The Fatal Flaws of Afrocentrist critiques of Islam by Professor Shareef Muhammad
(This is a transcript of a discussion between Hakeem Muhammad and professor Shareef Muhammad on the Black Dawah Network podcast addressing and refuting Afrocentric ‘criticisms’ of Al-Islam. Professor Shareef Muhammad discusses six fatal flaws of Afrocentrism0
Hakeem Muhammad: In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, The Merciful. I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship but Allah(swt) and I further bear witness that Muhammad Salallahu Alayhi wa Sallam is Allah’s(swt) slave and messenger. You’re currently listening to the Black Dawah Network podcast. We are a podcast that’s dedicated to the rise of Islam within black America and overcoming all opposition to the rise of Islam within Black America and in particular we focus on Islamic outreach to oppressed black communities and as a part of the Islamic outreach to oppressed black communities this inherently entails overcoming ideologies, overcoming opposition, overcoming anti-Islamic sentiment within the black community particularly within the black conscious community.
And as you’ve seen many of our viewers from our previous programs, we’ve been doing a series on actual centrosome as well as black manifestations of Orientalism. And today we have our brother back. Brother Professor Shareef Muhammad who is a Professor at Georgia State University with a specialization in African-American Islam history as well as social-political theory. Today our brother will be speaking about the style in the context of an Afrocentrism. So dear, Brother please you can begin to discuss the style in the context of Afrocentrism.
Shareef Muhammad: Yes Bismillah Al-rahman AL-Raheem, in the name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful. I thank you again for having me to sort of iron out some of the ripples that have occurred within the black tradition, the black radical thought tradition. That Afrocentrism had the potential to be something beneficial and it has unfortunately succumbed to pitfalls that have arrested its own development and progress. And of course we’re here addressing this because for whatever, well it’s not whatever, we have insight into the reasons for why they are somewhat obsessed with Islam and the Muslim presence that’s in black America and particularly in Africa.
But a lot of people when we talk about Afrocentrism in the conscious community, it is a sort of ambiguous term. Very blanketed and there’s a very good reason for that. Because Afrocentrism is not an organized intellectual tradition. It’s not a coherent, intellectual tradition and that is one of the things that it suffers from. But just a little background of Afrocentrism and we want to talk about the style and the content of Afrocentrism and sort of the offshoot of that which is today’s conscious community.
So Afrocentrism was the depoliticized faction that emerged after a defunct pan-African movement in the United States in the 1980s in New York. And then after the martyrdom of the Hajj Malik el-Shabazz brought along Malcolm X that was also a watershed event in Pan-African history because he was, I think indisputably, the last great pan-African leader on this side of the ocean. So that’s what Afrocentrism sort of emerges out of. It emerges out of a defunct pan-African movement in America centered in New York in the 80s.
Now it began as an impromptu challenge to Eurocentrism in academia. This Eurocentric academia which had everyone believing that the only that only Europeans made significant contributions to human progress and that others have only played supporting roles. In particular, the academic establishment asserted that Africans has made no meaningful contributions and where contributions have come from Africa, it was non-black Africans who were responsible for those contributions. So there were challenges to this view by polymaths who were not specialists but ambitious researchers. So you had JA Rogers, you had Drusilla Houston, you had the great Arthur Schomburg to name a few.
But there was a dearth of secondary material on the contribution that Africans made to human history and so we can forgive a lot of the shortcomings or blind spots of these early pioneering Pan-African Afrocentrism. Because this was the nascent stage of any kind of African centered approach to written critical history. The foundation they laid was an important starting point but no one followed through. So the pioneer Afro centrist were really pan-Africanist whose operational logic held that: black people all over the world must reconnect culturally with Africa if they are to repair the psychic disturbance that stems from the crisis in their identity. Hence, Afrocentrism was on a mission to correct oversight omissions and outright lies actually in academia that devalued Africa and Africans.
Now in the beginning, its basic goal was just to highlight African contributions which had been ignored, minimized or given to someone else. However, I think when the complexities of Africa could not be easily reconciled with the psychic and political demands of African Americans, Afro centrists sought to create a unified African identity that they would use as the lenses through which to view the continent, its history, people and to unite us across geographical and cultural gulfs. This had a negative consequence.
It became an excuse to undermine the cultural expressions of black people that did not conform to their narrow view of what it means to be African. And here is where the problem begins and why Afrocentrism never really became a force of change. So I identify really six flaws that Afro centrist thinking suffers from and these flaws have been inherited by the conscious community.
Number one, it’s anachronistic. They present their ideas and concepts as more ancient than they are and as African when they are not.
Number two, cultural Puritanism. They use a standard of authentic African culture that is not accurate, universally accepted or even achievable.
Number three, they uncritically assimilate Orientalist and colonialist driven sources from the 1800’s and early 1900s without thought to the political motives inherent to these sources. Then they use these sources to judge the motives and authenticity of black people who disagree with them.
Number four, they have a penchant for discredited theories that reinforce their biases but have not met the burden of proof or have been disproven altogether.
Five, they possess unresolved contradictions that are unresolved because of number four and number six.
Number six is that they do not have a formal theory or methodology that is consistently applied when they examine sources.
So these are the six flaws of Afrocentrism and the thought within the conscious community; anachronism, cultural Puritanism, orientalist assumptions, a penchant for discredited theories and unresolved contradictions along with no methodology or theory. Now, these are the most glaring fallacies, undergirding thought within Afro centrists and conscious community circles. But first, let’s look at the origin of a lot of this stuff because we have to look at what something is born to sort of get a sense of its nature.
Now there’s no official birth date for Afrocentrism. But the person who I would argue had the most impact on the ideas of Afrocentrism was Cheikh Anta Diop. Cheikh Anta Diop was the patriarch if you will of Afrocentrism and has been called the Pharaoh of Afrocentrism even though he sort of preceded the term, Afrocentrist. This is a man who was born in Senegal to a prominent Muslim family. In fact, they belong to an independent Sufi-order or Tariqa founded by the renowned mystic and scholar, Ahmad Tijani. Ahmad Tijani, you can read up on his history, very polarizing figure within the Muslim world but very significant within the indigenization of Islam and sub-Saharan, West Africa and in particular the Sene-Gambian region.
The adherence to this order was known as Marabouts or Marie’s and Diop himself was educated in a traditional West African Islamic school. And although his level of practice is not known, there’s no record of him renouncing Islam as a result of his stance. So here we see another contradiction right that although Afrocentrism has this anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim strain at its core the progenitor of their ideas of much of their ideas about Africa and Egypt come from a Muslim. Afro-centrists and the conscious community consistently and hypocritically rely on the contributions of Muslims to frame their ideas.
Now Diop studied Anthropology, Nuclear Physics, Philosophy, Linguistics, Math and Egyptology at the Sorbonne in France, the University in France, the Sorbonne. And in 1954 he registered his thesis where he argued that ancient Egypt had been a black African nation. That its language and culture was identical or shared a great deal with sub-Saharan West Africa. And that ancient Egyptians, their language and culture, had actually spread throughout West Africa. So this was what he was arguing in 54. He received his doctorate in 1960 but before he died he was working on translating Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity into Walla, his native language. So this is Diop. And again although Diop’s work predates what we call Afrocentrism or “black consciousness” his work is paradigmatic in two ways.
One, he argued that there is a shared cultural continuity of African peoples over cultural linguistic religious and ethnic boundaries. And two, that by restoring Egypt to the African context, that this is essential to understanding this shared continuity that Africa has with Egypt and all over and restoring Africa’s dignity. So those two things have been the indelible impact that Job, this West African Muslim, had on Afrocentrism thought.
Now Dio pwas challenging the scientific racism that undergirded Egyptology and anthropology. He defended his thesis in France against one of the most Eurocentric institutions in the world. But he never intended for his research to be used as an attack on the legacy of his people, his tribe, the legacy of Islam in Africa or for ancient Egyptian religion and culture to replace the religious traditions practiced by black people today. This is an adulteration of Diop being a fraud and this led to Afrocentrism being racked with fallacies that have become the source of much contention and rancor.
So when we take those six flaws of Afrocentrism, anachronism, cultural Puritanism, Orientals assumptions, a penchant for discredited theories, unresolved contradictions and a complete lack of method or theory, this is the result of not picking up where Diop, John Henry Clark, Chester Williams and Bin Yochanan left off. So we take the first one.
The main flaw I would say is Afrocentrism and that it’s plagued by anachronisms. Afrocentrism became an anachronistic view of Africa that transposed the pathologies of the Diaspora onto the common history. It used the African-American experience of the new world and racial subjugation as the primary lenses through which to view African history and cultural identity. Now there are several ways that Afrocentrism forces the present onto the past.
Number one, it refracts pan-Africanism into early African society. You can’t do this. You can’t talk about African tribes in the 11th and 14th century as if they were operating within a unified trans-tribal African identity or hold them accountable to Afro centric politics. In the real world of Africa; languages, religions, customs, and ancestors were not interchangeable. They were tribe-specific, they did not equivocate. So whenever they charge you with cultural heresy they are using an aged historical standard of authenticity that has no merit in history or now. Non-Afro centrist makes the same mistake. And I’m sure you’ve heard of them say things like: “Well you know Africans sold their own people into slavery”.
African had tribal wars in which enemy combatants were captured and they were either sold back to their tribe and family or to foreigners but within the African context they were not “selling their own people”. This is refracting present politics on the past where they don’t belong. This aged historical view is also what dictates their understanding of ancient Egypt. That the ancient Egyptians for example— well look, the ancient Egyptians were black but they weren’t Pro black. They were African but they weren’t pan-Africans. They were nationalists but they weren’t black nationalists. I mean the ancient people of Kemet did not regard the other Africans whom they shared the continent with as their kin. So we should not be surprised when we look into the writings of ancient Egyptians and find that they unabashedly advocated the enslavement of Nubians.
I mean they had foot skills with engraved depictions of Nubians for the purpose of walking on them as a gesture of disdain. Now we can say that this was not racially motivated in the modern sense of the word race because again, there’s ample evidence that they and Nubians belong to the same category of Negroes. However, within the traditional African cosmologies, gods and their creations were tribe-centered. The god of one tribe or nation created the people of that tribe and nation only. And so the member of each tribe, it’s not far-fetched to say, might have regarded the members of another tribe as a different race. There was no humanity as one and as a consequence, there were no Africans are one.
This brings us to the second mistake that a lot of Afro centrists commit which ancient Egypt is being made the standard by which they limit their perspective of Africa. They have made Egypt or Kemet, the focal point for understanding the rest of Africa when the rest of Africa did not hold Egypt in the same esteem. Those close enough to Kemet, and even those who shared a kinship such as the Nubian, had an antagonistic relationship. Afrocentrists ignore this fact as they try to use Egypt as the magnifying glass through which to scrutinize the religious and cultural expressions of African American so it’s anachronistic. It’s refracting present-day politics and contemporary views onto the past people who did not have those views or have anything invested in the people in the future of having those views.
The second flaw of Afrocentrism is cultural Puritanism. Traditional African religions, and I put religion in quotations, traditional African religions do not equivocate or translate across tribal boundaries. They are vertically transcendent but they are not laterally transcended. They can, in other words, take you into the cosmos. And many of them, many traditional African religions, when you study them are obsessed with astronomy. The ancient Egyptians are an example of this which the pyramids being sort of centered around the belt of Orion. So they can take you into the cosmos but they cannot take you beyond the village gate. We’re talking about the pre-modern Africa so the Diaspora and religions have not yet been created. But the traditional Africa that Afro centrist used to hold the rest of us accountable, did not recognize members outside of the tribe. African Americans who have been de-tribalized could not have been officially recognized by these religious traditions because they’ve been de-tribalized.
We’ve lost our tribal identities. African religions were local. You belong to the religion because you belong to the tribe or society in which the religion was practiced. So the quote religion could not be separated from the tribe. African-American as I’ve said have thoroughly been racialized. You cannot simplify Africa’s diverse religions that are specific to a tribe and transpose them on to African-Americans who have been detribalized as part of a process of racialization. This is why Afrocentrism and its cultural Puritanism only get play in America and other parts of the Diaspora but not on the continent of Africa. Continental Africans largely reject Afro centrists or the conscious community’s conceptualization of African religion. For the record and I think this is also worth stating: Almost none of those who push this idea of African spirituality or African religion actually observe an African religion or any of these sort of Diasporic religions like voodoo. I think that’s interesting, considering that they keep extolling the virtues of traditional African religions, yet they haven’t practiced them themselves. So anachronism, cultural Puritanism.
The third is that when you read Afro centrist literature and you begin to study the subject of Islam in Africa and traditional African religion you’ll see that they’ve uncritically assimilated orientalist and colonialist driven sources from the 1800’s and early 1900. And they don’t seem aware or maybe they don’t care about the political motives that are inherent in many of these sources. So Afrocentrism and the conscious community is fraught with the assumptions and aims of the European colonialists of the 19th and 20th century. We talked about this in our first discussion.
We talked about Afrocentrism and as kind of being a black Orientalism to use the word that was coined by Allen Missouri. These assumptions have controlled their perspective and rhetoric on Islam and Muslims in particular. And this is what sort of brings us this subject. The Senegalese historian and author, Sylvain Joseph, who wrote the book: Servants of the Law- African Muslims enslaved in the Americas. She shares her observations of Afrocentrism and its treatment of Islam as both an African and an expert. Now she herself is not Muslim but she is African, a Walla, and she writes on page 204: “it is significant that Islam is rarely if ever mention in Studies on or references to African religions. Although after 1,000 years of continuous presence dissemination by the sub-Saharan Africans themselves accommodations to the local cultures and an overall record of voluntary conversion rather than imposition. Islam is still considered a non-African religion by most American scholars. For some to see Islam’s influence on and importance to Africans in both Africa and the new world acknowledged is almost a belittling of what they think are authentic African cultures and African. Islamic influence is wrongly perceived as Arabization and a reflection of the supposed weaknesses of traditional African cultures or of traditional cultures in the face of foreign entities. Interestingly Chinese, Indonesian and Albanian Muslims are not seen as being Arabized only sub-Saharan are viewed as acculturated which seems to indicate that some advocates of African cultures have internalized the anti- African prejudices they are fighting in other setting. In this mindset to celebrate the so-called real Africa or what is perceived as being the real Africa, Islam and the Muslims have to be denied.
The reality is that traditional African religions have usually been favorably disposed towards Islam and the Muslims have taken from them what they deem useful to their own preservation and continuity. however, in the mythical and false reconstruction of African cultures as static, millennial, untouched and uninfluenced except by force, Islam has no place”. This is an African observation of Afrocentrism.
This is the grand contradiction of all Afrocentrism views on Islam. That to accept the Afrocentrist critique of Islam’s authenticity in Africa, you have to devalue traditional African culture and religion. They’ve rejected the view that Islam has been indigenized. But in doing so they validated the academic racism of Europe and the West that has historically portrayed African cultures and religions as static, millennial, untouched and uninfluenced. You with me so far?West Africans embraced Islam voluntarily and then disseminated it themselves and then incorporated it into their cultures and their social and political framework on their own without some foreigner standing over them dictating to them how and what to do. If you reject that, which is supported by the historical records, the only place for you to go then is to see the traditional African religions and cultures that you claim to advocate as being static, millennial, untouched and uninfluenced. That you would thereby necessarily be embracing the Orientalist and the colonialist view of traditional African culture.
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.