1503: America’s First Muslim Ban


Margarita Rosa

Margarita Rosa is a Ph. D candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature and a scholar of women and slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Her dissertation, titled “The Enslaved Womb: Enslaved Women, Roman Law, and Reproduction in Brazil,” traces the history of legislation concerning enslaved women’s biological reproduction, beginning with Roman legislation and ending with the 1871 Free-Womb Law in Brazil. Rosa’s work examines how nineteenth-century scholars in Brazil used or disposed of Roman legislation in arguments for or against hereditary slavery. Rosa traces the naturalization of the claim that “the child of an enslaved woman is also born a slave,” and provides theoretical tools for studying the inheritance of slavery through long durée accounts of the western archive.

Her interests include enslaved women and reproduction, slave rebellions, enslaved women in prisons, and black women writers in the western literary tradition. Margarita Rosa’s historical training is in Latin American History and African American History.

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On June 26, 2018, the US Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s third Muslim Ban, which bars the granting of visas to nationals from a number of Muslim-majority countries. What many Americans don’t know is that Muslims were the first category of people to be expressly forbidden from entering the Americas. The first decree against the entry of Muslims into the Americas was issued in 1503, just a decade after Christopher Columbus had landed in the Americas. Numerous identical decrees were passed in subsequent years to assure that Muslims would not “contaminate” the inhabitants of the New World nor spread rebelliousness amongst enslaved Africans. Through a discussion of how Muslims came to be the first group banned from the Americas, I historicize the relative absence of Muslims from American historical records and also offer a historical timeline of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Americas. I ultimately show that the early Americas were founded on the exclusion of Muslims and Jews, and that that exclusion began with the exclusion of enslaved black Muslims.

First Muslims Banned: Enslaved Black Muslims

In 1503, Nicolás de Ovando, the governor sent by the Spanish Crown to replace Christopher Columbus, wrote a letter to the Spanish queen asking her to prevent the importation of “ladino” slaves to the Americas because they were causing rebelliousness and marronage (acts of running away) among the enslaved population.[1] What did he mean by “ladinos”? The answer to this question is key to determining the timing of the very first Muslim ban. The term “ladino” was used to refer to anyone who spoke Spanish or Portuguese and has been applied to “non-native” Iberians since time immemorial.[2] European Jews, Muslims, and their descendants who spoke Spanish or Portuguese were also called “ladinos.” So, what makes us think that Ovando was referring to black Muslims with this term? Taking historian Michael Gomez’s interpretation of the term “ladino,” we must acknowledge the following historical circumstances.

First, the Spanish had been enslaving sub-Saharan people (initially by way of Arab North Africans) for a few centuries before the beginning of American colonization. Second, while many of these enslaved communities might not have been Muslim, a large number of them converted to Islam either in North Africa or in Spain (but we can assume that a large number of them were already Muslim). Third, since the enslaved populations first imported to the Americas were carried over from Spain, it is most likely that these enslaved people would have been Muslims who, because of their time in Spain, had learned Spanish. If we accept these three points as historical facts, then the first Muslim ban occurred in 1503. But even those who would not concede to that very early date would likely concede that the first Muslim ban occurred approximately one generation later in 1523, when (presumably European) Jews and Muslims were banned from entering Mexico.[3] And in 1526, enslaved black Muslims were expressly forbidden from stepping foot in any part of the Americas.[4]   

On May 11, 1526, the Spanish Crown sent out an official decree forbidding shipment into the Americas of “black Wolof slaves, or those from the Levant, or those raised with Muslims.”[5] These three categories suggest that the ban was against any slave who had any connection to Islam. This would make sense, given the subsequent decrees that also mention Muslim-majority populations. Spanish authorities found Muslim presence among the enslaved Africans extremely dangerous, as is evidenced by the numerous laws passed against their importation. The slave traders, who were not particularly committed to finding out the religious affiliation of the slaves they were importing, would continue to import enslaved Muslims.[6] We would therefore not be surprised to find that in 1532, the Council of San Juan, Puerto Rico, sent a letter to the Spanish Crown desperately pleading that they “rule that, as of today, no more Wolof slaves enter this island because they are very bellicose and do nothing but wage war in their own lands.”[7] The letter from the Puerto Rican Council also noted that, “whenever there are rebellions, it is these slaves who are its insurgents.”[8] This desperate appeal suggests that the enslaved Wolofs were making repeated efforts at gaining their liberation, a behavioral marker that sets enslaved Muslims apart from other groups of slaves in the history of the Americas. Fearing the increase of slave rebellions, the Spanish Crown was quick to respond to the appeal of the Puerto Rican Council. Just a few months later, the Queen of Spain sent a letter addressed to the Council responsible for creating maritime laws between Spain and the Americas. In this letter, she reiterated the 1526 prohibition against the importation of “any Wolof slave” to the Americas since these were “causing harm in San Juan and other Islands,” due to their “arrogance and inobedience.”[9]     

It should be clear from these decrees that enslaved Muslims were considered a threat to the established Spanish order in the Americas and were thus barred from entry. But it also ought to be noted that European Muslims were equally unwelcome by the Spanish establishment. The complex reasons for this general ban against Muslims are explored in the remainder of this article.  

Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, 711-1609 AD

The presence of Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) began as early as 711 AD, when Muslim troops and refugees from the Sham region began to populate the Peninsula and ultimately gained political control over what centuries later became Spain and Portugal. In the eleventh century, four hundred years after the consolidation of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, Catholic troops from the north would begin to push against Muslim rule, beginning two historically significant movements. The first of these would come to be known as The Crusades, a series of military campaigns waged to regain control over lands that were considered to belong to Catholics. The second of these movements would come to be known as the “Reconquista,” or Reconquest, referring to military campaigns aiming to gain (or regain) control of the Iberian Peninsula. The battle for political rule over the Iberian Peninsula was nevertheless a long one, and significant areas of Spain and Portugal would remain in Muslim hands until 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas.[10]   

By 1492, Iberian Catholics had been waging a centuries-long war against Iberian Muslims and a newer and increasingly bellicose war against Iberian Jews. Anti-Semitic sentiment became especially prevalent in the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the mid-1300s, forcing many Jews to convert to Catholicism or face tremendous persecution. The large population of Jews who had converted to Catholicism (subsequently known as “Moriscos”) gave rise to fears of crypto-Judaism in Spain. This in turn led to various institutions barring descendants of Jews from accessing employment, education, or accreditation, for fear that their Jewish beliefs would re-emerge. In 1478, the Spanish Inquisition was established to oversee the descendants of Jews and guard against crypto-Judaism, making the primary role of the Inquisition to make sure that those who proclaimed to be Catholics actually believed in the tenets of Catholicism and were not simply purporting to do so. In 1492, when Spanish Jews were ordered to leave Spain voluntarily or face forced deportation, many Jews chose to convert (at least ostensibly) to Catholicism and to abolish any visible Jewish customs so that they would not became suspects under the new rules of the Inquisition.

Muslims were not initially subject to the oversight of the Inquisition, primarily because Muslims were converting to Catholicism in fewer numbers and, as non-Catholics, were not under the jurisdiction of the forces of the Inquisition.[11] However, once Jews were banned from Spain altogether, Muslims came under higher scrutiny in an increasingly purist Catholic society. In the 1490s, a Catholic priest by the name of Fray Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros led a sequestration and burning of over a million Arabic manuscripts in Granada, which provoked a rebellion of the Muslims of Granada.[12] Subsequent royally sanctioned Arabic book-burning ceremonies led to an increasing number of Muslim rebellions in Spain, and in 1502, the Muslims of Castile were forced to choose between conversion and deportation. In 1526, the region of Aragon passed the same ruling, such that by the mid-sixteenth century, both Muslims and Jews were permanently barred from the Iberian Peninsula.[13] The Muslims who chose conversion over deportation were faced with overt acts of humiliation, often being forced to drink wine and eat pork in public to prove their adherence to Catholicism.[14] As the late Mexican historian María Elena Martínez wrote, “Legislation in Granada also tried to prevent the use of Muslim names and surnames, circumcision, the survival of Arabic, and certain forms of inheritance and fictive kinship.”[15]

Muslim converts to Christianity offered a mostly economic advantage to the Iberian Peninsula due to their large numbers and the reliance of the workforce on them, which explains why they were expelled from Spain at a later date than the less-numerous Jewish population. However, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, Muslim converts to Christianity were thought to pose a substantial threat to the established order, and in 1609, all descendants of Muslims were expelled from Spain. By that point, Spain had been undergoing a vast cultural transformation characterized by an increased regard for a concept called “purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre), a notion that is crucial to understanding why Muslims and Jews were banned from the Americas so early on.

“Purity of Blood” and the battle for Native American “Purity”

In the New World, “purity of blood” came to refer to the absence of any non-Catholic ancestry in one’s lineage, a genealogical status that became increasingly required for the attainment of religious and lay posts in a society that was clearly characterized by religious exclusivity.[16] The prevalence of “purity of blood” requirements in the New World was nevertheless the result of a circumstance unique to the Americas: the presence of indigenous populations. How indigenous populations come into this complex story ultimately comes down to who, under “natural law,” could be rightfully subjected to “just war.” That is, what populations are allowed to be conquered without there being a recognized legal injustice. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a prominent Spanish priest who came to be known as the “defender of the Indians,” argued that populations indigenous to the Americas could not be justly conquered since they did not fit under the three categories necessary for a community to be conquered under “just war”: 1) that the community take over one’s land (which was impossible for the indigenous peoples to do as they were not traveling en masse to Europe); 2) that the community attempt to annihilate or harm the religious following of the Catholic Church (and there was no sign that the indigenous people were attempting mass conversions of Catholics); or 3) that the community had known about Catholicism and had rejected it (which the indigenous people could not have done since they had not previously known about Catholicism).[17] The third of these conditions is the most significant for our purposes, because it meant that, if the Indigenous communities of the Americas converted to Islam or Judaism, they would automatically be subject to just conquest, since it would have meant that they had rejected Catholicism after having been taught about it. Thus came about the concept of Native American purity, a scarcely studied concept that ultimately meant that, legally, the Spanish could not conquer Indigenous populations. Rather, these populations, due to their “purity,” would have had to willingly accept Spanish rule. As it turns out, Spanish conquerors composed numerous ways of declaring that the indigenous peoples had “willingly” accepted subjection to the Spanish Crown. But the Spanish would not have had to make up these alternate forms of proving the legitimacy of their conquest if it was not for the theological defense of the indigenous people’s “purity.” Essentially, the indigenous population began to be seen as an “unsullied population,” lacking the “stain of heresy.” Legally, they were known as “uninfected gentiles” (gentiles no infectados).[18] But uninfected by what? Precisely by Islam or Judaism. Spanish theologians and jurists hoping to prolong indigenous “purity” made it their mission to keep the New World “uncontaminated” by Jews and Muslims who would “infect” the indigenous with their religious beliefs, thereby making the latter liable for conquest.[19] To prevent the contamination of indigenous populations, the Spanish rulers of present-day Mexico forbade Jews, Muslims, and their descendants from entering by an edict issued in 1523, only two years after the forced conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortez.[20] Essentially, African, European, and Levantine Muslims were barred from the New World as soon as European offices in these lands were established.


Muslim bans have existed in the Americas since 1503 and were the result of a fear that Muslims would infect the free and enslaved populations in Americas with their religion and rebelliousness. Both enslaved Muslims and free European Muslims were expressly forbidden from entering the New World within the first three decades of European colonization. This history suggests that the Americas were literally founded on Islamophobic principles that continue to reign to this day. The US Supreme Court’s recent decision in favor of Trump’s Muslim ban is thus one of many iterations of American bans against the entry of Muslims. This long history ought not to dissuade us, however, about the worthiness of our fight against such bans. Just as Muslim bans characterize the history of the Americas, so too do Muslim presence, Muslim survival, and Muslim resistance.


[1] Gomez, Michael A. Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza De Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, 128.

[4] Lucena, Salmoral M. Regulación De La Esclavitud Negra En Las Colonias De América Española (1503-1886): Documentos Para Su Estudio. Alcalá de Henares: Universidad de Alcalá, 2005, 31.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For example, see the case of Cristobal de la Cruz, an Algerian Muslim enslaved in Mexico. Cook, Karoline P. “Navigating Identities: The Case of A Morisco Slave in Seventeenth-Century New Spain,” The Americas, vol. 65 no. 1, 2008, pp. 63-79. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/tam.0.0030

[7] Lucena, Salmoral M. Regulación De La Esclavitud Negra En Las Colonias De América Española (1503-1886): Documentos Para Su Estudio. Alcalá de Henares: Universidad de Alcalá, 2005, 44.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lucena, Salmoral M. Regulación De La Esclavitud Negra En Las Colonias De América Española (1503-1886): Documentos Para Su Estudio. Alcalá de Henares: Universidad de Alcalá, 2005, 45.

[10] The Spanish were the first Europeans to reach the Western Hemisphere, and with them came several centuries of conquest, massacres, enslavement, and colonization. When the English imported their first ship of enslaved Africans into Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, the Spanish and Portuguese had already been colonizing Central and South America for over a century. That is to say that any history of European colonization of the Americas must begin with the Spanish, and to a lesser extent, the Portuguese.

[11] Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza De Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 

[12] Eisenberg (1992) gives the number  of 4,000 Arabic books while Martínez (2011) gives the number of over a million. Eisenberg, D. “Cisneros y la quema de los manuscritos granadinos.” Journal of Hispanic Philology16(2), 1992, 107. Royal decrees in 1501 and 1511 also called for the burning of all books written in Arabic. Wiegers, Gerard Albert. Islamic Literature in Spanish and Aljamiado: Yça of Segovia (fl. 1450), His Antecedents and Successors by Gerard Wiegers. Medieval Iberian Peninsula. Texts and Studies, vol. 8. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill, 1994.)

[13] Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions35.

[14] See O’Banion, Patrick J. “‘They Will Know our Hearts’: Practicing the Art of Dissimulation on the Islamic Periphery.” Journal of Early Modern History, vol. 20, no. 2, 2016: 193-217. The same can be said about descendants of Jews. See: Brooks, Andre, “When household habits betrayed the Jews,” New York Times, Feb 20, 1997. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/20/garden/when-household-habits-betrayed-the-jews.html, Accessed on 07/23/2018. Also see Lee, Christina. The anxiety of sameness in early modern Spain. Manchester University Press. 2016, 128

[15] Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions39.

[16] In Spain, the concept usually applied to individuals who had been free of any non-Catholic lineage for at least two generations. In the New World, however, institutions began to call for “in infinitum” Christian lineage. Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions203.

[17] Casas, Bartolomé de las, and Gonzalo de Reparaz. Historia de las Índias T. 1 T. 1. Madrid: Aguilar, 1927, 16.

[18] Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions47, 92, 97.

[19] Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions133, 203.

[20]Martinez, Maria E. Genealogical Fictions128.

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