There is a prevalent assumption among experts and non-experts alike that chattel and plantation slavery
meant the complete annihilation of social, cultural, and intellectual formations among enslaved Africans.
This is far from the truth, especially in Brazil, which imported the highest number of enslaved Africans via the transatlantic slave trade—a staggering twenty-five percent of all slaves spread across North, Central, and South America.
After the Haitian Revolution resulted in the formation of the first black republic in the Western hemisphere in 1804, other colonies like Cuba and Brazil hoped to replace the massively successful sugar colony. Thus, following the Haitian Revolution, imports across the Americas grew, particularly in Brazil. Moreover, a catastrophic combination of internal African politics and continuous European instigation led to an exacerbation of the slave trade around the Bight of Benin, which led to higher exports from that area. Most of the slaves that ultimately formed nineteenth-century Bahían Muslim society were prisoners of war from either side of the wars that would eventually lead to the formation of the Sokoto Caliphate.
In Brazil, these individuals were known as Nagôs, an inclusive term indicating Yoruban ethnolinguistic groups. The Nagôs of Brazil rebelled dozens of times in the forty years before the Malê revolt, although these rebellions would usually only garner the participation of a singular ethnic group, most often the Hausas. The Malê revolt, on the other hand, drew participants from virtually every ethnic group of African-born slaves and freedmen in Bahía.
No Brazilian-born Africans are known to have participated in the Malê revolt, however. Brazilian-born Africans and mulattos were highly distrusted among the African-born community due to their unwavering loyalty to the Portuguese-Brazilian ruling social class. The Malê revolt was therefore undertaken by African-born slaves and freedmen. Contrary to what the name suggests, however, not all participants in the Malê revolt were Muslim, although the vast majority were. What makes the name appropriate, however, is not the exclusive participation of Muslims. Rather, it is the fact that the rebellion was organized in madrassas and born out of particular relationships between Muslim teachers and their devoted students.
Most of the ʿulama
in Bahía were enslaved, as were their students.
While freedmen played a very special role in the formation of madrassas
and free teachers were the only ones able to cross towns and teach elsewhere, most of the Islamic education in Bahía was centered around the conditions of slavery and a highly-racialized system of power, where even freedmen were highly repressed. Indeed, the formation of madrassas
was by necessity a secret enterprise. In this context, the house of Manoel Calafate and Aprígio, two elderly free Nagôs, became a prominent location for the gathering of Muslims, prayer, and Islamic education. Testimonies given after the insurrection demonstrated that Aprígio and Calafate were both respected teachers who were adored by their devoted students—Calafate would even be called “Paí” in many of the testimonies, meaning “father.” Their madrassa
was hidden in a rented house which for the most part proved inconspicuous, even as students would wander in and out throughout the day.
The preservation of Muslim tradition and pious acts was hidden from the visible fabric of Bahían society, yet present in its innermost seams. The creation of Muslim attire was a fundamental aspect of Bahían pious acts since slaves were often made to wear the most undignified of garments. Thus, wearing Muslim clothing in a society that had stripped them of that virtue was a way for enslaved and subjugated Muslims to work towards a bodily vindication that might bestow a sense of dignity and identity where it had been lost. In that very home, Aprígio was known for making kaftans and kufis, many of which were found in the aftermath of the revolt. An elderly Nagô slave by the name of Luís also sewed Muslim garments. Testimonies about Luís were centered around tales of students coming to him and asking him to pray for them. If his mere presence was filled with the hope of divine intervention, then so perhaps might have been his clothing. The fact that Muslim garments were made by religious leaders suggests that wearing these garments had become an essential aspect of the embodied spiritual formation of Bahían Muslims.
Yet these garments were not worn outside of religious spaces, for fear of them becoming recognizable symbols. Thus, spaces of spiritual fortification became places that were used for various acts of piety among the Bahían community. An elderly Hausa freedman by the name of Dandará was among the freedmen who provided spaces for Muslim pedagogical formation in Bahía. Dandará owned a tobacco shop that he used as a musalla
and a madrassa
, congregating Muslims for various pious activities such as formal prayer and dhikr
According to one testimony, Dandará extended himself to provide two lessons per day aos pretos
(to blacks). The portrait of Bahían Islamic teachers is invariably one of complete selflessness in the face of the most limiting constraints, and Dandará was no exception. The pious elderly man lived for his students and in order to praise God. In a gripping testimony, a mulatto man who lived above Dandará’s shop recounted that, through the floorboards, he would see the old man take large prayer beads, rub them against his hands repeatedly, and shout out to the heavens.
an elderly enslaved Nagô, like Dandará, exemplified qualities of complete devotion to God and a commitment to the progress of enslaved African Muslims. From testimonies and letters, we know that Sanin was a cherished member of the Bahían Muslim community. One extant letter written mostly in Hausa is an appeal to Sanin from a slave named ‘Abd al-Qadir for Sanin to offer his prayers and condolences after ‘Abd al-Qadir’s newborn daughter died. The letter contains an emotionally devastating supplication that shows the deeply spiritual relationship between teacher and student,
a profound indication of the preservation of Islamic pedagogical methods across the Middle Passage. Sanin used the house of two free Muslims to teach Muslims how to perform prayers and supplications.
Yet, he also took practical approaches to ensuring the progression of the Muslim community and the preservation of responsibilities that Muslims have towards one another. In one of the most outstanding cases from the records on the Malê Revolt, Sanin organized the collection of funds from enslaved Muslims for the performance of pious acts of charity (zakat
). An enslaved person in Bahía might have acquired funds through some kind of loose employment or payment for small favors, and in the years leading up to the 1835 revolt, the enslaved Muslims would have used their minimal funds to perform acts of zakat
. Sanin designated one-third of the funds to be spread amongst the enslaved, even as those giving zakat
themselves were slaves and occupying the lowest social strata. The institution of zakat
among the African Muslims suggests that the condition of enslavement did not negate what some Bahían slaves felt was an enduring responsibility for the preservation of Islamic codes, which included the concession that, even as slaves, someone else’s condition was more in need of ailment than the one giving zakat
. The second-third of the zakat
collection was used to buy fabric to make Muslim clothing, which as I suggested before, was an essential component of Bahían spiritual life. The remaining third was used to obtain the manumission of slaves, in the event that such arrangements were possible.
In another town in Bahía, in the Vitória district, two Muslims enslaved by Englishmen were given permission to build a hut in the plantation, which they used as a madrassa
. Perhaps due to the prevalence of abolitionist thought in England, there are many cases in Bahía of tolerance among the English for the various activities of their slaves. Even if this tolerance did not translate to manumission, the permission to build a school for slaves to “memorize and write down prayers” was an unfathomable gift to the pious enslaved Muslim.
Furthermore, this madrassa
had three prominent teachers by the name of Dassalú (Mama), Gustard (Buremo), and Nicobé (Sule).
But teaching Qur’anic recitation was not the only thing that made all of these madrassas
similar to those of West Africa. After 1835, authorities confiscated dozens of wooden boards with handles cut out on one of the edges which the Nagô Muslims of Bahía called a wàláá
. When asked about these boards, a Hausa slave named Albino confirmed what anyone conscious of the methods of West African Islamic and instruction would already be familiar with. Enslaved Bahían Muslims would write their lessons on the wooden tablets with long sticks dipped in a kind of ink and, after the lesson,
the enslaved Muslims would wash the boards off and drink the ink of the water.
The water from the Qur’anic passages would provide barakah (blessings) when consumed, and was part and parcel of the spiritual experience of learning, in West Africa as in Bahía.
Two elderly Muslims were at the center of Bahían spiritual and intellectual formations. Ahuna, an enslaved Nagô, was considered by many of the testimonies the maioral
(the leader) of the Bahían Muslim community. João José Reis suggests that Ahuna would have been the most wanted man by authorities after the 1835 revolt.
Yet the elderly man’s life does not paint a portrait of a dangerous man. Ahuna was enslaved by a Brazilian man who made a living selling drinking water. As his slave, Ahuna had to comply with the man’s orders even though it was against Ahuna’s Islamic values to charge money for water.
Ahuna’s specific contributions to the Bahian Muslim community are not well known, but what is known is that he was a central figure in the Malê revolt. A few months before the rebellion, Ahuna was charged with a crime, and although the crime was minor, he was exiled to another town. Clearly, his activities were perceived as dangerous to Bahían authorities. As a true testament of the status of Ahuna and the devotion of his followers, his students followed him all the way to the port. The day before the rebellion, authorities had already heard that the Nagôs were planning to “reunite” with their maioral
The second figure who was absolutely central to the formation of the Malê revolt was an elderly enslaved Nagô who, although he appears as Pacífico Licutan
in records, referred to himself as Bilal, a clear ode to Bilal ibn Rabah, the first muʾazzin
of Islam, and an African who spent most of his life as a slave. Our Bahían Bilal was enslaved by a brutal owner who would have him spend his day rolling cigars which he then would sell.
Despite this condition, testimonies say that Bilal had students coming in and out of his room.
They would wait outside until he called on them. The manumission of slaves through zakat was often the way that students would liberate their teachers. Twice Bilal’s students tried to buy his freedom, but the owner refused. Then, after becoming indebted to the Carmelite Order of Friars, Bilal’s owner sold him off to be auctioned. Bilal spent that Ramadan in prison, while his students took to plotting a rebellion in which the first plan of action was to liberate their beloved teacher.
Historian Rudolph Ware
suggests that the bearers of knowledge as per the pedagogical values of West African Islamic societies were considered to be walking manifestations of the Qur’an. Internalized knowledge becomes embodied knowledge—Islamic knowledge becomes part of the body itself. The emphasis on Qur’anic knowledge as an instruction of both the mind and the body is rooted in a hadith
in which A’isha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, is asked to speak about the qualities of the Prophet ﷺ, and she describes him as “the walking Qur’an on earth.”
The walking Qur’an
is thus he or she who internalizes the teachings of the Qur’an and applies them to their entire life—enjoining to truth and forbidding bad, no matter where they may be and no matter their condition. In Bahía, where the only people learned in Qur’an verses and recitation were elderly teachers such as Calafate, Dandará, Ahuna, and Bilal, the knowledge that they possessed vis-à-vis their bodies and that they transmitted and affirmed vis-à-vis their bodies, positioned them as walking Qur’ans. When a walking Qur’an was jailed or exiled, as Ahuna and Bilal were, Ware argues that it was as though one were putting the Qu’ran in chains
. And this
was a direct incentive towards rebellion. Ware writes, “Seeing the Book in chains was both a real and a metaphorical point of no return. Men of letters took up arms…choosing to forgo long-established traditions of clerical pacifism, neutrality, and pious distance from power.”  Thus, it is no surprise that months after Ahuna was exiled and weeks after Bilal was imprisoned to be sold off to a new master, Bahían Muslims saw an armed revolt as the only way to unchain their walking Qur’ans.