Afterthoughts By: Hajj

Concerned with the Contributions made by Africans & African Americans Toward the Development of Islam in North & South America.

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By: Morroe Berger

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Although there have been revival movements among American Negroes for many years, it is only recently that one of them has attracted wide attention. This is the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the “Black Muslims,” led by their “Messenger the Honorable Mr. Elijah Muhammad” and younger spokesmen with equally odd names like Malcolm X. (They insist on being called Muslims rather than Moslems. The first spelling happens to come closer to the correct pronunciation of the Arabic word, but the black Muslims seem to regard it as some thing more than merely a matter of transliteration from one language to another.) Until now, the association of American Negroes with the Islamic religion stirred nothing more than mild curiosity and tolerant amusement. Anyway, a few people saw the fezzes and colorful flowing gowns, and heard the prayers to Allah in English, or were aware of the efforts to resurrect African power and splendor. Now derision has turned to alarm. The Black Muslim’s combination of an exotic religion and a passionate rejection of White America has propelled them out of the jails and Negro neighborhoods, where their power was first noticed, and into the disturbed consciousness of the nation.

Spokesmen for the Black Muslims never tire of insisting that the original religion of Negroes was Islam, that their language was Arabic, and that they had a distinctly African culture. Repeating Elijah Muhammad’s own teachings, Minister Malcolm, the most articulate and best known of the Muslim leaders, told an open meeting: “The white man kidnapped us from our high culture and civilization in Africa, stole us and then stole our religion, our language, and our civilization and made us into animals.” This identification of Negroes with Islam and Arabic is of course an exaggeration, but it contains an element of truth that has long been unknown or ignored, not only in the popular mind but in scholarship as well. It will be useful, therefore, before examining the Black Muslims of today, to look at the American Negroes’ attitude toward the African past, and their historic relation to Islam both in Africa and, surprisingly, our own country.

It is not only the Black Nationalists” who are exhilarated by the great changes in Africa in our generation, even Negroes who have thought of Africa only as a gigantic primitive jungle now cannot repress a flush of pride as independent Africa emerges.

Americans have long been proud that Negroes in the United States have enjoyed a far higher standard of living and education than Negroes in Africa. Yet gradualism here and breathtaking change there may soon leave American Negroes the better off materially and economically but worse off socially and politically. American Negroes, moreover, see the Africans gain dignity, respect, and power as they separate from their white rulers rather than “integrating” with them. Today they are readier to recognize their kinship with Africa and to face the fact that they are culturally different from whites, now that many no longer believe that this kinship and difference mean inferiority.

James Baldwin says, “I don’t know why it is so important to be white anymore.” Lorraine Hansberry asks: “….is it necessary to integrate oneself into a burning house?”

Attachment to Africa based upon a changing mixture of knowledge and sentiment, has always been strong among a few Negro leaders and intellectuals - and probably stronger, if more nebulous, among the voiceless masses who could see little in America that gave them reason to think they were really part of it. Now, paradoxically, the closer they come to sharing the good things of life in this wealthy society, the closer also they come to understanding their relationship to Africa.

For a long time people thought that Africa below the Sahara had no history because most societies that had not possessed a written language. Even now the growing number of universities that teach about Africa feel the need for Anthropologists, not historians. The great Negro scholar W.W.B. Dubois, whop died recently in Ghana at the age of ninety-five, * had written three books since 1915 in an obsessive effort to dispel this misconception among whites and Negroes. In the second on, Black Folk, Then and Now, published a quarter-century ago, he wrote concerning this assumption of a historic void: “I remember my own rather sudden awakening from the paralysis of this judgment taught me in school and in two of the world’s great universities. Franz Boas came to Atlanta University where I was teaching History in 1906 and said to a graduating class: “You need not be ashamed of your African past; and then he recounted the history of the Black kingdoms south of the Sahara for a thousand years. I was too astonished to speak. All of this I had never heard. “

As Negroes discovered African history they also discovered their relation to Islam, and some judged it more satisfying than their relation to Christianity. They began to see Negro Christian history as the story of slavery, while Negro Islamic history, though it included slavery, at least had elements of grandeur in it.  One reaction to the enslavement of Negroes by Christian Europe and America has been to claim that Negroes are superior Christians to whites. More than 40 years ago Carter G. Woodson, an intellectual Negro scholar who founded The Journal of Negro History in 1916, observed: “The religion of Jesus is an oriental production. It easily appeals to the mind of the Negro, which is also oriental. The mind of the white man is Occidental. He has, therefore failed to understand and appreciate Christianity.” Others, however like, Edward W. Blyden, a West Indian, praised the role of Islam in Africa. A firm believer in the Back to Africa Movement, Blyden insisted that Arab culture and the religion of Islam were more congenial to Negroes. Almost a century ago he warned that Islam, rather than Christianity, would eventually dominate pagan Africa because it was a greater force for progress among Negroes. “The Negro,” he said, “came into contact with Christianity as a slave and a follower at a distance. He came into contact with Mohammedism as a man, and often as a leader.” Blyden was a man of extra-ordinary learning and taste who has won distinction as a Christian missionary, educator, and diplomat. Highly esteemed in America and England, he was elected a fellow of the American Philological Association and vice-president of the American Colonization Society, which was established in 1816, with the support of, among others, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, to help Negroes go back (return)-[my italics] to Africa, where the Society founded Liberia.

Blyden was so convinced that Islam was better for Africans than Christianity that he felt obliged to leave the Christian ministry. This act and the convictions that led to it, along with Blyden’s appointment as supervisor of Muslim education in Sierra Leone, persuaded many people that he had himself come a Muslim. He had not, but American Presbyterian circles were dismayed anyway. Their shiniest back-to-Africa showpiece became an embarrassment by wanting to go back just a little too far. According to a former president of Lincoln University, an institution for Negroes supported by the Presbyterian Church, annoyance over Blyden led the American Presbyterians to leave the small band of Liberian Presbyterians to their own resources in 1884. The University, he adds, did not admit a single Liberian student during this century until, just after World War II, he welcomed young Edward W. Blyden III to Oxford, Pennsylvania.

What has scholarship found out about African history? It has discovered the important role that black men have played as individuals in Africa and elsewhere -kings and emperors of large African domains, such as Musa of Mali, a Muslim who conquered Timbuktu in the fourteenth century and then enhanced its great reputation; al-Mansur (Almanzor), a mulatto who extended Muslim power in southern Spain in the tenth century; or Bilal, the Negro who became the first muezzin (caller to prayer) of the Prophet Mohammad himself. Scholarship has also uncovered something much more significant: Negro African societies of medieval times that were as advanced in social organization and perhaps in some material accomplishments as contemporary societies in Europe, as well as the Negroid elements in ancient civilizations like the Egyptian and the Ethiopian or the medieval Islamic civilizations in Africa and Spain. What is more, some prehistorians believe that it was in Africa that human life developed out of the animal. Professor L.S.B. Leakey, a leading British scholar working on this subject, states flatly: “Africa’s first contribution to human progress, then, was the evolution of man himself.” When Elijah Muhammad says that the black is “original man,” it may be not so much groundless pride as merely religious hyperbole. Only after some six hundred thousand years, Leakey adds, did Africa lose its “dominant role in world progress”, to Asia Minor and southern Europe, probably because the expansion of deserts “cut off Africa from the rest of the world, “ and because the African climate reduced human incentive by providing an abundance of both disease and food. 

Though leadership passed out of Africa, the “dark continent” continued to produce thriving societies even during the “dark ages.” These were Negro cultures, both pagan and Muslim, as well as cultures created and led by mixed groups of Negroes, whites, and North African Berbers, in West and Central Africa, and on the eastern coast from the Gulf of Aden to Madagascar.

One of the earliest of these advanced West African states was called Ghana. It probably arose in the fourth century A.D. when North African Berbers (perhaps Jews) settled among the blacks near the Niger River south west of what later became known as Timbuktu.  In the eighth century the blacks, under the Soninke dynasty, took power and ruled for five hundred years. The wealth of Ghana came mainly from its abundance of gold, which afforded it a magnificent court life and a thriving trade with North Africa. At its height, from the ninth to the middle of the eleventh century, it was famous for its great capital, Kumbi, which was separated into two districts. One was inhabited largely by Muslims, among who were some eminent doctors of law. Probably because of their learning, Muslims held high posts in the pagan Negro court as interpreters and royal ministers. The other part of the city was the royal seat. Late in the eleventh century Ghana, always a prize because of its wealth, fell to the Almoravids, who came down from the north fighting holy wars for Islam and spreading the faith by the sword. The Almoravids, mainly Berbers but with a substantial Negro admixture, soon were divided in victory, and the original rulers were able to recover their independence.  They, too, however, could not maintain unity, and the great period of ancient Ghana ended in the thirteenth century. More than seven hundred years later, in 1957, the leaders of a new Africa gave the name Ghana to a former British colony, the Gold Coast, which lies several hundred miles southeast of the ancient kingdom’s capital.

The people of ancient Ghana were pagan and spoke one of the Mandingo languages. Farther south was another Mandingo culture, where a Muslim convert, Sundiata, came to power in the middle of the thirteenth century.  He expanded his domain in several directions, took declining Ghana itself in 1240, and laid the basis for another great empire, the Mali, covering most of what was later known as French West Africa and the present independent state of Mali. Sundiata created a capital at Niani on the Niger River that became famous under his most prominent successor, Mans (Emperor) Musa, who ruled from 1307 to 1332.  Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 literally put his empire and capital city on the map of Europe. He traveled in extraordinary pomp, with five hundred slaves and great stores of gold. Every one along the route in both directions profited from his passage, and in Cairo the sophisticated traders were talking about him years later, as they still tried to recover from the fall in the price of gold caused by the large amount he had put into circulation.

After his return, his material resources diminished, but he acquired a distinct intellectual aura supplied by the learned men who accompanied him and settled in his two famous cities, Mali and Timbuktu. Among them was an Arab poet and   architect from Granada, Ibrahim El Saheli, who built several mosques of burnt brick, a material he introduced into that area.

Well over a century later there were still traces of wealth and piety in Mali, according to Leo Africanus. He was an Arab Muslim from Spain who was captured by pirates to be sold into slavery.  Impressed by his travels and his learning, they took him to Rome and presented him to the Medici pope, Leo X. This son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and patron of Raphael freed the captive, made him a member of the Papal Court, gave him his own name, and had him converted to Christianity. Visiting Mali around 1510, Leo Africanus wrote: “ The inhabitants are rich… Here are great stores of temples, priests, and professors… The people of this region excel all other Negroes in wit, civility, and industry, and were the first that embraced the law of Muhammad.”

By Leo’s time, however, the Mali empire was in decline and had already been overshadowed by one of its former vassals, the Songhay kingdom with its capital at Gao, about seven hundred miles east of the city of Mali. The Songhay area had been settled in the seventh century by pagan Berbers, who established their rule over the blacks.  With the southward sweep of Islam, the rulers became Muslims early in the eleventh century, and as time went on the Berber element thinned out and the Negro character became dominant. Most of the population remained pagan despite their Muslim leaders. After winning their independence from Mali, these leaders rapidly expanded at the expense of their former masters and built the greatest African empire since ancient Egypt. At its height, in the fifteenth century, it was known as an intellectual center; it had a powerful army and a good administration, and its most prominent ruler, Askia Muhammad I, was a Negro who took his religion seriously.

At the end of the sixteenth century the Songhai kingdom fell victim to northern Moors who coveted their wealth and trade. The invading army, with firearms strange to the Songhay, entered Gao in 1591 expecting to find the slender and riches which they had heard so much about and which had beckoned them during the strenuous six -month desert march. But they were disappointed at the size of the town and at the fact that the fleeing inhabitants had carried off everything the invaders could have wanted.

While these West African empires were rising and falling, advanced communities could be found on the eastern coast. These Muslim cities - such as Zeila, Kilwa, and Zanzibar- prospered through trade from medieval times down to the turn of the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese Vasco da Gama worked his way around the Cape of Good Hope to East Africa and India. Zeila appears to have been a teeming port. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, who saw it probably in 1331, described the town as apparently prosperous though unpleasant. Its sheep were famous for their butter, but large amounts of fish and slaughtered camels produced such a stink that, despite a rough sea, he preferred to sleep on board ship. The people were Negro Muslims, but many were lacking in piety. His thumbnail description of Zeila: “It is a large city with a great bazaar, but it is the dirtiest, most abominable, and most stinking town in the world.”

When Ibn Batuta later that year reached Kilwa, south of Zanzibar, he was more pleased. He found the people devoted and pious Muslims and, indeed, engaged at that moment in a Holy War against nearby pagans. Pagans pronounced his judgment concisely: “Kilwa is a very fine and substantially built town.”  Seventy-four years later, in 1405, a German traveler witnessed the sack of Kilwa by the Portuguese. He remarked the “many vaulted mosques, one of which is like that of Cordoba, “ and the large stone and mortar buildings with varied designs in plaster.

Much of African history has been obscured by the interpenetration of Muslim and Negro peoples during these centuries. What was once considered to be strictly Arab or Muslim or Moorish history must now be regarded as Negro and Negroid as well. Though Islam expanded steadily in Africa from the time of its own founding in the early seventh century, three events stand out in this process (which, indeed, is still going on). The first is the slow but steady movement of people from Arabia across the Red Sea into East Africa, which even antedated the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Muslim influence did not become substantial, however, until three to five centuries later.

The second great wave came from the north in the eleventh century, when pious warriors, the Almoravids (whose name connotes a group of men in a combination retreat and border fort), crossed the Sahara, conquered ancient Ghana, and converted the rulers of a vast belt across the African continent and, and with less success, the masses of its people. They also crossed the Mediterranean and conquered all of the Muslim Spain, and so became masters of a domain stretching from the Senegal River to the Ebro. Finally, in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century, the Fulani of West Africa spread Muslim domination to the East.

The Islam that won the Allegiance of millions in Africa south of the Sahara is not the same as the Islam of the Near East. African Islam is strongly by indigenous religious systems and other cultural traits, yet it is accepted by Muslims everywhere, for there is no strict orthodoxy in Islam.  The flexibility of Muslims has indeed been a great asset in their growth in Africa. Islam’s lead over Christianity is thus the result of two main factors: the Muslims came to Africa earlier, and they became one with the Africans; the Christians came later and remained strangers to Africa -many of them knowledgeable, charitable, and sacrificing, but even the best of them strangers.  Any attempt to evaluate these African societies is difficult not only because the criteria are not clear but also because information is so scanty.

To say that Africa has “no history” is to say that we know little of it or that it has no grandeur. It is the latter point, of course, that is meant when someone who denigrates African societies also denies that they have any past at all. If it is important, in keeping the Negro down, to deny him a place in history, it is equally important for him to establish his place in it. As Du Bois puts it, “Africa was no integral part of the world, because the world which raped it had had to pretend that it had not harmed a man but a thing.”

But What of Negroes and Muslims in America? The link connecting the three was the slave trade of the sixteenth century. African Negroes had for centuries been enslaved by the other African Negroes and by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The slavery that began in the New World, however, was to become a tremendous impressments of human labor, created to meet the growing demands of the commercial and industrial revolutions in Europe and America. The African slave became a basic resource in a system of profit.

The black Muslims today stress the enslavement of Negroes by the Christian West (they either do not believe that Muslims enslaved Negroes or prefer to ignore the fact), for slavery in the Americas was especially brutal and on a very large scale. Muslims had enslaved blacks out of greed and inhumanity, but many Christians were unwilling to admit that they acted only out of these base, but at least human, motives - they felt compelled to cover their guilt by arguing that God had ordained slavery for black men, and that it was good for them.

We should not be surprised, therefore, if the Negro finds his historical relationship to Islam the more satisfying. There is nothing in the Islamic past, for example, to match the story of Bartolome’ de Las Casas the great humanitarian bishop of sixteenth-century Spain who yet managed, ironically and to his own mortification to advance the enslavement of Negroes in the New World. Las Casas arrived in the West Indies ten years after Columbus. At first no more disturbed than others at the moral and physical breakdown of the enslaved Indians, he slowly became intensely concerned about it. At this time the Spanish colonists, dissatisfied anyway with the disintegration of the Indians in slave labor, were demanding the right to import Negro slaves first from Spain and Portugal and then directly from Africa. In their view, if the Indians were unsuitable - and if humanitarians like Las Casas were agitating for an end to their slavery - then a new labor supply would have to be provided. In 1517 Las Casas was back in Spain to persuade the authorities to protect the Indians. Asked to draw up a plan for the king, he proposed two actions: inducements to free workers to go to the West Indies, and the importation of Negro slaves to replace the Indians, who were to be freed. Since black slaves were wanted, the second proposal was adopted and the first ignored.

From the sixteenth century until the prohibition of the slave trade three hundred years later, ten to fifteen million Africans were exported to the Americas. Meanwhile probably other millions were forcibly removed to Asia, and still others, in untold numbers, perished in the mad competition between Europeans and Africans and Asians to capture slaves for the insatiable market. These doomed unfortunates came from various parts of Africa, but the vast majority were from the long stretch of land along the western coast from the Senegal River down to Angola and a few hundred miles inland.

A substantial portion of the people from this area had either become Muslims by the fifteenth century or were to become Muslims during the heyday of the slave trade.

It should not surprise us, therefore, if many of the slaves brought to the United States were really Muslim. But how many? This is a historical puzzle. We not only do not know even approximately how many Muslims there were, but we have only scraps of information about the questions we are asking. It is almost as if the black Muslims today were right - that the Africans were stripped of Islam, that there is a conspiracy to keep the whole subject from coming to light, that few were interested in the religion of the slaves or anything else that might have suggested that they were human beings. There were missionaries, of course, intent upon converting the slaves to Christianity, but they were interested only in the Negroes’ new religion, and they left little evidence of any religion brought along in the slave ships from Africa.

In the United States we have not tried so hard to eradicate to memory, or the evidence, of slavery, as has Brazil, where in1890, two years after abolition, an official decree declared the government was “under the obligation of destroying all traces of the system for the sake of the nation’s reputation…. “ The wonder in our own country today is that there is still no interest in or even awareness of the question of Islam among slaves.

In this century only a few Negro scholars have shown any interesting that aspect of our history, but in the middle of the nineteenth century three prominent white Americans tried to tried to illuminate it.

The first was Theodore Dwight (1796-1866), the son of one of the Connecticut Wits, great-grandson of Jonathan Edwards, nephew of one president of Yale University and the cousin of another. The second was William Brown Hodgson (1801-1871), born into an obscure family in Delaware, a linguist with little formal education, who married the daughter of Edward Telfair, rich merchant, large landowner, a leader of Savannah colonial society and a governor of Georgia. The third was James Hamilton Couper (1794-1866), Georgia planter and son of a planter, an early scientific experimenter, an amateur geologist who entertained Sir Charles Lyell for a fortnight at his model plantation, and a cultured gentleman.

These three were brought together by their common interest in ethnology. All were members of the American Ethnological Society in New York, established in 1842. All three contributed papers during the Societies first year -Dwight on a Negro Muslim group in Africa, Hodgson on the languages of Africa north and south of the Sahara, and Couper on one of his Muslim slaves. Yet they were rather different in attitude. Dwight, the Calvinist Yankee, wrote favorably about the Negro in the Southland in Africa. Hodgson, the border-state plebian who had won his way to intellectual and social prominence, regarded Negroes as inferior and defended slavery. Couper, the Southern patrician, owner of five hundred slaves, had opposed Secession (though he lost two of his five sons who fought as Confederates) and showed an interest in the welfare of his slaves. As early as 1830 or so, Dwight had already become interested in the African background of America Negroes and had met in New York a Muslim slave from the South. He took down the stories of three such former slaves. " Among the victims of the slave-trade among us, " he wrote, fully expecting to surprise the readers of the Methodist Quarterly Review, "have been men of learning and pure and exalted characters, who have been treated like beasts of the field by those who claimed a purer religion."

Hodgson was not troubled by such matters. The London Times correspondent covering the Civil War breakfasted at his famous residence, where he saw "in attendance some good-looking Negro boys and men dressed in liveries, which smacked of our host's orientalism." Hodgson thus seems to have been interested in American Muslim slaves as ethnographical subjects, linguistic informants, and decorative curios. He could not have been animated, as was Dwight by a desire to see their cultural attainments and potentialities recognized, for Hodgson was one of a group of Northern and Southern scholars and sheer racists who made a great point of establishing Negro inferiority and white supremacy through paleontology, ethnology, craniology, and anything else that yielded "scientific" defenses of slavery.

Dwight, Hodgson, and Couper uncovered or named all of the six individual Muslim slaves whose stories have to any extent been made known. Hodgson alone mentioned five of them in 1857.Except for one, they were probably born in the latter part of the eighteenth century. They had both American and Arabic names, or corruptions of the latter, but a couple were called Prince, perhaps out of mixed condensation for their slave status and mock respect for their literacy.

One of the best known of these Muslim slaves was Bul-Ali- (also Belali and Belali Mohomet), the slave driver of a prominent planter, Thomas Spaulding of Sapelo Island, Georgia. His great-granddaughter and other progeny were still living there in the 1930's, when their stories were taken down by Georgia writers employed by the Works Progress Administration. Katie Brown whose grandmother and her sisters were the daughters of Bul-Ali, said of them (in her archaic dialect): " Dey wuz bery puhticuluh bout duh time dey pray an dey bery reguluh bout duh hour...Dey bow tuh duh sun and hab lil mat tuh kneel on." A friend of Bul-Ali was Tom (Sali-Bul-Ali), a slave driver on Coupers plantation, of whom his owner wrote: "His industry, intelligence, and honesty soon brought him into notice... and he was successively advanced...He is a strict Mahometan; abstains from spirituous liquors, and keeps various fasts, particularly that of Ramadan. He is singularly exempt from all feeling of superstition; and holds in great contempt the African belief in fetishes and evil spirits."

Probably the most learned of the Muslim slaves was Job, the son of Solomon, born in 1701 or 1702 in the Kingdom of Futa near the Gambia river. Sent to the coast by his father to trade with the English, he was captured in 1730 by other Africans and sold to the very ship captain with whom he was supposed to trade. Before he could be brought back by his father, the ship set sail for America. Job landed in Maryland, where he worked on tobacco plantations until he escaped and was jailed. As his misfortune became known, offers of help poured in. His passage to England was arranged and there as in America, he favorably impressed everyone he met by his excellent appearance, dignity, and learning. He knew the Koran by heart, and enroute to England he wrote out three copies of it without once looking at a previous one. He met royalty and the royal family. Among the lesser of his acquaintances was the collector and physician Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal Society, for whom Job translated Arabic inscriptions of several kinds. Job finally arrived at his African home in 1735 or 1736, but he did not forget his English friends. He wrote to them several times about his problems, not unlike those which Asian and African students in America now face when they return to their countries. Finally, he turned to commerce, suggesting to the English that he could supply them directly with gum arabic they were then buying through the French.