My earliest memories of Sapelo are steeped in girlhood from my father’s fascinating stories about the island off the coast of Georgia where our African Muslim ancestors lived and practiced Islam as early as the 1800s. The narrative of Bilali Muhammad, a well educated African Muslim enslaved on Sapelo and arguably the first author of Islamic Jurisprudence in America, remained vivid with me. Some 20 years passed before I made intentions, packed my bags, and hit the road south from Atlanta with Sapelo as my destination in mind.
Arriving to the pier and waiting for the ferry to cross over to the island, I was met with effortlessly scenic views and abundant sun.
With feet firmly planted on Sapelo, the first order of business was to greet the ancestors. To stand at the feet of the African Muslim forefathers and foremothers at their resting place in Behavior Cemetery was a cosmic and humbling experience. Looking across the many headstones that were facing East in the direction of the qibla and in the direction of the ancestral homeland/continent of Africa, further joined my being to them across space and time.
What was just as intriguing was to tour the island with the direct descendants of Bilali Muhammad who still reside there and who have immense knowledge and pride in their Gullah-Geechie roots. Touring the island with sista Yvonne was an incredible experience as she shared her family’s rich oral history.
To my great blessing, following the formal tour with sista Yvonne, I was invited as a special guest to meet with Sapelo elders in the Historic Hog Hammock Community where the majority of Bilali Muhammad descendants still live on the island. There I met with elder Cornelia Bailey, author, oral historian, and “the sage of Sapelo.” Being in her presence was life-giving and a tremendous opportunity shared by few.
Elder Cornelia spoke candidly of the courage, intellectual wisdom, and piety of ancestor Bilali Muhammad. As descendants of African Muslims enslaved in the Georgia sea island, Cornelia shared the history of the island’s first masjid, the Bilali Manuscript, and the continued cultural customs so characteristic of West Africans and Muslims alike, including the custom of removing shoes before entering homes and the use of prayer beads.
As my day trip to Sapelo came to an end, I considered how the history of Islam in America was deeply rooted in the African-American experience. I arrived with girlhood dreams of connecting to the unique legacy of African descended Muslims and through my travels I was affirmed in that.
View a slideshow of my journey below.
Bashirah Mack is an American Muslim woman of African descent with Gullah-Geechie ancestral roots by way of the Low Country Charleston, South Carolina. Ever the wanderlust, and inspired by her family’s oral history, the history of Islam in America, and the history of African descended peoples, Bashirah travels both near and far to points of interest to (re)connect the unique legacy of her people with all people.