by Rasul Miller

During the twentieth century, Islam and Muslims came to enjoy a largely positive reputation among Black communities throughout the country, particularly in urban centers. This was a byproduct of the increased visibility of Black American Muslims in these communities as various kinds of Islamic religious movements grew in popularity from the 1950s onward. This trend was also fostered by the efforts of Black Muslim congregations to address some of the social, political economic and psycho-spiritual problems that Black Americans faced in an American society marked by violent anti-Black racism and systematic inequality. Black Muslims and other Black Americans sympathetic to the Muslim faith often cited the long history of Islam on the African continent as indicative of Islam’s status as a more affirming and empowering religion for Black people, especially in comparison to Christianity. However, not everyone shared these sentiments.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a particularly anti-Islamic strand of Black cultural nationalism began to emerge within the broader cultural and intellectual movement known as Afrocentrism.[1] Black intellectuals influenced by this line of thinking 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 no less complicit in the oppression of Black people than that of the Western European Christians who colonized Africa and the Americas. Some non-Black, western educated academics share this historical analysis. Recent publications like Chouki El-Hamel’s Black Morocco and Bruce Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa take this critique of Islam’s racial track record a step further by attributing modern notions of racial difference and anti-Blackness to precolonial Muslim societies on the African continent. This approach goes against that of earlier scholars, and thus marks a major shift in the way ethnic difference in the premodern world is depicted. Recent years have also witnessed a resurgence in the popularity of this strain of Afrocentrism among Black popular intellectuals, sometimes referred to somewhat derisively as “hoteps.” In this article, I will attempt to explain the rise in popularity of an anti-Islamic brand of Afrocentrism during the 1970s and 1980s, and the political projects of certain scholars who played a key role in promoting it. I will also challenge the reliability of the historical narrative these scholars advanced, particularly with regard to Islam’s relationship to the societies of West and Central Africa.

Chancellor Williams and the Emergence of Anti-Muslim Afrocentrism

In charting the anti-Muslim strain within Afrocentric thought, it is helpful to begin with the publication of Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilization in 1974. This work became a mainstay in Afrocentric circles and was used in some Black Studies college curricula. However, the book was later criticized by scholars who argued that it was filled with historical inaccuracies and unsubstantiated assertions. Throughout the book, Williams refers to “white Arabs” and asserts that color diversity among Arab peoples was due to a history of Arab slavery similar to European slavery in the Atlantic world. He contends that, “Blacks are in Arabia for precisely the same reasons Blacks are in the United States, South America, and the Caribbean Islands—through capture and enslavement.”[2] He further projects American notions and histories of race on the premodern Arab and African worlds, referring to brown skinned Arabs as “mulattoes.” Williams’ treatment is rife with reifications and contradictions. But what is perhaps most notable is the degree to which Williams’ depiction of the relationship between Islam departs from that of earlier scholars like Frank Snowden and Cheikh Anta Diop, both of whom also figure prominently in Black Studies cannons. Snowden’s 1970 work Blacks in Antiquity makes the competing claim that modern notions of race and racial hierarchy did not exist in the premodern world, even while various forms of ethnocentrism did. Snowden criticized many Afrocentric scholars including pioneering Senegalese historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop, challenging their views on the racial identity of members of premodern Mediterranean and North African societies.[3] However, even Diop’s analysis differs greatly from Williams’ with regard to the relationship between Islam and Africa. According to Diop, the notion that Islam was intrinsically foreign to African societies south of the Sahara, or that Islam’s presence in the region was due to conquest and forced conversion was simply false. Diop famously observed that, “[m]uch has been made of Arab invasions of Africa: they occurred in the North, but in Black Africa they are figments of the imagination.”[4]

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So what led Williams to construct a competing historical narrative? An observation made in the early chapters of Destruction of Black Civilization may offer a clue. Williams charges that, “Blacks in the United States seem to be more mixed up and confused over the search for racial identity than anywhere else. Hence, many are dropping their white western slavemasters’ names and adopting, not African, but their Arab and Berber slavemasters’ names!”[5] Williams, who was a practicing Christian, did not absolve European Christians of guilt in perpetuating the institution of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy at the expense of people of African descent. However, he reserved some of his staunchest criticism for Muslims—leading him to speak, at times, in absolutes and hyperbole, such as when he called the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali “the greatest murderer of Blacks that ever set foot on the African continent.”[6] Williams’ seems to take issue with the rising popularity of Islam among Black Americans. For him, the true project of liberation would be served by embracing an “African” identity that was decidedly non-Muslim, making him more apt to celebrate the rulers and resistance movements of Central African societies like Angola and the Congo. The summaries on the dust jacket of Destruction of Black Civilization even include a relevant criticism attributed to the Muhammad Speaks newspaper. After praising aspects of the book, the unidentified Muhammad Speaks representative observes that, “(Williams’) claim that Islam helped the slavery of Black Africa is untrue because he used white text rather than accounts of non-whites academia and the truth.” Although the biases of the flagship publication of the Nation of Islam might seem obvious, Williams’ was indeed espousing a view that aligned with some notable white colleagues.

The Orientalist Origins of Anti-Muslim African Historiography

The practice of disassociating Islam from Africa in spite of its 1,000-year-old history on the continent was not without precedent. Other notable white scholars exhibited the same tendency. The even more brazen tactic of attributing to Arabized North Africans the anti-Blackness of European colonialism was largely pioneered and popularized by the noted British American historian Bernard Lewis. Lewis, like Williams, was forthright about his consternation over Black Americans’ growing embrace of Islam. In this regard, he expresses his frustration specifically with the twentieth century’s most visible theorist and proponent of Islam among Black Americans, Malcolm X. After praising Malcolm X as “an acute and sensitive observer” exhibiting the “inevitably heightened perceptions of an American black” with regard to issues of race, he argues that his Islamic faith “prevented him from realizing the full implications of what he saw” during his travels to the Middle East.[7] Lewis goes on to suggests that the racial dynamics of the precolonial Muslim world were comparable to those of segregationists Alabama. A wide range of scholars writing on Islam, including John Hunwick,  Bruce Hall, and Richard Brent Turner, have presumed Lewis’ claim to be both true and universal. As a result, they applied his dubious characterization of racial dynamics in premodern Muslim societies to precolonial West Africa. Other historians of West Africa have demonstrated that, with regard to Muslim West Africa, such depictions are simply false.

In a working paper by Africanist historians Alden Young and Karen Wietzberg entitled “Does Race Have a Global History,” the authors place Lewis’ work within its proper political context.

“Written in the aftermath of the Six Day War, this work argued that racism was endemic to the Islamic world. Lewis produced this work, he acknowledged, in order to counter what he saw as the pernicious myths of Arnold Toynbee and Malcolm X that color prejudices were unknown to the Islamic world. Lewis, whose work was shaped by the geopolitics of the Cold War, became one of the most widely cited authors on the topic of slavery and race in Muslim societies.”

Lewis’ status as a Cold Warrior was something he did not deny. At times, he was quite transparent about his political positionality, such as in his exchanges with Edward Said in the New York Review of Books. Lewis does not challenge, for example, Said’s assertion that his scholarship is motivated by his political stance for increased American military support of Israel, and his resulting desire to undermine the cause of Pan-Arabism. Rather, he challenges Said to come clean about his own political agenda.[8]

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In an article partly concerned with tracing the same intellectual genealogy that I consider here, the political scientist Hisham Aidi asks, “[h]ow did Arabs transmute, almost overnight, from being seen by African-Americans as allies in the struggle against Western racism to a slave-trading ‘intruder race’ occupying Africa? How did the pro-Arab pan-Africanism of Malcolm X lose out to the anti-Arab black nationalism of [Molefi] Asante, Williams and [Wole] Soyinka?”[9] Indeed, Malcolm X’s embrace and articulation of a politics of Third World Internationalism, and the growing support of many Black Americans for Palestinian and North African revolutionary movements that he helped to foster were very much at odds with Lewis’ political aims. Lewis’ historical representation of race in Muslim societies, augmented by Afrocentric scholars like Williams and others, would go on to have a huge impact on both popular and scholarly notions about the relationship between Islam and anti-Blackness.

Conclusion: Using Black History to Inform Black Islam 

Many influential scholars cite Bernard Lewis in their treatments of racial prejudice in the Arabic speaking world.[10] They extend his analysis to the African continent, taking Lewis’ assertions as objective and representative of Islam around the globe. They do not consider how categories of race in Africa and the Arabic speaking world were altered by colonization, Euro-American slavery, and the rise of Western imperialism. For example, precolonial historical chronicles reveal that Turkish slaves could be purchased in the West African city of Timbuktu, and Europeans faced the threat of being enslaved in North Africa until well into the nineteenth century. These realities are inconsistent with the historical narrative offered by Orientalist scholars (like Bernard Lewis) and Afrocentric scholars (like Chancellor Williams) alike, both of whom would have us believe that African Muslim societies subjugated African people. By obscuring this history and the transformations that led to the increased association of Blackness with slavery during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, these authors paint a picture that gives the impression that anti-Blackness is primordial—anachronistically locating its origins in the ancient world. Conversely, Afrocentricity and Islam can be easily reconciled through the more accurate historical narratives of scholars like Diop and Snowden, as well as more recent historians of Africa like Humphrey Fisher and Rudolph Ware among others. These scholars recognize that Euro-American slavery and colonization changed how Africa and its people were perceived and treated around the world. Before these shifts, Islam was simply one of the various religions that African people freely embraced, finding it both compelling and affirming. This is the historical perspective that gave rise to the anti-colonial Pan-Africanism articulated by Malcolm X and other Black American radicals who built solidarity with people of the Third World. In light of this historical perspective, Afrocentricity and Islam need not be at odds.

 

[1] In this article, I use the term Afrocentrism in the broadest possible manner, referring to a cultural and intellectual orientation that centers the history and experiences of people of African descent and seeks to address mechanisms that disenfranchise those people. This is how I have encountered the term in non-academic circles, though it is often defined more narrowly than this by academics.

[2] Williams, Chancellor. The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. Chicago, Ill: Third World, 1974. p. 23

[3] Snowden, Frank. “Misconceptions about African Blacks in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Specialists and Afrocentrists.” Arion, Third Series, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Winter, 1997), p. 28-50

[4] Diop, Cheikh Anta. Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa, from Antiquity to the Formation of Modern States. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1987. p. 101-102

[5] Williams, Chancellor. The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. Chicago, Ill: Third World, 1974. p. 23

[6] Ibid., p. 159.

[7]Bernard Lewis, Race and Color in Islam.New York: Harper and Row, 1971. p. 3.

[8] Bernard Lewis, “The Question of Orientalism,” The New York Review of Books 29: 11 (1982) and the responses Bernard Lewis, Edward Said and a reply by Oleg Grabar, “Orientalism: An Exchange,” The New York Review of Books 29:13 (1982).

[9]Aidi, Hisham. “Slavery, Genocide and the Politics of Outrage Understanding the New Racial Olympics.” Slavery, Genocide and the Politics of Outrage | Middle East Research and Information Project. Middle East Research and Information Project, n.d. Web

[10]Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013. p. 297.


 

rasul-pic

Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.

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3 Comments

  1. You had me until you said “Recent publications like Chouki El-Hamel’s Black Morocco and Bruce Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa take this critique of Islam’s racial track record a step further by attributing modern notions of racial difference and anti-Blackness to precolonial Muslim societies on the African continent” and “A wide range of scholars writing on Islam, including John Hunwick, Bruce Hall, and Richard Brent Turner, have presumed Lewis’ claim to be both true and universal.”

    Lumping together Hall and el Hamel’s work on race with that of Lewis is plainly bad research. El Hamel and Hall do NOT attribute “Alabaman” race to West Africa – they spend significant portions of their work denoting the differences between American “race” and that of West Africa – el Hamel in particular spends a significant amount of time critiquing Lewis and Orientalists’ view of race in the Muslim world, and Hall has entire chapters tracing the difference between pre-colonial and post-colonial notions of race. That was the entire point of their books – and both of them, as far as I know, have also critiqued Afrocentrists’ view of Muslim history as “anti African”.

    I’m pointing this out because whilst it’s important to reject the conclusions of people like Lewis and Williams, it’s not all right to do this by rejecting the idea that there was any presence of race or racism connected to religiosity in Muslim Africa, and it’s especially not all right to do so by speaking over African Muslim scholars like el-Hamel. Race may not have played the part that it did in the US, and it may not have played the part that Williams and Lewis claimed that it did, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t present in ways that American ideas of race do not grasp.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment. You raise some important points that I am happy to engage further. The constraints of space did not allow me to be as nuanced as I would have liked here, and I can see how you might come away with the notion that I am trying to conflate the works of Bruce Hall and Chouki El-Hamel with those of Bernard Lewis. This was not my intention. However, I did wish to challenge their assertion, which you seem to find convincing, that it is appropriate to conceptualize notions of ethnic difference in precolonial Africa as examples of ‘race’ and ‘racism. In reading their works, it seemed to me that this was something they both did, to varying degrees. And this is the area in which I believe Bernard Lewis’ influence is apparent in the works of these and other authors, even if they are critical of many of Lewis’ other claims.

      In A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, Bruce Hall quite explicitly applies the category of race to precolonial African societies, and cites Bernard Lewis repeatedly in an attempt to justify the suitability of the idea of race in analyzing West African Muslim societies. This is the kind of conceptual move I am referring to when I say that he attributes “modern notions of racial difference and anti-Blackness to precolonial Muslim societies on the African continent.” This is an approach that breaks from the conventions of earlier scholars like Mahmood Mamdani. While I find Hall’s work to be quite well researched and useful in a number of ways, I simply did not find his argument for the applicability of the category of race to the context of precolonial Africa to be compelling. This was the point I was trying to make.

      Regarding El-Hamel’s work Black Morocco, I agree that its author is much more nuanced in his discussion of the problems with the Orientalist view of the Muslim world that scholars such as Lewis promote. Unlike the other authors that I mentioned, he does not cite Lewis’ work as representative of Muslims societies in Africa or the Middle East. However, he too superimposes anachronistic notions of race on precolonial Africa. For instance, in his rendering, slavery in Morocco appears to have been associated almost exclusively with Blackness, in spite of the well documented history of ‘white’ European enslavement in Morocco. And Ahmed Baba, the iconic West African critic of Moroccan imperial domination, appears to be guilty of anti-Black racism due to his aversion for a singular African ethnic group, and his failure to critique slavery in the kind of categorical way that modern, liberal audiences would find satisfying. Again, while I find many of El-Hamel’s findings to be valuable and generative, I often find his mobilization of the notion of racial difference to be quite problematic.

      Race is a modern construct. It was born out of that peculiar confluence of Western imperialism, plantation slavery, and emerging notions of biological (rather than cultural, religious, or linguistic) difference that helped to bring about and define modernity. Applying the idea of race to premodern, precolonial African societies obscures the processes that brought it into being. This does not, of course, mean that scholars cannot or should not discuss the nature of notions of difference and systems of slavery and oppression that existed in the premodern world. And there are many historians who do examine those issues. However, to conflate these with the modern regime of racialization and white supremacy that exists today is, in my opinion very dangerous. It often leads people to abandon the task of challenging or resisting Western, Eurocentric, neoliberal hegemonies and, instead, reproduce these hegemonies in an attempt to police non-Western and non-white people. And this conflation is only made possible in the wake of scholars like Bernard Lewis and Chancellor Williams, who helped to popularize the idea that notions of race and practices of enslavement in the trans-Atlantic context were comparable to those of premodern Africa and the Muslim world.

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      1. Thank you for cordially engaging, I really appreciate it. I think that to an extent we’ll have to agree to disagree, because a) this is a discussion still being researched so not everyone will agree on the sources (e.g. I personally think it’s very clear from reading pre-colonial Muslim jurists that they obviously had certain ideas of social hierarchy and race which they grappled with), and b) because what’s at stake here is the definition of race. If one pre-defines race as being the 19th and 20th century American manifestation of race, then by definition it will never exist elsewhere and will never have existed elsewhere.

        What is more useful to me is breaking down the terms that we think of when we discuss “race”, since it’s such a political term, and asking whether THOSE were present. E.g. was there anti-color sentiment in Muslim societies? Was it ever grounded in wider social ideas of inherited lesser-ness that were related to religious texts? How do social concepts such as nasab (which el Hamel discusses) help us to understand non-Western notions of social hierarchy (e.g. the concept of nasab really helps to understand how the presence of “white” slaves and of racial inter-marriage didn’t necessarily stop the presence of anti-“group” sentiments)? Is what religiously matters to Muslims whether it was “American” racism, or whether there was discrimination at all? Are we discussing personal-level xenophobia, cultural ideas, the history of religious legal institutions, or the possibilities of religious primary sources? Mamdani and others do a great job of discussing how colonialism shapes places such as Sudan in the global Western discourse about race and the power structures of foreign policy, but they do a lot less to explain pre-colonial notions of social hierarchy which could often become easily racialized (as Ennaji pointed out in his own discussion of racial sentiment amongst medieval Moroccan jurists).

        I definitely agree that most discussions of race in Western academia are often situated in a public attempt to shift the blame away from America vis a vis its history of race (“those Muslims did it too!”), which is endlessly exasperating to me as someone from the African continent and which definitely puts a burden on academics to address the modern-day manifestations of their studies before they speak. For me, it’s blatantly obvious that “race” in Muslim contexts was never what it was in Western contexts, that it’s ridiculous to directly compare the social history of the two, and that no Muslim needs to believe in anti-blackness by nature of their religious primary sources – but that doesn’t mean that things such as anti-black sentiment and wider social ideas about “inherited” lesserness were not present in Muslim history and don’t have repercussions that many Muslims daily struggle with and would like to see a conversation around on places such as this very website.

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