Saturday, February 20, 2016

Towards a world of equals: Islam and the African Experience

[Note: The following is an edited version of our speech at the University of Toledo 2/17/16 "Towards a world of Equals: Islam and the African Experience".]

What is Islam?

When we think of 'Islam', we think of Prophet Muhammad, the Qur'an, Makkah, a specific set of peoples and traditions. However, the Qur'anic perspective[Q 2:136] is that all of the great spiritual teachers were teaching Islam, the word itself being a summary of those teachings, as it means "submission to God". These teachers had limited focuses and audiences.

The only exception to this is Muhammad. His message is universal. He is a universal messenger and the final Prophet [Q 33:40], so the teachings that emanate from him [i.e. Qur'an and the Prophetic Sunnah] must address universal themes.

Race issues in Islam 

Issues of race are addressed more clearly in the Qur'an and Sunnah than in the texts of any other religion. Moreover, the early history of Prophet Muhammad [ peace and blessings of God be upon him] and his followers demonstrate the practical application of what God gave them in the Qur'an. We will examine this in a moment, but we must say something about the title we have chosen for this presentation. Towards a World of Equals, in essence means a level playing field where artificial [and often physical], unjust constructs are removed.

The mental constructs are often the most dangerous. Harriet Tubman, the brave soul who guided many out of slave territory, is reported to have said " I freed a thousand slaves, I could have freed a thousand more-if only they knew they were slaves."

Thus, before changing the physical reality, awareness is necessary.  The next part of the title is Islam and the African experience. "Islam" is something very vast, because it is connected to the Lord of all. "Africa" is something that is also vast. It is a continent that not only gave birth to many civilizations, the first humans themselves emerged from Africa. The mainstream theory says the first humans emerged from Ethiopia region, while others point to South Africa. Yet, both are within the African continent. "The African experience" -as a part of the title, allows us a basis to see the bigger picture, rather than limiting ourselves to talking about slavery in the Americas.

Arabia at the time of the Prophet

Tribalism was common in those days. A war once occurred, lasting for forty years, over a camel straying into the tribal land of others. Female infanticide was practiced, and even food stuffs were deified.

Muhammad the man received a revelation. He was not expecting anything like this, although he was disturbed by his society. This revelation tells him to "Read". He, like most others in his society, was unable to read. The revelation continues "Read in the name of your Lord who has created" [Q 96:1]. This is a profound sentence. It is a call to look, ponder the world around you [O Muhammad and his people], see God's artistry in all, develop a thinking that goes beyond the petty, small-minded jealousies that had stunted Arabian growth.

This is something not only for the Arabs of that time, rather it is for all humanity.  Thus, even though there was opposition, war and the like, the transformation started. Yet all Prophets faced opposition, so this was nothing new.

Practical examples of transformation

The attitude of people striving to follow the Prophet illustrates this. In the Hadeeth literature [Saheeh Al-Bukhari] we have two Muslims arguing. One was Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari [from Kinaanah tribe] and one was Bilal [Ibn Rabah, al Habashi]. Bilal was Ethiopian [Al Habashi]. During the argument, Abu Dharr calls Bilal "You son of a black woman". This was the equivalent of the "N" word.

The hadeeth goes on to say that the Prophet became red with anger and told Abu Dharr "You still have ignorance within you.".

How does Abu Dharr react? He takes the correction like a man, he doesn't make excuses like our politicians do today in places like Flint, Michigan. He places his head in the sand and does not move it until Bilal steps over it.

I find this to be a powerful example of transformation. Abu Dharr was among those who heard the order of God and obeyed it, there and them [Q 2:285].

God says in the Qur'an that the variations in skin color and language exist to both show God's artistry and to strengthen the people of knowledge [Q 30:22].

Deep lesson in Bilal 

Bilal was a close companion of the Prophet. He had been a slave at one time. The Prophet appointed him as the Muadhdhin, who makes the call to prayer. It is said that he would mispronounce the Arabic letter "Sheen" as "Seen" [in the sentence "I testify that none deserves worship except Allah"] and the people complained about this. They would perhaps make fun of Bilal, in the same way that people make fun of imperfect spoken English or heavy accents today. In response to this, the Prophet says "Allah hears it as 'sheen' " meaning, God hears it correctly.

There is a deep lesson in this. Simply put, we are all equally imperfect. If we are equally imperfect, there is no room for judging figures as superior or inferior based on things like race, language, income or education. "The most honorable of you-in God's sight, as those with the most regards for God/Godly affairs in your midst"[Q 49:13]

This is also demonstrated in our prayer ritual. When we pray communally, behind an Imam, and he makes a mistake, we are to say loudly "Subhaan Allah". Here it means "Don't worry, it's not a big deal, only God is free from errors."


Forty five percent of the continent is populated by Muslims. Islam spread there early, particularly in North and East Africa. The first migration [Hijrah] was in fact to Ethiopia. There are many diverse cultures and circumstances there, and it's important to understand this because many people think of the continent as a monolithic place. Thus, while Islam arrived early in North and East Africa, it didn't reach West Africa until roughly the 14th-15th century.

That region produced the likes of Mansa Musa, a wealthy ruler who transformed his domain [the Songhai ] to a world class empire.

He made his Hajj [pilgrimage to Makkah], and the journey there he gave away so much wealth that the Egyptian gold value declined and still had not recovered 12 years afterwards.

Africans in the Americas

It is estimated that atleast a third of the slaves were Muslims, and it has also been argued that Mansa Musa's empire had already discovered the Americas and had trade relations with the native populations long before Christoper Columbus. Be that as it may, we know that Muslims brought there religion with them here. There is recorded many examples of Muslim slaves, even scholarly ones.

Slavery has-without doubt, produced a devastating legacy that is felt even today. It was a unique form of slavery due to it's utter barbarity. The recent attempts to repackage it as Atlantic triangular trade is utterly disgusting.

This type of slavery was nothing short of cultural and physical genocide.

Islam in the struggle

The struggle for dignity for Africans in the Americas took social, intellectual and economic forms. Many figures emerged such as Frederick Douglass, W.E. B. Du-bios, Marcus Garvey. Islam as a reference point was never absent in this historical struggle.

Of all these attempts to address the damage to the psyche of African Americans, the most famous- at least in terms of being associated with Islam, was the Lost found nation of Islam [or simply Nation of Islam, NOI]. The particular religious teachings of Elijah Muhammad were clearly at odds with the Qur'anic picture [the NOI beliefs included that whites were the literal devils, 'God in man", denial of hereafter etc..] , yet it is without doubt that  this movement produced drastic and lasting changes, for themselves and African Americans in general. The NOI produced the likes of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.  These were men of principle and conscious. Muhammad Ali refused to acknowledge the draft and Malcolm X started to see the bigger picture in society, both of these men caused Americans to reexamine their beliefs and politics.

The Greatest function of African Americans in relation to Islam

American Islam itself continues to evolve, and African Americans are certainly part of that equation. I think that one of the most consistent and important function of African American Muslims, and this includes heterodox understandings, is that they have consistently given a critical analysis of the wider society.

Today's NOI is led by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Look at their Newspaper, The Final Call, and the books his organization publish. Most of them deal with attempting to understand and deal with, usually by exposing, the hypocrisy of the mainstream social order, the political system. They still retain the odd religious doctrines, but their efforts in the other areas should not be denied. Imam W.Deen Mohammed and his community have functioned in the same way. He was the son of NOI figure Elijah Muhammad, he became the leader upon the death of his father [1975] and almost immediately changed the theology of the organization to be in lines with the Qur'an and Sunnah.

It was Min.Farrakhan who broke away from Imam Mohammed, dissatisfied with the latter's direction.

Imam WD Mohammed [d.2008] continued the tradition of analysis and teaching, but his style was more of conciliation rather than the language of conflict. His followers have in recent years attempted to collect all of his statements on religion in an attempt to form a coherent or systematic style unique to themselves, and it remains to be seen how successful such a project will be, nonetheless I think that the bigger issues of society have already been addressed and that a wealth of observations are already present to continue the analysis of society.

In short, these are branches from the same tree that should inspire us to think outside the box. To study, research, discover those hidden truths and-if needed, to act in a way different than mainstream society expects us. The Prophet is reported to have said "Contemplation for a single hour is more useful than a year's amount of worship."

We should be inspired by this history to be a people who are not idealists, but rather, a people who put good ideas into real practice. To have morals and be deserving of respect. To grow, not simply in wealth, but in personal development. This is not only Islam's mission to Africa- It is Islam's mission to mankind. A world of equal opportunities, that removes the shackles of ignorance, prejudice and classism.

Recommended books

[Note that I don't agree with all of the conclusions of the authors, but nonetheless these are titles worth exploring, works that cause us to think and rethink.]

[1] Islam, Black Nationalism and Slavery by Adib Rashad. A thoroughly researched summary of the history of Islam and it's relation to the Black struggle in the Americas.

[2] Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race by Edward Blyden. First published in 1888, the author was an African American Christian missionary attempting to spread Christianity in Africa. He details a wealth of personal experiences and studies and focuses mainly on the impact of the religions in Africa. He directly shows his views that Islam has had a more positive impact.]

[3] Muslim identity and social change in Sub-Saharan Africa , edited by Louis Brenner. An academic work, a collection of essays on various topics relating to the development of Islam in Africa.]

[4] The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

[5] Symbolism, Holidays, Myths and Signs by Alauddin Shabazz. Although an old book, the author provides analysis of many subjects that are related to religions as well as mainstream culture, music, Television programs etc..