(How the Black Conscious Community Got Islam Wrong is pulled from excerpts of Black Dawah Network Podcast by Professor Shareef Muhammad titled “How the White Power Structure Duped Afrocentrist Against Islam?“)
It was inevitable that Afro-centrist historians in the mid-1900s though claiming to correct Eurocentric narratives about the world would encounter Orientalist writings and lean on them uncritically without taking into account how the power struggle between the Muslim world and Europe colored these writings.
Orientalism is the representation of Asia and the Middle East in a stereotypical way that embodies the colonialist attitude. It was a field that has an artistic side to it, in terms of paintings but it also was a field that was dedicated to studying Asia, in particular, Arabs in Islam. And it appeared around the late 1700s on through to the 1800 and it is an outgrowth of the East India Company. Which was this joint stock company. A joint stock company, it was the first example of a modern corporation. This joint stock company, East India Company, sort of the first corporation in the world and the first European intrusion on the sovereignty of the so-called Middle East. And it swept the ground for the British colonization of India.
And so, the first orientalist scholars were British officials of this company. And while they asserted that they intended to study the culture and religions and languages of the region objectively, the reality is that their scholarship always had a political agenda. And it was written, they wrote on these subjects in such a way that supported their subjugation later on. Portraying them as inferior, as in need of being reconciled with the progress that is happening in the world, i.e. British values etc. I mean, and their opposition or their gripe with Islam would necessarily be reflected in their writings. Because the major obstacle to the objectives of Britain and India was the Mughal Empire which was the last Muslim dynasty of India.
And as the Mughal Empire Empire declined, the East India Company, i.e. Britain became more aggressive and influential over the region. So let’s not forget that the Age of Exploration was in part the desire to regain Asian territories that were lost with the expansion of Islam. And access to new territories like West African gold, which belonged to the Muslim realm of Mali and Songhai.
So from the beginning there were political motives in this scholarship. And you can read people like Gramsci and Foucault who theorized the relationship between knowledge and power and how it’s exhibited in the way in which language is used. Even by the marginalized who are challenging the power structure, they often reinforce the basic logic of the power system in which everyone is functioning. This is the case with Afrocentricity. That it was inevitable that Afro-centrists would come to rely on these writings. And in doing so, they would end up reflecting the colonialist mentality towards Islam that they claimed to be trying to reject and undermine with regarding Africa.
So what are some of the ways that Orientalism functions with a Eurocentric logic? I would identify three ways that Afro-centrism functions with a Eurocentric logic. Briefly, the first is the belief that sophisticated architecture and literacy, what I call temples and tablets, are the only markers of civilization. And so this has caused them to have a tunnel vision that focuses exclusively on Egypt and ignores the rest of Africa’s genius, as you pointed out. I mean, how many people know that the man who the European is credited with the computer age; that he was inspired, his binary code revealed, was inspired by the divination scale of the Congo.
That African fractal helped influence the way in which the technological age would sort of model itself. But everybody’s so focused on Egypt. There’s a wonderful lecture given by a mathematician, Ron Eglash – where he’s talking about the African origin, the modern African origin, of the computer age. But no one knows this because everybody’s so focused on Egypt.
What they’re alleging is that Africans, ancient Africans, dealt with spirituality and outsiders, Arabs and Europeans, introduced something called religion. This would be a very strange thing to say to our ancestors several centuries ago who would have no idea; A, what you’re talking about and B, what this has to do with anything.
Afro-centrist do not even have a working definition of the word religion, first of all, which we can make sense of how they’re applying it. But if we take the word religion to generally refer to a system of rites, rituals, taboos, doctrine, cosmology, and sacrifices that all reinforce an idea about the spiritual aspect of existence. Then the historical reality is that Africans have always practiced spirituality in connection with the aforementioned. That religion was the conveyor of spirituality and its purpose was to reinforce one’s relationship with the tribe, the land of the tribe, and the spirit world.
And so this mantra we often hear ‘I’m spiritual not religious’ is not an African concept at all. But it has its origin in what we call the Theosophical movement of Hellena Blavatsky, who was a Russian occultist. And this whole movement, known as spiritualism, all of this started when people who worked with the East India Company, began translating religious texts from Sanskrit in India into European languages. And that sparked an interest in spiritual concepts outside of Christianity. This, of course, took them into ancient Egypt. They became very obsessed with the idea of magic and having power over the material world.
And so the occultism of Aleister Crowley was a result of these efforts. So theosophy, theology and philosophy, which concentrates on the esoteric concepts of world religion. Hellena Blavatsky states that the goal is to replace these world religions with this spiritualist point of view. So the dichotomy of religion versus spirituality is a purely Orientalist and modern concept, it’s not ancient African at all. And yet it’s something that Afro-centrist has assimilated into they’re sort of talking for.
Now the third and last thing, which is how Afro-centrism functions with a European logic and this is what is most problematic about the contras enterprise and it’s the subject of what we’ve been talking about here today or is their ideas on this level. I mean, Afro-centrist, conscious community, assert that Islam is the usurper of native Africa. And they argue that it was foreign, it’s sort of a foreign pathogen that undermined the cultural and racial purity of Africa and African people. And according to them, the Muslims destroyed and occupy native Egypt, completely undermine indigenous African culture wherever they went. That the Arabs were the first to exploit Africans and the Arab slave trade was equal, if not worse, than the transatlantic slave trade. Making Islam just as culpable in the destruction of African civilization.
And as we’ve been talking about that is completely false, it is beyond an exaggeration. It’s found nowhere in the literature, it’s not anywhere in the literature that would justify it. It is a byproduct of leaning on these orientalists anti-Muslim sources that were created or written to justify the subjugation of Muslim lands in which Islam was the primary opponent against. They did it. The orientalist got Islam wrong and so Afro-centrist, who borrow from Orientalism, are getting Islam wrong.
Islam entered sub-Saharan West Africa by way of merchants via the Trans-Saharan Trade. These Berber merchants attracted West African merchants who converted. The kings converted and then other elites, those under and around him followed suit. The Arabs did not conquer and colonize the Sub-Sahara. The Arab slave trade involved mostly Eastern European slaves not Africans.Black Africa was never conquered by the Arabs. I repeat: Black Africa was never conquered by the Arabs. The sovereignty of black Africa was untouched with the spread of Islam which was an indigenous affair. There was no conquest of sub-Saharan West Africa by Arabs and the Arabs certainly did not have free range to go around slave raiding.
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.