The African slaves who came here were not Muslims
January 7, 2002
I refer to Mr Rahim Forde's letter captioned "Mr Nkofi should seek to engage Muslims in dialogue." [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] (SN 21/12/01).
Mr Forde and I are at one concerning the plight of African Guyanese and the social ills which afflict them. Both of us are concerned about how to better their conditions. Mr Forde feels that if black people were to become Muslims, this would stabilize them, cut out drugs, AIDS and criminality, and lead them into peaceful family lives.
My prescription is different. I feel that the black man has to develop his economics first and foremost, for with economic betterment comes higher standards of family life, health care, education, etc. In this process of economic betterment, a re-engagement with our genuine African roots is an absolute necessity, as it will provide the necessary backbone to us. The examples and experiences of other groups such as Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and Europeans bear this out. This is an incontrovertible fact.
Though I do not have much faith in the Semitic religions of Christianity and Islam, I am quite sure it would be better for the black man to adopt Christianity rather than Islam, if he has to. The reasons why Christianity is preferable to Islam for the black man are the following:
(i) Christianity is doing its best to recognise and integrate African culture and religion within its corpus. In Africa, Christian churches have all Africanised themselves and the old traditions and deities of Africa live on. Islam, with its extremely harsh dogmatic position makes no compromises with African religious culture and destroys and eliminates it, replacing it with Arabism. The Black psyche is destroyed and the morale and self-respect of black people are weakened.
(ii) Christianity is associated with the modern world both in terms of philosophy and material civilisation. Islam is associated with underdevelopment and backwardness and all it offers the black man is a reversion to Arab Mediaevalism to which it hankers back as a "Golden Age". It would therefore be a cultural and economic tragedy for the black man to adopt Islam as against Christianity if he is to survive and progress in the modern world.
(iii) The black man has suffered from exploitation and slavery from both the Muslim Arab and the Christian Western world. The West recognises and confesses its guilt and wrongdoing and has been trying to right its wrongs. The West abolished slavery in its territories and has been giving the black man a chance to emerge. In religion, you have had blacks holding some of the highest offices in the Christian churches and in politics and economics, Blacks have done quite well and are daily progressing in the West.
In Muslim lands, the reverse is true. In Muslim lands, the black man is discriminated against because Arabs and other Asiatics are highly colour conscious and the blacker is your shade of black, the lower down in society and social estimation you are. In the Muslim religion, you have had no Blacks in the higher echelons. There are no black Ayatollahs and Al Ahzar Sheikhs. No truly black man holds any important political, economic and cultural rank and primacy in the Islamic world and there is no equivalent of Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice or the numerous black artistes, musicians and sportsmen so highly regarded in the west, or even our own Guyanese Baroness Amos who is a member of the House of Lords in England. And blacks are still enslaved in many Muslim lands with the full knowledge and concurrence of all the great Muslim leaders and divines. Up to now, no Muslim divine has unequivocally rejected current black slavery in the Islamic world.
(iv) Christianity could equally provide a strong moral base for young black people and does it with greater style and effectiveness than Islam. Mr Ford may well ask his relatives who belong to the Christian churches and confirm that they live moral lives. In fact, Christian youth are involved in all kinds of gatherings and camps, helping to strengthen their moral fibre.
Mr Forde mentions Abdulah Quick's book with the awe of a man reading that kind of writing for the first time. Actually, Quick's book is part of a whole genre of Afro-American writing to show that Black Muslims made great achievements. It is part of that kind of literature which talks of Shakespeare and Beethoven being black men and Queen Victoria being a black woman. This kind of literature has three disastrous negatives: (a) It conveys the impression that the black man has no innate creativity and genius and any achievement he makes is either due to Arab Islamic or some other Asiatic influence. It reinforces the negative stereotype of racists who claim that blacks never did anything original or achieved anything on their own.
(b) This kind of literature tries to show that whatever achievements the white man has made, the black man could do as well or has done as well. Such literature is based on the assumption of inferiority of the black man since the white man and his achievements are used as the measure of excellence.
(c) Such writing is based on an inverted inferiority complex common among Black American literateurs. Though inverted, it is still an inferiority complex. Literature such as Quick's writings is not only fraudulent in many respects but has the effect of placing the black man in a world of illusion and unreality which would ultimately demoralise and weaken him.
Lastly, Mr Forde says that Black Muslims like himself are merely reverting to their ancestral religion by the adoption of the Islamic religion. This myth that the ancestral religion of the majority of the African slaves brought to Guyana was Islam is a myth sedulously propagated by Indian and some Black Muslims to assist in the conversion of black people to Islam. The falsities of the myth become quite clear with even a cursory review of the history and ethnography of the black people of Guyana. And these are the facts:-
(1) Plantation slavery was in its heyday from the 17th to the early 19th century and it was at this time that the vast majority of our slave ancestors came to Guyana. These people were taken from the Western coasts of Africa. These areas at that time were purely native African in religion and culture. Islam had not penetrated these areas in the 17th and for most of the 18th century.
(2) Accordingly, those who came were peoples from Western Africa, and not from inland Muslim areas and this is proven by linguistic survivals and other cultural customs including religions. The religions which came here with our African ancestors were African and not Islamic and accordingly it was the African religions which survived and are still alive today. Such religions as Condomble, Voudon, Santeria, etc are widespread in the Caribbean. There is no such Islamic survival since no significant Arab and Islamic influences came here with our ancestors.
(3) A few Muslim slaves did come but they were Hausas and had either been captured in or wandered down from the Hausa areas, which are far inland. They were far too few to have had any religio-cultural influence on black people in the Americas.
(4) The records kept by the slave ships, plantations and state authorities clearly show that there were almost no Muslim slaves. In the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763, for example, none of the persons or tribes mentioned are Islamic. And the Demerara Slave Rebellion was an uprising of Christian slaves.
(5) The descendants of the slaves who have maintained in pristine form their traditions brought from Africa are groups like the Maroons in various parts of the Caribbean and the Djukas of Suriname. All of these groups of slave descendents are purely African in culture and tradition and have nothing Islamic about them. Despite such overwhelming evidence, Black Muslims such as Forde build up a false and imaginary Muslim past. This is unfortunate since any religion and any action which is based on untruth will eventually crumble. I would beg Mr Forde to realise that his ancestors were African to the core and had nothing Islamic about them.