By Aina Khan
22 Jun 2018
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was a writer,
intellectual and abolitionist from a distinguished family in Senegal kidnapped
from The Gambia in 1731 and transported to the US where he was forced into
It was in London, two years later, where
his intellect garnered attention, subsequently securing his freedom.
In a portrait by William Hoare, he is
painted not as a subservient inferior, but as a respected equal with a soft but
unflinching gaze. The red book hanging around his neck is a Quran written in
his own hand. Diallo was a devout Muslim.
Black Muslims were part of the British
landscape long before South Asian migrants - who comprise the largest group in
the Islamic community - arrived in the 1960s, from the Moors of North Africa
who came to Elizabethan England to even Shakespeare's Othello.
Blackness is inextricably linked to Islam.
But racism within the Muslim community has seen the centrality of blackness
eroded over the centuries.
Mustafa Briggs, 23 years old and a master's
student, delivers workshops and lectures on black intellectual traditions
rooted in Islam and the history of Islam in West Africa to university students
across the UK.
"Islam is part and parcel of African
history and it has been for over a thousand years. In today's society, Prophet
Ibrahim's wife Hajar, who was Egyptian, would have been considered black,"
"The rites and pilgrimages we have in
Islam in terms of Hajj (pilgrimage) were built by the participation and the
efforts of a black African woman. Before Islam was accepted in Saudi Arabia or
any Arab societies, Islam was first established in Africa. The first [journey]
was to Abyssinia, where Muslims established the first community where they
could practice Islam freely."
Bilal ibn Rabah, a black Arab and companion
of the Prophet Muhammad, was known as a freed slave who became the first
muezzin - the caller to prayer.
Few know him as the man who was later to
become governor of Syria.
His name is often invoked as an example of
black excellence and a vindication of any anti-black racism in the early Muslim
However, the narrative of Bilal perpetually
bound to the shadow of slavery is problematic, says British-Nigerian writer and
historian Habeeb Akande.
"When non-black Muslims refers to the
contribution of black people in Islam, they speak about servitude, of lowly
figures who rose out of their abject poverty to become 'honourable' Muslims.
It's almost a back-handed compliment," he says.
"With Bilal, they speak about how he
was a slave, but they don't speak about how he was the governor of Syria. Yes,
there were black people who were enslaved, but there were also black people who
were kings like Najashi, the king of Abyssinia who converted to Islam at the
time of the Prophet Muhammad."
Briggs finds the slavery narrative so frustrating
that he is preparing a lecture series for Black History Month called “Beyond
Black Muslim women are also absent from
history books, says Akande.
"If you look at the story of Malcolm
X, very few people know the story of his sister, Ella Collins. She was a
businesswoman, she was educated. Not only did she convert to Sunni Islam before
he did, she funded Malcolm X's Hajj pilgrimage. Women are often defined as the
wife or the mother of so and so. Ella wasn't defined by her marriages even though
she divorced three times. In his autobiography, Malcolm X says it wasn't that
she was too strong, it was that the men who were too weak," he says.
"Malcolm X attributed the way he
thought and his charisma to his sister Ella. She is the one who instilled black
pride in him from a young age, but you only ever hear of Elijah Muhammad and
the Nation of Islam, again all men, having a significant impact on his
Discrimination is prohibited within Islam,
and while it is widely believed to be an inherited legacy of colonialism,
Akande says this is an excuse because racism within the non-black Muslim
community predates colonialism.
"A lot of non-black Muslims talk about
how anti-blackness wasn't an issue in communities before Western imperialism,
without realising this has been an issue for hundreds of years. In the 9th
century, a number of Muslims moving from Medina to Baghdad enslaved East
Africans. There was a revolt because of the way these slaves were being treated
by Arab slave masters. This was known as the Zanj rebellion, the largest slave
revolt within the Middle East lasting for 14 years.
"Around the tenth century, in a number
of Arabic speaking Muslim countries, the word abd (slave) started to be used
solely for black people, irrespective of whether they were enslaved or not.
White people who were enslaved were referred to as Mamluk. Even though
both were enslaved, Mamluk were seen as better than abd."
Modern Black Muslims
Britain's modern black Muslim communities,
a diverse group of African Muslims and converts from Caribbean backgrounds,
comprise 10.1 percent of the Muslim population.
For Tanya Muneera Williams, one half of
British-Muslim hip-hop duo Poetic Pilgrimage, a large part of her struggle as a
female Black Muslim hip-hop artist is defined by justifying her genre of music.
"Hip-hop is intrinsically black music.
When you look at its genesis, it goes back to West Africa and the tradition of
"But there's this idea within some
non-black Muslim communities that anything that comes from black culture is
inherently bad or evil, almost like our particular form of music is not
acceptable among Muslims. For some people, it's not that music is Haram
(prohibited) - although I can understand people who think that, it's that they
don't like the culture it comes from."
"In Black History Month, there was
never the space for black Muslims to intersect their faith with their
blackness," he says. "I'd go to the Afro-Caribbean society [at
university] and they would celebrate people like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali,
and I thought, hold on, why isn't the Islamic society not also doing this or at
least not collaborating? The black people that were being celebrated were people
of faith who were very vocal about it, so it was like part of their identity
was being sidelined.
"When Muhammad Ali passed away,
everyone said he 'transcended race and religion', but race was at the core of
his message. It's what made him so famous and controversial for some, for being
so open about his black identity and how Islam changed his life."
According to Michael Mumisa, a scholar at
Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, some non-Black Muslims sanitise the
radical black traditions Malcolm X and Ali sprung from.
"Since non-black British Muslims do
not have a radical intellectual tradition against racism, they have had to
appropriate the existing black intellectual tradition in order to address the
problems they now face in what is still a racist society. Famous Black Muslim
figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali become their access point to black
social and political activism. At the same time, they are uncomfortable with
the black radicalism of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali," he says.
"Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are
products and part of a centuries old black radical tradition. They are not
cuddly black mascots for Da’wah (preaching), or tools for proselytism to
quietist interpretations of Islam. They are black radical Muslims who spent all
their lives fighting against the same anti-black racism that is deeply rooted
in many non-black Muslim communities."
For Williams, unless mosque communities
redress the deafening silence over issues which effect black Muslims - such as
police brutality or the modern slave-trade in Libya - and until Muslim
organisations move beyond tokenism of including black Muslims solely for
conversations centring on race, anti-black racism in the Muslim community will
"We have to have a generation of
people who are brave enough to speak to their elders about anti-black racism,
but then this isn't something that is just happening among the older
generation, this is something that is happening with everyone. If black people
are being brought in to talk about black experiences, then you're not
normalising black people among non-black Muslims.
"They need to find people to speak
about everything, about youth problems and gender. Until we become normalised
and we're not this special example to talk only about racism, I think there
will always be a problem."
Aina J Khan focuses on race, faith and identity. She's reading a masters
in religion in politics at SOAS.