Reflections on the Persistence and Transmission of African-Islamic Identity Construct and Its Influence on Enslaved Africans in the American Disapora
Ibrahim Sori and David Walker
Institute of Islamic - African Studies
For more than 9 centuries, the Turudbe' Fulbe' have been the purveyors of Islamic social reform and nation formation throughout the entire region of the bilad 's-sudan. What I mean by the bilad's-sudan, are those lands that lie between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea, and what is between the beginning of the Sahel savannah lands below the Sahara until the beginning of the tropical forest. The Turudbe' Fulbe' ethnicity played a key role as leaders of religion and purveyors of intellectual reform throughout the regions of African known as the bilad's-sudan The comprehension of this function played by the Turudbe' is a sine qua non to an understanding and apprehension of movements and events in the bilad's-sudan, especially during the 19th century. Their resilient historical consciousness and how this identity construction helped in the survival of this people will be examined in depth. Furthermore, I will also show how during the period of African enslavement in the western hemisphere, the Turudbe' Fulbe helped produce some of the most dynamic leaders of reform and change in the African American struggle for freedom and justice. Men like Frederick Douglas, Denmark Vesey and David Walker were all influenced either directly or indirectly by enslaved Turudbe' Fulbe men. In this regard, men like Amir Abd'r-Rahman ibn Ibrahim, Alfa Umar ibn Sayyid, and Muhammadu Bilali were the purveyors of Turudbe Fulbe Islamic beliefs and reflected the continuity of this great people and their contribution to western civilization.
Institute of Islamic - African Studies
بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرّحِيمِ وَصَلّى اللّهُ عَلَي سَيِّدِنَا مُحَمَّدٍ وعَلَى آلِهِ وَصَحْبِهِ وَسَلَّمَ تَسْلِيماً
Amir Abu Husayn Abd'r-Rahman ibn Ibrahim Sori & the Hon. David Walker:
"Reflections on the Persistence and Transmission of African-Islamic Identity Construct and Its Influence on Enslaved Africans in the American Diaspora"
In order for the identity of any ethnic group to have continuity, there must be an intentional codification and transmission of the fundamental ideals of the ethnicity to succeeding generations. These transmitted identity constructs become the critique and balance principle against which all human ventures must be measured, revised, and changed. Thus, identity construction acts as the social/historical precedence which functions as the primary model for that ethnicity. Dr. Joseph K. Adjaye asserted that "vital to identity construction are two preconditions: first, recognition of commonly held values that incorporate the moral and cultural universe of the self, and second, the outward, interactional interpretation of values by reference to the values that constitute the cultural universe of the community." Thus, the preservation and transmission of the symbols, myths and collective memories is extremely important for individual and group survival through time. Charles Weston suggested that the conception of time could be influenced by identity construct when he said:
"Many parts go to making the ethnic identity. The most powerful and universal one pertains to the mythological conception of common ancestry. All my ancestors, right back to the creation, have their place in time. In this respect, ethnic identity indeed is past oriented."
This historical consciousness, which is aware of its place in past time, accentuates itself in present time and formulates itself for transmission into the future. It is for this reason that Chiekh Anta Diop noted that the historical consciousness is the most effective tool that a people can utilize in defense against all cultural, economic and political aggression. He said: "The historical conscience, through the feeling of cohesion that it creates, constitutes the safest and the most solid shield of cultural security for a people. The essential thing for a people is to rediscover the thread that connects them to their most remote ancestral past. In the face of cultural aggression of all sorts, in the face of all disintegrating factors of the outside world, the most efficient cultural weapon with which a people can arm itself is this feeling of historical continuity." By definition, the preservation of the cultural identity of any people can only be maintained through history. Thus, its preservation is the function of its people. No one else can tell a people's story. They must speak for themselves. When outsiders attempt to tell their story, it amounts only to a new form of slavery, where the volition, will and very essence of the people are sold on the new slave block and fame and academic renown.
It is interesting to note that the Turudbe' trace their lineage to two sons whose birthright has been in question. One being Ishma'il, the first born son of Abraham and the African/Nubian woman, Hajar; and the other was 'Esau, the grandson of Abraham through his second born son, Is'haq. According to the Bible, `Esau, the first born of Is`haq, first had his birthright taken by his younger brother, Jacob. Then through the deception their mother, Jacob was able to attain the blessings that was destined for `Esau. Ishma'il was the first born of Ibrahim, yet Is'haq is said by the Jews to have received the 'covenant of blessing' from his father. Ishma'il, on the other hand was overlooked and treated like an unwanted and rejected son. This is significant, because it lays the foundation for two other identity-constructs: that of the 'lost tribe' and 'the rejected stone'. The Lost Tribe referent is a key element in the identity construct for the Bani Israel because it opens the hope of future redemption and affirmation after rejection and spiritual fall of the scattered tribes. The referent of the Rejected Stone takes its origin from a people who were despised and discarded due to some outward or inward imperfection, yet the Creator 'chose' them, redeemed them and made them the Corner Stone of a 'New Spiritual World". This signification will be seen throughout the history of the Turudbe in Africa, and manifested itself among their descendents in the Diaspora of the Americas. This self-image laid the foundation for the individual and collective quest for authenticity among the Turudbe', giving them a common historical experience that provided them with a frame of reference that was stable and continuous.
The identity construct of the Turudbe' being as it is connected to the Abrahamic line includes the blessings of the covenant, but also comprises the promise of affliction. This is a reflection again on the concept of the 'tried stone' and the concept of 'sacrifice' that is so essential in the identity construct of the Abrahamic tradition. The idea of rejection and being made a 'stumbling block' for the nations comprise the core belief system of the Bani Israel and it is reflected in the supreme sacrifice that Abraham was called upon by Allah to perform. This self-sacrifice becomes the means by which nations will be judged and rewarded. The same stone that was a stumbling block for many and was rejected by oppressive nations would become the 'corner stone' of a New World. This identity construct becomes the most powerful element of defense in the face of social and cultural aggression. The oppression itself becomes a form of purification, edification, atonement and preparation for a new just and equitable social order. The Bible narrates this affliction in the Book of Genesis: "And He said to Abram: 'Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years. And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance."
However, when the historical conscience has been disjointed and disconnected, this rupture off-times leads to deep personal and collective schizophrenia. The great Turudbe' Fulbe' scholar of the 20th century Waziri Junayd ibn Muhammad al-Bukhari elucidated the nature of identity disruption in a poem in his work concerning the lineage of his great grandmother, Nana Asma'u, the daughter of Shehu Uthman Dan Fuduye' called Nayl 'l-Arab Fi Istifsaa'i 'n-Nasab. This poem was taken from a 15th century Timbuktu scholar and it describes the deep psychological harm a people can face when they lack the self-knowledge that the historical consciousness bequeaths. He says:
"Whoever does not inform his children of his grandparents has destroyed his child, marred his descendants, and injured his offspring the day he dies.
Whoever does not make use of his ancestry, has muddled his reason.
Whoever is unconcerned with his lineage, has lost his mind.
Whoever neglects his origin, his stupidity has become critical
Whoever is unaware of his ancestry his incompetence has become immense.
Whoever is ignorant of his roots his intellect has vanished.
Whoever does not know his place of origin, his honor has collapsed."
Although this scathing poem was written more than five hundred years ago, it accurately delineates the present mental state of many of the descendents of Africans in the western hemisphere and in many parts of present day Africa. When a people are cut off from their own history and are forced to look at themselves from the perspective of their enemies then the result is cultural aggression, imperialism, and domestic colonization. This poem originating from the Turudbe' Fulbe' indicates that they understood the importance of self-knowledge and the role that historical consciousness plays in the development of the construction of the identity. Thus, when the disruption with the historical conscience occurs then a people become disjointed from their wellspring and find themselves open to aggression and oppression. Jacobson-Whidding underlined this when she argued:
" When a person's moral universe is suddenly invalidated because of a lack of 'fit' with social reality, his conception of himself in relation to alter will be invalidated too. Such an invalidation of a person's moral universe may be the outcome of its confrontation with a new, alien, or changed social structure, in which a person's own role is changed too. When, as a result of this, his self-mage does not correspond to actual social reality, the center of gravity of this personal identity may disappear."
Dr. Joseph Adjaye points out that oppression, slavery or imperial domination reinforces, through its propagation, those repressive values designed to coerce enslaved or colonized group to accept their 'proper place' as inferiors and subordinates in the oppressive society. However, Adjaye goes on to clarify that a powerful historical consciousness and identity construct that persists in spite of slavery, colonialism and oppression, can redeem a people and give them the means to their emancipation and freedom. He said:
"Although slavery and the trans-Atlantic pulls of capitalist labor have intervened to create points of difference, ruptures, disjuncture and discontinuities in our pan-Black world, we must nevertheless recognize our common historical experience. We must in fact recognize that cultural identities do not develop in a vacuum; they emanate from somewhere, from a common history. Therefore, identity is something more than simply a (re) discovery or 'remembering' of the past; it also should be a reproduction into the future. Though the 're-invention' of the past might seem imaginative, it is a powerful and critical tool in providing coherence to a people fragmented by colonialism, traumatized by slavery and subjugated by neocolonialism and capitalism."
The above insight, by Dr. Adjaye supplies the core ideation that will be the central part of this section of the research. We will try and demonstrate the continuity of an identity construct that survived the 'rupture, disjuncture, and discontinuities' brought on through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If as Dr. Adjaye asserted that the 're-invention' of the past provides coherence to a people, even when that 'remembering' is the result of leaps of the imagination - then what of those cultural reproductions that are real, continuous, persistent and intentional. Said another way, what if the identity construct includes within its ethos the process of 'rejection, enslavement, rejuvenation and eventual emancipation and redemption'? What if, in the eyes of the people concerned, the entire process is a part of Divine Providence?
This is the core value system of the plight of the children of Abraham and underscores the philosophy behind the history of the Turudbe'. The fulfillment of the covenant and the fulfillment of prophecy in history also provide coherence, but go further and reproduce itself into the future as a form of redemptive miracle. This factor will become apparent in the history of the descendents of enslaved Turudbe' Muslims in the Diaspora of the Americas.
An example of the survival of Turudbe' descendents of Abraham in the 'diaspora' of America was Abu al-Husayn Abd'r-Rahman ibn Ibrahim Sori from Timbo, whose father consolidated the Islamic confederation of Futa Jallon in 1776. He too was learned in the Islamic sciences and could speak at least 4 different African languages along with Arabic. In 1781, after returning from study in renowned city of learning, Timbuktu, Abd'r-Rahman joined the armies of his father. He was made the Amir of one of the regiments that conquered the Bambara ruler. In 1788 at the age of 26 Ibrahim Sori appointed his son, Abd'r-Rahman to head a 2000 man strong army to the coast to protect and strengthen their economic interest. It is clear that the Almamy Ibrahim Sori was preparing his son for leadership. It was during this military campaign that Abd'r-Rahman was captured. He was sold to the French who brought him to Natchez, Mississippi. Abd'r-Rahman remained a slave for more than thirty-eight years before he was freed from bondage. Again, like Ayyub ben Sulayman, it was Abd'r-Rahman's knowledge of Arabic language that won him his freedom. His linguistic abilities and erudition, bequeathed by the high civilization of the Turudbe' literary traditions guaranteed him his freedom and self-determination. Thus, Arabic was the constituent element of the cultural personality of Abd'r-Rahman that he utilized in his quest for independence. Without this he would not have had any recourse to define himself vis-à-vis his oppressors and captors. His Arabic writing says to his European Christian captors: "I AM what I AM. And what I AM is what ALLAH made me. I AM not what you attempted to make me!"
The ability to speak, write and understand Arabic language for enslaved African Muslims had political implications that determined the nature of their enslavement or their eventual liberty. They were set apart because of their linguistic independence and the countless of African Arabic manuscripts discovered in the western hemisphere confirms their distinction and their desire to be free. Perhaps no cultural ingredient that binds a people together cohesively is more important than linguistic unity. Through language a people can assert its values using its own internal reference. Through language unanimity, people define themselves, their universe and project themselves and project themselves into the future. More importantly language allows a people to defend themselves against cultural aggression of all sorts. The measure of their enemy is defined using their own frame of reference and the diameter of their struggle defensively precludes any encompassing by the dogma of their enemies.
One of the most effective tools utilized by the Turudbe' enslaved Muslims in the United States was the religious license of taqiyya (dissimilation). This religious stratagem is a license to pretend to renounce Islam with the tongue, while maintaining firm belief in the heart, for a Muslim who may feel his life is in danger or who desires to be freed from the bondage of the disbelievers. Allah ta`ala revealed the following verse regarding taqiyya: "Whoever disbelieves after his faith, except the one who is forced while his heart is tranquil in belief, however the one who manifest disbelief upon them is anger from Allah and they will taste a grievous punishment."
Abd'r-Rahman took advantage of this same license when his enslavers made conversion to Christianity one of the prerequisites for his freedom. In 1828 while in Philadelphia he was compelled to write down the 'Lords Prayer' in Arabic as a testimony of his new 'faith'. And as the above manuscript demonstrates, Abd'r-Rahman wrote down the first chapter of the Quran called al-Faatiha, as a subterfuge to gain his freedom. The choice of Amir Abd'r-Rahman to write down the first and most important chapter of the Quran instead of the 'Lord's Prayer', was not only the essence of taqiyya, but it was an act of defiance as well as a clear demonstration of his disdain for his European captors. The former amir was transmitting the methodology essential for effectively dealing with oppressors.
For more than three years, Abd'r-Rahman was conducted around the east coast of the United States in order to raise the money for his journey back to Africa and to raise money for the manumission of his wife and children. According to Robert Dannin, Abd'r-Rahman was firm in his Islamic beliefs despite attempts to convert him to Christianity. It is important at this point to cite Robert Dannin's seminal work, where he describes the persistence of Abd'r-Rahman's Turudbe' adherence to Islam.
"Upon his arrival in Washington, [Abd'r-Rahman ibn] Ibrahima became a ward of the American Colonization Society, a Methodist-dominated organization that was planning to send missionaries to Africa...for [Abd'r-Rahman ibn] Ibrahima soon embarrassed his sponsors by stirring religious controversy everywhere. He relished the opportunity to question Christianity by arguing with religious leaders and insisted that Islam was the only true religion. Word of his notoriety spread, provoking local churches to retract their welcome and forcing him to lecture either outdoors, as he did in Niagara Falls, or in the Prince Hall lodges in Boston, Hartford, and Providence. Among freemen and slaves in his audiences, [Abd'r-Rahman ibn] Ibrahima's attitude, as well as his exotic appearance, inspired more than passive curiosity. Some began to recall their own Islamic religious backgrounds. Several publicly reclaimed their African-Muslim names, invoking the wrath of local whites, who branded them as imposters."
This is significant, because this demonstrates that this Turudbe' Muslim performed the same function that his ancestors before him performed throughout the Bilad's-Sudan. Here, even under enslavement, the descendents of the Turudbe' remained true to their covenant of a spiritual commitment to be leaders and guides for the righteous. There were perhaps other earlier examples of Islamic invitation, however, this is the first recorded example of the active Islamic Call being initiated in the United States. Just as the Hebrew Prophets persisted in reminding its People of their former 'covenant' during the period of bondage in Babylon, Abd'r-Rahman ibn Ibrahima, eloquently reminded the enslaved and colonized Africans of their former Islamic covenant and sacred Way of Life. Robert Dannin goes on to describe the significance of Abd'r-Rahman's impact upon the struggle for freedom for Africans in the United States.
"[Abd'r-Rahman ibn] Ibrahima's legacy of exclusion from the church pulpit and his affirmation of African-Islamic identity was one of the first publicly documented manifestations of unchurched autonomy. Shortly before sailing for Africa in 1828, [Abd'r-Rahman ibn] Ibrahima addressed a meeting at Boston's African Lodge. Upon his arrival, he was honored by a fraternal committee led by David Walker, the young abolitionist thinker. Escorting the old Muslim through the crowd of black New Englanders who had come to bid him farewell, Walker seemed deeply affected by the old man's resiliency after four decades in slavery. Pushed out of the church into the lodge halls, he had stimulated a collective African memory among his constituents, foreshadowing a collective space for black revolt, which found its first genuine voice in Walker's manifesto of liberation."
It was one year later that David Walker composed his famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, calling enslaved and free Africans alike to take up arms in defense of their freedom. Thus, the first documented and published call to freedom and liberation for Africans in the United States was influenced by a Turudbe' Muslim former ruler. Abd'r-Rahman manifested the Abrahamic covenant of commanding the good and forbidding evil. He remained true to the Call of Abraham and acted as a Reminder to a African people who had been cut off from their culture and heritage and a proof against the Anglo-American hypocrites. Abd'r-Rahman made scathing attacks against the Anglo-Americans and their hypocrisy in establishing the 'good principles' in the Bible. He said: "I tell you the Testament very good law; you no follow it; you no pray often enough; you greedy after money...you want more land, more neegurs; you make neegur work hard, make more cotton...Where you find dat in your law?"
This disparagement by the Turudbe' son of Abraham of Anglo-American hypocrisy and injustice is a reflection of the responsibility Allah commissioned the Umma of Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. Allah ta`ala says: "You are the best community which has emerged for mankind. You command the good and forbid indecency and believe in Allah. If only the People of the Book would believe it would be better for them. Some of them believe while most of them are corrupt." There is no wonder that Walker was so furious in his attacks against the Anglo-American Christians. The radical influence that the Turudbe' son of Abraham had upon Walker can be seen throughout his Appeals:
"The Pagans, Jews and Mahometans try to make proselytes to their religions, and whatever human beings adopt their religions they extend to them their protection. But Christian Americans, not only hinder their fellow creatures, the Africans, but thousands of them will absolutely beat a coloured person nearly to death, if they catch him on his knees, supplicating the throne of grace. This barbarous cruelty was by all the heathen nations of antiquity, and by the Pagans, Jews and Mahometans of the present day, left entirely to Christian Americans to inflict on the Africans and their descendents, that their cup which is nearly full may be completed!"
This contemptuous attack upon the self-image of the Anglo-American Christian as being morally decrepit, is significant, and could not have come about except through a profound since of historical conscience and continuity. Walker's ability to redefine his oppressors in an inferior light had to be placed up against a self-esteem engendered through his encounter with the elderly Turudbe', Abd'r-Rahman. Walker's revolutionary ideas had become shaped and inspired by one of the 'lost children of Abraham', who was decidedly aware of himself as a servant of Allah, a descendent of African royalty and an heir of the Abrahamic covenant. Thus, it was Abd'r-Rahman's adherence to the Turudbe' identity construct that helped launch a cultural revolution that effected the entire African population of the United States. Walker had this to say as a prayer for his Turudbe' Muslim guest:
"Our Worthy Guest, who was by the African;s natural enemies torn from his country, religion, and friends, and in the very midst of Christians, doomed to perpetual though unlawful bondage may God enable him to obtain much of the reward of his labor, as may purchase the freedom of his offspring."
On February 7, 1829, Abd'r-Rahman sailed on the Harriet accompanying, Joseph J. Roberts, the future first president of Liberia. One can but wonder about the dialogue between these two great leaders. Did Amir Abd'r-Rahman influence the future president of Liberia in his desire for freedom and independence? It is amazing how the most important dignitaries in the history of the freedom of African Americans have had some encounter with 'the lost children of Abraham'. Abd'r-Rahman attempted to reach Timbo, but died before reaching his goal on July 6, 1829. When he died he bequeathed his Arabic manuscripts to the Turudbe' scholars and jurist of Timbo.
The Jaami`a al-Masjid at Djia the Fulbe Learning Center of Massina
All primary sources include digitized copies of Arabic manuscripts that I required from the Republic of Sudan Niger Mali and Northern Nigeria.
Al-Awjaali, Muhammad as-Saalih ibn Sulayman
Al-Falati, Sulayman ibn Abi Muhammad
Kaafi Fi `Ilm 'l-Jifr wa'l-Qawaafi
Dan Fuduye', Abdullahi
Dan Fuduye, Uthman
Haqiqat 'l-Imaan wa''l-Islam
Muudihuna Bi `Awn Allah
Dan Tafa, Abd'l-Qaadir
Tarjuma Li Ba`di `Ulama Zamaanihi
Ibn Abd'r-Rahman, Saad
Tarteeb As'haab Shaykh Abdullahi
Ibn Ahmad, Uthman
Nasab as-Shaykh Uthman
Ibn al-Bukhari Waziri Junaydu
Umar ibn Sayyid
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When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way.