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An essential reading list on Black Muslim history

An essential reading list on Black Muslim history
6 min read
18 June, 2020
Book Club: Aisha Yusuff recommends ten books to understand the legacy and contribution of Black Muslims to Islamic history.
Explore the rich history of Black Muslims in these ten books. [Getty]
As worldwide anti-racism protests grow following the police killing of George Floyd in the United States, Black Muslims have begun a process of introspection on issues of discrimination within the wider Islamic world.

Although Islam condemned racism some 1,400 years ago, the painful reality for Black Muslims around the world is that prejudice is still very much rampant within their faith communities.

To effectively address anti-Black racism, it is vital to understand the legacy and contribution of Black Muslims throughout Islamic history and in the contemporary world.

While not an exhaustive list on the role of Black Muslims and Africans in Islam, these books are a good place to start.

1. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf

Although many assumed that most enslaved Africans adopted the Christian faith of the Americas, Sylviane Diouf in Servants of Allah managed to prove that even while enslaved, many African Muslims held on to most of the precepts of their religion and even drew conviction from their faith as they carried out successful slave uprisings.

Servants of Allah presents a history of African Muslims from West Africa to the Americas - which are today home to Muslim communities from various backgrounds.

2. Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma'u, 1793-1864 by Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack

Nana Asma'u was a princess, prolific Muslim scholar, poet, historian, and educator from present-day Northern Nigeria and her legacy is still very much alive in Nigeria and America.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, Nana Asma'u set up a system of educating women in the Sokoto caliphate.

The Jaji system managed to survive the traumas of colonialism in West Africa, as well as the formation of the Nigerian state, but more importantly this system has been adopted in other places like the United States.

Educating Muslim Women is an account of Nana Asma'u's education and critical junctures in her life, as well as her own firsthand experiences as preserved in writings by her descendants. 

3. Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America by Dennis Herrick 

Esteban was a Moroccan slave who was one of the only four survivors of the Narváez expedition in 1527. Although 16th-century Spanish historians sought to erase his legacy by only citing him in one sentence in the expedition account, he is posited to be the first (Black) African to explore America.

In this biography, Dennis Herrick shines a light on Esteban in an attempt to place this remarkable man in his rightful place in history.

Bonus: In 2015, Moroccan writer Laila Lalami published a fictional account titled The Moor's Account that was based on the life of Esteban. According to this book, Esteban was originally named Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori.

4. Living Knowledge in West African Islam: The Sufi Community of Ibrahim Niasse by Zachary Valentine Wright 

Ibrahim Niasse's establishment of the Tijaniyya Sufi order in West Africa is arguably one of the most successful Islamic revivals of the 20th century.

His millions of followers across Africa and the world gave specific attention to the widespread transmission of the experiential knowledge of God (Ma'rifa).

Living Knowledge in West African Islam sheds light on the actualisation of religious identity for this community of followers. 

5. Illuminating the Blackness: Blacks and African Muslims in Brazil by Habeeb Akande

Because of its numerous historical encounters with Black African Muslims, either through slavery or trade, Brazil has a vibrant African Muslim heritage.

In Illuminating the Blackness, Akande explores the issues of race, anti-Black racism, colourism and white supremacy in present-day Brazil.

The popular slave revolts in Bahia and West African Muslim communities, as well as the increasing rate of conversion to Islam amongst Brazilians of African descent, are also explored at length in this book.

6. The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa by Rudolph T. Ware III

Today, many non-African Muslims and non-Muslims alike find the methods West Africans use to teach the Quran confusing. Through various research and analysis, Rudolph Ware documents the significance of Quran schools for West African Muslim communities and how Muslim identity became a prominent tool for the African resistance during the slave trade and colonialism.

With an emphasis on Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, Ware introduces these thousand-year-old methods from the perspective of the practitioners.

7. Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam by Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim 

Since the public figures for the Nation of Islam have usually been male, the movement appears to be male-centric and women's crucial contributions to its public image have long been overlooked.

Using oral histories and interviews of some 100 women who belong to the NOI and the offshoot Sunni Islam, under Imam W.D. Mohammed, authors Gibson and Karim examine how women traverse and construe the NOI's gender ideologies and practices.

Women of the Nation offers the first comprehensive analysis of women's experiences within the NOI and the Sunni Islam community under Imam W.D Mohammed. 

8. Musa: Mansa of Mali: The Extended Version by Amir Webb

A quick google search of Mansa Musa will reveal that he was as wealthy as they came, even wealthier than the wealthiest man today.

He was a devout Muslim and his pilgrimage to Mecca is widely known largely because of the innumerable gold, silk, and horses that accompanied him and how generously he distributed these items in places he passed through.

This book, a fictional account of Mansa Musa's life, follows Isa, a childhood friend of Musa, as he tries to navigate his new life as Chief of Council for his friend. Isa has to learn how to deal with selfish politicians and self-absorbed courtiers as well as balance his duties as Chief of Council and Musa's friend.

A story that spans the Mali Empire and North Africa, the political suspense in this story will rope you in.

9. The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Historic City of Islamic Africa by John O. Hunwick and Alida Jay Boye

By the middle of the 15th century, Timbuktu in present-day Mali became the major centre of Islamic culture and scholarship. The journey made by Mansa Musa as well as the trading caravans that crossed the Sahara to trade in Timbuktu contributed greatly to this trade influx.

The city had several libraries that housed books by Arab and Islamic writers, as well as classical Greek and Roman contemporary scholars. The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu contains glamorously graphic and lavish manuscripts that were written in Arabic and several ranges of African languages.

These manuscripts not only showcase the excellent craftsmanship that was prominent in the city, but also indicate that knowledge and learning were widespread in Timbuktu. 

10. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race and Islam by Chouki Et. Hamel

In Black Morocco, Hamel explores the experiences of enslaved Black people from the 6th century until the beginning of the 20th century.

He details how economic and political influences are used to interpret and apply Islam in a way that stifles the freedom and integration of formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants into Moroccan society.

This book also explores legal discourse on race, concubinage, and slavery. Black Morocco offers a fresh look at the study of race, particularly, the way that racial and ethnic identities are understood in North Africa, and it also helps to eliminate the culture of silence where slavery, racial discriminations, and gender issues are concerned.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha 

The New Arab Book Club: Click on our Special Contents tab to read more book reviews and interviews with authors: