Can Islamic Intellectual History in West Africa Uplift Black America Today?

Education and literacy were always political for black people because they were illegal. Enslaved Africans were not permitted to read and write. Punishment for this could include beatings or maiming. The Bible was the only book sanctioned by the slave owners and even then its reading by slaves was under heavy surveillance. Church service by blacks was monitored by whites and passages were removed that were believed could inspire rebellion. Slaves had to sneak lessons in order to learn how to read. In some rare instances there were “philanthropic” whites who taught slaves literacy as in the case of Frederick Douglas but by and large black people were kept deliberately unlettered.

Criminalizing black intelligence instilled in many black people the belief that education was “a white thing.” An educated black was an inauthentic black. This internalized racism has affected black academic performance.

The education gap between black and other groups, specifically whites, remains wide. 38.8 % for non-Hispanic whites who have earned bachelor degrees and higher compared to 25.2 % African-Americans. For sure there are other factors that account for this disparity such as structural racism (black students from elementary are more likely to be disciplined for the same infractions that white students are pardoned for) and poverty but attitudes embedded in the black psyche about education not being tied to authentic blackness persists.

One of the first groups in black America to challenge this perception were the black Muslims. First, the legacy of Black Islam as exemplified by Malcolm X put great emphasis on the ties between black liberation and reading. Malcolm X once said  “Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”

The revolution must begin in the mind. To quote a wildly popular television show “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone.” It is the most important resource that the human being has and it was primary object of any conqueror.

Thus, great measures were taken to separate us from anything that could sharpen this weapon. Islam always placed importance on developing the mind. It connected the written word to radical transformation. The only literate Africans brought to America in chains were Muslim and this phenomena presented a problem for the institution itself. An institution predicated on the notion that blacks were mentally inferior could not tolerated highly learned and literate blacks. Black peoples’ literate past doesn’t begin with learning English in America it begins with the African Islamic universities in the great Western Sudanic states of 12th to 16th centuries.

Chancellor Williams’s book The Destruction of Black Civilization contains a variety of European orientalist misinformation about Islam. Yet, Chancellor Williams states that”[t]he renaissance in Africa occurred at the time time it developed in Europe, between the 15th and 16th century, and that both in Europe and Africa, Islamic sources were the catalyst.”

When Chancellor Williams begrudgingly acknowledged that Islam may have been the catalyst for the renaissance in Africa it was the one truthful sentence that undermined every other statement about the religion. The history of Islam in Africa, sub-Sahara particularly, is one of indigenization which stimulated rapid growth and development.

In West Africa three great empires—Ghana, Mali, and Songhai—became beacons of light between 500 A.D. and 1600 A.D. They were successively more advanced technologically, developed intellectually, and stronger militarily. Each had a robust army and possessed enormous wealth. The abundance of which would become legendary. Primarily gold, these empires were enriched with a lucrative relationship between themselves and the Berbers to the North. This mutually productive exchange is known as the trans-Saharan trade.

The precious metals, along with manufactured goods brought new items and ideas. This is how Islam was transferred from North East to North West and accelerated traditional African institutions while giving the native genius of its people a new vehicle for expression. Islam was, as Chancellor Williams would ironically point out, the stimulus for Africa’s medieval golden age. Islam and Africa’s advancements were inextricably linked.

When Mansa Musa returned from his pilgrimage he brought back with him scholars and architects he recruited from the lands he journeyed through. He began to build a grand city that would become the fabled known as Timbuktu. Financed by the West African gold and the trans-Saharan trade Mali was more wealthy, more scholarly, and more Islamic.

Mansa Musa died in 1332. By the mid 1400s a new empire was being built, Songhai. This empire under the reign of Askia Muhammad would reach its zenith and become arguably the most powerful empire in the world. He made the cities of Gao, Walata, Nenne, and Timbuktu major intellectual centers were scholarship was encouraged.

The famed 16th century Arab historian and traveler Leo Africanus recorded: In Timbuktu there are numerous judges, doctors, and clerics, all receiving good salaries from the Mansa. There is a big demand for books and manuscripts imported from Barbary. More profit is made from the book trade than from any other line of business.”

Timbuktu was a grand city of around one hundred thousand people. Its wealth in gold and “stories of intrigue and mystery made it one of the most celebrated cities of its time. It flourished as a business district with many shops, a religious site with the Great Mosque, and an intellectual center with the University of Sankore.” As one of the most ancient centers of learning the University of Sankore, also known as the Sankore Madrasah, was comparable to Al Azhar of Cairo.

This university was indigenized African Islamic school distinct from the madrasas of the so-called Middle East. It had no central administration other than the Emperor himself. There were independent colleges operated by an imam. Students associated with a single teacher (their master). Classes would take place in the open courtyard of the masjid or at one’s home. This is the traditional African method of transferring knowledge. It is how the Griot or Griotte would relay the history of the tribe. Islam was easily adaptable to traditional African culture and social structure because of their inherent compatibility. The masjid had four levels or degrees. When a student graduated they would receive a turban

Timbuktu rose to its height between 1493-1529. The University of Sankore produced more than forty books on subjects such as logic, theology, ethics, mathematics, and rhetoric. The level of scholarship and intellectual heft was of such high caliber than when an Arab came to the city with the intention of teaching he sat in on one class and said that he was not even qualified to be a student. Education was Islamic. Disagreements or debates had to be supported by the Quran. Geometry, mathematics, biology, astronomy were stressed also.

The primary level required mastery of Arabic and certain African languages that were necessary for diplomacy. The students were required to write the Quran out long hand and become a hafiz (one who memorized the entire Quran). The second degree required learning grammar, math, geography, history, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and in depth study of the Quran such as exegesis. They learned hadith, jurisprudence and tasawwuf or the spiritual sciences. They learned business ethics and were taught of trade. On graduation day, the students were given a turban that was wrapped in a special way. This method of wrapping  symbolized “Divine light, wisdom, knowledge and stellar moral conduct. After receiving their diplomas the students would gather together and throw their turbans in the air (immortalized today when graduates throw their cap in the air).

The third degree students studied under a professor where they would do research. This involve debates about philosophy and religion. It dealt with philosophical question. Here, at this level, students would become the apprentice of a sheikh. At the last level the student was trained to be a professor and a judge who would eventually be dispersed throughout the kingdom to administer law. If the sheikh they attached themselves to were impressed with their knowledge and character they were admitted into a “circle of knowledge” which was endemic of most West African societies. These were the men who delivered religious rulings known as fatawas.

The scholars wrote books as part of the socioeconomic model of the kingdom. Today, there are over 700,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu that were produced from students hand copying works of their professors and writing their own. Many of the books do list the authors’ names. This is intrinsically African. The communal nature of African society did not emphasis individual glory. African art for example dating to antiquity does not contain the artists name. The philosophy behind this is that an individual’s talents are the received from the Creator.

Our talents come through us not from us. Knowledge was regarded the same way. Ahmed Baba, the last chancellor of the university, was considered one of the great intellectuals of the sixteenth century. When Songhai was invaded by the Moors of Morocco Ahmed Baba was taken prisoner. When news of this spread throughout the Muslim world thousands of his students of all ethnicities through the world gathered outside of the sultans palace and demanded his release. It was such an embarrassment for the sultanate that the famed scholar Ahmad Baba was released and given a position of administrator within the royal court.

Although West Africans traded their gold for northern salt and gold was the natural resource that brought West Africa wealth and it was books that these African Muslims valued the most. Ahmad Baba was said to have a personal library of 1600 books and his was the smaller of the libraries in city.

When European explorers visited the Sokoto Caliphate in modern day Nigeria, they found an Islamic scholar Sultan Muhammad with an Arabic translation of Euclid’s text of geometry.

Islamic scholar Nana Asmau encouraged the women of her society to actively seek knowledge writing, “In Islam, it is a religious duty to seek knowledge. Women may leave their homes freely for this.” She was fluent in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamacheq. She was well-read in classical Greek and Latin text. She wrote a book on the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which was widely read in her community, and she was a strong advocate of education.

The emphasis that the Quran places on learning is found in numerous verses:

“Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created man from a clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not.” (Quran, 96:1-5). 

“My Lord! Enrich me with knowledge..” (Quran, 20:114)

“Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge alike? Only the men of understanding are mindful. ” (Quran, 39:9)

When the human being is introduced in the Quran the angels are commanded to bow down to Adam who was taught the names of things and able to recite them.

The pursuit of knowledge and the use of reason, based on sense and observation is made obligatory on all believers.

Islam has made the acquisition of knowledge compulsory. The ahadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s)  and various proverbs in the Islamic tradition attest to this:

  • “God has revealed to me, ‘Whoever walks in the pursuit of knowledge I facilitate for him the way to heaven.’
  • “The best form of worship is the pursuit of knowledge.”
  • “Scholars should endeavor to spread knowledge and provide education to people who have been deprived of it. For, where knowledge is hidden it disappears.”
  • Someone asked the Prophet (s.a.w.s): “Who is the biggest scholar?” He replied: “He who is constantly trying to learn from others, for a scholar is ever hungry for more knowledge.”
  • “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
  • “Seek knowledge and wisdom, or whatever the vessel from which it flows, you will never be the loser.”
  • “Contemplating deeply for one hour (with sincerity) is better than 70 years of (mechanical) worship.”
  • “To listen to the words of the learned and to instill unto others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises.”
  • “Acquire knowledge: it enables its possessor to distinguish right from the wrong, it lights the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless – it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament among friends and an armor against enemies.”

The love for knowledge that characterized West African Muslim civilization was not introduced by Muslims it stimulated an impulse inherent in Africa. African-Americans, after hundreds of years of being violently removed from this heritage, were denied the right to literacy through slave codes. The first black criminals were teachers and students in this country. This is the subversive tradition that black people in America need to return to if we are to see another black renaissance. Allah will not change the condition of a people until they first change what is in themselves.

(If you would like to see the light of Islamic learning spread throughout Black communities, donate to Black Dawah Network)


Professor Shareef Muhammad

Shareef Muhammad (Frank Beane) is a content curator and historian who teaches history and Islamic Studies as an adjunct within the college and university system in Georgia. Shareef currently works with the Black Dawah Network as  the director of the theological department of Black Dawah Network. Shareef believes that Islam is a force for change as well as spiritually transforming and that the religion can serve as the bulwark for ameliorating the social conditions of African-Americans.  In 2015 Shareef was chosen to be a chief consultant on the After Malcolm Project which is a digital oral history archive that conducted interviews with African-American Muslims from the Civil Rights Era and collected artifacts. Their work was featured in exhibits at both Kennesaw State University and at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta Georgia. In 2018 the project project was adopted by George Mason University. Shareef holds a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in History from Central State University and a Masters degree in History from Kent State University where his thesis entitled The Cultural Jihad in the Antebellum South which details how enslaved African Muslims preserved their religious and cultural identity in bondage.

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