- Islam and the Sword in Africa?
It is the case that the empire of Islam entered Africa with the sword. Black imperialism from all eras, including ancient Kemetic imperialism, relies on military advancement. It is not the case, however, that the religion of Islam spread at the same time and by the same means. In fact, the African Arabian Muslims saw Islam as exclusive to themselves and refused to proselytize at all [See Muhammad, 2009: 202-204]. The religion did not begin spreading in Africa until centuries after the Muslim conquest, and when it did it was carried by merchants and religious specialists, not soldiers. Too many scholars, black and white, have debunked the myth of the Arabs violently imposing Islam on Africans for it to still have circulation, though in some circles it still does. Cheikh Anta Diop, in his Pre-Colonial Black Africa, affirms:
Much has been made of Arab invasions of Africa: they occurred in the North, but in Black Africa they are figments of the imagination. While the Arabs did conquer North Africa by force of Arms, they quite peaceably entered Black Africa¼From the time of the Umayyad setbacks in the eighth century, no Arab army ever crossed the Sahara in an attempt to conquer Africa, except for the Moroccan War of the sixteenth century¼Nor was there ever any Arab conquest of Mozambique or any other East African territory. The Arabs in these areas, who became great religious leaders, arrived as everywhere else individually and settled in peacefully¼The Arab conquests dear to sociologists are necessary to their theories but did not exist in reality.
Only during the Almoravide movement of the first half of the eleventh century did some white people, Berbers,784 attempt to impose Islam on Black Africa by force of arms¼The primary reason for the success of Islam in Black Africa, with one exception, consequently stems from the fact that it was propagated peacefully at first by solitary Arabo-Berber travelers to certain Black kings and notables, who then spread it about
them to those under their jurisdiction"[Diop, 1987: 101-102, 162, 163].
Joseph E. Harris in his Africans and Their History says as well: "it is noteworthy that except for the northern coast, Islam spread rather peacefully until the eighteenth century, with one significant interruption-the Almoravid conquests"[Harris, 1987: 74]. J. Spencer Trimingham, in A History of Islam in West Africa, agrees:
The role of the Murabitun (Almoravids) in the Islamization of the Sudan has been exaggerated. The peaceful penetration of Islam along trade routes into borderland towns had begun before this movement was born¼The Murabitun simply accelerated a process that had already begun, and their conquest was ephemeral because the attraction of Morocco was stronger than that of the Sudan (emphasis mine-WM)” [Trimingham, 1970: 29-31].I. Hrbek and M. El Fasi note:
During the great Arab conquests, there was certainly no attempt to convert the ahl al-kitāb (Jews and Christians) by force¼generations of scholars have¼clearly demonstrated that the image of the Muslim Arab warrior with sword in one hand and the Qoran in the other, belongs to the realm of mythology.[ Hrbek and El Fasi, 1992: 31]
Z. Dramani-Issifou: "Prior to the twelfth century, Islam advanced on African soil without wars, without violent proselytism [Dramani-Issifou, 1992: 54].” And finally Sylviane Anna Diouf notes:
In contrast to its arrival in North Africa, where it had been brought by the invading Arabs, the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa followed a mostly peaceful and unobtrusive path. Religious wars or jihad, came late-in the eighteenth and especially in the nineteenth century-and Islam was diffused not by outsiders…but by indigenousness traders, clerics, and rulers…Some fundamental features of traditional religions and customs, such as ritual immolation of animals, circumcision, polygamy, communal prayers, divination, and amulet making, also were present in Islam. Such affinities facilitated conversion as well as accommodation and tolerance of others’ rituals and beliefs. Africans themselves considered Islam an African religion. [Diouf, 1998, 4].
It is thus inaccurate to claim that the religion of Islam spread throughout Africa at the end of and by means of the Arabian sword. It is the case that there are some exceptions to this, but in general the religion established itself on the continent rather peacefully. And while the empire of Islam did indeed establish itself in North Africa by means of the sword, this was in the main neither a non-African nor an anti-African conquest.
2. The Conquest of Egypt
The Prophet Muhammad had told one of his companions and military generals, “When you conquer Egypt, be kind to its Copts because you have a covenant of protection and kinship (rahim/rihm) with them.” This recipient of this instruction, the Arab general ‘Amr b. al-‘As (d. 664), will later lead the conquest of Egypt. This acknowledgment by Muhammad that the Arabs and the indigenous African population of Egypt (the Copts) were kith and kin is consistent with the archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicating the same: that the indigenous populations of Arabia and Northern and Eastern Africa were culturally and ethnically related [Muhammad, 2011: 8 n. 38, 9 n. 45; idem, 2009: 1-7]. Nor did ‘Amr and the African Arabian conquerors of Egypt disregard Muhammad’s command regarding treatment of the Copts.
The conquest of Egypt by the Arab Muslims in 641 was in the main carried out by black-skinned Arabs. The historical and the genetic evidence indicates that “tribes of Yemeni origin formed the bulk of those Muslim contingents that conquered Egypt in the middle of the 7th century CE [Nebel et al, 2002: 1595; Diop, 1967: 52].” What do we know about these “Yemeni tribes,” i.e. South Arabian Arabs? Major-General Maitland, Political Resident in Aden for Britain, noted in 1932 that “All authorities agree that the southern Arabs are nearly related by origin to the Abyssinians” [Bury, 1998: xiii]. The South Arabian has been somatically or culturally identified with the dark skinned Toda and Dravidian of India, the Vedda of Ceylon, and the Ethiopian and Somalian “Hamites” of East Africa. Thus Carleton Coon observed in his, The Races of Europe:
It’s easy enough to account for the southern Arabian Bedawi of the course type. He is obviously related to the Veddas of Ceylon, and to the most important element in the Dravidian-speaking population of India. His hair form, his facial features, his pigmentation, and his general size and proportions confirm this relationship”[Coon, 1939: 429].
It was this dark-skinned, Africoid/Dravidoid Arabian who formed the bulk of the troops who conquered Egypt, not the Europoid Arab that graces the cover of Chancellor Williams’ iconic text, The Destruction of Black Civilization.
Nor were the black-skinned troops led by white-skinned Arab commanders. The second caliph who authorized the conquest was ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb (d. 644), the chief architect of the Islamic state. ‘Umar was a Qurayshi Arab from the Banū Adi. His mother Hantama bt. Hāshim b. al-Mughīra, was from the exceptionally black Banū al-Mughīra. Al-Mas'ūdī (Prairies, IV, 192) says she was Black. His paternal grandmother was an enslaved Ethiopian. He was certainly no "fair, pale man, with a touch of redness [contra Abu-Bakr, 1993:32]. He was specifically described as a bald, black-skinned man (rajul ādam). His famous son, ‘Abd Allāh, was himself "very dark-skinned and huge" and said regarding their blackness: "We inherited our black complexion from our maternal uncles." [See sources in Muhammad, 2011: 15; Berry, 2002: 67].
Leading the troops into Egypt was the Arab general ‘Amr b. al-‘As who had previously commanded the Muslim forces in southern Palestine. He too had an Ethiopian mother and Qurashi father and was specifically described as “black-skinned, tall and bald, asmar shadīd al-sumra tawīil asla” [Berry, 2010]. ‘Amr was sent 4000 reinforcements divided into four detachments of 1000, each led by one of four commanders: al-Miqdād b. al-Aswad, who was black-skinned (ādam) and tall; the black (aswad) and tall Muhammad b. Maslama, an Arab from the Banū Aws; al-Zubayr b. al-Awwan, the cousin of the Prophet and nephew of Khadījah, who was dark brown-skinned (asmar al-lawn); and the famously black (aswad) ‘Ubāda b. al-Sāmit (d. 654) [See sources in Muhammad, 2011: 16].
A famous incident involving ‘Ubāda b. al-Sāmit illustrates the overall complexion of the Muslim conquest of Egypt. When Cyrus, the Byzantine governor of Egypt, sought negotiations with ‘Amr in October 640, the latter deputed ten of his officers to negotiate. They were led by ‘Ubāda. When the tall and black ‘Ubāda was ushered into Cyrus’ presence, the governor was terrified and exclaimed: “Take away that black man: I can have no discussion with him!” The party insisted that ‘Ubāda was the wisest, best, and noblest among them and their appointed leader, declaring that “though he is black he is the foremost among us in position, in precedence, in intelligence and in wisdom, for blackness is not despised among us.” ‘Ubāda himself then replied to Cyrus: “There are a thousand blacks, as black as myself, among our companions. I and they would be ready each to meet and fight a hundred enemies together.” Benard Lewis makes an important observation here: “‘Ubāda is not African nor even of African descent but (as the chroniclers are careful to point out) a pure and noble Arab on both sides”[Lewis, 1990: 26]. ‘Ubāda was an eminent Ansārī from the tribe Awf b. al-Khazraj, in particular the clan Banu Ghanm b. Awf b. al-Khazraj, thus a pure, very black-skinned Arab. The thousand fellow blacks, possibly the detachment of which he was commander, were no doubt black Arabs like him.
The conquest of Egypt by the Muslims in 641 was thus a Black Op from top to bottom. The mainly southern Arab troops, ethnically Africoid/Dravidoid, were led by similarly black-skinned Arab commanders, all under the caliphal leadership of the black-skinned Umar. The phenomenon of one Black nation conquering another did not begin with these AfricanArabian Muslims. In 340 CE Axum’s ruler invaded and claimed Himyar, Raydan and Saba in South Arabia, ruling there from 340-378. The Axumites were kicked out by native Himyarites. However, Axum still claimed rulership over Himyar and Saba for another two centuries. In 523 Dhu’l Nuwas, a Himyarite Jewish ruler who was bitter over the Axumite rule and pretensions to rule, massacred some Arab Christians in Najran. The Byzantine emperor Justin I prompted the Negus of Abyssinia to assert his claims over the region. The Negus sent 70, 000 men across Red Sea who were victorious in reconquering southern Arabia. As Philip Hitti notes: “The Abyssianians came as helpers, but as often happens remained as conquers. They turned colonists and remained from 525 to 575 in control of the land” [Hitti, Arabs, 62]. In other words, the African-Arabian conquest of African Egypt followed an Ethiopian conquest of southern Arabia.
Nevertheless, the conquest of Egypt should not be seen as an example of ancient black-on-black violence. On the contrary, the target of the African Arabian Muslim aggression was the oppressive Byzantine rulers of Egypt. As W.E.B. Du Bois affirmed: “the Arabs invaded African Egypt, taking it from Eastern Roman Emperors and securing as allies the native Negroid Egyptians [Du Bois, 1979: 185-86]. As Mamadou Chinyelu put it as well: "These African Copts no doubt saw the African Muslims from Arabia as liberators; after all they were kith and kin” [Chinyelu, 1991: 367]. This overthrowing of ‘white power’ in Africa was just leg of a larger campaign. Umar’s African-Arabian troops "broke the power of the Persian Sassanid empire and proceeded to annex Iran and Iraq to Arabia." He further brought Syria, Phoenicia, Persia, Jerusalem, and Egypt into the Dār al-Islām, out of the hands of the Byzantines. With the destruction of Carthage in the third Punic War (150-146 BCE) Rome became the supreme power in North Africa. It was ‘Umar and the black-skinned Muslim troops that broke up this White power block in Africa. Thus, Diop’s keen observation: “Except for the Islamic breakthrough, Europe has ruled Africa down to the present day” [Diop, 1967:119]. It was African Arabian Muslims who relived Africa of European rule for a brief period.
3. Relations of Black Muslims in Egypt and Black Christians in Egypt and Nubia
Having secured Egypt in 641-642, the Muslims attempted to take Nubia in 643. These excursions are given special treatment in Chancellor Williams classic work, The Destruction of Black Civilization . The main weaknesses of Williams discussion of the Muslim invasion of Egypt in 641 and attempted invasions of Nubia in 643 and again in 651-52 is his inaccurate ethnographic assignments. Williams saw the Muslim/Nubian conflict as one between White Arabs and Black Nubians: the Arab conquerors were "Caucasians," he informs us [142-148]. As we have demonstrated above, the Muslims who conquered Egypt were mainly Black Arabs from Southern Arabia led by Black Arabs from Mecca in North Central Arabia. With regard to the Nubian invasion, we thus have to do with a Black-on-Black conflict, not a White on Black one.
The Byzantine emperor Heraclius supported the minority Chalcedean church led by the Patriarch from the Caucasus, Cyrus, against the majority Coptic (Monophysite) church. Coptic sources tell of ruthless and systematic persecution of the Copts by the Byzantines. As St. Clair Drake observes: "The Coptic Christians of Egypt welcomed the Arab Muslims as 'liberators' from what they considered the tyranny of their fellow Christians in Constantinople." [Drake, II:90]. According to Hugh Kennedy's research, the Arabian conquerors distinguished between the Egyptian Copts and what they called the 'Rūm' (Romans): the latter were considered the enemy and the former actually assisted the Muslim 'liberators' who were as black as they and even darker [Kennedy, 2007: 149-150]. Copts at Farāma for instance aided the Muslims, and at the little town of Bahnasā the African-Arabian Muslims slaughtered all the 'Rūmī' men, women and children they came across. When Babylon fell to the Muslims, ‘Amr granted protection to the Copts and killed the Romans [Kennedy, 2007: 150; Morimoto, 1997: 98].
There was no attempt to convert the Copts to Islam. As Ira Lapidus explains:
The necessary arrangements between the conqueror(s) and conquered were implemented in the reign of the second Caliph, 'Umar (634-644)¼(A) principle of 'Umar's settlement was that the conquered populations should be disturbed as little as possible. This meant that the Arab Muslims did not, contrary to reputation, attempt to convert people to Islam¼At the time of the conquests, Islam was meant to be a religion of the Arabs, a mark of caste unity and superiority. When conversions did occur, they were an embarrassment because they created status problems¼Just as the Arabs had no interest in changing the religious situation, they had no desire to disturb the social and administrative order¼local situations were left in local hands¼(In the conquered lands) the whole of the former social and religious order was left intact [Lapidus, 2002: 36; idem, 1972].
In terms of the local Christian community, Lapidus points out that "Arab policy attached no liability to the church or to membership in it. Nor¼did the Arabs encourage conversion to Islam." The black Muslims had a 'pro-Black' policy: in direct contrast to the Byzantines who empowered the minority, Roman church, the Muslims empowered the Coptic church. In fact, the Muslims gave all of the Chalcedonian churches over to the Copts and refused to appoint any Chalcedonian Patriarchs. "Thus the [Copts] gained in Egypt and gained in Nubia as well” [Lapidus, 1972: 249]. The Umayyad caliphs Mu’āwīya and ‘Abd al-Mālik (d. 705) built several churches in Alexandria and Fustat, as did the Egyptian governor ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. Marwān (d. 705). The Church of St. George and the monastery of Abū Qarqar at Hawān are but two examples.
This policy lasted for most the Umayyad period (661-750), when Islam was 'a Black thing'. However, toward the end of this period, attitudes and then policy changed. The reign of ‘Umar II (717-720) signaled this changed attitude. He was less protective of the Coptic church and more encouraging of conversion, though Egyptian policy did not change in that regard except that he decreed any converts exempt from the poll-tax that non-Muslims paid. By the Abbasid period, however, things are radically different. Chalcedian Patriarchs were being appointed again and their churches returned to them from the Copts. In other words, the transition from 'Pro-Black Isam' under the black Umayyads to Aryanized Islam under the Abbasids signaled a change in the status for the Coptic church. From 767-868 numerous Coptic revolts occurred in Egypt. In the ninth century Egypt was mainly governed by Turks. From 832 onward, Arabs and Copts together revolted against the government.
In terms of Nubia, ‘Amr b. al-‘As, the conqueror-turned- governor of Egypt, had a non-aggression policy. As Chancellor Williams admits: "despite the continued raids by the Blacks [of the South] he (‘Amr) chose not to extend his operations into their land." This policy, however, will be revoked in 643 by then governor ‘Abd Allāh b. Abī Sarh, who launched an invasion of the northern Nubian kingdom of Makuria. This invasion was a failure, to say the least: the Nubians dealt the Muslims a devastating defeat, and again in 651-652. Williams, aptly describing this conflict as 'one of the decisive battles of history', perceptively remarks: "The psychological effects of being defeated by the Blacks twice on national fronts caused the Arabs to adopt a peaceful relationship with these countries that lasted 600 years." This six-hundred year peace was the result of the baqt agreement, signed by both parties at the conclusion of the 651-652 battle. The baqt was both a non-aggression pact and a trade agreement between Muslim Egypt and Nubia, terms which were determined by the victors: Nubia. The basic terms were:
1. The citizens of each country were allowed free passage to the other, with security guaranteed by the host country.
2. A mosque was to be built in Nubia and a church in Egypt.
3. 360 slaves annually sent by Nubia to Egypt, in exchange for 1300 ardeb of wheat and 1300 kanīr of wine, linen and cloth.
The last stipulation has been the focus of some criticism and misrepresentation in some Christian and Afrocentrist circles, with support even from Muslim misrepresentation. This part of the agreement is often described as tribute imposed on the hapless Nubians by the lustful Muslim slavers, a covert plan to eventually conquer the Sudan. But this interpretation completely fails to take proper notice of a simple fact: the Nubians were the victors and therefore had the leverage. As Jay Spauling explains:
The Nubians won decisively. 'The Muslims¼had never suffered a loss like the one they had in Nubia.' For the next six centuries thereafter the Nubian authorities were able to impose their own terms upon relations with the Islamic world, an arrangement commonly known¼as the baqt. The baqt exemplified the institution of administered diplomatic trade through which eastern Sudanic kings normally preferred to conduct their foreign relations¼With the passage of centuries, various Islamic intellectuals, eager to forget the initial Nubian victory, devised increasingly elaborate and fanciful accounts that undertook to construe baqt shipments as payment of tribute (emphasis mine-WM) [Spauling, 2000:117].”
The baqt was thus a Nubian arrangement made with the defeated Muslims, not the other way around, and it had precedent in common Sudanic diplomacy: trading with Nubian slaves goes back to ancient Kemet [Redford, 2004]. In fact, the import of slaves from Nubia to the Muslims in Egypt should probably be seen in context of earlier Egyptian/Nubian relations. As Drake points out:
(Ancient) Egyptian cultural imperialism there certainly was-and it involved economic exploitation of Nubia as well-but there was no color discrimination involved. Some of the pharaohs were as dark or darker than any of their Nubian subjects…The Egyptian and Nubian masses were both exploited, although Egyptians were never enslaved. Some Nubians undoubtedly were enslaved, but slavery was not racial. European and Asian war captives predominated in Egypt and in Nubian gold mines as slaves [Drake, 1987, II:218-219].
Nonetheless, it should be reemphasized that in the working out of the baqt agreement, the victorious Nubians had the leverage. The arrangement guaranteed Nubia's independence and facilitated Nubian national/cultural progress for six centuries.
The [baqt]¼secured the independence of the Christian Nubian state for many centuries to come. Although there were occasional attempts to convert the rulers¼the general policy of the Muslim Egyptian government was to leave the Christian kingdom undisturbed. The friendly relationship between the Egyptian rulers and Nubian monarchs opened the door for (Muslim traders) [Hrbek and El Fasi, 1992: 44].
The resulting trade opportunities contributed to a Nubian florescence. As S. Jakobielski notes in his study of Christian Nubia:
The truce was upheld throughout the next five centuries of Christian civilization in Nubia and in its initial phase was crucial for maintaining peace and the possibilities for national development. The lack of any real threat on the part of the Arabs and the possibilities of carrying on trade with Egypt and maintaining contacts with Byzantium led to the development of a distinctive Nubian culture¼Thus the end of eighth century saw Nubia moving into its period of prosperity, which lasted up to and including over a half of the twelfth century and was also conditioned by a favorable economic situation. [Jakobielski, 1992: 103].
Williams makes the same point:
The 600-year détente with the Arabs in Egypt was a period of¼reconciliation and progress¼Even church and cathedral building expanded from this center of Black culture over the Western regions of Chad and adjoining states." [Williams, 1987:147].
Hostilities between Muslim Egypt and Christian Nubia began in the 13th century. Egypt was ruled by the Turkish oligarchy, the Mamluks. In 1269 the Mamluk sultan Baybars rejected a Makuria baqt initiative, a rejection for which the Nubian king retaliated by sacking the Egyptian Red Sea port of Aydhab in 1272. Four years later Mamluk forces invade and conquer Makuria and by 1324 the land became a rich slaving ground for Muslim merchants. It is to be emphasized here that while Islam was 'still black', if you will, relations with the Copts and Nubians were relatively peaceful and mutually beneficial. As John Henrik Clark admits: "The peaceful Arab and African partnership in the city- states of Africa went on for more than a century before the Arabs turned their normal trading apparatus into a human slave trading enterprise." [Clarke, 1992: iv]. That century was the period of the black Umayyad Dynasty. In post-Umayyad Islam which went through a process of Persianization and Turkifization (sic) or, in short, Aryanization, racism became rampant such that Islam went from Pro-Black to Anti-Black. This process impacted the literature, the theologies, and the policies of the Islamic world. The most horrendous legacy of this process is the East African Slave Trade.
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