In this article by Professor Shareef Muhammad, he summarizes arguments and rebuttals to Afrocentrist criticisms of Islam in Africa.
Afrocentrist myth: Islam are that it spread by the sword, undermined traditional African cultures, and that the Arab Slave Trade depopulated Africa and destabilized those African societies. They alleged that both conquest and slavery were the principal means by which Arabs introduce Islam to Africans.
Response: These assertions are hyperbolic and not supported by either the African sources or the external Arab sources that make up the corpus of literature that are the core source of information on the subject. The events in question have been inflated to gain ground in the identity politics of the diaspora. The Arab Slave Trade was never a defining issue on the continent of Africa but was part of the normal state practices of that time. In fact, Walter Rodney in his esteemed work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa said that the term Arab Slave Trade was a misnomer since its used to describe bilateral trade agreements across a myriad of ethnic groups in which Africans had full agency.
Metanarrative: Islam south of the Sahel was an indigenous affair in which Africans controlled the terms on which Islam was adopted and practiced. It’s proselytizing, practice, and politics were entirely African. This is evinced in how unique Islam was in the sub-Saharan from Islam in the Levant and North Africa. Even in North Africa where Islam did spread by force the Arabs never made it across the whole of North Africa leaving the assimilation and practice of Islam entirely to the Berbers. Berber attitudes and behavior towards the sub-Sahara were Berber not Arab or determined by Arabs.
Afrocentrist myth: The Almoravid were Arab invaders who toppled Ghana in 1076 ACE and this is how Islam was introduced to the region.
Response: This event is controversial because there is no unambiguous mention in the Ghanaian oral traditions or the chronicles of the Arab writers of this time (11th century) nor is there a scholarly consensus that this invasion happened. At most the primary sources point only to a correlation between the spread of Islam throughout the western sub-Saharan and the Almoravid efforts at doing so through what we know were missionary work not a military invasion. David Conrad and Humphrey Fisher wrote an exhaustive treatment of the Arabic sources and African oral accounts called The Conquest That Never Was. They concluded that they could find “nothing in the traditions to indicate any conquest of the eleventh-century Sahelian state known to Arab geographers as “Ghana.”” Yet, this remains a controversy among actual scholars. So, let us explore the position that the Almoravid conquest did take place. All of the sources that describe the Almoravids in sub-Saharan relate them as an African contingent of the movement that originated in Senegambia. Cheikh Anta Diop who takes the stance that there was an invasion and that they seized Aoudaghast and Ghana saying on page 163 of Precolonial Black Africa that “This was the only time white troops attempted to impose Islam through violence.” The “white” Berber to which Diop is referring took up a retreat in Senegal where he attracted Senegalese who converted and aided him in this military campaign to spread Islam through force. But their victories were confined to only the northern part of the Ghana, Sijilmasa and the Maghreb. They did not succeed in West Africa, to the east and west. The conversion of these regions was the work of autochthonous marabouts (West African Sufis) who were preaching the religion. So, even if we take the theory of an invasion we see that even that is described as an indigenous affair. The fact that the Ghanaian oral sources point to draught instead of northern conquerors as the cause of Ghana’s fall at the least minimizes this event. Diop goes on to say that “The primary reason for the success of Islam in Black Africa, with one exception, consequently stems from the fact that it was propagated peacefully at first by solitary Arabo-Berber travelers to certain Black kings and notables, who then spread it about them to those under their jurisdiction.” pg. 163.
Afrocentrist myth: The Arab Invasion Destroyed Egypt and Enslaved the Native Black Population.
Response: Ancient Kemet was destroyed and compromised over a millennium prior to the 640 A.C.E when the Muslims invaded. The Kemet that Afrocentrists romanticize had been long gone. When the Muslims arrived they were entering a thoroughly Hellenized, and Romanized Egypt whose native population was an amalgam of black African, Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Eastern European. Whole population of Italians and many Vandals and Goths moved into North Africa during the time of Augustine. The Berbers were made lighter when Europeans moved into North Africa since as far back the Ice Age. The Hyksos colonization of Northern Egypt didn’t help either. The further west you went in North Africa the lighter the population. Alfred J. Butler’s The Arab Invasion and the Last 30 Years of Roman Dominion. The Baqt Treaty exposes the lie that the Arabs introduced the enslavement of black Africans. Its pertinent to this controversy because it was the first time the Arabs tried to invade sub-Sahara and they failed. The Baqt Treaty was an agreement in which the Nubians who were the victors set the terms of peace and offered to pay the Arabs slaves as a peace offering. The point here is that like everywhere else in Africa up till the 1800 sub-Sahara African states negotiated with outsiders from a position of strength and autonomy. This contradicts the Afro-centrist version of African history which insists on portraying Africans as eternal victims. They had full agency during these transactions and their encounters with Arabs who were numerically and technologically inferior to the Africans they encountered. To understand their decision to give slaves to foreigners requires that we look at African states and politics as they were and not as we want to for the purposes of our petty arguments cultural authenticity.
Afro-centrist myth: Islam is an Arab not an African religion.
Response: What is the point being made here? This is a strange criticism setting aside for now whether its valid. Did Africans view themselves as African first or as their tribe first? There is no single African religion there are African religions and they do not equivocate. So, while they share similarities they have very pronounced differences. The religious practices of the Dogan would have been perceived just as foreign to the Xhosa as Islam. You cannot change tribes and therefore you cannot change tribal religions which are tied exclusively to the tribe. Since Islam was not being forced on them by outsiders and because African rulers accepted the religion on African terms and not Arab terms the indigenization of the religion was faster and more natural. However, the fact remains that Islam as a religion debuted in the Arabian Peninsula with its Prophet being an Arab, and the official language being Arabic. I suppose you could make a surface argument that based only on these facts that it’s an Arab religion. However, if you are going to look at the 30 years of Seerah (life of the Prophet (saws)) during his mission as a Prophet then one would honestly have to emerge with a different picture. Why can’t we reduce Islam to being an Arab religion?
- The Arabs were the first and most vehement enemies of Muhammad (saws)’s when Africa was welcoming. The first hijra into Ethiopia led to the first free practicing Muslim community. Islam was settled peacefully in Africa before Arabia. If Islam was an Arab religion then why were the Arabs so hostile?
- Many of the early companions of the Prophet (saws) were not Arab but African, Persian, and European. From Bilal to Salman al Farsi (may Allah grant them Jinnah). Most of them had been slaves within Arabia. If you were to ask them they would have said that they do not see Islam as an Arab or slave religion.
- The Prophet (saws) is reported to have said in a hadith that the person who stammers trying to read the Quran because Arabic is not their native tongue receives more blessings for their struggle than the native who speaks with fluency. This is the most explicit denial of Arab supremacy.
- The Prophet (saws) said in his final sermon that there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab over an Arab. This is an even more explicit rejection of Arab supremacy.
- In another hadith the Prophet (saw) is reported to have said that you must obey your ruler even if he be an Abyssinian slave with the head of a raison. Everyone is so focused on the phrase “head of a raison” that they completely missed the meaning of the statement. He said obey your Black African ruler. He is foretelling the rule of Africans.
- The difference between Arab and West African is as vast as the difference between West African and East African and the similarly between East African and Arab is as much as the similarity between those on the coast of West Africa and those in the interior of West Africa. In other words the foreignness of Arabs depended on where in Africa you were and what part of Arabia you were from. Yemeni has more in common with Ethiopians and Somalis than Kuwaitis. The Arabness of Islam is less of a barrier to the Africans in the 11th century than it is to black people in the Diaspora who have been Westernized. Ironically the same Afrocentrists who cite the foreignness of the Arab are even less familiar with African cultures than they’d like to admit which is one of the reasons why they focus such much on ancient Egypt. It’s not a present reality (culturally) that they have to deal with.
Afrocentrist Myth The Arab Slave Trade. The Arabs introduced the enslavement of Africans that paved the way for European enslavement of Africans.
Response: The trans-Saharan Trade and more significantly the Indian Ocean Trade predate the rise of Islam by thousands of years with the Indian Ocean Trade dating back to 2500 B.C.E. The spread of Islam simply made Arabs the new participants in something that was old. Africans were equal partners in their commercial relations and more often operated from a position of strength. In both the trans-Saharan Trade and Indian Ocean Trade slaves were never the central item traded. Slaves was part of a wider trade in gold, ivory, and soapstone. The Indian Ocean Trade in particular was already thousands of years old and had been controlled by different ethnicities in that region when the Arabs first came into possession of it. Why not call it the East African Slave Trade, the Greek Slave Trade, the Roman Slave Trade, the Gujurat Slave Trade, the Garamante Slave Trade, or the Persian Slave Trade? Why not call it the gold trade, the soapstone trade, or the ivory trade? Why is there only an interest the Arab period? To call the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean Trade the Arab Slave Trade when it was practiced for thousands of years before the Arabs took possession and slaves were not even their central focus is a political decision not scholarly one.
Afrocentrist myth The Indian Ocean Trade depopulated East Africa and ravaged the continent. It proves that the Arabs were the first enslavers of Africans and laid the foundation for the European enslavement of Africans.
Response: The Indian Ocean Trade predated the Arab involvement. It goes back as far as 2500 B.C.E. Before it was the Arab slave trade it would have been the Indian slave trade, the Persian slave trade, the Greek slave trade, and the Roman slave trade. It was only the Arab slave trade during the Abbasid period. During this time slave raiding occurred in fits and starts, spikes and periods but there were also places where it didn’t happen at all. The Zanji Uprising was larger and more impactful than the slave trade itself. Historian M.A. Shaban argues that the majority of participants were not slaves but free blacks and Arabs with some runaway slaves. There would not have been enough slaves to do the kind of devastation that happened. The irony is that it did more damage to Iraq than it did to the East African states that traded with them voluntarily. The aggressive slave raiding that is so often referred to belongs to the 1800s and has much to do with European activities in India and the Middle East at this time as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was practically over. The scramble for Africa accelerated the slave raiding in Southeast Africa. After the Abbasid period ended the Arabs were simply the face of Islamic power which had passed to the Turks. This brings up to very significant facts about Arabs, Islam, and slavery: the majority of the slaves in the Arab world were white and Persian who overthrew their Arab masters and subjugated them and eventually took African slaves from Indian and African middle men. There was no organized enterprise that principally targeted Africa for slaves to build up Arab countries. African slaves were used on an as needed basis but for the most instrumental slave labor the Arabs relied on whites.
Note: The majority of African slaves were used as servants (guards). This function would not have required millions of slaves such as was the case with the military whom the Arabs relied upon for their military campaigns that were directly responsible for their building up of wealth. Hence, there is some doubt about the number of African slaves being in the millions that are found in secondary sources on the zanji trade.
Afrocentrist Argument: Arabs are just as racist towards Africans if not more than Europeans.
Response: The inferior status of Africans only appears when we examine Arab-African relations within Arab societies but between Arab nations and African nations going all the way back to Abyssinia we see that Africans were in a position of political superiority and when the Arabs interacted with sovereign African nations they did so with diplomacy and deference. African sovereignty did not make Africans or Africa vulnerable to outside opinions.
Afrocentrist Myth: The Hamitic-hypothesis is the rationale that the Arabs relied on for their inferior view of Africans and it has given African’s who’ve embraced Islam a negative view of other Africans.
Response: Some Arabs involved in the enslavement of Africans employed this theory but it was not widespread either among the Arabs or the Africans. Africans who did use this used it to disparage other tribes with whom they did not get along with. This was not a consequence of the Hamitic-hypothesis but rather their decision to use this was a consequence of tribal conflicts. Ham does not appear in the Quran or Hadith. He is not a part of Islamic hagiography. The story of Ham only appears in Judeo-Christian sources and the story itself flies in the face of what Islam demands we believe about the Prophet’s like Noah. The usedof Hamitic curse to justify the subjugation of Africans began with a Syrian Christian and it was adopted by Arabs and Africans with no religious scruples. Its proliferation and impact of religious thinking in the continent was negligible. Those who in West Africa who were using it as part of the rationale for their tribal wars that predated the rationale itself were brought under control by Uthman don Fodio when he established the Sokoto Caliphate.
Afrocentrist myth: Islam did more harm to Africa than good. It devastating the continent.
Response: This is a personal opinion. However, during the time of this supposed devastation Africa reached its last great renaissance. Even Chancellor Williams ruminates in The Destruction of Black Civilization when he writes: “It may not be without significance that the Renaissance in Africa occurred at the same time it did in Europe, between the 15th and 16th centuries, and that in both Europe and Africa Islamic sources were the catalyst.” So, even Chancellor Williams had to concede this point. Islam impacted sub-Saharan West Africa in two significant ways:
1.The spread of Islam brought the major overland trade routes that connected Asia with Africa and Europe. This enlarged the scope of the trans-Saharan Trade which then transformed Ghana from a local kingdom to an empire. The conversion to Islam by West African kings and notables brought these West African empires into an international association of an established trade network that made these West African empires the wealthiest of the entire continent. Mansa Musa is the heir to this reality.
2.The West African Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were successively more Islamic, more literate, more erudite, politically more sophisticated, and economically more powerful concomitantly.
Islam was the catalyst for both of these as can clearly be established when comparing them to their non-Muslim counterparts. Those who wish to say that the religion of Islam was a force of bad can only do so by denying these facts.
Professor Shareef Muhammad has taught history at Georgia State University and Islamic studies at Spelman University. He has a masters in history at Kent State University with his thesis on The Cultural Jihad in the antelbellum South: How Muslim slaves preserved their religious/cultural identity during slavery.