The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in American Islam

We often limit “Muslim history” to the periods and regions in which caliphates and dynasties were established following the spread of Islam. While this history is important, the history of Muslims is not merely the Umayyads, the Ottoman Empire, or Andalusia. The history of Muslims transcends these borders and valuing its existing traditions in other parts of the world can break down the barrier that confines Islam to a romantic and ambiguous East.  Americans should be aware that the history of Muslims is in fact not distant at all, but beneath their own two feet. In the United States in particular, the discovery of legal doctrines and Ajami manuscripts has introduced researchers to new ways of understanding not only the history of enslaved peoples but the importation of Islam. “Islam has been a piece of the American religious fabric since the first settlers arrived in North America” [1]. The Ajami and Arabic works found in the Americas exist because of Quranic literacy, an important aspect to the stories of Omar ibn Said, Ayoub Suleiman Diallo, Abderrahman Ibrahim Sori, Abdul Rahahman, and the list goes on. Our narrow conceptualization of Muslim history restricts our vast Islamic tradition. 

Bringing this Muslim history to light is particularly meaningful for indigenous Muslim Americans, such as African Americans and Native Americans. The recognition of their ancestral story allows us to see that their Muslim identity has just as much cultural substance as descendants of Muslim immigrants. Lineage, or nasab, in Islam is important. Beyond its use in social organization, the awareness of one’s relation to others positively enriches sense of purpose. It goes without saying that the benefit in this is diluted when ego intervenes and the superficial idea of “pious blood” is used to degrade others on the basis of faith or practice. Leaving such ills aside, ignorance of nasab removes a crucial human element from ourselves. “Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih dedicates a chapter in his al-ʿIqd al-Farīd to nasab, saying that ‘whoever does not know lineage does not know people, and whoever does not know people is not considered one of mankind’” [2]. In the U.S, enslaved peoples were stripped from their history. As James Baldwin puts powerfully, “The identity of the American Negro comes out of this extreme situation, and the evolution of his identity was a source of the most intolerable anxiety” [9] for the masters. 

With lineage comes transmission of knowledge. Omar ibn Said, a wealthy and highly educated man captured in Senegal in 1831 and sent to South Carolina, wrote an autobiography in Arabic. He recounts from the beginning, “I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal” [5]. The weakening of knowledge transmission that occurred in later decades among West Africans is also important to know because we’ve seen revivals throughout time, and these revivals can serve as inspiration for African-American Muslims and Muslims in general today. “Notwithstanding the vitality of the Islamic tradition and the strength of their bonds (especially in coastal Georgia), Muslims in early America faced certain distinct challenges to the preservation of their religion” [3]. Among these challenges were the inability to access Islamic texts and maintain Quranic schools, faltering of collective memory, and host societies beginning to control the religious expression of its captive population. “The cultivation of authentic Islamic life – which, in addition to the free exercise of devotional practices, requires a support community, including a strong family structure – was not permitted” [6]. The knowledge of some African Americans’ ancestral story, coming from Muslim lands, based on the tawatur of reports they heard and passed down, was disintegrating because of the inability to build a family unit and preserve a dignified lineage. While these issues did lead to a decrease in number of Muslim adherents, modern examples of reverts like Malcolm X showcase a return to not only Islam, but an expression of “Americanness” that is tied to a history of Islamic particularity, one that is longer than that of the Nation of Islam. The issues the indigenous Muslim population faced can be said to be similar to the issues that descendants of Muslim immigrants will face with each passing generation, which is why there should be a shared interest in valuing ancestral knowledge. 

Ancestral Knowledge and Hierarchy

What is ancestral knowledge? “Ancestral Knowledge (AK) are systems of knowledge comprised of the ontologies, epistemologies, and written, oral, and cultural ways of knowing, and spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples” [4]. Masajid can be concentrated in certain local immigrant communities based on regional demographics, which is normal, but sometimes the domination of immigrant-based knowledge has been at the expense of indigenous knowledge. “… they hegemonize space by placing their own unique Ancestral Knowledges at the center of these spaces, generalizing the particular” [4]. Muslim Americans in general can benefit from indigenous AK since it encompasses two central features of their existence: their status as Muslims and their status as Americans. Too many Muslim Americans focus on the post-9/11 racialized Muslim image and without intending to do so, perpetuate the idea that Islam in America begins and ends with geopolitics and a certain immigrant community primarily concerned. While this is still very relevant for Muslims in America, the inappropriate capitalization of victimhood (e.g. overflow of YouTube content in which young blindfolded men hold a sign that says “I’m Muslim. Hug Me If You Trust Me”) is not what Muslim Americans need moving forward. West African Muslims were thought of very highly during the colonial and antebellum periods; Salih Bilali, for example, was placed in a position of authority, which he used to quell a slave insurrection. He wouldn’t have been able to do this had he accepted defeat, and the weight of his tribulations was heavier than what we are able to fully imagine today.

It is this kind of history, rooted in the land Americans stand on, that can serve as a guide for Muslims to pave their own path, rather than compromising beliefs in order to be accepted by the mainstream. Contextualizing this history and using it as a model for strength is necessary “because of the wretched history of Western European Colonization, and in particular, their inferiorization of all other knowledges by describing them as primitive, anti-modern, and eventually obscure and invisible” [4]. Muslim immigrant communities and indigenous Muslim communities both have a painful historical past, so it is crucial that damaging hierarchies of knowledge are not reproduced within our own Islamic discourse. 

Legitimizing local and ancestral knowledge should be applied globally, since the human experience is expressed in a multitude of ways depending on respective histories and contexts. Islam perfects cultures; it does not erase them. As such, there is no reason for a one-size-fits-all approach to molding societies. “Both the textual scriptures and historical practices within Islam have always maintained a deep tolerance, if not encouragement, of Ancestral Knowledge” [4]. Giving exclusive value to the dominant knowledge bloc and the community it depends on to survive, or assuming everyone in a given space has the same tools to unpack certain references, implies that other Muslims have to forfeit parts of themselves in order to contribute to discourse. This can serve as a detriment in how non-immigrant Muslim Americans or anyone in this position navigates their own histories and cultures, infused with Islam but not always seen as such. 

There should be more of an exchange of knowledge rather than a base assumption that immigrant Muslims have more skin in the game; in fact, their diaspora identities may be the very reason they should consider delving deep into the study of Islam in America and benefit from the centuries-long experience that indigenous populations have. The wealth of variety we have in the Islamic tradition, stretching out on all continents, should not be undermined. Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah says in his paper Islam and the Cultural Imperative, “Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam’s long success as a global civilization” [8].

Valuing ancestral knowledge defeats the same hierarchy that puts Islamic knowledge below secular knowledge. Those in power or in majority can take their ways of knowing to be superior or at least simply sensical, overlooking what others have to offer. Mohamed Ghilan talks about the way the Arabic language can be inappropriately framed in its relation to the Muslim faith: “Its sacred status as the ‘language of the Qur’an does not mean that it is necessarily the language of Islam. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the vast traditional works compiled by non-Arab scholars across Islamic history will recognize this fact” [7]. Like how the Western world uses their hegemony to put their worldview on a pedestal, certain dominant Muslim immigrant communities in the United States can unintentionally take their own cultural understanding to be the de facto foundation of practicing Islam in the country. 

Taking advantage of ancestral epistemologies and being educated on the currents Islam has gone through in the States deals with oppressive American arrangements (coloniality/White Supremacy/Islamophobia) at their roots. “In much the same way that White racial knowledge was invisibilized and thus became normal or standard knowledge, immigrant-based Ancestral Knowledge entered and became the standard in those Muslim spaces” [4]. This phenomenon falls short of Islam’s ancient cultural wisdom, and although immigrant-based AK does not always function on the same “unmitigated culturally predatory attitude” [8], it can produce the same effects of devaluation which should be avoided at all costs if Muslim minorities want to be united.                                                                                                                                      

Works Cited:

Works Cited:

[3] The Islamic Influence in (Pre-)Colonial and Early America: A Historico-Legal Snapshot by Nadia B. Ahmed
[9] James Baldwin – Stranger in the Village

About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a writer for Traversing Tradition. She is a journalism and political science student. Her interests include history, literature, and politics.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

One thought on “The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in American Islam

  1. Refer to Bilal Ware and his lectures(author of the Walking Quran) to make your writing on this richer. He explains exactly the morphing effect of connecting to ancestral knowledge back to its west african roots to be diffused with what we have here for the sake of a medieval Baghdad project. Thats if anyone is interested really in a quintessential “American Islam” without politics to it.

    His Allegory of the Yam shoot and its 8 millenia of existence describes this thus

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