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…

Oral History of Muslims in North Carolina Prior to 1980

North Carolina has had a vibrant Muslim community since the 1950’s. A close-knit network of young and hip members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) laid the foundation for future communities in the state. Some of them were native North Carolinians, but some of them came from the Baltimore, MD area. Chief among them was Minister/Imam Kenny Muhammad (Kenneth Murray) and his wife, Margaret, who reigned as the pioneers of North Carolina’s Muslim community, using their own labor, money, and charisma to establish mosques, businesses, and political alliances within the state.

Unfortunately, not much has been written about the origins of this community. Were you to search the web for “Muslims in North Carolina” you will not find much about its history. Books and local archives at institutions like Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill only have peripheral materials related to this history. If you know what to look for, you will find more specific information about the history of Muslims in North Carolina, but there’s not much.

Though the community has existed for nearly 70 years, it is only now that individuals are beginning to record and discuss its history. One major contribution to this development has been the efforts of Katie Spencer and Naomi Feaste who, in the name of the Museum of Durham History, received a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to curate an exhibit featuring the legacy of the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center, the state’s oldest mosque.

While I assisted in the creation of this exhibit, I had already begun working on a similar project with a broader scope. Back in 2005, I interviewed the late legendary jazz pianist, Yusuf Salim (Joseph Blair) who was in a band with Kenny Muhammad and actually introduced him to the teachings of the NOI. He gave me a first-hand account of the development of the Muslim community and sparked in me the idea to do more interviews. It wasn’t until spring 2016, my last semester in a graduate program for Library and Information Science, that I had the sufficient background knowledge, professional training, and ear of the community to launch an oral history project.

My idea was to record the stories and perspectives of the living pioneers of the community in a professional oral history project that could be later be placed in an archival institution. In addition to covering voices from Ar-Razzaq, I would seek out pioneers who are not currently affiliated with that community to round out the perspectives. Conversations with these pioneers were to center around the following five themes:

  1. Activism
  2. Religious and organizational philosophy
  3. Culture and the arts
  4. Education
  5. Characteristics of the city of Durham prior to 1980

I started interviewing people in the summer of 2016, starting of course, with Margaret Muhammad, then her daughter and son-in-law, Rhonda and Oliver Muhammad. By the end of the summer, I had completed about seven interviews. Since I was taking a position at the American University in Cairo, I felt the need to bid farewell to the community and present to them my progress on the project and promise my continued work on it in my future summer vacations to the U.S.

A project of this nature is important because it can be duplicated in communities around the U.S., were they to interpret the model I created in my manual. If organized from within the Muslim community being studied, then it can serve as a platform that can heal rifts and attract various types of resources. Likewise, it can serve as primary source material for researchers looking for information on the history of Islam in America. It is important that Muslims tell those stories themselves, rather than leaving it to the whims of people that might have malicious intent towards Muslims or otherwise distorted views in gathering information and interpreting it. It is my hope that this and similar projects provide a basis for an independent Islamic archive and research center.