By Dawud Walid & Will Caldwell
We interviewed Imam Dawud Walid about a new book he co-authored with Ahmad Mubarak, Centering Black Narrative: Black Muslim Nobles among the Early Pious Muslims. The book profiles various dark-skinned companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who, today, would would be perceived as “black.” The authors also address the historical relationship between Arabia and Africa, early Muslim perceptions of blackness, and the limitations of our current racial categories for comprehending this history. Pick up a copy on Amazon!
Could you tell us a little bit about the premise of the book and who you’re writing for?
Well, the book that Ahmad Mubarak and I wrote is called Centering Black Narrative: Black Muslim Nobles among the Early Pious Muslims. So what happened was that, during Black History Month two years ago, Ahmad and I began to start writing short pieces every day about a few different personalities in early Islamic history that, if they were alive in contemporary time, looked at based upon phenotype, they’d be considered black. And the reason why we started writing these posts is that, in early Islamic history, it seemed that the only black person that Muslims would talk about is Bilal. So we got tired of the tokenization of Bilal so we decided to start some posts. We assessed from the positive feedback we got that we would expand on some of what we wrote and put that into book form. So that is the genesis of the project.
Now this book has three audiences. The first primary audience is Black American Muslims. The primary reason for this is we believe that Muslims who are African American or from African descent have basically been relegated as not having as much interpretive authority on Islam in the West. We also believe that, if people who are black were to read about this, and to see that people who would be considered black, were involved in the early formation of the ummah of the Prophet Muhammad this would be something positive and be therapeutic since blackness has been erased or relegated, in most cases, in early Islamic history.
The second audience is Muslims who aren’t black, for the similar reasons that it’s important for Muslims who aren’t black to know about these early Islamic personalities. But also how many Arabs who were alive in the early times would have been considered black today, and to clarify the misperception of Arab-Black mutual exclusivity. Of course, those two identities are not mutually exclusive. So we elaborate on that in the book because we think that’s important for Muslims who aren’t black and especially for Arabs to learn something about their lineage and their roots–how Arabs were described in the early history of Islam.
The third audience would be people who are Afrocentrists, Black Nationalists, Black Orientalists, and what some have called the Hottep-ers. That is a very important demographic because many of them have this framework of, “Black people who accept Islam are basically trading one slave master for another.” Or the sense that there was the so-called Arab slave trade and, actually, that was worse than the trans-Atlantic slave trade… so why would anyone black want to accept Islam when this is a religion that subjugates black people just like Christianity? So we also want to, again, try to clarify some of the miscommunication or the misinformation that the Black Nationalists and the Hotepers have received so that they can actually see not only the position of African Muslims in early Islam but also that many of these Arabs themselves were black. That also needs to be clarified for them because when they think of Arabness and Blackness, they view these identities as mutually exclusive and don’t understand the historical context. “Arab” is not a race anymore than “Latino” is not a race. There are white Latinos and black Latinos–the same way with Arabs. So we have this chronicled and described in our book.
You mention the tokenization of Bilal. Is that, would you say, a product of the political situation surrounding blackness today or it more of a benign ignorance?
I think there are historical roots to this. Over time, there’s been the erasure or the relegation of blackness that’s based upon postmodern geopolitics. But what I will say is that the effect of colonialism has not escaped the Muslim mind. Muslims are very influenced by colonialism in several ways. That includes how the Islamic narrative is talked about and even how Muslim are depicted or described. So one prime example of this–and of course, this is not faulting him entirely in his work but it’s a prime example–so Moustapha Akkad made the movie called Ar-Risalah in Arabic and he did an English version of it called The Message. And when you look at that movie, besides Bilal and couple people who are enslaved that they show, basically you don’t see any black Companions. And even Companions who were black and described as being black, such as Sumaiyah, the first martyr of Islam, that was a black woman. She’s depicted like a Greek. So you have these people described as black or with dark brown skin looking like white folks. And there’s nothing wrong with people being white and being Muslims but that’s not the historical reality. So I’m sure that the people who made that movie had access, or could have had access, to authentic Islamic information about their descriptions. The reason why I say that is that the movie, The Message, it opens up and says that “this movie was approved for its fidelity by al-Azhar University and the Supreme Shi’a Council of Lebanon.” They had Sunni and Shi’a scholars who cosigned these depictions of the Arabs who looked like white people. And really a lot of it has to do with aspirational whiteness and standards of civility, civilization, and beauty that many Muslims, Arabs, Persians, and I’ll say even South Asians too have, unfortunately, absorbed this from the era of colonialism. It’s still perpetuated by corporate media to this day regarding standards of beauty, who’s perceived to be more civilized, more intelligent, who looks less beautiful, who looks more violent–it’s all perpetuated to this day.
So how would you describe black identity, if we can use that term, how would you describe it at the time of the Prophet?
Well, we talked about this in the book. The introduction was written by Ustadh bin Hamid Ali, who’s a teacher of shariah at Zaytuna College and who also runs Lamppost. Then Sidi Ahmad and I also leveraged on this in early chapters. Basically, what we describe is that the racial constructs used or produced through colonialism and post-colonialist anthropology of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, those were not racial classifications that were used 1,400 years ago. And there was no particular virtue given to people based upon phenotype in the times of the Sahabah, unlike European anthropology that basically tried to assign certain traits–not just physical but even intellectual traits–based upon one being Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. So we describe what would be considered black from a couple of categories as described in the old books of ta’rikh [history] or descriptions of men and women in early Islamic history. One was the descriptions used of skin color, which the early Muslims used. Even Prophet Muhammad himself described Musa in Sahih Bukhari as being tall and dark brown. So we used skin color descriptions. And the second thing is descriptions of certain traits such as their hair being described as kinky. Of course we know that black people have different grains of hair. You can have Somalis who have straight hair. People in the part of African have straight hair. You have curly hair and you have kinky hair. But there are some companions who are specifically described as their hair being kinky or what is called ja’ad. Some people would use the term “nappy,” though I don’t use that term; I think it’s more of a pejorative. Nonetheless, you have companions in the books of ta’rikh as well as the tabi’een and the tabi’ tabi’een whose hair is described as being ja’ad or kinky.
So is phenotype, at the time, not being valued one way or the other? Or is there a different valuation placed upon black skin at that time that’s discussed in these sources? And is there any black identity formation that you see being discussed or rebuked there?
The identity formation 1,400 years ago, in the Hijaz, is primarily Arab, then what nation, and then what tribe one comes from. So one was an Arab in that society. Then there was a little more fadl, or a little more virtue, given to Arabs over non-Arabs. Of course, our beloved Prophet said that the Arab does have any virtue over the non-Arab, nor does the non-Arab have virtue over the Arab. But, of course, we can read in Islamic history that, during the time of the Bani Ummayah, this began to creep back up in the Muslims. By the time the Bani Abbas became the rulers, there was a type of de facto caste system that began to be practiced among the Muslim in the lands of the Arabs. But the primary identity was first Arab, and being Arab meant that one’s paternal lineage came from an Arab tribe. Everyone in the Hijaz was speaking Arabic. Then someone’s sha’ab would be next. Sha’ab means nation so Quraysh was a nation among the Arabs that was the most influential. They had different clans and tribes amongst themselves like the Bani Hashim, Bani Ummayah, tribes underneath Quraysh. But we show in our book that there were even people from the Hashimites who were described as being black. For instance, the predominant description of Imam Ali ibn Ali Talib, the fourth khalifah, he is described as Kaana Adam shaded al-Udmah, that is he had very dark skin. He was described as having skin the same color as Bilal the Ethiopian. But of course Ali was an Arab and he came from Bani Hashim. And Abu Dharr is described as having dark brown skin. He was an Arab from Bani Ghaffar.
There’s a hadith that’s mentioned a lot regarding racism in Islam that I think some people misread in terms of an act where Abu Dharr got mad at Bilal and said Yaa ibn as-Sawdaa, “Oh you son of a black lady.” But this was more of a statement of class because Abu Dharr himself was a dark skinned man but his mother was an Arab and a free woman whereas Bilal’s mother was Ethiopian and she had been enslaved. So that statement, although he called him the son of a black woman, that was more of an issue of him not coming from an Arab tribe and that his mother basically… you know, if you want to insult someone you talk about their mom. It’s the same that his mother came from a higher class. Unfortunately people tell “yo mama” jokes, right? That’s a quick way of getting into a fight, right? And that’s what Abu Dharr did putting down Bilal’s mom as a woman who had been enslaved, who was Ethiopian. But it wasn’t necessarily about the racial constructs that we have today. That’s really a mistake when people talk about racism in the Muslim community or want to be involved in anti-racism work. There has to be a consciousness of the racial constructs that we face today from the influence of white supremacy, that that cannot be imposed on the Sahabah 1,400 years ago. That will give a skewed reading of history if read in contemporary terms.
You mention being Arab at that time as being analogous to being Latino today. It’s not a race, it’s something quite broad. Is that a good analogy, would you say, for thinking about the relationship between Blackness and Arabness at that time?
Yeah, even to this day you have lighter-skinned Arabs and dark Arabs. You have Arabs in Sudan and Mauritania who are shurafaa’, they are descendants of Fatimah az-Zahra. And then you have very light Arabs who are also her descendants who are ahl al-bayt that are in Syria or Lebanon. So there are black Arabs and very light Arabs, even with blue eyes, to this day. It’s just that, in those times, in Yemen and the Hijaz, that Arabness was predominantly darker people. What happened was that, as Islam spread, it Arabized different people. So for instances, people in bilad ash-sham, or greater Syria, were not predominantly Arabs. Islam came and Arabized those people. Egyptians were not Arabs until Islam came. ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas, the Companion, when he was governing Egypt, said that the Egyptians were the best of the ‘ajam, or the best of the non-Arabs. Same thing with Morocco, with Algeria and the Amazigh, or what some would call Berber people. The Arabs spread Islam there and Arabized those people when they blended with them. Arab men took Persian women as wives, and sometimes as right hand possessions. Same thing with Turks and Armenians. Over time, Arabs came to be lighter people just as African Americans or Native American people, our physical characteristics have changed over time, over centuries of intermingling with white people who took black women as slaves and had children with them. You know, I’m considered African American but when I spend time in West African, no one thinks I’m from the Bambara people or the Wolof people. I don’t look like them. That’s because white blood has gotten into me. And that’s the same thing that happened to Arabs over the centuries. Today many of them don’t look like ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab or Abdullah ibn Masud. These were darker people that, if they were walking around urban areas today with suits on or some jeans and a hoodie, they would probably blend in with African American communities.
So I have a question about the first thing that struck me about your book. In the title, you use the word “noble.” That’s a word that has a pretty storied history in Black Americas Islam–and I’m thinking of Noble Drew Ali here. I found it striking for that reason, so I’m curious why you chose that word, which word it might be translation of, and why you decided to go with it over another one.
Well, we used that word “Noble” to try to uplift and show the nobility of these early black Muslims and also as a means of, black people in particular who have been put down and described as having no heritage and no history, of really centering and uplifting blackness. Again, as I stated earlier, we believe this book is a type of therapy or a type of medicine for black people and Muslims who are black who have been put down and erased, made to feel like blackness is not as authentic as so-called “Arabness.” Again, those two identities are not mutually exclusive. Now, the term “Noble,” you mention in connection to Noble Drew Ali, there’s also a connection with our history here. We could also perhaps translate this word as kareem. When Mr. Fard Muhammad came to my city, Detroit, Michigan, he met Elijah Poole in the year 1931 upon Sister Clara Muhammad inviting him to their home. As the story goes, Mr. Fard came into Elijah Poole’s home and spoke to him and Elijah Poole gave Mr. Fard all the money he had, which wasn’t much, but gave him some money. And the first name that Mr. Fard gave to Elijah Poole was not Elijah Muhammad, he called him Elijah Kareem. Kareem means honorable and noble but it also means generous. So in the Arabic language, the word kareem–someone who’s kareem or has karam–is different from the word sakhiyy. So sakhiyy is a word that means generosity that means, if you ask someone for something, let’s say you ask me for five dollars and I give you five dollars, that’s a form of generosity called sakhiyy. But karam or someone who’s kareem, you ask them for five dollars, I go in my pocket and I have fifty dollars. I give you fifty dollars. I give you more than what you ask for. I give you all my money. I say “hey, you just take this fifty dollar bill.” That’s being noble or being generous or being kareem. So we think the word for these individuals, these personalities, that we highlight in the book, what they gave Islam and still offer today, is a type of nobility. Actually, more than what many people would have expected from such personalities. So this is our take on the issue.
Mahshallah. On that note, can we close with you telling us your favorite Black Muslim Noble from the book, the one who most impressed you?
One of the Black Muslim Nobles who I think is a very important person is Umm Ayman. Umm Ayman was an Ethiopian woman. She was a servant of Abdullah, the father of the Prophet Muhammad. When Aminah, the blessed mother of the Prophet, was giving birth to the Rasulallah, Umm Ayman was present and helped deliver the Prophet Muhammad. And when Aminah died, she was temporarily the primary caregiver of the Prophet Muhammad. This is why he said of Umm Ayman —that Umm Ayman is my mother after my biological mother. He freed Umm Ayman at the time of his marriage to Sayyidah Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet. She later on, when Revelation came, she was one of the early people to accept Islam. She was one of those amongst the muhajireen, or the immigrants to Medinah. Later on, when she migrated, her husband became a martyr and he also was black. And her son, Ayman, also became a martyr. Her real name was Barakah, which means “blessing.” After her husband and son were martyred, the Prophet went to the Sahabah and said “Who would like to marry a woman from the people of Paradise. And he then called Umm Ayman. It was Zaid bin Haritha who stepped up and married Umm Ayman. This was the foster son of the Prophet who married Umm Ayman. And actually Zaid bin Haritha is described by Ibn al-Jawzi as having the same skin color as Bilal. So he was a black Arab. They gave birth to a son name Usama whom the Prophet loved so much he called him al-hibb ibn al-hibb, beloved son of the beloved, because of course he loved Zaid whom he raised like a son. So this woman whose name literally meant blessing, Barakah, married a blessed man and gave birth to a blessed son. Zaid, as a teenager, was the last appointed commander of a campaign during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. This young black man as a teen was appointed over some of the greatest of the Sahabah. He was chosen over Abu Bakr and Umar. And when some of the Companions actually questioned that, like how are you going to put this young guy over senior people, the Prophet told them they should follow just as they follow Zaid because Zaid had also been a commander. So Umm Ayman is one of my favorite personalities among the Sahabah and she’s one of those who we wrote about in the book.
Dawud Walid is currently the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), which is a chapter of America’s largest advocacy and civil liberties organization for American Muslims and is a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) Imams Committee.
Will Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in Islam and American Religions at Northwestern University. He specializes in the history of early twentieth-century African American Muslims, with a focus on issues of race, empire, and internationalism.