Islam and Blackness: A Crossroads

"Fallana gate, the fourth of the five gates of the walled city Harar."
"Fallana gate, the fourth of the five gates of the walled city Harar."

Existing at perhaps the most contested nexus of identities today, the intersection of Blackness and Islam is one of cold distrustful gazes, furrowed brows and a constant sense of righteous anger. It is one of conflicting realities and a multitude of narratives. But Black Muslims are not a monolith, they represent a vast array of nationalities, ethnic groups and language families. A global diaspora that stretches from the heartland of Africa to America’s major metropolitan cities. I would affirm that in no other subset of a faith tradition is there such a diversity of experiences, viewpoints and consequently theological and jurisprudential affiliations as there is in Black/African Islam. The Black Muslim experience, from its marriage to black pride and power in the American urban landscape of the 50s and 60s, to the wandering Tariqas of Sufi brethren in Sub-Saharan, West and East Africa, has always been fiercely its own. The diversity of religious rite is simply astounding. So how do a people who have produced some of Islam’s greatest minds and luminaries fade to the black in the masterpiece that is the Islamic tapestry? According to Mohamad Ballan, a PhD student and researcher in Islamic and medieval history at The University of Chicago, observes the following of how the Islamic narrative has often centered some voices at the expense of others

“Muslim history has often been presented as a series of accomplishments revolving around Arabs, Persians, and Turks, to the exclusion of all other groups. The rich histories of hundreds of Muslim ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups have too often been overlooked or overshadowed by this mistaken approach towards Muslim history and expropriated by the master narrative which seeks to identify Muslim history with a very specific cultural and geographic context.” - Famous Historical Muslims of African/Black Origin

Even a casual observer of the Islamic scholarly tradition will tell you that the works of many of Islam’s best and brightest (often hailing from marginalized groups) have been relegated to the periphery. Their works being considered auxiliary texts to be read and consumed in the shadow of other “major” theological works as companion texts, not of the caliber the Magnum Opuses that we now consider Islam’s primary texts. Now couple that with the casual, normalized racism in Muslim scholarly circles, lasting from the Middle Ages to the modern period and eventually the product is a pervasive, structural racism which calls into question the faith, piety and religious convictions of people with darker skin. It allows for the marginalization and delegitimization of the Black Muslim experience, it allows for the assumed supremacy of Arabs, Turks, and Persians. These ethnolinguistic groups have throughout the course of Islam, dominated the narrative via the traditional channels of power and religiosity, and even though Islam demands unflinching equality across ethnic, cultural and socio-economic lines, this has rarely ever been the case in practice.

But despite these power structures, which are set in place to hinder the spiritual, political and economic advancement of a people. Black and African Muslims have flourished, producing visionaries the likes of Al-Zayla’i, the renowned Hanafi jurist of Somali birth, to Usman dan Fodio, the ascetic, statesman and Maliki authority in West Africa, to his daughter, Nana Asma’u acclaimed in her time and after her death as a true pioneer in women's rights as a stateswoman and diplomat. Black Muslims have in effect established a Sunnah of rising from the shackles of oppression, from our scholar-saint Malcolm X, to our titan of conscious Muhammad Ali. Our very existence is predicated on resistance, we resist violent erasure, anti-blackness and ahistorical narratives.

In a time where injustice has become normative, and the impassioned voices of those who Islam as always aimed to serve have been drowned out by the self-righteous white noise of oppression, the words of Ibn Qayyim, the 13th century jurist, theologian and in his own way, an outsider ring true for what has today has largely become a rallying call for Black Muslims.

“Allah the Exalted has made clear in his law that the objective is the establishment of justice between his servants and fairness among the people, so whichever path leads to justice and fairness is part of the religion and can never be opposed.” - Al-Ṭuruq al-Ḥikmīya 1/13 (emphasis mine)

Black Muslims exist, we have always existed and will continue to exist until the passing of the hour. May the supplication of the oppressed always be answered by the creator, may their tears of frustration and joy one day water a more just world. Ameen.

To be Continued in Part 2.

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