A Book Review of Beyond Bilal by Mustafa Briggs
How did the Yoruba, an ethnic group of southwestern Nigeria, become Muslim? How did Islam gain such widespread prominence throughout Black Africa?
Growing up as a Muslim Nigerian-American, these were questions I had from a very young age. In masajid halaqat (spiritual gatherings in mosques to discuss the Qur’an and Sunnah), Islamic elementary and middle schools, and Muslim Students’ Associations, I benefited greatly from learning about Islam’s history and intellectual traditions in various parts of the world, and how it functioned as a force for building community and shaping identity. Unfortunately, aside from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his companions, only a handful of individual figures — mainly from the Middle East and North Africa—appeared to be widely known. Middle Eastern and North African sultans like Mehmet Fatih, patrons of learning like Fatimah al-Fihri, and polymaths such as Ibn Khaldun were renowned in my circles. Conversely, the only well-known Sub-Saharan Islamic figures are the Prophet’s ﷺ companion Bilal ibn Rabah (RA) and Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire, both of whom are tokenized by American Muslims every February during Black History Month.
Beyond Bilal serves as an excellent primer to better understand the history and development of Islam among Africans and Blacks. As the title indicates, the book touches beyond the oft-repeated fitan (trials and hardship) by Bilal ibn Rabah as an early convert to Islam, and delves further into the events from the beginning of humankind until the modern day.
The author, Mustafa Briggs, discusses the relation between the English categorization of skin tones, Black and Brown, and the classical Arabic term “adam” (آدم) — the name of the first man and Prophet. The term’s root form is “udmah,” (أدمة) meaning “the color black with some redness in it.” In one understanding, the word “adam” means “that which has no whiteness … so they say an adam-colored man to be that he has no white/whiteness within him.”1 Citing Arabic lexical dictionaries, as well as classical and medieval tafasir (exegeses) of the Qur’an and Hadith, the author reveals that the father of humanity was of a very dark skin tone, and the term “adam” was similarly used to describe the messengers Musa and Isa (AS). Such news, I imagine, must be disheartening to those holding very racist or colorist convictions.
An excerpt from the book that I found particularly eye-opening was the discussion of the ayaat in Surah an-Naml (27:12) and Surah al-Qasas (28:32) speaking on the miracle of Musa (AS), wherein he was instructed: “Insert your hand into the opening of your garment; it will come out white without disease.” This miracle was significant precisely because Musa—who has been referred to as “adam” in classical literature—must have been dark-skinned. For so many years, I have read the verse yet, even as a Black man, I had not recognized the implications of this miracle until reading Beyond Bilal.
The book also introduces several of the forgotten Black companions of the Prophet ﷺ and figures of the Salaf (predecessors). The author points out that contemporary discourse on these historical figures often focuses on their roles as enslaved people and servants under oppressive conditions, but not their grander accomplishments. Going against the contemporary pull, the book details the feats of Ubadah as-Samit, who helped negotiate the Rashidun Conquest of Egypt, Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Kamil’s contestation for the throne of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the story of Sayyid Mawlay Idris I, the first king of Morocco.
Beyond Bilal does not shy away from criticizing Muslim depictions of the early ummah and the spread of Islam. For example, the beloved 1976 movie The Message and MBC’s TV series Omar are criticized for whitewashing the Prophet’s ﷺ community, by casting pale-skinned individuals for what was a very heterogeneously-toned society. Likewise, the famous Shi’a iconography of the Twelve Imams is also criticized for depicting them as pale Persian Shahs when, in fact, they were Arabs described by early scholars as black-skinned.
The book also challenges non-Muslim understandings of Islam and African Muslims. The theory of “Islam Noir” or a syncretic “Black Islam” was propagated by French orientalists during the French colonial project in West Africa. This theory states that animist practices and influences comprise an essential part of Sub-Saharan Islam, making the African practice of the religion fundamentally different from the “purest form” native to the Middle East, a theory derived from their racializing of Black Muslims. Beyond Bilal disputes such ideas by portraying the descriptions from medieval historians on the Islamic empires of Ghana, Takrur, Mali, and Songhai.
In these kingdoms, not only were Blacks able to practice Islam, but they were also able to establish it, allowing it to flourish through the sponsoring of Islamic scholarship and the application of Sharia, in part or as a whole. Briggs also challenges extreme Afro-centrists who deem Islam an “Arab Religion” imposed on Africans through conquest. He cites the writings of African Muslims such as Ahmad Baba and Usman Dan Fodio, who say that the first Sub-Saharan Muslims “accepted Islam without being conquered by anybody.” Beyond Bilal then summarizes the spread of Islam in the Sahel and Savannah regions through the influence of successful Islamic scholars and traders, specifically covering Islamic histories in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria, among others.
Regions of the Black Diaspora, including the Caribbean, North America, and Latin America are also discussed in depth. Briggs argues that the number of Muslims enslaved in the Atlantic Slave Trade is underestimated in scholarship because many hid their religious practices to evade additional oppression and punishments from slavers. Ayuba Suleyman Diallo, Omar Said, Bilali Mohammed, and Abdulrahman ibn Ibrahim Sori Barry were each literate Islamic scholars who authored treatises or autobiographies in the Arabic language while enslaved in the Americas. Yet, countless other Muslims were not literate or fortunate enough to write such accounts; thus, they may have been believed to be adherents of other religions. Forceful conversion to Christianity was commonplace during the Atlantic Slave Trade. As a result, many opted to practice Islam secretly and could not pass the faith on to their children.
Beyond Bilal also introduced me, a Sunni Muslim, to un-Islamic movements such as the Ahmadiyyah, the Moorish Science Temple, and the Nation of Islam, which have all played a role in African-American history. Before reading Beyond Bilal, I was ignorant of the interconnections between these three movements, whose respective founders or adherents often influenced one another. In the final chapter of his book, Briggs describes how female Islamic Scholars in West Africa were able to advise and educate men and women alike. Particular focus is placed on Mame Diarra Busso, Muslimatou Mbacke, Maryam Niasse, and other Shaykhas who educated both women and men in Qur’an, Ahadith, and Fiqh while advancing the work of civil society through their charitable initiatives.
As enlightening as the book is, there are also areas I believe could have been further explored. Much of Beyond Bilal focuses on the history of Islam in West Africa, whereas the Muslims of Eastern Africa are only briefly discussed concerning the Black origins of many Sahabah. A discussion of the spread of Islam to regions such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Swahili coast—which today have large Muslim populations — would have added significantly to this book. Historical events such as the Nubian victories over the Rashidun Caliphate, the influence of Eastern Africans in the Indian Ocean trade, and the circumstances which led to a state ruled by a Mahdi claimant in Sudan are just a few of the exciting events that occurred during the spread of Islam in East Africa.
All things considered, Briggs manages to successfully educate the reader on a wide array of Black Islamic history, which is unfortunately underrepresented and understudied. One of the significant failings of Muslims today is our lack of curiosity surrounding our siblings in Islam and humanity. This situation is especially worrisome given that our Lord has told us that we were “made into nations and tribes so that we may know one another” (Qur’an 49:13). Furthermore, Allah (SWT) tells mankind that he could have made us all into one people had he willed; instead, he created “diversity in [our] languages and colors” as “signs for those of knowledge” (Qur’an 30:22). But, as we all know, these differences remain a significant obstacle to higher understanding and unity amongst Muslims. Within our nation-state context, we are often pushed to prioritize our own national, ethnic, tribal, linguistic, and cultural preferences as normative, or even superior to others, while making little effort to discover the fascinating and illuminating insights made by those who differ from us. Briggs highlights how, in Black and African domains, the universal message of Islam uplifted individuals and transformed society through statecraft, scholarship, and saintly actions. For those who want to follow the Qur’anic injunctions to learn about peoples and cultures unfamiliar to them, or those who want to learn more about Black history and Islam specifically, Beyond Bilal is an excellent introductory step.
Photo by Thomas Bennie on Unsplash
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.Endnotes
- Briggs, Mustafa. Beyond Bilal; Black History in Islam. Mustafa Briggs & Co. Publishing, 2022[⮐]
Abdulkadri is a graduate student studying policy analysis and public finance. He's interested in the languages, history, & statecraft of the Muslim world. He's also fascinated by transportation planning and travel.