Wendell Hassan Marsh maps the trajectories of Islam as it evolved in the New World and the limited definitions of Muslim communities in the African-American consciousness.
My father was not a simple man even if his job was. After a high school education, for a living, he stirred paint that would be used on aeroplanes. Reading a full book, to him, seemed as unlikely as the Second Coming. That changed after he learned the name of God. He had been working at an aircraft manufacturer in Atlanta during the late 1960s when one of his co-workers asked him if he recognised the words on the side of a nearby jet. My father craned his neck briefly before laughing at this crazy Negro for asking him to read what seemed like squiggly lines. “You laugh at me, when you are the one who has forgotten your own language,” I always seem to imagine the other man saying. He then read the lines.
لا اله الا الله
la ilaha illAllah
There is no god, but God, the man told my father. That one of his peers, another black man, had knowledge of a foreign language in an even more foreign script amazed my father. To know that God had a name that he didn’t know left him as thirsty as a man lost at sea. Soon thereafter, in search of the sweet taste of knowledge, my father started attending the lessons on theology, history, and language provided by the Nation of Islam at its Mosque No. 15. Though he never converted, he studied, and for the first time in his life found himself in the world of ideas, diving into the depths of a divine knowledge in the sea of words. For him, this story has always been as close as a non-Muslim could come to a shahada story, the account of when a Muslim makes their first declaration of faith.
Even if it didn’t mark a change in his religion, a conversion, a turning around within oneself, my father has always considered it a foundational encounter that would inform a consciousness he has held for the rest of his life. Thankfully, this consciousness ensured that I would have a nostalgia for a world I had never known, but which I could easily imagine. Those ethereal apparitions of the past – ghosts who escape the material certainty of the physical artifacts they leave behind – have beckoned many a street scholar who, like the Sankofa bird, tries to move forward by turning his head backward to retrieve that which has been forgotten.
The field of scholarship on Islam in the United States is rapidly expanding. Seminal works by Allen Austin, Michael Gomez, and Sylviane A. Diouf show an indisputable Muslim presence in America from the earliest days of New World exploration to the establishment of colonies, the expansion of slavery, all the way up to the 20th century American Islamic revival. This work has, in some ways, validated claims by present-day Muslims of an authentic American Islam dating back to the arrival of Africans on American soil, but it does so in the most scientific of ways, problematising many a popular myth of a not-so-common knowledge. The preoccupation has been with keeping the count straight, breaking down the wheres and the whens, and tracing the path. The picture that has emerged in even more recent work is not so much of a continuously vibrant Muslim practice, or even of a Herskovitsian model of cultural retention, but rather of, as Hishaam Aidi and Manning Marable write in the recent critical collection Black Routes to Islam, a “subtle Muslim presence” as evidenced in a loose network of people expressing Muslim belief and texts in English and Arabic.
However, A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said, the most recent translation of one such text by the Yale-based literary scholar Ala Alryyes, does more than simply legitimise the indigeneity of Islam in America, as many have argued. It starts to map out some of the trajectories of the formation of an Islamically inflected African-American consciousness beyond the limits of explicitly defined Muslim communities.
But on the real, reading this text provokes a reflection of how black people have let intellectual memory loose on intellectual history, waging asymmetrical warfare and finding ways to, in the language of the extracurricular evangelist Akil, make the transition “from Niggas to Gods”.
Omar Ibn Said would have been any other slave. For his first owner, Said was simply another labourer at the Charleston meat market in 1807. The fact that Said had probably been captured as a prisoner-of-war during one of the most tumultuous and violent times in West African history probably didn’t bother the conscience of his enslaver. Said’s years of study in the Islamic sciences and career as a teacher certainly didn’t mean much either. That he came from a family of wealthy merchants was irrelevant for his new master. After all, in the body of this human beast, his master saw the potential to extract economic value and deny the presence of dignity. He saw a nigger, the embodiment of what the white man was not: ignorant and inferior.
But we all know that story; here’s one that’s different. After a failed escape attempt, Said, taking charcoal from the ashes of a fire, tried to write himself free, filling the walls of his Fayetteville, NC jail cell with Arabic script invoking the name of God and begging for His mercy and for freedom.
Simply being in a room brimming with the divine textuality of the language in which the eternal word was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad was probably of great solace to Said. Slight of frame, he was not built for the backbreaking, soul-sapping work of that quintessential and archetypically American institution, the plantation. Sailing in a sea of letters, Said could travel to a world of ideas and memory that defied his physical confines. This is particularly probable considering the Sufi milieu in which Said developed. He was almost certainly a member of the Qadiriyya brotherhood, a group within the mystical Islamic tradition founded by Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani in 12th-century Iraq, which had virtually been the state religion of Futa Toro, Said’s native land near the Senegal River, during the 19th century. In the Sufi tradition, each letter and number has specific symbolic meanings and values that, for the initiate, constitute a comprehensive way in which to understand the universe and affirm the omnipotence and omnipresence of God. Because of this symbolic power of the language, Sufis are particularly concerned with the practice of Dhikru Allah, the remembering of the name of God. By writing on his prison walls, Said tried to write himself free, largely by re-membering God, letter by letter.
For the white folks in Fayetteville, this act elevated Said from being a simple nigger servant to being “an Arab by birth of royal blood”. Because after all, Negroes were the embodiment of non-reason. If Said was, in fact, a Negro, his literacy and refinement would challenge the entire intellectual system that supported racialised slavery. This exceptionalism has been extended gracefully by European scholars and administrators to Africans deemed to be intelligent or to have accomplished anything worthy of a history. Aidi recognises powerfully that “these efforts to separate Arab from African identity, seen in the Orientalising (‘de-Negroizing’) of Muslim slaves, is still evident in contemporary discourses on northern Africa, specifically Sudan, where Arabic-speaking blacks are habitually described as ‘settlers’ or ‘nonindigenous’”. This separation of Said as a supposed Arab reinforces the understanding of white supremacy whereby the Arab, being that much closer to white, is almost, but still not quite, alright.
Alryyes offers us another look at the text and context of what is considered the only American slave autobiography written in Arabic, flipping the script and complicating the narrative of official Black History. Slave autobiographies, we know about. The canon of African-American literature is built around a writing self who struggles for literacy and legitimacy. The quintessential text of the genre is without question the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which Douglass presents the standard story of what it means to be a Negro in America, a man who is ignorant of his origins, who does not even know when he was born. Probably fathered by his white master, Douglass is a tabula rasa who by the grace of his Mistress learns how to fill it with script. The format has since been the preferred one for Black Writing, influencing the narrative of our most recent black hero, Barack Hussein Obama. We also know a little bit about Arabic texts. There’s Bilali Mohammad’s Risala, left on Sapelo Island, Georgia. But that was no narrative. It was a teaching tool that Bilali constructed using Arabic and Ajami (in his case, Pulaar written in Arabic script) to define the ways in which to maintain his small Muslim community. Ronald Judy, in his breathtaking and life-giving (Dis)forming the American Canon, holds these two texts next to each other to expose Reason’s (that is, the History of Thought’s) imperial dominion over black minds, bodies and souls through the instrumentation of literacy and legibility. But The Life of Omar Ibn Said takes our understanding to another level.
Although the abolitionist movement used slave narratives to prove the possibility of black thought in order to challenge white supremacist justifications for slavery, it still supported the notion of blackness as an absolute lack that required filling by a White Truth. Arabic texts proved that Africans weren’t ahistorical creatures, that instead of being blank slates, they were palimpsests.
The Life is especially special because like Douglass, Said wrote at the behest of benefactors interested in a political intervention, but also like Bilali, he wrote in a language that connected his ideas to a long History of Thought that was divergent from the European Enlightenment and indexed an Islamically inspired intellectual culture among blacks in the New World. Let’s call it Islamish. However, unlike Douglass, Said would never see freedom in this world, and unlike Bilali he was not allowed to pursue his faith openly and in a community. Accordingly, Said’s text had to operate covertly, simultaneously pleasing his oppressors while allowing the Real to recognise the Real. Alryyes’s introduction appropriately identifies Said’s literary resistance and his attempts to “change the joke and slip the yoke”.
The peculiarity of writing while black, writing while being a subject/object within the peculiar institution of slavery, ensures that politics will rarely be played out clearly on the page, but rather couched in “subtle codes one can insinuate into a ritual, a pattern of dress, a song, a story, meanings that are accessible to one intended audience and opaque to another audience that actors wish to exclude”, as James Scott reminds us. One can’t help but see here “the Signifying Monkey – he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” dancing about this text, throwing out doubled utterances, and mischievously plotting, building communities.
However, this multi-layered type of writing goes beyond the coping strategies of New World slave cultural production. Said’s Sufi milieu was one that often required a type of writing that exhibited both exoteric and esoteric expository methods. To this day, West African Sufis have deployed a rich combination of metaphor, textual symbolism and numerology, as well as carefully chosen citations from the Qur’an, and even oral tradition to communicate, echoing a Hadith, according to the level of understanding. Said, therefore, was doubly compelled to write in a way that operated doubly.
The ambivalent relationship of blacks in the New World goes beyond creative codes and shielded signifying. The ambivalence arises from the alienation of thinking in a language that is not one’s own. Said’s autobiography captures his encounter painfully well. “In a Christian language, they sold me.” This language was indelibly other and points to how religion has informed culture beyond matters of belief. Even generations later, that linguistic alienation burned and it still burns. One barely needs to recall the scene from Spike Lee’s hagiographic film on Malcolm X where “our shining prince” sits in front of a dictionary to learn just how this metaphysical racism has been embedded in language. Malcolm learns that the meaning of blackness is charged with complete negativity. After quickly discrediting the dictionary as a white man’s book, Malcolm asks why even read. “Because the truth is lying there, if you read behind the words.”
True to a sense of ambivalence, there is a blessing that accompanies the curse of being owned by a language that you own differently. In his autobiography with Alex Haley, Malcolm reports being consumed by a thirst for knowledge, exhausting his prison library’s resources and correspondence courses in English and Latin. The response has been, more commonly than not, developing a culture of folk philologists and popular scientists where lessons are taught and learned not in universities but through organic interactions in barber shops, reading groups, dojos, and of course, street corner ciphers. In these spaces blacks in the New World had delved into the depths of that joyful science of deconstructing those grand White Mythologies well before Jacques Derrida ever arrived on the block.
The model for unlimited knowledge has presented itself to Malcolm and many others within the sphere of Islamic influence, whether they called themselves Muslim or not. The all-knowing, Malcolm’s brother Reginald tells him, is named Allah. “He said that God had 360 degrees of knowledge. He said that 360 degrees represented ‘the sum total of knowledge’.” The quest then, became, but really always has been, to approach the 360.
“I was born under water with 3 dollars and 6 dimes / Yeah you may laugh, ‘cause you did not do your math,” Erykah Badu in “On and on”.
My father shocked me when he first told me that he had never read a book before he learned the name of God. This was a man whose library always promised some profound and/or apocryphal pronouncement. His intellectual life started with a re-membering, a re-constituting of a sacred language, one that he had thought he had been denied through History, tricknology, and faulty, mad science. Accordingly, the Yacoubian history, as told in the old days of the Nation, as expressed by Amiri Baraka in A Black Mass, and as eventually understood by the RZA, the GZA, Ole’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Rakewon the Chef, U-God, Ghost Face Killer, and M.E.T.H.O.D. Man, had a particular resonance: the black man was the original Afro-Asiatic black man made from Allah’s image. My father’s own, completely informal and deeply personal journey that resulted in the constitution of a certain consciousness informed by Islamic ideas of social justice and divine knowledge, without him embracing a fully Muslim identity. It was a consciousness he hoped to bequeath to me by giving me a middle name after Hassan Ibn Thabit, a companion of the Prophet and the Messenger’s only beloved poet. It was as if he wanted to let me know that you don’t have to be Muslim to understand the legacy of Islam in shaping the way you understand the world.
“You don’t even know your true family name, you wouldn’t recognise your true language if you heard it. You have been cut off by the devil white man from all true knowledge.” – Autobiography of Malcolm X
A significant portion of Said’s Life is a direct quotation from the Surat al-Mulk, a chapter of the Qur’an. Alryyes argues that this selection is highly appropriate, at once masking his own condemnation of slavery while affirming and reiterating the supreme power of God.
“Blessed be He in whose hand is the mulk and who has power over all things. He created death and life that He might put you to the proof and find out which of you had the best work; He is the most mighty, the Forgiving One.” Qur’an (67:1,2)
Much more than functioning as an invocation, the intentional and specific use of a Qur’anic citation reflects a convention of many different kinds of writing in the Islamic tradition. Said completed the entire curriculum of West African educational culture over a 25-year period followed by three years working as a teacher. Speaking through a citation limited the intertextual gaps between an author and the discursive tradition, allowing him, and even occasionally her, to speak with authority or to preach to those who already knew the sermon. Mulk, derived from malaka meaning “to own” or “to have dominion”, is for Alryyes “the perfect allusion to slavery: absolute power through ownership… Omar seems to refute the right of his owners over him, since only God has the mulk, the power and the ownership.”
It is here that Alryyes offers a concrete way in which Islam may have entered African-American intellectual culture. He identifies elements of David Walker’s Appeal that appear to echo Said’s argument hidden in the citation of Surat al-Mulk.
“What if a particularly Muslim argument against slavery, which finds its expression in Surat al-Mulk, has spread orally and was incorporated by Walker in his Appeal? It is noteworthy that Walker interpolates several verses from the Bible into his tract and draws the reader’s attention to the appropriate chapter and verse. However, when he mentions that ‘God Almighty is the sole proprietor,’ Walker does not refer to the Bible. Was this then, an argument that he coined or a borrowing from Surat al-Mulk? Could Walker, an indefatigable Anti-slavery polemicist, have met any Muslims from whom he might have learnt a new anti-slavery argument?”
Alryyes then goes on to show that Walker had indeed interacted closely with other well-known Muslims and that although he maintained an identity as a Christian preacher, he “approached religion comparatively, emphasizing ethical practice over theology”. This early Islamic inflection, a creeping sharia as some of today’s Christian fundamentalists might humorously call it, opens up for us some daring possibilities.
To be certain, Alryyes’s speculation is well beyond the pale of World-History. But what are we doing when we look into the past of “people without History”, past what Ranajit Guha has called the limit of World-History? After all, history is concerned with the methodical verification of past events primarily through written texts, the physical traces of a materialised thought. Following Derrida, the very existence of writing is what created the possibility of science. History, therefore, is bound up with the science of tracing the stories of civilisations, great powers; the two, History and statehood, have been tied to each other in our understanding. Perhaps it’s best to understand Alryyes as intervening in the realm of memory which, Shail Mayaram has argued, offers “a critique of state forms and their associated textual discourses of ethnography and history” while suggesting possible narratives of oppositional practice. Because memory is so often developed from non-written texts, these narratives are more difficult to trace because of the scarcity of traces; but deep in the ideologies, practices, and politics of those denied history is an ethereal yet very real memory that is un-stated but nonetheless dis-static. In other words, History is the science of the state, while memory is the art of the stateless.
Omar Ibn Said’s Life is important for the ways it straddles this divide, at once a legitimising historical trace for political claim-making and simultaneously a powerfully charged memory able to delegitimise, or at least challenge, the very paradigm of scientifically held history. This is particularly clear if we consider the re-emergence of Islam in black intellectual life during the 20th century.
From the start of pan Africanism, black thinkers have looked to Islam for proofs of black greatness (a contrast to the narrative of black inconsequence under Christian superstructures) and for alternative meanings and modes of being and belonging. Writing in 1887, Edward Blyden was perhaps the first New World black thinker to write favourably of Islam, deploying arguments that would eventually become standard critiques of white supremacy and imperialism. Blyden, who is generally considered the intellectual father of pan Africanism, was a Caribbean-born missionary and educator who travelled throughout the Americas, West Africa, the Levant, and Egypt and who spoke several languages, Arabic being a most important one. In his Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race, Blyden argues that the difference between the two religions is the historical denial of black dignity in Christian lands, which created unactualised people and communities whose “tendencies to independent individuality were repressed and destroyed”. What’s more, Blyden argues, Blacks living as Christians had to suffer under the “depressing influence of Aryan art”. Though we may be used to this line of thinking by now, Blyden first identified the harmful effects of mimicry of white ideals by contrasting the phenomenon with Islamic art, which does not allow the depicting of human forms and thus could not idealise an ethnically specific image. In contrast, Islam and “learning to the Muslim Negro were coeval. No sooner was he converted than he was taught to read and the importance of knowledge was impressed upon him.”
Eventually a politician and a diplomat in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, Blyden articulated a vision of black belonging and imagined a black community that defied the Christian model. If the model for the nation, nationalism, and nationhood is indeed, as Adrian Hastings argues in The Construction of Nationhood, inscribed in the textual content and paratextual practice of the Bible, then the discursive tradition of Islam offers a different range of political possibility, a range that is not based on a narrow definition of ethnic identity or on language. The community of believers, or the Ummah, that the Prophet Muhammad established was a universalist one that did not bar full inclusion. It could quickly integrate disparate elements into its cohesive whole. The resulting cosmopolitanism could maintain difference while unifying people in terms of a larger concept.
This notion of belonging greatly influenced the way in which Blyden thought about the community of black folk around the world. Pan Africanism has been informed by a moral geography bounded by an inclusive racial solidarity, as well as a transnational affinity that opposed white supremacy and Western imperialism. These border-crossing bonds have bucked and broken international borders in ways that recall Islamic contexts, where circulation and cosmopolitanism are encouraged. Even as a Christian missionary, Blyden knew that Islam, or even an Islamically ordered consciousness, was necessarily the de facto spiritual and intellectual force of a resistant pan Africanism. As Adrian Hastings writes, “nations are not constructed by Islam but deconstructed”.
Pan Africanism has been picked up by popular mass movements throughout the 20th century up to today and has maintained its Islamic inflection. Aidi, in “Jihadis in the Hood”, traces the connections between the likes of Dusé Muhammad, Marcus Garvey, Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad and eventually Malcolm X. So, I won’t break the record. Instead, I want to focus not so much on the development of an ostensibly Muslim community in the US, but rather on the Islamish qualities of black intellectual culture.
Hubert Harrison, an early pioneering black thinker, whose influence far outweighs his popularity during Black History month, is a good example of how a black secularism (nontheism) can still be Islamically informed. Called “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time”, Harrison, although an atheist, was interested in Islam and the Arabic language as vehicles of thought outside of the Western tradition. As Jeffrey Perry’s research has shown, Harrison “encouraged Black Colleges to ‘establish modern courses in Hausa and Arabic, the living languages of our brothers in Africa, as well as courses in Negro history and the culture of West African peoples’”, to “learn what they have to teach us”. He read and reviewed some of Blyden’s writings, calling West Africa Before Europe “a very inspiring work”. Harrison also read the Qur’an and wrote to the Sheikh al-Islam of England to find Muslims in the US to teach him Arabic. His interest in Islam was by no means casual; he would eventually teach courses on comparative religion, developing a much deeper knowledge. We see in his engagement with Islam, the Arabic language and African history, a desire to popularise an alternative intellectual tradition that maintained black dignity in a non-religious way.
The premium placed on knowledge for all people in the Islamic tradition certainly resonated with Harrison, who wanted blacks to “get that reading habit”. An organic intellectual well before Gramsci even introduced the term, Harrison exemplified the personal struggle of intellectual exertion enshrined in the Islamic tradition as ijtihad. A working class immigrant, he taught himself six languages, read continuously and wrote exhaustively. Unlike the models of education proffered by Washington, who advocated basic vocational education for the masses, and Du Bois, who pushed for the highest cultivation of a “talented tenth”, Harrison was committed to developing an intellectual life for the common person.
But how might we trace the intellectual history of people who leave a limited quantity of writings? In regard to understanding the Islamic inflection of black culture, it may be more useful to think in terms of an intellectual memory transmitted through media other than writing, in particular the oral medium. As Greg Tate has said, through the chop and screw box of the Middle Passage, culture necessarily became mental, reproduced by the voice and by manipulating the new environments with sound. A dematerialised culture was what was available. All the better for Muslim slaves who had the key text, the Qur’an, of their intellectual and spiritual lives, memorised. Their knowledge was embodied and carried in them to the New World where, although a minority, they could muster intellectual and physical leadership on the plantation. Recent research by Butch Ware suggests that this was indeed the case with these “Walking Qur’ans” who, abducted in the course of jihadist wars, continued the fight for an Islamically ordered society in the New World with a number of slave rebellions and resistant communities.
Eventually, the immaterial quality of an Islamically informed intellectual consciousness easily found its way into black music, the public sphere of the black imagined community: firstly, as Moustafa Bayoumi has shown, in jazz. Secondly, but more abundantly, in hip hop. From Rakim’s five percenter science to Q-tip’s Sunni devotion, the love affair between Islamically inflected sensibilities and hip hop has been an intense one, as manifested in the divine knowledge of the word and a love of the rhythms of the wird. Ever since that primordial act of dropping knowledge by Clarence 13X in that Promethean moment when he took the esoteric Islamic sciences and broke them down into 120 concepts to be easily digested by the God in the street, a divine knowledge of self, inherently charged with a restored sense of dignity, has infused popular culture and discourse. Most importantly, through the language of US urban slang. From As-salamu aleikum to “peace, god” or dismantling wack emcees by their Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head, the hypnotic idiom of hip hop ensures a trip into Islamish intellectual memories.
“Me and God so close, He let me call him Me,” Saul Williams, Slam.
Although the historical record has only recently corroborated such genealogies, black intellectual memory as transmitted on the street is all too aware of the reason and the rhyme. Praises be, The Life of Omar Ibn Said drops knowledge. Not so much on anything we ain’t heard before, just on what we have yet to read.
In the 99 names that we know and even in the name of that immanence we have forgotten, let us grow in knowledge.
This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?