The Black Muslims – By Morroe Berger

BeFunky_BeFunky_bm.jpgAlthough there have been revival movements among American Negroes for many years, it is only recently that one of them has attracted wide attention. This is the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the “Black Muslims,” led by their “Messenger the Honorable Mr. Elijah Muhammad” and younger spokesmen with equally odd names like Malcolm X. (They insist on being called Muslims rather than Moslems. The first spelling happens to come closer to the correct pronunciation of the Arabic word, but the black Muslims seem to regard it as some thing more than merely a matter of transliteration from one language to another.) Until now, the association of American Negroes with the Islamic religion stirred nothing more than mild curiosity and tolerant amusement. Anyway, a few people saw the fezzes and colorful flowing gowns, and heard the prayers to Allah in English, or were aware of the efforts to resurrect African power and splendor. Now derision has turned to alarm. The Black Muslim’s combination of an exotic religion and a passionate rejection of White America has propelled them out of the jails and Negro neighborhoods, where their power was first noticed, and into the disturbed consciousness of the nation.

Spokesmen for the Black Muslims never tire of insisting that the original religion of Negroes was Islam, that their language was Arabic, and that they had a distinctly African culture. Repeating Elijah Muhammad’s own teachings, Minister Malcolm, the most articulate and best known of the Muslim leaders, told an open meeting: “The white man kidnapped us from our high culture and civilization in Africa, stole us and then stole our religion, our language, and our civilization and made us into animals.” This identification of Negroes with Islam and Arabic is of course an exaggeration, but it contains an element of truth that has long been unknown or ignored, not only in the popular mind but in scholarship as well. It will be useful, therefore, before examining the Black Muslims of today, to look at the American Negroes’ attitude toward the African past, and their historic relation to Islam both in Africa and, surprisingly, our own country.

It is not only the Black Nationalists” who are exhilarated by the great changes in Africa in our generation, even Negroes who have thought of Africa only as a gigantic primitive jungle now cannot repress a flush of pride as independent Africa emerges.

Americans have long been proud that Negroes in the United States have enjoyed a far higher standard of living and education than Negroes in Africa. Yet gradualism here and breathtaking change there may soon leave American Negroes the better off materially and economically but worse off socially and politically. American Negroes, moreover, see the Africans gain dignity, respect, and power as they separate from their white rulers rather than “integrating” with them. Today they are readier to recognize their kinship with Africa and to face the fact that they are culturally different from whites, now that many no longer believe that this kinship and difference mean inferiority.

James Baldwin says, “I don’t know why it is so important to be white anymore.” Lorraine Hansberry asks: “….is it necessary to integrate oneself into a burning house?”

Attachment to Africa based upon a changing mixture of knowledge and sentiment, has always been strong among a few Negro leaders and intellectuals – and probably stronger, if more nebulous, among the voiceless masses who could see little in America that gave them reason to think they were really part of it. Now, paradoxically, the closer they come to sharing the good things of life in this wealthy society, the closer also they come to understanding their relationship to Africa.

For a long time people thought that Africa below the Sahara had no history because most societies that had not possessed a written language. Even now the growing number of universities that teach about Africa feel the need for Anthropologists, not historians. The great Negro scholar W.W.B. Dubois, whop died recently in Ghana at the age of ninety-five, * had written three books since 1915 in an obsessive effort to dispel this misconception among whites and Negroes. In the second on, Black Folk, Then and Now, published a quarter-century ago, he wrote concerning this assumption of a historic void: “I remember my own rather sudden awakening from the paralysis of this judgment taught me in school and in two of the world’s great universities. Franz Boas came to Atlanta University where I was teaching History in 1906 and said to a graduating class: “You need not be ashamed of your African past; and then he recounted the history of the Black kingdoms south of the Sahara for a thousand years. I was too astonished to speak. All of this I had never heard. “As Negroes discovered African history they also discovered their relation to Islam, and some judged it more satisfying than their relation to Christianity. They began to see Negro Christian history as the story of slavery, while Negro Islamic history, though it included slavery, at least had elements of grandeur in it. 

One reaction to the enslavement of Negroes by Christian Europe and America has been to claim that Negroes are superior Christians to whites. More than 40 years ago Carter G. Woodson, an intellectual Negro scholar who founded The Journal of Negro History in 1916, observed: “The religion of Jesus is an oriental production. It easily appeals to the mind of the Negro, which is also oriental. The mind of the white man is Occidental. He has, therefore failed to understand and appreciate Christianity.” Others, however like, Edward W. Blyden, a West Indian, praised the role of Islam in Africa. A firm believer in the Back to Africa Movement, Blyden insisted that Arab culture and the religion of Islam were more congenial to Negroes. Almost a century ago he warned that Islam, rather than Christianity, would eventually dominate pagan Africa because it was a greater force for progress among Negroes. “The Negro,” he said, “came into contact with Christianity as a slave and a follower at a distance. He came into contact with Mohammedism as a man, and often as a leader.” Blyden was a man of extra-ordinary learning and taste who has won distinction as a Christian missionary, educator, and diplomat. Highly esteemed in America and England, he was elected a fellow of the American Philological Association and vice-president of the American Colonization Society, which was established in 1816, with the support of, among others, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, to help Negroes go back (return)-[my italics] to Africa, where the Society founded Liberia.

Blyden was so convinced that Islam was better for Africans than Christianity that he felt obliged to leave the Christian ministry. This act and the convictions that led to it, along with Blyden’s appointment as supervisor of Muslim education in Sierra Leone, persuaded many people that he had himself come a Muslim. He had not, but American Presbyterian circles were dismayed anyway. Their shiniest back-to-Africa showpiece became an embarrassment by wanting to go back just a little too far. According to a former president of Lincoln University, an institution for Negroes supported by the Presbyterian Church, annoyance over Blyden led the American Presbyterians to leave the small band of Liberian Presbyterians to their own resources in 1884. The University, he adds, did not admit a single Liberian student during this century until, just after World War II, he welcomed young Edward W. Blyden III to Oxford, Pennsylvania.

What has scholarship found out about African history? It has discovered the important role that black men have played as individuals in Africa and elsewhere -kings and emperors of large African domains, such as Musa of Mali, a Muslim who conquered Timbuktu in the fourteenth century and then enhanced its great reputation; al-Mansur (Almanzor), a mulatto who extended Muslim power in southern Spain in the tenth century; or Bilal, the Negro who became the first muezzin (caller to prayer) of the Prophet Mohammad himself. Scholarship has also uncovered something much more significant: Negro African societies of medieval times that were as advanced in social organization and perhaps in some material accomplishments as contemporary societies in Europe, as well as the Negroid elements in ancient civilizations like the Egyptian and the Ethiopian or the medieval Islamic civilizations in Africa and Spain. What is more, some prehistorians believe that it was in Africa that human life developed out of the animal. Professor L.S.B. Leakey, a leading British scholar working on this subject, states flatly: “Africa’s first contribution to human progress, then, was the evolution of man himself.” When Elijah Muhammad says that the black is “original man,” it may be not so much groundless pride as merely religious hyperbole. Only after some six hundred thousand years, Leakey adds, did Africa lose its “dominant role in world progress”, to Asia Minor and southern Europe, probably because the expansion of deserts “cut off Africa from the rest of the world, “ and because the African climate reduced human incentive by providing an abundance of both disease and food.

Though leadership passed out of Africa, the “dark continent” continued to produce thriving societies even during the “dark ages.” These were Negro cultures, both pagan and Muslim, as well as cultures created and led by mixed groups of Negroes, whites, and North African Berbers, in West and Central Africa, and on the eastern coast from the Gulf of Aden to Madagascar.

One of the earliest of these advanced West African states was called Ghana. It probably arose in the fourth century A.D. when North African Berbers (perhaps Jews) settled among the blacks near the Niger River south west of what later became known as Timbuktu.  In the eighth century the blacks, under the Soninke dynasty, took power and ruled for five hundred years. The wealth of Ghana came mainly from its abundance of gold, which afforded it a magnificent court life and a thriving trade with North Africa. At its height, from the ninth to the middle of the eleventh century, it was famous for its great capital, Kumbi, which was separated into two districts. One was inhabited largely by Muslims, among who were some eminent doctors of law. Probably because of their learning, Muslims held high posts in the pagan Negro court as interpreters and royal ministers. The other part of the city was the royal seat. Late in the eleventh century Ghana, always a prize because of its wealth, fell to the Almoravids, who came down from the north fighting holy wars for Islam and spreading the faith by the sword. The Almoravids, mainly Berbers but with a substantial Negro admixture, soon were divided in victory, and the original rulers were able to recover their independence.  They, too, however, could not maintain unity, and the great period of ancient Ghana ended in the thirteenth century. More than seven hundred years later, in 1957, the leaders of a new Africa gave the name Ghana to a former British colony, the Gold Coast, which lies several hundred miles southeast of the ancient kingdom’s capital.

The people of ancient Ghana were pagan and spoke one of the Mandingo languages. Farther south was another Mandingo culture, where a Muslim convert, Sundiata, came to power in the middle of the thirteenth century.  He expanded his domain in several directions, took declining Ghana itself in 1240, and laid the basis for another great empire, the Mali, covering most of what was later known as French West Africa and the present independent state of Mali. Sundiata created a capital at Niani on the Niger River that became famous under his most prominent successor, Mans (Emperor) Musa, who ruled from 1307 to 1332.  Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 literally put his empire and capital city on the map of Europe. He traveled in extraordinary pomp, with five hundred slaves and great stores of gold. Every one along the route in both directions profited from his passage, and in Cairo the sophisticated traders were talking about him years later, as they still tried to recover from the fall in the price of gold caused by the large amount he had put into circulation.

After his return, his material resources diminished, but he acquired a distinct intellectual aura supplied by the learned men who accompanied him and settled in his two famous cities, Mali and Timbuktu. Among them was an Arab poet and   architect from Granada, Ibrahim El Saheli, who built several mosques of burnt brick, a material he introduced into that area.

Well over a century later there were still traces of wealth and piety in Mali, according to Leo Africanus. He was an Arab Muslim from Spain who was captured by pirates to be sold into slavery.  Impressed by his travels and his learning, they took him to Rome and presented him to the Medici pope, Leo X. This son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and patron of Raphael freed the captive, made him a member of the Papal Court, gave him his own name, and had him converted to Christianity. Visiting Mali around 1510, Leo Africanus wrote: “ The inhabitants are rich… Here are great stores of temples, priests, and professors… The people of this region excel all other Negroes in wit, civility, and industry, and were the first that embraced the law of Muhammad.”

By Leo’s time, however, the Mali empire was in decline and had already been overshadowed by one of its former vassals, the Songhay kingdom with its capital at Gao, about seven hundred miles east of the city of Mali. The Songhay area had been settled in the seventh century by pagan Berbers, who established their rule over the blacks.  With the southward sweep of Islam, the rulers became Muslims early in the eleventh century, and as time went on the Berber element thinned out and the Negro character became dominant. Most of the population remained pagan despite their Muslim leaders. After winning their independence from Mali, these leaders rapidly expanded at the expense of their former masters and built the greatest African empire since ancient Egypt. At its height, in the fifteenth century, it was known as an intellectual center; it had a powerful army and a good administration, and its most prominent ruler, Askia Muhammad I, was a Negro who took his religion seriously.

At the end of the sixteenth century the Songhai kingdom fell victim to northern Moors who coveted their wealth and trade. The invading army, with firearms strange to the Songhay, entered Gao in 1591 expecting to find the slender and riches which they had heard so much about and which had beckoned them during the strenuous six -month desert march. But they were disappointed at the size of the town and at the fact that the fleeing inhabitants had carried off everything the invaders could have wanted.

While these West African empires were rising and falling, advanced communities could be found on the eastern coast. These Muslim cities – such as Zeila, Kilwa, and Zanzibar- prospered through trade from medieval times down to the turn of the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese Vasco da Gama worked his way around the Cape of Good Hope to East Africa and India. Zeila appears to have been a teeming port. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, who saw it probably in 1331, described the town as apparently prosperous though unpleasant. Its sheep were famous for their butter, but large amounts of fish and slaughtered camels produced such a stink that, despite a rough sea, he preferred to sleep on board ship. The people were Negro Muslims, but many were lacking in piety. His thumbnail description of Zeila: “It is a large city with a great bazaar, but it is the dirtiest, most abominable, and most stinking town in the world.”

When Ibn Batuta later that year reached Kilwa, south of Zanzibar, he was more pleased. He found the people devoted and pious Muslims and, indeed, engaged at that moment in a Holy War against nearby pagans. Pagans pronounced his judgment concisely: “Kilwa is a very fine and substantially built town.”  Seventy-four years later, in 1405, a German traveler witnessed the sack of Kilwa by the Portuguese. He remarked the “many vaulted mosques, one of which is like that of Cordoba, “ and the large stone and mortar buildings with