Black Panther and the Islamphobia Debate

“First, I need to tell you who I am,” is how Somali Canadian researcher Hodan Mohamed opens her response to  Faisal Kutty’s critique of  Black Panther (2018).  Mohamed then demonstrates her qualifications to speak on both Islamophobia and anti-Blackness. She writes, “I am an educator, researcher with a focus on diversity and inclusion, curriculum development, public engagement, immigration, and Criminal Justice System working with underserved and underemployed Black youth in Toronto.”  Like so many other Black women, Black Muslim women have to establish our credentials just to be taken seriously in any discussion. Black women experts are often dismissed by people who lack cultural competence or knowledge of the field.  In this case, we should pay careful attention to the writings and thoughts of Black women. While much of my graduate work from 2004-2008 focused on colonial surveillance of Muslim communities in Northern Nigeria, as an African American Muslim I do not speak for Nigeria.  But I hope to highlight important voices we should listen to in discussions on why Black Panther’s #BringBackOurGirls rescue operation was important  and point to better ways at responding to our discomfort. The debate about Islamophobia in Black Panther highlights intra-Muslim racial power dynamics, where the Black Muslim issues and concerns are subsumed for the sake of a monolithic ummah.

This picture was in 2017 featuring recently released  Chibok girls meeting with President Buhari. Today, 100  of the Chibok girls remain missing.

Roughly half of Nigeria’s 186 million population are Muslim, and  40% Christian and 10% indigenous African faiths. According to a 2015 Pew study  with the top 10 largest Muslim populations,  Nigeria ranks the 5th ahead of Egypt. Nigeria’s Muslim population is largely concreted in the North of Nigeria.  Boko Haram, whose name “Western education is forbidden,”  brazen abducted of  276 girls from their school in the north eastern Nigerian town of Chibok. Obiageli Ezekwesili, former minister of Education in Nigeria and Vice President of the African Division of the World Banks founded Bring Back our Girls and according to the website,. It spread to social media via the millions of Nigerians and Nigerian-Americans on twitter who were joined by social justice advocates all over the world.” It then went on to become one of the largest social media campaigns.  Black Panther includes a brief scene where the soon to be crowned King of Wakanda,  T’Challa extracts Nakia who is in on a spy mission in the Simbasa jungle where Boko Haram hides out. Daniel Oruba writes Black Panther executive producer, Nate Moore explains the purpose for the scene:

The notion that Wakanda exists, has all these resources, and is in Africa — a continent that is plagued by conflict of different kinds — we knew we wanted to tell a story of whether or not they’d feel a sense of responsibility.

And [missing Chibok girls] is a conflict that is unfortunately still ongoing. We wanted them to come face to face with a real thing.

We would have been cheapening what Wakanda meant if we didn’t tackle that, because this is a real thing that people should be aware of if they are not. We didn’t want to exploit it, we wanted to shine a light on it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWfCFShtj28

 

Nigerians of all faith were elated when the Black Panther paid homage to an issue that their nation was still grappling with.

 

While Nigerians celebrated the inclusion of Boko Haram, some Muslims living in the West  felt uncomfortable that a Muslim led insurgency was mentioned at all in the Box office record breaking film.

Kutty writes, “The scene inadvertently reinforces what colonial studies experts such as University of Toronto Professor Sherene Razack call the stereotypes of the barbaric Muslim man, oppressed Muslim woman and imperilled non-Muslim.” Some people were upset that the kidnapper used wallah, a Hausa word and kefiyyas, something that Boko Haram members frequently wear.  A Muslim chaplain  Sami Aziz wrote in Medium that the film didn’t show the balanced portrayal of Muslims.  However, one of the rescued offered Islamic prayers and said Allah. Others pointed to the rescued girls taking off their scarves. While girls threw off the large scarf but still wore small head coverings more akin to traditional clothing of the region.  

 

Real life Boko Haram Image source: http://urhobotoday.com/?p=13488

However, the response amongst some non-Black Muslims was pointedly different than that of Nigerians. For about a decade, a toxic ideology, disintegration of traditional Islamophic authority tied to indigenous African institutions, and collapse of the state has led to Boko Haram. The two minute scene explored sex trafficking and child soldiers, two war crimes that fuel groups like Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army (which was a warped version of Christianity). Asha Noor, a Somali American community organizer who works on Islamophobia in Michigan says:

It may not be the best depiction, but it is accurate. But in the movie, it was dealt with by Africans. That is the ideal way of how issues should be dealt with in Africa should be handled, rather intervention from outsiders. Now all these South Asians and Arabs complaining about the depiction about something that has happened and is happening. But they’ve been silent.  You need to be the number one advocate for girls taken by Boko Haram.

What makes it even more tragic is that while the depiction of Muslims behaving badly embarasses us Muslims in the West, we are not uplifting the voices of Nigerians who have been affirmed or the stories of the victims of Boko Haram atrocities.

The Muslim derailing of Black Panther is reminiscent of 2014, when Middle Eastern activists derailed MIchelle Obama’s signal boost of the  #BringBackOurGirls hashtag.  Instead centering Black girls who were lost, Muslim twitter centered Pakistan, Yemen, and  some threw in Somalia to be inclusive. Four years later, many of the girls haven’t found their way home. And just the week alone, 100 more school girls have been kidnapped. Likewise, our discomfort with negative depiction of Muslims keeps our communities from supporting local communities facing real and imminent threat.

This raises the question, what makes something Islamophobic? The Islamophobia Research & Documentation project explains that Islamophobia was was first introduced in 1991 to mean “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” The website provide a working definition:

Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.

How are some films that depict conflict in Muslim communities Islamophobic and some not?  Just because something makes us uncomfortable doesn’t make it Islamophobic.  Like Hodan Mohamed, numerous Black Muslim thought leaders contend that the scene was not Islamophobic. The scene spoke to a real issue that is affecting communities in the region. Dawud Walid, who has been in the forefront of addressing Islamophobia in Michigan also shared his thoughts on the film,

Why are some non-Black Muslims focused on this aspect of the film, rather than centering Nigerian narratives or even the narrative of the film? Layla Poulos proposed, “Perhaps they couldn’t relate to all those Black bodies.” Asha Noor, the pointed out, “You don’t have them attacking other Marvel white centered films for their anti-Muslim depictions. They don’t see themselves in T’Challa, and they don’t aspire to be part of that. So all you have is critique. They just stress me out. I don’t have time for that.” Those arguing that the film is Islamophobic are pitting Black Muslims against their two identities. To watch the film, they have to wrestle with whether celebrating this moment is betraying their faith.  It truly is exhausting when non-Black Muslims excercise their cultural capital to speak for all of us, and derail important conversations that Black Muslim should be having.

As Dawud Walid pointed out there was a lot of Islamic imagery, including homage to the great mosque of Djene. In Wakanda there were numerous representations of Muslim cultural identity including but not limited to Fulbe, Wolof, Tuareg, Hausa, and Mandinke. These included certain robes tied to Muslim clerical linages, Sahelian/Sudanese cultural elements including dress and architecture, pendants that many Africans wear that hold verses of the Qur’an,and  names that evoke Muslim identities. Costume designer Ruther Carter highlights that the Tuareg were important in representing the merchant tribe. Some of these Muslim elements reflected in the Pan-African imagery of Wakanda go largely undetected by people unfamiliar with West African or Sudano/Sahelian cultures. Black Muslims showed up to the film wearing their traditional African garb, and they were welcomed and embraced by their kinfolk of all faiths. 

Following the publication of the Kutty’s article and the viral social media post, some Muslims, mostly from South Asian and Middle Eastern heritage, said that they were boycotting the movie. I don’t think that my essay would sway them to watching the film. Nor is that necessarily my interest. What makes this tragic is that the Black Panther could do a great deal in uprooting  anti-Blackness and starting difficult conversations in our faith community. It happens to be that Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslim communities have long histories of anti-Blackness, narratives and depictions that date back to trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade, which are now exacerbated by global white supremacy, and model minority narratives as strategies for assimilation in the West.  

Kutty’s article didn’t reference Africanist scholars or even Northern Nigerian Muslims who would be directly impacted by the film.  Had he done so, then perhaps his article would have opened up nuanced discussions about Islam in Africa, African Islam, and Black Orientalism.  But to do that, one would have to dig a bit deeper, to do so would mean to recognize the rich 1400 years of Islam in Africa and the agency of Black Muslim voices in practicing and interpreting their faith. With a film on track to reach one billion in sales, as Muslims we are not seizing the opportunity to increase awareness about #BringBackOurGirls and even raise funds  to support Boko Haram’s victims. Instead, we are arguing about how it makes Muslims look. This is stressful. It is tiring. And ain’t nobody got time for that.

 


I offer up a few  to people who are not Black watching the film.

  1. Be humble and don’t argue.  Especially with Black Muslims or Africans about the film. This is especially the case if your opinion is contested by scholars, organizers, activists and leaders whose work is on the front lines of addressing anti-Blackness and Islamophobia or they are Africanist scholars. When exploring the complexities of our multiple identities, Black Muslim voices should not be subsumed in service of a “monolithic” ummah. Within the framework of cultural competency, that is akin to cultural destructiveness.
  2. Evaluate your implicit bias. If your main take away was that one short scene where one group of bad guy may have perhaps claimed the same religion as you, maybe you need to explore some of your ability to relate to Black characters. One place to start is the Black-White implicit association test https://implicit.harvard.edu/ . If you’re not happy with the results, the test isn’t wrong. It means you have to do some work to interrupt that bias.
  3. Lean into the discomfort you feel in that film. De-center yourself and how your identity groups are depicted in the film. This may be the time when you have to explore where you identities are privileged and targeted. It may not be fun to recognize that  your faith identity may be oppressive to other groups (i.e. women, religious minorities in Muslim majority societies, people whose societies were raided and traffic to fuel the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade for 1400 years); It’s called intersectionality.
  4. Read #BlackMuslimReads. This would be the time to start exploring  African scholarship on Orientalism, African Islam, and Islam in Africa. I offer up my bibliography on race and slavery in Muslim societies https://margariaziza.com/info-and-resources/race-and-slavery-in-muslim-societies-bibliography/. This would be the time to dive into the works of  Black American scholars like Sherman Jackson, Dawud Walid, or Su’ad Abdul Khabeer who lare experts in Black orientalism to see if your take has some basis
  5. Get trained.  Sign up for anti-racism training course.  MuslimARC offers some to help provide you with some critical cultural competency and a shared language to understand many of the issues of power, cultural domination, and narrative shift. We hope you take this as an opportunity to begin a long journey of collective liberation.  

 

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Black Panther and the Power of Imagination

I was in the mountains at a training retreat when Black Panther (2018) was released in theaters. So I only glimpsed the initial reviews during intermittent breaks in my program. My consolation was that in the thin crisp mountain air,  I had time to work with brilliant leaders of color and reflect on my leadership strengths.  It was just a movie, I told myself. I could geek out on getting to root causes of social problems in the Inland Empire, drawing on the historical context of the rise of the nation state and white supremacy.  As an anti-racism educator I draw upon my strength of historical context, as well as my others strengths in strategy, learning, input, and connection to dream, plan, and build a multi faith multiracial world that could be.  I have done that since I was a child, first with a notebook and colored pencils, then with a typewriter, a word processor, a desktop, then a laptop.  I used those skills to dream, plan, and build imaginary worlds. Science fiction and fantasy writers often created worlds where someone like me would never exist. I  sketched and wrote to create my own stories with characters who were idealized versions of people who looked like my multi-hued family.  Watching Black Panther, felt like a long awaited home coming. It was an epic, a fantasy, an Afro-futuristic world that gave life to my unrealized dreams.  

Over the past two weeks, I had to swallow a lot of envy as I couldn’t get away from work or obligations to find time to watch the film. Meanwhile, my timeline lit up with my friends and associates  seated on Wakandan thrones, going in large groups and decked out in their finest traditional and African inspired clothing.  I too had been waiting for some time. My interest in Black Panther came largely through the first Black woman superhero, Storm. I came to know her through the X-men cartoons.  In the cartoon, she was beautiful, powerful, magical, cold, and aloof. She was also cut off from her culture. She was always alone. Who loved the gorgeous and powerful Storm? Who loves the magical black girls, the darkly hued warrior women? Over a decade ago, I walked into a comic book store and the cover art answered my question. It was Black Panther. I didn’t know much about him. But rendering of the marriage of Storm and Black Panther took my breath away. A decade later I became reacquainted as Prince T’Challa appeared with his female bodyguards in Marvel’s Civil War. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was on twitter at the time, announced that he was writing the series. Acclaimed author Roxanne Gay wrote the Worlds of Wakanda spin off series. Even though it was a big deal, I had no idea how big it would get.  

Chancellor Williams didn’t pull any punches

Nor did I realize how profound Black Panther would be for me. As a child, I was fed the National Geographic gaze of Africans and I was ashamed of my own history. It wasn’t until I went to high school, and began reading Black nationalist, Pan-African, and revolutionary writings that I started to gain a sense of self, my own history and pride in my roots. Some of the first books I read right after I graduated high school set my journey to become Muslim. The most significant books were Chancellor William’s The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D. and the FBI files of Malcolm X. Becoming Muslim at 18 was not just a leap to faith, it was a leap to embracing my full identity as a daughter of the African Diaspora.  My study of Muslims and the pre-modern world gave me a glimpse of what cosmopolitanism could look like outside of white supremacy. As a young person who newly became Muslim, I dove into medieval Arabic literature. I found texts and historical accounts that countered the egalitarian message that I embraced when I became Muslim. When I transferred to a four year college in 1998, I embarked on a long journey to understand racial formation in Muslim societies, Islam in Africa, and Black identities in the Middle East. Because they didn’t need written language, outside the Arabic literature in sub-Saharan Africa, we don’t have many written accounts of African societies without slave raiding or under threat from a foreign hegemony.

The Black Panther film  was so rich for me, as a child of Diaspora and a scholar of African history. Africanists often do thought experiments to imagine what could be.  Walter Rodney inspired us deeply to think about the underdevelopment. What if whole regions weren’t depopulated as sons and daughters weren’t carried off? What if the railways were built to connect African cities, rather than export raw resources to Europe, Asia, and the Americas? What if mass deaths didn’t occur and Africa was allowed to develop without the influence of colonialism and now neoliberal policies? What if toxic strains of foreign ideologies hadn’t bred internalized racism and dehumanization of other tribes, faiths, or nations?

All of this is some heady stuff for an action film. So many Black women intellectuals have written amazing pieces, such as “Black women ‘never freeze’” by Dara Mathis  there is even a #BlackPantherSyllabus and #WakandanSyllabus. During this cultural moment, while Black folks globally are having deep discussions and more petty debates about who has a right to wear daishikis, some of my co-religionists take umbrage to a 2 minute scene involving Boko Haram and called the film Islamophobic. It is akin to the derailing of the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign, where some Middle East activists used the hashtag to critique Michelle Obama. Sadly, this week Boko Haram has kidnapped a dozen school girls. While I’m basking in Vanta Blackness, I don’t want my celebration to be derailed. So I’ll save my discourse analysis for another day. But I hope that the film raises awareness to drum up support for African led initiatives to combat Boko Haram. If only there was a Nakia to help bring those girls home. In the meantime, more of you can spend time learning about African history, reading African literature, and uprooting the anti-Black racism that your communities have been complicit in. We should also be more open to the deeper messages in the film and focus our energies on that.  A visionary place like Wakanda can show us that the Black imagination is key for collective liberation. 

 

Some Good Reads

Panther: an A-Z of African Nuggets

Is Black Panther Islamophobic? A Somali Canadian Perspective

 

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Why Black History?

I wrote the article below,  “Why Black History?” to commemorate Black History Month. You can read the full article and other great articles and references at  SuhaibWebb.com.

49_13

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.

49:13 Quran Sahih International

Black History Month is observed in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to remember important events and people  of the African diaspora. In North America, we observe it in February and the United Kingdom during the month of  October. In 1926, the noted African American historian, Carter G. Woodson (d. 1950), began  “Negro History Week.” He selected  the second week in February in order to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson felt that scholars ignored his people’s history and other cultures. Much of his work was intended to foster understanding between the races. Joan Novelli writes, “Woodson believed that if whites learned of blacks’ contributions to American history and humanity, this awareness would engender respect.”[1] This reminds me of Surah 13 in Hujarat, where Allah (s.w.t.) tells us that He created us as different peoples and tribes so that we may know another. Racial equality and intercultural dialogue are moral imperatives based on Holy Scripture and Prophetic traditions.  Black history month is an opportunity for us to get to know the rich legacy of Africans and their contributions to their societies, our ummah, and humanity. Importantly, Muslim Americans should commemorate Black history because it is our history.

 

 

Black history month is not about nationalism. The Quran acknowledges heritage and lineage, but it emphasizes that nobility is not inherited. The most noble are those who cultivate piety. This is the essence of Islam’s egalitarian message. Black history month is an education initiative intended to combat racism. Even during the time of our Noble Prophet (s.a.w.), anti-Black and anti-African racism was a problem. It still plagues Muslim societies and our own communities in North America. One way that we can combat racism is by educating ourselves, and others, about the contributions of various peoples to our ummah, society, and humanity in general. February  is an opportunity to eradicate ignorance and combat prejudice against African and their descendants.

 

 

Black History Month is an importunity to instill self-worth in our youth. When I was in elementary school, two factors played a role in my low self worth: first, the lack of education about my people’s history and contributions to society; and second, school bullies who made fun of me and called me a slave and the “n” word. Today, in many Islamic schools, young people are still called “abeed” by their classmates. Abeed is the Arabic word for slave and it is the equivalent to calling someone the n-word.[2] When I was in elementary school, I thought that all my people were was slaves. I did do not know of the many contributions Black Americans have made to this society, whether in the sciences, business, or institutions. Although I was in the Gifted and Talented Education program, I felt like I was incapable of achieving anything. It wasn’t until middle school that I began to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the contributions that my people made.  It allowed me to imagine possibilities for myself. I could become a medical pioneer who saves lives like Charles Drew, a millionaire like Madam C.J. Walker, or a poet like Phillis Wheatley. I saw myself in those stories and I began to dream big. These stories about black scientists, inventors, explorers, doctors, and leaders can provide examples of how people triumph over adversity.

 

During Black History Month, I learned about Martin Luther King and, of course, Malcolm X. For many converts, regardless of race,  Autobiography of Malcolm X played a role in their interest in Islam. Without Black History Month, I wouldn’t have learned  about Malcolm X and it is unlikely that I would have learned much about Islam. Watching Eyes on the Prize in middle school helped me understand the Civil Rights Movement.  The Civil Rights Movement help end institutional racism encoded in segregation laws. It also create opportunities for Americans of all colors. For example, an outcome of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1965 Immigration Act, which  ended immigration quotas of  non-Europeans.[3] This is what allowed South Asian, Middle Eastern, Arab, North African, and African Muslims to immigrate in greater numbers and establish Muslim communities. We now have one of the most diverse religious communities in the country.

 

Black History Month is an opportunity to learn about the history of Muslims in America. Often, Muslim Americans see themselves as recent transplants with roots only a few decades long. Many Muslim Americans are first or second generation immigrants, but Muslims have had a long presence in America. It is estimated that 10 to 15  percent of the slaves brought to the New World were Muslim.[4]   While Muslim slaves were not able to pass on their religion to their descendants, the historic memory is significant. Many Black Americans look to this past as they reclaim some part of their identity ,which was erased under the brutal system of chattel slavery. Likewise, Muslims from all backgrounds can relate to the stories of Muslim who were enslaved, such as Ibrahim Abdur Rahman and Omar Ibn Said.[5] There was also Bilali, who led a community of Muslims on the Sapelo Islands during  the 19th century. [6] If we look at our history in North America, we can feel more at home knowing our presence dates back hundreds of years.

 

Black history if also part of Islamic history.  The 31st Chapter of the Quran is named after Luqman the Wise, who is said to be from Africa.[7] The first hijrah was to Abyssinia.  Five times a day, we hear the call to prayer and remember the first muezzin Bilal.  Islam has been in East Africa from the time of its founding and has had a presence in sub-Saharan Africa for over 1000 years. Just recently, King Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire was named richest person of all time.[8] There are also important Africans who stand out in the history of Islamic civilizations in the Middle East and Indian sub-Continent. Al-Jahiz, was a champion of Arabic and demonstrated that it is a possible to write beautiful prose in Arabic. There was also Malik Ambar who ruled the  Deccan Sultanate, a rival to the Mughal Empire.[9] Many people do not know of the complex connections between East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India nor are they familiar with the trade routes that connected sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean. Black history can be our opportunity to explore the culture and history  of Afro-Arabs , Afro-Turks, or Siddis of India. By embracing our interconnectedness, we Muslims have a rare opportunity as Muslims to participate in Black history.

 

Interconnectedness is the strength of our community. In the borrowing and blending, and acknowledging what we have to offer, we can understand how our lives intersect.  We can take this opportunity to look for lessons in this past. We can also use this window of opportunity to begin a real process of getting to know each other’s histories and engendering a greater respect and appreciation for all peoples in our ummah.

 

 


[1] Joan Novelli  “The History Behind Black History Month”   Teaching Tolerance, 2007  Retrieved February 12,  from 2013http://www.tolerance.org/article/history-behind-black-history-month

 

[2] Anyone arguing that it no longer has negative meaning, must remember that the n-word was used common place in America also. See Huckleberry Finn.

[3] Devin Love-Andrews Immigration Act of 1965 Webchron: The Web Chronology Project retrieved from internet February 12, 2013

http://www.thenagain.info/webchron/usa/immigrationact.html

[4] Islam in America retrieved February 12, 2013 from http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/islam-in-america/

[5] John Franklin “Omar Ibn Said” Documenting the American South  retrieved February 12, 2013 http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/omarsaid/menu.html; Yusra Owais, “African Muslims: A Rich Legacy”  Suhaib Webb February 26, 2011 retrieved February 12 2013 from  http://www.suhaibwebb.com/personaldvlpt/character/african-muslims-in-america-a-rich-legacy/

[6] Ray Crook “Bilali-The Old Man of Sapelo Island: Between Africa and Georgia” 40-55 Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diasporas Vol. 10 No. 2 Spring/Summer, 2007 retrieved from http://www.utc.edu/Faculty/Nick-Honerkamp/Bilali%20the%20Old%20Man%20of%20Sapelo%20Island,%202007.pdf

[7] Margari Aziza Hill “Luqman the Wise” August 18, 2010 retrieved February 12, 2013 from  https://azizaizmargari.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/rediscovering-luqman-the-wis/

[8] Erik Oritz “King Mansa Musa Named Richest Person of All Time” The Daily News February 18, 2013 http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/king-mansa-musa-named-richest-history-article-1.1186261

[9]A. Rangarajana “Malik Ambar: Military guru of the Marathas” The Hindu October 18, 2008  retrieved February 12, 2013 from http://www.hindu.com/mag/2008/10/12/stories/2008101250220700.htm

Nana Asma’u: A Spark Who Continues to Illuminate

Nana Asma'u-1

Living as a Muslim minority in the West, I have often felt frustrated by religious intolerance, but also from a community  that does not fully honor the rights that are accorded to women in Islam or provide many outlets for women to become scholars. This was the case in late 18th century West Africa, in what is now modern day Northern Nigeria, when  Uthman Dan Fodio criticized oppressive customs and encouraged female education. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio was a product of her father’s commitment to quality Islamic education for women. She became a legend in her own right and through her writings and education movement, ‘Yan Taru, she has inspired countless women for generations.

 

As a Nigerian with dual American and British citizenship, researcher Rukayat Modupe Yakub is aware of the legacy of Nana Asma’u. Rukayat points outs, “For so many Muslims Nana Asma’u is still unknown, but for those who are familiar with her she was an educator, writer and poet who was passionate about education, For this reason you find schools in places like Nigeria named after her.” In addition to her poetry and education movement, Nana Asm’au is also considered an Islamic leader who was known for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was fluent in Arabic, Hausa, and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. Like her father  and brothers Muhammad Bello and Abdullahi, Nana Asma’u was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. She wrote to keep her father’s memory alive in the minds of the people and in support of her brother Muhammad Bello’s  Caliphate. At 27, she was given the task of organizing her father’s corpus of works, all while overseeing a household of several hundred people and ensuring that they were provided for.

 

Jean Boyd gained access to her works in 1975 and later wrote The Caliph’s Sister, which provides a detailed biography of Nana Asma’u’s life and legacy. Jean Boyd collaborated with Beverly Mack to compile her poetry and religious treatises in Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864). The book compiles her impressive body of poems and treatises in Arabic, the Fula language, and Hausa. Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd also co-wrote a book which analyzes the social and political function of many of her poems titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. 

 

Rukayat says that Nana Asma’u continues to serve as an important inspiration because “She was involved in social work and had political clout, she was a mother and wife, sister of the head of state, daughter of a legendary a political and spiritual leader, she could have had any life she wanted but she choose to be of service.” Around 1830, Nana Asma’u trained a group of women to travel around the Sokoto Caliphate to educate women. Each woman in this cadre held the title jaji  (leader of the caravan) to designate their role as female leaders.

 

One hundred and eighty years later, Dylia bin Hamadi Camara is one such Jaji who explains, “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.” Jaji Dylia explains that the methodology of learning that Nana Asma’u develop still educates men, women, and children. In the United States, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable trust has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California with 33 women in intensive training and intensive seminars and classes which are open to the public.* Teachers like Jaji Dylia travel internationally and use email, teleconferencing, and text messaging to educate their students on classical Islam. Preparing for a trip to Guinea, Dylia stated her next goal is to translate Nana Asma’u’s teachings into French because the Francophone world has largely been unaware of this rich legacy. My hope is that we begin to learn more and more about the named and unnamed women who have been responsible for educating our ummah. They have passed on a rich legacy, one that reminds me that even when faced with the greatest challenges, we  as women can be brilliant and provide guiding lights for others.  

You can read find other stories of inspirational Muslim women, along with this one,  in   the February edition SISTERS magazine 
*Jaji Dylia updated us and told us that Yan Taru trust has chapters in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland , Florida and Massachusetts. She also has some students in Toronto who are not Yan Taru. She is currently in Benin, where she also has students.
To date, Dylia translated Tanbeeh l Ghafileen  and prays that Allah grants her the himma to translate even more in the future, insha’Allah.

 

Rediscovering Luqman The Wise


When I began my research on depictions of Blacks and Africans in pre-modern Arabic Literature, I came across a passage:

It was related that a black man came to Said ibn Musaib Radiyallahu’ anhu (A wise man too) for asking him advice and Said told him to not worry for being black and he reminded him as follows: “the best of men are three blacks whose names are: Bilal, Mahjaâ and Luqman the wise.” [1]

According to the tafsir of The Quran Website, Luqman was a well known sage mentioned by pre-Islamic poets. The mufassir writes, “He has been mentioned in the poetry of the pre-Islamic poets like Imra’ul-Qais, Labid, A’asha, Tarafa and others.”[2] In Imam Malik’s Muwatta a narration says:

Yahya related to me from Malik that he heard that Luqman al-Hakim made his will and counselled his son, saying, “My son! Sit with the learned men and keep close to them. Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom as Allah gives life to the dead earth with the abundant rain of the sky.” [3]

While I loved thumbing through hadith, I admit that I have never been strong in my study of tafsir. So it is no surprise that I didn’t know much about Luqman the Wise. My historical outlook focused more on seerah and social institutions that developed in Muslim societies, rather than on traditional Islamic sciences. Despite Bilal being a prominent figure in the imagination of Black American Muslims, Luqman escaped me all these years. And what made it worse was that there was an entire chapter of the Qur’an dedicated to him.

It wasn’t so much my academic studies and teaching responsibilities than my time management and avoidance of the judgmental Muslim gaze that made it difficult for me to take classes and find time to study. Since I’ve been married, I’ve been able to strengthen my Islamic knowledge in areas that had long been neglected, such as memorization, tajweed, and tafsir. I also needed a Maliki fiqh refresher. In light of my feelings about my own gaps in knowledge, developing a curriculum for a Muslim summer camp and teaching 10 to 14 year olds Islamic studies was really daunting. Did I mention I taught pre-teens? Over the course of the summer I found that my students needed to focus on adab towards each other, their instructors, and their parents. I turned to Luqman the Wise for his advice.

While covering a great deal, Luqman’s advice as revealed in the Quran is really straight forward. Allah tells us in Surat Luqman:

13. And (remember) when Luqman said to his son when he was advising him: “O my son! Join not in worship others with Allah. Verily! Joining others in worship with Allah is a great Zulm (wrong) indeed.
14. And We have enjoined on man (to be dutiful and good) to his parents. His mother bore him in weakness and hardship upon weakness and hardship, and his weaning is in two years give thanks to Me and to your parents, unto Me is the final destination.
15. But if they (both) strive with you to make you join in worship with Me others that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not, but behave with them in the world kindly, and follow the path of him who turns to Me in repentance and in obedience. Then to Me will be your return, and I shall tell you what you used to do.
16. “O my son! If it be (anything) equal to the weight of a grain of mustard seed, and though it be in a rock, or in the heavens or in the earth, Allah will bring it forth. Verily, Allah is Subtle (in bringing out that grain), Well-Aware (of its place).
17. “O my son! Aqim-is-Salat (perform As-Salat), enjoin (people) for Al-Ma’ruf (Islamic Monotheism and all that is good), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (i.e. disbelief in the Oneness of Allah, polytheism of all kinds and all that is evil and bad), and bear with patience whatever befall you. Verily! These are some of the important commandments ordered by Allah with no exemption.
18. “And turn not your face away from men with pride, nor walk in insolence through the earth. Verily, Allah likes not each arrogant boaster.
19. “And be moderate (or show no insolence) in your walking, and lower your voice. Verily, the harshest of all voices is the voice (braying) of the ass.”

The first piece of advice he offers his son is to not join partners with Allah (God). In class discussion, my students noted that not ascribing credit to a person who did the work is wrong. I compared that to not thanking their parents for raising them, feeding them, and clothing them, but instead thanking their neighbor or BFF. We went further by discussing how a lying about someone is a form of oppression. Therefore, we concluded that lying about Allah, who created us all and giving credit to something else, is truly a great oppression. We also discussed being good to our parents, even if they don’t have the same beliefs as us. We talked about establishing regular salat (ritual prayer) and encouraging the good and forbidding the wrong. We talked about how Allah is knowledgeable of all we do, the no matter how small or how we hope to conceal it. Our discussion about pride was both humorous and deep. We talked about being upon to receiving advice and admonition without discriminating based on status, race, class, or education background. We talked about how we could love nice things, but not be boastful or brag. Instead, we should show gratitude and avoid showing off. Finally, we talked about using pleasant voices and not being walking stereotypes as young Black Americans (this goes for immigrant Muslims too because immigrant Muslims can be loud and obnoxious as an afternoon in Tahrir Square in Cairo demonstrate). Luqman’s advice covers a great deal, tawheed (Unity of Allah), to establishing consistent practice, encouraging the good and forbidding the wrong, personal conduct, and inner disposition.

Writing in the 14th century, Ibn Kathir describes Luqman in Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah:

He is Luqman Ibn ‘Anqa’ Ibn Sadun. Or, as stated by As-Suhaili from Ibn Jarir and Al-Qutaibi that he is Luqman Ibn Tharan who was from among the people of Aylah (Jerusalem).
He was a pious man who exerted himself in worship and who was blessed with wisdom. Also, it is said that he was a judge during the lifetime of Prophet Dawud (Peace be upon him). And, Allah knows best.
Narrated Sufyan Ath- Thawri from Al-Ash’ath after ‘Ikrimah on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas (May Allah be pleased with him) as saying: He was an Ethiopian slave who worked as a carpenter. Qatadah narrated from’ Abdullah Ibn Az-Zubair as saying: I asked Jabir Ibn ‘Abdullah about Luqman. He said: “He was short with a flat nose. He was from Nubia”
Narrated Yahia Ibn Sa’ id Al-Ansari after Sa’ id Ibn Al-Musayib his saying: Luqman belonged to the black men of Egypt. He had thick lips and Allah the Almighty granted him wisdom but not Prophethood. Al-Awza’i said: I was told by ‘Abdur Rahman Ibn Harmalah: that a black man came to Sa’ id Ibn AI­Musayib asking him for charity. Sa’ id said: do not feel distressed for your black color because there were from among the best of all people three blackmen: Bilal Ibn Rabah, Mahja’ (the freed-slave of ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab), and Luqman, the wise who was black, from Nubia and whose lips were thick.
Narrated Al-A’mash after Mujahid: Luqman was a black huge slave, thick-lipped, and cracked­footed. ‘Umar Ibn Qais said: “Luqman was a black slave, thick-lipped and cracked-footed. It happened while he was preaching some people, a man came to him and said: aren’t you the one who used to look after the sheep with me at such and such place? Luqman said: yes, I am! The man said: then, what made you of that position? Luqman said: telling the truth and keeping silent regarding what does not concern me.” (This Hadith was narrated by Ibn J arir after lbn Hamid after Al-Hakam)
Ibn Abu Hatim said: I was told by Abu Zar’ ah that he was told by Safwan after Al- W alid after ‘Abdur Rahman Ibn Abu Yazid Ibn Jabir who said: “Allah the Almighty raised Luqman’s status for his wisdom. A man used to know him saw him and said: Aren’t you the slave of so and so who used to look after my sheep not so long in the past? Luqman said: yes! The man said: What raised you to this high state I see? Luqman said: the Divine Decree, repaying the trust, telling the truth and discarding what does not concern me.”
Narrated Ibn Wahb: I was told by ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Ayyash Al-Fityani after’ Umar, the freed slave of ‘Afrah as saying: “A man came to Luqman, the wise and asked: Are you Luqman? Are you the slave of so and so? He said: “Yes!” The man said: You are the black shepherd! Luqman said: As for my black color, it is obviously apparent, so what makes you so astonished? The man said: You became frequently visited by the people who pleasingly accept your judgments! Luqman said: 0 cousin! If you do what I am telling you, you will be like this. The man said: What is it? Luqman said: Lowering my gaze, watching my tongue, eating what is lawful, keeping my chastity, undertaking my promises, fulfilling my commitments, being hospitable to guests, respecting my neighbors, and discarding what does not concern me. All these made me the one you are looking at.”
One day Abu Ad-Darda’ mentioned Luqman the wise and said: He was not granted wisdom because of wealth, children, lineage, or given habits, but he was self-restrained, taciturn, deep-thinking, and he never slept during the day. In addition, no one has ever seen him spitting, clearing his throat, squeezing the lemon, answering the call of nature, bathing, observing trivialities, or foolishly laughing. He was very eloquent and well-versed. He did not weep or cry when all his children died. Finally, he used to frequent the princes and men of authority to mediate and think thoroughly and find admonition. So, because of all these he was granted that great wisdom.
Some people claimed that he was offered Prophethood, and that he feared not to be able to carry out its requirements and obligations. Thus, he chose to have wisdom for it is easier -this cannot be totally true -and Allah knows best! ‘Ikrimah also narrated that: Luqman was a Prophet.1
1This narration is very weak for the sub-narrator, Al-Ja’ fi is mentioned by Imams Al-Bukhari and An-Nasa’i among the Weak Narrators.

However, the majority of scholars are of the view that he was a wise man and not a Prophet. Moreover, he was mentioned in the Glorious Qur’an and was highly praised by Allah the Almighty Who narrates his advice to his own son. [4]

Ibn Kathir’s recounting of Luqman narrations raises important issues about the intersection of race and piety. This is something that has gone largely unexplored by many scholars. Reflecting his time period, Ibn Kathir’s description highlights the fact that Luqman was not just a dark skinned Arab, but his thick lips and broad nose indicated his sub-Saharan African descent. In other words, they highlighted his otherness in Arabia. Further, he was a former slave and a shepherd. The respect he gained for his piety contrasts with his low social status. When questioned about how he attained a position of respect and influence as a preacher, in one tradition Luqman states, “The Divine Decree, repaying the trust, telling the truth and discarding what does not concern me.” Luqman tells the questioner that Allah gave him the status, and that he repaid his debts, told the truth, and stayed out of people’s business. In another tradition Luqman answers, “by lowering my gaze, watching my tongue, eating what is lawful, keeping my chastity, undertaking my promises, fulfilling my commitments, being hospitable to guests, respecting my neighbors, and discarding what does not concern me.” This tradition highlights how Luqman earned his rightful place in society as preacher through following Allah’s laws and maintaining good relations with people through hospitality and mutual respect. He encourages the questioner to do so in order to be raised also. Ibn Kathir’s tradition bring to light two realities of ethnic identity in the medieval Arab world: 1. the lower status of blacks in general their societies and 2. the possibility to gain respect due to piety, knowledge, and eloquence. In other words, if a humble Black shepherd can be so esteemed for following basic tenets of the faith, you can too.

While Luqman’s identity as a Black African initially raised my interest, his wisdom transcends racial or ethnic designation. Although he is not a prophet, his advice is still worthy to mention in the Quran. I think his role helps clarify what it means to be a prophet, a messenger, or a friend of Allah. A prophet receives revelation, but it is not obligatory for him to spread it. A Messenger spreads what is revealed to him. While there was a seal on prophecy, there are still friends of Allah who help guide us to rightful conduct. While it may not be clear who those are in the modern age, the Quran clearly tells Luqman the wise has something for all of us. And for that reason, the Golden Advice Series have featured a book expounding upon the ayaat in the Quran titled, O My Son (Luqmaan’s Advice). I recommend getting the entire series, not just because of Luqman, but for the precious pearls of wisdom in the texts. I also think we should spend more time reflecting on Luqman’s advice and focus on applying his advise during Ramadan. In that spirit, I will leave you with some videos by a khutbah
Sheikh Muhammad Ninowygave focusing on the Advice of Luqman to his son.

Notes:

[1] Khalid ait belarbi “Advice from Luqman the wise to his son”
http://www.tamilislam.com/ENGLISH/human_rights/advice_from_luqman.htm

[2]http://www.quranwebsite.com/text55/031a___luqman.html

[3] Imam Malik’s Muwatta Book 59, Number 59.1.1

[4] Ibn Kathir. Stories from the Quran. from Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah translated by Ali As-Sayed Al- Halawani
http://www.islambasics.com/view.php?bkID=80&chapter=19

Obsessions: Religion, Race, and Sex

Yes I admit it, I’m more than preoccupied by Religion, Race, and Sex. We have been told to avoid these three topics in polite dinner conversation. In fact, I often do not take to heated discussion about religion, race, and sex in polite dinner conversation. This is why I have a blog.

While my major field is the history of Islam in Africa, my research and studies go beyond Africa. I examine the African Diaspora in the Middle East. I have a deep interest in Islam as a global religion. My career was inspired by my personal conviction as a Muslim. I am obsessed about Islam and can talk about it for hours, days on end. I also study race and talk about race. I have written numerous papers and articles on race relations, racial passing, community identity, and the African Diaspora in the Middle East. Importantly, my discussion about race is often personal. I talk about race in that it affects me and a number of people I care about.I talk about sex, women, and gender relations. Who doesn’t think about sex?    I talk about relationships, how Muslim men and women relate to each other, how Black men and women relate to each other, how Black women relate to men and women from various Muslim communities. I talk about women’s gendered roles, men’s gendered roles. I talk about marriage. I talk about free-mixing and gender segregation. I talk about hijab, niqab, and physical attraction.

I’m obsessed with Religion, Race, and Sex.  I am building a career on it. I want to write articles about these topics, explore dusty libraries digging for books about it,  spend sleepless nights researching and editing articles about it, travel around  the world to talk with other scholars and experts about it. I  even want to teach a class about it. We’ll see how receptive university students are to this topic. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a full roster because people can’t say enough about religion, race, and sex. And it is sure to fire up some heated dialog.

This blog is an intellectual and personal exploration of these same themes that have informed my career choice. If you read the title of my blog closely analyzing why I chose certain words, it should become evident that I wanted to talk about Islam, the African Diaspora, and Gender. I haven’t really seen someone from my perspective, as a Black American Muslim, explore these themes. This is why I made my intervention. Some people have written me directly telling me I should get over talking about religion. Others say I should get over race. Even  once someone who expressed ambivalence towards my discussion of FGM. If I were to stop talking about religion, race, and sex then this blog would not have a purpose. Or maybe I could just post cute pictures of flowers, kittens, and bunnies and peppered with my own personal reflections as Just Another Muslim. No, my blog is not polite dinner conversation nor is it designed to make us all feel uplifted. I just want my readers to think. I also want to validate an experience that is forged in struggle.  I try to not present a doom and gloom scenario. Nor am I trying to be a polemic or write entries for shock value. At the same time I think that we as Muslims still need to look at a number of issues. The American Muslim community still needs to examine how race, class, and gender intersect in order to understand how to move forward.

Eid Gifts for Gambia

I just wanted to pass along an email I received from the former President of Muslims Student Action Network at Stanford. I know of one student who collects donated books to send to libraries in Africa. It is a worthy cause and hopefully more of us can do more to increase literacy in Africa.

I am starting up a collection of *Arabic literature/books/magazines /newspapers* to send to a brand new library in The *Gambia*, Africa. I have a friend in the Peace Corps who built this *library* and he has requested for these materials specifically. If you could just pass this message on to people you know, that would be great! They can personally contact me at *nyakuby@gmail.com* to get more involved. If you have any materials you would like to donate, please let me know and I will try and find a way to get them from you or to fund its shipment directly to The Gambia. Thanks so much, and I really hope you forward this message on to your friends and communities. Thanks!