Bilali was born in the city of Timbo in West Africa (modern day Guinea) around 1770. Timbo was a very important city because it was the capital of an Islamic state known as the Imamate of Futa Jallon. He grew up in a well-educated Muslim family and learned Arabic, the Qur’an, and other subjects. While still a teenager he was enslaved and taken to the Bahamas in the Caribbean. He worked as a slave on the plantation of Dr. Bell for ten years.
In 1802 he was taken to Georgia and sold to Thomas Spalding. Bilali was put in charge of the plantation on Sapelo Island because he was educated and was a good leader. He oversaw four hundred other slaves and many of them were Muslims. Thomas Spalding allowed the Muslims to practice their religion. In fact, once, he found a copy of the Qur’an on sale so he bought it and gave it to Bilali as a gift. He also let him build a mosque on the island, which was the first known mosque in the United States.
On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain. The British bribed the slaves to revolt and to join them in the war against America. Some people sided with the British and others remained loyal to the United States. Thomas Spaulding trusted Bilali so he gave muskets to over eighty of his enslaved men. Bilali assured him that all the Muslims would be loyal to America but he could not promise that the non-Muslims would do the same. Bilali and his fellow Muslims on Sapelo Island defended the United States when British troops launched an attack. This makes Bilali and his fellow Muslims veterans who fought in the War of 1812 for America.
When Bilali died in 1857, people found a thirteen-page book written in Arabic in his home. Since they could not read Arabic, they assumed it must have been a diary or an autobiography and called it the “Ben Ali Diary”. However, they were mistaken. When more educated researchers looked at it, they realized it was a book about Islam: what to believe, how to wash for prayer, how to make the call to prayer, and other details of Islamic Law. This makes it the first Islamic book we know ever to be written in the United States of America. It was directly inspired by a famous book in the field of Jurisprudence according to the Maaliki school known as the Risaalah of Abi Zayd of Qayrawan. That book was part of the standard curriculum in West Africa and students would often memorize it cover to cover. Today, the document written by him is referred to as the “Ben Ali (Bilali) Manuscript”. It is kept at the University of Georgia in the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar | Nov 7, 2022 – Yorba Linda, CA