Orientalism in Black Face

Scholarship is about debate and the free exchange of ideas. So in order to keep scholarship alive in Black communities, the channels of debate must remain open. However, these debates must respect knowledge and the means for acquiring it. Too often, in the so-called conscious community, debates ensue with a lack of regard for knowledge. One particular debate that offended my sensibilities not only as an African American Muslim, but also a linguist and information specialist, was one in which the the musician, author, and conscious debater, Shakka Ahmose attempted to prove that Allah was a deity worshiped along with other deities in ancient Sumer. He based this conclusion on his “groundbreaking” research using a book of Sumerian poetry translated by Thorkild Jacobsen, an acclaimed Assyriologist. At face value, he appears to have stumbled on some serious information that requires a well-crafted response from Muslims. But upon closer evaluation, we find that his information was veiled in tricknowledge, as I will demonstrate momentarily.

The first red flag was that, in Jacobsen’s book, the author transliterates the deity’s name as Alla, not Allah. However, Mr. Ahmose, who supposedly studied the ancient Egyptian language, could not see the gaping hole in his logic. Just because two words from two different languages look the same when transliterated into English, does not mean they are the same word or have the same meaning. For example, the name of the ancient Egyptian being, Thot (an Anglicized bastardization of ḏḥwty), has absolutely no relation to the word thought in English, despite the fact that they are pronounced similarly. Likewise, the name of the country, Turkey, has no relation to the word turkey in English. Unfortunately, there is a bad habit among conscious psuedo-scholars finding cognates between words that have no relation to each other.

Secondly, these languages have sounds in their respective languages that do not have equivalents in the English language. So when I see a word transliterated in English I cannot ascertain whether it is a voiced pharyngeal fricative or glottal stop without the aid of a standard transliteration system. Moreover, Thorkild Jacobsen, a bona fides linguist, never made the claim that there was some relation between this Sumerian deity and Allah of Arabia. Even if they were the same sounds, the concept of Allah put forth in the Qur’an and held by Muslims throughout history, negates any latent notions of the existence of other deities.

Anyway, I decided to look into this theory and apply a lateral reading technique to get to the bottom of this. I did a simple Google search for “alla sumerian god.” As usual, the first thing I saw was a Wikipedia page titled “List of Mesopotamian deities,” but there was no mention of “Alla.” Further down on the results list, you can find a blog post entitled, “Was Allah Originally a Babylonian ‘God’ of Violence?” written by an elderly convert to Judaism from Cuba. He refers to Muslims and Christians disparagingly in his posts, but the reason for his disdain is not clear other than the fact that he is Jewish. Nevertheless, this author reiterates a theory proposed on Shoebet.com, another misinformation site backed by Zionist Jews. On this site, Theodore Shoebet authored an article called “The Oldest Reference to Allah,” in which he cites a work by a true scholar of Mesopotamian history, but he misspells the word in question and bases his theory on this “mistake.” This reveals that in the typical fashion of internet misinformers, their ideas are not based on primary research, but a repackaging of others’ erroneous ideas.

Jean-François Champollion. Thoout, Thoth Deux Fois Grand, Le Second Hermés. 1823. 29 cm. Brooklyn Museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth#/media/File:Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Herm%C3%A9s,_N372.2A.jpg.

The source in question was by Stephanie M. Dalley, an Oxford professor of the ancient Near East, who published her English translation of the Epic of Atrahasis in 1989. On page 10, Dalley translates the passage: “Then Alia made his voice heard…” Shoebet corrupted her translation by writing, “Then Alla made his voice heard…” To the dyslexic eye, the letter “i” following the first “l” can easily be mistaken for another “l.” However, Alia is clearly a different word from Alla or Allah. If this was an honest mistake, then Mr. Shoebet’s reading skills need to be questioned along with whoever shared his information. If this was a deliberate distortion, then the Qur’an has already warned the believers about those among the Jews who distort words from their places (Qur’an 4:46).

In the case of Mr. Ahmose, he was clearly being deceptive. As we can see, he searched “AlIa”(with a capital i) in his Google book, with hopes that the viewer would not be able to make it out on the video or search for it himself. What is more interesting, perhaps, is the implications of a so-called conscious Black man using misinformation, theories, and – dare I say – tactics from White Jews and Orientalists to combat the spread of Islam in Black communities. Mr. Ahmose can be seen in other videos and debates plagiarizing the since-debunked theories of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and the like, which posit that the Qur’an and Islam did not originate in Arabia. On the other hand, Black Muslims have been baffled for years as to why many in the conscious circles, particularly Kemetans, have criticized Black Muslims so harshly and effectively ousted them from the conscious community altogether when they are supposed to be brothers in race and in struggle. Could it be that they have made an alliance with Zionists and other Islamophobes to marginalize Muslims in the Black community? Or are they so subsumed with anti-Muslim prejudice that it clouds their judgement to view the facts? The world may never know…

Afrocentric Madness: Anti-Religiosity in Afrocentric Thought

Afrocentricism is a valid methodology of looking at history. With the idea that all history is subjective (HIStory, as they like to say), it is worth looking at history from the perspectives of Africans. However, the popularization of Afrocentricism in African American communities throughout the 20th century, and now into the 21st century, has taken a highly anti-religious tone, which has resulted in the dismissal of anyone associated with the three main Abrahamic religious paths. In this post, I will address some aspects of the methodology of those who have usurped Afrocentricism and highlight some of their fallacies using a video lecture from the 2000’s by Dr. Phil Valentine.

Classic Fallacies of Afrocentricism

In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of religious communities, Dr. Phil Valentine, like others of his ilk, falls into a classic fallacy by regurgitating anti-religious rhetoric. His first course of action is to attack the history of the Christian Church in Europe and how it was used to colonize and enslave Africans. Then he looks at the Black Christian today, often attacking his character and psychology. Finally, he turns to other religious expressions adopted by African Americans, like Islam and the Hebrew Israelites.

Most Afrocentric thinkers make this false-equivalence, refusing to recognize: 1) the complex history of Christianity, 2) the complex history of Islam and other religions, 3) their own blind-spot regarding racial identity, and 4) their biases and prejudices.

Dr. Phil Valentine speaks on religion.

1) Failure to recognize the complex history of Christianity

  • Afrocentric thinkers do not always recognize that Christianity had “Western” versions and “Eastern” versions that diverged pretty early in its history. These doctrinal differences drew a wedge between them philosophically and geographically, resulting in completely different historical experiences.
  • Acknowledgment of these various forms of Christianity are almost always along racial lines rather than doctrinal lines. However, doctrinal differences under the Roman Empire at the advent of Christianity often trumped racial differences.

2) Failure to recognize the complex history of Islam and other religions

  • Islam has its own complex history that is starkly different from that of European Christianity.
  • Direct experience with God was never discouraged.
  • Power of interpretation was regional and lied with whoever possessed the knowledge, not upon charisma, descent, race, class, etc. (although debates existed)
  • There was no wide-scale dark age and rejection of science, systematic disenfranchisement of women and minorities, or even slavery based solely on race.
  • Not all societies see religion as a means for political and social control as it is imagined in the West.

3) Afrocentric blind-spot concerning race

  • Almost all Afrocentrics operate on a construct of race invented in the United States.
  • This is the duality of Blackness and Whiteness.
  • That Blackness is equivalent to African and Whiteness is equivalent to European.
  • Any noticeable amount of African descent counts as Black, except for Arabs.
  • Black Arabs must choose to identify either with their “Black African mothers” or with their “White Arab fathers.”
  • There is no room in this construct for a “Black” person to see oneself as possessing multiple identities or to reject them altogether. Any lack of conformity to this construct evokes ridicule.

4) Biases and Prejudices

  • Most Afrocentrics are Egyptophiles and have an unquestioning reverence for Kemet (ancient Egypt). This causes them to ignore information about it that might seem distasteful to them like homosexuality, violent conquest, honor killings, etc.
  • They are theoretically in favor of Blacks and Africans in all they do until their thinking and actions do not fit the mold that they have constructed. Therefore, African Christians and Muslims are all brainwashed; Africans that marry outside of their race are all self-hating; etc.
  • They are prejudiced against:
    • Europeans for slavery and oppression in America.
    • Arabs primarily for corner stores in Black neighborhoods, secondly due to post-9/11 propaganda, and tangentially for their history of slavery in East Africa.
  • They are prejudice against all Muslims for the actions of Arabs and Black Christians for the actions of Europeans.

Kemetan Exceptionalism

At one point in Dr. Valentine’s lecture, the crowd turns its attention directly to Islam and Muslims. One can observe that he does not know much about Islam and he would rather avoid the topic, but since audience members ask, he is compelled to say something. At around the (1:04:15) mark in the video, he makes the comment:

“Islam is an off shoot of the same triumvirate. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have the same prophets. If they share the same prophets, they share the same bullsh*t.”

After being prodded with specifics, Dr. Valentine states that the Muslims took the act of women covering from the ancient Africans. He said that it was done for protection from the sun and to guard against male pheromones that would cause them to ovulate. Then he said that it degenerated into something to keep a woman down. When addressing men praying in front and women in the back, he said that was also taken from Kemet. In his interpretation, women behind men meant that they were the support. He goes on to say that when the Arabs came and saw the hieroglyphs, they interpreted it to mean subservience based on their cultural values.

While Dr. Valentine appears to confirm the “correctness” of these Islamic practices in as much as they are conform to his brand of scientism and Kemetanism, he denies Muslims the intellectual capacity for having a similar reasoning. He assumes that the Muslim woman’s veil and her praying behind men are necessarily oppressive when coming from Muslims and cannot be interpreted in any other way. One person in the crowd states that he heard from a Muslim that women praying in front of or along side men could be a distraction, but he does not address this comment.

The conversation devolves into a rant against Christianity. In the process, he mentions a hallmark that distinguishes cultural nationalists from revolutionaries. He believes that at some point in the future when all Black people recognize their true selves, only then will we live happily ever after. This grand approach is not all dissimilar from some religious dogma that posit that everyone should believe the same in order for us to live happily ever after. It can also be argued that such a unity of thought and belief is pure fantasy and has never been achieved along racial or religious lines in history.

Revolutionaries, however, tend to take a different approach. They meet people where they are at and do not obligate them to buy into a particular paradigm before attempting to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Conflicts and controversy have always existed, and religious movements have historically helped people wade these waters. In waiting for an imaginative collective consciousness, Afrocentrics and other cultural nationalists fix a permanent chip on their shoulders and ensure that they will always have a reason to not take action.

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Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 5)

On the topic of the Hanifs, I have come across an interesting perspective worth sharing. It is a theory emanating from the contemporary Iraqi scholar Fadil al-Rabi’i, who has presented a fresh perspective on Arabian Christianity in his 2009 publication, Al-Masih al-Arabi: al-Nasraniyyah fi al-Jazira al-Arabiyya wa al-Sira’ al-Bizanti al-Farisi (The Arab Messiah: Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula and the Byzantine-Persian Conflict).

According to al-Rabi’i, the Hanifs were a collective of people searching for the religion of Abraham. Their only common denominator was their disillusionment with the pagan practices of Arabia as well as the philosophical Christianity out of Byzantine (Rome) that was gaining hegemony wherever they ruled. However, al-Rabi’i notes that they varied in time, space, and beliefs, as he counts among them the likes of As’ad ibn Karb al-Himyari, a king in Yemen, Abu Bakr, and Waraqah ibn Nawfal (al-Rabi’i, 16).

In addition, al-Rabi’i is of the opinion that all Hanifs were a type of Nasara, but further distinguishes the Nasara (the Qur’anic term for Christians) from Masihiyyin (Hellenistic Christianity, which was influenced by Greek philosophy). The Arab Nasara, in turn, followed a simple, monotheistic religion, in the way of the Prophet ‘Isa and free of philosophical speculation. He blames the philosophical undertones of the Hellenistic-era for what would later be deemed Christianity, which made the teachings of ‘Isa into a new religion that deified him. Due to the minimal and quietist presence of the Nasara in Arabia, it became overshadowed by the philosophical Christianity espoused by the Holy Roman Empire (al-Rabi’i, 14).

There were two historical elements that led to the prevalence of Hellenistic Christianity in Arabia:

  • the evolving philosophical debates on the nature of Christ
  • Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and making it the official religion of Rome (al-Rabi’i, 17)

Al-Rabi’i asserts that the Nasara hid among the Christian monasteries throughout the Arabian peninsula. The true Nasara were therefore indistinguishable from the Hellenistic Christians, because they generally practiced their religion in isolation. (al-Rabi’i, 18) If we take the opinion that the Hanifs were the inheritors of the Mystery Schools, and all Hanifs were Nasara, this would corroborate James’ assertion that the survivors of the Mystery Schools fled into Arabia, Asia Minor, and the interior of Africa. (James, 31-32).

If we take this perspective as true, it fills in some gaps concerning the Hanifs. Their practices are largely unknown to us because they worshipped in secret, fearing reprisals from the heavy-handed theocratic Byzantine Empire. In addition, they were not simply a throw back to the ancient past, as one might conclude by their search for the religion of Abraham. Rather, they were aware of the religion of Abraham by following the prophet of their time, ‘Isa. Yet, the intellectual and military conflicts of the time led to distortions in his teachings, which the Hanifs/Nasara sought to avoid by distancing themselves from the influence of the state and the official church of Rome.

This connection between the Nasara and the Mystery Schools is further substantiated by the Coptic writings on the walls in the necropolis of Thebes. Anyone who has been to the site in Luxor, Egypt knows that it goes by the name Dayr al-Bahri (Monastery of the Northern Wind) because the tombs were used as monasteries and a place of refuge when they were fleeing Roman persecution.

Coptic writing on the tombs of Dayr al-Bahri.

It is also worth noting that Luxor is located in the southern part of current-day Egypt, which is home to its largely Nubian population. Christianity had taken a firm root in Nubia and Abyssinia by the advent of Islam in the 7th century. We also know that the Prophet Muhammad referred to this area as “a land of truth” when he encouraged his early followers to take refuge there (Ibn Hisham, 407-17).

We can therefore conclude that the Mystery Schools survived in the form of the Nasara who lived in Africa, Arabia, and Asia Minor. Due to persecution, isolation, and frequent migration, the chain of transmission to the Prophet ‘Isa was lost or distorted and ultimately their beliefs were subsumed or otherwise influenced by the pervading philosophical debates of the time about the divinity of Christ. This broken chain opened a new epoch for the restoration of man’s original spiritual path.

Sahih InternationalYou will surely find the most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers [to be] the Jews and those who associate others with Allah; and you will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

References

Al-Rabi’i, Fadel. Al-Masih al-Arabi: Al-Nasraniyyah Fi al-Jazira al-Arabiyya Wa al-Sira’ al-Bizanti al-Farisi. Beirut: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 2009.

Ibn Hishām, Abū Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Malik ibn Hishām ibn Ayyūb al-Ḥimyarī. Al-Sīrah al-Nabawīyah. al-Juzʼ al-Awwal. Edited by Majdi Fathi Al-Sayyid. 1st ed. Cairo: Dār al-Sahāba lil-Turāth, 1995.

James, George G.M. Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy Is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1954.

Towards Islamic Literacy: A Brief History (Part 1)

Since the term information literacy was coined, its definition has expanded and has been applied to a number of subject areas. There are such examples as computer literacy, cultural literacy, and visual literacy, but can we really justify a literacy of one religion? Or can we also envision models for a Jewish literacy or Pagan literacy? While I have no objection to this, I believe that there is an urgent need for Islamic literacy, given today’s political, spiritual, and intellectual climate that has allowed for the dissemination of misinformation on Islam and Muslims worldwide. The consequences of which have led to a seemingly unending chain reaction of deadly global crises involving Muslims. While this issue has been raised to a number of brilliant contemporary Islamic scholars worldwide, as of yet they have not been able to address it adequately. In my view, this issue must be addressed creatively and must be seen in the light of a paradigm shift, which we will discuss later.

In the last 20 years or so, Muslims have made major inroads into the future of Islamic education in America despite the challenges posed by the dominant American society. With the continued success of many Sister Clara Muhammad schools, Zaytuna College, Islamic Online University, ALIM, and many other efforts made by scholars, teachers, and organizations both in-person and online, the prospects for acquiring a basic and sometimes advanced knowledge of Islamic sciences and present-day issues are plentiful. However, the community still faces problems of Muslims misunderstanding their faith and allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks in its name, increasingly Islamophobic groups and individuals who perpetuate misinformation about Islam and Muslims, and debates internal to the Muslim community over liberalism and a lack of respect for the Islamic intellectual tradition. In turn, this has led these American Muslims to see Islamic literacy as a way to fill the gaps in knowledge and understanding. While the usage of the term Islamic literacy is relatively recent, the discussions around it are neither new nor original. The term has an evolving definition and history on which I hope to shed some light.

Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya

In the past, Islamic beliefs, practices, law, and ethical codes permeated Muslim societies, making it easy for someone living in or visiting those societies to gain literacy in Islam. However, if the common Muslim wanted to become more acquainted with religious knowledge and other subjects, he could do so by absorbing Arabic literature (adab). Dr. Umar Sulayman al-Ashqar notes that the likes of Ibn Khaldun and Shihab al-Din al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418 C.E.) described one of the aims of studying literature as, “the marginal acquisition of some of every field of knowledge.”[i]

However, in contemporary language, the word thaqafa is used to describe this relationship to knowledge, and carries a meaning close to our usage of the word literacy. The word thaqafa, in addition to meaning erudition (and other related concepts), is most often translated as culture. Therefore, those who write on the topic in Arabic not only speak in terms of information and knowledge acquisition, but also in terms of culture, civilization, and etiquettes. In antiquity, there was much literature written in Arabic expounding on the proper etiquettes of students and teachers. Such books are usually brief and serve either as admonitions for derelict students and scholars or guidebooks for novice pupils and rising teachers. They often describe a culture that existed in Islamic learning environments throughout history, but are now only maintained in a minority of institutions that value and seek to uphold traditional Islamic methods of teaching and learning, which is often characterized by oral transmission and memorization of texts in addition to an ascetic lifestyle focused on study and worship.

In some Arab Muslim societies, thinkers and educators have devoted much time to increasing their publics’ awareness of Islam beyond the absorption they will naturally acquire by virtue of living in Muslim families, communities, and societies. In these places, it has become abundantly clear that neither heredity or association, or even being native speakers of Arabic makes them sufficiently knowledgeable about Islam. This has caused many in this part of the world to think about how to make their citizens more literate in foundational matters of the religion. Consequently, countries such as Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have established courses in Islamic literacy (or culture, as it can be defined) in institutions of higher learning.[ii]

Presently, the term al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya has emerged in popular usage by authors and educators at Islamic-themed schools throughout the Arab world as an effort to re-introduce their youth to their Arabic-Islamic heritage. Its usage, however, is relatively recent, only emerging in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Despite the fact that many of these authors borrow each other’s ideas in explaining what al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya is, they have not yet formed a scholarly consensus on the exact definition of the term. Nevertheless, I have gathered and translated some of these attempted definitions, which define the concept as: 

  • “Knowledge of the broader Islamic Community’s foundational elements by [examining] its past and present interplay with religion, language, history, civilization, values, and shared goals in a conscious and purposeful way.”[i]
  • “The collection of theoretical knowledge, information, and expertise, derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna, acquired by human beings who determine, in light of these sources, an individual’s thought and behavioral patterns in life.”[ii]
  • “The way of life lived by Muslims over their lifespan in accordance to Islam and its vision.”[iii]
  • “The collection of psychological, intellectual, ideological, moral, and behavioral attributes and characteristics by which the Islamic personality is distinguished [and is] acquired by knowledge of the general foundations of the Islamic Community, as well as the general foundations of the Islamic religion, [which are] derived from the Holy Qur’an, the authentic prophetic Sunna, and the intellectual efforts of scholars and thinkers, along with the reciprocal influences of the present reality.”[iv]
  • “The living image of the Islamic Community.”[v]

In these various definitions, we find some basic agreement that al-thaqafa as-Islamiyya encompasses the foundational elements of Islam, which are primarily derived from the Qur’an, Sunna, and other sources of information. Moreover, it reflects the issues of current times in some way. These issues are left abstract in the above definitions. However, were we to consider the stated imperatives of some of these authors, we would find a number of themes that dominate their contemporary discourse. Muhammad Musa al-Sharif enumerated eight themes in his book Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina:

  1. The correct conception of life and the universe.
  2. Increasing Muslims’ pride and confidence in Islam and to call others to it.
  3. Familiarization with the correct Islamic position on important matters.
  4. Guarding against uncertainties in the religion.
  5. Resisting the influence of external cultures.
  6. The role of Muslims in directing society.
  7. Looking towards the future of the Islamic Community.
  8. Acquiring balance and thoroughness in all aspects of life.[vi]

From a cursory glance at these themes, the reader might gather that writings on al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya comes from a place of anxiety over a future loss of an Islamic identity and culture and animosity against those perceived as aiding in its destruction. In many of these works, the West acts as the main antagonist in the story. Colonialism, neo-colonialism, Zionism, Western media, and their foreign policies in the Muslim world are all major topics of conversation discussed within these works. Westerners are sometimes mentioned in as much as they confirm certain stereotypes about the West or confirm the superiority of Muslim cultures. Conversely, they almost never mention anything about the growth of Islam in the West or Muslims’ unique placement in these societies and potential contributions to the global Muslim culture. This blaring omission along with the overall confrontational tone negates the usefulness of an Arab-Muslim understanding of al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya in the West where the attitudes and challenges are much different. In the next post, we will briefly examine how American Muslims have sought to address their set of challenges by developing their own concepts of Islamic literacy.



[i] “Al-akhdhu min kulli ‘ilmin bitaraf.” Al-Ashqar, Umar Sulayman. Nahw Thaqafa al-Islamiyya al-Aseela, Jordan: Dar al-Nafa’is, 2005, p. 18-20.

[ii] Al-Sharif, Muhamad Musa. Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2012, p. 26. 

[i] Al-Mazid, Ahmad ibn Uthman, et al. Al-Madkhal ila al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya, Saudi Arabia: Madar al-Watn li al-Nashr, 2012, p. 12.

[ii] Musallam, Mustafa and Fathi Muhammad al-Zaghbi. Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya: Ta’rifuha, Masadiruha, Majalatuha, Tahaddiyatuha, al-Ithra: 2007, p. 18.

[iii] Cited from the periodical Al-Jundi al-Muslim in Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, p. 23.

[iv]  Ibid. p. 23-24.

[v]  Ibid. p. 24.

[vi]  Ibid. pp.  42-62.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 4)

I had to take a brief hiatus from writing the Islam and Ancient Mystery Schools series in absence of some information and in light of new information. In this post, I want to share some of my findings on the practices and identity of the Hanifs.

Since I published Islam and Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 3), I hoped to find a comprehensive work specifically about the Hanifs, but I have not located such a work in English or Arabic as of yet. Perhaps the paucity of sources about the Hanifs is due to the fact that they were not written about in depth in early sources. However, there are some tertiary sources and secondary sources that touch on the topic tangentially.

The most extensive of which was W. Montgomery Watt’s treatment of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira (in English) and al-Mafassal fi Tarikh al-‘Arab Qabl al-Islam by Jawwad Ali (in Arabic). While the general consensus is that the Hanifs are a mysterious group, if they can be called that, I will summarize a few points of interest for this study.

  • There is a consensus that the Hanifs were monotheistic Arabs. No particular tribe or region had a particularly high number of hanifs in their midst. Ali compares them to reformists of our day (Ali vol. 6, 457). They observed their society and religious landscape and hoped for something better. They found solace in reclaiming the religion of Abraham.
  • In terms of their practices, they were known to make hajj and practice circumcision. They also avoided the worship of celestial bodies and idols and refused to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods. There were those among the Hanifs who would meditate on the Universe, practice spiritual seclusion by living in caves, and abstain from alcohol and foul language. They, however, had no shari’ah i.e. systemized worship, beliefs, or scripture (Ali vol. 6, 456 and 455).
  • From what is known about them, they were not a monolith. Most classical Muslim scholars considered them to be monotheists who did not follow any of the known religions of the time. Others have named among the Hanifs Arab converts to Christianity such as Waraqa ibn Nawfal. Qays ibn Sa’ida al-Ayadi, and ‘Uthman ibn al-Huwayrith. Similarly, not all Hanifs converted to Islam upon learning about it like Abu Amir the Monk and Kinana ibn ‘Abd Yalayl al-Thaqafi (Ali vol. 6, 457-461).
  • Orientalist scholars have found that some Syrian Christian groups used to refer to monotheistic Arabs as Hanifs, especially those from Yemen. They were said to have been influenced by the surrounding Jews and Christians. They were also knowledgeable of other languages such as Syriac and Hebrew. Ali states unequivocally that all Hanifs were often well-to-do and able to read and write. They spent their surplus income purchasing books, which were expensive in those times. He also speculated that they might have been familiar with Greek books of philosophy in addition to religious scriptures (Ali vol. 6, 453 and 456).

Conclusion

Is it possible that the Hanifs were the inheritors of the defunct Ancient Mystery Schools? According to George G.M. James, the Roman emperor Justinian had closed the Mystery Schools in Egypt as well as the teaching of Greek philosophy in the 6th century (p. 31). Thus the only religions tolerated were Trinitarian Christianity and Judaism to a lesser extent. All other doctrines, whether monotheistic or not were outlawed. Therefore it is possible that non-Jewish and non-Christian monotheists from the Mystery Schools roamed the peripheries of the Roman Empire in search of a purer and more ancient religion. It is also possible that they were subsumed into non-Hellenized interpretations of Christianity to which some Hanifs converted.

As we know, the Mystery Schools was highly structured and primarily oral. It would have been difficult to maintain the teachings of the full curriculum across lands, languages, and potential harm, so only visages of their beliefs and practices would survive. Still the fact that they were literate in other languages and spent their time and money educating themselves using the available written material of the time is a sign that they were seeking to reclaim knowledge that was lost.

While the true nature of the Hanifs may never be known, we can safely assume that they were influenced by the religious milieu of their time. The abolition of the Mystery Schools in the 6th century left a spiritual void on the Earth that would not be fulfilled until the spread of Islam in the coming centuries. As soon as Justinian attempted to extinguish the light of the Mystery Schools, a new light was sparked in the Arabian desert among the Hanifs…

Sahih International: They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah refuses except to perfect His light, although the disbelievers dislike it. (Qur’an 9:32)

Bill Cooper vs. the Modern Mystery Schools

A few days after 9/11, I remember lying in my university dorm room in the middle of the night as bright lights from a helicopter illuminated my room and I heard the hoots and hollers of frat boys returning home after a night of partying. Before I came to my senses, I wondered if this was the Illuminati’s declaration of martial law? The year 2001 caught many off-guard. The conspiracy theory literature of the ’90’s had many of us thinking that as we approached the year 2000 something big was right around the corner. After Y2K passed without a hitch many people went back to sleep until Bush Jr. stole the 2000 election. People were shocked at first, but not mobilized since he was considered an idiot and comedic fodder. However, the events of 9/11 would change everything and confirm what many conspiracy theorists already assumed… That the US government would declare war on its people.

The cover of Behold a Pale Horse by Milton William “Bill” Cooper.

One book in particular stands out as the pivotal work for conspiracy theorists of various persuasions. That book is Behold a Pale Horse (1991) by Bill Cooper, who aimed to expose the plots of the perverted modern-day Mystery Schools. Cooper was killed two months after the 9/11 attacks in front of his Arizona home under a barrage of bullets from police officers, further validating his assertions. Not only did he predict that the US government would blame a terrorist attack on Bin Laden prior to 9/11, but his book properly identified how the president would expand his powers using executive orders, how computer technology would be used in social engineering, and the evils of the Federal Reserve. Cooper preceded Alex Jones as the go-to conspiracy theorist with his radio show “The Hour of the Time.” (Of course, Cooper was not a fan of shock jock Alex Jones.)

The 500-page monograph succinctly outlined the patriot’s worldview, which expounded on a number of primary source documents (also included in the book), such as intelligence memos, newspaper clippings, correspondences, and other documents the author thought worthy of public scrutiny. Therefore, the serious reader could claim that he/she has seen proof of the conspiracies with their own eyes. Back before the worldwide web was prevalent, such documents were not easily accessed, and thus his book represented a one-stop shop for self-study of the global conspiracy.

Fast forward over 20 years, when we live our entire lives online, a large web of conspiracy theories of all kinds has been weaved, which has distorted the approach of Cooper, popularly known as QAnon. Whether it’s the Illuminati or a reptilian cabal of pedophiles, QAnon beliefs have a genealogy that can be traced back to Cooper’s work, but does not remain loyal to it. Like QAnon, Cooper’s primary constituency were white Christian, often right-wing, constitutionalists, who were generally patriotic Americans and sometimes White Nationalists.

However, their anti-establishment disposition has not saved them from being duped by Trump. Trump spent years rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars and other elites, including the Clintons and known pedophile ring leader, Jeffrey Epstein. But somehow he has convinced his QAnon followers that he is fighting against those elites. Trump’s more than suspicious relationship with Putin has never been resolved and reeks of treason, but this does not seem to bother any of his supporters. Perhaps they did not read carefully enough when Cooper wrote:

“REMEMBER—NEVER WORSHIP A LEADER. IF YOU WORSHIP A LEADER, YOU THEN NO LONGER HAVE THE ABILITY TO RECOGNIZE WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN DECEIVED!” (p.91)

In a similar vein, Black-owned bookstores, hip-hop music, and lecturers like Steve Cokely were the means by which Cooper’s ideas were disseminated into Black communities. Of course the foundation was already laid by the Nation of Islam who canonized these conspiracy theories in the early part of the 20th century.

In their respective interviews with Fat Joe, rapper Busta Rhymes and producer Dallas Austin described a scene from the early 90’s in which the legendary funk musician, George Clinton hipped a generation of hip hop artists to Behold a Pale Horse. Their recording sessions were like a book club and the book would inform the doomsday themes that led to Busta Rhymes’ album titles. Goodie Mob would release “Cell Therapy.” The D.O.C.‘s long-awaited second LP had several Cooper-inspired tracks. Prodigy from Mobb Deep would mention concepts from the book in his verses. And the list of hip-hop’s connection to the book goes on…

Busta Rhymes discusses the influence of Behold a Pale Horse (52:55 – 56:47).
Dallas Austin discusses the influence of Behold a Pale Horse (1:04:06 – 1:04:32).

However, the so-called Black conscious movement is not without its contradictions either. In contrast to white patriots, many “conscious” Blacks are Muslims, Five Percenters, Nuwaubians, Hebrew Israelites, or ascribe to non-traditional Christian beliefs. Likewise, they often embraced Black Nationalism and leftist Black activism such as the Black Panther Party, something that Cooper probably would have disapproved of. However, Black people generally saw his theories as confirmation of the anti-Blackness and pure evil of the American political establishment.

As we watch red-cap and fatigue-laden protesters riot at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and other capitol buildings around the US, we should know that their actions are motivated by beliefs with a genealogy that can be traced to Cooper, the Nazi Party, and even earlier in American history. The irony is that for much of American history both patriots and conscious Blacks alike thought that the fall of America would occur at the hands of Blacks and other minorities, but recent events are showing us otherwise.

Soul On Ice Cube

Recently, the rapper and actor Ice Cube has stirred quite a commotion by his association with the Trump campaign, who contacted him to discuss his Contract With Black America. Many African Americans on the left have attacked him or belittled him on grounds that he was attempting to split the Black vote, he was being used by the Trump campaign, that his plan was misogynistic, that he was oblivious to the work of other activists as well as Biden’s Lift Every Voice Plan, not being articulate enough, etc.

While it is possible that these critiques are true, they serve to divert attention to the merits of Ice Cube’s content and strategy. Anyone who has followed him on Twitter since July (or the 1990’s) is aware of his political positions. He has unequivocally expressed his disillusionment with both the Republican and Democratic parties, while maintaining a pragmatic view of political engagement. One that allows him to work with whichever party wins the election.

Ice Cube in his own words.

This political pragmatism is not new. In fact, Ice Cube’s strategy is reminiscent of that of Floyd McKissick during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. McKissick was a lawyer from North Carolina and a Civil Rights leader. He was one of the first four African American students to desegregate the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Although he was renown in Civil Rights circles ascending to the head of CORE in 1966, he was part of the contingent who advocated for Black Power. He hosted Malcolm X at UNC after he was rejected to speak at the predominantly Black North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University). He also associated with the likes of Kwame Toure (Stokely Charmichael), Ron Karenga, and Martin Luther King Jr.

In the spirit of African resistance in the Americas, he revised the notion of Maroonage in the post-Civil Rights Era with his establishment of Soul City in rural North Carolina. The city was to be a model of how African-Americans can circumvent the struggles of acquiring political and economic power in existing urban areas where the odds are already stacked against them by establishing their own cities from scratch. In order to achieve this goal, he sought the help of the federal government to pass the Urban Growth and Community Development Act, which would secure funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for this and similar projects. He and those that followed him made a strategic alliance to support the election and re-election of Republican president Nixon.

This was a controversial move even in his time. We know that the Democratic Party, prior to the 1960’s, was the party of the Ku Klux Klan and White segregationists. However, it was the policies of presidents Kennedy and Johnson that caused them to shift to the Republican Party. Yet, this shift was still new and tenuous by the 1970’s and African Americans overall were more politically conscious than ever. Party loyalty rhetoric was at a minimum because many African Americans in the South had just overcome the Democratic and Republican parties’ Jim Crow restrictions to their right to vote.

P-4930/6 , in the Floyd B. McKissick Papers #4930, Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the African American Resources Collection of North Carolina Central University.

The Democratic Party later became known as the party of Civil Rights because they passed a series of Civil Rights bills. Nonetheless, politically conscious Black people knew that the bills were the death knell of the movement or at the very least an amicable diversion from the goals they sought to attain. Integration was not the same as desegregation. Integration allowed for Black people to join the White economic, social, and political establishment – at the bottom of course. However, desegregation was aimed at releasing the yolk of Jim Crow and post-Reconstruction Era measures to suppress Black economic, social, and political power. In other words, they aimed at restoring the Black power that would have naturally existed without racist intervention to suppress it.

Floyd McKissick speaks on Black Power in 1966.

I see the Contract With Black America as a means to revive the spirit of Black Power that has lain dormant since at least the 1990’s. Ice Cube has been vocal that his plan for Black American descendants of enslaved people and not broader categories such as “people of color” or “minorities” that could divert funds from them. He has explicitly criticized the Republican and Democratic parties, while being open to work with whichever party wins the election. Furthermore, he has called for Black people not to depend on campaign promises and lip service, but to put political pressure on the victors well after the elections. I personally do not see anything wrong with this perspective. Rather, it sounds like a plan.

One characteristic of the Trump Years has been the stark polarization that his presidency has forced the American public to take. This has clearly taken place within the Muslim community with the rise of the “Akh-Right” and “Social Justice Warriors.” Likewise, this has taken place within the African American community with more aggressive Black conservatives and more staunch Black liberals. As they mudsling during the election season and attempt to recuperate in its aftermath, I commend those Black Muslims with major platforms like Ice Cube and Dave Chappelle who are still thinking clearly in the mist of hysteria.

The Metaphysics of “I Can’t Breathe”

As George Floyd lay pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressing on the back of his neck, his last words would define the times that we are living in like none other. His tragic murder occurred during a global pandemic that has taken the life of over 400,000 people and whose main symptom is shortness of breath. This is a sign for people who reflect.

“Breath of Life” by Rachel Strohm (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelstrohm/38975963380)

The Breath of Life

In Hebrew and Arabic, the words for breath and soul are etymologically related. The words for soul are nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ) and nafs (نًفس) in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. In the Hebrew Bible, nephesh refers to animal and human life or the soul. Throughout the Qur’an, nafs is used to refer to the human spirit or the self. In the Qur’an, it is described as inciting to evil (12:53), reproachable (75:2), at peace (89:27), well-pleased and pleasing (89:28).

Essentially, the nephesh/nafas refers to the breath that every living being possesses as the essence of their life on earth. This breath is sacred as it is passed from parents to child, generation after generation. There exists an unbroken chain of breath going back to our original father and mother, Adam and Eve.

The Human Spirit

When Allah created Adam, He breathed the soul (ruh,روح ) into him, then he sneezed and said: ‘All praise is due to Allah.’ So he praised Allah by His permission. Then His Lord said to him: “May Allah have mercy upon you O Adam.” When its Hebrew cognate, (ruach רוּחַ), was translated into Greek, it was translated to the word that means breath (pneuma πνεῦμα).

Whereas the nafs/nephesh refers to the sacred physical breath that cannot be detached from the body, the ruh/ruach is pure spirit that can exist in the absence of a body. It is from the command of the Most High analogous to a wind (rih ريح) whose source is from something greater and unseen.

When we reflect on the time we are living in we find several analogies to the cutting of our sacred breath. First, the Corona virus is a respiratory disease that makes it extremely difficult to breathe among other symptoms. Secondly, the global pandemic has made the world take a collective gasp of air as businesses and other institutions close as a precaution against spreading the virus. This is at a time when people’s lives were already being strangled by a tenuous economy, degree inflation, and immorality and corruption in high places. In addition to all of this, the world gasped in horror over yet another extrajudicial killing of an African American. As the world holds its breath in anticipation for what is next, we hope that the next breath is one that will revive the human spirit.

 

 

The Free National Name of the Copts

The declaration of a free national name and religion is a concept that was popularized by Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple. He rejected a color-based identity in favor of one based on heritage. While I am not an expert on Moorish Science, I found a fitting parallel to this concept in the history of Copts in Egypt, one of the oldest Christian sect in the world.

Some years ago, I came across a documentary series about various Arab religious communities on Al Jazeera. In the episode about the Copts, there was an interesting remark made by Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt. Starting around the 5:20 until the 5:40 mark he states what can be translated as:

“The origins of the Copts are Pharaonic and not Arabic. However, they now possess Arab citizenship and the Arabic language, but their origins are not Arab.”

Arabization in Egypt

The Coptic Christian community of Egypt are not ethnically Arabs, despite being native Arabic speakers and being physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians. Technically, their ethnicity should represent the majority in Egypt and their presence predates Arab Muslim hegemony in the region. The same can be said of Berbers in Northwest Africa. How is it, then, did they assume an Arab identity?

It suffices us to know that Arabization in Egypt, like much of North Africa, was a slow and complicated process. The early Muslims played a major role in ending Byzantine oppression of indigenous Christian sects in Egypt and the rest of North Africa in 7th century CE. Their initial social contract was that of a dhimmi status, which guaranteed them protection as long as they paid the jizyah tax.

The Cairo Geniza papers reveal the rich linguistic environment of the Nile between the 3rd century BCE and the 7th century CE. These papers consist of papyri written in languages such as Hebrew, Syrian, Ethiopian, Middle Persian, and hieroglyphics to name a few. However, the majority of these documents are in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek. They suggest that by the 7th century Arabic was used side-by-side with Coptic and Greek until 705 when a decree made Arabic the official administrative language.

We know that by the 12th century Pope Gabriel II (Ibn Turayk) had officially made Arabic the language of Coptic liturgy. His reasoning for this was that Copts had already been Arabized and that they should worship in a language they understand.[1] Of course, the true extent of Arabization at this point in time is debatable. Perhaps only urbanized Copts had become comfortable with conversing in Arabic, while rural Copts were not.

Furthermore, scholarship on the topic shows that there were a number of factors that led to the ultimate Arabization of Egypt.These factors were an interplay of “Arab” migration, their intermarriage with Coptic women, willing and coerced conversion to Islam, popular Muslim distrust of and violence against Copts, and official policies of the state. (To learn more read: Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt and Coptic Language and Identity in Ayyūbid Egypt).

Coptic monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accessed from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Church_of_the_Holy_Sepulchre_-_Coptic_monks_(2).jpg

Lessons for America

Even after a difficult history under Muslim rule, the Coptic population has survived as Egypt’s largest national minority. While their Arabness is a topic of continued debate in their communities and within Egypt, I will suggest a few lessons that the so-called African American can learn from this history.

  • As we note from Pope Shenouda II’s statement, the Coptic community is an indigenous community with a distinct heritage. While their heritage is initially Pharaonic, it is their Christian heritage that allows them to maintain a social contract under Muslim rule. It is an Islamic belief that Islam abrogated Christianity, just as Christianity abrogated Judaism and so forth, which might have served as the basis for Muslims’ harsh treatment of the Copts throughout history, especially after the Crusades.
  • However, it was only after they proclaimed their free national and religious identity that they were able to attain Arab citizenship. While much was lost in this transaction, they were also able to maintain their legal sovereignty in a nation ruled by Islamic law. In fact, Islamic law, like American law, guaranteed them the right to govern themselves.
  • Additionally, by Arabizing their heritage they were able to preserve what they could of their history in a living language. This is an important point for so-called African Americans, as the language of our history and scholarship provides access to different audiences and influences the types of discussions we have around topics of concern to us.
  • Finally, their citizenship is not simply tied to a nation (Egyptian), but to a heritage (Arab). As Arab citizens, the Copts were not only able to secure a place within Egyptian society, but in the greater Arab world. As Arab citizens, they have the right to produce culture, scholarship, and engage in the current events of the Arab world.

[1] This argument is reminiscent of the contemporary argument for the use of colloquial Arabic in the Arab world. See Is Fusha Elitist?