I was recently invited to a Black History Month event and I found it interesting but rather slanted due to the excessive emphasis on slavery and civil rights as if Black people in general and Black Muslims in particular had not made any worthwhile contribution in other aspects of life. Please don’t get me wrong, it is very important to study and understand the history of slavery and Black people’s valiant fight for their basic human rights in many parts of the world especially in the Americas, but it is equally important to highlight and promote the invaluable contribution made by Black Muslims throughout Islamic history.
The purpose of this short article is to briefly highlight the achievements of two remarkable Black Muslims of the past who can serve as role models for young people of all background, namely al-Jahiz and Mansa Musa.
Pages from Kitaab al-Hayawaan by Al-Jahiz
Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr ibn Mahbub al-Kinani al-Basri, better known as al-Jahiz or ‘goggle-eyed’, was one of the foremost theologians (mutakallim), literary critics and belletrists (adib) in the history of Islam. Born in Basra into a lowly family of the Banu Kinana around 776, he – on account of his hard work, dedication and natural talent – went onto become an outstanding writer authoring no less than 200 works on a range of subjects including Arabic language, Qur’anic philology, theology, ethics, falsafa (natural philosophy) and literary criticism. Not bad for a child born into a poor family in eighth century Basra who had received minimal formal education during his early years, yet he was subsequently hailed as a master of the Arabic language and one of the finest writers of classical Arabic in history.
Some of al-Jahiz’s notable works include Kitab al-Hayawan (The Book of Animals) wherein he presented a sophisticated ‘argument from design’, while his Kitab al-Bayan wa’l Tabyin (Treatise on Clarity and Clarification) is an inquiry into the nature, origin and richness of Arabic language and rhetoric from a Mu’tazilite perspective. His two other prominent works were Kitab al-Bukhala (The Book of Misers) and Risalat Mufakharat al-Sudan ala al-Bidan (Treatise on Black People). In the former, written in beautiful Arabic prose, he highlighted and openly ridiculed misers from all walks of life, while in the latter he advocated the superiority of the Black people over others, not purely on account of their race but also their physique, ability and talent. How could one possibly disagree with such a peerless intellectual and literary genius of al-Jahiz’s stature?
The other personality that deserves to be highlighted here is Mansa Keita I, better known as Mansa Musa, the fabulously wealthy ‘King of Kings’ of the West African Mali Empire. Born into royalty, he lived during the latter part of the thirteenth and early decades of the fourteenth century, inheriting an empire that was not only vast in size but also blessed with tremendous wealth and richness. Prominent Muslim historians like al-Dukkali and Ibn Khaldun have written about Mansa Musa as did Ibn Battutah. He was a devout Muslim who patronised Islamic learning and scholarship, and lived by the dictates of his faith, and displayed remarkable acts of kindness, generosity and compassion.
Mansa Musa sitting on a throne and holding a gold coin from the 1357 Catalan Atlas.
Catalan Atlas BNF Sheet 6 Mansa Musa attributed to Abraham Cresques.
Although Mansa Musa is best known for his famous pilgrimage to Makkah in 1324 accompanied by a very large entourage, consisting of around 60,000 people, lavishing his hosts and guests with unexpected gifts of gold, silver and money on his way to the sacred city of Islam, however it is worth highlighting that he ruled such a wealthy and vast African empire at a time when most of Europe was still lingering in the Dark Ages. Yes, Europe’s darkness was Africa’s enlightenment!
In other words, the history of Black Muslims is littered with exemplary personalities, outstanding achievements and unrivalled epochs, and they need to be highlighted too, not for nostalgic reasons, but for motivational and instructive purpose, and to inspire the present and future generations.
*Muhammad Mojlum Khan is an award-winning writer, historian, literary critic, and research scholar. He has published around 200 essays and articles worldwide, and his writings have been translated into several languages. He is author of the acclaimed The Muslim 100 (Kube, 2008), The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (Kube, 2013), and is currently writing a book on the Muslim heritage of the West (Kube, forthcoming 2016). He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and the Director of Bengal Muslim Research Institute UK.