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Issue 281, Friday 28 September 2012 - 11 Dhu al-Qa'dah 1433

Book Review - Contribution of Black and North African Muslims

By Muhammad Khan

Illuminating the Darkness: Blacks and North Africans in Islam by Habeeb Akande, London: Ta Ha Publishers. pp160. PB. 2012.

The author of this book is a British Muslim writer who has studied in this country and at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Inspired by his own family and cultural background, he has researched and compiled this monograph to highlight the position of Black and North Africans in Islam, and the role they have played in Muslim societies over the centuries.

In the Introduction to the book, the author states, “The advent of Islam in the seventh century of the Christian Era (CE) created a new situation in race relations in the world. Islam, for the first time, gave birth to a truly universal civilisation, extending from Southern Europe to Central Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to India. Establishing an egalitarian society based on human brotherhood and faith in One God, Islam was a source of liberation.” (p xvii) Although the author is right to point out that Islam was a champion of racial equality and freedom from the outset, unfortunately Muslims did not always live up to the high standards set by their faith.

According to the Qur’an, ‘believers are brothers’ regardless of their race, colour, social status or family background. This Qur’anic statement was repeatedly emphasised by the Prophet (peace be on him) in order to eradicate all forms of racism and discrimination from the early Muslim society. That is why the Prophet stated that ‘Muslim is a brother of a Muslim.’ He also said, “human beings are the progeny of Adam and Adam was made from dust.” The purpose of these Prophetic statements was to reinforce the fact that we all belong to one race, the human race. The uncompromisingly Islamic stance on racism and discrimination thus contributed to the emergence of prominent figures in the early Muslim community who were of African origin (such as Bilal ibn Rabah, Usamah ibn Zaid and Umm Ayman).

However, in the first part of the book, the author states, “Towards the end of the seventh century, as the Arab Muslims went forth from the Arabian Peninsula to conquer half of the known world, a sense of Arab superiority began to develop amongst some of the Arab Muslims. Under the Umayyad dynasty, many of the Arabs tended to live separately from the indigenous communities they conquered. Most of their subjects were Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian, and the Arabs made little effort to convert them. In this period, even to become a Muslim, one had to become a sort of fictive Arab by being adopted as the client (mawla) of an Arab tribe. Non-Arab Muslims were sometimes treated as second-class citizens by some of the Arab aristocracy who were perhaps absorbed with their concern for tribal honour.” (p xix-xx)

As a result, racial and discriminatory attitudes and practices became increasingly prevalent in Muslim societies. The Berber uprising against the discriminatory policies of the Umayyads during the mid-eighth century is regarded by some historians as an example of the first major revolt against racism led by non-Arab Muslims. Whether this later contributed to the rise of the more cosmopolitan Abbasids at the expense of their Arab-centric Umayyad opponents is very much open to discussion and debate.

Nevertheless, the author is right to argue that Black and North African Muslims have made substantial contribution to the development of Islamic thought, culture and civilisation.

In part two of the book, he highlights their contributions through short biographical sketches of selected early, medieval and modern Muslims of African descent, both men and women, including Bilal ibn Rabah, Najashi (Negus of Abyssinia), Mariyah al-Qibtiyyah, Tariq ibn Ziyad, Ata ibn Rabah, Sa‘id ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battutah, Mansa Musa, Ahmad Baba, Uthman Dan Fodio and Malcolm X.

In conclusion, the author argues, “Islam is uncompromising in its insistence on the equality of all believers before Allah. In the sight of Allah, human differences in society and affluence are irrelevant. Regardless of race, wealth or social status, all human beings are equally capable of attaining salvation in the Hereafter. Allah looks at the hearts and deeds of His creatures and judges them accordingly. Taqwa resides in the heart, and is what distinguishes human beings in Islam…to have taqwa of Allah is to be conscious of Him, to hear Him and to be dutiful towards Him…” (p129)

In the next edition of this book, the title of Ibn Battutah’s Rihlah needs to be corrected to Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Ghara‘ib al-Amsar wa Aja‘ib al-Asfar (p116).

This is an interesting and useful book, and it is worth reading. The author also deserves credit for his efforts.

Muhammad Khan M Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (reprinted 2010; Kindle 2011); it has been recently published in Bhasa Indonesia.

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