333 Saints of Timbuktu

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On 30 June 2012, it was reported that the tomb of Sidi Ben Amar had been destroyed by Ansar Dine, a fundamentalist rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Maghrib, following the Battle of Gao, as it contravened sharia or Islamic law, as interpreted by Ansar Dine.  These attacks resemble the attacks that were carried out by the wahhabist movement on the Arabian peninsula during the late 18th century.

Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar (also known as Sidi Amar, Cadi Sidi Mahmoud, or Sidi Mahmoud) was a revered Muslim scholar who is one of the 333 Sufi saints said to be buried in Timbuktu.  The tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is among 16 cemeteries and mausolea that are a part of Timbuktu, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

According to tradition the Cadi Sidi Mahmoud belonged to a Berber tribe of the Godala in Northern Africa, that lived along the Atlantic coast in present day Mauritania..  His forebears moved to Timbuktu after living in Macina and Qualata. Macina is a small town and rural commune in the Cercle of Macina in the Segou Region of Southern-Central Mali. The town of Macina lies on the north (left) bank of the Niger River. Qualata or Walata is a small oasis town in Southeast Mauritania, located at the eastern end of the the Aoukar basin, Qualata was important as a caravan city in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the Southern terminus of a trans-Saharan trade route and now it is a World Heritage Site.

Sidi Mahmoud was born in 1463 or 1464 and was named Cadi in 1498 or 99 and died in 1548.  Side Mahmoud was Ahmed Baba’s great uncle.  The Tarikh al-sudan (histories) of Timbuktu attributed him with numerous legends.  His tomb is a place of pilgrimage and his descendants count many scholars.  The tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is visited by local people who believe he has the power to bring rain, through the blessing of God.

As reported by Canadian American Miranda Dodd, “according to the most learned men in Timbuktu, the number of Saints buried in Timbuktu is far greater than 333; it is a symbolic number and represents the greatest of the saints. For every great saint there are several lesser ones now completely forgotten or unknown.

“The Saints of Timbuktu possessed exceptional wisdom, kindness, scholarship, and generosity. Many of the great scholars or Ulama have been named saints, but not all. There are many non-saints that are still remembered and respected as great scholars.”

The following is a partial list, compiled by Dodd; listing where many of the 333 Saints are buried, their names and stories:

  • Diamune Hanane Cemetery just north of the petit marche.
  • Unenclosed cemetery to the NE of town past the Sidi Mohamed Cemetery, near the Orange cell tower.
  • 40 plus a set of twins who were given sainthood when killed by falling material during the construction of the mosque: Djingere Ber mosque.
  • Cemetery of Three Saints on the SW corner of town behind the military camp : Cheikh Sidi Ahmed Ben Amar and 2 others
  • Sidi Mohamed Cemetery NE corner of Abaradiou quartier: Sidi Mohamed and Moulaye Arby
  • Boucou and one other are buried in the cemetery carrying his name
  • Sankore mosque In fact an unknown number of saints are said to be buried here; only one is known.
  • Sidi Yaha is buried in his mosque, also an unknown number of other saints.
  • Sidi el Wafie is in the cemetery carrying his name
  • Alfa Moya is in his cemetery
  • Between the homes of Rene Caillié and Gordon Lang
  • In front of the home of Gordon Lang
  • Between Henrich Barth’s house and the Sidi Yahya mosque: Mohamed Baragha
  • Between the Carpenters after Heinrich Barth and the Tijaniya Aferu Ber Mosque
  • In front of the Direction Régional de Jeunesse near the post office
  • The shadow of the old water tower.
  • Behind the east wall of the Palais du Justice
  • In the Military Camp
  • On the road between the entry to town and the airport road
  • In Kabara, Timbuktu’s former port town

Here are the stories of a few of the prominent Saints of Timbuktu:

Abu Alkassim Attouatti (Abou-‘l Qâsem et-Touati)

Abu al-Kassin at-Toutti was an Imam of the grand Mosque Djingere Ber, only a small path separated his home from the mosque. He was the one who instituted the celebration of Maouloud (the birth of the Prophet Mohammed) in Timbuktu. He was a great mystic and consecrated his life to the faith and the creation of pious acts: complete reading of the koran on Fridays, creation of a cemetery around the mosque. He is most famous for always having dates and bread in his pockets which he distributed to koranic students. No matter the time of day or the amount he already gave he would still have some to give to the next person. And the bread was alway hot and fresh. Another well known event is that one day when he went to the mosque to pray and at the end of the prayer his boubou was all wet. His companions asked him how he managed to get so wet while praying. He explained that a pirogue had capsized in lake Debo and one of the drowning men called out to be saved in the name of God and his saints. God sent him to save the men. He died in 1528-29 (935 islamic year) at the age of 33. Sidi Mahmoud presided over his burial in the new cemetery. His tomb is located 100m to the west of town.

Ahmed Baba Ed-Doudani

Son of Alhaji Ahmadu, Ahmad Baba’s tomb lies between that of his father and the mausoleum of his uncle Sidi Mahmoud. A veritable well of science, Ahmed Baba is one of the most well known and greatest scholars of Timbuktu and left a colossal and varied work behind him. His works include commentaries on the “kalil” and on the hadiths, praises of the Prophet, books of history, and much more. Like his uncle, Ahmed Baba is credited with many spectacular miracles. On famous one took place during his detention in Marrakech. During the course of a discussion between himself and some learned Moroccans, Ahmed Baba caused a book from Timbuktu to appear at the moment he needed it. It was a book that gave the definitive verdict that was to resolve their disagreement. His adversaries saw a woman’s hand appear and offer the desired volume. Ahmed Baba died in 1631 (1035) at the age of 73 years shortly after being liberated to return to Timbuktu.

Alfa Moya Lamtouni

A great Saint and great philosopher Alfa Moya had many disciples. He was assassinated along with ten other saints in 1605 (1010) by spanish troops of the Jaoude who came from Andalousie. He was 55 when he died. His tomb is located east of town.

Alhadi Ahmadou

Al-hadji Ahmadu was a juris consultant. Some sources would have him be the german cousin of Sidi Mahmoud. The Tarikh es-Soudan names him as brother to both Sidi Mahmoud and another juris consultant Abdallah. It states that “Ahmed was a saint, Mohammed was a saint, Abdallah was a saint” and gives his lineages as Al-hadji Ahmed ben Oumar ben Mohammed-Aquit ben Oumar ben Ali ben Yahia ben Godala and states that he was buried about 100m from the mausoleum of this last.

Amar Ben Mohammed Aquit

The Father of Sidi Mahmoud, was also a great Saint. He died in Oualata where he emigrated to escape persecution by Sonni Ali-Ber. The Tarikh al Fattash as well as the Tarikh es-Soudan describe his encounter with the Touaregs and with Sonni Ali-Ber and the consequences of his flight, frightened by the Songhai King’s reputation, to Oualata at the time of Timbuktu’s conquest, even though it was Amar himself who had called him for help.

Cheikh Sidi El Mokhtar Ben Sidi Mohammed

Otherwise known as Sidi Khiar, he was a great saint of Timbuktu and great Philosopher. He knew Heinrich Barth during his passage through Timbuktu. He died at age 80 around 1853.

Djamane Hana

is an ancient mosque whose construction dates to 1542-43. There are forty saints buried here. It is found to the North of the Petit Marche. One side abuts the paved road.

El Imam Ismail

Originally from Djenne, Ismail came to Timbuktu to take a rest and visit the town. Unfortunately he never arrived. He died three kilometers from town. When there is a serious drought in Timbuktu all the imams, muezzins, learned men and other great personages gather together to pray to God for water. They go to each mosque and the tombs of the saints and finish by going to Ismail’s tomb 3km from town. When they finish the prayer here rain invariable follows. There are living today people who have assisted at this ceremony who swear to its authenticity.

Mohammed Aquit

Mohammed Aquit was the grandfather of the famous Sidi Mahmoud. He lived in Macina. After a misunderstanding with the Peuls of Macina in a question of marriage, he moved to Oualata. He wanted to establish himself in Timbuktu but it was under the reign of chief Tenguereche Akil, his enemy. He did not dare enter the city so he installed himself between Birou and Raz el-ma. His friend the grandfather of Masira-Anda Oumar, the juris consultant negotiated with the Tuareg chief Akil so that he and his large family could move to Timbuktu. He is buried about 100 m to the north of Sidi Mahmoud tomb.

Mohammed el-Micki

Sidi Mohammed el-Micki was very pious and could easily go three days neither eating nor drinking. He died at the age of 80 in the year 1844. His tomb is about 30 m to the south of the Abu-Kassim.

Sidi Yahya

Djinguereber was, for a long time, the only mosque in Timbuktu. When Sankore was first built it was not a mosque but a centre of learning, a university. So all the great scholars had to leave the university, cross the river, which at the time cut through the area in order to go pray at Djinguereber. One man had a dream in which the prophet appeared to him and told him to construct a second mosque halfway between the Mosque and the University.

As in Muslim tradition anything that comes via the Prophet Mohammed in a vision or dream etc. is considered to be from God Himself, and should be heeded. So they constructed the mosque. The question remained who would serve as Imam? The most learned among them said well, if this is truly the design of God, the Imam will come without our interference. So they shut the mosque and locked it.

A few months later a man from Oualata, in Mauritania, showed up in front of the Mosque and asked for the keys. The neighbours to the mosque gave him the key and he opened the mosque and went in. He said his prayers and sat and began reading the Koran. Sidi Yahya, the imam, had arrived.

He since performed many miracles.

Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar Ben Mohamed

According to tradition the Cadi Sidi Mahmoud belonged to a Berber tribe of the Godala. His ancestors moved to Timbuktu after living in Macina and then Oualata. He was born in 1463 or 1464 and was named Cadi in 1498 or 99 and he died in 1548. Sidi Mahmoud was Ahmed Baba’s great uncle. The Tarikh (histories) of Timbuktu attributed him with numerous legends. His tomb is a place of pilgrimage and his descendants count many scholars.

Mohammed Bagayogo

He was Ahmed Baba’s instructor, most famous for the following legend: when Ahmed Baba was in exile in Morocco he ended up teaching and advising many people there. Someone made reference to his being the most knowledgeable person and in his modesty he declined the honours saying it went instead to his teacher. When asked the name of this erudite he gave it. According to legend Mohammed Bagayogo in Timbuktu sat up in his yard where he was surrounded by young scholars and said Ahmed Baba sold me to the Moroccans. They will come here to seek me but will never find me. Sure enough the Moroccans did come seeking him out, but the day they entered town by the north Mohammed Bagayogo was leaving it by the south. He was on his way to his funeral, so the Moroccans never did find him. He is buried today …

Sane Haji

This is the first saint venerated in Timbuktu. He was born in Timbuktu in 868 of the Hegire (1490). He had four sons who were well educated and wrote several books. It is said of Sidi Mohammed that at the burial of his brother al-Hadji Amadou, he remained prostrate during the presentation of condolences. When he regained control of his faculties he excused his muteness explaining that he was following the soul of his cousin all the way till he was delivered to the angels. He died in 956 and was buried about 150m north of town.

Sidi Ahmed ben Raggadi

Sidi Ahmed was a great philosopher. He had numerous disciples who were very well educated. He died in 1718 at the age of 85. His tomb is 100 m west of town.

Mohammed Tamba-Tamba

Mohammed was a member of the tribe of Kel-es-Souk who lived north of Gao. He came to Timbuktu to perfect his knowledge. He died in the year 1210 of the hegire (1832) and was buried to the south west of town on the Route to Kabara. His tomb is now within the boundaries of the fort Sidi-el-Bekkaye.

Al-Imam Said

The Cheikh al Imam Said was a native of Timbuktu. He died in 1260 (1882) at the age of 70. He tomb is next to the Pharmacie Populaire.

Sidi Mohammed Boukou

Boukou lived at the beginning of the 16th century. He was part of the tribe Id Ouali of Chinguetti (in Mauritania). He has relatives in Touat to this day. He is buried to the east of town.

Sidi el-Wafi el-Araouani

Sidi el-Wafi lived in the 17th century. He came to Timbuctoo with two goals. To take a retreat and to improve his knowledge. He died in 1121 (1743). His tomb is found about 25m to the east of town.

Mohammed Sankare

He came to Timbuktu to study. He died at the beginning of the 17th century at the age of 60. His tomb is at the east of town.

Destruction of the Tombs of the Saints of Timbuktu

The destruction caused by Ansar Din’s in Timbuktu have been compared to the destruction carried out by the followers of ad Dawa al-Wahhabiyya in the 19th century.

In the 1800’s, followers of Ad Dawa al-Wahhabiyya or Wahhabism, named for its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 -1792), carried out similar attacks on the shrines of venerated Saints in the Arabian deserts. Wahhabism is a religious movement or branch of Sunni Islam.  It has been variously described as ‘ultra conservative”, austere”, ‘fundamentalist”, “puritanical” or “puritan”and as an Islamic “reform movement” to restore “pure monotheistic worship” (tawheed) by scholars and advocates, and as an “extremist pseudo-Sunni movement” by opponents.  Adherents often object to the term Wahhabi or Wahhabism as derogatory, and prefer to be called Salafi or Muwahid. The movement emphasises the principle of tawhid (the “uniqueness” and “unity” of God).  Its principal influences in Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) and ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328).

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab started the revivalist movement in the remote, sparsely populated region of Najd, advocating a purging of practices such as the popular “cult of saints”, and shrines and tomb visitation, widespread among Muslims, but which he considered idolatry (shirk), impurities and innovations in Islam (Bid’ah).  Eventually he formed a pact with a local leader Muhammad bin Saud offering political obedience and promising that protection and propagation of the Wahhabi movement mean ‘power and glory” and rule of “lands and men.”

The alliance between the followers of ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud’s successors (the House of Saud) proved to be a durable one. The House of Saud continued to maintain its political-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect through the waxing and waning of its own political fortunes over the next 150 years, through to its eventual proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and then afterwards, on into modern times.  Today, Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab’s teachings are the official, state-sponsored form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. With the help of funding from Saudi petroleum exports (and other factors), the the movement underwent “explosive growth” beginning in the 1970s and and now has worldwide influence. The “boundaries” of Wahhabism have been called “difficult to pinpoint,” but in contemporary usage, the term Wahhabi and Salafi are often used interchangeably, and they are considered to be movements with different roots that have merged since the 1960s. But Wahhabism has been called “a particular orientation within Salafism,” or an ultra-conservative, Saudi brand of Salafism.  Estimates of the number of adherents to Wahhabism vary, with one source (Mehrdad Izady) giving a figure of fewer than 5 million Wahhabis in the Persian Gulf region (compared to 28.5 million Sunnis and 89 million Shia). Many Sunni and Shia Muslims disagree with the Wahhabi  of the Ottoman empire movement, and a widely circulated conspiracy theory holds it to have been a product of British secret service efforts for causing the demise of the Ottoman empire. Ulema, including Al-Azhar scholars, regularly denounce Wahhabism in terms such as “Satanic faith”. Wahhabism has been accused of being “a source of global terrorism,” inspiring the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and for causing disunity in Muslim communities by labelling Muslims who disagreed with the Wahhabi interpretation of monotheism as apostate (takfir) and justifying their killing. It has also been criticized for the destruction of historic mazars, mausoleums, and other Muslim and non-Muslim buildings and artifacts.

The World Heritage Significance of The Saints Of Timbuktu

Some of the ancient mausoleums of Timbuktu, shrines and tombs of Sufi saints which were a place of pilgrimage for centuries have been restored through a local and international project, three years after they were deliberately destroyed by armed groups linked to al-Qaida.

The director general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, visited the city in Northern Mali, praising the reconstruction work as “an answer to all extremist whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali”. The 16 tombs, the treasures of a place known as “the city of 333 saints”, some dating back to the 13th century, were believed by the local people to protect their city from danger.  The saints were renowned for their scholarship as well as their piety, and their memorials formed part of the Timbuktu World Heritage Site, the Unesco list of the world’s most important monuments.

The work has been carried out by local masons using traditional building techniques, collecting old photographs and surviving fragments of the walls as patterns to rebuild using the local stone mortared with banco, a mixture of clay and straw.  The first monuments chosen for restoration were to three saints from different regions, one from Timbuktu, one from Algeria, and on from Djenne in the Niger delta.

Timbuktu has been known since ancient times as a centre of learning and trade.  In the 12th century it became the site of one of the world’s earliest universities, which at its height in the 15th century is said to have had 25,000 students.

Recognising its significance as a site of African architecture and its scholarly past, UNESCO declared Timbuktu a World Heritage Site in 1990.

The city and its desert environs are an archive of handwritten texts in Arabic script, produced between the 15th and the 20th centuries. The manuscript libraries of Timbuktu are significant repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. The manuscripts were precious for what they said more broadly about Africa’s history. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who visited Timbuktu in 1996, explains that Hegel, Kant, and other Enlightenment philosophers contended that Africa had no tradition of writing, and therefore no history and no memory.  “And unless you have those, you are not a civilization, which was a pernicious argument that provided justification for the slave trade,” Gates said in a recent interview.  ‘The absence of writing, of books, was seen as a reflection of the subhuman position of the Africans.  So the presence of these books had high, high stakes, going back to the 18th century.  Kant and Hegel and Hume did not know anything about this.”

The Meaning of the Saints or Awliya In Sufism

A hierarchy of Awliya and their functions are outlined in the books of Sufi masters.  There is some controversies as to the terms used for each rank, but there is general agreement about the numbers and functions of each level starting from the top downwards:

  • One – Ghawth (Guide)
  • Three – Qutb (World Pillar)
  • Three – Nuqaba (Watchman)
  • Four – Awtaad (Pegs), Aqtab (Poles)
  • Seven – Abraar (Pious)
  • Forty – Abdal ( Substitutes)
  • Three Hundred – Akhyaar (Chosen)

Description of the Qutb.

Qutb, Qutub, Kutb, Kutub, or Kotb, means “axis”, ‘pivot”, or “pole”.  Qutb can refer to the celestial movement and used as an astronomical term or a spiritual symbol.  In Sufism, a Qutb is the perfect human being, al-Insan al-Kamil (Universal Man), who lead the saintly hierarchy.  The Qutb is the Sufi spiritual leader that has a divine connection with God and passes knowledge on which makes him central to, or axis of Sufism, but he is unknown to the world.  There is only one Qutb per era and he is an infallible and trusted spiritual leader.  He is only revealed to a select group of mystics because there is a human need for direct knowledge of God”

According to the Institute of Ismaili Studies, “In mystical literature, such as the writings of Al-Tirmidhi, Abd al-Razzaq and Ibn Arabi, Qutb refers to the perfect human being who is thought to be the Universal Leader of all saints, to mediate between the divine and the human and whose presence is deemed necessary for the existence of the world.



“The Cultural Renaissance Of Timbuktu”

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Timbuktu Mausoleums

Timbuktu (Mali) (04/02/2016) © UNESCO / Lazare Eloundou Assomo | Image Source: Lazare Eloundou Assomo

Timbuktu (Mali), February 4 – A consecration ceremony of the Timbuktu mausoleums, last held in the 11th century, was held at the initiative of the local community. This is the final phase of the cultural rebirth of the Timbuktu mausoleums after their destruction by the armed groups who occupied the city in 2012.

The ceremony, held at the Mosque of Djingareyber, began in the early morning hours with the sacrifice of animals and reading of Quranic verses. It was intended to invoke the divine mercy to provide the basis for peace, cohesion and tranquility. The ceremony concluded with a Fatiha (prayers) pronounced by the imam of the Djingareyber Mosque. These religious rites also represent the rejection of intolerance, violent extremism and religious fundamentalism, which, in 2012, contributed to the destruction of much of the city’s rich cultural heritage.

In a message on this occasion, addressed to the people of Mali, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stressed that this ceremony was the third and final stage in the cultural renaissance of Timbuktu. “We gathered here on 18 July 2015, for the inauguration of these mausoleums. This is our promise, and we held it together. In this effort we have rebuilt more than just monuments, we have forged bonds of friendship and nothing can undo them,” she said.

“These mausoleums are now once again standing. This is irrefutable proof that unity is possible and peace is even stronger than before. We did it and we can do it again,” she added.

European Union Ambassador Alain Holleville paid tribute to the community of Timbuktu in his remarks. “For the European Union, contributing to the safeguarding of the Malian heritage is a form of promoting culture as a factor of reconciliation and lasting peace, and is part of our reconstruction and development priorities in Mali.”

Beatrice Meyer, Resident Director of Cooperation at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation was equally complimentary of the efforts of all involved. “I am very pleased that this heritage has been preserved and protected thanks to the enormous commitment of local communities, with the support of international cooperation,” she said.

The head of families, Sekou Baba, meanwhile thanked the international community for its support. “We were fed on hope and rebuilt our mausoleums. It is done. We look forward to this ceremony that connects us back to our saints.”

Finally, Almamy Koureissi, speaking on behalf of the Minister of Culture, Handicrafts and Tourism of Mali, thanked the people of Timbuktu, and expressed gratitude to UNESCO and the technical and financial partners. “Culture is at the heart of government action because we have found our bearings, our cultural values. We need to embrace our moral center, to remain standing, open to the world, welcoming and hospitable in accordance with our legendary traditions.”

Lazare Eloundou, UNESCO representative in Mali and Loubna Benhayoune, MINUSMA representative, as well as several religious leaders also attended the ceremony.

The mausoleums of Timbuktu have long been places of pilgrimage for the people of Mali and neighboring West African countries. They were widely believed to protect the city from danger. Sixteen of these mausoleums are inscribed on the World Heritage List and 14 were destroyed in 2012, representing a tragic loss for local communities. Due to this, the government of Mali, starting in May 2013, turned to outside partners, including UNESCO, for assistance. The preservation of ancient manuscripts and rehabilitation of 14 mausoleums destroyed by armed groups in 2012 began in March 2014 and concluded in July 2015.

Black Life in The Arab World

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Black Muslims in Yemen

A Legacy hidden In Plain Sight

By Theola Labbe

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, January 11, 2004

BASRA, Iraq — The word was whispered and hurled at Thawra Youssef in school when she was 5 years old. Even back then, she sensed it was an insult.

Abd. Slave. “The way they said it, smiling and shouting, I knew they used it to make fun of me,” said Youssef, recounting the childhood story from her living room couch. “I used to get upset and ask, ‘Why do you call me abd? I don’t serve you,’ ” Youssef said.

Unlike most Iraqis, whose faces come in shades from olive to a pale winter white, Youssef has skin the color of dark chocolate. She has African features and short, tightly curled hair that she straightens and wears in a soft bouffant. Growing up in Basra, the port city 260 miles southeast of Baghdad, she lived with her aunt while her mother worked as a cook and maid in the homes of one of the city’s wealthiest light-skinned families. Dark-skinned complexion Iraqis say the word may or may not be considered an insult, depending on how it is used and the intent of the speaker.  “We use the word abd in the black community,” said Salah Jaleel, 50, one of Youssef’s cousins. “Sometimes I call my friend ‘abd.’ Of course he knows that I don’t insult him, because I’m black also, so it’s a joke. We accept it between us, but it is a real insult if it is said by a white man.”

In the United States, Youssef’s dark skin would classify her as black or African American. In Iraq, where distinctions are based on family and tribe rather than race, she is simply an Iraqi.

The number of dark-skinned people like Youssef in Iraq today is unknown. Their origins, however, are better understood, if little-discussed: They are the legacy of slavery throughout the Middle East.

Historians say the slave trade began in the 9th century and lasted a millennium. Arab traders brought Africans across the Indian Ocean from present-day Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere in East Africa to Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. “We were slaves. That’s how we came here,” Youssef said. “Our whole family used to talk about how our roots are from Africa.”

Though centuries have passed since the first Africans, called Zanj, arrived in Iraq, some African traditions still persist here. Youssef, 43, a doctoral candidate in theater and acting at Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts, is writing her dissertation about healing ceremonies that are conducted exclusively by a community of dark-skinned Iraqis in Basra. Youssef said she considers the ceremonies — which involve elaborate costumes, dancing, and words sung in Swahili and Arabic — to be dramatic performances.

“I don’t complain about being called an abd, but I think that’s what provoked me to write this, perhaps some kind of complex,” said Youssef, who began researching and writing about the practices of Afro-Iraqis in 1997, when she was studying for a master’s degree. “Something inside me that wanted to tell others that the abd they mock is better than them.”

“By the 9th century, when Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic world, we do have evidence of a large importation of African slaves — how large is anyone’s guess,” said Thabit Abdullah, a history professor at York University in Toronto.

In a country that revolves around religion rather than race, the term “Abd” may be used by light-skinned Iraqis in a matter-of-fact way to describe someone’s dark skin.

In many ways, the low visibility of dark-skinned Iraqis has been a blessing. During his 35 years in power, Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party government killed and tortured thousands of people based on ethnic and religious affiliations. Ethnic Kurds in the northern reaches of the country, and Shiite Muslims — particularly the so-called Marsh Arabs — living in the south all suffered. The dark-skinned Iraqis were spared Hussein’s wrath.

Her mother was disappointed in her choice. Her husband’s mother objected to the union. Sabty said Mousa’s family even tried to intimidate her with threatening phone calls. Now she shakes her head and dismisses it all as long-ago history. “Objections and barriers exist, but in the end it’s all solved,” she said in her soft voice, smiling.

Her middle-class home in Basra’s Abbasiya district has painted concrete walls and two televisions and is immaculate. Sitting on a couch draped in white protective cloth, Sabty explained that intermarriages like hers are common in Iraq: “We don’t have a problem with color, and we don’t deal with someone based on color.”

For instance, she said, her older sister married a light-skinned Iraqi and has a daughter with blond hair. Her brother married a dark-skinned woman and their child is dark-skinned. Sabty’s two young children have olive complexions and straight, shiny hair, showing no trace of Sabty’s caramel coloring.

Suddenly she paused. “In the coming generations we will have fewer dark-skinned children, and this pains us,” she said. “We are proud of this color because people of this color are a minority in Iraq. Maybe DNA will bring us the color again.” 

Hashim Faihan Jimaa, 78, is more concerned with survival than color. He has no income and lives with his ailing wife, Dawla Shamayan, 68, who recently had gallbladder surgery. Jimaa says he believes in the African-inspired healing ceremonies. He used to participate many years ago when they were more frequent; the number of ceremonies has decreased since the start of the U.S. occupation because of fear of performing outside. 

“These came from Africa and they are very important to us, the abds,” he said. Just as he used the Arabic word for slave to refer to himself, Jimaa sometimes referred to light-skinned Iraqis using the term for a free person.

His wife, sitting across from him with about a dozen of their children and grandchildren, gingerly suggested that perhaps his grandfather or another relative had been slaves from Africa.

Jimaa glanced down at the back of his dark-brown hand. “You can’t depend on someone’s color, because maybe a black man married a free woman and the children will come out lighter than me,” he said. To seal his argument, he pointed to his caramel-colored daughter and then his granddaughter, who was darker than her mother.

Jimaa’s wife and others continued to probe Jimaa’s answers. He grew exasperated. “I have nothing to do with Africa, I don’t know where it is or even what it is,” Jimaa said. “But I know that my roots are from Africa because I am dark-skinned.”

Few local government leaders in Basra, some of whom were selected by the U.S.-led occupation authority, are dark-skinned. In Hakaka — a poor neighborhood of 600 families, about 100 of them dark-skinned — town council members elected last August vowed to make changes. All of the eight council members are light-skinned. “People applied to be members, and no one black applied,” said council President Abdullah Mohammed Hasan, 54, in the narrow sandwich and snack shop that serves as the council’s headquarters. Hasan has two wives, one of them dark-skinned. “They have good manners and are very easy to deal with,” Hasan said of dark-skinned Iraqis. “It would be better if they were members.”

Youssef, the doctoral candidate, grew up in Hakaka. When she was a child her family did not have much money, but the modest neighborhood was clean. Now it lacks a septic system and reeks of waste because there is no garbage pickup.

Youssef goes back at least once a month to see her 74-year-old father, who sometimes needs her help because of his failing eyesight. She also visits with her brother, Sabeeh Youssef, and his family.

Sabeeh Youssef, 47, dropped out of school early to help support the family. He works fixing broken lighters since losing his job at an oil company in 1989. But he is a self-taught carpenter, capable of carving elaborate antique cars and miniature ships. He proudly showed the objects lining the walls of his modest home, which lacks running water. He would love to have his own shop, “but I don’t have the materials and I don’t have the money to buy them,” he said, as his daughter Duaa Sabeeh, 5, grew restless in his lap.

“I’m very happy and proud of my sister,” he added. “She did the things that I couldn’t do, or that my father couldn’t do. She did it.”

“I don’t feel like a stranger here,” she said one day, stepping carefully to avoid the sewage as eager children followed her. “I have something deep inside of me that is connected to the local Basra ceremonies. I can’t abandon them.” The practices, she said, came from “the motherland where we came from: Africa.”

In her dissertation, Youssef mentioned seven open fields in and around Basra where ceremonies take place. The field in the Hakaka section is a dusty, hard-packed courtyard with houses clustered around it. Drums, tambourines and other instruments are stored in a closet. Youssef said that only a local leader named Najim had a key. Youssef had to seek his permission to write about the ceremonies. Najim declined to talk about them.

In her dissertation Youssef describes a song called “Dawa Dawa.” The title and words are a mix of Arabic and Swahili. The song, which is about curing people, is used in what Youssef calls the shtanga ceremony, for physical health. Another ceremony, nouba, takes its name from the Nubian region in the Sudan. There are also ceremonies for the sick, to remember the dead and for happy occasions such as weddings.

“The ceremonies are our strongest evidence of our African identity,” she said.

Youssef said she was raised to be a proud Iraqi and Muslim, but that her mother also stressed the family’s roots in Kenya. Her grandfather and his relatives came from Africa through slavery, her mother said. “I knew that the word abd was used to refer to black people, and I know that it was something embarrassing that my mother was working in a white person’s house,” Youssef said. “I remember that if their son hit me, I couldn’t even push him. So that hurt me, that stuck in my mind.”

When she was 9, her mother sent her to stay with an aunt, Badriya Ubaid. She lived in a more upscale neighborhood and was the lead singer in the nationally acclaimed band Om Ali.

“My aunt, she was the first one pushing me to study,” Youssef said. “She said, why do we let them say that black people can only do dance and music? Why don’t we show them that they can be an important part of the community, that they can study? She wanted me to answer this question.”

In college and graduate school, as she studied theater and dance, Youssef also sang with Om Ali. If someone said that the dark-skinned Iraqis were only good for entertainment, Youssef said, her aunt was quick to point out that her niece was in graduate school studying for an advanced degree. When Ubaid died, Youssef sang regularly in the band but quit in 1999 to pursue her doctorate full time.

Youssef also danced with a local arts troupe. She found the moves reminiscent of the dances in the ceremonies. She wrote her master’s research on body movement, and when it was time to pick a topic in 2000 for her dissertation, she decided to look at her community’s healing ceremonies.

“It’s not only going to give ideas about dark-skinned people, it will give an idea about our inherited ceremonies, which we have to protect,” said Youssef. She wants to teach and to publish her work in a book. “The most important thing is that I started it,” said Youssef. “People will come after me, God willing.

Being Black In Yemen

RNW Archive

This article is part of the RNW archive.  RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was found as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947.  In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs.  More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Many Africans from war-torn Somalia and Ethiopia seek their luck across the sea in Yemen.  Luck can be hard to find – but racism is not

By Judith Spiegel in Sana’a A black man on the bus.  They pat him on the head and shove him in the back.  They make jokes about his pronunciation of the name of the market he is going to.  The black man doesn’t.  He sits still and waits for the humiliation to pass. Probably he has experienced it many times before.  The Somali man who is beaten at the bus station because he allegedly stole somethin doesn’t fight back.  he cries.  Passers-by look the other way.  A few minutes later, a woman is ignored by the bus driver because he doesn’t wANT aFRICANS IN HIS BUS.  She patiently waits for a next bus.

Everyday racism

A day or two using public transport in the Yemeni capital Sana’a makes it clear just how widespread anti-African  feeling is.  There are no official numbers, but Yemen is home to hundreds of thousands of African immigrants (refugees and non-refugees).  Most of them come from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and racism is an everyday part of their life. 

“Its is a cultural thing in this region to treat non-citizens who are poor like this.  People think they bring, although this has never been proven”, says Fouad Alalwi, head of the Sawa’a Orgganization for Anti-Discrimination. “They see them as a burden on society, and for Ethiopians there is also an historical explanation.”

The history Alawi is  referring to dates back to the early Christian era when Yemen was invaded a number of times by Ethiopians who tried to convert the Yemenis.  Eventually, Yemen was one of the first countries to adopt Islam, and the Ethiopians were kicked out. Those who remained behind were enslaved and, explains Alawi, “until today, some Yemenis still believe they can use Ethiopians as slaves”. 

Foreigners to blame

“Almost every day people call me a dag. They ask what I’m doing here, and say we’ve changed their country”, says Tiggist Addisi. She is Ethiopian and has been living in Yemen for 18 years working long hours as a cleaner. After all these years she has not a single Yemeni friend, and she sends her daughter to an Ethiopian school. “They say that women now go out, smoke shisha   (waterpipe, ed) and war pants because of us”, Addisi says, making Ethiopian coffee in her small room in the basement of an apartment building in Sana’a.  On Fridays, she dresses up in white to go to her orthodox church.  “I hurry through the streets.  When people ask me where I am going, I say I am going to school.”

Mixed welcome

Oddly enough, Yemen is actually more open to foreigners than other, much richer countries in the region.  Churches are accepted as long as they are not publicly visible, and Yemen has a generous attitude towards refugees. Somalis refugees are automatically given asylum status.  But once in the country, the streets turn out not to be so welcoming. Racism is not often discussed in yemen.  Organisations like Sawa’s mainly deal with discrimination against minorities by the government but don’t tackle everyday racism on the streets.  The country faces a huge array of problems, and some of these – such as endemic unemployment – feed resentment against immigrants.  it’s easy for people to blame foreigners for taking jobs even when this is not the case.

“What you see in the street are reactions from people who are frustrated they do not have jobs or a good house”, says Alawi.  But he wants to emphasise that it is only a small percentage of Yemenis who behave like this.  “Educated people wouldn’t do this.  it is against Islam, which teaches us that all are equal, black or white.”

In her basement room Al Addisi shrugs; her experience is different.  “They always ask me why I am a Christian.” She is used to it, sticks to her own people and prays in front of an enormous poster of  Jesus Christ every day.  And, she admits, “In Ethiopia we do not treat the Arabs very well either.”


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Al-Akhdam, Akhdam or Achdam (singular Khadem, meaning “servant” in Arabic; also called Al-Muhamasheen, “the marginalized ones”) is a minority social group in Yemen. Although the Akhdams are Arabic-speaking Muslims just like any other Yemeni, they are considered to be at the very bottom of the supposedly abolished caste ladder, are socially segregated, and are mostly confined to menial jobs in the country’s major cities.According to official estimates, the Akhdam numbered between 500,000 to 3,500,000 individuals.

generally shorter and darker than typical Yemenis, and can also be distinguished from the majority by its members’ Veddoid-like physical features and stature. The exact origins of Al-Akhdam are uncertain. One popular belief holds that they are descendants of Nilotic Sudanese people who accompanied the Abyssinian army during the latter’s occupation of Yemen in the pre-Islamic period. Once the Abyssinian troops were finally expelled at the start of the Muslim era, some of the Sudanese migrants are said to have remained behind, giving birth to the Akhdam people. This belief, however, was denied and described as a myth by Hamud al-Awdi, a professor of sociology at Sanaa University.

Another theory maintains that they are of Veddoid origin. The Akhdam are Genetic studies by Lehmann (1954) and Tobias (1974) further noted the sickle cell trait at high frequencies amongst the Akhdam. According to Lehmann, this suggests a biological link with the Veddoids of South Asia, who also have a high incidence of the trait.

Anthropologists such as Vom Bruck postulate that Yemen’s history and social hierarchy that developed under various regimes, including the Zaydi Imamate, had created a hereditary caste-like society. Till today, the Al-Akhdam people exists at the very bottom of Yemeni social strata. The Al-Akhdam community suffers from extreme discrimination, persecution, and social exclusion from the mainstream Yemeni society.  The contempt for the Akhdam people is expressed by a traditional Yemeni proverb:

“Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it’s touched by a Khadem.″

Though their social conditions have improved somewhat in modern times, Al-Akhdam are still stereotyped by mainstream Yemeni society; they have been called lowly, dirty and immoral. Intermarriages between the conventional Yemeni society with the Akhdam community are taboo and virtually prohibited, as the Al-Akhdam are deemed as untouchables. Men who do marry into the community risk banishment by their families.

Many have settled in Sana’a hub, and claim that participation in the 2011 uprising, among other factors, has given them a level of acknowledgment—or at least indifference—by the country’s lighter-skinned citizens.

Yemen’s society has traditionally been divided into highly endogamous social groups that are mainly based on genealogical factors. Until today, the group of sayyids (who claim lineage to the Prophet), judges, sheikhs, and even the “lower” social groups like butchers and ironworkers, continue to play an important role in Yemeni society. Similarly, Yemen’s labor market remains highly stratified and linked to geographic criteria. Intellectuals are believed to come from Taiz, those who work with hand-carts come from Raima governorate, whereas painters are known to be from Al-Baida governorate.

The term “akhdam” began to be used almost 1,000 years ago to describe dark-skinned people in Yemen. “However, their ethnic origins are still unclear and there is no indisputable evidence which proves their lineage,” says Mohammed Saeed Aref, a sociology professor at Aden University.   

When the term “akhdam” is used by Yemenis, it is not directed towards everyone darker than a certain shade. It is specifically directed at the Muhamasheen. A tourist or migrant with a similar skin color is not likely to be addressed by the derogatory name.  However, the lines are blurred, as it is often impossible to tell whether a black person is a visiting foreigner or businessman, a refugee, or a citizen.

Appearance and occupation tend to be important determinants of whether a black Yemeni is seen as a “khadim,” the singular of “akhdam,” or not. A black Yemeni with a “respectable” job—i.e. high paying—who is well-dressed will often be treated much better.

While “akhdam” refers specifically to black Yemeni citizens. Another racist term, “zinji,” is commonly used by Yemenis when referring to black people, whether tourist, migrant or refugee. One of the narratives explaining the term’s origin can be traced back to the region’s slave trade between the seventh and the ninth century. At that time, the argument was, slaves were brought to the Arab world from slave markets on the island of Zanzibar (Zinjibar in Arabic), hence the name “zinji.”

Human Rights Investigations

evidence-based, independent and rigorous investigation of human rights abuses

Ethnic cleansing, genocide and the Tawergha

Human Rights Investigations has been following the situation of the Tawergha closely and here we draw the information together and find, based on the reports of witnesses, journalists and human rights workers, the situation of the Tawergha is not just one of ethnic cleansing but, according to the legal definition, genocide.

HRI has grave concerns, not only for dark-skinned people in Libya generally, but also for pro-Gaddafi tribes including the Gaddafi and al-Meshashyas. We also have particular concern for the Tuareg of southern Libya who are being accused of being ‘mercenaries’ and under attack from NATO and rebel forces. But the greatest concern is perhaps for the Tawergha.

The Genocide Convention

Article 2 of the United Nations issued Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states:

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Article 4 states:

Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.

The Tawergha have been ethnically cleansed

The main town of the Tawergha region, Tawergha itself (aka Tawergha, Tawergha. Arabic: تاورغاء), was a town of an estimated 31,250 people (United Nations Environment Program, 2005).  It has been emptied of its entire population: its people having either been killed or fled, amidst reports the remaining population in the area are being picked off as they try to find water and food. The town of Tawergha lies about 30-40 miles south of Misrata/Misurata,  along the western coast of the Gulf of Sirte. Areas of Misrata occupied by the Tawergha have also been ethnically cleansed, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Amnesty has  reported on the allegations ‘that members of the Tawargha tribe’ have fled their homes and:

Tens of thousands are now living in different parts of Libya – unable to return home as relations between the people of Misrata and Tawergha remain particularly tense. Residents of makeshift camps near Tripoli, where displaced people from Tawergha are sheltering, told Amnesty they would not go outside for fear of arrest. They told how relatives and others from the Tawergha tribe had been arrested from checkpoints and even hospitals in Tripoli.

On 29 August, Amnesty delegates saw a Tawergha patient at the Tripoli Central Hospital being taken by three men, one of them armed, for “questioning in Misrata”. The men had no arrest warrant. Amnesty was also told that at least two other Tawergha men had vanished after being taken for questioning from Tripoli hospitals…

Even in the camps, the Tawergha are not safe. Towards the end of last month, a group of armed men drove into the camp and arrested about 14 men. Amnesty spoke to some of their relatives; none knew of their fate or whereabouts. Another woman at the camp said her husband has been missing since he left the camp to run an errand in central Tripoli, about a week ago. She fears he might be have been detained.

Tawergha who fled to refugee camps have been chased down by rebel groups, taken away and disappeared. There are credible reports of Tawerghans being raped, disappearing and being killed. Tawerghans have even been witnessed being dragged out of hospitals in Tripoli to unknown fates.

Human Rights Investigation

September 26, 2011

The early genocidal threats to Tawergha

In a June 21 article in the Wall Street Journal, Sam Dagher described Tawergha as a  town inhabited mostly by black Libyans, a legacy of its 19th-century origins as a transit town in the slave trade. He quoted one of the rebel commanders from the rebel Misrata brigade:

Ibrahim al-Halbous, a rebel commander leading the fight near Tawergha, says all remaining residents should leave once if his fighters capture the town.  “They should pack up,” Mr. Halbous said. “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata.”

Other rebel leaders are reported as: “calling for drastic measures like banning Tawergha natives from ever working, living or sending their children to schools in Misrata.”

In addition, according to the article, as a result of the battle for Misrata:

nearly four-fifths of residents of Misrata Gohoushi neighborhood were Tawergha natives. Now they are gone or in hiding, fearing revenge attacks by Misratans, amid reports of bounties for their capture.

The demonization of the Tawergha

An important part of any genocide is the demonisation and dehumanisation of the victims and this continues to be the case for the Tawergha. As part of the information war NATO and the rebels have described all loyalist black fighters, guest workers from sub-Saharan Africa and even black skinned inhabitants of Libya as ‘mercenaries’ [Arabic:  مرتزقة Romanisation:mertezqhor ‘murtazaka‘].

The Tawerghans have been accused of mass rape, of being collectively responsible for the battle of Misrata and are invariably described in racist terms. As Sam Dagher reported:

Some of the hatred of Tawergha has racist overtones that were mostly latent before the current conflict. On the road between Misrata and Tawergha, rebel slogans like “the brigade for purging slaves, black skin” have supplanted pro-Gadhafi scrawl.

It is worth noting that this demonisation of black people has led to widespread atrocities including lynchings and beheadings in which the highest echelons of the National Transitional Council have been complicit.

Tawergha is captured by the rebels

As we reported at the time, the town of Tawergha was taken by the rebels on 13 August in an assault which was closely coordinated with NATO and featured the use of aerial bombing and of heavy weaponry against the town. A report of the fall by Andrew Simmons for Al Jazeera, unfortunately lacking context, shows at least one of the large residential blocks in Tawergha alight, prisoners packed inside a freight container (who the rebels didn’t want filmed), an injured man in civilian clothes and the rebel fighters evicting an Egyptian woman who has lost her 9 children under 12 who ran away during the attack from her home.

At this stage the last remaining civilians and defenders of the town were reportedly surrounded.

The attack on Tawergha was also reported by Orla Guerin of the BBC who also, disgracefully, failed to give the ethnic cleansing context despite actually interviewing Ibrahim al-Halbous, the very commander who had earlier threatened to wipe the town off the map.

NATO air support for the assault on Tawergha

The NATO bombing in support of the attack is recorded in the NATO press releases from the time:

10 August: In the vicinity of Tawergha: 3 Command and Control Nodes, 2 Military Storage Facilities.

12 August: In the vicinity of Misrata: 1 Military Facility, 1 Ammo Storage Facility.

13 August: In the vicinity of Misrata: 4 Anti-Aircraft Guns.

13 August: In the vicinity of Tawarah: 2 Military Vehicles, 1 Anti-Aircraft Guns.

The actual assault was from 10-13 August so we can see NATO played an important role in the ethnic cleansing of this town, an ethnic cleansing of which they had been forewarned and in which they decided, nonetheless, to participate.

Reports indicate the rebels were ordered by NATO to paint their vehicles red and yellow just prior to the assault.

The ethnic cleansing of Tawergha

It is highly likely many black refugees from Misrata fled to the town of Tawergha. Many of them and the original residents may have moved on prior to the actual assault, especially as the Misrata brigades were firing Grad rockets at the town. It also seems likely some of the fighters may have escaped to Sabha, Sirte or Bani Walid, where they are currently making a last stand, sure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to survive capture.

However, a report by David Enders, reporting from an empty Tawergha, indicates ethnic cleansing occurred after the rebels took full control:

According to Tawergha residents, rebel soldiers from Misrata forced them from their homes on Aug. 15 when they took control of the town. (Our emphasis)

This would have been 2 days after the fall of the town and after Orla Guerin and Andrew Simmons had left. The fate of the prisoners loaded into the shipping containers, as well as the population as a whole remains unknown.

Following the trail of the last of the Tawerghans

To his great credit David Enders follows up on the story of the Tawerghans, (17th September) trying to trace their current location:

The residents were then apparently driven out of a pair of refugee camps in Tripoli over this past weekend.

“The Misrata people are still looking for black people,” said Hassan, a Tawergha resident who’s now sheltering in a third camp in Janzour, six miles east of Tripoli. “One of the men who came to this camp told me my brother was killed yesterday by the revolutionaries.”

The evidence that the rebels’ pursuit of the Tawerghis did not end with the collapse of the Gadhafi regime is visible, both in the emptiness of this village and that of the camps to which the residents fled.

At one, in a Turkish-owned industrial complex in the Salah al Deen neighborhood of southern Tripoli, a man looting metal from the complex simply said that the Tawerghis had “gone to Niger,” the country that borders Libya on the south where some Gadhafi  supporters, including the deposed dictator’s son Saadi, have fled.

It is worth noting that to get to Niger, any refugees would have had to make an extremely hazardous journey to Sabha first. From there it would have been a further week’s journey by bus into Niger, across the Sahara: another very dangerous journey which it is highly unlikely any of the refugees would have even attempted let alone survived.

David Enders report continues:

Lafy Mohammed, whose house is across the road from the complex, said that on Saturday a group of revolutionary militiamen from Misrata, 120 miles east of Tripoli, had come to the camp and evict its tenants.

“They arrested about 25 of the men,” Mohammed said. “They were shooting in the air and hitting them with their rifle butts.”

“They took the women, old men and children out in trucks,” he said.

Mohammed said that it was not the first time the revolutionaries from Misrata had come after the people in the camp.

“A week ago they were here, but (the people in the neighborhood) begged them to leave them alone,” Mohammed said.

Mohammed said some of the Tawerghis may have been taken to another nearby camp, in a Brazilian-owned industrial complex. On Tuesday, that camp was empty as well, with the gate locked.

Reached by phone at the camp in Janzour, Hassan, who did not want his last name used, said he had escaped from the Brazilian company camp on Saturday, when it, too, was raided. He said about 1,000 Tawerghis were now at the Janzour camp.

“They arrested 35 men, but they let me go because I was with my family,” Hassan said. He blamed a brigade of fighters from Misrata.

In Tawergha, the rebel commander said his men had orders not to allow any of the residents back in. He also said that unexploded ordnance remained in the area, though none was readily apparent.

Most homes and buildings in the area appeared to have been damaged in the fighting, and a half-dozen appeared to have been ransacked. The main road into the village was blocked with earthen berms. Signs marking the way to the village appeared to have been destroyed.

On the only sign remaining “Tawergha” had been painted over with the words “New Misrata.”

On one wall in Tawergha, graffiti referred to the town’s residents as “abeed,” a slur for blacks.


Prophet Muhammad, the Arabs and the Many Shades of Blackness

By Wesley Muhammad, PhD

Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Minhaji al-Asyuti (d. 1475) in his Jawahir al-’uqud wa-mu’in al-qudat wal-muwaaqqi in wal-shuhid (II:574), whis a two volume composition of principles and models to be followed by judges, notaries and witnesses in drafting legal decisions, has a section on human complexions in which he reports about the many shades of blackness (and whiteness) and their technical legal descriptions:

“If a person’s complexion is intensely black (shadid al-sawad), he is described as halik.  If his/her blackness has a red hue, he/she is daghman.  If his complexion is lighter than that, he is asham.  If the blackness has a yellow hue, he is ashum.  If his complexion in dark (kudra), it is described as arbad.  If the complexion is lighter than that (i.e. arbad), it is abyad.  If there is less of a yellow hue and the complexion inclines toward black (al-sawad), it is adam.  If it is lighter than arbad and darker than adam, it is shadid al-udma.  If it is lighter than adam, it is shadid al-sumra (‘intensely dark brown”).  If lighter than that, it is asmar (dark brown).”

In Classical Arabic Tradition several shades and hues of blackness, several shades of brownness, and several shades of whiteness were distinguished.  There are very black complexions with red hues (e.g. daghman) and very black complexions with yellow hues (e.g. asham).  Both of these complexion-types exist in Africa today, as elsewhere.  The most extreme degree of blackness is halik, ‘pitch-black’.  The last stage of blackness is asmar, which is actually a brown.

The question is thus not whether or not the ancient Arabs, and thus the Arab Prophet, were black or not.  They clearly self-identified as black.  The question is: which shade of black were they?

The Arabs generally self-identified as akhdar, adam, and asmar which range from very dark brown to normal brown (which is a much darker color than tan).  They tended to disparage and distance themselves from extreme pitch-blackness like halik and attributed this to certain African groups.

Regarding the prophet Muhammad, Al-Tirmidhi, in his Jami’ al-Sahih (VI:69 no. 1754), reports on the the authority of the famous Companion of the Prophet, Anas b. Malik:

“The Messenger of Allah was of medium stature, neither tall nor short, (with) a beautiful, dark brown-complexioned body (hasan al-jism asmar al-lawn).  His hair was neither curly nor completely straight and when he walked he leant forward.”

Al-Tirmidhi reports in his al-Sham’il al-Muhammadiyyah (#1), also on the authority of Anas b. Malik:

“The Messenger of Allah (s) was neither tall, such that he would stand out, nor was he short.  He was not albino-white (al-abyad al-am haq), nor was he deep dark brown (adam).  His hair was neither very curly nor completely straight.  Allah commissioned him towards the end of his fortieth year.  he remained in Mecca for ten years and in Medina for ten years.  Allah caused him to pass away at the turn of his sixtieth year and there was not found on his head and beard (as much as) twenty white hairs.”

This report does not stand in contradiction to the other reports according to which the Prophet was dark brown-skinned, because asmar is not adam.  According to classifications of the Arabic linguists such as al-Tha’labi, adam is a more excessive blackness than asmar.  What is therefore denied is that Muhammad was one of the more excessively black Arabs, like the Banu Sulaym maybe.

Hālik African

Ādam Arab

An Asmar Arab (right) as depicted in Michel Ocelot’s animated feature film Azur & Asmar, telling the story of an Arab boy named Asmar, representing the Arab World, and a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy named Azur, representing the West. Posted by Black Arabia

How Did the Black Arabs Become White?

Lucien Herault, writing about the white slave-trade into North Africa in the 17th century, observes: In the first half of the seventeenth century, the number of (white) captives held itself around a fluctuating population figure of around 20,000, that, joined to the 20,000 renegades (i.e. European converts to Islam) and to the numerous contingents of Albanians and Bulgarians serving in the militia, made of Algiers a white city, approaching closer (in terms of ) blood and of race to various European ports on the other bank of the Mediterranean) than to all the other Moorish or Turkish cities. This is no doubt the significance of the Prophet’s words:

Zayd b. Aslam related that the Prophet (s) saw a vision and told his companions about it.  He said:  “I saw a group of black sheep and a group of white sheep then mixed with them (until the white sheep became so numerous that the black sheep could no longer be seen in the herd of sheep).  I (or Abu Bakr with angelic approval) interpreted to mean that ( the black sheep are the Arabs.  They will accept Islam and become many.  As for the white sheep, are the non-Arabs (i.e. Persians, Turks, Byzantines, ect.) They will enter Islam and then share with you your wealth and your genealogy (and become so numerous that the Arabs will not be noticed amongst them.)”  

Just to be clear, the Black Arab shown above is a Mahra Arab.  The Mahra are indigenous Arabs of southern Arabia who are believed to be the living remnant of the Banu Ad Arabians who likely built the fabled but recently discovered Imran civilization in south-east Arabia some five thousand years ago.  

The family of King Abdullah, of Saudi Arabia, is from Banu Murad, from Anaz b. Wa’il, which in pre-Islamic and early Islamic days was a tribe of black-skinned like the Mahra.

Image result for images of king abdullah saudi arabia

The indigenous peoples of Arabia, including the Arabs, are African peoples.  The Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition) correctly points out:”(Regarding) the origin of the Arab race… the first certain fact on which to base our investigations is the ancient and undoubted division of the Arab race into two branches, the ‘Arab’ or pure; and the ‘Mostareb’ or adscititious … A second fact is, that everything in pre-Islamic literature and record… concurs in representing the first settlement of the ‘pure’ Arabs as made on the extreme south-western point of the peninsular, near Aden, and then spreading northward and eastward… A  third is the Himyar, or ‘dusky’… a circumstance pointing, like the former, to African origin… A fourth is the Himyaritic language… (The preserved words) are African in character, often in identity.  Indeed, the dialect commonly used along the south-eastern coast hardly differs from that used by the (Somali) Africans on the opposite shore… Fiftly, it is remarkabke that where the grammer of the Arabic, now spoken by the ‘pure’ Arabs, differs from that of the north, it approaches to or coincides with the Abyssinian… Sixthly, the pre-Islamic institutions of Yemen and its allied provinces-its monarchies, courts, armies, and serfs-bear a marked resemblance to the historical  Africao-Egyptian type, even to modern Abyssinian.  Seventhly, the physical conformation of the pure-blooded Arab inhabitants of Yemen, Hadramaut, Oman, and the adjoining districts-the shape and size of head, the slenderness of the lower limbs, the comparative scantiness of hair, and other particulars-point in an African rather than an Asiatic direction.  Eightly, the general habits of the people,-given to sedentary rather than nomade occupations, fond of village life, of society, of dance and music; good cultivators of the soil,toerable traders, moderate artisans, but averse to pastoral pursuits-have much more in common with those of the inhabitants of the African than with those of the western Asiatic continent. Lastly, the extreme facility of marriage which exist in all classes of the southern Arabs with the African races; the fecundity of such unions; and the slightness or even absence of any caste feeling between the dusky ‘pure’ Arab and the still darker native of modern Africa… may be regarded as in the direction of a community of origin”

The Pure Arabs and the East Africans are indeed kith and kin.  Bertram Thomas, historian and former Prime Minister of Muscat and Oman, reported in his work ‘The Arabs’:

“The original inhabitants of Arabia… were not the familiar Arabs of our time but very much darker people.  A proto-negroid belt of mankind strected across the ancient world from Africa to Malaya.  This belt… (gave) rise to the Hamitic peoples of Africa, to the Dravidian peoples of India, and to an intermediate dark peopl inhabiting the Arabian peninsula.  In the course of time two big migrations of fair-skinned peoples came from the north… to break through and tranform the dark belt of man beyond India (and) to drive a wedge between India and Africa… The more virile invaders overcame the dark-skinned peoples, absorbing most of them, driving others southwards… The cultural conditions of the newcomers is unknown.  It is unlikely that they were more than wild hordes of adventurous hunters.”  

The Mahra Arabs, like the other northern and southern Black Arabs, are descendents of the aboriginal Africoid Arabians or Afrabians. they are not, as some would like to believe, descendents of “slaves and concubines.”

Wesley Muhammad, “Anyone who says that the Prophet is black should be killed”: The De-Arabization of Islam and the Transfiguration of Muhammad in Islamic Tradition.  http;//drwesleywilliams.com

The Secret Of Secrets by Hadrat Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani

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Secret of Secret

“O my dear son! You must accustom yourself to solitude. You must be lonely, separate, attentive to your heart because of the fear of Allah.  You must acknowledge the generous favors of Allah (Exalted is He).  You must live your life in this world as if you were a stranger in exile, and then depart from it as you came into it, for you have no way of knowing what your tomorrow has in store for you at the Resurrection”  Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani  MAY GOD BE PLEASED WITH HIM

An interpretative translation by Shaykh Tosun Bayrak of Sirr al-Asrar by Hadrat ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (1077-1166AD), considered by many to be one of the greatest saints of Islam and the eponymous founder of the Qadiriyya order. This book, appearing in English for the first time, contains the very essence of Sufism, giving a Sufi explanation of how the outward practises of Islam – prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage – contain a wealth of inner dimension which must be discovered and enjoyed if external actions are to be performed in a manner pleasing to God. When this is achieved the soul finds true peace and the spiritual life becomes complete.

Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, born near the Caspian Sea, was the son of the great saint Fatima bint Abdullah al-Sawma’i. After a period of intense intellectual and mystical training he received the khirqa (robe of initiation) and was soon recognised as a saint and scholar, consulted, loved and revered by caliph and pauper alike. As one of the most venerated figures in Sufism, his burial place in Baghdad still attracts numerous visitors from many countries.

‘This work, which contains a biographical introduction to one of the author’s least-known works, represents a valuable contribution to the field … The translator’s introduction provides an insight into the various personal qualities and divine graces which are recognised in combination as a proof of sainthood … It is clearly and elegantly presented, accessible, and has the merit of combining metaphysical doctrine with devotional ethics as encapsulated in the life and work of one of the most endearingly popular Sufis of all time.’
Journal of Islamic Studies

‘A book of great importance to Sufism…Sheikh Tosun has done an admirable job in presenting not only a translation but a lucid interpretation of one of Jilani’s most important works.’ Gnosis.  http://www.its.org.uk/catalogue/the-secret-of-secrets-paperback/

Excerpt –

On the Vision of Allah: Arriving at the Level of Seeing the Manifestation of the Divine Essence

The vision of Allah is of two kinds: one is seeing the manifestation of Allah’s attribute of Perfect Beauty directly in the hereafter, and the other is seeing the manifestation of the divine attributes reflected upon the clear mirror of the pure heart, in this life, in this world. In such a case the vision appears as the manifestation of light emanating from the Perfect Beauty of Allah and is seen by the eye of the essence of the heart.

Allah describes the vision seen by the eye of the heart: The heart did not deny what it saw. (Sura Najm, 11)

On seeing the manifestation of the divine through an intermediary the Prophet says, ‘The faithful is the mirror of the faithful’. What is meant by the first ‘faithful’, the mirror in this phrase, is the pure heart of the believer, while the second ‘faithful’ Who sees His reflection in that mirror is Allah Most High. Whoever arrives at the level of seeing the manifestations of Allah’s attributes in the world will certainly see the Essence of Allah in the hereafter without shape or form.

The reality of this has been confirmed by many of the beloved and the lovers of Allah. Hadrat Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said, ‘My heart saw my Lord by the light of my Lord’. And Hadrat Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, said, ‘I will not pray to Allah unless I see Him’. They both must have seen the manifestation of divine attributes. If someone sees sunlight coming through the windows and says, ‘I see the sun!’ he is telling the truth.

Allah gives the most beautiful example of the manifestation of His attributes.

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp, the lamp enclosed in glass, the glass as it were a brilliant star lit from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is wellnigh luminous, though fire scarce touches it; light upon light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His light. (Sura Nur, 35)

The meaning of the niche is the faithful heart of the believer. The lamp enlightening the niche of the heart is the essence of the heart, while the light that it sheds is the divine secret, the sultansoul. The glass is transparent and does not keep the light within, but protects it and allows it to spread, which is why it is likened to a star. The source of the light is a divine tree. That tree is the state of unity reaching out with its branches and its roots, inculcating the principles of faith, communicating without any intermediary in the language of purity.

It is directly in this language of purity that our Master the Prophet received the Qur’anic revelations. In reality, the angel Gabriel brought the divine messages only after they had already been received—this for our benefit, so that we might hear in human language. This also made clear who were the hypocrites and non-believers by giving them the occasion to deny, as they would not believe in angels.

The proof that the Holy Qur’an was revealed directly to the Prophet is in the Qur’an itself.

And thou art surely made to receive the Qur’an from the AllWise, the AllKnowing. (Sura Naml, 6)

Since the Prophet received revelation before the angel Gabriel brought it to him, each time Gabriel delivered the holy verses, the Prophet found them in his heart and recited them before they were given. That is the reason for the verse:

And make not haste with the Qur’an before its revelation is made complete to thee … (Sura Ta Ha, 114)

This situation is made clear by the fact that when Gabriel accompanied the Prophet on the night of his ascension, he could not go any further than the seventh heaven, and saying, ‘If I take another step I will burn to ashes’, he left our Master to continue on his own.

Allah describes the blessed olive tree, the tree of unity, as being neither of the East nor of the West. In other words, it has neither a beginning nor an end, and the light of which it is the source has no rising or setting. It is eternal in the past and neverending in the future. Both Allah’s Essence and His attributes are ever-existent, because His attributes are light generated from His Essence. Both the manifestation of His Essence and the manifestation of His attributes are dependent on His Essence.

True worship can only be performed when the veils hiding the heart are lifted so that that eternal light shines upon it. It is only then that the heart is enlightened by the divine light. It is only then that the soul sees the truth through that celestial niche.

The purpose of the creation of this universe is to discover, to see that hidden treasure. Allah says through His Prophet, ‘I was a hidden treasure, I willed to be known. I created the creation so that I would be known.’ That is to say, that He would be known in this material world through His attributes manifested in His creation. But to see His very Essence is left to the hereafter. There, the vision of Allah will be direct, as He wills, and it will be the eye of the child of the heart that sees Him.

On that day some faces will beam (with joy and beauty), looking at their Lord. (Sura Qiyama, 223)

Our Master the Prophet says, ‘I have seen my Lord in the shape of a beautiful youth.’ Perhaps this is the manifestation of the child of the heart. The image is the mirror. It becomes a means, rendering visible that which is invisible. The truth of Allah Most High is exempt from and free of any kind of description or any kind of image or form. The image is the mirror, though what is seen is neither the mirror nor the one who is looking into the mirror. Ponder on that and try to understand, because that is the essence of the realm of secrets.

Yet all this is happening in this world of attributes. In the realm of the Essence all means disappear, burn into thin air. The ones in that realm of Essence themselves do not exist, but they feel the Essence and nothing else. How well the Prophet explains this when he says, ‘I knew my Lord by my Lord’. In His Light, by His Light! The truth of man is the secret of that light, as Allah says through His Prophet: ‘Man is My secret and I am his secret’.

The place of the Prophet Muhammad, whose light is the first of Allah’s creation, is described in his own words, ‘I am from Allah and the believers are from me’. And Allah, speaking through His Prophet, says: ‘I have created the light of Muhammad from the light of My own existence’. The meaning of Allah’s own existence is His divine Essence manifested in His attribute of the Most Compassionate. This He declares through His Prophet, saying: ‘My compassion far surpasses My punishment’. The beloved Messenger of Allah is the light of the Truth, for Allah says, We sent thee not but as a mercy to the whole creation. (Sura Anbiya’, 107) and

Indeed Our Messenger has come to you, making clear to you much of that which you concealed of the Book and passing over much. Indeed, there has come to you from Allah a light … (Sura Ma’ida, 15)

The importance of the beloved Prophet of Allah is made clear when Allah speaks to him and says: ‘But for you, I would not have created creation’.


Thomas Jefferson’s Qu’ran: Islam And Religious Freedom

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The inscription on Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone, as he stipulated, reads  Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of american Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson (April 13 April 1743 – July 4, 1826) was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809). He was an ardent proponent of democracy and embraced the principles of republicanism and the rights of the individual.

A champion of the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was a polymath in the arts, sciences, and politics. He was a proven architect in the classical tradition, and designed his home Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, Virginia’s state capitol and other important buildings. He was keenly interested in science, invention, architecture, religion, and philosophy, and served as president of the American Philosophical Society. Besides English, he was well versed in Latin and Greek, proficient in French, Italian, and Spanish, and studied other languages and linguistic. He founded the University of Virginia after his presidency. Although not a strong orator, Jefferson was a skilled writer and corresponded with many influential people in America and Europe.

Jefferson’s religious and spiritual beliefs were a combination of various religious and theological precepts. Around 1764, Jefferson had lost faith in “orthodox” Christianity after he had tested the New Testament for the consistency of its teachings, and found it to be severely lacking. Jefferson later wrote that he found two strains within the Bible, one that was as “diamonds” of the “purest moral teaching”,and one that was as a “dunghill” of “priest-craft and roguery”. After leaving “Christian orthodoxy” behind, he continued to refer to himself as a “Christian,” though no longer as an “orthodox Christian”.

Jefferson praised the morality of Jesus and edited a compilation of his teachings, omitting the miracles and supernatural elements of the biblical account, titling it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.This book is now most popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. He claimed that Christianity possessed, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Jefferson was firmly anticlerical saying that in “every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty … they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes.”

Jefferson’s form of Christianity included a stern code of personal moral conduct and also drew inspiration from classical literature. While his new belief system retained some Christian principles it rejected many of the orthodox tenets of Christianity of his day and was especially hostile to the Catholic Church as he saw it operate in France. Jefferson advanced the idea of Separation of Church and State, believing that the government should not have an official religion while at the same time it should not prohibit any particular religious expression. He first expressed these thoughts in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut.

Throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, biblical study, and morality. As a landowner he played a role in governing his local Episcopal Church; in terms of belief he subscribed to the moral philosophy of Jesus, but he did not subscribe to much of what he described as the “dung” of popular Christian theology. When he was home he attended the Episcopal church and raised his daughters in that faith. Over time, some have described Jefferson as a Deist; however, due to his belief in a God which is actively involved in the guidance of human history, the modern understanding of the word “Deism” may not entirely describe Jefferson’s system of beliefs.

In a private letter to Benjamin Rush in 1803 Jefferson explained some aspects of his own personal belief system regarding Christianity: “To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence…” Jefferson noted both benevolence and contradictions in Christian doctrine.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was drafted in 1777 (however it was not first introduced into the Virginia General Assembly until 1779) by Thomas Jefferson in the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  On January 16, 1786, the Assembly enacted the statute into the state’s law. The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all religious faiths, including Catholics, Jews, Muslims as well as members of all Protestant denominations. 

The statute was a notable precursor of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Statute for Religious Freedom is one of only three accomplishments Jefferson instructed be put in his epitaph.

Text of the Statute:

“An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacities tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercion on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;

That even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,

That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injurious of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right,

That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;

That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;

That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;

That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”

Sura Al-Baqara, Ayat 256 (There Is No Compulsion In Religion)

Verse (ayah) 256 of Al-Baqara is a widely quoted verse in the Islamic scripture, the Qur’an. The verse includes the phrase that “there is no compulsion in religion.”

The version is important to the debate on conversion to Islam and apostasy from Islam, specifically whether the “compulsion” is taken to refer to conversion to or apostasy from Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars consider that verse to be a Medinan  one, when Muslims lived in their period of political ascendance, and to be non abrogated, including Ibn Qayyim, Ibn Kathir, Al-Tabari, Abi ‘Ubayd, Al-Jassas, Makki bin Abi Talib, Al-Nahhas, Al-Suyuti. According to all the theories of language elaborated by Muslim legal scholars, the Qur’anic proclamation that ‘There is no compulsion in religion. The right path has been distinguished from error’ is as absolute and universal a statement as one finds, and so under no condition should an individual be forced to accept a religion or belief against his or her will according to the Qur’an.

Ibn Kathir’s interpretation

The Qur’an commentator (Muffasir) Ibn Kathir, a Sunni, suggests that the verse implies that Muslims should not force anyone to convert to Islam since the truth of Islam is so self-evident that no one is in need of being coerced into it,

There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the right path has become distinct from the wrong path. لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ (There is no compulsion in religion), meaning, “Do not force anyone to become Muslim, for Islam is plain and clear, and its proofs and evidence are plain and clear. Therefore, there is no need to force anyone to embrace Islam. Rather, whoever Allah directs to Islam, opens his heart for it and enlightens his mind, will embrace Islam with certainty. Whoever Allah blinds his heart and seals his hearing and sight, then he will not benefit from being forced to embrace Islam. It was reported that; the Ansar were the reason behind revealing this Ayah, although its indication is general in meaning. Ibn Jarir recorded that Ibn Abbas said (that before Islam), “When (an Ansar) woman would not bear children who would live, she would vow that if she gives birth to a child who remains alive, she would raise him as a Jew. When Banu An-Nadir (the Jewish tribe) were evacuated (from Al-Madinah), some of the children of the Ansar were being raised among them, and the Ansar said, `We will not abandon our children.’ Allah revealed, لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ (There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the right path has become distinct from the wrong path). Abu Dawud and An-Nasa’i also recorded this Hadith. As for the Hadith that Imam Ahmad recorded, in which Anas said that the Messenger of Allah said to a man, أَسْلِم “Embrace Islam. The man said, “I dislike it. The Prophet said, وَإِنْ كُنْتَ كَارِهًا “Even if you dislike it. First, this is an authentic Hadith, with only three narrators between Imam Ahmad and the Prophet. However, it is not relevant to the subject under discussion, for the Prophet did not force that man to become Muslim. The Prophet merely invited this man to become Muslim, and he replied that he does not find himself eager to become Muslim. The Prophet said to the man that even though he dislikes embracing Islam, he should still embrace it, `for Allah will grant you sincerity and true intent.’

Jefferson’s political ideals were greatly influenced by some of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment; John Lock (1632-1704), Francis Bacon (1562-1626), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), whom he considered the three greatest men that ever lived.

The Age of Enlightenment or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason is an era from the 1620’s to the 1780’s in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. It was promoted by philosophies and local thinkers in urban coffee houses, salons, and Masonic lodges. It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, especially the Roman Catholic church; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science and skepticism.

Jefferson was also influenced by the writings of Gibbon, hume, Robertson, Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire.  But it was the writings of Voltaire that created an adverse opinion of Muhammad in Europe and by extension America.

It may not have been a coincident that the 3 million people strong anti-Islam, anti-terrorism protest in Paris was held on Boulevard Voltaire, named in honor of the French playwright and philosopher Voltaire. Some of the participants interviewed by BBC said Voltaire had a deep significance to them both in relation to the subject and to history. Voltaire found prophet Mohammed grotesque in character and conduct.

Mahomet (Play)

Mahomet (French: Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète, literally Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet) is a five-act tragedy written in 1736 by French playwright and philosopher Voltaire. It received its debut performance in Lille on 25 April 1741.

The play is a study of religious fanaticism and self-serving manipulation based on an episode in the traditional biography of Muhammad in which he orders the murder of his critics. Voltaire described the play as “written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect”.



The story of “Mahomet” unfolds during Muhammad’s post exile siege of Mecca in 630 AD, when the opposing forces are under a short term truce called to discuss the therms and course of the war.

In the first act the audience is introduced to a fictional leader of the Meccans, Zopir, an ardent and defiant advocate of free will and liberty who rejects Mahomet. Mahomet is presented through his conversations with his second in command Omar and with his opponent Zopir and with two of Zopir’s long lost children (Seid and Palmira) whom, unbeknownst to Zopir, Mahomet had abducted and enslaved in their infancy, fifteen years earlier.

The now young and beautiful captive Palmira has become the object of Mahomet’s desires and jealousy. Having observed a growing affection between Palmira and Seid, Mahomet devises a plan to steer Seid away from her heart by indoctrinating young Seid in religious fanaticism and sending him on a suicide attack to assassinate Zopir in Mecca, an event which he hopes will rid him of both Zopir and Seid and free Palmira’s affections for his own conquest. Mahomet invokes divine authority to justify his conduct.

Seid, still respectful of Zopir’s nobility of character, hesitates at first about carrying out his assignment, but eventually his fanatical loyalty to Mahomet overtakes him[4] and he slays Zopir. Phanor arrives and reveals to Seid and Palmira to their disbelief that Zopir was their father. Omar arrives and deceptively orders Seid arrested for Zopir’s murder despite knowing that it was Mahomet who had ordered the assassination. Mahomet decides to cover up the whole event so as to not be seen as the deceitful impostor and tyrant that he is.

Having now uncovered Mahomet’s “vile” deception Palmira renounces Mahomet’s god and commits suicide rather than to fall into the clutches of Mahomet.

Analysis and Reception

The play is a direct assault on the moral character of Muhammad. Omar is a known historical figure who became second caliph; the characters of Seid and Palmira represent Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd ibn Harithah and his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh. The play’s plot contradicts the version of the respective Surah in the Qur’an.

Pierre Milza, posits that, it may have been “the intolerance of the Catholic Church and its crimes done on behalf of the Christ” that were targeted by the philosopher, Voltaire’s own statement about it in a letter in 1742 was quite vague: “I tried to show in it into what horrible excesses fanaticism, led by an impostor, can plunge weak minds.”

It is only in another letter dated from the same year that he explains that this plot is an implicit reference to Jacques Clement, the monk who assassinated Henri III in 1589.

However, it was considered that Islam wasn’t the only focus of the plot and that his aim when writing the text was to condemn “the intolerance of the Church and the crimes that have been committed in the name of the Christ”.

Napoleon during his captivity on St Helena criticized Voltaire’s Mahomet, and said Voltaire had made him merely an impostor and a tyrant, without representing him as a “great man”:

“Mahomet was the subject of deep criticism. ‘Voltaire,’ said the Emperor, ‘in the character and conduct of his hero, has departed both from nature and history. He has degraded Mahomet, by making him descend to the lowest intrigues. He has represented a great man, who changed the face of the world, acting like a scoundrel, worthy of the gallows. He has no less absurdly travestied the character of Omar, which he has drawn like that of a cut-throat in a melo-drama.'”

 Excerpt: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an


At a time when most Americans were uninformed, misinformed, or simply afraid of Islam, Thomas Jefferson imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new nation. His engagement with the faith began with the purchase of a Qur’an eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s Qur’an survives still in the Library of Congress, serving as a symbol of his and early America’s complex relationship with Islam and its adherents. That relationship remains of signal importance to this day.

That he owned a Qur’an reveals Jefferson’s interest in the Islamic religion, but it does not explain his support for the rights of Muslims. Jefferson first read about Muslim “civil rights” in the work of one of his intellectual heroes: the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. Locke had advocated the toleration of Muslims — and Jews — following in the footsteps of a few others in Europe who had considered the matter for more than a century before him. Jefferson’s ideas about Muslim rights must be understood within this older context, a complex set of transatlantic ideas that would continue to evolve most markedly from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Amid the interdenominational Christian violence in Europe, some Christians, beginning in the sixteenth century, chose Muslims as the test case for the demarcation of the theoretical boundaries of their toleration for all believers. Because of these European precedents, Muslims also became a part of American debates about religion and the limits of citizenship. As they set about creating a new government in the United States, the American Founders, Protestants all, frequently referred to the adherents of Islam as they contemplated the proper scope of religious freedom and individual rights among the nation’s present and potential inhabitants. The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity. And if the latter, whether political equality — the full rights of citizenship, including access to the highest office — should extend to non-Protestants. The mention, then, of Muslims as potential citizens of the United States forced the Protestant majority to imagine the parameters of their new society beyond toleration. It obliged them to interrogate the nature of religious freedom: the issue of a “religious test” in the Constitution, like the ones that would exist at the state level into the nineteenth century; the question of “an establishment of religion,” potentially of Protestant Christianity; and the meaning and extent of a separation of religion from government.

Resistance to the idea of Muslim citizenship was predictable in the eighteenth century. Americans had inherited from Europe almost a millennium of negative distortions of the faith’s theological and political character. Given the dominance and popularity of these anti-Islamic representations, it was startling that a few notable Americans not only refused to exclude Muslims, but even imagined a day when they would be citizens of the United States, with full and equal rights. This surprising, uniquely American egalitarian defense of Muslim rights was the logical extension of European precedents already mentioned. Still, on both sides of the Atlantic, such ideas were marginal at best. How, then, did the idea of the Muslim as a citizen with rights survive despite powerful opposition from the outset? And what is the fate of that ideal in the twenty-first century?

This book provides a new history of the founding era, one that explains how and why Thomas Jefferson and a handful of others adopted and then moved beyond European ideas about the toleration of Muslims. It should be said at the outset that these exceptional men were not motivated by any inherent appreciation for Islam as a religion. Muslims, for most American Protestants, remained beyond the outer limit of those possessing acceptable beliefs, but they nevertheless became emblems of two competing conceptions of the nation’s identity: one essentially preserving the Protestant status quo, and the other fully realizing the pluralism implied in the Revolutionary rhetoric of inalienable anduniversal rights. Thus while some fought to exclude a group whose inclusion they feared would ultimately portend the undoing of the nation’s Protestant character, a pivotal minority, also Protestant, perceiving the ultimate benefit and justice of a religiously plural America, set about defending the rights of future Muslim citizens.

They did so, however, not for the sake of actual Muslims, because none were known at the time to live in America. Instead, Jefferson and others defended Muslim rights for the sake of “imagined Muslims,” the promotion of whose theoretical citizenship would prove the true universality of American rights. Indeed, this defense of imagined Muslims would also create political room to consider the rights of other despised minorities whose numbers in America, though small, were quite real, namely Jews and Catholics. Although it was Muslims who embodied the ideal of inclusion, Jews and Catholics were often linked to them in early American debates, as Jefferson and others fought for the rights of all non-Protestants.

In 1783, the year of the nation’s official independence from Great Britain, George Washington wrote to recent Irish Catholic immigrants in New York City. The American Catholic minority of roughly twenty-five thousand then had few legal protections in any state and, because of their faith, no right to hold political office in New York. Washington insisted that “the bosom of America” was “open to receive … the oppressed and the persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.” He would also write similar missives to Jewish communities, whose total population numbered only about two thousand at this time.

One year later, in 1784, Washington theoretically enfolded Muslims into his private world at Mount Vernon. In a letter to a friend seeking a carpenter and bricklayer to help at his Virginia home, he explained that the workers’ beliefs — or lack thereof — mattered not at all: “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews or Christian of an[y] Sect, or they may be Atheists.” Clearly, Muslims were part of Washington’s understanding of religious pluralism — at least in theory. But he would not have actually expected any Muslim applicants.

Although we have since learned that there were in fact Muslims resident in eighteenth-century America, this book demonstrates that the Founders and their generational peers never knew it. Thus their Muslim constituency remained an imagined, future one. But the fact that both Washington and Jefferson attached to it such symbolic significance is not accidental. Both men were heir to the same pair of opposing European traditions.

The first, which predominated, depicted Islam as the antithesis of the “true faith” of Protestant Christianity, as well as the source of tyrannical governments abroad. To tolerate Muslims — to accept them as part of a majority Protestant Christian society — was to welcome people who professed a faith most eighteenth-century Europeans and Americans believed false, foreign, and threatening. Catholics would be similarly characterized in American Protestant founding discourse. Indeed, their faith, like Islam, would be deemed a source of tyranny and thus antithetical to American ideas of liberty.

In order to counter such fears, Jefferson and other supporters of non-Protestant citizenship drew upon a second, less popular but crucial stream of European thought, one that posited the toleration of Muslims as well as Jews and Catholics. Those few Europeans, both Catholic and Protestant, who first espoused such ideas in the sixteenth century often died for them. In the seventeenth century, those who advocated universal religious toleration frequently suffered death or imprisonment, banishment or exile, the elites and common folk alike. The ranks of these so-called heretics in Europe included Catholic and Protestant peasants, Protestant scholars of religion and political theory, and fervid Protestant dissenters, such as the first English Baptists — but no people of political power or prominence. Despite not being organized, this minority consistently opposed their coreligionists by defending theoretical Muslims from persecution in Christian-majority states.

As a member of the eighteenth-century Anglican establishment and a prominent political leader in Virginia, Jefferson represented a different sort of proponent for ideas that had long been the hallmark of dissident victims of persecution and exile. Because of his elite status, his own endorsement of Muslim citizenship demanded serious consideration in Virginia — and the new nation. Together with a handful of like-minded American Protestants, he advanced a new, previously unthinkable national blueprint. Thus did ideas long on the fringe of European thought flow into the mainstream of American political discourse at its inception.

Not that these ideas found universal welcome. Even a man of Jefferson’s national reputation would be attacked by his political opponents for his insistence that the rights of all believers should be protected from government interference and persecution. But he drew support from a broad range of constituencies, including Anglicans (or Episcopalians), as well as dissenting Presbyterians and Baptists, who suffered persecution perpetrated by fellow Protestants. No denomination had a unanimously positive view of non-Protestants as full American citizens, yet support for Muslim rights was expressed by some members of each.

What the supporters of Muslim rights were proposing was extraordinary even at a purely theoretical level in the eighteenth century. American citizenship — which had embraced only free, white, male Protestants — was in effect to be abstracted from religion. Race and gender would continue as barriers, but not so faith. Legislation in Virginia would be just the beginning, the First Amendment far from the end of the story; in fact, Jefferson, Washington, and James Madison would work toward this ideal of separation throughout their entire political lives, ultimately leaving it to others to carry on and finish the job. This book documents, for the first time, how Jefferson and others, despite their negative, often incorrect understandings of Islam, pursued that ideal by advocating the rights of Muslims and all non-Protestants.

A decade before George Washington signaled openness to Muslim laborers in 1784 he had listed two slave women from West Africa among his taxable property. “Fatimer” and “Little Fatimer” were a mother and daughter — both indubitably named after the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima (d. 632). Washington advocated Muslim rights, never realizing that as a slaveholder he was denying Muslims in his own midst any rights at all, including the right to practice their faith. This tragic irony may well have also recurred on the plantations of Jefferson and Madison, although proof of their slaves’ religion remains less than definitive. Nevertheless, having been seized and transported from West Africa, the first American Muslims may have numbered in the tens of thousands, a population certainly greater than the resident Jews and possibly even the Catholics. Although some have speculated that a few former Muslim slaves may have served in the Continental Army, there is little direct evidence any practiced Islam and none that these individuals were known to the Founders. In any case, they had no influence on later political debates about Muslim citizenship.

The insuperable facts of race and slavery rendered invisible the very believers whose freedoms men like Jefferson, Washington, and Madison defended, and whose ancestors had resided in America since the seventeenth century, as long as Protestants had. Indeed, when the Founders imagined future Muslim citizens, they presumably imagined them as white, because by the 1790s “full American citizenship could be claimed by any free, white immigrant, regardless of ethnicity or religious beliefs.”

The two actual Muslims Jefferson would wittingly meet during his lifetime were not black West African slaves but North African ambassadors of Turkish descent. They may have appeared to him to have more melanin than he did, but he never commented on their complexions or race. (Other observers either failed to mention it or simply affirmed that the ambassador in question was not black.) But then Jefferson was interested in neither diplomat for reasons of religion or race; he engaged them because of their political power. (They were, of course, also free.)

But even earlier in his political life — as an ambassador, secretary of state, and vice president — Jefferson had never perceived a predominantly religious dimension to the conflict with North African Muslim powers, whose pirates threatened American shipping in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. As this book demonstrates, Jefferson as president would insist to the rulers of Tripoli and Tunis that his nation harbored no anti-Islamic bias, even going so far as to express the extraordinary claim of believing in the same God as those men.

The equality of believers that Jefferson sought at home was the same one he professed abroad, in both contexts attempting to divorce religion from politics, or so it seemed. In fact, Jefferson’s limited but unique appreciation for Islam appears as a minor but active element in his presidential foreign policy with North Africa — and his most personal Deist and Unitarian beliefs. The two were quite possibly entwined, with their source Jefferson’s unsophisticated yet effective understanding of the Qur’an he owned.

Still, as a man of his time, Jefferson was not immune to negative feelings about Islam. He would even use some of the most popular anti-Islamic images inherited from Europe to drive his early political arguments about the separation of religion from government in Virginia. Yet ultimately Jefferson and others not as well known were still able to divorce the idea of Muslim citizenship from their dislike of Islam, as they forged an “imagined political community,” inclusive beyond all precedent.

The clash between principle and prejudice that Jefferson himself overcame in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remains a test for the nation in the twenty-first. Since the late nineteenth century, the United States has in fact become home to a diverse and dynamic American Muslim citizenry, but this population has never been fully welcomed. Whereas in Jefferson’s time organized prejudice against Muslims was exercised against an exclusively foreign and imaginary nonresident population, today political attacks target real, resident American Muslim citizens. Particularly in the wake of Sept. 11 and the so-called War on Terror, a public discourse of anti-Muslim bigotry has arisen to justify depriving American Muslim citizens of the full and equal exercise of their civil rights.

For example, recent anti-Islamic slurs used to deny the legitimacy of a presidential candidacy contained eerie echoes of founding precedents. The legal possibility of a Muslim president was first discussed with vitriol during debates involving America’s Founders. Thomas Jefferson would be the first in the history of American politics to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the eighteenth century. That a presidential candidate in the twenty-first century should have been subject to much the same false attack, still presumed as politically damning to any real American Muslim candidate’s potential for elected office, demonstrates the importance of examining how the multiple images of Islam and Muslims first entered American consciousness and how the rights of Muslims first came to be accepted as national ideals. Ultimately, the status of Muslim citizenship in America today cannot be properly appreciated without establishing the historical context of its eighteenth-century origins.

Muslim American rights became a theoretical reality early on, but as a practical one they have been much slower to evolve. In fact, they are being tested daily. Recently, John Esposito, a distinguished historian of Islam in contemporary America, observed, “Muslims are led to wonder: What are the limits of this Western pluralism?” Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an documents the origins of such pluralism in the United States in order to illuminate where, when, and how Muslims were first included in American ideals.

Until now, most historians have proposed that Muslims represented nothing more than the incarnated antithesis of American values. These same voices also insist that Protestant Americans always and uniformly defined both the religion of Islam and its practitioners as inherently un-American. Indeed, most historians posit that the emergence of the United States as an ideological and political phenomenon occurred in opposition to eighteenth-century concepts about Islam as a false religion and source of despotic government. There is certainly evidence for these assumptions in early American religious polemic, domestic politics, foreign policy, and literary sources. There are, however, also considerable observations about Islam and Muslims that cast both in a more affirmative light, including key references to Muslims as future American citizens in important founding debates about rights. These sources show that American Protestants did not monolithically view Islam as “a thoroughly foreign religion.”

This book documents the counterassertion that Muslims, far from being definitively un-American, were deeply embedded in the concept of citizenship in the United States since the country’s inception, even if these inclusive ideas were not then accepted by the majority of Americans. While focusing on Jefferson’s views of Islam, Muslims, and the Islamic world, it also analyzes the perspectives of John Adams and James Madison. Nor is it limited to these key Founders. The cast of those who took part in the contest concerning the rights of Muslims, imagined and real, is not confined to famous political elites but includes Presbyterian and Baptist protestors against Virginia’s religious establishment; the Anglican lawyers James Iredell and Samuel Johnston in North Carolina, who argued for the rights of Muslims in their state’s constitutional ratifying convention; and John Leland, an evangelical Baptist preacher and ally of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, who agitated in Connecticut and Massachusetts in support of Muslim equality, the Constitution, the First Amendment, and the end of established religion at the state level.

The lives of two American Muslim slaves of West African origin, Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman and Omar ibn Said, also intersect this narrative. Both were literate in Arabic, the latter writing his autobiography in that language. They remind us of the presence of tens of thousands of Muslim slaves who had no rights, no voice, and no hope of American citizenship in the midst of these early discussions about religious and political equality for future, free practitioners of Islam.

Imagined Muslims, along with real Jews and Catholics, were the consummate outsiders in much of America’s political discourse at the founding. Jews and Catholics would struggle into the twentieth century to gain in practice the equal rights assured them in theory, although even this process would not entirely eradicate prejudice against either group. Nevertheless, from among the original triad of religious outsiders in the United States, only Muslims remain the objects of a substantial civic discourse of derision and marginalization, still being perceived in many quarters as not fully American. This book writes Muslims back into our founding narrative in the hope of clarifying the importance of critical historical precedents at a time when the idea of the Muslim as citizen is, once more, hotly contested.

Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg. Copyright 2013 by Denise A. Spellberg. 

The political aspects of Islam 

The first mention of the Shura in the Qur’an comes in the 2nd Sura of Qur’an 2:233 in the matter of the collective family decision regarding weaning the child from mother’s milk. This verse encourages that both parents decide by their mutual consultation about weaning their child.

The 42nd Sura of Qur’an is named as Shura. The 38th verse of that Sura suggests that shura is praiseworthy life style of a successful believer. It also suggests that people whose matter is being decided be consulted. It says: “Those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation among themselves; who spend out of what We bestow on them for Sustenance” [are praised] The 159th verse of 3rd Sura orders Muhammad to consult with believers. The verse makes a direct reference to those (Muslims) who disobeyed Muhammad, indicating that ordinary, fallible Muslims should be consulted. It says: Thus it is due to mercy from God that you deal with them gently, and had you been rough, hard hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you; pardon them therefore and ask pardon for them, and take counsel with them in the affair; so when you have decided, then place your trust in God; surely God loves those who trust.

The first verse only deals with family matters. The second proposed a lifestyle of people who will enter heavens and is considered the most comprehensive verse on shura. The third verse advices on how mercy, forgiveness and mutual consultation can win over people.

Muhammad made all his decisions in consultation with his followers unless it was a matter in which God has ordained something. It was common among Muhammad’s companions to ask him if a certain advice was from God or from him. If it was from Muhammad, they felt free to give their opinion. Some times Muhammad changed his opinion on the advice of his followers like his decision to defend the city of Madinah by going out of the city in Uhad instead of from within the city.

Arguments over shura began with the debate over the ruler in the Islamic world. When Muhammad died in 632 CE, a tumultuous meeting at Saqifah selected Abu Bakr as his successor. This meeting did not include some of those with a strong interest in the matter—especially Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law; people who wanted Ali to be the caliph (ruler) became known as Shia ul-Ali (party of Ali) still consider Abu Bakr an illegitimate leader of the caliphate.



Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: A World Heritage

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The Church steeple in 2013

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

On June 17, 2015, during a routine Bible study at the church, a white man about 21 years old, later identified as Dylan Roof,  purportedly said: ” I come to kill black people.” before opening fire at close range killing nine people including the pastor. .  In a manifesto posted on the now defunct (www.lastrhodesian.com), Roof purportedly claimed allegiance to ‘white supremacy’ and the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Roof, unemployed and living in largely African-American Eastover at the time of the terrorist attack, according to a childhood friend, went on a rant about the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the 2015 Baltimore protests that were sparked by the death of Freddie Gray while Gray was in police custody. He also often claimed that “blacks were taking over the world”. Roof reportedly told friends and neighbors of his plans to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston, but his claims were not taken seriously.

One image from his Facebook page showed him wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of two nations used as emblems among American white supremacist movements, those of Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa. Another online photo showed Roof sitting on the hood of his parents’ car with an ornamental license plate with a Confederate flag on it. According to his roommate, Roof expressed his support of racial segregation in the United States and had intended to start a civil war.

The following Sunday, June 21, 2015,  ‘Mother’ Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church opened its doors for service. All were welcome.

Charleston, S.C. – Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Southern United States and houses the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, Maryland. Its members met in secret in the years when Black churches were outlawed in the southern slave states before the civil war, and it contains a shrine to Denmark Vesey, a founding member, who helped plan a slave revolt in 1822.  Denmark Vesey’s planned revolt was so well designed that it was kept secret by his executioners for five years out of fear that it would excite slave rebellions throughout the South.

Known affectionately by its member as “Mother Emanuel”, Emanuel African Methodist Church was founded in 1816 by African American former members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, who left the church because of a dispute over burial grounds.  In 1818 a church leader, Morris Brown, left a white church in protest, and more than four thousand Black members him to this new church.

State and city ordinances at that time limited worship services by black people to daylight hours, demanded that a majority of congregants in a given church be white, and prohibited black literacy.  In 1818. Charleston officials arrested 140 black church members and sentenced eight leaders to fines and lashes.  City officials again raided the church in 1820 and 1821.

In 1822, Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, was implicated in an alleged slave revolt plot.  Vesey and five other alleged organizers were executed on July 2 after a secret trial, and the original church was burned down by “white supremacist” before being rebuilt.  However, in 1834 all-black churches were outlawed in Charleston, and the congregation met in secret until the end of the civil war in 1865.

After the war ended, Bishop Daniel Payne installed Reverend Richard H. Cain as the pastor of the congregations that would become Emanuel A.M.E. and Morris Brown A.M.E. In 1872, after serving in the South Carolina Senate (1868-1872), Reverend Cain became a Republican Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, continuing a tradition of religious leaders serving in political positions.

The congregation rebuilt the church between 1865 and 1872 asa wooden structure, under the lead of architect Robert Vesey, the son of the abolitionist and church co-founder Denmark Vesey.

After an earthquake demolished that building in 1886, President Grover Cleveland donated ten dollars to the church to aid its rebuilding efforts, noting that he was “very glad to contribute something for so worthy a cause.” However, being a Democrat, he also donated 20 dollars to the Confederate Home, a “haven for white widows.” The current building was constructed in 1891. The location of the post-Civil War churches is on the north side of Calhoun Street; blacks were not welcome on the south side of what was then known as Boundary Street when the church was built.



Festival On The Niger In Ségou

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A Dogon dancer performs a traditional dance at the Festival on the Niger in Segou. 

Credit Ben C. Solomon for The New York Times


Down by the Niger River last February, a Tuareg street performer was warming up the crowd. The evening concert at the Festival on the Niger was about to begin, and the promenade inside the concert grounds was filled with early arrivals. Dozens had gathered in a circle around the elderly nomad, who was draped in a blue robe and a black veil. Robe flying, the toothless dervish hurled himself to the ground, flipped and twirled with the loose-limbed dexterity of a teenager. Two Tuareg women, seated cross-legged on the ground, served as his musical backups: One beat a calabash with a plastic sandal, the other played a tapered wood-and-goatskin drum known as a tendé.

Just down the river, light and sound engineers were prepping the stage — a huge barge moored just off the bank — for the evening’s main event, performances by bands from across the Sahel — Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.

I had arrived in the Niger River town of Ségou two days earlier, after a rough four-hour drive on a decaying tarmac road from Bamako, the capital of Mali. The last time I had made this journey, in January 2013, I had shared the road with an armored French convoy, which was speeding to the front lines in Timbuktu to drive out the jihadists who had occupied the north. But now the country was quiet — more or less — and, after a year’s hiatus because of the war, the Festival on the Niger was back in business. For four evenings during the first week of February, many of the country’s best musicians performed before a crowd of thousands, including several hundred foreigners. The highlight was a final-night performance by Salif Keita, the golden-voiced singer who kicked off a Malian music boom, along with Ali Farka Touré, in the 1980s.

I’ve long been a Malian music aficionado, but I had only recently heard about this festival. Though it debuted in 2002, it was, until a few years ago, overshadowed by its rival, the Festival in the Desert, known as the “African Woodstock,” set in the sand dunes 40 miles west of Timbuktu. Big-name Western performers — Robert Plant, Bono, Jimmy Buffett, Manu Chao — made a pilgrimage to the desert, playing alongside famous local bands such as Tinariwen. But in early 2012 an alliance of Tuareg separatists and jihadists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb occupied the north and imposed sharia law. Jihadists smashed guitars, burned studios and threatened to kill musicians. Half a million people, including many performers, fled to the south of Mali or to refugee camps in neighboring countries.

With the Festival in the Desert out of commission, the Festival on the Niger in Ségou — a southern city never occupied by the jihadists — has become the best place in the world to hear live Malian music. The desert’s loss has been the river’s gain.

No doubt the festival will be greeted as a welcome reprieve from the specter of Ebola, which killed six people in Mali last fall after leaving thousands dead in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In mid-December the World Health Organization reported that the last confirmed Ebola patient in Mali had left the hospital, and the last person who had contact with someone with Ebola had been declared virus-free after the 21-day quarantine. The prospect of a major outbreak of the virus did worry promoters, but the festival should be moving ahead as scheduled from Feb. 4 to 8.

Last year, the director of the Festival on the Niger had decreed that the theme would be “cultural diversity and national unity.” In keeping with that spirit, the festival opened with a concert by the Peace Caravan, a group of northern musicians, many of whom had performed at the Festival in the Desert and had been forced to flee for their lives.

That evening, I took a taxi through Ségou — a pleasantly dilapidated town of rutted streets, motor scooters, donkey carts and a few faded colonial-era villas — to a crumbling cultural center surrounding a postage-stamp concrete stage. A few hundred chairs had been set up in a dirt courtyard.

There was some grumbling from the Peace Caravan performers about being relegated to a second-class venue far from the barge. Some voiced the suspicion that the treatment reflected lingering resentment toward the Tuaregs, the Berber people whose latest uprising and alliance with Al Qaeda had torn apart the country. But a standing-room-only crowd — United Nations peacekeepers, Malian generals in camouflage uniforms and red berets, European and American tourists and locals — filled the modest concert space, and the complaints quickly faded.

Khaira Arby, a half-Tuareg, half-Arab diva known as “the Nightingale of the North,” had fled when the jihadists took over Timbuktu in April 2012. Al Qaeda militants trashed her guitars and recording studio and threatened to cut out her tongue if they captured her. In a sequin-studded green gown and a tiara of gold coins, rows of silver bracelets jangling on her arms, she swept back and forth across the stage, gesticulating grandly, her voice booming as she sang in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language.

Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a Tuareg guitarist from Kidal, in Mali’s far northeast, and his band, Amanar, followed Ms. Arby onto the stage. In August 2012, Mr. Kaedi had returned from a sojourn in the desert to find his house in flames. Jihadists had doused his guitars in gasoline and set them on fire, then left a message with his sister: “When Ahmed comes back tell him [that if] he plays music again, we will come back and cut off his fingers.”

Amanar’s music was stark and haunting: a few hypnotic guitar phrases, call-and-response vocals and fingerpicking guitar solos. The music evoked Carlos Santana, Mr. Touré and their Tuareg compatriots Tinariwen. After midnight, all the musicians gathered onstage for a jam session, joined by a hundred jubilant spectators.

During the daytime, the promoters arranged cultural events: art exhibitions, symposiums on Malian music. But I preferred to spend my days between concerts sleeping late, having a leisurely lunch in one of several terraced restaurants along the river and then, in the cooler part of the afternoon, wandering down footpaths along the Niger. Fishermen cast their nets from wooden pirogues, and farmers tilled the furrowed plots along the riverbank. The river, about half a mile wide here, has a rich history: It was from this bank that the French colonial army, led by Lt. Col. Eugéne Etienne Bonnier, set off in gunboats to conquer Timbuktu in December 1893 — only to be massacred by Tuareg warriors.

On the third evening of the festival, I made my way to the main concert venue by the river. Hawkers inside the grounds proffered silver jewelry, CDs, bamboo chairs and embroidered leather saddlebags. The aromas of frying fish, incense and gasoline wafted through the air. People sat in plastic chairs in front of makeshift restaurants, drinking bottles of Flag and Castel beer under a half moon. The muddy riverbank between the barge and the bleachers was still fairly empty, and I planted myself at the edge of the murky water. Then the lights came on and the M.C. took the stage, launching into a patter of Bambara, French and English.

“Is there anybody from the United States here? Do you speak English?” he asked. The crowd roared back. Though French is the lingua franca of Mali, the United States is popular, and English nowadays has the greater cachet here.

An all-female group called the Kaladjoula Band, seven singers and instrumentalists from southern Mali, got the crowd rocking, with lively harmonies and dance moves. Almost imperceptibly the crowd before the barge had swelled, pressing me on all sides.

Then Ms. Arby, the diva from Timbuktu, who had complained about being relegated to a second-class status on opening night, took the stage. Her complaints had won her an encore performance, this time on the barge before perhaps 8,000 people.

“I’m singing for the Tuaregs who never picked up arms against their country,” she proclaimed to the crowd’s roar of approval. It was a gesture of reconciliation, and a plea for unity, in a nation that had been torn apart by war and occupation. This Festival on the Niger offered perhaps the best indication that the country was regaining a degree of normality.

Exhausted after a long day and night in the tropical heat, I stole away from the concert at 1 a.m. and made my way back in a taxi to the hotel through Ségou’s deserted streets. The music was still going strong.