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.


11128587_10100802097691680_475105515663466740_nNathaniel 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.

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4 Comments

  1. Daud Abdus-Sabur April 20, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    I am Black and I am a Muslim. And Islam was certainly not the impetus for “Arabs” engaging in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, or for their dehumanizing treatment of Black Africans. Rather it was Muslims within Islam and from various regions of the Islamic Empire that brought into the Ummah of Muhammad (PBUH) the idea of Blacks inferiority. It was the same destructive religion of White supremacy that devours this planet today. And worse yet, it was propagated many times by brilliant Islamic scholars, particular Persia, who were mathematicians and scientist and scholars in Islamic studies.
    And as for your point of the existence of slavery in every nation for much of our time on the planet, this is true. But never, ever, did slavery have the meaning or subhuman brutality attached to it as it did when White supremacy made it a matter of color and birth, and it became an international trade of one group of people.
    However, this is an example of the mindset of some of the most revered scholars in Islam that would eventually set the foundation for the reasoning of enslaving Black people from birth to death and making it inherited from mother to child: What the most famous Islamic scholars said about black people

    “Here is what some of the most famous Islamic scholars wrote about sub-Saharan Africans. All of these men are still revered and used for Islamic study to this day.

    “merriment dominates the black man because of his defective brain, whence also the weakness of his intelligence.” – Al-Masudi (896-956), Great geographer who traveled as far as China and Sri Lanka, known as the “Herodotus of the Arabs.”

    “Of the neighbors of the Bujja, Maqdisi had heard that “there is no marriage among them; the child does not know his father, and they eat people — but God knows best. As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.” – Al-Muqaddasi (945/946-1000). A famous Arab geographer.

    “[Blacks are] people who are by their very nature slaves.” – Ibn Sina AKA Avicenna (980-1037) , referred to as “The Father of Modern Medicine” by Persians. Considered to be one of the top scholars of the Islamic Golden Age.

    Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī (1201-1274) , Famous for both Islamic religious and scientific writings. Considered to be the Greatest Persian mathematician and astronomer of all time. First person to translate the all the famous Greek books of mathematics into Arabic.

    “If (all types of men) are taken, from the first, and one placed after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the Southern-most countries, the Negro does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth -in no other peculiarity or property – except for what God wished. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more intelligent.”

    “[The Zanj (African) differ from animals only in that] their two hands are lifted above the ground,… Many have observed that the ape is more teachable and more intelligent than the Zanj.”

    Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), Andalusian Arab of Tunisian origin. Wrote the Muqaddimah, from which these quotes are taken. Regarded by Arabs & Turks as a founding father of sociology, economics, and historiography. Currently appears on the 10 Dinar bill in Tunisia.

    “Therefore, the Negro nation are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.”

    “beyond [known peoples of black West Africa] to the south there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves, and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings.”

    However, the teachings of Islam prohibit such things, and racism itself was expressly prohibited by the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) in his last sermon. And in a famous Hadith, Umar ibn Al-Khattab and said, “…Since when did you enslave the people though they were born from their mothers in freedom?”

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  2. This is yellow journalism at its finest. The Atlantic Slave Trade can be compared to none. For the amount of deaths alone in the middle passage, to the systems of exploitation that still are in effect today. How dare you downplay the African Holocaust!

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  3. Hotep is an ancient word of the mdw ntchr that means at peace or at rest. Hotep has various over meaning depending on the determinative behind the inscription. It has never meant anything derogatory but has been recently and ignorantly used to describe black people from a certain demographic. The argument that the religion of Islam is not indigenous to Africa is 100% factual and no one can present a sound argument that refutes this claim. To say that the Arab enslavers were not muslim would not be truthful and would be academically dishonest. Indentured servitude was not new to Africa but chatted slavery was and to try to sync the two as and African practice is also academically dishonest. The Arab slave trade employed Arabs and Europeans but it was and Islamic Arab institution and pointing out that other types of people participated does not erase that fact. Regardless of the number of slaves during this 1400 year long atrocity we as African people have no use for a people or religion that enslaved us. I think that would be a logical deduction from anyone that read any of the wicked accounts from that era.

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  4. […] depicted Islam as a religion that was foreign to Africa and brought there by Arab invaders. They further held that Muslim attitudes toward race and slavery historically rendered the religion n…Western European Christians who colonized Africa and the Americas. Some non-Black, western educated […]

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