Marsha Stewart.
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Revised: April 10, 2004 12:06 AM -0400

African' Contributions to the Rise of Islam

By Adib Rashad ( )


Since the beginning of the revelation of the Qu'ran that inspired and motivated Prophet Muhammad in 670 C. E., Africans have been pivotal figures in the development of Islam. Never in the history of Islam were Africans severed or dissociated from its glorious advent.Washington Irving , in his book, Life of Mohamet, and Abu Uthman Amr Ibn Bahr Al-Jahiz, in his The Book of The Glory of The Black Race, state that Prophet Muhammad was reared by Barakah, an African woman, after the Prophet's mother died. D. S. Margoliouth, in his Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, and Al-Jahiz say of the sons of Abd Al-Muttalib, Prophet Muhammad's grandfather, that All ten sons were of massive build and dark colour.The earliest converts and disciples of Prophet Muhammad were Africans, including Zayd bin Harith, the Prophet's adopted son and one of his generals. Another pioneer noted in Islamic history was Abu Talib, uncle of the Prophet and father of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph. Al-Jahiz writes the following: The family of Abu Talib were the most noble of men, and they were Black with Black skins.Dr. Akbar Muhammad, noted Islamic scholar, and son of the late leader of the Nation of Islam, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, informs us that not only were the Prophet's ancestors (members of the Quraish tribe as well) of African descent, but many Africans were among his earliest followers, among them Barakah Um Ayman, the wetnurse of the Prophet, whom he called my mother after my mother, and Mitjar the first martyr at the Battle of Badr. Two of the Prophet's wives were Africans, Umm Habiba and Maryam, an Egyptian Copt. A number of Africans who were companions of the Prophet and participated notably in the earliest advancement of Islam were slaves freed Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. Examples are Umm Ayman, Zinnira, and Abu Anjashah al-Habashi, a former slave who became the trusting caretaker of the Prophet's family.In the year 615 C. E., the Muslims were experiencing such severe persecution that the Prophet commanded a small group to flee from Mecca. He advised them to seek refuge in Abyssinia ( Ethiopia ), with the Christian king, al-Najashi; this migration is known as the first Hijra, or flight. This is a strong testament to the respect Africans had for Islam and the admiration and respect the Muslims had for Africans.

The African king protected the Muslims and eventually accepted Islam; he later sent a delegation, which included his son, to study under the Prophet in Medina.Another African was Wahshi, the assassin of Hamzah, paternal uncle of the Prophet. Very few studies mention the fact that after Wahshi was freed and received numerous rewards for his dastardly deed, including Hind's hand in marriage, she commissioned Wahshi to assassinate Hamzah, he continued to reside in Mecca . Most importantly, years later he embraced Islam, and the Prophet pardoned him for his crime.After the death of Prophet Muhammad, a large number of Muslims perished in a war with an enemy of Islam, Musaylimah of Najd. Wahshi succeeded in killing Musaylimah, and felt vindicated. He is reported to have said: I had killed one of the best Muslims, Hamzah; now for killing one of the worst enemies of God, God will perhaps pardon me for my former crime. Later, Wahshi participated in the wars against the Byzantine empire; he settled in Syria, where he died at an advanced age.The most celebrated African in Islamic history was/is Bilal Ibn Rabah, the first caller to prayer (Mu'adhdhin) and treasurer of the early Islamic State. He was an Abyssinian slave in bondage to a cruel master who mistreated him for accepting Islam. He became an early follower of Prophet Muhammad in Mecca . Abu Bakr, saw Bilal being mistreated and freed him.When the Muslims entered Mecca in triumph, in the year 9 A. H./630 C. E., Bilal made the call to prayer from the top of the Ka'bah. Bilal remained a trusted companion of the Prophet and of the caliphs. He eventually traveled to Syria where became governor, he is said to be buried there.Early Africans were known narrators and teachers of Hadith. Even non-Muslim Africans contributed to the culture of Islam. For example, there was the poet Antar, who was an Ethiopic Arabian, so dark that his nickname was Gharab (the crow).J. A. Rogers, in his World's Great Men of Color, Volume One and Dr. Carter G. Woodson's African Heroes and Heroines, point out that Antar accomplished great feats as a warrior and poet in pre-Islamic Arabia.

One of Antar's poems was accorded the highest honor possible for an African-Arabian writer. Antar's works hangs among the seven poems at the entrance of the Mosque at Mecca . This collection of seven poems, known as the Muallakat, is cherished by Muslims around the world.Dhul Nun was a great ninth century C. E. philosopher/mystic. A Nubian who was born a slave, he nevertheless became one of the finest scholars of his day, noted throughout the Islamic world for his wisdom and accomplishments in such diverse fields as law, alchemy, and Egyptian history and hieroglyphics. Among Sufis, he is considered one of the greater mystics. Dr. Muhammad argues quite persuasively that religious scripture has not eradicated ethnocentrism; therefore, after the death of the Prophet, scripes and scriptural translators infused their biases into their translations. Thus racism and the willful neglect of other people's contributions to the broad multicultural significance of Islam are still quite prevalent. These biases hold firm insofar as African Muslims and their contributions to Islam are concerned. According to Dr. Muhammad, the root words denoting Blackness occur ten times in the Qu'ran; three times they have the meaning of Lordship (Al-Siyadah). Blackness, referring to darkness or cloudiness, occurs five times as a description of a spiritual condition or state rather than an inherent characteristic or color of countenance. The two remaining words refer to the landscape and nightfall. Hence, there is no negative connotation to Black as a color, or to Africans as a people, in the Holy Qu'ran (or the Bible for that matter).

A similar view is stated by Idris Shah:The Kaaba (cubic temple, Holy of Holiest) in Mecca is draped in Black, esoterically interpreted as a play on words of the FHM sound in Arabic, alternatively meaning Black or Wise, understanding. The word sayed (prince) is connected with another root for Black, the SWD root. The original banner of the Prophet Mohammed was Black, collectively standing for wisdom, lordship.By 690,the Muslims were firmly established in Egypt and Tunisia , ready to advance onto the Iberian Peninsula . The so-called Berbers, who initially offered considerable resistance to the advancing Muslim armies, eventually became great advocates and propagators of Islam. They successfully crossed into Europe in 713,under Berber/Moorish general Tariq Ibn Ziyad, from whose name the word Gibraltar is derived (Jabil Tariq, the mountain of Tariq ). The advance into Europe did not stop until 732,when Charles Martel defeated the Muslim forces at the battle of Poitiers ( Tours ), in France.Most of us are not aware that the peoples whom the classical Greek and Roman historians called Berber were Black and affiliated with the then contemporary peoples of East African areas. The word Berber in fact was used to refer to peoples of the Red Sea area in Africa as well as North Africa...It was such populations that in large measure comprised the Moorish people, but because of the attribute of Blackness which sharply distinguished them from the bulk of the European people, the word came to be generally used by Europeans to describe persons of Black complexion in general.The word Moor was used for people basically Berber in origin but then came to include, during the Islamic period, the early Arabians. Both of these populations belonged to a physical type or types of men commonly referred to by early scholars as Hamitic, brown or brown Mediterranean .

Throughout the Middle Ages and previous to the Atlantic slave trade other men of Black or nearly Black pigmentation, particularly Muslim, came to be commonly referred to as Moors.(See Ivan Van Sertima's The Golden Age of the Moors, p. 143)The Moorish contributions to European civilization have been documented by numerous historians and is not disputed. The Moors were considered the light of Europe during the Dark Ages which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire . Moorish Spain became the academic source and foundation for the rise and success of Western European universities in the Middle Ages. Stanley Lane Pool provides the following description:Cordova was the wonderful city of the tenth century; the streets were well paved and there were raised sidewalks for pedestrians. At night one could walk for ten miles by light of lamps, flanked by uninterrupted extent of buildings. All this was hundreds of years before there was a paved street in Paris or a street lamp in London . Its public baths numbered into the hundreds, when bathing in the rest of Europe was frowned upon as a diabolical custom, avoided by all good Christians. Moorish monarchs dwelt in sumptuous palaces, while the crowned heads in England , France and Germany lived in big barns, lacking both windows and chimneys and with only a hole in the roof for the exit of smoke. Education was universal in Moslem Spain, being given to the most humble, while in Christian Europe 99 percent of the populace was illiterate, and even kings could neither read nor write. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, public libraries in Christian Europe were conspicuous by their absence, while Moslem Spain could boast of more than seventy, of which the one in Cordova housed 600,000 manuscripts.

Christian Europe contained only two universities of any consequence, while in Spain there were seventeen outstanding universities. The finest were those located in Almeria , Cordova, Granada , Jaen , Malaga , Serville, and Toledo . Scientific progress in astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, and philology in Moslem Spain reached a high level of development. Scholars and artists formed associations to promote their particular studies, and scientific congresses were organized to promote research and facilitate the spread of knowledge.As mentioned earlier, the Berbers/Moors of North Africa initially resisted Islam and fought the Muslim armies before they accepted the religion and became its most ardent caliphs, generals and scholars. By contrast, the flow of Islam into Sub-Sahara Africa took a completely different form.Inner Africa experienced no Arab conquests and Islam was to spread through the peaceful work of African itinerant traders and peripatetic local Ulama (teachers and scholars). Islam filtered across the Sahara into West Africa through the agency of Islamized Berber/Moorish traders who frequented Bilad Ed-Sudan (Lands of the Blacks). Their first converts were their West African counterparts, the Mande traders known as the Djula, and court officials. A class of local Ulama (also known as Marabouts) emerged and towns such as Timbuktu , Jenne and Walata became renowned centers of Islamic studies. In the eighteenth century, the Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhood became one of the most important agents of Islamization in the area... On the other hand, the seeds of Islam were sown in the Horn of Africa and the East African Coast by Arab migrants and traders from Southern Arabia (many of these Arabs were dark in complexion). In time, a cadre of Ulama of local origin also emerged in these areas.

These Ulama opened schools that produced scores of teachers who in turn opened Quranic schools in their localities.Ghana was the first great kingdoms to emerge in western Africa after the spread of Islam. This kingdom reached its height about 1000 C. E., when it covered parts of what are now Mali and Mauritania.By the beginning of the tenth century the Muslim influence from the East was present. Kumbi Saleh (the city) had a native and an Arab section, and the people were gradually adopting the religion of Islam. The prosperity that came in the wake of Arabian infiltration increased the power of Ghana , and its influence was extended in all directions. In the eleventh century, when the king had become a Muslim, Ghana could boast of a large army and a lucrative trade across the desert. From Muslim countries came wheat, fruit, and sugar. From across the desert came caravans laden with textiles, brass, pearls, and salt. Ghana exchanged ivory, slaves, and gold from Bambuhu for these commodities.Among fourteenth century Africans, none is more renowned than Mansa Musa (1312-37), the great leader of the Mali Empire. In 1324 C. E., he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca in such a fashion that his fame was proclaimed from Andalusia to Khurasan, and the names of Mansa Musa and Mali made their appearance on fourteenth century maps.

During the fifteenth century, the Songhai Empire, founded by Sunni Ali Ber, spread forth from the capital city of Goa, on the Niger River, 200 miles south of Timbuktu. This Muslim civilization is acknowledged by historians as one of the greatest in history.During the fifteenth century, in East Africa , the majority of Sudanese Muslims became linked through their religious leaders (Imams), with either the Qadiriyya or Tijaniyya Sufi order. The propagation of Islam in Africa cannot be understood without considering this attachment of the leaders to one or another of these orders. The Tariqas (another Sufi order) in the Sudan operated on two different levels: among Muslims, they sought converts to Sufism, while among non-Muslims, they sought converts to Islam. Despite their spiritual roots, they had a profound impact on the social, political, and economic life in the area.During the late 1440s and 1500s, Europeans began to establish trading posts in Africa . While the spread of Christianity motivated sincere Christians to establish numerous missions, gold and slaves eventually became the primary interest of the Europeans interlopers.Ironically, the more that non-Muslim Africans saw of Europeans, the more they gravitated to Islam. In the early days of European control there were few Muslims in the coastal towns. Today none are without their Muslim quarter.

The population of Lagos , for instance, is about 50 percent Muslim; in Dakar the proportion of Muslims is steadily increasing. In Sierra Leone Colony in 1891 Muslims formed 10 percent, in 1931 they numbered 25,350 out of 95,558 or 26.2 percent....During the eighteenth century, Islamic militancy increased as the European presence became more pervasive.Unjust rule, heavy uncanonical taxation, bida or innovations foreign to Islam, immoral practices, mixing Islam with traditional customs and subordination of Muslims to non-Islamic rule prevailed throughout the region. Above all, European invaders, the infidels, identified as the terrible Gog and Magog, were thrusting dagger deep in the heart of Muslim Africa. The Dajjals were everywhere in the area in the form of despotic and corrupt rulers.The conditions were ripe for revolution. The West African Jihadists capitalized on them. Usman Dan Fodio founded a theocratic state in Northern Nigeria; Seku Ahmadu established the Hamadullah Calphate in Masina (republic of Mali); and Al-Hajj Umar Tall carved out an Islamic Empire in the Senegambia.During the nineteenth century, resistance by African Muslims to European occupation was relentless. The Mahdi of Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad (1848-85) led a remarkable holy war against the British; his forces defeated General Gordon and took over Khartoum in 1885. Muhammad Abdullah Hasan, the Mahdi of Somalia, fought the forces of occupation from 1889 until he died of influenza in 1920. Mahdist uprisings against European encroachment were so frequent in other parts of Africa that, writing on Nigeria in 1906,Lord Lugard stated, I do not think a year has passed since 1900 without one or more Mahdist movement.Ahmadu Bamba (1850-1927) founded the Murid brotherhood in 1886.

It was/is a branch of the Qadiriyya Sufi Order and it attracted oppressed Africans that were uprooted by the French occupation of Senegal . Bamba's followers make their Hajj not to Mecca , but in Touba, where Bamba is buried.*=====Adib Rashad ( is an education consultant, educationprogram director, author, and historian. He has lived and taught inWest Africa and South East Asia.*