by Nathaniel Mathews
When I was an undergrad at Howard in the mid-2000s, “hotep” was basically a “conscious” way to greet people; it signified that one had done some reading and research into Ancient Kemet. Over a decade later, the term ‘hotep’ has become a term of opprobrium, indicating someone who is basically an ignorant and unapologetic misogynist.
I use the term “hotep” here to describe a specific person who has developed an opposition to Islam from studying foundational Afrocentric texts, such as Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilization. Their argument is as follows: Islam is not indigenous to Africa. Rather it was brought by Arabs (sometimes identified as Semitic, sometimes as Caucasian) who invaded Africa, enslaving and raping their way across the continent. Their pillaging led to hundreds of millions of Africans being displaced. Islam is nothing but Arab nationalism, an unoriginal religion designed to hide Arab racial interests as they stole African land and riches. Black Muslims, they argue, betray African interests by following this ‘Arab’ religion.
In my view, Muslims should respond to these accusations as follows:
- The first important point is that Islam is not a white, Arab religion, foreign to Africa. The assumption that Islam is Arab colonialism is foundational to a great number of Afrocentric foundationalist critiques of Islam, ranging from Chancellor Williams to Molefi Asante and Wole Soyinka. But these critiques rest on the idea that Arabs are not indigenous to Africa. And beneath the comparison then, is an analogy that rests more on a misguided comparison of Arab migrations into Africa to European colonial migrations post 1492 than on conclusive evidence that this earlier Arab expansion also resulted in a massive displacement of Africans. As scholar Hisham Aidi points out, Cheikh Anta Diop, a scholar often quoted by contemporary Afrocentrists, himself refuted the idea of an Arab invasion in his classic work Precolonial Black Africa. And Diop himself was an African Muslim from Senegal. Afrocentrists may have legitimate philosophical critiques of Islam, and certainly legitimate critiques of the failings of Muslims, but equating Islam with Arab colonialism is inaccurate.
- The second and related point is that the beginning of slavery in Africa does not date from the coming of Islam into Africa. Slavery was an ancient practice in any number of centralized and decentralized societies across the African continent. Slaves were more often than not criminals or war captives, because in the absence of prisons, forms of servility and human bondage were the only available punishment (along with death or exile) for serious crimes. These forms of slavery were extremely variable, often gendered and cannot be simplistically categorized into ‘African slavery’ versus ‘Islamic slavery’.
- The third important point is that Afrocentrists pointing to the evils of the ‘Arab’ slave trade often rely uncritically on eighteenth and nineteenth century European travellers in East Africa as their primary source material. These accounts contain much of value, but must be read critically for their clear bias against Islam and Arabs and contextually as evidence of the growing nexus between abolition and colonialism. Their shocking accounts of the brutality of the slave trade were often designed specifically to demonize ‘Arab’ traders (who were oftentimes not even Arab), outrage a European public and advocate for European colonial intervention.
I do not want to be seen as apologizing for Arab slave traders or slave traders of any kind. The traffic, past and present, of human beings in bondage was and is unethical, immoral and illegal. But these polemical accounts date from a time when the enslavement of Africans was a global business participated in by many ethnicities, societies, states and private companies, and of which British, French and Dutch colonials were a vital part. The ‘Arab’ slave trade is thus more accurately referred to as the Indian Ocean slave trade. In the nineteenth century, it became global in scope, as part of the global trade in ivory from Africa.
Afrocentrists often quote statistics derived from this aforementioned literature, about the total number of Africans taken over centuries of the ‘Arab’ slave trade. This is an empirically dubious exercise, for there are no accurate records on numbers of enslaved Africans for the early centuries of Islam, and the scattershot eighteenth and nineteenth century estimates of amateur European travelers cannot be reliably taken as a statistical ground from which to derive any reasonable estimate about the past.
In a related article, I also explore the Islamic tradition’s approach to the abolition of slavery from a historical perspective.
Nathaniel Mathews is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at SUNY-Binghamton. He received a B.A. in History from Howard University, an M.A. in Global, International and Comparative History from Georgetown University in 2009, and a Ph.D. in African History from Northwestern University in 2016, focusing on family networks and the Swahili-speaking diaspora in the Indian Ocean. His research is published on his site, Azanian Sea.