Professor talks presence of Muslims in African history

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Associate History Prof. Rudolf Ware speaks about Islam in Black America at the League Thursday. Buy this photo

By Emma Kinery, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 20, 2015

The Muslim Student Association celebrated Black History Month Thursday night with a lecture on Islam’s roots in Africa.

The event, which was attended by about 50 people, was held in the Henderson Room of the Michigan League and features Associate History Prof. Rudolph Ware.

In his lecture, Ware outlined the history of Islam in Africa. He said that even before the official beginning of Islam, when Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Medina on an invitation to escape persecution, the religion has had a presence on the continent.

In the year 615 CE and again in 616 CE, Ware said Muslims escaped persecution by crossing the Red Sea into present day Ethiopia and seeking refuge with a Christian king. However, over time, he said Blacks practicing the religion have been alienated by current Middle Eastern countries, leading to the earlier prominence of Islam in Western Africa often being forgotten.

Nonetheless, one sixth of the world’s Muslim population currently resides in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ware said. In Senegal, he said 98 percent of citizens are Muslim.

“The only Arab countries that have that percentage are Saudi Arabia and Yemen,” Ware said. “There are more Muslims in Nigeria than there are in Egypt, and Nigeria’s only 50 percent Muslim. There’s more Muslims in Ethiopia than there are in Iraq.”

This number is so high because of the tradition of Qur’an schools in western Africa, he said. Dating back to the 1400s Qur’an schools were open to teach Muslim children mathematics and reading.

These schools, which still exist today, promoted the spread of Islam because certain groups of scholars were trained to memorize the Qu’uran to the point of being able to reproduce it, Ware said.

For hundreds of years, the clerics who taught Islam were protected through an agreement with the country’s rulers. However, when the Atlantic slave trade took off in the region, African kings began selling Muslim peasants despite a long history against enslavement of Muslims, Ware said. This led to the spread of Islam to America, Ware said.

“When those people are captured and sold as slaves and they’re taken away on European slave ships, and they’re dropped in places, they can reconstitute partial or entire copies of the Qur’an because they are the Qur’an,” Ware said.

Though some historians believe Muslims were unable to pass their religion onto their children because of this history, Ware said he disagreed. He cited several instances where Islam was prevalent in enslaved America, namely a case where slaves kept records in Arabic because their masters could not write. Other evidence include a 1920 interview with a woman who was freed during the Civil War remembered other slaves practicing Islam and a 1860 Louisiana census which acknowledged Black Muslims.

Ware noted many traditional Black superstitions in the United States come from Islamic roots, which he said additionally proved African Muslims were also a part of the slave trade.

A common superstition in the American South is that if someone sweeps a broom over one’s feet, in response the person whose feet have been swept spits on the broom, paralleling a common Muslim practice.

“That’s the reason why for an African American convert (to Islam), it’s a reversion not a conversion,” Ware said.

Engineering junior Jainabou Barry, who attended the event, grew up both in Gambia and the United States. She said through her experience, she was able to experience differences and parallels between the discussion of Islam in Africa and in the United States.

“There, my Qur’an school, was focused more on the spiritual,” Barry said. “Coming here, I saw the more political agenda being pushed.”

Ware said he saw America today as a unique opportunity for Muslims — one they have not had for seven or eight centuries. With freedom of religion in the United States, there are Muslims of all ethnic and racial background.

“The only way that you change the nature of the conversation is by changing the composition of the room,” Ware said. “If as relatively privileged upper middle class Muslims we don’t reach out to the African American Muslim community, to the African immigrant Muslim community, to the Bangladeshi Muslim community, if we don’t do that, then we can lament the fact that this conversation hasn’t started, but the truth is, we haven’t done our job to start it.”