MUSLIMS IN AFRICA
Islam and Africa are inextricably linked. Africa provided the first place of refuge for the first generation of Muslims, fleeing from the intolerance and oppression of the Makkan Arabs. That Islam first crossed to Africa even before going to Madina, is a matter of profound significance, the wisdom of which we are yet to fathom and may unfold in the future. Africa may have well been preserved for a role in the future, indeed it has a great potential for a role in the future.
Islam in Africa is, therefore, as old as Islam itself. By the first century of Islam, Islamic communities and polities have emerged and continued to develop, grow and spread in the continent.
Where ever it reached in the continent, it spread learning, liberated peoples from the shackles of parochialism and ignorance, boosted trade and commerce, built states of varying complexities and created culture and civilisation. In many parts of Africa literacy started only after the spread of Islam and to this day a great many African languages are written using the Arabic script despite calculated and concerted efforts to obliterate it. By introducing literacy, boosting trade, creating centres of learning, Islam triggered unprecedented movements of peoples bringing about social integration at a scale never seen before and yet unmatched by any modern state creation. The Bilad al-Sudan, the stretch of Savannah grassland from Sene-gambia to the Nile valley is a good case in point.
Muslims in Africa, have in the last millenium championed the growth and development of Africa. European intervention, beginning with the Portuguese in the 15th century and culminating into European colonization in the 18th and 19th century, however, changed all that. Not only did colonization interrupted this gradual development and integration of the continent, it also marked the beginning of a process of subversion and exploitation that has not ceased to this day but has only grown in subtlety and magnitude. Independence, contrary to popular opinion, did not do much to assuage the situation. It did no more than create a false hope, while enduring obstacle continue to be placed on Islam, which alone possesses the potential to liberate the continent once again.
Today Africa remains as weak and as emasculated as ever, but worse, Islam, its lasting hope, has also been weakened, Muslims have since been elbowed out of position of influence, their educational system, whence they drive their inspiration, stifled, and rendered politically impotent, even in a democracy, and even where they constitute a majority. The creation of artificial borders by European colonization, the introduction of the territorially based nation state, fashioned along European lines with European type nationalism and the supplanting of Islamic educational system and its replacement with secular and therefore immoral Western type education, have combined to destroy the Muslim sense of community, subvert Muslim solidarity and largely extricate Muslims from the main currents of social, economic and political force. The increasing trend towards globalization, where a global culture symbolized by Macdonald’s and the CNN, only make matters worse, as the drive for cultural suffocation and obliteration is taken to greater altitudes. As we go into the 21st century, the Muslim community, world over, but in Africa in particular, face several challenges, and the way they react to them will largely determine its survival in the first half of the new century. There are many such challenges but for the purpose of this occasion five major areas appear to be particularly relevant.
Sense of Community and Corporate Image
The Muslim community is a community of faith. The first community in Madina, despite its relative remoteness, was made up of Africans, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, etc., as if to stress the point, ab initio, that the basis of membership of the community is neither territorial nor racial nor class, but simply faith.
This, needless to say, represents a superior criterion and far more advanced basis for human association, than the current vogue, of territory and in the case of Israel, race. This position, it must be added, has anticipated globalization, which renders geographical boundaries obsolete. It may be added that, the current territorial and racial basis of community has been responsible for some of the worst wars the world has seen this century, from the first and second World Wars to the more recent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.
This Islamic sense of community is what gave the nascent Muslim community in Madina the strength to face and overcome the Arabs of Makka and later the Persian and Roman Byzantine empires. Indeed it is this sense of community which gave Islamic civilization its vigour and strength and made it spread into the heart of Europe in the West and as far the boarders of China in the East. But that Madinan sense of community has all but disappeared among contemporary Muslim community, faith alone does not appear to mean much, we have added all manners of requirements, many of them unofficially, and consequently weakened our solidarity, at a time we are having to face all manners of adversaries. Today the Muslim community, in Africa as elsewhere, needs this Madinan sense of community perhaps more than ever before. In this sense of community we shall discover, not only our strength, but also our position as models and pace setters for humanity. Related to this sense of community is our corporate image as Muslims, which has and continues to take a lot bashing from hostile media. We must not make the mistake of putting all the blame at the doors of Western media, for a good number of times we provide the hostile media not only the opportunity but also the excuse.
If the Jews and Christians should send only one representative each to the Truth Commission, in South Africa, but Muslims send four, because they could not agree on one, or if a mosque in Manchester refuses to allow British Muslim women converts in, to pray, should we quarrel with the media if we are portrayed as some bunch of disunited lot who think their little mosques above Kaaba itself, where God himself Has allowed women to go in, circumambulate and even kiss the black stone?
Human Resource Development
It was not for nothing that the first word of the Qur’an to come down to mankind was the command to read. Subsequent revelations of the Qur’an, complemented and reinforced by hadith of the Prophet left us in no doubt about the position of Islam on the search and dissemination of knowledge. It was this clarion call which propelled the first generation of Muslims to master the Greek, Persian, Indian and even Chinese sciences and synthesized it in to a new body of knowledge and led the world for at least seven centuries. During this period they created a civilization, the traces of which are still extant, even in Europe. In Africa, the first universities, that of Azhar in Egypt and that of Sankore in Timbuktu, Mali, were established by Muslims and produced great scholars of international refute. For centuries Muslims were producing scholars and making culture in Africa. Of course, we know that today the situation is different, we no longer produce knowledge, we do not produce civilization, we are consumers of other peoples culture and civilization, poor ones at that. What we may not know, or what we may have failed to grasp, are the implications of this tragedy for the future of the community. There are many such implications, but it seems we can have time for only one: we seem to be condemned to only imitate, if grudgingly, the dominating Western civilization, its good as well as its evil. In other words we become victims of Western-centricism and may be unable to develop the intellectual base for our culture and civilization, thus denying ourselves as well as the rest of humanity the befits of Islam.
If one may illustrate further, our main stream educational institutions, from their colonial beginnings to date, have been teaching us all the West thinks we ought to know about western men, his life, history, his economics, his politics, in short his culture and civilization. It doesn’t matter the subject or the course one reads in a university, it is one aspect of western civilization or the other that is only on offer, as if that is all there is in life to be known. From literature to technology, from philosophy to astronomy, even the knowledge of our own medicinal plants, has to wait until it is published in western journals to become knowledge worth imparting. Our idea of education itself, much less our idea of politics and development is patently western. Why, must we spend all our time, energy and resources studying only the western man, who has never bothered to study us except for some anthropological or exploitative purposes? Has West the monopoly of wisdom? Are we conceding that we have nothing to contribute to humanity? What have we benefited from this subservience all this while? What chance do we have in a world which is increasingly shaped and dominated by the western man? This, I hardly need to add, is not to say that knowledge from the west is necessarily evil, far from it, a lot of it is not only useful, but is even Islamic in essence. The point is the that epistemological basis is largely atheist and the knowledge and culture so produced will continue to undermine rather than strengthen the community.
Let me say from the onset, by economic development I do not mean the reduction of unemployment or some form of poverty alleviation. We have the capacity to do this through Zakkat, and we shouldn’t blame anyone if we don’t. I have in mind the productive capacity of the Muslims community. The generation of that wealth which alone will protect us from the threats and blackmails of our adversaries. We can not loose sight of the fact that in spite of the claims of Western governments to support democracy and human rights, they will be the first to place one embargo or the other when ever we announce our intention to implement some aspects of our way of life like the Sharia. We should also have the ability among ourselves, to take good care of our refugees. Ten years ago there were 3.5 million refugees in Africa, who are having to rely on non-Muslim peoples and governments to find shelter and food. We must explore ways to generate the wealth that will enable us meet such needs of the community.
Here we have to be looking at ways of organizing some kind of Muslim capital market to encourage investments and small scale industries to maximize the productive capacity of our community. We must appreciate that these resources are absolutely necessary for our survival as a community and that no one is going to do it for us.
One of the greatest tragedy of the Muslim community today is the way we shut out half of the population of the Ummah. We have left our women resources laying waste for too long. We have stunted the spiritual and material growth of our women and relegated them to the background. We have curtailed their participation in the community, especially in the field of politics. We have in so doing only stunted the growth of our Muslim communities, diminished our potentials and rendered bleak our future. We cannot afford to continue with this misfortune as we go into the competitive world of the 21st century. One is not here suggesting that women should compete with men, as is the case the West, nor is one suggesting that women should abandon their God-given role of raising children. Rather in complementing men Muslim women must be allowed to realize their full human potentials, they must be particularly developed, just as we do with men, to be able to contribute fully to the development of their community.
Muslim women must be allowed, just as they were at the time of the prophet, to participate in Jihad, attend mosques, serve to the community in various capacities and above all excel in Islamic scholarship. For as we know too well, Islamic scholarship has never been the monopoly of men, indeed many of the Imams of the schools of fiqh studied at the feet of many a woman scholar. Why have we not produce such women scholars in our age when learning has been made a lot easier? What have we gained by our failure to produce women scholars who give tafsir, comment on hadith and give fatwa on issues that affect our community? How can the Muslim community progress and compete favourably with other communities when half of its human resources are left in ignorance?