Sabian Mumbo Jumbo: Ishmael Reed and the Polemics of the Modern Sabians

Ishmael Reed’s 1972 Afrofuturist novel, Mumbo Jumbo, is a classic and masterful literary work. However, behind the words on its pages lies a modern Sabian polemic and interpretatio afro-americana. The novel is set in a pandemic-era 1920’s America. The disease was a Vodoun-inspired, dance and free-love hysteria called “Jes Grew” that primarily infected African Americans, who needed to be quarantined if they succumb to the disease. It is obvious that Reed aligns with this behavior and sees it as the true means to liberation, while he directs his sharpest criticism to the “Atonists,” monotheists who follow a traditional religion but are secretly controlled by a Freemasonic cabal called the Wallflower Order. In other words, he believes that Traditionalists/Hanifs are close-minded prudes who oppose the essential elements of humanity.

Such a perspective is not new. The dialectic between Sabian/Spiritualists and Hanif/Traditionalists has been at the heart of metaphysical debates since the inception of religious history. Perhaps the fact that he was on of the first to articulate this concept in an African American context is his greatest feat and few, if any, have discussed this aspect of his book. In this post, I will examine Ishmael Reed’s novel in light of what we know of Sabianism. We will uncover his Sabian polemics, counter-narratives, and his vision for Black liberation.

Sabian Polemic

Mumbo Jumbo represents a modern-day Sabian polemic against the Hanifs of our times, or as he refers to them, the Atonists. Throughout the novel, Reed characterizes the Atonists as anti-nature, anti-fun, authoritarians who have made the world a terrible place to live by enforcing laws, making people work, and limiting freedom. They thrive on paranoia and a sense of control over people’s actions as demonstrated by his pairing the malevolent Wallflower Order with monotheism and the righteous virus known as Jes Grew with polytheism and liberation.

Reed constantly mocks Christian and Muslim sentiments throughout the novel. In Reed’s world, they are on the side of the Wallflower Order who oppress those they consider heretics and apostates. There is a Muslim character by the name Abdul Sufi Hamid (an allusion to Abdul Hamid Sufi, the Harlemite convert to Islam and labor leader who died in 1938) who had possession of an ancient Egyptian text that held the secret wisdom of the Black man. He is part of the Black resistance along with Papa LaBas (a Vodoun priest and the book’s protagonist) and Black Herman (a medicine man). However, because Abdul is Muslim he is incapacitated by his  “Atonist” belief that the people infected by the Jes Grew “Epidemic” are just primitive, superstitious heathens. He does not identify with them because he is an arbiter of people’s tastes and clings to a belief that Muslims are superior to pagans. In one instance, he belittles the epidemic by claiming it’s “a lot of people twisting they butts and getting happy. Old, primitive, superstitious jungle ways. Allah is the way. Allah be praised.”

In a dialogue in which Abdul attempts to distance himself from Christianity, Papa LaBas goes on a diatribe stating that Islam derived from Christianity. He repeats the theories of Orientalists who believe that Muhammad wanted to impress Christians with his knowledge of the Bible. He goes on to say that both Christianity and Islam find women to be evil and acknowledge the same angels like Gabriel and prophets like Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. Then he says that they both condemn the Jews because of the “pantheistic contingent” among them. Here he points out that the Jews are God’s chosen people and yet there are Sabians among them who do not deny the worship of other gods. Black Herman brings up the fact that the “Koran” has been accused of lacking chronology and Muhammad of being ambiguous and inaccurate with regards to the identity of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Abdul has no response but a scripted intolerant retort telling them not to criticize his religion. “Atonists Christians and Muslims don’t tolerate those who refuse to accept their modes,” he claims. Abdul is said to have “picked up the old Plymouth Rock bug and [is] calling it Mecca.” LaBas says that the images in the temples of ancient Egypt were so explicit that other nations burned them and called it obscene and pornographic.

While these extensive dialogues feature between the plot of the novel, they tell us a lot about the position of the author and the debates that existed in the Black community at the time of the book’s publishing. Reed skillfully brings the ancient Sabian polemic to 20th century Black urban America, a population situated for such influences. As Sabian movements with Islamic overtones like the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple directed people from Christianity with their harsh critiques of the religion, their orientation to their roots, and programs for Black liberation, the Afrocentrists went one step further by calling Black people to reject the monotheistic Hanif paths all together and to join them in their polytheistic Sabian paths. This coupled with the Free Love Movement of the 60’s made Sabian-inspired ideas particularly attractive during that era.

Sabianism as Liberation

It is clear that Reed’s idea of Black liberation is a syncretic hedonism linked to jazz music and diasporic African cultures, a position taken by many Black cultural nationalists of the 60’s and 70’s. As early as 1962, Oseijeman Adefunmi (formerly Serge King), founder of the Yoruba Temple in Harlem, articulated a sentiment aimed to critique Islam’s austerity: “The African, being supremely creative and cosmopolitan, will eventually revolt against a culture which debars plastic sculpture and other traditionally African expressions such as dancing, syncopated singing, smoking and drinking.”

Moreover, Adefunmi challenged Islam’s efficacy in protesting White supremacy. He believed, as Reed insinuates, that Islam and Muslims detests the same things the White power structure hates about Africans: its pantheon of gods, dancing, and drumming. As such, Islam is not sufficiently African and is thus, more tolerated by White supremacists. The Islam of enslaved African Muslims, he contends, vanished because it was not authentically African, as opposed to other African spiritual and cultural elements that survived slavery. Of course, Adefunmi brings up the East African slave trade as another reason as to why Blacks should reject Islam. (Adefunmi, Oseijeman. Tribal Origins of African-Americans. New Oyo [Harlem]:Yoruba Temple, 1962, 1, cited in Knight, 2020, p. 33).

In my estimation, the things to which Afrocentric Sabians are calling are not a means to liberation but they are the means to bondage both physically and spiritually. Did the Europeans not trade alcohol for slaves? Did this addiction not lead certain tribes to fight others and sell them into slavery? Does sexual promiscuity not lead to broken families and disease; the exact things that destroy our communities in the U.S.? Were African people not singing and dancing before, during, and after slavery? If so, what difference does it make if they choose not to now? While it is natural for people to enjoy themselves (according to their personal tastes, which might or might not include singing and dancing), fun is not a sole means to ending oppression and other social ills.

Moreover, practicing a tribal religion did not protect Africans from capture and enslavement any more than practicing Islam or Christianity. At least Islamic law regulates the trade and treatment of slaves and prohibits slavery on the basis of race. The Mamluks of medieval Egypt were not Africans but Eastern Europeans and Central Asians. Likewise, the African Tippu Tib played a major role in the East African slave trade just as much as the Ibāḍī sultans from southern Arabia.

What is more, African Muslims played just as much a role in fighting the European slave trade as their participation in it. In fact, more Africans (including those who practice traditional religions) participated in the slave trade than Europeans. The Europeans that traded in slaves were a minority of rich and opportunistic royalty and businessmen. The peasants of Western Europe were not part of this.

Counternarratives and Interpretatio Afro-americana

Even deeper than than their challenge against a single Abrahamic religion is the neo-Sabian tendency to create counter-narratives to what we know of the scriptures. Starting in Chapter 52, Reed recounts a history of religious figures that has no basis in tradition or scripture. Rather, it is a myth (i.e. false story) that serves the purpose of undermining people’s beliefs about the prophets and their works.

In Reed’s myth, Osiris is the hero and hip prophetic personality who spread knowledge of agriculture, music, and most importantly dance. He was an Egyptian prince who studied at a university in the Arabian town of Nysa. He typified the Jes Grew infection discussed previously in the novel. Osiris even ventured to Teotihuacán and Olmeca in South America to spread his knowledge.

The first villain was Set, who opposed his brother, Osiris. Set was obsessed with war, hated nature and agriculture, and had an egotistical jealousy of Osiris. Plus the fact that Osiris married their sister, Isis, further intensified Set’s hatred. Reed writes of Set in the following words:

He went down as the 1st man to shut nature out of himself. He called it discipline. He is also the deity of the modern clerk, always tabulating, and perhaps invented taxes.

The next villain was Akhenaton, the devotee to Aton, from which the Atonists in the novel take their name. The Egyptians rejected his creed of monotheism and killed him.

Next in his succession of villains is Moses, the adopted son of a Pharaoh and initiate of the Osirian Mysteries. He sought leadership in the order by tricking Jethro, a genuine follower of Osiris, into teaching him the secret tunes that he inherited from Osiris as well as the Book of Thoth acquired from a conjured vision of Isis. Yet, his plan did not work. Moses only attained from it the aggressive and violent magic, which made the people mock and hate him. As a result, he loathed the book and hid it in a tabernacle.

The next villains were the Knights Templar, a Christian Atonist group modeled after the rogue Ismāʿīlī Assassins. A librarian for the Knights Templar named Hinckle Von Vampton found the copy of the Book of Thoth in their library. As the Knights Templar were being executed throughout Europe for worshiping the “Black god Baphomet,” Hinckle escaped with the book and lived for hundreds of years. He eventually ended up in the U.S., where the Wildflower Order, created by the Atonists, aimed to find him and the book in order to put an end to the Jes Grew pandemic, which evoked fun and benevolent magic.

These counter-narratives are reminiscent of the Mandaean (Sabian) narratives about Noah, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. As we know, rejection of the prophets or a selection of them is a common trait of Sabianism. Beyond their simple rejection of the Hanif prophets is the Sabian proclivity to invert prophetic narratives to demean them and champion their beliefs. This inversion lies at the heart of the Sabian/Hanif divide and is at the heart of many religious conflicts as alluded to in the novel. I would even argue that this is why non-canonical texts like the Book of Enoch and the Nag Hammadi were rejected from inclusion in the Bible by some religious denominations. These books’ presentations of the prophets align too much with the counter-narratives of the Sabians. As the Hanifs sought to subdue the slander, turmoil, and licentiousness of the Sabians and prevailed, the Sabian response was to operate secretly and to foment doubt and rebellion from behind the scenes. The Afrocentrist, with his worship of ancient Kemet and infatuation with traditional African religions has succumb to the Jes Grew disease, and it has stunted their intellectual and spiritual growth as liberators for the Black community because they focus their efforts against the Hanifs among them. This mantle was picked up by Ishmael Reed in his novel. Though it will go down in history as a post-modern literary masterpiece it will forever be cast in the heap of Sabian mumbo jumbo.


Adefunmi, Oseijeman. Tribal Origins of African-Americans. New Oyo [Harlem]:Yoruba Temple, 1962

Knight, Michael Muhammad. Metaphysical Africa: Truth and Blackness in the Ansaru Allah Community. Pen State University Press, 2020.

Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo: A Novel. Ebook. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 1972.

Nationalism in the Nile: Egyptians, Afrocentrism, and Kevin Hart

A small faction of Egyptian neo-nationalists on social media has announced that the wholesome American comedian, Kevin Hart, is not welcome in Egypt leading up to his February 21, 2023 performance in the country. Behind this supposed “viral” campaign is a small cadre of under-educated Egyptians who have recently learned of something called Afrocentrism. In turn, they have erroneously made him the symbol of Afrocentrism due to some internet pictures of him dressed as an ancient Egyptian and some vague statements he made. A few people have brought this controversy to my attention and sought my opinion on it as someone who has bridged the gap between Afrocentricity and the Arab world in the past. As perhaps my final post from the city of Cairo, I will address this controversy and offer a voice of reason on the topic that I hope all interested parties can benefit from.

The Egyptian Neo-Nationalists Behind the Posts

The people behind the hashtags and the posts reflect a misplaced Egyptian nationalistic sentiment that only directs their energy at topics of no consequence for their country. They offer no solutions to class disparities, education, or discrimination within Egyptian society but they seem adamant that confronting Afrocentrism and banning African Americans will solve their problems. These neo-nationalists reject the fact that many of the ancient Egyptians were dark skinned; which can be considered a central tenant of Afrocentric thought. Furthermore, they might have encountered a hostile Hotep who might have spewed some rhetoric about taking back their ancestral homeland of Egypt in one of their vitriolic rants. But does this really warrant a protest movement? And what does it have to do with Kevin Hart?

Ahmad Youness

On December 13, he posted a video speaking out against the upcoming Kevin Hart show and Afrocentrism in general. He claims that the Egyptians of today are the Egyptians of the ancient past and he encouraged Egyptians to not tolerate the appropriation of their history by anyone, especially not “Africans.” Ahmad Youness is a 40-something year old radio personality who has been in the business since 2003. He is known for telling horror stories on the Radio 9090 station. According to his Wikipedia page, has a “license” (a low-level degree) in the English language but not much more of an educational background beyond that.

In one video, he states what could be translated as the following:

This is Ahmad Youness with you, an Egyptian media personality. Recently we heard about a show that will be held by the African actor, Kevin Hart. It should be a comedy show, but I don’t really see anything funny about it. The only funny thing about it is that there are people within Egypt who invited him and there is an Egyptian company that supports and organizes it…

This guy called Kevin Hart is one of the supporters of Afrocentrism. Afrocentrism, if you don’t know, is a movement that says that the ancient Egyptian civilization is not ours but it belongs to Africans and that we stole it. It has since then been falsely attributed to us and that they will take it back one way or another. They have a lot of supporters within and outside their ranks as well. There are also those who secretly support them. You might think that the idea is not widespread but it is very popular. The topic of Afrocentrism is one that has been discussed at length and there are big names that support it.

He shouldn’t come here to Egypt and we shouldn’t welcome him. He is not here. He is not welcome here. And he will not enter Egypt!

Of course, there are many things wrong with his diatribe. Kevin Hart is not an African actor but an American actor who happens to be African American. Racist Arabs often drop the American aspect of an African American’s identity to demean them. This was done to Barack Obama often in the Arab media throughout his presidency. While Kevin Hart might believe how most African Americans (and probably most non-Black Americans) believe, that the ancient Egyptians were Black Africans or dark skinned people, but he is not the poster boy for Afrocentrism by any means. In the US, Kevin Hart has a reputation as a wholesome comedian who is funny but not as edgy or raunchy as other well-known comedians such as Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock. His opposition to Kevin Hart amounts to nothing but a safe target of his campaign. Ahmad Youness is a labeling Kevin Hart with a term that he never claimed in the first place. And he is accusing him of something so minute that Hart probably has no clear recollection of.

Egyptian History Defenders

Another front in the campaign against Kevin Hart is the social media handle Egyptian History Defenders. Their social media accounts are full of anti-African American memes concerning their so-called appropriation of Egyptian history. These memes are directed at Afrocentric claims that Black people are at the root of Egyptian civilization. However, it is clear that they cannot differentiate between an Afrocentrist and an African American. Indeed, probably most African Americans believe that the ancient Egyptians were Black, but that does not make them Afrocentrists. This group probably only heard of the term Afrocentrism without researching it, then began to label everything that resembles it by that term. In truth, Afrocentrism is a scholarly approach stemming from the Black Studies movement that began to take shape in the mid-20th century. At its core, it intends to center the perspectives and experiences of Africans on the continent (Egyptians included) and throughout the diaspora in various fields of study starting with history. Molefi Asante, perhaps the most vocal proponent of the term who has since disavowed the concept, rejected the use of Afrocentrism as a response to Eurocentrism. Rather, he used the term Afrocentricity to denote a proactive cultural movement among Africans that shapes the adherent’s paradigm on various areas of human interest. The neo-nationalists have instead reduced Afrocentrism to a mere musing on the ancestors.

Interestingly enough, these Egyptian neo-nationalists in their anti-intellectualism have slipped into the same methodological fallacy as some Afrocentrists. Just as Afrocentrists juxtapose paintings and sculptures from ancient civilizations to pictures of contemporary African Americans to show that these ancient people would be classified as Black by present American standards, they too have taken to juxtaposing pictures of ancient Egyptians to show that they would be classified as Egyptians by today’s standards. While interesting to look at, this is not proof of descent, not for African Americans and not for current-day Egyptians.

On both sides, we should acknowledge that many changes have taken place on earth since the ancient days. While it is obvious that the original Egyptians were Black as we know it today that does not exclude any other people from greatness. Many of those dark skinned people continue to live in the region where you find most of the ancient Egyptian monuments in Luxor and Aswan along with many other Ṣaʿāyada (people of Upper Egypt), who all Egyptians identify as sumr (dark skinned). Why neo-nationalist Egyptians ignore them is indicative of their racism and colonial mindset. They are blinded by the metropolitan north which is dominated by descendants of Central Asians, Greeks, Anatolians, Circassians, and other people of European descent including the French and Germans, that they don’t even realize the dark skinned people that dominate the south of the country where the markers of ancient Egyptian civilization are found. But most Egyptians care nothing about ancient Egypt until foreigners show an interest in it.

No Protests Against European Egyptologists

Why don’t Egyptian neo-nationalists oppose European Egyptologists? They have done more damage than Afrocentrists ever have. In fact, Afrocentrists pose no threat to Egyptian society despite their fiery rhetoric. Yet, white Americans and Europeans are the only groups who have a proven track record of attacking Egypt and distorting its historical narrative under the guise of research. Not only did the French and British colonize Egypt, and the U.S. continues to influence its politics, but they stole artifacts, introduced the question of the ancient Egyptians’ race, and interfered in Egyptian politics, society, and media. Not only that, but it was the West who took the civilization away from Egypt and labeled it “world heritage,” effectively handing their history and artifacts over to the “world,” which just happens to be located in Western countries.

The debate over the race of the ancient Egyptians was started by European orientalists, who founded the field of Egyptology with the intention of barring indigenous scholarship and participation in it. But there are no hashtags and strong words from media personalities for them. The “red line” they draw supposedly at the tampering with Egyptian history is only for the imaginary threat of Black Americans and not the real threat of White Westerners. The neo-nationalist Egyptians should thank Africans and African Americans trained in the West like Carter G. Woodson, Cheikh Anta Diop, George G.M. James, Ivan van Sertima, and John Henrik Clarke among others, who loosened the grip of White colonialists on the narrative of ancient Egypt. In addition, it was the movie Black Panther that sparked the recent sentiment of returning antiquities to their countries of origin. This is an Afrocentric sentiment that Egyptians are tangibly benefiting from. If ancient Egypt is indeed world heritage, then scholars of all backgrounds with the interest and necessary qualifications should be able to contribute to the scholarship of that heritage.

Concluding Thoughts

One of the major accomplishments of the Afrocentric movement was that they dispelled the myth of colonizing European Egyptologists who spread the lie that the ancient Egyptians were “white” like them. I don’t know a single African American or other ethnicity from America for that fact who does not believe that the ancient Egyptians were dark skinned African people. Does Ahmad Youness and his cadre seek to disinvite all foreigners who hold these views regardless of race? Or is this ban exclusively for African Americans? I have lived in Egypt six years and met Egyptians who believe that the ancient Egyptians were Black Africans as well. Do they also think those Egyptians should be expelled? If so, when does the madness end?

Plus, who gave these people the authority to say who is and is not welcome in Egypt? They are not government officials or even intellectuals. They do not speak for the majority of Egyptians who have no idea what Afrocentrism is and more than likely do not care. Kevin Hart’s coming to Egypt would stimulate a depressed economy, which is suffering greatly now. It will also bring joy to a depressed people. Who are these protesters who care nothing about the poor condition of their country and their people? Tourists of all types, including African Americans, stimulate the Egyptian economy every year by taking tours throughout the country. What these protesters want to do effectively is deprive their country of this essential income for their economy. What did not make the headlines was the cancellation of the annual Afrocentric conference that takes place in Luxor. We can presume that it was at the behest of the same neo-nationalists. Baba James Small alerted me to this earlier in the year and I thought it was a bit uncharacteristic of the Egyptian tourist industry, which jumps at just about any and every opportunity to make a dollar. It is clear that Afrocentrism has benefited Egyptians financially and intellectually, more than it has harmed them. If only its detractors would research the matter more seriously.

What I see as vital to resolving the issues between my Afrocentric and Egyptian brethren is opening the lines of communication and the venues for dialogue. From my readings of contemporary Egyptian scholars like Okasha El Daly and Nadim al-Sayyar, as well as classical Arabic scholarship on ancient Egypt, I feel like the two sides have more in common than they might think. Currently, the exchange is almost all hostile and emotionally charged based on their own cultural sensitivities. But if a few level heads came together to discuss things on an intellectual level I am sure we will learn a lot from each other. If there is anyone out there interested in such an exchange please let me know. Until then, enjoy the Kevin Hart show.

America is Not Egypt

It should go without saying that Egypt is not America. After all, they are two different places on two different continents. However, in the world of Wikipedia research, YouTube scholarship, and gullible social media disciples, this is one of the many theories that has been circulating that has no merit. While much of the current media hoopla about Ye and Kyrie Irving is indirectly a critique of the Hebrew Israelite claim that Africans in the Americas are the true Jews (yet another colonialist construct), they and their Moorish counterparts also promote a more extremely bogus theory: that ancient Egypt was in America.

Uriah Brandon*, in his YouTube series, America is Egypt, argues that there is a massive conspiracy to conceal the fact that the civilization, knowledge, and artifacts – attributed to the ancient African civilization Egypt – actually belonged to ancient Native Americans. What is more is that these ancient Native Americans were in actuality the so-called African Americans. The series raises a number of questions, to which Mr. Brandon attempts to answer with his America is Egypt theory. In Episode 4, he queries:

Shouldn’t the Egyptians aka Arabs have known about Egyptian history before the Europeans? So all of these ancient grandiose monuments sit abandoned in the desert in the middle of a trade highway between three continents and they were never studied or surveyed by the Arab population who had been living in the region for at least a thousand years?! How is it possible that supposed native Egyptians knew nothing about Egyptian culture or language until the invasion of the French? The Rosetta Stone and the pyramids had been there for thousands of years, yet the same people accredited with the some of the world’s most advanced knowledge hadn’t even cared to take a peak at a pyramid wall?

America Is Egypt Episode 4. America Is Egypt. UB TV, (5:04-6:05)

One of the foundational premises of his theory rests on the claim that Egyptians had no conceptualization, recollection or academic interest in their ancient past. This feeds into his conclusion that the Egyptian monuments and artifacts and even its historicity was concocted by European Jesuits and Freemasons. Mr. Brandon expounds upon this premise in Part 4 of his series, which I will demonstrate in this post is spurious.

Medieval Egyptology

Mr. Brandon did a good job of recounting the problematic origins of the Egyptology field and is right to question colonial scholarship on the ancient world, which is wrapped up in racialized and racist views of people and clear white supremacist motives. His deconstructions of race and language are also meritorious. However, he, like many Hebrew Israelites, Afrocentrists, Moors, and New Agers, suffer from the ailment of not reading widely enough, a lack of scholarly rigor, and debilitating confirmation bias.

Mr. Brandon exposes his ignorance of Egypt in his statement about Egyptians not bothering to look at the pyramids. Anyone who has been to the Pyramids of Giza knows that there are no hieroglyphic inscriptions on them or the Sphinx that sits in their vicinity. One will have to venture (by plane) to the southern part of Egypt to the city of Luxor to find hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls of their temples and burial sites. On top of that, even the most ignorant Egyptian tour guide will point out that Coptic Christians used these temples and tombs as monasteries and hiding places from the Byzantines (i.e. Romans) who sought to impose their theology on the Egyptian Coptics.

Mr. Brandon might be surprised to learn that not only was there  continuity between ancient Egypt and medieval Egypt, but aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, language, and religious beliefs were retained and studied over the medieval period… in Arabic. Although the study of Egypt since the Islamic expansion to the region is an under-researched topic in English, there was a genre of writings in the Arabic language on ancient Egypt from the likes of Abu Al-ʿAbbās al-Maqrīzī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, Ibn Khaldūn, and more. Many of these sources are cited in the book  Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings by Ukasha El-Daly. I recently met the author at a talk he gave at the American Research Center in Egypt on Oct. 12, 2022. Although his research aims at correcting the Western academic narrative on the topic, he also answers the very questions Mr. Brandon poses concerning the Egyptians’ own knowledge of their ancient heritage.

Mr. Brandon embraces the same conclusions as the European Orientalists who believe that only they took an interest in unlocking the secrets of ancient Egypt. They carry the attitude that a people’s adoption of Christianity or Islam  automatically makes them religious bigots incapable of not only studying but remembering their ancient past. Yet El-Daly shows both empirically and anecdotally that this was not the case. Rather it was European and American Egyptologists who ignored all indigenous writings on ancient Egypt between the 7th and 16th centuries even though they were aware of them. El-Daly asserts that:

“The main reason was the desire of early Western Egyptologists and others to keep Egyptians out of Egyptology by discouraging them from participation and study, thus leading to their marginalisation and to inevitable Western dominance of the subject” (El-Daly, 2005, p. 4).

We know that early European Egyptologists were not oblivious to the works of the Arabs, Muslims, and Copts with regards to ancient Egypt. El-Daly points out that the British Orientalist, Joseph von Hammer, published an English translation of the 10th century scholar Ibn Waḥshīya’s** deciphering of ancient scripts along with its original Arabic. Others like Athanasius Kircher (17th century) and Wallis Budge (19th/20th century) were indebted to medieval Muslim and Coptic scholarship on the Demotic, Hieratic and Hieroglyphic.*** (El-Daly, 2005, pp. 57-58)

Chapter 5 of El-Daly’s book is titled, “Medieval Arab attempts to decipher ancient Egyptian scripts.” In this chapter, he documents Arab and Muslim attempts at deciphering the hieroglyphics. He says the first of them to take an interest in deciphering the scripts of the ancient Egyptians was the mid-7th century scholar Jābir ibn Ḥayān. Other Arab and Muslim scholars who wrote on the topic include Ayūb Ibn Maslama (9th century), Dhū al-Nūn al-Miṣrī (9th century), Ibn Waḥshīya (9th/10th centuries), and Abū al-Qāsim (El-Daly, 2005, p. 67).

El-Daly’s work introduces the English reader to a myriad of medieval writings in Arabic not the least of which is Anwār ʻUlwīyy al-Ajrām fī al-Kashf ʻan Asrār al-Ahrām by the 13th century scholar of Moroccan descent, Muhammad al-Idrīsī. It provides insights into the nature of medieval Arabic Egyptology. For instance, throughout the book it only mentions the presence of two pyramids. This is not because the others were built later, but because they were covered in sand and only the two largest ones were visible.

During al-Idrīsī’s time, there were a number of theories in circulation about who built the pyramids and for what purpose. One theory was that it was built by thirty consecutive kings of Egypt starting with Bayṣar, the son of Ḥām, and was used as a food repository during the time of Prophet Yūsuf. Some believed that Aristotle had the two pyramids built for himself and Alexander of Macedonia. (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 89). Some thought they were built by the people of ʿĀd, a race of giants from  Arabia (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 99). Others believed that the pyramids and the other monuments, statues, and structures (known as barbā) were built by Enoch (Prophet Idrīs) to preserve the world’s knowledge in preparation of the great cataclysm that was foreseen in the stars. They were not sure if the cataclysm would be in the form of a flood, fire, or invasion. Therefore, they build the structures out of stone and clay so that if the cataclysm was a flood, the stone would remain. If it was by fire then the clay would remain. And if it was by the sword, then everything would remain (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 94). Al-Idrīsī concluded that this latter theory was the most plausible and that the people of the Nile Valley collectively agreed to build these structures for the sake of mankind, showing that they did not believe that the pyramids were built with Israelite slave labor far before Western scholars came to this realization.

The linguistic terrain in Egypt was also complicated by the presence of a plethora of groups and languages in the region in late antiquity prior to Islamic hegemony. This linguistic diversity is best represented in the Genizah documents that were found in Old Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue. In this collection of legal, religious, and mundane papyri documents, One can find Hebrew written in Arabic and Coptic scripts, Arabic written in Hebrew and Coptic scripts, Coptic written in Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as Persian and Ethiopic languages. This shows that Egypt was a linguistically plural society since the 6th century. So there is no wonder how lesser used, esoteric ancient languages can die out in such an environment.

In terms of continuity, Coptic is not just a sect of Christianity, but the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and some would argue, the religious continuation of ancient Egypt. First, the word Egypt is derived from the word Copt, which is pronounced gipṭ. This is perhaps an adaptation of Qifṭ, the son of Miṣr, who was a grandson of Prophet Noah according to al-Masʿūdī (El-Daly, 2005, p. 21). Muslim historians from other lands often sat at the feet of Coptic monks to learn about ancient Egypt. Al-Idrīsī relates the anecdote of a non-Arab expert on Egyptology who used to collect ancient Egyptian texts. He found a mummy and a scroll in the monastery of Abū Hermes, but did not recognize the script. Believing it to be an ancient form of Coptic, he sought out a monk at the monastery of al-Qalamūn in Fayyum who could read it (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 100). This shows that the religious scholars among the Copts continued to retain knowledge of their ancient past at the time of Islamic expansion and Muslim scholars came to learn from them. This further demonstrates that neither the advent of Christianity or Islam eroded this knowledge and clearly they had a concept of ancient Egypt.

The Cairo Postcard Trust. Pyramid and Sphinx. Still Image, c. late 19th/early 20th century. Rare Books and Special Collections Library; American University in Cairo.

Egypt is Arabia

Mr. Brandon and those who believe that America is Egypt need not jump to far-fetched conclusions to explain anomalies in history, such as the lack of archaeological evidence for an Israelite presence in Egypt and the Levant. Indeed, there is a burgeoning school of thought that challenges classical Biblical scholarship on this matter. In 1985, Kamal Salibi, a Lebanese scholar of Christian background, published his controversial book, The Bible Came From Arabia. In light of the lack of physical evidence in the Levant and Egypt for an Israelite presence, he hypothesized that the events occurred further south. He laid a map of the Biblical place names over a map of current-day places in Arabia and was able to observe a correspondence.

Later, Salibi’s research was developed by the likes of Bernard Leeman in his Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship, Dana Reynolds-Marniche’s The African and Arabian Origins of the Hebrew Bible: An Ethnohistorical Study, and the works of Fāḍil al-Rabīʿī. While I will admit that their work is inconclusive because the necessary archaeological excavations cannot be done at present due to conflict in the region, their hypothesis has some basis in logic and pre-modern texts such as al-Shahrastānī who believed that Jews, Christians, and Pagans in pre-Islamic Arabia were not ethnically distinct peoples, but rather their differences were theological (Shahrastānī and Muhammad, 1992, p. 227-228). Mandaean scriptures also corroborate a common Semitic genealogy among Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, and Egyptians and highlight the theological dichotomy between Sabians (represented by Mandaeans, Egyptians, Harranians, and the like) and Hanifs (Jews, Christians, and other followers of Abraham) (Samak, 1995, p. 38-39).

One might notice that Leeman is of European descent but was raised in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Reynolds-Marniche is an African American raised as a Theosophist and contributed a chapter to Ivan van Sertima’s Golden Age of the Moor, and al-Rabīʿī is an Iraqi leftist thinker and historian. Each author is from a different region and a different linguistic and educational background, which allows them to bring different expertise and perspectives to the topic. As such, scholarship is not a conspiracy, they are submitting their works to the scholarly community for review and criticism in order to arrive at a consensus.


It is possible for knowledge to be forgotten if the ones that possess it do not transmit it orally or in the written word. What most modern Sabian groups do not understand is that the nature of teaching in the ancient world was such that one had to have contact with a teacher or at least be taught how to read certain texts in order to acquire knowledge. This student-to-teacher transmission kept the links of knowledge alive. In times of war, disease, famine, and social upheaval the concerns of people turn away from knowledge acquisition to the issues of the time. So the number of people who devote their time to study and teaching diminishes and sometimes they die without transmitting certain knowledge. Thus, not ever omission of knowledge is a conspiracy or cover up. But perhaps the die-hard skeptical conspiracy theorist will dismiss the facts and references I posited here as well, wrapping me and the authors I cited into another layer of their elaborate conspiracy theory. But before they do, I will present this question to them: What is the difference between an age-old global conspiracy and your overall ignorance about a topic?


*Mr. Brandon is a filmmaker out of North Carolina and graduate of North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. Like myself, he was influenced by the Afrocentric researcher, Steve Cokeley, who is responsible for giving countless lectures exposing the Black fraternal order of the Boulè Both Mr. Brandon and I grew up in the same state, had similar majors in college, similar interests, and influences. However, he is a much better filmmaker than I ever was but I am surely a better researcher. We further diverge on the level of philosophy. He seems to have embraced a strand of the Hebrew Israelite doctrine, while I am clearly a Muslim.

**Ibn Waḥshīya, though he wrote in Arabic, was not an Arab. He was of Aramaic Nabataean origin of southern Iraq.

***It must be noted that Hieroglyphics were not the everyday script of the ancient Egyptians. Demotic was found in more common use, while Hieratic was used by the scribes. Hieroglyphics was used as an esoteric script, reserved for only the high priests and kings (El-Daly, 2005, p. 60).


El-Daly, Okasha. Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. UCL Press, 2005.

Idrīsī, Muḥammad ibn ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz, and Ulrich Haarmann. Anwār ʻUlwīyy Al-Ajrām Fī al-Kashf ʻan Asrār al-Ahrām. Frānts Shtāyrir, 1991.

Samak, ʿAbdullah ʿAlī. Al-Ṣābiʼūn. 1st ed., Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1995.

Shahrastānī, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Karīm al-, and Ahmad Fahmi Muhammad. Al-Milal Wa al-Niḥal. 2nd ed., Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyyah, 1992.

The Cairo Postcard Trust. Pyramid and Sphinx. Still Image, c. late 19th/early 20th century, Rare Books and Special Collections Library; American University in Cairo.

Is Fusha Elitist?

Student: Wow! You used to teach Arabic?! Fusha or Amiyya?

Me: Fusha.

Student: Don’t you think it’s elitist to speak in Fusha, though?

This is a conversation that transpired recently between me and a young American student studying in Egypt. It was a courteous conversation and the student actually wanted to hear my honest response to her question. My position is based on the following points, which I expressed to her, but I also think that my response warrants mentioning in a more well-thought out manner. The idea that fusha somehow aids in an elitist mindset reflects the miseducation American students of the language receive from their government and universities. Moreover, the push to the teaching of Arabic dialects has made students pawns in a broader political game.

This is not how we teach English

The powers that be in the U.S. will never agree to the use of American dialects such as African American Vernacular English, Hawaiian Pidgin, or Cajun as the language of instruction in schools. First, these dialects are not connected to a rich written heritage that learners can read in. Even if this heritage existed, it would disadvantage learners in an Standard English-dominated society by not training them in the register of language that is valued in the greater society, effectively making them foreigners in their own country.

Yet, Americans propagate the teaching of Arabic dialects both at home and abroad in contradistinction to the way we use and envision our own language. Before students know anything about Arabic, they are supplanted with ideas about its difficulty and are given the option to learn Modern Standard Arabic, Qur’anic Arabic, or Amiyyah. When people wish to learn English they learn a standard version of the language. Slang and dialectical characteristics are expected to be encountered and acquired later as students have more contact with native speakers of English. Why aren’t slang and dialects emphasized more in English learning pedagogy? Why don’t we speak more about the differences between British and American English, Jamaican Patois and Aboriginal English, Gullah and Nigerian English, etc.? Well, in addition to our notion of exceptionalism there are some deep-rooted political reasons for our view of the Arabic language, which I will briefly touch on in the following paragraphs.

The Weaponization of Language

In the summer of 2015, I was teaching a free Arabic-language intensive at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I advertised it on the Arabic-L listserv, a listserv for scholars, instructors, and Arabic nerds. I promptly received an email from Dr. Chris Stone of Hunter College (CUNY), asking me bluntly where I was receiving my funding. I told him that my position was funded by a grant from the Department of Education and I knew why he was asking to which he replied that he was glad to see the Department of Education was still doing its job and that he would advertise this intensive in his circle.

In April 2014, Dr. Stone published an article on the online Jadaliyya website entitled Teaching Arabic in the US after 9/11. He began the article discussing the situation in which he was stabbed outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. His attacker apparently wanted to take revenge for U.S. policies in the Middle East. He then brings to the reader’s attention the number of post-9/11 defense and intelligence funding opportunities for the teaching and learning of Arabic. He goes on to discuss the controversies within the fields of Middle Eastern and African studies concerning this funding.

These funds and newfound interest in the teaching and learning of Arabic in the United States has reshaped how scholars, teachers, and students approach the language. Under the pretext of teaching a more communicative approach, they have called on instructors to get students speaking as soon as possible. In 2002, the counterterrorism Arabist, Dr. Geoff Porter wrote a critical piece in the New York Times alerting the F.B.I. to the differences between various registers of Arabic, urging them to teach their agents a more natural language that will allow them to better understand wiretapped phones. Thus inserting a dagger into Arab language pedagogy. I once interned at a military archives that needed to sort through hundreds of Arabic fliers that were used for PsyOps during the Iraq War in the 2000’s. The Arabic in these fliers reflected the dry style of American military speech, rife with exclamatory commands and warnings, which I could not imagine being taken seriously by any Arabic speaker.

Anyone privy to the teaching of Arabic in American universities since 9/11 should be aware of this philosophical shift. The second and third editions of the renown Al-Kitaab fii Taʿallum al-ʿArabiyya series, taught at most universities, conspicuously increased its colloquial content. In the meantime, people serving in various branches of the American military were offered generous bonuses for proven proficiency in any of the “defense languages,” mainly the Egyptian, Levantine, and Iraqi Arabic dialects. Likewise, defense language and foreign service-oriented scholarships became plenty for students.

Arabic language fliers that were distributed in Iraqi war zones by the American military.

The Conspiracy

The debate over diglossia in the Arab world is a heated one. It was sparked by European Orientalists and colonialists venturing into regions of the Arab world and finding discrepancies between the written and spoken, formal and informal languages and the widespread use of different registers in different situations. While such differences were present, Europeans saw an opportunity to separate Egyptians and other Arab nationalities from their heritage.

Their aim was to do to the Arabs what they did to Africans in the Americas when they physically, mentally, and spiritually disconnected us from our language, culture and religion. Of course, this required a different strategy, because the Arabs were still in their lands and took a lot of pride in their language, culture and religion. The solution was a calculated plot to marginalize fusha and those that held to it.

Since the late 19th century, there has been an ongoing conspiracy to detach Arabs from their language, culture, and religion. This is meticulously documented by Dr. Nafusa Zakaria Sa’id in her book, Tārīkh al-Daʿwah ʾIlā al-ʿĀmīyyah wa ʾĀthāruhā fī Miṣr (The History of the Appeal to Colloquial Arabic and Its Effects on Egypt). She traces this conspiracy back to two Arab authors who published books on Egyptian Arabic with the sponsorship of Europeans. They even went so far as to publish high literature like the parts of the Bible and Shakespeare in colloquial Arabic on behalf of the Egyptians. Dr. Sa’id points out that all languages (including European languages) have registers, dialects, and colloquialisms, but only Orientalists with an agenda made these a problem.

Despite their many attempts to convince Egyptians to treat their dialect as an independent language, their ideas never quite took root, due to the strong influence of Azhar University and the public’s general reverence for their Arab heritage, regardless of whether they were Jewish, Christian or Muslim. They only began to see success once they started to open up schools that taught in European languages during the age of colonization. By cleverly marketing their schools, selective enrollment, a Western education was reserved for a new elite… Those who revered Europeans and their way of thinking by adopting their ideas, language, and lifestyle. While they naturally spoke their local dialects, their higher learning, which would ordinarily acquaint them with fusha, was replaced with a foreign language. Those that studied in Arabic were deemed backward and uncultured, making proficiency in fusha anything but elite. Unfortunately, this mindset still exists to this day in Egypt and other Arab nations to this day.

A Listing of Works Calling for the Use of ‘Amiyyah

  • 1838 – ʾAḥsan al-Nukhab fī Maʿrifat Lisān al-ʿArab by Muhammad ‘Iyad al-Tantawi
  • 1880 – Grammatik des Arabischen Vulgardialectes Von Aegypten by Dr. Wilhelm Spitta
  • 1886 – Al-Risālah al-Tāmmah fī Kalām al-ʿĀmmah wa al-Manāhij fī ʾAḥwāl al-Kalām al-Dārij by Mikha’il Sibagh
  • 1893 – “Why There is No Creativity Among Egyptians Now,” speech by William Willcocks
  • 1895 – The Modern Egyptian Dialect Of Arabic by Karl Vollers
  • 1901 – The Spoken Arabic of Egypt by J. Selden Willmore
  • 1926 – Manual of Egyptian Arabic by D.C. Phillot and A.P. Powell
  • 1926 – “Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Malta Speak Punic, Not Arabic” by William Willcocks

Arabs Are Not the Only Arabic Speakers

My final retort is that Arabic is not only the language of those who identify ethnically as Arabs. It is used by ethnic and religious minorities such as Copts, Berbers, Kurds, etc. It is also used by Muslims outside of the “Arab World.” In fact, some of the most eloquent and learned people in the language have been people I lived and studied with from a diverse array of backgrounds. They were students from West Africa, East Africa, and different parts of Asia who usually memorized the Qur’an and conducted their primary studies at madrasas of humble means in their home countries. They later went on to pursue higher degrees at recognized institutions in the Arab World. Though their introduction to the language was entirely in fusha, they would adapt to hearing a local Arabic dialect within a month or two, because they already had a strong foundation in the basics of the language. This has been the system in which non-native Arabic speakers acquired proficiency in the language for hundreds of years. However, Americans, out of their warmongering and need for Mcdonaldfication in all matters, have tried to jump the gun in language pedagogy by learning Arabic for nefarious purposes and without an understanding of the peoples that speak it.

This is not to say that I oppose the speaking or study of Arabic dialects. Indeed, natural speech is essential to communication and daily survival in Arabic-speaking countries as anyone who has ever studied in the Arab world may know. Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about the Arabic language in the United States and it will take a generation of learners with both expertise and a clear perspective of the language to unravel them.