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Abdul Karim Bangura: ‘Charlie Hebdo: Insulting Prophet Muhammad is an affront to Africans and people of African descent everywhere’

"Today, the African flavor to Islamic practices is evident in the Americas, the Caribbean, and many European countries with significant concentrations of African Muslims and those of African descent."

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Before I make the case for why insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is an affront to Africans and people of African descent everywhere, it behooves me to first make the following three points. First, those who are quite familiar with the way I have lived my life, my writings, public lectures, and media interviews know very well that I abhor all forms of racism and violence as a response to the problems in our global community. Thus, I condemn both the protracted racism and disrespect of other peoples and cultures displayed by the folk at Charlie Hebdo and also condemn those individuals who responded violently to the provocation.

Second, I am quite blessed to have been born and raised in Sierra Leone and to be a United States citizen. Growing up in Sierra Leone, which has been ranked for many years among the top countries in the world when it comes to religious tolerance, I witnessed no religious schism. Christian and Islamic holidays and ceremonies are celebrated by everyone, no matter his or her religious affiliation. People of all religions intermarry and most families have members belonging to different religions. In fact, although I am a Muslim, I attended a Roman Catholic school and served mass as an Altar Boy. When it comes to freedom of speech, we Americans are ahead of the curve. While we have our own challenges, we at least try very hard to draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech, especially when camouflaged as racist humor or culture war. Our following three mantras support my contention: (1) “Your freedom of speech does not permit you to yell fire in a crowded movie theater,” (2) “Your freedom stops where another person’s freedom begins,” and (3) “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.”

Third, my writing this article is in no way an attempt to “defend” Islam—a deen, meaning in Arabic a complete way of life, which is more than just a religion. As I state in my book titled Keyboard Jihad: Attempts to Rectify Misperceptions and Misrepresentations of Islam (2011), there is no need for anyone to “defend” Islam, as Allah (SWT) or God has always done so and will continue to do so forever.

Now I turn to my postulate that insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is an affront to Africans and people of African descent everywhere. As I demonstrate in my article titled “The African Roots and Transnational Nature of Islam” (2013), previous works on Islam and Africa trace the roots of their connection to the first Hijra (Islamic migration) when two groups totaling more than 100 Muslims fled persecution in Mecca and arrived in Axum of the Askumite Kingdom (modern-day Ethiopia) in 614 and 615 CE, respectively. A few works would begin with the story of Bilal ibn Rabah or Bilal al-Habashi, the former enslaved Ethiopian born in Mecca during the late 6th Century (sometime between 578 and 583 CE), the first soul to be reverted to Islam, chosen by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as the first Muezzin (High Priest, or Caller of the Faithful to prayer) of the Islamic faith, and the first treasurer of the Islamic Empire. More recent sources would add the fact that the African/Black Saudi Arabian Sheikh Adil Kalbani is now the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. This chronology misses the African roots of Islam: i.e. the story of the Egyptian Hagar/Hājar in Arabic (MGBPWH), the second wife of Abraham/Ibrahim in Arabic. It also misses the fact that Luqman The Wise, who wrote the 31st Sura of the Qur’an, was an African. Today, the African flavor to Islamic practices is evident in the Americas, the Caribbean, and many European countries with significant concentrations of African Muslims and those of African descent.

That the transnationalism of Islam would be significantly African in nature was divinely predestined is hardly a matter of dispute. As we may recall, in one way, all Muslims understand Islam to begin with Adam (PBUH): that is, with creation of humanity, the descendants of Adam (PBUH) are traced through Noah (PBUH), to his son named Shem (from whom we get the term Semite, referring to his descendants, including both Jews and Arabs), on through the generations to Abraham (PBUH), who was the first to believe in a monotheistic God, and then on to the sons of Abraham (PBUH) named Ishmael/Ismai’il in Arabic and Isaac/Ishaq in Arabic (PBUT). It is at this point that we find two narratives which become cornerstones of Islam. The first begins in the Qur’an with the story of the birth of Ishmael and Isaac (PBUT), telling the expulsion of Ishmael (PBUH) and his Egyptian mother Hagar (MGBPWH) from the home of Abraham (PBUH) and their subsequent residence in Mecca. It continues with the descent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from the biological line of Ishmael (PBUH). The second involves the Qur’anic story of the attempted holy sacrifice by Abraham (PBUH) of his son, which demonstrated his submission to God’s will, from which we get the word Islam.

It is widely believed that Ishmael (PBUH) is associated with the Arab population, and particularly with Arab Muslims. Historical records do link ancient northern Arabians to Ishmael (PBUH).

According to Genesis, the wife of Ishmael (PBUH) was an Egyptian (21:21). Jewish Midrash expands on this story. It says that Ishmael (PBUH) chose his own first wife, a Moabite. Abraham (PBUH) disapproved. So Hagar (MGBPWH) sent for a wife from Egypt, of whom Abraham (PBUH) approved on his next visit. This is the wife represented in Genesis 21:21.

Islam first entered into Africa from the lands of the Ethiopians in the east. In the history of Islam from its early inception in Mecca, the ruling oligarchy, consisting of wealthy merchants and bankers who rejected religious reversion and oppressed the small band of Muslim reverts, regarded the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as revolutionary. In order to escape persecution, as mentioned earlier, Muhammad (PBUH) directed more than 100 of the early Muslims to migrate to Axum in the Askumite Kingdom. There the Muslims were welcomed and protected by An-Nagashi (the Negus) of Ethiopia named Ashama ibn Abjar. Very few Muslims settled in East Africa, however, indicating that the spread of Islam in Africa was not generated from the Ethiopian shores of the Red Sea. Rather, it flowed westward into Algeria, West Sahara and Morocco from Nilotic Egypt before making its journey southward into the Sahara, Sub-Sahara and the Sahel. Remarkably, the conquest of Egypt by the Muslim army freed the Christian Copts from Byzantinian control as well as reverted some of the Coptic and Byzantinian Orthodox Church followers to Islam, with much credit being given to Islam’s simplicity and personal freedom.

As in the rest of the world, Islam is the fastest growing faith in Africa today. There is not a single African country that does not have a Muslim population. Of the 2.1 billion Muslims in the world, Africa has the second largest population of Muslims (401,975,628 or 27 percent) next to Asia (1,023,564,005 or 69 percent). The breakdown of the Muslim populations for the five geopolitical regions in Africa, in order of size, is as follows: North Africa, 180,082,076 or 89 percent; West Africa, 133,994,675 or 50 percent; East Africa, 66,381,242 or 34 percent; Central Africa, 12,582,592 or 15 percent; and Southern Africa, 8,935,043 or seven percent.

Thus, being true to my African and American dispositions, I must say: Je suis pour la paix mondiale; Je ne suis pas pour Charlie Hebdo racistes ou des extrémistes! In English: “I am for global peace; I am not for Charlie Hebdo the racist or the extremists!”

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BC Guest Commentator Dr. Abdul Karim Bangura, PhD is a professor of Research Methodology and Political Science at Howard University, a researcher-in-residence of Abrahamic Connections and Islamic Peace Studies at the Center for Global Peace in the School of International Service at American University, and director of The African Institution in Washington, DC. He holds a PhD in Political Science, a PhD in Development Economics, a PhD in Linguistics, a PhD in Computer Science, and a PhD in Mathematics. He is the author of 80 books and more than 600 scholarly articles.


February 4 2015