London, England – 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 slavery.
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,” he says.
“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.”
When non-black Muslims refer 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.
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 community.
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 refer 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 Abysinnia 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 Bilal”.
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 life.”
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.
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.
“Hip-hop is intrinsically black music. When you look at its genesis, it goes back to West Africa and the tradition of storytellers.
“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.”
Black and Muslim in Britain, a five-part online video series released last year, celebrated the intersection between blackness and Islam.
Spoken word poet and teacher, Mohamed Mohamed, who was part of the production team, wanted to instil confidence in black British Muslims.
“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.”
Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are products and part of a centuries old black radical tradition. They are not cuddly black mascots for preaching, or tools for proselytism to quietist interpretations of Islam.
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 persist.
“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.”