Chapter 2: Africans in the Atlantic world

بالامس كانوا ملوكا في منازلهم واليوم هم في بلاد الكفر عبدان-ابو البقاء الاندلسي

This review will only look at a few points that arose out of the first two chapters of this book. Firstly it will discuss the perception given by starting the book with slavery, with a discussion focusing on the Muslim kingdoms and empires in Africa as described by scholars such as Al-Umari and others. The next point that will be discussed is slavery, with a comparison between slavery as it exists in Islam versus the Transatlantic version. Another point that will be discussed is racism and its place in stunting slaves and their descendants. Lastly rebellions in South America and the Caribbean, will be discussed. Some sections will, unavoidably, be very long and detailed. However it should be kept in mind that the author has a degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic, having studied for a total of seven years at two different madaaris (pl. of madarash), and will be approaching his review from this angle.

African Kingdoms Vs. African Enslavement
I find it disturbing that the title of the book is From Slavery to Freedom. This puts the focus on slavery and the African, as opposed to the African in Africa, further helping to degrade the black man, painting a picture of inferiority, as though their history starts from chattel slavery and that is the only way they came to the New World. This is a false idea. Long before Columbus’s three ships stumbled across the New World, West African Muslims, as mentioned by Jerald F. Dirks, had already made voyages into the Bahrul Muheet (Atlantic Ocean). In fact, an African named Pedro Alonso Ninos accompanied Columbus on his 1492 voyage. In the 1800’s Muhammad Ali Ibn Said, a West African Muslim who was the ex-slave of a Russian, entered America from Canada and fought in the Civil War. The Kingdom of Mali is described in Masaalikul Absaar Fi Mamamlikul Amsaar as ‘the largest, widest, and greatest of the Muslim kingdoms [in Africa]… incorporating Ghanna, Taranka, Sinna-Ghanna, Banbaco, Zagga…’  So vast was their wealth that Al-Umari describes Mansa Musa’s predecessor as having sent 2, 200 ships filled with people and provisions across the Atlantic Ocean. After the Kingdom of Mali fell, Sonni Ali’s Songhay kingdom rose in its place, stretching from Mossi to Benin and from the Atlantic to Bornu. John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham describe it as the largest and most powerful state in the /history/ of West Africa. These are only two kingdoms in Africa. I would much rather have heard about the greatness of Africa, and then hear about the chattel slavery inflicted on them by Europeans. I think it would give a better balance.

Slavery: The European Model vs Islam

The stark contrast between slavery under Islamic law as opposed to Non-Islamic law is interesting to note. While the transatlantic slave trade did not begin in racism, but a desire to have a work force that was easily recognizable, among other things, the cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of slaves by non-muslims always makes me cringe. I wonder what would make a human treat another human as little more than property with no regard for their feelings, especially when I consider what I know of slavery in Islam. Shaashi, a book on the principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, states that the four sources of law in Islam are the Qur’an (the uncreated speech of Allah revealed to Muhammad (May peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)), Hadith (sayings, actions, approvals and disapprovals of the Prophet (May peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)), Ijma (Scholarly consensus)  and Qiyaas (deductive analogy).  In the fourth chapter of the Qur’an, ayah 36, Allah orders kind treatment to slaves. This ayah is translated as follows: “Worship Allah and do not associate anything with Him, and be good to parents, kinsmen, orphans, the needy, the close neighbor and the distant neighbor, the companion at your side, the wayfarer, and what your right hands possess. Surely, Allah does not like those who are arrogant, proud.”
In Sahih Al-Bukhari, Imam Bukhari (May Allah have mercy on him) mentions the following hadith: “Your brothers, your servants, indeed Allah has put them under your authority, so whoever has his brother under his authority should feed him from what he eats, and clothe him from what he wears. He should not burden him with such things that will overpower him, and if he does so then he should assist him.” One hadith, mentioned in Sunan Ibn Majah, contains the strong wording: “The one who is harsh to his slaves will not enter paradise.” Another hadith, in Sunan Abu Dawud, mentions that the compensation for slapping ones slave is to free them.  The very idea of torturing, castrating, raping, and destroying the family unit goes against everything Islam teaches, and could never be labeled as something condoned by Islam.

Racism: The Stain of Slavery and The Glass Ceiling
Racism eventually had its role to play in the Transatlantic slave trade. The Hamitic hypothesis made the enslavement of Africans, not only a fitting recompense for their progenitor’s alleged actions, but gave them Divine sanction for what they were doing. Viewing Africans/African-Americans as inferior, even after the slaves were freed, we see that material success was/is denied to the African-Americans merely on account of their skin color. Barring a short period right after watching Roots (I was probably about 7 or 8 at the time), I have always had a disgust for racism, whether it be Black on White, or any other form.  This, by no means, is because I am unaware of it. I am keenly aware, probably better than most, since as an African-American Muslim I catch it, as they say, ‘coming and going’. By ‘it’ I  refer to discrimination. This idea of racism falls under the umbrella of meanings included in the Arabic word asabiyyah and is utterly rejected in Islam. Skin color is seen, not as a barrier and means of division, but a sign of the Creator’s unlimited power. A literal translation of the twenty-second ayah of Surah Rum bears this out: ‘And from His signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth, the differences of your languages and colors, indeed in that are signs for the worlds.’ In another place in the Qur’an it is mentioned that we are all created from a man and a woman and were made into tribes and nations so that we might recognize one another. In addition to this, the Arabs themselves varied in colors from light skinned to extremely dark. The first Khalifah, Abu Bakr Abdullah Ibn Abi Quhafah, is described by Imam Suyuti in his book, Tarikhul Khulafa, as fair skinned; the second Khalifah, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, is described as tawny; the fourth Khalifah, Ali, is described as very tawny. The three men who are mentioned were all Arabs born from Arabs, so discrimination on the basis of color would be awfully difficult, even after being forbidden in Islam.  Further, we find that slavery, as it was practiced in Islam was not on the basis of race, meaning no one particular race was singled out, nor did it carry the stigma of the European model. As an example, I will list the names of slaves and former slaves who became highly respected scholars, rulers, poets, and auliyah in Islam: Zaid ibn Harith, Salim, Mugith, Barirah, Umm Ayman, Ataa Ibn Abi Rabah, Habib Ibn Abi Thabit, Makhul Ash-Shaami, Suhaiym, Nusaiyb Ibn Mihjan, Abu Dalamah, and Suhaiyb. Muslim rule of the Iberian penunsila, starting from 711 and lasting until 1492 Christian Era, was started by the invasion of an ex-slave turned general, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, after whom the Straits of Gibraltar are named.  As John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham correctly points out on page ten: ‘…slaves where viewed as inhabiting a temporary state of legal exclusion and as having the same spiritual value as a freeborn person. Muslim slaves were allowed to marry, to have a family, and independent income, and to purchase their freedom…’

Injustice and Revolts
This is not the first time I have heard about the revolts in the Caribbean and South America. Last summer I was reading Dr. Jerald F. Dirk’s book Muslims In America: A forgotten legacy. The author had noted that a lot of the slaves who were brought over were traveling scholars, and soldiers, the latter increasing the likelihood of revolt. I would have liked to hear about the Europeans of Hispaniola who requested slaves who could work with livestock, and ended up with a revolt from the calvary soldiers brought to them as slaves from the Muslim kingdoms of West Africa; the Haitian slave revolts by enslaved Wolof; the revolutionary leader Macandal; the revolt by Hausa and Naga slaves in Bahia, Brazil. All of these help fight the notion, probably springing from the plantation myth, that the slaves brought over to the New World accepted their plight without any fuss. In fact, I don’t doubt that a whole book could be written on the subject, and I believe it would do much to combat the idea still being expounded (just watch Django) that Africans willingly accepted the foot on their neck, as though they were not human enough to fight back. I mean, look at the American colonists who shook off British rule. I doubt they were  being oppressed  as much as the African slaves brought across the Atlantic were, and they were willing to lay down their lives to rid themselves of that particular tyranny. Am I to believe that the Africans brought here, some of whom are a part of my family tree, were somehow inferior to those colonists? As the poet, Abu Baqaa said: ألا نفوس أبيات لها همم?


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