By Mustafa Briggs
During my reading of the 22nd juz’ (33:31–36:27), I came across a verse that I feel reflects something that is essential to the West African Islamic tradition that I grew up in. This element can also be found in the Black Muslim community in the United States; however, I feel it is imperative that the Black US community continues to increase upon this legacy in order to insure the religious well-being of future generations.
As we know, the first Muslims to practice Islam, celebrate Ramadan and recite the Qur’an in America were enslaved West African Muslims, many of whom were scholars and part of a 1,000-year legacy of Islam in West Africa that was spread through knowledge and trade in a uniquely African and pacifist way. The vast intellectual and scholarly legacy of West African Islam has been established by various scholars. One of the main pillars that has contributed to the strength and spread of Islam in the region and the continued power and positive influence it has over millions of people is the essential role that women play within the community.
Allah says at the start of Juz’ 22,
Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so — for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward — 33:35.
My teachers from Senegal always cited this verse when they would visit the communities in the UK and see the work and efforts that our Black Muslim women put into organizing events and into bringing general benefit to the community. Black American Muslim women are no strangers to these types of efforts, and I believe as a community we must lend even greater support to them so that the results can be multiplied.
“Those who deliver the messages of God and fear Him, and do not fear anyone but God; and God is sufficient to take account” — 33:39
…we all owe a great debt of gratitude to our female teachers who opened for us the door to the book of God, and it is only through building upon their example that we can honor that debt.
It hits home for me because I learned to read and recite the Qur’an from one such woman, Sayda Aisha Cisse, one of many women scholars who have benefited from the 1,000-yr tradition of female scholarship and empowerment in West Africa. Many on these shores have also had the same experience, first learning the Arabic alphabet in schools established by Sister Clara Muhammad. Therefore, we all owe a great debt of gratitude to our female teachers who opened for us the door to the book of God, and it is only through building on their example that we can honor that debt.
“Prophet, We have sent you as a witness, as a bearer of good news and warning, as one who calls people to Allah by his leave, as a light-giving lamp. Give the believers the good news that a great bounty awaits them from God.” — 33:45–46
He once wrote to her in a letter, “I forbid ignorant and greedy people to travel. As for you, you are authorized! Wherever you step foot shall be a blessed place.”
Sayda Aisha and Sister Clara Muhammad share this station with women such as Shaykha Ruqayya Niasse, a known scholar and author. She was sent on missions by her father to teach communities of men and women across West Africa. He once wrote to her in a letter, “I forbid ignorant and greedy people to travel. As for you, you are authorized! Wherever you step foot shall be a blessed place.” Shaykha Ruqayya states in one of her books, after narrating the stories of the women around the Prophet Muhammad such as Aisha bint Abu Bakr, “I am only informing you of all of this to make you aware that you have equal access to the states of perfection as males do. Islam equalizes men and women, and Allah has obligated the seeking of knowledge upon all Muslims, male and female. So beware of neglecting half of the community of our Master Muhammad (saw).”
Those who recite God’s scripture, keep up prayer, give secretly and openly from what We have provided for them, may hope for a trade that will never decline. He will repay them in full, and give them extra in His bounty. He is most forgiving most appreciative — 35:29–30
Women such as Shaykha Maryam Niasse, Sayda Oumoul Khayri Niasse, Nana Asma’u Dan Fodio and many others were traditional scholars of the Islamic sciences. In the United States, women such as Mother Khadijah, Betty Shabazz, Ella Collins and Aisha al-Adawiya resourcefully paved the way for the children of their communities to gain that traditional scholarship. These women have been the backbone of the Muslim Community and are responsible for teaching and training thousands of people, both male and female.
As Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse said in a public address in his native language of Wolof, “Women are something great and magnificent in the sight of God, so we should not neglect our female children. We should respect them because these girls will grow up to become the women who raise and train mankind tomorrow.” This reflects the statement of Malcolm X, “Usually, the degree of progress can never be separated from the woman. If you’re in a country that’s progressive, the woman is progressive. But in every backward country, you’ll find the women are backward. And in every country where education is not stressed, it’s because the women don’t have education.”
In order to thrive as a community, we must truly lend our support to our women, engaging with them on the education and raising of the community as Allah commanded, as the Prophet (saw) practiced and as the scholars and leaders of West Africa continue to do. If we can take from these examples and build upon them, we will see much progress and elevation in our communities.
Mustafa Briggs is a graduate of Arabic and International Relations from the University of Westminster whose dissertation focuses on Arabic Literature and Literacy in West Africa. Briggs started an MA in Translation at SOAS, University of London with a specialization in Arabic and Islamic Texts, before moving to Cairo, Egypt, where he is currently studying the Islamic Sciences and the Arabic language. He rose to international acclaim for his “Beyond Bilal: Black History in Islam” lecture series in which he explores and uncovers the relationship between Islam and Black History, the legacy of contemporary African Islamic scholarship and its role in the International Relations of the Muslim World as well as the vital role female scholarship plays in the West African Islamic tradition. He has presented at over 25 Universities across 3 continents, including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.