The dreamy quality of the production of award-winning film Prince Among Slaves: The Cultural Legacy of Enslaved Africans transports the audience away from the Capitol View Library in Ward 7, D.C. to the early years of U.S. history. On February 6, 2013, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, Masjid Muhammad, Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) and the library hosted a screening of this documentary about the life of an African Prince captured and sold into slavery for 40 years. The movie was first released in 2007, but this showing was held to commemorate Black History month. Let’s take a look:
The hall is packed, every seat taken, with people even sitting on the carpet. Several children are still in their school uniforms; this is a neighborhood event to help build relationships across communities and faiths. Ward 7 is the poorest neighborhood in DC, minutes from Capitol Hill. Youth are coming to Islam in droves here.
Muslims have been a part of the American fabric since the beginning, captured and sold as slaves. “There were lots of Muslims who were brought to America through enslavement and contributed to this society in an unrecognized way, not just through brute labor. Their familiarity with crops, their brain power contributed to the making of America,” says Alex Kronemer, the executive producer as he introduces the documentary to the audience.
26-year-old Abdul Rahman Sori, the heir to the throne of one of the largest kingdoms in Africa was studying in Timbuktu when captured in an ambush and sold to English slave traders for a few muskets and a couple of bottles of rum.
Abdul Rahman is the prince of Fuuta Jalon [Fouta Djallon]. At its peak, Fuuta Jalon was “the magnet of learning, attracting students from Kankan to the Gambia.” It acted as the epicenter for trading caravans branching in every direction. Fulani Muslim scholars developed an indigenous literature using the Arabic alphabet, known as Ajamiyya. The elite from the region sent their sons to schools there to learn Islamic Studies, sciences and languages.
It is poignant to watch this documentary in a library while libraries and sacred texts are pillaged and saved in Mali. Several scenes in the documentary highlight the level of intellectual development in West Africa in the 1700s. According to Dr. Abdul Hakim Quick, a noted Islamic scholar, “Timbuktu with its thousands of manuscripts and its deep legacy destroys racist notions of Black inferiority and educational backwardness. Timbuktu gives solid proof of a powerful African past and an unbroken chain of African scholarship. Timbuktu also brings out Islam’s great legacy of development in Africa and its proper place in the annals of African achievement.”
“These manuscripts are our identity,” said Abdoulaye Cisse, the acting director of the largest library in Mali to Associated Press. “It’s through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa. People think that our history is only oral, not written. What proves that we had a written history are these documents.”
Alex Kronemer developed the idea for the film as the co-director of UPF. “Movies like Roots reinforce this notion of an uncivilized Africa. What slavery did to West Africa is tantamount to a 9/11 every week for a hundred years,” he says. At this, the audience let out a sharp collective exhale.
The well-written and powerful narration by actor Mos Def, seamlessly carries the story: “My men dropped like rain…. The Africans were on the way to America, to feed the new world’s hunger for the slave trade.”
The global slave trade was fueled by the cycle of war, where humans were currency. “We too live in a global economy of oil and war. How will the future judge us?” Kronemer questions the audience.
The African notion of slavery was vastly different from what was being practiced in the new world. “Slaves did not have their customs and languages stripped from them, weren’t beaten with whips, and could stay with their families. Most were like indentured servants and only had a slave for a certain amount of time, and usually, the slaves were criminals seeking redemption.”
The prince, caught in the largest forced migration of human beings, lands in Mississippi in 1788. The scene when Abdul Rahman reaches the outpost in Natchez, MS and compares the collection of hovels to the developed cities that he comes from cracks the myth of slaves coming from primitive jungles into civilization. “They had constitution, laws, saw themselves as above Europeans,” says Imam Zaid Shakir in the documentary.
Bought by a cotton farmer named Colonel Thomas Foster, Abdul Rahman tries to tell him that his father, Ibrahim Sori, would pay Foster his investment many times over, but this message is lost in translation. Unable to come to terms with his enslavement Abdul Rahman, whom Foster calls Prince, runs away into the wilderness. The period of solitude that follows makes him come to terms with his predicament: ripped from family, fortune and faith and removed from any access to religion or religious objects. A Muslim has no master but the Lord, and the whole world is a masjid, so Abdul Rahman gives in to the Divine plan, resigns to the will of Allah and returns to Foster’s farm.
A scene that pulls at the heartstrings is when Abdul Rahman’s hair, a sign of nobility, great beauty, and his manhood is shorn off by his ‘owner’. Foster capitalizes on Abdul Rahman’s expertise, natural leadership skills, and knowledge to build his cotton crop and empire. The producers had spent a large amount of time sifting fact from exaggerations by one of the key historical figures in the movie, John Marschalk, the printer who befriends Sori and later turns his back on him.
Abdul Rahman is fluent in several languages; he can read and write Arabic. He is an entrepreneur, a scholar, a leader, a captain, and a warrior. Abdul Rahman is disciplined and despite enslavement he masters his negative situation; a lesson that the panelists echo to the audience after the screening, in their discussion. Many slaves were not afforded the privilege of marriage but Prince, the unannounced overseer, is allowed to marry Isabella.
20 years after he is enslaved he reunites with John Cox, the first white man to have reached Timbuktu; a man rescued by the Sori family decades earlier. Cox takes up the cause to free Abdul Rahman.
His story, spread by Marschalk’s press, attracts the attention of President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay. In a diplomatic effort aimed at freeing captured American sailors in Morocco, Abdul Rahman is released to return to Africa. However, the rest of his family is not.
Sponsored by freed black men associations and the American Colonization Society, Abdul Rahman and his wife Isabella travel around the US, speaking to paid audiences and trying to buy their clan’s freedom.
In one meeting he is requested by a Christian missionary group to write the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic so they can use it to teach Christianity; a year later they discovered that he had written Surah Al-Fatihah.
Partially successful, they leave the country after the election of President Andrew Jackson (a supporter of slavery), purchasing two of their sons and their families’ freedom. Upon reaching Liberia, he freely bows down in salah at the age of 67. He continues to work to free the rest of his children, but dies a few months after his return to Africa, before he ever reaches home.
Sr. Carole Munim a playwright, community activist, and the first Muslim in the White House (she worked under the Carter and Nixon administration) is also on the panel. As is the Asst. US Attorney Wendy Polhaus, who grew up in the area and Amir Muhammad, the curator of the Islamic History Museum. The panel reflects on the lessons that the audience could glean from Abdul Rahman’s life; the role of marriage under slavery and the issue of identity.
Sherry, a local resident, expects the documentary to connect to the present. “This is very similar to something I have seen earlier,” she says. Maran Cole, a library regular, enjoys the film. She had read a book on Abdul Rahman’s life and is very familiar with the history. The history of American Muslims is intertwined with the history of African Americans. “Why do many African Americans embrace Islam? It is in our genetic memory, the souls of slaves,” says Imam Shareef.
As the evening ends, Kronemer tells the audience how the two branches of Abdul Rahman Sori’s family met on the grounds of the Foster farms during the filming. Many generations of African Americans with the surnames Foster and Collins tracing their lineage back to the “prince among slaves” come to meet their African cousins.
“When they took them, our ancestors say the first thing they stripped were the shoes. Here are yours back,” said the eldest progeny from the African branch to the eldest from the American branch of the family, as he held up a pair of traditional African sandals in a ceremony similar to those held in the fields their past relatives tilled. Reunited, they still keep in touch today.
Stats not Stories: Problems with our Islamic History
Admit it. You’re bored by Islamic History. Sure, you might say that you find it fascinating, but the likelihood is that you are far more likely to be enamoured by the idea of what Islamic history should be like rather than the history itself.
How can I justify saying this? Well, lets take any other aspect of life that you are definitely not bored by. The latest Star Wars movie perhaps, Super Bowl 50 or all 7 Harry Potter books. Anything at all. Odds are that you can remember a lot about them in vivid detail. But if you’re asked the same thing about pretty much any aspect of Islamic history, the details are likely to be nowhere near as clear or captivating.
Relax. For once, it is not your fault.
Islamic history is the poor cousin of the Islamic sciences. It can often be poorly taught, poorly understood and even more poorly preserved. The blame for this partly falls on the shoulders of the Islamic historians themselves. Apart from some notable exceptions, many Islamic history books are dreary affairs over-filled with numbers, dates and exceptionally long names of individuals who sound very similar.
It is not that Islamic history itself is boring. On the contrary, I would make the case that no other history is as palpitation inducing, full of giddy highs and dramatic – seemingly bottomless – lows. However, even the most amazing thriller can go from awe to yawn if the main focus is on the factual details rather than the story itself.
In 2007 Deborah Small at the Wharton School of Business conducted an experiment to see how people would react to a charity campaign that was presented primarily using facts and figures as compared to the same campaign presented as a story. The outcome wasn’t even close. Stories trump stats every time. Or, as Stalin would say “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” He should know. He was kind of an expert on the subject.
In fact, we don’t need to look to modern research to prove this. The Quran itself is full of stories and lessons, but short on details. How many animals made it on to the Ark? Where exactly did Khidr live? What was the name of the Pharoah that was the arch-nemesis of Musa ? The lack of facts and figures detracts nothing from the power of these stories and their ability to inspire and transform those hearing them.
Allah was explicit on this point when it came to the stories of the Companions of the Cave. Allah admonishes those who debate on the exact number of those in the cave saying “Now some say they were three and the fourth one is their dog and some will say they were five and the sixth one is their dog, guessing randomly at the unseen.” It is unfortunate that we don’t heed this lesson when it comes to how we teach our own Islamic history.
Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ If we want our Islamic history to be relevant and life-changing, we need to put away the facts and figures and bring out the monsters and legends.
Five Courageous Ways To Respond To Anti-Muslim Hatred
By Fatima Barkatulla
It was the day after the second Paris attack. Our local Muslim school sent parents a text-message telling them that security guards would flank the school gates the next day. Messages were flying around, complete with fuzzy CCTV footage of Muslim women who had been verbally or physically attacked in public places, in the climate of hatred and fear that seemed to hang like a cloud over us.
My sons, proudly wear traditional garments (thobe and white skullcap) when going to certain classes at the Mosque. It is the uniform for their Qur’an class. It’s of course not obligatory for them to wear it but they normally do. They were about to set out and catch a bus when a sense of dread came over me as I realised how vulnerable they looked and how so visibly ‘Muslim’. People had been fed a drip diet of negativity surrounding Islam and Muslims. The heinous crimes of some of our co-religionists, playing on 24-hour news channels had contributed to that climate. It would only take one angry person…
In that moment I considered telling my sons to pop their jeans on instead, reserving their traditional garb for when they were safely inside the mosque. In that moment I was terrified at the power I wielded as a parent to influence their mindset with a word I might utter. And in that moment, I bit my tongue and decided to choose Tawakkul and empowerment and banish victimhood and fear.
There was no real danger. Most of our fellow citizens are not full of hatred. Most of them do know a Muslim well enough to know better. I believe much of the fear-mongering that goes on in Muslim circles, is manufactured and perpetuated by people continuously forwarding unconfirmed scare stories to one another (or perhaps people infiltrating our lists and groups, maliciously intending to spread panic).
In the aftermath of these attacks it’s important to continue living as you normally live day to day as much as possible and since my sons usually do wear these clothes to the mosque without issue, I didn’t want to introduce the idea of hiding being a Muslim to them.
It’s not about fanatically holding onto garments. Indeed if there is real and present danger we should take the precautions necessary and should not put our children at high risk. However, this was about the attitude we seek to instil in the next generation of Believers.
Over the Channel in France, with its aggressive secularism, it has become commonplace for many Muslims to hide their Islam. Britain’s Muslims, including my sons, are confident and very comfortable expressing our faith and culture, Alhamdulillah. This is home and we aren’t guests here. The vast majority of our compatriots are respectful towards us and, especially in the vibrant melting-pot that is London, we have grown up together, laughed, cried, learned and played together. We grew up being told to express our culture and be ourselves.
In the 80s racists used to abuse us for having a different skin colour – which we couldn’t hide. They would hurl insults at my mother for observing hijab. That overt racism is largely gone. But the point is this: Our parents didn’t persevere through the tough times that they faced, only for our generation to lie down as soon as we face some pressure!
By all means let us teach our children to take the normal precautions any child should. Teaching them the very powerful duas and supplications for going outside as well as the du’a when facing fear, and the du’a for resolve, were my first port of call. But I refuse to instil cowardice in their hearts and will continue to teach them to hold their heads up high as Muslims in a world where their faith is misrepresented.
I see parenting as a calling. Children are the ultimate carriers of our values beyond our own short lives. Most of us still hear our mothers’ voices in our heads, giving us the occasion telling-off or reminding us to do the right thing. Most of us subconsciously ask ourselves what dad would have done. We may of course reassess some of those values, rejecting some and adapting others. However, a parent’s attitude and philosophy of life is no doubt a most powerful factor in setting a child’s direction in the world.
So how will I be teaching my children to respond to anti-Muslim hatred? What do I hope their attitude will be, growing up in 21st Century Britain?
The key messages I will be giving my children are:
First: Have faith in Allah’s plan. Our tradition teaches us that everything, however difficult it may be for us to understand, happens for a reason and happens by the will of God. It teaches us that through Sabr – patiently persevering upon the straight path, through hard work and prayer, we will see the fruits of our efforts.
Second: Never be afraid to be different. Some of the greatest people in history went against the grain. They were immensely unpopular and often persecuted. In the end, their unwavering, patient, perseverance for justice shone through. We have an example of that in the great messengers of God such as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them. And in recent times we have the likes of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X – who fought injustice, were persecuted or killed for their cause, but morally triumphant as eventually the world caught up with them.
Third: Be politically engaged. Outrage at injustices around the world is natural. But how you allow that to manifest itself is pivotal. The Qur’an tells us that we must live up to being “the best people extracted for the sake of humanity.” The conditions for being amongst the best of people are that we must enjoin the good, beginning with ourselves and forbid what is wrong and have faith in God. Loving ones country means sometimes holding a mirror up to it and with wisdom, speaking truth to power.
Fourth: Be socially engaged. Contribute and give to society positively with all your heart and with all of your talents. Serve your neighbours, serve your fellow citizens. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ would go the extra mile to reach out to people and fulfil their needs, to feed, to clothe, to share a burden. He never encouraged us to live in ghettos, happy with our own piety. Mixing with people, sharing, caring, giving, getting involved with the issues of society is his example and your duty.
Fifth: Seek deeper knowledge of scripture from traditional scholars who are also forward-thinking. The Qur’an has a context to it. Reading ones own interpretations into it willy nilly gives a warped understanding. We see the catastrophic effects of that in lands where injustice is being justified by ignorant Twitter and Facebook muftis interpreting revelation. Our tradition is rich, it gave birth to one of the greatest civilisations in history. Don’t be rash. Don’t be a hothead. The energy of youth needs to be tempered by the wisdom of scholars and elders. Our faith needs a generation of leaders who have depth of understanding and a wealth of wisdom in order to traverse the murky waters that may lay ahead. Be that generation.
بِسْمِ اللهِ ، تَوَكَّلْتُ عَلَى اللهِ وَلَا حَوْلَ وَلَا قُوَّةَ إِلَّا بِاللهِ
“In the name of Allah, I place my trust in Allah and there is no might nor power except with Allah.”
The Prophet ﷺ told us, when we say this, an angel will say: “you shall be defended, protected and guided”. (Abu Dawud)
And this wonderful du’a which every one of us should memorise! It is protection from facing ignorance or harm when going out! Make sure your kids have memorised it!
اللَّهُمَّ إني أَعُوذُ بِكَ أَنْ أَضِلَّ أَوْ أُضَلَّ ، أَوْ أَزِلَّ أَوْ أُزَلَّ ، أَوْ أَظْلِمَ أَوْ أُظْلَمَ ، أَوْ أَجْهَلَ أَوْ يُجْهَلَ عَلَيَّ
“O Allah, I seek refuge with You lest I should stray or be led astray, or slip (i.e. to commit a sin unintentionally) or be tripped, or oppress or be oppressed, or behave foolishly or be treated foolishly.” (Abu Dawud)
 ‘thaub’ is sometimes called a dishdasha (it is a long, dress-like garment worn by men in the Middle-East). ‘Thaub’ is the more commonly used name for it in the Muslim community.
Science Not Art: Problems with our Islamic History
Let me introduce you to Hassan. He is an artist with an imagination that runs wild with more creativity in his little finger than most of us have in our whole lives. He spends his spare time in art galleries and exhibitions. He enjoys experimenting with different pantones to find the right shade of green for his latest artwork. So far, he’s your typical artist, except for the small fact that he’s a medical student.
Like many children of first generation immigrants, Hassan was prodded towards a stable career in healthcare rather than the decidedly less secure world of being an artist. His innate artistry is out of place in the sterile world of Medicine, but he accepts this trade-off for the security that a career in medicine brings.
Much like Hassan, I contend that Islamic history is art trapped in the world of sciences.
While Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t being busy leading the Rough Riders or being President, he made the same case for history in general. Every civilization and culture views history through a different lens. While the Europeans classically treated History as a category within literature and the Hindus as often indistinguishable from mythology – Muslims took an entirely different approach. When it comes to fields of Islamic studies, we tend to classify the most important as sciences. Tafsir, Ilm al hadeeth, Tajweed and Fiqh are all researched and taught with the same precision and accuracy as physics or maths. There is relatively little room for artistic license or experimentation.
This is a strength especially when it comes to the studies that make up the bedrock of the faith and are used to decide the rules and regulations that govern it. However, problems arise when subjects that don’t naturally fit into the scientific category are reclassified as such. One such example is Islamic history. Our history has often been subjected to the same rigorous standards as those applied to other Islamic sciences. Anything that doesn’t meet the highest standards of verification and authentication can potentially be downplayed or treated as suspect.
This view of history was pioneered by none other than the father of historiography Ibn Khaldun, who was frustrated by the “uncritical acceptance of historical data.” It comes as no surprise to find out that Ibn Khaldun was a jurist before he found fame in later life as a historian. However, history is not merely data to be proven or interpreted in a narrow set of ways. History is the art of putting together bits of information from the past and weaving together a narrative that gives us an insight into the motivations and actions of those that preceded us.
For instance, History as science will tell us that the Moghul Empire finally collapsed due to a range of socio-economic factors afflicting the corrupt Moghul state combined with the overwhelming military superiority of the British. While that may technically be accurate, History as art would explain the fall as a perfect storm of threats compounded by the tragic but unexpected outcome of an aging Emperor’s affections for his ambitious and treacherous young wife Zeenat Mahal. The former view is based on empirical evidence but wholly uninspiring and devoid of the human touch, while the latter is pieced together based on some facts, some extrapolations and based on the characters of the personalities involved.
Skeptics from the scientific school of thought will read the above and fear that this is a call to legitimise superstition and fairytales. It is not. The reality is that the majority of our history, or any history for that matter, will fail to pass the benchmarks that we must necessarily use for our sciences. The result of this is that there are swathes of our history that are simply looked upon as second class and therefore not prominent.
Maria Konnikova argued the same point cogently in Scientific American. There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we see and classify Islamic history. Islamic historians should feel comfortable in the freedom to discuss and teach aspects of our history that may not be 100% verifiable, but that fit within the broad construct of our traditions. We need to explore and cultivate the vast fertile expanses between irrefutable evidence based facts and pure fiction. Should we do so, we will reap a rich harvest of engaged and inspired Muslims who can take lessons and inspiration from our past and use it to guide our future. That’s hopefully something that even the most dedicated scientist would find it difficult to argue against.