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Sunday, January 22, 2017
"Prince Among Slaves" is the moving documentary about Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori. A prince in the kingdom of Futta Jalon, currently Guinea, Abdul-Rahman was enslaved in 1788. A Muslim as well, Abdul-Rahman was a forefather of the African-American freedom movement. The documentary aired on Chicago’s WTTW-11, February 4. More than just a prince-to-pauper story, it illuminates the shameful nature of slavery and the experience of early American Muslims
The program comes during Black History Month, a time for all Americans to reflect on the African-American experience. Enslaved Africans were stripped of their identities, forced into labor and disallowed from reading, writing and practicing their religion. Many do not realize that as much as 20% were Muslim. It is hard to grasp exactly how hard it was. Torn from all they knew, many had to resign themselves to a life of ignominy. Despite this, there are numerous examples of individuals, like Abdul-Rahman, who rose above the terrible oppression.
Though Abdul-Rahman eventually returned to Africa, his legacy shows us that Muslims have roots that stretch back much further than most realize. As Imam Zaid Shakir wrote in New Islamic Directions’ February Newsletter, “As Muslims, our story in this country did not begin with the coming of Syrians, Albanians, Lebanese or Yemenis at the turn of the 20th century. It began with those courageous African Muslim slaves whose blood, sweat and tears were instrumental in building this country. Their struggle is our struggle, and our struggle should be a continuation of theirs.”
The history of the American Muslim experience is often overlooked. There are unknown hundreds that need to be part of our shared history. Islam is not foreign to America. Rather, it has been part of our history since before the Declaration of Independence. In light of the prejudice many Muslims face today, stories of early American Muslims, like Abdul-Rahman’s, are invaluable.
Abdul-Rahman’s story begins when he was returning to his native capitol after a military triumph. On the road, his small brigade was attacked. Fearing retribution from the king, the attackers sold them to American slave traders. After eight harrowing months, Abdul-Rahman arrived in Natchez, Mississippi, where he was bought by John Foster. He told Foster that a handsome reward would be paid for his freedom. But, Foster ridiculed him, mockingly re-naming him “Prince”. Stripped of his identity and religion, he began a new life. Abdul-Rahman married, and, under his supervision, the small cotton farm became a bustling plantation.
The unlikely meeting of John Cox and Abdul-Rahman was a ray of hope for the former prince. Cox, a ship’s doctor, had been abandoned in Futta Jalon when he contracted a fever. As the first white man to stay in the country, he was given royal treatment. Years later, Cox was stunned to see Abdul-Rahman as a slave. When Abdul-Rahman had grown too old to be of financial use to Foster, Cox’s son finally arranged for his freedom. Abdul-Rahman campaigned in the North to free his family as well, but to no avail. Turning to the American Colonization Society, a group dedicated to freeing slaves and spreading Christianity in Africa, Abdul-Rahman arranged passage back to Africa.
"One of the arrangements that was made for Abdul-Rahman going back was that... he was going to be a Christian missionary to help spread the gospel," said Artemis Gaye, a descendant of Abdul-Rahman, in an interview with Chicago Public Radio's Worldview. "When Abdul-Rahman landed in Liberia, the first thing he did, he prayed to Allah."
Four months after arriving in Liberia, Abdul-Rahman succumbed to disease. Though he was never able to return to his native country, he was finally free. His wife, Isabella, eventually freed many of their children, who joined her in Liberia.