Bilali Muhammad Almamy

“Bilali Muhammad Almamy of Sapelo Island GA”

(1770-1857) Portrait by Baba Kenya


below is an excerpt of an observation taken from the exhibit on display:

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This is a “artist created” portrait of “Bilali Muhammad”-Almamy of Sapelo Island GA, (1770-1857).  The original painting is acrylic and 16 x 20.  The costuming is Fulani, and all accessories including the Karokaraway Fulani wedding blanket come from his Fulani culture in Timbo, Futa Djallon.  The cotton he examines is representative of both the “sea island cotton” (from islands off the coast of Georgia) which was the highest grade cotton marketed, and also representative of the Fulani traditional cultivation and usage of cotton for their cloth weaving, clothing, stuffing leather pillows, and weaving beautiful wedding blankets.

The original painting is be added to our “Timbuktu/Book of Gao Exhibit” due to Bilali’s linkage to Imam Zayd al Qarywany’s “Al Risaala” (The Message) which we have an original 9th century handwritten manuscript original.  “Al-Risaala” is a 10th century Islamic instructional handbook written for children and new convert adults to teach them about the basics of Islam.

  Bilali wrote from memory, “Al-Risaala” in his so-called “Bilali Document”, which is located in the Library at Georgia State University, Athens GA.

Although Bilali was described as being known for his long black coat and red fez, I decided to portray him in the red fez but wearing traditional blue Fulani grand boubou (made from indigo dye cultivated and used by Fulani), and blue striped indigo pants,which are are indicative of his cultural heritage from Timbo, Futa Djallon.  For many Fulani, the residue stain of indigo left on the skin was a sign of prestige and affluence.  We prefer our historical heroes to be remembered with a direct cultural and historical visual connection to their African/Islamic origins.

Indigo, “sea island cotton”, and other raw materials/crops were grown by approximately 85 African Muslims on the Spalding Plantation, of which Bilali Muhammad was the head master.  They were required to work only 6 hours daily for the master, Thomas Spalding, and given their own land and houses.  There were no white head masters, and no one was ever beaten or whipped.  Bilali Muhammad ran the plantation similar to how a Fulani Almamy governed a Fulani West African State.  This plantation, under the directorship of Bilali Muhammad, was the only documented case in American history where a white plantation owner deliberately and willingly armed his slaves.  During the War of 1812, Thomas Spalding and his family fled Sapelo Island, seeking safety on the mainland.

Bilali Muhammad advised Thomas Spalding that he had 85 Muslims who were willing to fight the Brittish to protect their homes and the plantation.  Thomas Spalding gave them all muskets, leaving them under the charge of Bilali Muhammad.  When the British heard news of 85 Muslim Africans armed with muskets on Sapelo Island, they decided to pass by and avoid the island.  The Brittish were defeated, and Thomas Spalding along with his family returned to Sapelo Island where Bilali Muhammad turned over control back to the Spalding family.

Bilali Muhammad was multi-lingual and taught his daughters Arabic, Peul, French, and Creole (Gullah).

He was the acting Imam, and leader on an island plantation off the coast of Georgia, where African Muslims were allowed to practice their Islamic religion.

Bilali Muhammad was born in 1770 in Futa Djallon, which is the same year another famous African Fulani Muslim was born in at the opposite end of the Senegal River in Futa Torro.  His name was Omar ibn Sayyid.  Both men would be enslaved in America.


Painting-Illustration by Baba Kenya




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