A Critique From Above: A Reflection on Revolts

No time in recent memory has seen ‘violence’ laid bare as much as in our current political moment.  The violence of concern is that of colonial racism – a violence produced by the secular nation-state. Of course, the modern form of lynching visited upon George Floyd is not news to anyone aware of the costs of late capitalism and neocolonialism. Yet, as an Ummah, we have struggled to conceptualize this brutality in Prophetic terms. I wish to offer a few meditations to think through these obstacles.

Firʿawn[1] and Slavery

It is impossible to understand our predicament without relying upon the word of Allāh, the Mighty and Majestic. He says,

And We certainly sent Moses with Our signs, [saying], ‘Bring out your people from darknesses into the light and remind them of the days of Allah.’ Indeed in that are signs for everyone patient and grateful.[2] (Qurʾān 14:5)

We recite to you from the news of Moses and Pharaoh in truth for a people who believe. (Q 28:3)

And We made them a precedent and an example for the later peoples. (Q 43:56)

In these verses, and many more like them, Allāh makes clear that Firʿawn is a ‘precedent’ (salaf) and an ‘example’ (mathal) for those that come after him. The story of Firʿawn and Mūsā (Moses) is so prevalent that it would be a grave error to not take heed of the description of ‘Firʿawnism’ in the Qurʾān. In these stories we learn that the Firʿawnic principles of ‘transgression’ (ṭughyān), ‘arrogance’ (kibr), ‘haughtiness’ (ʿuluw), and ‘lordship’ (rubūbiyya) are all elements implemented to erase the divine difference of Man-Creator and coerce people into the deification of Firʿawn. Not only does the spiritual Firʿawn within each person lead that soul on a path of transgression, but also these Firʿawnic principles manifest collectively to oppose Allāh as transcendent Creator

Allāh, Most High, states, 

And [recall, O Children of Israel], when Moses said to His people, ‘Remember the favor of Allah upon you when He saved you from the people of Pharaoh, who were afflicting you with the worst torment and were slaughtering your [newborn] sons and keeping your females alive. And in that was a great trial from your Lord.’ (Q 14:6)

Violence, then, is no new measure in the eyes of the oppressed. In our modern times, post-colonial theoretician Frantz Fanon titles the opening chapter to his book, The Wretched of the Earth, “On Violence” as an ode to this pillar of oppression. His erudite analysis shows how colonialism debases its subjects to the point where they are alive without living – to the point of non-being, the point of living hell. The colonized find themselves in a world where their mortality is ubiquitous, where “death” is always “around the corner.”[3] Their lives are constantly put on the line when they risk family and home to cross borders, escape police, and flee imperially stoked civil conflict as a response to being tracked by drones and militias, thrown into cages, forced into projects, and hung from trees. Those sovereigns atop these systems thus bring the dispossessed in shocking proximity to death. 

Allāh, the Exalted, says, 

And [recall, O Children of Israel], when We saved you from the people of Pharaoh, [who were] afflicting you with the worst torment –  killing your sons and keeping your women alive. And in that was a great trial from your Lord. (Q 7:141)

The desire to control all forms of life and death, to prescribe for certain populations where and how they die, is within the Firʿawnic methodology. Like Firʿawn’s rule over the people of Mūsā, colonialism constitutes the exercise of violence by a group of oppressors over the oppressed. It is appropriate for us then to look at how the colonial and the Firʿawnic mirror one another.

Allāh, Lord of Might and Majesty, states, 

Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their [newborn] sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corrupters. (Q 28:4)

Note a few key elements in the verse: First, the ‘exaltation’ (ʿuluw) of Firʿawn comes as he ‘divides and conquers’ its people, turning them into ‘factions.’ Ultimately, this is accompanied by the killing of some (newborn sons) and the leaving of others. The colonial question operates according to this principle. When some are killed/massacred via genocide, it reinforces the Firʿawnic ‘exaltation’ of self-delineated transgressive authority such that this terrorism oppresses and binds all remaining subjects to servitude. Interestingly, Fanon gives us just this picture when he transmits the poem of David Diop in his other magisterial text, Black Skin, White Masks. Diop pens: 

The white man killed my father,
Because my father was proud.
The white man raped my mother,
Because my mother was beautiful.
The white man wore out my brother in the hot sun of the roads,
Because my brother was strong.
Then the white man came to me, His hands red with blood,
Spat his contempt into my black face,
Out of his tyrant’s voice:
‘Hey boy! a basin, a towel, water.’ [4]

In this, we see how the prescription of terror and violence for the boy’s family members not only doles out evil in manifold ways, but the terror produced in the event is what cements the status of the boy as slave labor. 

While colonialism seems distant from our current times, the work of the Black Radical Tradition–which includes Al-Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), Imam Jameel Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown) and Safiya Bukhari –is still instructive in uncovering how the colonial world is articulated by the logics of racism and slavery.[5] Of this tradition is Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture); his definition of the first logic, institutional racism, can shed light on the establishment of the Firʿawnic principles within the U.S. and Western democracies. He states, 

…black people in this country form a colony, and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them. Black people are legal citizens of the United States with, for the most part, the same legal rights as other citizens. Yet they stand as colonial subjects in relation to the white society. Thus, institutional racism has another name: colonialism.[6]

Health disparities, mass incarceration, educational discrimination, social and political repressions deployed through consistent racist hierarchies and segregationist rationale are what systematically situates whites over Blacks. Thus, mainstream American public policy re-establishes colonialism as institutional racism. In this way, Black people are always ‘in excess’ of the so-called American project. This is the second articulation of the colonial; enslavement. The logic of slavery emerges when we speak of the oppressed Black, for it is the very ‘excessive’, ‘surplus’, and ‘fundamentally excluded’ existence that provides the absolute conditions of their enslavement. When one is propertyless, illogical, non-spiritual, or non-willing, one is not human. In our perceived non-humanness, the oppressed (Black people) must submit to those fully endowed (white) humans. One inexorably becomes a slave. While it is typically imagined that colonialism is an activity carried out against the land, here we see the striking similarity to those activities exacted onto people’s bodies in chattel slavery. Despite the abolition of slavery in the West, this logic of slavery –where an entire population is the colonized property of another– plays itself out in our post-Civil Rights era. Though people are not chattel, the ‘afterlife’ of slavery is reproduced in the terms of ‘internal colonialism’ of Black populations in the Americas.

This system’s Firʿawnism is not only antithetical to Islam; we must study it for it is a learned, globalized behavior. A passage from the political theorist Achille Mbembe may help. He claims: 

The emergence of new imperial practices is then tied to the tendency to universalize the Black condition. Such practices borrow as much from the slaving logic of capture and predation as from the colonial logic of occupation and extraction, as well as from the civil wars and raiding of earlier epochs.[7] (emphasis added)  

Whether it be American police departments training with the Israel Defense Forces, the annexation and apartheid laws of their colonial state, or the duplicated debasing of Kashmiris in India, the experiences of Muslims globally would not be possible without the 400 years of practice on Muslim and non-Muslim Black people.

Riots

It should not escape us that the response to this oppressive system in the form of rebellions is a critique of how property is conceived of in the West. The looting, rioting, and, more importantly, destruction of colonial statues and sites of state violence implore us to reconsider how the very idea of ‘ownership’ has come to exist. Recall that Western man has defined himself as that being which is propertied. Philosophers like Hegel and Locke made it their priority to think of the human in these terms and to establish property as the foundation for all freedoms and existence. James Madison, one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, wrote: “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”[8] This absolutist definition of man fortifies the Firʿawnic logic of modern socio-existential and spiritual relations. 

Allāh, Most High, says, 

And Pharaoh called out among his people; he said, “O my people, does not the kingdom of Egypt belong to me, and these rivers flowing beneath me; then do you not see? (Q 43:51)

Man, as that being which ‘owns,’ which ‘has property,’ defies the fundamental truth that to Allāh belong all things. Of course, in the West, property has not only meant inanimate objects but rather it is the ownership of Black slaves which cements this Firʿawnic principle. This perversion obstructs the possibility for the creation to turn to Allāh in humble, impoverished brokenness and is contrary to the aims of the creation and the intended character of mankind on earth.

Allāh, Most High, says, 

And when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority’ (khalīfa).  (Q 2:30).

We are to take care of the earth, act as stewards/vicegerents (khulafāʾ) for Allāh, Lord of all the Worlds. It is He who has true dominion of all things and at no point can complete dominion of the earth be attributed to other than Allāh. For spiritual reasons, Muslims must study the Firʿawnic principles of self-deification, haughty transgression, and oppression. For practical reasons, we must take note of the alarming way in which the West has universalized these principles of Firʿawnism and rendered the chaos of global slums, environmental destruction, and the limbo of refugee communities in unending civil conflict as normal.

Lā ilāha 

This cursory schematic should highlight unequivocally two points. First, the irreducible logic of slavery and the colonial produces the violence of the carceral state, the open air prisons of Palestine, the destruction of Iraq, and the like globally. In the modern logic of slavery, we perpetually see that bodies are subjugated and enslaved, that those conditions of slavery dictate and regulate behavior, and ultimately that whiteness is glorified and even deified. Second, Allāh tells His creation to seek refuge in Him from these forms, to turn to Him and Him alone. The ‘Word/Testimony of Oneness’ (kalima al-tawhīd), what makes the Muslim a Muslim, Lā ilāha illa Allāh, is a sufficient philosophy of liberation. Inscribed in its everlasting power is the statement to man; “you are not god.” 

Our statement, ‘there is no deity worthy of worship except Allāh’, is not merely a personal, sequestered choice that each human makes. That would leave us somewhere near the definition put forth by secularized Christianity. Rather, our recognition of Allāh’s Oneness (tawhid) is real and all-encompassing. While the riots of Black people around the globe are for some hard to see, we can understand them as performing some of the work in recognizing Allāh as God in truth – that is, they perform in some ways the ‘lā ilāha’. They represent the impossibility of any oppressive Firʿawnic project to complete itself – that the Firʿawnic discourse is always flawed, for the presupposition of self-bestowed divinity is false. In reality, mankind cannot govern itself without the absolute guidance of Allāh. 

Illā Allāh: ‘Liberation Theology’

For the Muslim, this atheistic/agnostic attitude to social and spiritual conditions is neither sufficient nor praiseworthy in its own right. The left deems this critical stance of ‘lā ilāha’ and all that comes with it as sufficient in itself,  yet the Islamic imperative is that we complement the negation of deities, the ‘lā ilāha’, with the affirmative statement ‘illā Allāh’ (except Allah). This means a few key points. 

Firstly, Prophetic guidance is the only guidance worthy of our attention. Though I have here focused on Mūsā and Firʿawn, all the Prophets, from Lūṭ, to Ṣāliḥ, to Ibrāhīm, and most importantly the Messenger of Allāh, Muḥammad ﷺ, must be studied for their unique lessons and insights. 

Secondly, this breaks us out of left/right paradigms which box in and frame all conversations. Thinking Islamically means utilizing the tradition to narrate social life in light of the Quran while also recognizing the contingencies of all conditions that Allāh places us in. Those across the globe who turn to Allāh and His Messenger for guidance, out of distaste and hatred for non-believing systems of governance, must learn from history and recognize that though this moment is liberating, it too is contingent. For indeed, we plot, and they plot, but Allāh is the best of planners. 

Lastly, we must reject the Western anthropocentric tradition that places ‘Man’ at the center of the universe – everything is about our rights, freedoms, and individual interests. Instead, we must renew the Islamic vision of God first, such that liberation is complete submission to Allāh. Practically, this allows us to be on the side of the oppressed, yet not speak from the inferior minority position. For example, it is thought that liberation movements –Marxist, anti-colonial, feminist etc.– position themselves as the lower, downtrodden masses rising up against domineering authorities. This is the ‘critique from below’. The Muslim, however, privileges the higher and deeper Creator-Created relationship. When we mobilize the Qurʾān and the Sunnah to critique (self)deification, transgressive authority, satanic desire, oppressive Firʿawnism, and the like, this is the ‘critique from above’.  Any authentic engagement with the politics of the oppressed must also turn its gaze back to Allāh and take seriously the breadth of possibilities rendered in our meditative reflection, lā ilāha illā Allāh

Notes & Works Cited:

  1. Though it is generally translated as ‘Pharaoh’ in translations of the Qurʾān, I have kept the original term Firʿawn in an attempt to stay true to the Qurʾānic specification of Firʿawn as the ruler of Egypt in Mūsā’s time, whereas ‘Pharaoh’ is a more general title. 
  2. All translations of verses are from the Sahih International translation of the Qurʾān.
  3. Tupac Shakur, Death Around the Corner (Santa Monica: Interscope Records, 1995). 
  4. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 136.
  5. Barnor Hesse “White Sovereignty (…), Black Life Politics: ‘The N****r They Couldn’t Kill’,” South Atlantic Quarterly 116, no.3 (2017), 592.
  6. Stokely Carmichael, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House, 1967), 5. 
  7. Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 4. 
  8. James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, 10 vols., ed. William T. Hutchinson et al. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962-77), vol. 1, 16. 

About the author: Iesa Lewis is a graduate student at the University of Chicago studying philosophy of religions. He holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy and African-American Studies from Northwestern University. He has a love for Islam, Blackness, and anything meaningful in the world.

4 thoughts on “A Critique From Above: A Reflection on Revolts

  1. Muhammad was the greatest, and of the most oppressive, of colonizers. How did the Jews feel when he attacked them in Yathrib, forced most to leave their homes, and massacred the others? How did the pagan tribes feel when Muhammad attacked them, took their women for slaves and allowed them to be raped? As Muhammad’s power rose he eventually forced pagans to convert Islam or be killed, while Christians and Jews were forced to pay an extortion tax, jizya, to remain true to their faiths. Muhammad was as evil as any colonizer in history.

    Islamic armies attacked and colonized Egypt, Syria, Iran, etc. Those peoples were forced to submit to Muslim rulers sent to them from Muhammad’s homeland. Those peoples were forced to obey Islam’s rules and had to adapt their culture to those rules.

    If Iesa Lewis truly cared about black people in history he would not love Islam. Islamic rulers, not white Europeans, were the major enslaver of blacks from Africa. Muhammad attacked and enslaved people and owned up to 40 slaves. The Arab Muslims eventually began to attack and enslave Africans by the tens of thousands. The greatest black slave revolt in history was the Zanj rebellion. Some estimates state that up to 250,000 slaves revolted against their Islamic masters in southern Iraq, near Basra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanj_Rebellion
    Historically, Muslim slave traders depopulated large areas of Africa and sent them to whichever Muslim ruler wanted them.

    No one who truly cares about slavery and colonization would follow a slaver-religion like Islam.

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    1. It seems you have taken historical facts and twisted them out of their era’s context.

      I would recommend you perhaps obtain your history from authoritative, impartial academic sources, rather than relying on Popular History transmitted by the likes of Robert Spencer or obscure Hindutva authors, which this clearly is.
      Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I learned my Islamic history by reading Ibn Ishaq, Wakidi, Ibn Sa’d, and al-Tabari. You? Even secular historians have documented the mass enslavement of hundreds of thousands of black Africans by the Arab. Look up the Zanj slave rebellion for yourself.

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    2. Your comment is riddled with so many errors and misconceptions one hardly knows where to begin.

      It is simply anachronistic and absurd to describe a war between neighbors as “colonization.” Prophet Muhammad ﷺ did not “attack” Yathrib. A refugee from Mecca, he was made the governor by the agreement of its inhabitants, including the Jewish tribes. His enemies in Mecca set out to attack Yathrib and erase the Prophet’s community. Three powerful Jewish tribes (and there were several Jewish tribes in Yathrib and not all Jews belonged to a tribe) treacherously conspired with the Meccans against Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, their own appointed leader. Their plans were foiled by the Muslim emigrants and their Yathribite allies. The subsequent punishment and security decision to expel the traitorous tribes was A) a consequence of a civil war that the Muslims did not instigate and B) it did not apply to any of the other Jews of Yathrib. The facts do not support your claim of “colonization” and expose your bad analysis of what was a civil war between residents of the same city.

      You paint a false picture by claiming that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ “attacked” pagan tribes. Again, it was the Meccans who pursued him and his refugee followers and sought to erase their new home in Yathrib. And let us recall the pagan Bedouin tribes around Yathrib who treacherously invited and killed Muslim missionaries, in case you count the battles against them as “attacking” or “colonization.”

      As for the Zanj rebellion, it is either a malicious bias or ignorance that motivates you to talk about “Islamic masters” while omitting the Islamic faith of the slave that lead the uprising, Ali ibn Muhammad, and his Muslim compatriots, who fought their struggle under Islamic slogans (this is even mentioned in the Wikipedia article you linked!). And let’s not ignore the positive effect of the rebellion in virtually ending plantation slave labor in Abbasid Iraq, in the 9th century!

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