“I need to know if I can attend the university to test myself against the best students in the world,” states Kunta Kinta, in the recently remade Roots mini-series.
Unfortunately, his ambitions as a student of knowledge at Timbuktu never came to fruition, as he was kidnapped and taken to the Americas.
Though Roots is largely fictionalized, it articulates a real-world problem for the descendants of African-Muslim slaves. In the Sunni Islamic tradition, an ijazah grants one authority to transmit certain knowledge in the Islamic sciences. The University of Timbuktu was a place to garner such ijzahs. However, under the bondage of slavery, the first generation of African-Muslims was completely cut off from Islamic centers of knowledge and learning.
Moreover, they lived in a world completely hostile to their faith; far from being able to continue the tradition of Islamic learning, slaves were denied the right to practice the basic tenets and rituals of their faith without enduring severe persecution. Having undergone centuries of slavery, Islam was wiped out among slaves.
In the post-slavery era, any Islamic science via science of hadith, fiqh, or even tajweed for the descendants of enslaved Africans, would have to be learned by those outside the community—despite the fact many were descendants of hafis of the Qur’an, scholars of the Maliki Fiqh, and the Asharite school of Islamic theology.
Blacks under slavery were cut off from the entirety of the Sunni intellectual tradition. Orlando Patterson in Slavery and Social Death uses the term “natal alienation” to describe how slaves differed from other human beings because they were not permitted to integrate the wisdom of their forefathers into their live and subjected to social death.
Islam began to reemerge among black Americans because they turned to the faith for empowerment in a white supremacist world. In Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection, Dr. Sherman Jackson indicates that what Islam came to means among black Americans was something incredibly simple. It meant to clean oneself up of drugs, alcohol, crime and other destructive lifestyles. It meant to be engaged in a holy protest against anti-blackness while working for the betterment of the black community.
The early generation of black descendants of Americans slaves converted to Islam came from very humble roots and were often at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder. They were not studying fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. They did not have opportunities to study classical Arabic. In fact, many of them did not even know basic rituals of the faith. Still, Islam empowered them and changed the entire self-image of black people.
In 1975, African Americans became more and more reacquainted with the classical Islamic sciences. According to Dr. Jackson, this coincided with a massive influx of Immigrant Muslims. Dr. Jackson writes,”immigrant Muslims quickly introduced theological, juridical, and revivalist discourses that effectively banished native Blackamerican instincts and understandings to the periphery.”
I have personally been in predominately black masjids in the hood. The access to Islamic education for members of these congregations is absolutely abysmal. Many of the brothers converted to Islam in prison and would like to learn certain Islamic sciences.
However, such opportunities are very limited. Instead of Muslims coming into the community to help people learn things such as Arabic recitation of the Qu’ran, there is an epidemic of Muslims selling black people pork, wine, and lottery tickets.
Due to things such as Arabic illiteracy, many African-American Muslims really have an inferiority complex relative to Arab and Asian Muslims. The inferiority complex is so bad that I believe in some black masjids I’ve visited if an Arab foreigner showed up dressed in a Middle-Eastern thobe pretending to be a scholar that he could pull off that gimmick.
In contrast, I’ve see Asian Muslim communities which are absolutely thriving in their ability to provide Qu’ranic education. You have brothers and sisters studying classical Arabic and various tasfeers. Such Islamic education is not as accessible to African-American communities. Compounding this problem is the fact that Islamic educational institutes emerging in America are not addressing this issue.
Islamic educational institutes should release data so it can be examined as to whether there is an equitable representation of African-American Muslims at such Islamic institutions. The equity of such Islamic institutions should be examined for both race and class.
Since there is a lack of official data on the issue of racial disparities in access to Islamic education, I unscientifically took a look at the photos and videos of various influential Islamic educational institutes in America. I observed that American Islamic educational institutes are dominated by Asian and Arab Muslims. I saw very few black faces from an African-American background. I also took a look at the price tag at many of these Islamic educational institutes and it becomes quite apparent that black Muslims from inner-cities have very little capability to attend such institutions.
If the Muslim community is serious about eradicating racial hierarchies in our community then access to Islamic education should be the number one priority. Islamic education is a huge factor upon individuals who take leadership roles in the Muslim community.
If access to Islamic education is impacted by structural racism then the American Muslim community will only reflect pre-existing racial hierarchies. Islamic sciences will not be utilized to empower the Muslim community. Instead, they will become a means by which Asian/Arab Muslims exert hegemony to silence black Muslim voices.
If Islamic educational institutes are seeking to produce leaders in the American Muslim community then they have a duty to uphold racial justice. This is especially critical if we are to overcome the legacy of the Ummah’s neglect during the era of slavery in which black Muslims were robbed of the ability to transgenerationally transmit Islamic knowledge.