Parables from Plymouth Rock: A Book Review of “Liberty’s Jihad” by Munawar Ali Karim

The book in question is prefaced with what could be described as a defiance of Barthesian attitudes towards literature (i.e. an irreverence towards authorial intentions and context) . The author audaciously suggests the order in which he would like his book to be read. Such direction might seem archaic in an era in which authorial intent is often cast to the wayside. However, in following his suggested formula — beginning in the middle of the book before returning to its start and eventually the conclusion — I believe I benefited from the book in a wholly unique way.

“Liberty’s Jihad” is a recently published work by writer and academic Munawar Ali Karim. The book explores the significance of Islam in the lives and experiences of West African slaves in the Americas as well as in the wider discourse of the transatlantic slave trade. The book touches upon the near omission of the subject from contemporary discussions on slavery in America, Karim writes:

“Little to no mention of Muslim slaves is made in these studies, even when they are most relevant to the point being made.”(p.6)

Thus, the author attempts to reintroduce the two subjects (Islam and Antebellum slavery) primarily through a meditation on the lives of three devout Muslim slaves through the paradigm they might have viewed their own experiences: that of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (Prophetic tradition). The three in question being Ayyub bin Sulaiman (Job Ben Solomon), ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima (referred to by his captors as ‘Prince’), and Bilali Muhammad (Ben Ali), all of whom were freed and able to either pen or dictate their experiences of being taken from their West African homelands and thrust into the Antebellum world. It is to these narratives that the reader is first directed in “Liberty’s Jihad”.

In each of their respective chapters, Karim cross-examines various accounts of each figure whilst weaving in passages from the Qur’an and Prophetic narrations that he believes might have been of particular importance to them at various points in their lives. In the case of Ayyub, he makes numerous references to the Qur’anic example of his namesake – the Prophet Ayyub – and the tremendous physical and emotional afflictions with which he was tested (upon him be peace).

In each example, Karim points towards the inconsistencies and possible manipulations by Western chroniclers and historians that are found in the accounts of the three figures. The notion of literate, intelligent, charismatic, and ascetic “Negros” flew in the face of contemporary narratives and thus needed to be reconciled. In the case of ‘Abd al-Rahman, the son of a Fulani nobleman raised under extensive tutelage in the scholarly hub of Tomboctu, there was an alternative narrative of his ethnic origins:

“Since these Muslim slaves […] were living evidence against the supposed backwardness of the ‘Negro race’ they had to be portrayed as somehow different to their countrymen. ‘Abd al-Rahman […] was portrayed as a Moorish prince and his education was therefore explained away as an ‘Arab’ education, not an ‘African’ one.” (p.152)

With Ayyub, an Imam and chieftain in his own community with expertise in the theological and legal sciences of Islam, his chroniclers felt the need to disassociate his polemic aptitude and spiritual practice from the ‘Islam of the Turks’, which offended their sensibilities. Karim provides an explanation for such discrepancies and alterations:

“A carefully constructed image of who these slaves were seeks to lessen the pain of guilt that must be borne for the darker chapters of American history. This is precisely what, according to Edward Said, Orientalism as a discipline of study […] attempted to do – justifying and vindicating our treatment of the other.” (p.17)

Perhaps the most significant subtleties in Karim’s framing of these narratives is the unwritten distinction between power and dignity.

In our time, sentiments concerning the determination and actualization of racial minorities are shaped in large part by discourses of power. Undoubtedly, it is an understandable paradigm: a community that has endured generations of degradation will seek a sense of empowerment in their identifying factor.

Karim in his writing, unlike chroniclers and academics who’ve thus far occupied the study of these individuals, is not enamored with their material qualities. He does not place a great deal of focus on their social standings prior to and following their periods of enslavement, nor does he emphasize their suffering. Rather, Karim gives primacy to their spiritual resolve over all other aspects of their personas. In every example, he pays tribute to the devotion and piety of the characters. He praises Ayyub’s determination to observe fasts in Ramadan even during his indenturement, ‘Abd al-Rahman’s deep connection with the Qur’an, especially Al-Fatiha (the opening chapter), and the daily devotionals of Bilali. Thus, Karim universalises the experiences of the three, and without diminishing their cultural and ethnic heritage, he accentuates their religious zeal in such a way that all Muslim readers can and should benefit from.

The conclusion and much of the opening section of the book deal with the greater legacy of Islam and the African Muslim experience in Antebellum America through an intertwining of past and present. Karim makes reference to the significance of Islamic heritage in Black American cultural movements of the 20th century (whilst acknowledging some of their heterodox manifestations) but moves beyond them to draw more contemporary parallels. He cites the founding of the Zaytuna College by Imam Zaid Shakir and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf as a poetic nod to this legacy:

That this institution should, moreover, be founded by an African-American Muslim who is a descendant of slaves; together with a white American Muslim […] who studied and transplanted the Islamic liberal arts tradition from Africa to America […] not only testifies to the unifying power of Islam, but also the great potential for transformation in America itself. (p.201)

The conclusion of his observation is something I might contest, as too with some of the other examples in the book’s final section such as the reference to Muslim presence in Congress as “playing a major role in the development of the American sense of self.” (p.205) It is a section of the book I believe requires far more deliberation than what Karim provides.

As for my other reservations with the book, they are both rather inconsequential. Karim’s use of multiple Qur’anic translations seemed somewhat peculiar and unnecessary: one translation would provide more consistency. There is also a point at which Karim’s choice of language appears to limit a particular Islamic terminology. This is in reference to the term dhikr (translated as remembrance/invocation of Allah) which Karim describes as a “Sufi practice.” One might read this as assigning a sort of exclusivity to the concept of dhikr, which is a practice held by all Muslims and is not confined to one particular strand of the tradition. This might have been to reinforce the role of Sufism in the practice of Islam in West Africa and the role it would have had in the lives of our three examples. For instance, the book makes numerous references to the important role of the Shadili and Qadiri orders, their scholastic traditions and practices such as the writing of Qur’anic litanies and amulets. This particular example, I would argue, unnecessarily limits an Islamic principle held by all adherents to the faith. That being said, this may well be a pedantic scrutiny on my behalf.

Overall, the reading order set by the author provides a perspective from which I benefited greatly. It allows the reader to absorb the parables before diving into the symbolism and the epistemic thought behind the framing of the narrative. Karim puts forward a refreshing and enlightening interpretation of the Antebellum period through the Islamic paradigm. I would highly recommend this book, not only to Muslims in the Western world but to all those seeking to learn from the examples of our pious predecessors.

Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post. 

About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a writer for Traversing Tradition. He is a graduate of English from the UK. His interests include Literature, Film and Islamic History. He is not a fan of twitter.

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.

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