Ramadan 1437/2016: Black Muslims Reflect on the Quran – Juz’ 16 (Part Two)

By Dr. Rudolph Ware

The African Qurʾān-Part IV*

 “The night of my Ascent, I saw Moses who was a tall, brown-skinned, kinky-haired man.”
Authentic Saying of the Prophet, Sahih Bukhari, 462

Sarah Kahf also tells the story of Dhul-Qarnayn, which, though seemingly unrelated, follows quite clearly from the story of Moses and Khidr. Dhul-Qarnayn is given ways and means for everything and he travels from one end of the earth to the other. He is, like his dark-skinned forefather Adam, a khalifah or vicegerent of the Lord of the Throne. A caliph is one who governs on behalf of another. Humanity is in charge of the earth, but as God reminds us in Surah Maryam (and throughout the Qurʾān) all of it is going back to the King, who refers to Himself here, as elsewhere, with the Royal ‘We.’

Indeed We inherit the earth and whoever is upon it, and they all come back to Us. (19:40)

In the meantime, benefitting from—and providing benefit to—all that is in the earth is the birthright of every last one of the children of Adam. But only those who overcome their fear and grief and labor for God’s sake without personal desire for earthly reward can inherit that birthright.

Many exegetes of Qurʾān miss the powerful symbolism of real caliphal authority in this story, the story of the youths of the cave, and in the surah as a whole. Taken together Surah Kahf is an essay on humanity mastering time & space, water & fire, earth & iron, men & jinn not by dominating them, but by submitting to their Maker.

Medieval Middle Eastern exegetes often focused instead on history, convinced that the story of Dhul-Qarnayn—‘He of the two horns’ is a reference to Alexander the Great. And indeed Alexander did depict himself with a bull’s horns in coins and sculptures.

But our African reading of the Qurʾān reminds us that Alexander intentionally depicted himself with the horns of Ammon—the uncreated Creator God of the Ancient Egyptians. When Alexander depicted himself as the Master of Two Horns, he was clearly and self-consciously imitating African Pharaohs. The Narmer Palette depicts the very first Pharaoh of Egypt, history’s first recorded king, Menes (also called Narmer) conquering the known world. He is thus depicted, on both the front and back of the tablet sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest surviving historical text as a rampaging bull with two horns.

When gazing upon the African features of the first Pharaoh, it becomes obvious why the medieval Arab exegetes all understood Moses to have been a dark-skinned man, and why the Prophet (s) saw him as a Black man in visions. He certainly could not have passed for a member of the Ancient Egyptian royal family if he looked like a Modern American Jew, most of whom are descendants of European Jews and closely resemble the European populations with whom they have intermingled for the past two thousand years.


The original Master of the Two Horns likely looked like this ancient realistic bust of Menes.

The Jews of Moses time had lived among Africans for 426 solar years between the time that Joseph brought them into Egypt and the time that Moses brought them out. Whatever Jacob’s children looked like, after four centuries in the Nile Valley, and the decimation of their male population, they certainly looked African, just as African Americans now greatly resemble the European Americans who brought us here in bondage.

Surah TaHa tells the story of their Exodus, but the stakes in the story are theologically and historically African as well. What became of the religion of the first Pharaohs? What became of the tawhid of Idris (referenced in Part II), the Prophet of Egypt and the first to teach by the pen? This is exactly the question that is at stake in the beginning of Surah TaHa and a fuller discussion of the fall from grace suffered by the Pharaoh of Moses (20:49-52).

[Pharaoh] said, And who is your Lord, Moses?

[Moses] said, “Our Lord is the One who gives each thing its form, then guides it.”

[Pharaoh] said, “Then what is the case of the former generations?”

He said, “Their knowledge is with my Lord in a Book. My Lord neither errs nor forgets.”

When Pharaoh asks, ‘what then, of the religion of my illustrious ancestors?,’ the Qurʾān does not give the answer it usually gave to other peoples or the pagan Arabs of Mecca and which we can paraphrase as follows: ‘would you follow your fathers though they were ignorant and in error.’[1]

Such cannot be said of the ancestors of Pharaoh. Their knowledge is in a Book. When The Pharoah of Moses asks, ‘and what about my ancestors,’ Moses all but says, ‘listen, I don’t know how you got to this business of claiming divinity for yourself, but their knowledge is in a Book with my Lord.’

TaHa is full of reminders that the Qurʾān is largely a book about Africa, but it also provides a clear and universal message of tolerance relevant to our situation in America. When Moses and Aaron are sent to Pharaoh (20:44) they are told:

And speak to him with gentle speech that perhaps he may be reminded or have deference.

 The first Black people arrived in what eventually became the United States some 412 solar years ago; perhaps our freedom is right around the corner. As in the time of Moses and Aaron, we know that freedom will require courage and struggle. But we should remember that if even Pharaoh deserved a gentle word, that such is the least we can offer to our neighbors here. While America’s crimes against Black people, Muslims, and indeed humanity are numerous, they pale in comparison to those of Pharaoh. For Pharaoh said “I am your lord god most high worship none but me,” and in some years he killed every single male child born to the children of Israel.

Many Americans are prosecuting a media war against Islam, and the American state continues to use mass incarceration, police brutality and economic and political disenfranchisement as weapons against Black people. We are called to go forth and speak truth to power, to address a king who has transgressed. But we are called, as our forefathers were, to go unto Pharaoh not with random acts of violence, but with a gentle word. Perhaps he will be reminded.

[1] See: 2:170, 5:104, 7:28, 7:70, 21:54-55, 36:6 and others.

*Dr. Ware’s two-part reflection on juz’ 16 concludes his discussion of “the African Quran.” (See Part IPart II and Part III)

IMG_2822Dr. Rudolph 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 Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor as well as Director for IKHLAS Research Institute and the author of The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied knowledge, and History in West Africa.

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