March 1, 2004

Muslim Africans: A Past of Which to Speak

An area of history, which still remains in the shadows of today?s ingrained
and accepted tale of Western dominance is the history of Muslim Africans. The
tribulations and triumphs of Muslim Africans translates into a rich and vibrant
history, a past of honour and a future of hope. From their explorative voyages
in early centuries, their cultural assimilation under the scourge of slavery
in the United States and the Caribbean, to their triumphs as re-defined citizens
in today?s world, Muslim Africans?today African Americans, African
Canadians, and Caribbeans?have a past of which to speak.

Early Explorations

Christopher Columbus?the infamous Spanish explorer?is credited
with ?discovering? North America. Of course, ?discover?
implies that the land Columbus landed on in 1492 had never been explored before,
was devoid of any civilization and the people devoid of any sophistication.
This is simply not true.

Before Columbus even stepped onto his boat, Native Americans had 2000 separate
languages, a distinctive array of religions, a system of interaction with nature
and other human beings and by 1492, the entire northern third of North America
was already occupied, and hence already ?discovered? by hunters.

The notion that Columbus, if not the first person to discover America, was
the first person to make contact with Native peoples, is another common myth.
There is extensive and irrefutable evidence that points to the idea that ancient
North American culture had been in contact with voyagers from both sides of
the Atlantic Ocean before Columbus. They spread knowledge amongst each other,
influenced each other and exchanged products. Although more research is needed,
evidence such as sculptures, oral history, eye-witness accounts, Arabic documents,
coins and inscriptions serve as undeniable claims to North African Muslim contact
with Natives in the Americas as early as the 7th century CE. This remains a
hidden and often neglected part of history that needs further research and clarification
but definitely points at undeniable possibilities.

Mandinka voyages?Muslim explorers and merchants from the West African
Islamic Empire of Mali?were significant and extravagant. In 1324 CE, the
ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa was en route to Makkah when he informed the Governor
of Cairo that his predecessor had taken two voyages into the Atlantic Ocean
to discover what lay beyond. Shihab ad-Din al-?Umari, an Arab geographer,
reported from his informant that the Mandinka monarch?s voyages reached
at least the North Equatorial or the Antilles current which from the West African
coast would lead straight to the Americas. Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick in his book,
Deeper Roots importantly relates that, ?examination of inscriptions
found in Brazil, Peru, and the United States, as well as linguistic, cultural
and archaeological find offer documentary evidence of the presence of these
Mandinka Muslims in the early Americas.? There is even extensive evidence
of Mandinka cities of stone and mortar that were seen by early Spanish explorers
and land pirates. A document written by a land pirate from Minas Gerais in 1754
relates the remains of a city near a river in Minas Gerais had remarkable buildings,
obelisks and statues. Columbus, quite obviously arrived in the Americas a little
late, but just in time to rake in the credit.

Slavery and Exploitation

It seems almost unbelievable that a culture and heritage full of such vibrancy
and power remains hidden in the dust and shadows of other histories that are
commendable, yet easily refutable. Perhaps, as the sixteenth century rolled
in and brought the scourge of exploitation and the plague of slavery with it,
the greatness of African empires was slowly forgotten?or perhaps just
brushed aside.

When the Spanish crown granted the right to buy slaves in Africa early in the
sixteenth century, the stage was set for centuries of exploitation. Millions
of Africans were taken from the shores of West and Central Africa and transported
to the Americas and the Caribbean where they were forced to spend their lives
slaving for others. Early in the 17th Century there was a rapid growth of sugar
plantations, which resulted in an increased demand for slaves, which in turn
transformed Africa into what Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick calls the ?chief
victim of exploitation?. What many Muslims, whether they have an African
heritage or not, and what many African-Americans and African-Canadians?whether
or not they?re Muslim?fail to realize is that seven to thirty percent
of slaves taken from Africa and brought to the Americas, were Muslim.

Islam had flourished and developed in Africa before and during the Atlantic
slave trade. Muslims in Africa were literate having been educated in the Arabic
language, and were culturally connected with other literate nations within Africa
as well as beyond, in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. When ships began
transporting African people to the Americas and the Caribbean, a culturally
diverse group of Africans lay side by side in the darks pits of English, Spanish,
French and Dutch ships. Muslim tribes included the Mandinka, Fula, Susu, Ashanti
and the Hausa. One of the most popular symbols of the Muslim slave is Kunta
Kinte, immortalized in Alex Haley?s saga, Roots. Using oral tradition
as a basis, Haley traced back his lineage to Kunta Kinte an African from the
Mandinka tribe who was kidnapped from his village and brought to the United
States in the mid 1700?s. Haley traces Kinte?s life, from his birth
in the village of Juffure, to his struggle to live in the United States as a
slave. Kinte?s struggle, to maintain his culture and religion as a Muslim,
reflects the struggle of scores of Muslim slaves in the Americas. The fact that
Haley embarked upon a journey to discover his roots, reflects perhaps the success
of the millions of Africans like Kinte who would not give up their own roots.

Despite the extremely restrictive policies?among them, The Code Noir
of 1685
?designed to destroy the will of slaves, control every meaningful
aspect of their lives and convert them to Christianity, Muslim slaves in the
Americas and the Caribbean fought both external and internal battles to keep
their roots alive. A clear example of Muslims maintaining their faith in Islam
lies in Bryan Edward?s work, The History, Civil and Commercial of
the British Colonies in the West Indies
written in 1794. He describes the
practices of ?an old and faithful Mandingo servant?:

?he has not forgot the morning and evening prayer which his father
taught him. In proof of this assertion, he chants, in an audible and shrill
tone, a sentence that I conceive to be part of the al-Koran. La illa, ill
illa?

La ilaha illah Allah?there is no god but Allah?an assertion
of faith, and proof that African slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean did
continue to carry their faith with them. There are numerous other examples of
white masters recording the peculiar practices of their slaves, among them the
ability of many slaves to read and write in Arabic.

Although Muslim Africans tried to maintain their faith, the suppressive and
debilitating laws of slavery forced most to conform to the wills of their masters,
and assimilate themselves into the cultural norms of the society in which they
lived. Islam, after generations became a distant memory, and in most cases it
ceased to exist at all.

But perhaps, the efforts of Muslim Africans are not fruitless. Like Alex Haley
and his Roots, the search for roots, of heritage and beginnings is becoming
more widespread by many African-Americans, African-Canadians and Caribbean of
African descent. The American Muslim Council states in its Zogby poll of August
2000 that 23.8% of American Muslims are African American. Resurgence in the
number of people reverting to Islam has also become apparent in recent years
and is coupled with the rise of Muslim organizations. Although much of the Muslim
population in the Americas can be credited to immigration, the individual journeys
taken by people like Alex Haley to revisit their heritage attests to the strength
of African Muslims remaining stoic in the face of adversity, and passing whatever
knowledge they had of Islam on through the centuries.

Sources:

Quick, Dr. Abdullah Hakim. Deeper
Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean
From Before Columbus To the Present
. London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd. 1998.

?American Muslim History?American Muslim Council, The Sabr Foundation
1998-2003.

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