NOIR  noun, adjective:  black

The Walking Qurʾan and the Africans

The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa

(Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks)     The University of North Carolina Press.

 By Rudolph T. Ware, Ph.D.       a..k.a.      Dr. Bilal Ware


...excerpts from the Introduction

Emulate the Blacks” 

 This chapter’s Prophetic dictum is “Emulate the blacks, for among them are three lords of the people of Paradise, Luqmān the Sage, the Negus [Emperor of Abyssinia], and Bilāl the Muezzin.” The first layer of meaning I wish to evoke here is simple. If the Prophet characterized black people as exemplars of knowledge, justice, and piety in Islam, then it is about time for Western scholarship to do so as well.

I maintain that when Muḥammad heard the angel Jibrīl speaking to him and listened intently to memorize the following words, the Prophet took them quite seriously:

“O people, indeed We have created you male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Indeed the most honored among you is the most God-conscious. And indeed God is the Knowing, the Cognizant” (Q 49: 13).

This verse contains a powerful meditation on equality and the meaning and purpose of human bodily difference. Distinction is caused by remembering God, not by gender, national, or ethnic differences. And if we remember God, we can learn much from one another: our diversity becomes a source of wisdom. Another verse expands on this point, specifically mentioning the diversity of colors in the human family as being a “sign of God,” the same way that verses of the Qurʾan themselves are signs (ayāt)

“And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors and surely in this there are signs for the learned” (Q 30: 22).

The three persons mentioned in the saying “emulate the blacks” are all among the learned: Luqmān the Sage, the Negus of Abyssinia, and Bilāl the Muezzin. Their stories amplify the point made in these Qurʾan verses. A brief word on each helps contextualize the intended meaning of the saying and helps situate an outlook underlying many African Muslim claims on knowledge.

The Revelation Muḥammad carried within him had a thirty-verse chapter, Luqmān. It takes its name from a pre-Islamic African sage whom the Book represents as a model of piety and a teacher of the doctrine of tawhīd (God’s radical oneness). Strikingly, the sura is about both the endless knowledge of God and the unity of mankind:

 And if all the earth’s trees were pens and the sea its ink, with seven more seas to flood it, the Word of God would not be ended. Truly God is Mighty, Wise.

The creation of all of you and your resurrection are only like that of a single soul. Truly God is the Hearing and the Seeing. (Q 31: 27– 28)

Later exegetes would maintain that Luqmān was not a prophet but a sage, in spite of his prominent and auspicious mention in the Book. They would also, perhaps not coincidentally, claim that Luqmān was a slave, though the Qurʾan itself makes no such statement.

Muḥammad (pboh) grew up in an Arabia that knew Africans more as conquerors than as slaves, even if the bulk of later Arabic scholarship often seemed to forget this. As a reminder, one need only recall another verse that the original Walking Qur'an (pboh) carried inside him. The Chapter of the Elephant (Q 105) makes unambiguous reference to the war elephants that conquering Abyssinian armies rode in southern and western Arabia in the sixth century and before. The African Christian kingdom of Aksum frequently ruled over portions of the Arabian Peninsula, and this sura is usually understood to refer to the final defeat of those Abyssinian conquerors and their expulsion from the Ḥijāz (western Arabia), an event conventionally dated to 570, also recorded as the year of the Prophet’s birth. But the Prophet’s reference to the Negus was not a general allusion to the power of an African king; it was a specific reference to the grace and piety of a black Christian who saved the early Muslims from possible extinction.

No longer African overlords in Arabia, the Ethiopians nonetheless remained a major power in the Red Sea region. When the Muslim community was threatened with extinction in Mecca, the Prophet Muḥammad appealed to the Negus or Najāshī of Abyssinia for help. The beginning of the Islamic calendar is the hijra (migration) to Medina in 622, which allowed the Muslim community to establish itself free from the oppression of the Quraysh, the Prophet’s blood kin but bitter enemies of his radical vision of monotheism. It is often forgotten that there were two earlier hijras to sub-Saharan Africa. Fearing for the lives of his still very small group of followers, Muḥammad sent at least one hundred of the first Muslims, including ʿUthmān, Islam’s third caliph, to seek asylum in the Christian kingdom of Aksum (Abyssinia or Ethiopia) in 615 and 616. Islam reached sub-Saharan Africa literally before Islamic time began.

When the Quraysh came and demanded extradition of these one hundred refugees— certainly a prelude to a massacre and the end of Islam— the Negus refused. In the accounts of the early Muslim historians, the Quraysh then claimed that the new faith slandered Jesus. The Negus asked one of the Muslims to recite what the Qurʾan says of Jesus (ʿĪsā), and the Muslim recited one of the Qurʾan verses referring to ʿĪsā as the “Spirit of God.” Muslim historians maintain that this recitation, along with the example of the Muslims, so moved the king of Aksum that he converted to Islam but hid his new faith from his royal court.

Bilāl (580– 642), the final black exemplar of justice, wisdom, and piety mentioned in the hadith, has been a particularly cherished figure for West African Muslims. He enters Muslim sacred histories as the slave of a powerful Meccan family that was enraged when he became one of the first people (perhaps the second adult male after Abū Bakr) to accept the new religion of Islam.  For this crime, Bilāl was brutally punished— laid out to roast on the hot desert sand with heavy stones on his chest. When his tormentor would come to ask if he would recant, he would only repeatedly moan the word aḥad (one). Bilāl’s affirmation of tawhīd in the face of torture appears to have inspired the Prophet to arrange for Abū Bakr, who would later become the first caliph, to purchase the enslaved man’s liberty.

Later, after the Angel Jibrīl had taught the Prophet the gestures of the prayer, the Muslims had to decide how they would call the faithful to congregational worship. Would they call the people with church bells, like the followers of Jesus? Would they be assembled— as if a prelude to the last day— with the sound of a horn, like the followers of Moses? What instrument should the Muslims use? Characteristic of his foundational emphasis on anchoring Islam in the human body as the Qurʾan was anchored in his own, the Prophet chose the human voice. Bilāl’s strong and beautiful voice is usually cited as the reason he was selected to make the call. Perhaps the Prophet believed that in addition to his beautiful voice, Bilāl’s sincere belief in God’s oneness, which could not be cowed by a slave-master, burned with sun or sand, or crushed by heavy stones, made him uniquely qualified for the job.

In 630, Muḥammad returned to Mecca as the victorious commander of the faithful. His party made its way to the Kaʿba, the structure built for the worship of the One God. According to many accounts, Muḥammad watched Bilāl climb to the top of the House of God and make the call to prayer. The sound of his voice at that iconic moment echoes through the ages. It has been memorialized in art, literature, and oral performance. After Muḥammad’s passing, some maintain that Bilāl only made the call to prayer on very special occasions and that when he did, those who had known the Prophet were moved to tears. This story speaks to a very close association between Muḥammad and Bilāl, for the presence of one called hearts to lament the absence of the other. Is it too much to suggest that the men were close friends who had suffered much together and relied on one another?  Perhaps simple friendship and love was the reason that Muḥammad made Bilāl Islam’s first muezzin. Did the Prophet have paternalistic contempt in his heart at this moment.

“Look after the Blacks ?”

This brings us back to this introduction’s epigraph. Robinson’s reference to the pejorative perceptions of Africans held by “Mediterranean-based Muslims” offers an important reminder: white colonialists were not alone in carrying condescending ideas about blacks. The treatment of this hadith in medieval and early modern Arabic-language works on slavery, blackness, or “the curse of Ham” reflects this phenomenon. In some of these writings, the word ittakhādhū, which I have translated as “emulate,” received quite a different meaning. Some authors argued that what the Prophet meant by this word was “look after” the  blacks, a paternalistic gloss also used by a prominent Western scholar to translate this hadith.    Zachary Wright, in his exemplary dissertation on the community of West African Sufi Shaykh Ibrāhīm Niass, caught this mistranslation and noted that “Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic contains no such meaning for the verb in question, but rather includes: ‘to take on, to assume, to adopt, to imitate, to affect,’ etc.”

I raise these reflections on racialized perceptions of African Muslims only to historicize and transcend them.  To that end, I propose three partly rhetorical questions:

·      What possible reason would the Prophet Muḥammad have had to see blacks in a condescending and paternalistic way?

·      What evidence do we have that he did see blacks in this fashion?

·      And finally, if “look after” the blacks was the meaning he (pboh)  wished to convey, then why use a word that usually means “emulate”?


..and of course, the book, THE WALKING QUR'AN, by Rudolph T. Ware, Ph.D. answers all of these questions and a lot more!