Monday, February 22, 2010

African American History is Muslim History, Too

Black History Month is celebrated in February, and it is a time to honor the numerous contributions that people of African ancestry have made, and continue to make, for the advancement of society.

But Black history is also the history of Islam in North America.

Over the last decade, I have had the privilege of addressing a number of audiences throughout the United States about the significant presence of Muslims in the tapestry of American history. However, that presence did not begin, as many people believe, with the trans-Atlantic slave trade: Muslim navigators piloted two of the three ships than carried the explorer Christopher Columbus to the "New" (for Europeans, at least) world in 1492.

But African Muslims were here before that. In fact, long before that. In his seminal book "They Came Before Columbus", the late historian Dr. Ivan Van Sertima presented conclusive evidence that proved the presence of African Muslims in the Americas more than a century before the Columbus voyage. There is evidence that, in the year 1310 of the Common Era, some 200 trans-oceanic vessels left the Muslim Empire of Mali and landed in what is now Mexico. Archeological evidence, including statues and other artifacts, indicates that these African Muslim visitors came in peace, and established peaceful trading relationships with the indigenous peoples living in the Western Hemisphere.

More recently in the United States ( as well as in the Caribbean and Central and South America), enslaved African Muslims (estimated to be some 20% of those kidnapped from the Continent) landed in the West, where the barbaric conditions of chattel slavery made the practice of Islam extremely difficult. But again, there are historical narratives that chronicle the existence of individual Africans and even small communities that continued to adhere to Islamic practices. Some of them, like the legendary Prince Abdul Rahman who was captured in West Africa and transported to America in 1788, were highly educated and literate people who could read and write the Arabic language (among others), and recite the Holy Qur'an from memory. Through great intelligence and perseverance, some actually won their freedom from captivity.

My dear friend Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, mentioned these facts in his Kutba of February 19th, two days before the commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the martyrdom of perhaps America's most renown Muslim activist and freedom fighter, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz-better known to many throughout the world as Malcolm X.

The depth and richness of Black history could never be captured in a brief essay. But I do hope that many Muslims in America, including those from the Arab and South Asian nations, might take some time to explore the rich confluence of Islam and the presence of Black people in America.

Every day-and not just the month of February-should be a time to realize that the Muslim identity in this part of the world is not only indigenous, but older than the foundation of the nation itself.

Ibrahim Ramey

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