular word for prayers. Salafina is salifana (żuhr); Alansaro is alansara and lassara (¢Aśr). Safo (¢Ishā’) and Luha (żuhr) are also common in these languages. The importance given to charity expressed itself in Sadaka, Sara, Saka, Saraka, and Sadakh; Aluwa (alwāĥ), writing tablets) and Almudu (Quranic student) emphasized education. Significant places such as Misira (Egypt), Madina, and Kaba were also female names, as were Imale and Male (Muslim). In contrast to this diversity, over 80 percent of male names were the expected Mamadu, Malik, Bilali, or Ayuba. The number and sheer variety of female names in the Gullah community may indicate parents’ decision to record—beyond the names of the Prophet’s relatives—some particulars of Islam such as prayers, charity, or education. Passing them on through girls could have been a way to safeguard elements of the religion for future generations, since mothers were more likely than fathers to live with their children. 

Historian Philip Morgan notes that in South Carolina names of African origin were more common among the Africans’ children than among the Africans themselves, who “more often bequeathed homeland names to their children in an effort to honor tradition and family ties.”11 This was evidently the case with five-year-old Fatima, one-year-old Belale, and eleven-year-old Binta, enslaved by James Hamilton in the 1820s, as well as three-year-old “mulatto” Fatima, who died in 1849, one of over 950 people enslaved by the Fripp family on St. Helena Island. Also part of a second generation was six-year-old Fatima, deported from Mobile, Alabama, in 1829 with another thirty enslaved people to the lucrative slave market of New Orleans.12


Read the Table of Contents which lists topics and names of authors, including Caner K. Dagli, Sylviane A. Diouf, Stephen A. Gregg, Joshua Lee Harris, Hamza Yusuf and others.

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