Book Review of Centring Black Narrative- Black Muslim Nobles Among the Early Pious Muslims

 Black Muslim Nobles Among the Early Pious Muslims written by Dawud Walid an African American imam and Ahmed Mubarak an Islamic educator. The aim of this book is to explore the meaning of ‘Blackness’ in relation to Arabs in the time of the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) and the early centuries of Islam. In particular how this information can give us an insight into race relations in the muslim world today.

Before I opened the book, the front cover already spoke volumes, a picture of Africa and the middle east dominates the cover page illustrating the connection between these lands that are often seen as two separate entities in our modern times. The map is pre-colonial therefore there are no lines distinguishing independent nations, no sahara and sub saharan separation. But instead a united African continent closely linked to the Arabian peninsula.

What I love about this book is that is doesn’t just list a bunch of black sahabas and sahabiyats. It firstly spends a significant amount of time deconstructing the socio-scientific origins of race.

“ Race is nothing more than a sociological phenomenon rather than a biological fact. This is not to imply that race is not ‘real’. It is to say, rather that race is in actuality a collective consciousness and sense of solidarity through experience of one particular group of vis a- vis one or more others”.

It almost seems ironic to state race as a social construct in a book  that puts emphasis on the black race . However I believe it’s very important to clarify what is meant by being ‘black’ in the first place as the inclusiveness of blackness and whiteness is dependent on history and culture.  The book emphaises this by highlighting many hadiths that show how arabs viewed themselves in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). One of which is the following:

“ I was sent to the red (romans) and the black.” …” I had a vision of myself being followed by black sheep who are being followed by white sheep until the black sheep could no longer be seen” Abubakr reportedly said “ o god’s messenger! As for the black sheep they are arabs. They will enter Islam and multiply. The white sheep are non-arabs”.

This book really highlights that although most modern day arabs see Blackness and Arabness as mutually exclusive in the time of the Prophet Muhammed (saw) there wasn’t a clear distinction. There are many sahabas that were Black African and Black Arab and some that were both. Most muslims think that the only black person that was around at the time of the Prophet Muhammed (saw) was Bilal ibn Rabah (RA). This book completely dispels that myth by giving detailed summaries of 22 male and female sahabas as well listing many others.

 

One of the sahabas that I didn’t expect to be in the book was Imam Ali ibn abi talib, an important and well respected figure in our religion is described by some accounts as ‘ adam shahid al udmah’ the word adam referring to the colour of the earth therefore meaning extremely dark. Although as muslims skin colour in itself is not important we are judged only by our deeds. It’s empowering to know that there were many dark skinned Arabs and Africans in the time of the Prophet Muhammed (saw). It helps to reaffirm our confidence, in the difficulties of intersectionality that comes with being a Black Muslim . From issues of colourism that we face within our muslim communities to the dismissal of our blackness by some pro-black groups that claim that Islam is anti-black. However knowledge is power as neither be true when you discover that some of the forefounders of our religion were dark skinned.

Sometimes many of us Black Muslims feel that we are treated as the new kids on the block by other muslims as if Black people being Muslims is a new thing. This book educates and legitimises the role of African in the story of Islam through its example of the companions of the ditch in Surah Burooj to how Africa was a place of refuge for Islam when Muslim were being persecuted.

The whole book is only 100 pages it’s small but mighty message is very easy to read and can be easily be used to teach children in madrasas as well as being non- time consuming for busy adults. I highly recommend that all muslims purchase a copy and educate themselves so we can educate our communities. 

What can emotional words in Yoruba tell us about how mental health is perceived in Nigerian culture?

 

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In order fully understand mental health, I believe we need to gain an understanding of our unique cultural context. Our culture plays a big role in constructing what emotions we even experience and what feelings we deem acceptable or not. There are six main emotions found in most cultures sadness, happiness, surprise, disgust, anger and fear. However there are emotions such as amae which refers to a pleasant feelings that arises from a sense of togetherness and dependency which is a basic emotion in Japan. However this word doesn’t exist in western languages as western culture doesn’t promote collectiveness and dependency. In tahiti an island in the pacific ocean there is no word for sadness in the local language. The sinhala language of Sri Lanka has no word for guilt and the nyinba people of Nepal have no word for love. These differences in how emotion is expressed through language will most definitely affect how we think about our emotions and how they manifest.
I’m very interested in how this applies to Nigerians and how our languages talk to us about emotions. Coming from a Yoruba family where displays of emotions can be very expressive or very repressive compared to the English culture that I saw around me sparked my curiosity and investigation about how the Yoruba language conveys emotions.
Therefore I want to unravel the meaning of emotional words in Yoruba and how the literal translation can give us clues about Nigerian culture:

Sadness/grief- ibanuje- inside is spoilt

Happiness-idunnu- joy is inside

Anger-ibinu/ibinuje- stirrup inside

Fear –ijaaya- cut chest itara- stinging the body

Disgust-irira- friction on the body

Suffering-iyaje- calamity eating the person

In English emotional words aren’t related in morphology as they seem to come from different root words. However in Yoruba there is a common root of ‘nu’ in some of the words, nu or inu refers a containing space inside one’s body and it can also mean stomach. Our emotions are seen to directly affect the body rather than being isolated in the mind. I believe this interpretation of emotion in Yoruba can give us a lot of valuable information. In Africa there is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding about mental health. Which I believe partially stems from the fact that words like depression and anxiety don’t exist in our languages,. Therefore it can be easy for people to dismiss them as a ‘western phenomenon’ . But if we take Yoruba as an example we can perhaps see that depression may be expressed as a severe form of ‘ibanuje’ a rotting or persistent upset in someone insides. Anxiety may be felt as your chest being cut or constant stinging in the body. Therefore a lot of people may think they have having a physical problem rather than a psychological one. For example someone may have a panic attack and believe that their is something physically wrong with their heart when it’s actually anxiety that they are suffering from.

This is showed in the words mentioned as emotions weren’t described as upsetting the head but an upset in the body. A lot of words also symbolise the many of the bodily symptoms people describe when suffering from mental health issues, for example some people suffering with anxiety may also have irritable bowel syndrome. I have seen a case where anytime this person felt anxious they would have to release the anxiety by going to the toilet. We could say reflecting on the ‘ibanuje’ that they were releasing the spoilt contents of their inside.

I believe that this cultural bound information is so information as most of us express ourselves best in our mother tongue which for any Nigerians is probably not English and even if it is English it’s still going to be tailored to the Nigerian tongue. Therefore when we speak about mental health in a Nigerian context, I believe it’s important to not our use western terminology but to describe it in a way that embodies the audience we are talking to. For example if someone is confused about what depression is it may help to describe it to someone using bodily symptoms and explaining the effects mental health has on the body. I believe that this would help open conversations and understanding to the Nigerian public at large about understanding mental illness.

My reflections from my trip to Gambia

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I recently took a trip to Gambia the smiling coast of west Africa. It was a beautiful distraction I needed from the my dull grey British life. It’s a country with amazing history and beauty. I can say hands down it’s the best holiday. There is so much I would like to write but I will try my best to condense it into 5 points. Let go..

Religion: Gambia is a Muslim majority country. There is a strong love for Islam and, once I tell people my name was Kawthar they would immediately be in awe that my name is from the Quran and tell me about all the Quran they know. There is also a lot of respect for the hijab more than any other Muslim country I have ever visited. They were countless times where someone would switch off the bashment and play Quran for me which I found quite amusing. I also admired that no matter what they are doing they don’t play with their salah the country is full of mini mosques that no matter what your profession is you will always find a mat to pray on. I found especially unique compared to other Muslim countries is even if there isn’t a formal area for women. As a woman you can just go to the back of the men’ section and pray or someone will just find a mat for you to pray on. There wasn’t the extremes of segregation between men and women that we see in the UK and middle eastern countries . Rather their Islam was open and flexible.

One of the many mosques I visited women prayed on the mats outsides while men prayed inside

White supremacy: I thought finally I’m in Africa the land of the blacks white supremacy bye bye. But unfortunately it’s alive and kicking . Its there in the working class market women you see with red faces and black knuckles trying to eradicate their blackness. Its there in the way white people are treated and seen as gods. One of the funniest and shocking experiences was when a young child said to me that a light skinned black baby cries when I carry him because I’m dark skinned. I was shocked that a young child could say that a baby less than a year old would have a colour preference for whiteness even though they live in a black country. Absolutely nuts!

Black privilege: However there are also a lot of benefits being in a country where everyone looks like you. Gambians saw me as their African sister and everyone thought I from the serahule tribe and had to keep explaining that I’m not Gambian. A lot of people were surprised that I choose to come to an African country for holiday. They admired that wanted to come to Africa would treat me as their black sister giving me discounts which is always nice.There is a feeling of empowerment you get when you know you are the racial majority of a country. I wasn’t this girl with a foreign name and weird scarf on her head I was just NORMAL. Which helped me really relax it was like a burden had been lifted and I could just be me.

History: If you’re into African history like me you will love Gambia. I just watched the new roots series a few months ago already knew that I had to go to Kunta Kinte island formerly known as St James island. For those of you who don’t know this is where slaves were kept for 3 weeks before being transported to the ‘new’ world. I went on a ferry from the Banjul to Barra then a two hours drive to Juffure which is the village where roots is based. The more we drove into Juffure the more I felt was going back in time. No more tarmac roads the raw red earth became more and more visible the closer we got. The red clay houses and vast landscape of nothing but palm trees and termite mounds really gave me a glimpse into how life was like for Gambians all those years ago. There was a small museum which contained the specific history of slavery in the Senegambia region, information about where slaves were taken the Americas as well as the shackles of iron that was used on real slaves.

When I picked one up it was so heavy I could hardly carry it. Just to imagine that people would walk for miles and with these chains on their necks was disturbing. Our guide told us that vultures would just follow slave caravans because they knew they would get a good meal as people would be left for dead as they were too weak to carry on. Then finally took a 15 minute boat ride to the island. As we walked around the guide told us the activities and function of the rooms in the building. From rooms used to rape and impregnate young girls. To where slaves were sandwiched like sardines with rival tribes so that they could avoid rebellion. To seeing the place where Africans were branded like cattle with hot iron. I can only describe it as surreal I almost had to pinch myself to reassure myself that I was there . Suddenly the reality a slavery wasn’t something I was reading in a book or a documentary I was there living, breathing, seeing the point where many never returned. Something that changed the landscape of the globe today its effects are still raw. I know that going to the Island would be a bit too much for some people too emotional but for me it all part of the pieces of the puzzle that helps to understand the struggle of the all the people of the African diaspora are today.

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Outside the museum in Juffure, depicting families walking for miles after being enslaved and the vultures in the background awaiting.

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How the Island looked back then

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Approaching the Island, the original canons placed to ‘defend’ the island from invasion still sit on it’s banks

Poverty: As much as I enjoyed the beautiful beaches and tourist spots. You can never escape from the reality of poverty in Africa. I’ve been to Nigeria many times however I’m always sheltered from the real poverty and usually only taken to the so called nice areas. I went to an orphanage while I was there it was much an emotional and humbling experience seeing babies that are craving for your love and attention it was heartbreaking but also brought this overwhelming feeling of love that I don’t think I have felt in a long time. I few of the children I saw had disabilities and due to lack of funding couldn’t get the adequate resources they need to live fulfilling lives. It really brought to home how cruel the world can be to the have nots and made me appreciate what I do have. Unfortunately in Gambia has the highest rates of Africans leaving for Europe due to the lack of opportunities for those who don’t have the right connections and links to gain employments. Even a lot of the businesses in Gambia are own by Mauritanians, Lebanese, Chinese basically everyone else but African’s. It’s sad to see a continent that is so rich have so much poverty and dependency on other nations.

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Me and my baby Liam I was with him for 2 hours I didn’t want to let go

On a final note it was great to explore other west African country and compare and contrast the culture with my own Nigerian culture. I would advise any African person that is 2nd or 3rd generation like myself and has only ever visited there own home country, to go to other African countries where you have no relatives and you can just be free it’s an enlightening experience. Also for those of you non-Africans reading this blog Africa is a beautiful continent with some of the most hospitable people I’ve met in the world don’t just believe what the media tells you go and see it for yourself. I will let my pictures do the rest of the talking…..

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The hotel I stayed in called Janta Bi

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My future house needs to look like this lol

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The river Gambia which is in the middle of the country, creating lots of beaches and boats for transport

The struggles of being a Single Muslim Woman

Is it a crime to be a single independent female in the Muslim community?

That’s the question I ask myself nearly every time I go to the mosque. I’m currently living in a small town in northern England which I moved to due to work. As a practising Muslim in a very white working class area of England, one of my first priorities when I moved was to get involved in my local Muslim community. I go to jumaah, joined the tajweed class and any other event I could. However, what I have found is that my choice to move across the country from London for employment, has gained a few disapproving stares and comments.

I have had sisters telling me don’t I want to get married, worried that I may become too independent or looks of pity and concern that family let me out of sight. Which of course when you have moved to an area where you don’t know anyone and you’re alone aren’t exactly the type of comments you want to hear. The very community that I was eager to join is the same community I feel judged by. Singledom is at times seen as a curse and marriage it’s cure.This has been hard to bear and I’ve had my share of sleepless nights, low mood and desperation wanting move back home. I was stuck in an awkward place not fully accepted by my local Muslims and also being looked at as alien by the local white population. But alhamdulillah what doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger, I believe that this move has helped me develop my character and get closer to Allah.

This experience has encouraged me to reflect on our muslim communities, we aren’t too keen on outliers. By that I mean that when you are a divorcee, single independent Muslimah, not from an asian or arab country etc, the community is quick to try and establish what is wrong with you, why you differ from the norm. We need to try and remember that Allah tests us in different ways and as sisters and brothers in the deen we should try and support one another instead of making each other feel inadequate. I feel that Muslims sometimes forget that not everyone comes from a traditional Muslim family and some of us have to work to survive, it’s not because I want to be rebellious or have an orthodox feminist attitude that we don’t need a man. Also in regards to marriage; maybe before Muslims ask why someone isn’t married they should consider the many possible reasons why someone is not. For example: if someone isn’t from a traditional Muslim family; they have to go through endless hoops in finding a spouse independently, or perhaps they simply have not found the right person to spend the rest of their life with, it is also possible that they just aren’t ready and realise marriage is more than the stuff of fairytales. It’s a life altering decision.

Islam is a religion for everyone no matter what stage you are in life and every type of Muslim should feel welcomed. I know this isn’t the perspective of the whole ummah and as a Londoner I know that in cities it is much easier for a single Muslimah to feel part of the community, as there are many of us and there are so many events and sisters halaqahs. But in small Muslim communities, like the one I’m in now, where I’m probably in the 1% (single, Muslimah) of an already small Muslim community, it can be every isolating. I hope by writing this I can increase the seemingly dampened voice of young, single, Muslim women.

Heart broken, Goal crushed, Dreams on hold?

Have you been so convinced of something and then it doesn’t work out?
Or had a goal to achieve but it completely flopped?
Confused when your time will come?
Your soul has been crushed, confidence knocked, hope gone.

That’s how I’ve been feeling lately. I’ve been trying to move forward in my life but it seems like I keep getting stuck and the more rejections I get from employers the more I feel battered down. I was convinced that it wouldn’t be too difficult. But then reality hit and the difficulties seemed to increase. Making me feel more disempowered like I was lost at sea, not knowing what direction to head to next.

Maybe I’m not patient enough,well I know I’m not patience enough. When I want things I want it now and I become quite obsessed and fixated putting my life on pause until the goal is reached. Which doesn’t help, as we never know what the future holds. That’s the problem, I don’t know what the future hold? I hate suspense, I can’t even watch a film at the climax, I just get nervous and I would rather pause and calm myself now and resume later ( it’s lame i know). Part of life is accepting it’s ups and downs and as a Muslim believing in Qadr (destiny). But it’s not easy as it’s so easy to say I submit to Allah’s will but when it comes down to it. How many of us actually submit wholeheartedly. It’s easy to submit when the time are good, but when times are bad it tests the best of us and our iman takes the first hit.

I soon notice that my motivation and enthusiasm for salah diminishes and I start to see life in very unhealthy black and white terms. Either everything is the way I want and I’m happy or I don’t get what I want therefore I can’t be happy. Simple, full stop. exclamation mark!
I know it irrational to think that way but sometimes in the depths of despair that all I can see. We believe that happiness lies in this thing, this place, this person so if this is true why can’t I get it, surely I know what is right for me?

But as believers we know this not to be true, Allah says ‘ do you think you will say you believe and you will not be tested?’. I believe there is also a hadith that says Allah tests those he loves the most. I realised that although I think that I have submitted my will to Allah there is still a natural ego, the bad naf (soul) that thinks it’s knows better than god, ‘why couldn’t you just give me this one thing god why? It’s difficult to under qadr when we can’t see the future and are just using our own insight. However Allah sees what we can’t see, maybe that path that I was so convinced by has a even danger that I’m not conscious of. I believe that true faith is understanding the great wisdom and humbling ourselves to our own limited knowledge of the world. Internal conversations saying ‘I think I know but I really don’t know God knows’.

The prophet (saw) says that the real jihad is the jihad of the naf. No joke it really is 🙂