It is said that Muslims fought for the American Revolution, by serving in the Continental Army. Wikipedia cites a few names:

Records from the American Revolutionary War indicate that at least a few Muslims fought on the American side. Among the recorded names of American soldiers are "Peter Salem","Yusuf ben Ali" and "Bampett Muhamed"

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_the_United_States#Earliest_records

However, Wikipedia appears to say this solely based on their recorded names.As far as I can tell, they seemed to be ex slaves who changed their names to the above after being freed. It is of course quite possible that they were descenedents of Muslim slaves who kept their faith, and therefore chose to retain their real names upon freedom; but Wikipedia doesn't seem to offer any corroborating evidence.

Peter Salem, a freed slave who reputedly shot Major JohnPitcairn during the war, has his own article but it made no mention of his faith. One Google result suggests he was Muslim on account of his chosen surname, which may have been taken from Arabic. I couldn't really find anything of substance on the other two, although their names indicate they did likely have Islamic heritages.

I guess my question is, how reliable an indicator of Muslim faith is having an Arabic or Islamic name in Colonial America?

Or more generally, are there any real evidence of Revolutionary War soldiers practising Islam?

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    The name "Salem" is from the Biblical city Jeru-salem, and is Hebrew in origin and not Arabic. Oct 9, 2014 at 6:28
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    @PieterGeerkens The point is it is also an Arabic name, c.f. former Prime Minister of Egypt Mamdouh Salem. Whether the Arabic version was also derived from Hebrew (I haven't the faintest idea) does not seem relevant.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 9, 2014 at 6:34
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    Are you then suggesting that the village of Salem, MA., was settled by Muslims because the name of their settlement is sometimes an Arabic name? Oct 9, 2014 at 6:37
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    @Mike If it wasn't obvious, if I trusted that Seemingly Arabic lastname = Muslim hypothesis I wouldn't have needed to ask this question in the first place.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 9, 2014 at 10:18
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    The last two names at least seem to indicate parents steeped in Muslim culture rather than European. That of course doesn't mean the children personally believed anything in particular, but by that standard you can't claim all the rest were "Christian" either. So the names would be good enough for me.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 9, 2014 at 17:57

5 Answers 5


Salem Poor and Peter Salem were both freed slaves born in Massachusetts (don't be so surprised, New England prohibitions against slavery weren't always followed), which explains the Salem in their names more than an Islamic background. The name Salem has a strong symbolic significance in colonial Massachusetts:

In recognition of this peaceful transition to the new government, the name of the settlement was changed to Salem, a hellenized form of the word for "peace" in Hebrew שלום (shalom), and the name mentioned several times in the Bible and traditionally associated with Jerusalem.

If anything, their choice in names indicates they were good New England protestants. When you see hoofprints, think horses, not zebras.

Likewise, Bampett Muhamed and Yusuf ben Ali (formerly Joseph Benhaley) are also freed slaves, and while they undoubtedly indicate an Islamic heritage, without firm evidence it's unknown if they were practicing Muslims or simply Christians or agnostics who took back their family names upon emancipation. The historical record of Islam in Colonial America indicates only captured slaves were (sometimes) permitted to practice Islam, and they were usually subject to attempts at conversion by the slaveholders, as was the case with the famed author, scholar and theologian Omar Ibn Said.

So, while it's plausible, there isn't enough of a record to say for certain.

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    Slavery was never formally banned in Massachusetts until it was banned nationwide. About 2% of the population was slaves just before the Revolution. The proportion dropped after the war due to public pressure and the use of "freedom lawsuits" to manumit those that remained. By 1790 the Census recorded no slaves remaining in the state.
    – Oldcat
    Oct 10, 2014 at 18:20

Wikipedia does manage sometimes to serve up the silliest nonsense. As others have noted, Salem is in the English Bible. It is a transcription of one of the Hebrew names for Jerusalem. “Peter” is a Christian name (St Peter in the New Testament). No Muslim would ever be called “Peter Salem”: it is 100% Christian name. بطرس سالم is in fact a very typical Arab Christian name.

“Bampett” is definitely not a Muslim name; it looks like the sort of made-up name that a slave-owner would give his slave.


Assuming Mr. Salem was a Muslim based only on his last name being derived from the Arabic word “Salaam” (various versions of which mean peace in modern Arabic and Hebrew) is very weak tea. The words origins are proto-Semitic meaning it predates Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic languages and the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths).

This, therefore, would hardly be sufficient evidence to determine his faith (or even the native faith of his parents’ birthplace).

Long before Islam was created, and spread to parts of Africa, Christianity was present, and Aramaic/Arabic speaking people were among the world’s very first Christians — and many resided in Africa. One need only reference St Augustine specifically or the Egyptian Coptic or Ethiopian Orthodox churches generally to establish this.

Even today, Mexico’s wealthiest man Carlos Slim whose parents were immigrants to Mexico from Lebanon, bears a last name that his father shortened from “Salim” or “Saleem.” Like the vast majority of other Lebanese immigrants to the Western Hemisphere over the last century, they were Maronite Christians. The Maronite faith predates the British colonization of America by over 1,000 years.

While I’m sure there were Muslims among African Slaves brought to America, the vast vast majority of slaves sold to slave traders were captured by African Muslims. It would NOT have been proper for them to enslave fellow Muslims, it is HARAM. But it was acceptable in Islam (and warfare at the time) for them to capture, enslave, and sell the Christian and Animist populations.

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    This would benefit from having some supporting references.
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 4, 2021 at 15:59
  • Good point about Muslims not being religiously allowed to enslave fellow Muslims, but that just further points up the problem of inferring personal religious beliefs from culture. There are many people, of whatever religion, who don't let their religion stand in the way of profit.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 4, 2021 at 17:24

Peter, a non Muslim name? The name Peter IS used by Arabs, it's Boutros, it is usually used by Christian Arabs, but I personally know of Arab and West African Muslims using the name Boutros. Muslims believe in Jesus, his sanctity, his miraculous conception and the virgin birth, his place as the Messiah, and revere his Apostles like Peter/Simon (I'm a Muslim, and my name is the Arabic Version of Simon, which was Peter's original Name) as well as St. John the Baptist. So it is not beyond reason an Anglicized version would be used. Also my Paternal Great-Grandmother's maiden Surname was Salem/Salem (it means peace, the traditional Arabic greeting is Salem'Aleikum, meaning peace be upon you), also one of my other Paternal Great-Grandfathers had the given name of Salem/Salam. So, while the name Peter Salem does not definitively prove he was a Muslim, it by no means discounts it either. So do not listen to the half cocked idea of someone saying Peter is a "100% only Christian Arab name" or that "Salem is of a Hebrew only origin" as the basis of their argument, Aramaic is the parent language of Arabic, and yes Hebrew words did find their way into Aramaic, but Hebrew also took from and developed from Sinaitic, Assyrian, Greek, and Phoenician languages. Hell, nearly all modern Alphabets and writing systems, outside of Far-Eastern Asian one's, were developed from the Phoenician one. Like the word Salem/Salam and Shalom, the origins of the Arabic word for God, Allah, can be traced back to the Hebrew word for God: El, which itself has even older origins. (Note: Allah is the Arabic word for God, the same word is used by Arabic speaking Jews and Christians as well, IT IS NOT the "name" of a separate deity, like the Hindu gods "Shiva", "Ganesh", or "Kali", as is the common misconception among many uneducated Americans)

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    Inferring one's religion from a name is highly subject to error. As for instance my own first name is the same as the brother of Jesus, and there's even a Book of James in the Bible, but I'm most certainly not a Christian. Likewise, I doubt that you were born in/near the town of Salem, Massachusetts.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 2, 2016 at 18:20
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    Peter is a Latin name, Petrus. It got into the Bible when it was translated; Peter's name was Keppa in Aramaic. Jesus makes a pun on his name, which means "stone" in their language. To make that understandable to the gentiles, the apostles name got "translated" into Petrus, which means "stone" in Latin (not really; stone would be "petra"; Petrus is a masculine version of the Latin word for stone). Boutros is evidently a back loan into Arabic, not the original name of the Catholic saint. Jul 30, 2016 at 14:43
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    Good point on Peter's name. It would not be wrong to translate his name as "Simon 'The Rock' Johnson".
    – Robert Columbia
    Mar 30, 2017 at 2:54

If you do a quick Google search on those two names, you get directed to Ancestry.com and can quickly find that Yusef Ben Ali (later York) was from Mali, and Bampett Mohammed was from Turkey. And in fact, Bampett Muhammed was born Joseph Benhaley. And Youssef Ben Ali went by Joseph, probably because Americans had problems with pronunciation. Peter Salem was indeed a freed slave, but Salem is a quite common name in Arabic nations. And since a lot of Muslims in the colonies (and later the US) were Muslim, they ended up having Anglicized names. Just thought I'd put my two cents in.

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