by Dr. Rudolph B. Ware
—“We tell you the best tales in what We have revealed to you of this Qurʾān ”—
Qurʾān , Sura Yusuf, 12:3
“The night of my Ascent, I saw Moses who was a tall, brown-skinned, kinky-haired man.”
Authentic Saying of the Prophet, Saḥīḥ Bukhāri, 462
The Qurʾān, as a rule, is colorblind. It is the Universal Book. God cares about hearts and deeds, not skin color and hair texture. So the Qurʾān, unlike other Holy books, lacks racial markers. The only partial exception to this is the specification that the first human, Ādam (as)—whose name meant black in old Arabic—was formed from fermented black clay. Given Ādam’s origins maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that many (probably most) of the tales of the Prophets in the Qurʾān take place in Africa, or that Black folks figure prominently even in stories set outside the continent. The narratives of Joseph and Moses, Abraham and Hagar and Solomon and Sheba, along with countless others, lead us back to Ancient Africa, and especially the Nile Valley. The modern disciplines of African history, archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology all show that the progenitors of Egyptian civilization were—in today’s terms—black, and that Egypt’s civilization came from inner African sources. Too bad Hollywood didn’t get the memo!
Muslims too have pushed Blacks into the background. We forget that God has wisely shared out goodness among the children of Adam. Arabo-centrism is a kind of ‘chosen people’ complex amongst Muslims and even some Black Muslims accept that Islam = Arab. Over a series of essays this Ramadan, I will try to highlight the centrality of Africans in the Qurʾān and the unique approach of our West African ancestors to the Qur’an.
But an African Qurʾān? Some will say that there is no such thing. However, I argue that the Qurʾān is African because it speaks of Black people and because Africans have recited, taught and lived it in ways that can be instructive to us in America. But most importantly, I will argue that the Qurʾān is a book that speaks to Black people because it speaks to all people. Surah Luqman, a chapter named for a black man, reminds us of the Qurʾān’s vision of a common origin and destiny for humanity: “The creation of all of you—and your resurrection—are as a single soul. Indeed God is Hearing, Seeing” (Q 31:28)
Black People in the life of the Prophet and the Spread of Islam in Africa
Unlike the Qurʾān , The Prophet did sometimes speak of skin color or hair texture—as when he mentioned Musa’s black skin. For many medieval scholars Musa’s blackness (and the blackness of the Egyptians) was so obvious they mentioned it only in passing. For Qurtubi “Musa was extremely dark brown in skin color (asmar shadid al-asmara).” Remember in Sura Ta Ha when Moses puts his hand inside his shirt and it comes out white without illness? (Q 20:23) The Tafsir of the two Jalals (al-Suyuti and al-Mahalli) says it emerged white, “and not its normal dark color.” The famous historian al-Tabari was more blunt still: “According to what was related to us, Moses was black-skinned and God made Musa’s hand turning white, without being stricken by leprosy, a sign for him.”
The life of the Prophet—is full of Black people as well. His last spouse, Mariya was an Egyptian woman, and perhaps to honor his illustrious ancestor who became the father of the Arabs by his marriage to an Ancient Egyptian, he named their son—who passed away in infancy—Ibrahim. Bilal—a freed slave—was likely the second adult male to accept Islam after Abu Bakr (r). When he climbed atop the House of God to call the prayer it signaled to Quraysh the social revolution that was possible in the new religion—turning their world upside down.
But Islam spread to sub-Saharan Africa long before the Victory of Mecca, before Bilal climbed the Ka’ba, even before ‘Islamic time’ began. Year One of the Islamic calendar is marked by the hijra to Medina in 622 CE. Yet, the two hijras to Ethiopia took place in 615-16 CE, which makes Islam in Black Africa older than it even is in Medina! Were it not for the graciousness of an African Christian king, the najashi or Negus who refused to turn the refugees over to Quraysh, it is likely that many of the most illustrious companions of the Prophet would have been executed in 616, dealing a crippling—if not fatal—blow to the religion.
Decades later when Arab armies brought Islam forth from its cradle in Arabia, conquering much of the known world, they did not conquer sub-Saharan Africa. In 652 CE Nubian archers stopped their march down the Nile and the Muslims signed a mutual non-aggression treaty. In sub-Saharan West Africa, where the Empire of Ghana controlled much of the world’s medieval gold trade, here too the army was unconquerable. Medieval Arabic sources claim that the Emperor of Ghana could put 100,000 soldiers in the battlefield, 40,000 of them archers. No armed Arab conquest brought Islam to sub-Saharan Africa where one-in-six of the world’s Muslims now reside.
Rather, teachers and clerics were the primary agents in spreading the faith. From towns like Jakha in what is now Mali, the Jakhanke and other African clerical clans traveled as merchants, farmers, and scholars into all the countries of the African west, often as Muslim minorities among non-Muslim populations. Over the course of time, they were instrumental in peacefully converting populations from Senegal in the west to Niger in the east, from Mali in the north to Ghana in the south. Local, indigenous West African populations voluntary accepted the new religion, and some families came to specialize in teaching the Qurʾān and the sciences of Islam. In Part Four, I will discuss the unique Jakhanke approach to the Qurʾān, and its particular relevance for Black Americans.
To conclude, let me be clear: focusing on Africans in the Qurʾān and the Qurʾān in Africa should not cause us to replace one ethnocentrism with another. Sura Maryam reminds us that prophethood was not the monopoly of the children of Israel or any other tribe. God’s teachers do not belong to one people, but to all people.
After mentioning Enoch, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Zachary, John, and Jesus (upon them peace) all in a single Sura, God reminds us in a single aya that the blessed teachers of His word were from (and for) all the children of Adam and Eve:
These are some of the Prophets whom God has blessed from Adam’s progeny, and from those We carried with Noah, and from the progeny of Abraham and Israel, and from those whom We guided and elected. When the signs of the Merciful were recited to them, they fell down prostrate and wept. (Q 19:58)
The Qurʾān reminds us that God’s glory should leave us humbled. Claiming a monopoly on God, on the other hand, reveals pride, arrogance, and haughtiness (kibr, istikbar, takabbur). Indeed, as African American Muslims we know Black supremacy as creed is a theological dead end. Rather, by positing an African Qurʾān, my goal is to use Qurʾān as Furqān—criteria for understanding—to help undo the damage centuries of racial and religious intolerance have wrought. In Part Two of the African Qurʾān, I will discuss the causes and cures for intolerance through a discussion of the third juz of the Qur’an.
Professor Ware will be reflecting on three ajza’ throughout the month of Ramadan, focusing on the centrality of Africa in the Quran and the contributions of West African scholarship. This is his introduction to his upcoming three articles.
Professor Ware is a historian of Africa and Islam. Ware earned his Ph.D. in history in 2004 from the University of Pennsylvania where he was trained in African History, African-American History, and Islamic Intellectual History. He is a professor of African History and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, and the founder and director of the IKHLAS research initiative for the study of Islamic Knowledge, Histories & Languages, Arts & Sciences.
He is the author of, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, a book that explores the history of a thousand years of Qur’an schooling in West Africa.