In June of 1731, a runaway African slave was found wandering in Kent County, Pennsylvania. He was arrested by the local police and interrogated by them. He did not speak any English, so not much of a conversation could be had. Ayuba Suleyman Diallo eventually did speak, but his choice of words – and the fact he said only two of them – defined this young man’s incredible story: “Allah. Muhammad.”
Ayuba Sulayman Diallo was born in Bundu, Senegal, in West Africa, at around the turn of the century in 1700, presumably into a wealthy Fulani family. He received a very good Islamic education. He seems to have come from a prosperous family, for by the age of 31 he was comfortably settled with two wives and four young children: Abdullah, Ibrahim, Sambo and Fatimah. It was at this point, in the prime of his youth, however, that his life dramatically changed course.
In 1731 he travelled to the Gambia on the Atlantic coast, where the Portuguese and British had established commercial ports. Ayuba had come here with his interpreter, Loumein Yoas, to buy paper, which his people had traditionally received from North Africa and the Middle East but could now buy more conveniently from the Europeans. But not all of the Europeans had come to sell paper. Many were looking to buy (or capture) slaves.
Ayuba and Loumein were captured before they reached their destination by slave traders from another African tribe, the Mandingo. Before selling them off, the Mandingo shaved their slaves’ heads and faces; for Ayuba, this was very humiliating, though the kidnappers probably meant nothing more by it than to make it seem as if they had been captured in war. The captors then sold Ayuba and Loumein to Captain Pike, a British slaver, on February 27, 1731. Before
Ayuba desperately tried to inform Captain Pike that his father would redeem him, and he managed to write a letter to his father explaining what had happened. But by the time the letter reached Bundu and Ayuba’s father sent several slaves of his own to take his son’s place, Captain Pike had already set sail for America, with Ayuba on board. If the experiences of the other Africans enslaved in the Americas were anything to judge by, Ayuba had seen Africa for the last time.
After the arduous journey to America, Captain Pike sold Ayuba to a farmer named Mr. Tolstoy in Maryland. The deal was arranged by Vachell Denton, a man whom Ayuba would see again in the future. But for now, he was owned by Tolstoy, who immediately re-named him “Simon” – the first step in the effort to erase the slave’s sense of identity. However, Ayuba, even in the shackles of slavery, wanted to retain every last drop of his identity, and instead chose a name for himself instead: Job ben Solomon, a literal translation of Ayuba (Ayyub in Arabic) and Sulayman into their English equivalents.
But perhaps it was more than just a matter of translation. His new owner, Tolstoy, was probably a Christian, and as such he would be familiar with the Biblical stories of Job and Solomon. As different as the Biblical stories may be from the stories of Ayyūb and Sulaymān (a) as they are presented in the Qur‘ān, Ayuba may have nonetheless done this to remind his owner that he would remain as patient as Ayyub and as dignified as Sulayman had been. And that is exactly what he did.
Ayuba was put to work in tobacco fields, but quickly became very ill, not being used to such hard labor. Seeing this, his owner let him tend to the cattle instead. Though the owner probably didn’t realize it, Ayuba must have enjoyed this (as much as one can enjoy anything as a slave) because tending to cattle was a traditional occupation of the Fulani people. But what Ayuba certainly enjoyed even more was the opportunity he now had to pray, which had been unavailable to him in the tobacco fields, where he had always been supervised. Now, he would leave the cattle and go into the woods nearby to pray.
However, a young white boy soon found him in the woods and had some fun, mocking him and throwing dirt in his face while he was praying. It was perhaps because of this and other distressing incidents that Ayuba decided to run away after having served his owner for only a few months. He was soon found, as was already mentioned, in Pennsylvania, and was arrested until his owner could come and retrieve him. Perhaps to confirm that he was really a Muslim, he was offered wine in jail, but he refused to drink it.
While in prison, however, he became locally famous for his ability to write in Arabic and for the noble lineage he was thought to have. His literacy caught the attention of a lawyer who happened to be travelling in the area, Rev. Thomas Bluett of the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. After spending some time with him, Bluett concluded that this young man was definitely not your everyday African-American slave.
This newfound reputation was what may have inspired Tolstoy, when he retrieved Ayuba from the prison, to treat him less harshly. His workload was lightened and he was even given a place to pray. Soon another slave, who could speak and understand both Ayuba’s native language and English, revealed to Tolstoy that Ayuba was from a very wealthy and aristocratic family. For the time being, however, these revelations changed very little.
Ayuba remained enslaved and devoted to his faith, indulging in “religious abstinence” (fasting) and following the Islamic dietary rules. He had “no scruple about fish, but won’t touch a bit of pork, it being expressly forbidden by their law.” In fact, he is said to have refused to eat any meat unless he had slaughtered the animal with his own hands or another Muslim had slaughtered it, so those around him would often let him slaughter for himself and for them.
We have to pause here to appreciate Ayuba’s choice of words during his interrogation. More than a thousand years earlier in Arabia, Prophet Muhammad (s)’s Abyssinian companion Bilal ibn Rabah (r) had ceaselessly repeated “Ahadun Ahad!” (“One, One!”) while enduring excruciatingly painful torture at the hands of his owners, who wanted him to renounce Islam. Bilal survived the ordeal, gained his freedom, and spent the rest of his life by the Prophet’s side, giving the adhān (call to prayer) and helping the young Muslim community in every way he could. Many years later, one of the Prophet’s Arab companions, Umar ibn al-Khattab (r) asked Bilal why he hadn’t said anything else, despite his deep insight and fluency in the Arabic language. Bilal’s reply was that at the time he didn’t know anything about Islam except the concept of tawhīd (the oneness of Allah).
Ayuba’s case was the opposite, but his spirit was the same. He was very knowledgeable about Islam, but he wasn’t fluent in the language of his captors. But what both Bilal and Ayuba had in common, despite living a thousand years apart and in very different worlds, was a sense of identity rooted in what they knew about Islam and how they could express it. For Bilal it was “Ahadun Ahad!” and for Ayuba it was “Allah, Muhammad.”
The historian Sylviane Diouf said it best: “Ayuba Suleyman Diallo had placed his faith in Allah. When confronted with an unknown, potentially dangerous situation over which he had no control, he simply affirmed his Islamic faith. He made the shahādah [declaration of faith] the definition of his own existence, of his person. He did so rightly, because in the end, his Islamic faith and education saved him, freeing him from bondage” (Diouf, p. 72).
After being brought back from prison by Tolstoy, Ayuba had more freedom to practice his faith, but he was still looking for a way out. He decided to write a letter to his father in Senegal, explaining to him everything that had happened, and asking his family to find a way to emancipate him. Ayuba had intelligently observed the networks of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and arranged for the letter to be sent to Africa on the same route that he had come from Africa: he sent it to Vachell Denton, with instructions to forward it to Captain Pike.
This was a risky move. After all, why were the people who had played a direct role in enslaving him now want to help him gain his freedom? The answer, Ayuba reasoned, was because they didn’t care about slavery itself. They cared more about the money they made from it. If he could convince them that they would be rewarded enough for helping him, they would probably do it.
Captain Pike had already set off for Britain by then, on the third leg of his regular triangular journey between Africa, America and Britain. Denton faithfully sent Ayuba’s letter to Britain in the hands of Captain Hunt, with instructions that he should give it to Captain Pike once he got there. But by the time the letter reached Britain, Captain Pike had left for Africa. Not sure of what to do, Captain Hunt showed the letter to James Oglethorpe, a philanthropist, politician, and deputy governor of the Royal African Company. Oglethorpe’s interest was sparked, and he sent the letter to the Chair of Arabic at Oxford University, John Gagnier, to have it translated. When he read the translation, Oglethorpe decided to buy Ayuba his freedom.
Having been bought by John Oglethorpe after being enslaved for about 18 months, Ayuba left America and journeyed to Britain in the company of Rev. Thomas Bluett. On his way there, he managed to learn some English from Bluett, so that by the time he got to London he could start telling his story to those who were interested (and there seem to have been many of them). During his stay in London, which lasted for several months, Ayuba made good use of his time. Acquiring the ability to translate Arabic to English, he helped Sir Hans Sloane, a British physician, collector and founder of the British Museum, by organizing the collection of Arabic manuscripts at the museum.
An even more amazing accomplishment, in the eyes of his observers, was that he wrote three entire copies of the Qur‘ān entirely from his memory, revealing that he had memorized it at a very young age. For every copy of the Qur‘ān that he wrote, he would not even once look at the copy he had finished before it. He became something of a celebrity in London, and even had the opportunity to meet Britain’s royal family, befriend the Duke of Montagu, and attending the gatherings at the Enlightenment-era salons.
One interesting event that happened while Ayuba was in London was that a portrait of him was painted by William Howe. As you can see in the picture, Ayuba is dressed in distinctively Afro-Islamic style of clothing, though these were certainly not the clothes he was wearing at the time. Still, he insisted that if his image was going to be preserved in a painting, he should be depicted in his own traditional clothes. Howe, of course, told him that he had no idea what to paint, because he had never seen Ayuba’s traditional clothing., In response, Ayuba asked Howe, who was Christian, a question: “If you can’t draw a dress you never saw, why do some of your painters presume to draw God, whom no one ever saw?” (Bluett, p. 50). He then explained his traditional, cultural clothes to Howe in minute detail, to the point that made intelligent use of his education and remained dedicated to his faith and proud of his identity.
When he finally set out from London for Africa in 1734, he had with him a letter from the Royal African Company (RAC), which thrived on the slave trade and only a few years ago had been involved in Ayuba’s enslavement. In the letter, the RAC had ordered its employees in Gambia to treat Ayuba “with the greatest respect and all the civility you possibly can.” He set foot in Africa on August 8, 1734 in Fort James, Gambia, and from there started his journey back to his hometown in Bundu, in Senegal. He was accompanied by Francis Moore, a British agent.
Coincidentally (but, of course, by Allah’s will), on the very first day of his journey he came across the Mandingo man who had kidnapped him three years earlier. Moore observed that Ayuba was visibly infuriated at the sight of this man but preserved his self-restraint. Cooling down, he started to talk to his former kidnapper, who told him that Ayuba had been traded to Captain Pike for a pistol, and pistol had been given to a local African Mandingo king. This king would wear it around his neck, and one day a shot was accidentally fired which lodged a bullet into the king’s neck, killing him instantly. Ayuba, Moore observed, immediately thanked Allah.
Scholars have speculated that out of the thousands of Africans who were enslaved in the New World, Ayuba may have been the first or second to return to his homeland as a free man. One can only imagine how his family must have felt when they saw him, or how he felt when he saw them, but either way just thinking about it sends chills down your spine. The family that remained, that is. Ayuba’s father had lived long enough to receive his letters from England informing him that he was free and would soon return home, but he had not lived long enough to see his son again, news at which Ayuba wept in grief. His four children were fine and happy to see him. One of his two wives had remarried, but he respected her right to have done so, for there had been no reason to assume that he would ever return. Having been from a wealthy family, Ayuba found it easy to settle down once again, even though the area was caught in a wave of intertribal warfare.
Ayuba, following a sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Muhammad (s), never forgot his friends. As soon as he had been set free in London, he had started to look for a way to secure the freedom of Loumein Yoas, the interpreter who had been kidnapped with him several years earlier. After returning from London to Maryland, Rev. Bluett found Loumein and bought his freedom with money provided by the British royal family. Loumein was freed in 1737, taken from America to London and from there to Gambia, where he arrived in February 1738, becoming only the third enslaved African known to have returned to his homeland.
Ayuba Sulayman Diallo lived for another 40 years after his return to Africa, dying peacefully in 1773 (at the age of 72), surrounded by his family, in the land of his ancestors, and as a free man. “Allah. Muhammad.”
Even as he was planning his own way out, Allah (s) had a far better plan already in place for him. If Ayuba’s letter had gone to Africa the way he had intended it to go, it may have never reached his father, or his father may not have been able to help his son in any way. If Ayuba had not been able to write in Arabic, or had written it in Pulaar (his native language) and not Arabic, a translation of it at Oxford University would not have been possible. And if he had gone returned straight from Maryland to Senegal, we would probably never have had the chance to learn from his amazing story. His commitment to Islam made the difference between living life as an unknown, forgotten slave in Maryland and a famous historical figure who died as a free man in his own home in Africa.
And Ayuba wasn’t just Muslim – he was unapologetically, unwaveringly, and proudly Muslim. It was this spirit for which he was rewarded by Allah (s), and for which he earned respect everywhere he went. In his life he demonstrated the famous saying of ‘Umar (r): “Allah has honoured you with Islam, to the extent that if you seek honour elsewhere, you will be humiliated.”
Bluett, Thomas. Some Memoirs of the Life of Job ben Solomon, the High Priest of Boonda in Africa. London: Richard Ford, 1734.
Diouf, Sylviane. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (15th Anniversary Edition). New York: New York University Press, 2013.
Moore, Francis. Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. London: E. Cave, 1738.