||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (September 2011)|
The Bilali Muhammad Document is a handwritten, Arabic manuscript on West African Islamic law. It was written by Bilali Mohammet in the 19th century. The document is currently housed in the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia as part of the Francis Goulding papers (where it is referred to as "Ben Ali Materials.")
Bilali Mohammed was a slave from Sapelo Island, Georgia. According to the history of Sapelo Island written by Bilali descendent Cornelia Bailey ("God, Dr. Buzzard and The Bolito Man"), Bilali was from Sierra Leone, and was a master cultivator of rice, a skill prized by Georgia slave owners. Willian Brown Hodgson (1857) and other scholars that met Bilali claim he was born in Timbo, Guinea, around 1770 to a well-educated African Muslim family. He was enslaved as a teenager and was held as a slave for ten years in the Middle Caicos plantation of Dr. Bell, a Loyalist refugee from the American Revolutionary War, before he arrived in Georgia in 1802. In Georgia he became the head driver on Thomas Spalding's Sapelo Island based plantation. Bilali could speak Arabic and had Knowledge of the Qur'an. In the War of 1812, Bilali and his fellow Muslims helped to defend America from a British attack. Upon Bilali's death in 1857, it was discovered that he had written a thirteen-page Arabic manuscript. At first, this was thought to have been his diary, but closer inspection revealed that the manuscript was a transcription of a Muslim legal treatise and part of West Africa's Muslim curriculum.
The first partial translation of the document was undertaken in 1939 in the Journal of Negro History by Dr. Joseph Greenberg. In recent years it has been analyzed by Dr. Ronald Judy, Dr. Joseph Progler , Dr. Allan Austin and Muhammed al-Ahari. A research society named the Bilali Muhammed Historical Research Society was established in Chicago in 1987 and published a one-issue journal Meditations from the Bilali Muhammad Society in 1988 in Charleston, South Carolina. The research institute has since been renamed the Muslim American Cultural Heritage Institute. It now has a new board and is planning to become incorporated as a 503c corporation in Chicago.
The Bilali Muhammad Document is also known as the Ben Ali Diary or Ben Ali Journal. On close analysis, the text proves to be a brief statement of Islamic beliefs and the rules for ablution, morning prayer, and the calls to prayer. It could, justifiably, be called the "Mother Text" of American Islamic Literature according to Muhammed al-Ahari due to it being the first Islamic text written in the United States. When it was translated, it was found that it had nothing of an autobiographic nature. A comprehensive commentary with citations from traditional Islamic texts and American Islamic texts with related subject areas is under preparation by Muhammed al-Ahari, national secretary of the Noble Order of Moorish Sufis and long-time researcher on American Islamic History and Literature. The concept of a Matn (source text) with several extended commentaries is a traditional genre in Islamic literature. The commentaries may be linguistic, spiritual, and even have the function of relating the text to similar works. Further research on Bilali's life and his influence upon both American Islamic literature and to the Gullah dialect of English needs to be carried out in order to present a complete picture of this unique American Muslim author.
Errors in prior research
Several reviewers of the manuscript have portrayed it as the scribblings of an old man copying from memory lessons of childhood. However, actual translations of the text have shown it to be an original composition that drew from the Risalah of Abi Zayd of al-Qayrawan as its inspiration. Past writers, including Reverend Dwight York (aka Imam Isa) who claimed he was his great-grandfather, have conflated Bilali Muhammad (aka Ben Ali, BuAllah, Bilali Smith, and Mahomet Bilali) with individuals with similar names. He is not the same person as Yusuf Benenhaly , the Wahab brothers of Ocracoke Island, or Old York whose son traveled with Lewis and Clark.
- The Wahab family is actually a variant spelling of Walkup or Wauchope, from Scotland.
- Bilali Muhammad: Muslim Juriprudist in Antebellum Georgia, translated by Muhammad Abdullah al-Ahari, ISBN 0-415-91270-9. https://www.createspace.com/3431038
- Muhammed al-Ahari (2006). Five Classic Muslim Slave Narratives. Magribine Press, Chicago.
- Bailey, Cornelia; God, Dr. Buzzard and The Bolito Man, 2003.
- Greenberg, Joseph H. "The Decipherment of the 'Ben-Ali Diary,'" Journal of Negro. History, vol. 25, no.3 (July 1940): 372-375.
- Ronald AT Judy, (Dis)forming the American Canon: African–Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular (Disforming the American Canon ISBN 0-8166-2056-3
- Joseph Progler, “Ben Ali and His Diary: Encountering an African Muslim in Antebellum America,” Muslim and Arab Perspectives, Vol. 11 (Fall 2004), pp. 19–60. 
- Joseph Progler, “Reading Early American Islamica: An Interpretive Translation of the Ben Ali Diary,” Tawhid: Journal of Islamic Thought and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 3, (Autumn 2000), pp. 5–43.