“A 700-year phenomenon”: Before Malcolm X lecture series bridges Black, Islamic, and American history

Mustafa Briggs illustrates the historied presence of Black Muslims in the Americas
Mustafa Briggs seeks to challenge popular narratives about Islam in the Americas in his new lecture series. COURTESY OF MAEESHA MAHBUB/U OF T MSA | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED
Mustafa Briggs seeks to challenge popular narratives about Islam in the Americas in his new lecture series. COURTESY OF MAEESHA MAHBUB/U OF T MSA | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED

“When did Islam arrive in the Americas?”

On February 10, UK-based Arabic and international relations scholar Mustafa Briggs asked this question to the Victoria College Chapel audience in framing his new lecture series, Before Malcolm X: The History of Islam in the Americas. This month, Briggs is touring Canada and the United States with the series, in addition to his previous series, Beyond Bilal: Black History in Islam.

Briggs’ presentation dove into the undertold history of Islam in the Western hemisphere. He sought to challenge the popular narrative that Islam began in the Americas in the 1950s and 1960s, during the era of the Nation of Islam and the civil rights movement, with popular figureheads like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

Through his research, which included speaking to U of T graduate alum in West African Islamic history, Abdullah Hakim Quick, he found that the story of Islam in America goes back much further. Muslims, specifically Black ones, have been present in the Americas for hundreds of years.

Briggs pointed to Black Muslim voyagers who, some argue, beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas; enslaved West African figures who “left behind diaries and treatises in perfect Arabic;” and the “Muslim warriors who fought for freedom in South America and The Caribbean before the abolition of slavery.”

The sold-out event was moderated by Imam Yasin Dwyer, and was organized by the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), The Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto, the Somali Students’ Association, Emmanuel College, and the Women’s Circle.

The MSA executive wrote to The Varsity about organizing the event: “We made a conscious decision to celebrate black history month by inviting Mustafa Briggs to give a talk on aspects of African American History that people normally don’t hear about; his presentation allowed us to bridge Black History Month and Islamic history.”

Islam across the Atlantic Ocean: empowerment and resistance

Briggs opened his talk by introducing the theory that there may have been Black Muslim contact — originating from the Mali Empire in West Africa — with the Americas in the fourteenth century, before the arrival of Columbus. He noted that if this theory were true, it made “the presence of Islam here a 700-year old phenomenon.”

He then moved onto the more definite history of the transatlantic slave trade, which enslaved many people from Muslim-majority nations and empires in West Africa. Islam not only underlined the identity of many of these enslaved Africans, but also their resistance.

Discussing how the first slave revolt in the Americas occurred in the Caribbean, Briggs described how, on the island of present-day Haiti, enslaved Wolof Muslims rose up against their Christian enslavers in 1522, over 200 years prior to the famous Haitian revolution of 1791.

Also giving the example of Bahia, Brazil — Briggs noted that South America was a major destination for enslaved Muslim Africans who were empowered and united by the common cultural practices of Islam, which they continued to practice. In 1835, the Muslim population of Bahia took part in the Malê revolt.

Briggs described how, in both the Haitian and Brazilian cases, the authorities “feared that [the enslaved Africans] being Muslim encouraged them to rise against their masters and fight for freedom.” They pursued practices such as forced conversion to Christianity to attempt to control them and “erase the popular memory and affection toward Islam that these people had.”

Briggs also illustrated how the high level of Islamic education that West Africans had received enabled them to pursue remarkable lives, despite their enslavement. He reviewed the famous examples of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, Omar Ibn Said, Yarrow Mamout, and Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori.

“These are just four examples of the stories of thousands and thousands of slaves similar to them, [who] came from families established in learning, and were highly literate and educated individuals,” Briggs remarked.

“These [four] were the first openly practicing Muslims in the USA. So you can see that the history of Islam traces back… hundreds of years.”

The twentieth century: the resurgence of Black Islam

“Many of these enslaved Muslims travelled to [the Americas] and were persecuted and were not allowed to practice their religion,” noted Briggs. The transatlantic slave trade “was built so that people would forget where they come from and who they were. So when they came to America, they were given new names, they were Christianized.”

“But many silently prayed that their descendants would one day be able to return to their religion and join them in practicing Islam,” he continued. In the twentieth century, many of these prayers were answered, according to Briggs.

He described how Islam re-emerged and spread among African-Americans in the 1900s, which included notable examples like Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America in the early part of the century; the Nation of Islam, which led to figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali; and concurrent orthodox Sunni Muslim movements, such as Shaikh Daoud Faisal’s Islamic Mission of America, which opposed the Nation of Islam’s Black separatist stance in favour of integration.

Returning to the title of his presentation, Briggs closed with the importance of making connections between Islam, Blackness, and the Americas across history. “When we speak about Malcolm X, we shouldn’t just see him as an individual,” Briggs stressed.

“We should see him as someone who represents a legacy and a history that interlinks continents, such as Africa and North America, and the Islamic community of West Africa and North America, for a period of over 700 years.”

A search for identity, Christianity versus Islam, and anti-Blackness

When asked about how he gained interest in his scholarship, Briggs reflected on his personal search for his history and identity. He grew up in a Christian Gambian family in the UK, even though most of Gambia and his extended family were Muslim. By contrast, he descended from liberated Africans who had been Christianized.

“When I went back to Gambia, I found out that a lot of my cousins were Muslim. Why were they Muslim, and why were we Christian?” Briggs recalled asking. “This led to me learning about the transatlantic slave trade — about how Islam spread. I felt robbed of the knowledge.” Briggs eventually converted to Islam as a teenager.

When The Varsity asked Briggs to compare the spread of Islam in West Africa and the Christianization of enslaved Africans in the Americas, he pointed to one key distinction: Christianity was used by non-African enslavers to oppress and erase the identities of Africans, while Islam coexisted with, and preserved, West African culture.

“The [West African] leaders converted to Islam, but they didn’t force their people to Islam,” he responded. “In fact, West Africans used Islamic scholarship and the newfound literacy that they had through the Arabic language to preserve their own language, their own culture, and their own religion.”

The Varsity also asked Briggs about the contemporary legacy of anti-Blackness in the Muslim community. “It’s a lived reality that we all know exists, that we’ve all experienced in one way or another,” he responded.

He later discussed how solidarity between Black and non-Black Muslims required tackling the issue of anti-Black racism, and providing Black Muslims with a sense of empowerment and belonging.

Nonetheless, Briggs also expressed some optimism, as his tours suggest that there is interest in addressing anti-Blackness. “I feel with the new generation, things are changing,” he noted. “I never approach [a] university. Universities invite me, because people want to learn and go beyond the horizon.”

The MSA executive wrote to The Varsity: “The MSA recognizes the issue of anti-Blackness within the Muslim community and the effects it has on Black Muslims. It is important to lend our voices to be allies, but not to speak over the experiences of the marginalized, even within our own communities.”

“These prejudices have taken root deeply within all our communities, but it is our collective responsibility to ensure that these prejudices are tackled, regardless of how difficult of a task it may seem.”

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