If the purpose of exploring, and learning about sub Saharan African scholars and their timeless and monumental contributions to Muslim history, was to give African American Muslim converts a greater appreciation of Black scholars in history, especially in light of the racist climate in some parts of the Arab and Muslim world, and to offset the negative emotions that some African Americans have as a result of being marginalized, and disrespected by other Muslims, then there is a whole lot of benefit in that. Jalaaludden as-Suyooti (1505 C.E.) made a similar attempt when he wrote the book; “The Raising of the Status of the Ethiopians”, and so did Jamal al-Din Abu’l Farj ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1208 C.E.) when he wrote the book; “The Lightening of the Darkness on the Merits of the Blacks and the Ethiopians”. These books were written according to Dr. Bernard Lewis, “to defend both groups against the various accusations against them”.
However, if the current trend of associating attachment to Africa or to African scholars and their scholarship is somehow put forth as an essential solution for reversing the downward spiral of convert communities, or a packaged panacea for the African American, Muslim convert dilemma in the United States, then such is just another example of misplaced, wishful thinking. Looking towards Africa for answers is not the answer in my view. It’s not even close to the answer. I fail to see how building a connection or a bridge to Africa in itself is a solution or even a part of a solution other than for the reasons of maybe building some self-esteem, or augmenting historical knowledge of Africa and Islam. Otherwise, how does building this connection Africa improve the lives of converts and convert communities as a whole? How does it impact our future? Furthermore, what exactly is the African connection?
The first question that I have about building on the African connection is; what is meant by it? Africa is a pretty big and complex continent. How can we even come to a consensus on what we mean by an African connection? As if we don’t already have enough to argue about. Africa has scores of different Muslim cultures, 140 different languages, different ways at looking at the world, different ways at looking at Black Americans, and different ways at looking at the United States. There is no clear indication that as a rule, African Muslims respect us as equals, and there is very little evidence, if any, to indicate that Africans, whether here as immigrants or those still in Africa, are prepared to invest in convert America, or have made any appreciable investment in terms of material support, or serious problem solving. The way that some of us fawn over them, I’d doubt that behind closed doors, African brothers and sisters extol, or look up to Black Americans. If anything, it would seem that Africans do all that they can not to end up like African Americans.
According to data by compiled in 2010 by sociologists, including John R. Logan at the Mumford Center, State University of New York at Albany, “black immigrants from Africa averaged the highest educational attainment of any population group in the country, including whites and Asians.” In fact, 40% of African immigrants from sub saharan Africa have at least a bachelors degree. While according to the Journal of Blacks in education; “in 2008, 19.6 percent of all African Americans over the age of 25 held a college degree’. So while Black immigrants hold the highest averages of educational attainment in the United States, African American born blacks, hold the lowest. So if we want to make an African connection and follow the African way, I would start by taking better advantage of what the United States has to offer, because that is exactly what Africans who live in America are doing.
In fact, if it was permissible for me to gamble, I would lay odds that Africans in general, look at African Americans as a degree or two below them in class, except for a few exceptions. Now, if the people of mother Africa want to come over and take the same political risks that we have to take in order to move forward, and build masaajid and schools to be controlled and operated by the convert community, without any strings attached, then I’ll go out and buy a couple of dashikis, some new African sandals, and be all ready to make that connection. Otherwise, we need to consider severing all umbilical cords, not establishing new ones.
If we want to establish an African connection then I suggest we take note of how Africans come to the United States, work hard and take advantage of what the country has to offer. Otherwise we can do research, hold forums, conferences, write books and engage in a variety of low budget intellectual, spiritual or cultural pursuits, we can even have educational exchanges, or teach African islamic history in our schools (if we had more of our own schools). But first we have to have something of our own that serves our immediate needs and interests as Muslims and that’s not going to happen running in the wind to feel some Africa.
There’s are thousands of reports and documentaries on Africa, there are planes that fly to Africa (about $1000 for a ticket), as well as African Embassies, African cultural, religious, and political organizations, as well as thousands of African artists, academics, and artifacts for us to look at and hang in our homes. I’m hearing a lot of brothers talking about this undefined ‘African connection’, and that’s just the point. It is undefined. What exactly do we mean by building on the African connection. While many of us seem to be day-dreaming about an African connection, other Americans outside of our Muslim communities, are way ahead of us.
Millions of Americans visit Africa each year. Many do business, buy property, and engage in a large variety of religious, commercial, educational and cultural exchanges. American Christians have built and are maintaining hundreds, if not thousands of churches, orphanages, and schools in Africa. What do we as African American Muslims have to offer? Are we just talking about connecting with a few shaykhs, learning some African religious treatises, learning African languages or adopting some African cultural practices as our own? If that’s all we’re talking about then we need to go back to the drawing board on this African connection thing, and we need to make sure that the interest in such a connection is reciprocal.
There are like 1.2 billion people in Africa. There are less than one million of us (AA Muslims). We don’t need to remake ourselves in anyone else’s image, or reach out and have hardly anyone reach back. We just did that remember? W’ve been doing it for the last 40 years or more, and it turned out too well for us. Knowing our history should tell us that we need to learn to fend for ourselves and build, support, plan and run our own communities. We are a part of this society and no one is taking up the mantle to help us except for some social and educational institutions, (at least some), the safety nets, the welfare system that many of us depend on and perhaps some other entities that I’m not thinking of at the moment. Making nice with a few Africans, having them come and lecture us about Islam, bless us with their awliyaa (saints), or teach us how to be authentic, is not going to affect our condition. However, building communities, building a few more decent masaajid, with leadership, responsible congregations, families with some generational continuity and taking advantage of the good that our country has to offer, will more than likely affect our condition. Even the Africans are doing that.
We want to romanticize about having an African connection which so far has not amounted to much more than getting to know a few African Sheikhs, learning about some remarkable islamic scholars of history, some brothers marrying some African sisters, some from Africa marrying some of our sisters, and a whole bunch of pictures and selfies from Africa and with Africans, (and it is a beautiful continent). Hoorah! If we really want to connect to our ancestry like that then we need to get DNA testing for our people, and at about $300 a pop, you do the math. In fact, instead of that, how about 10,000 of us put up $300 bucks and build 3 or 4 quality nice sized masaajid where they are most needed?
It seems like we always want to do the feel good stuff, the selfie stuff, the showy stuff, and the bandwagon stuff that does not change a thing on the ground. In the meantime, there are 3.1 million African immigrants living in the United States and they are interacting in our country on all levels. Just check to see how many African dentists, engineers, academics, business owners, psychologists, and even farmers, there are in this country, and we talking about establishing an African connection with little or no resources of our own? Not too many are even paying attention to us on this African connection thing. Africans who hear rumors about it are probably looking at us like; whaaaaaat????? All the while they are reminding their children to steer clear of us, unless it could lead to a green card, or a following. Many Muslims whom I love and respect have embraced this African connection craze. I happen to disagree with the notion that re-connecting to Africa and African shaykhs is going to somehow be the catalyst for changesomehow and think that it is a wrong direction; another faze. We seem to keep avoiding the reality that it is us who need to come up with our own plan. The African Muslims that I know, are smart, incredible people who know the difference between strength and weakness. If you ask them, they would likely say that we have to put in our own work, with our own people, with our own home grown plan. Sadly, many of us just don’t get it. Yet. And Allah knows best.
Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad
American born Luqman Ahmad is a Sunni Muslim, the son of converts to Islam. He is a Philadelphia native, a writer, consultant, and Imam and khateeb at the Islamic Society of Folsom in Folsom California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation, a founding member of COSVIO, (the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations), and the author of the new book “Double Edged Slavery“, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States. He also authored, “The Devils Deception of the Modern day Salafiyyah Sect”, a detailed look at modern-day extremist salafi, the ideology. He blogs at, imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Race and Slavery in the Middle East. Bernard Lewis, 1990, Oxford University Press, p. 33