“I tell ya. There’z a ol’ house down da road dat dis ol’ White man was sellin’. A nigga wanted to buy it, but he ain’t wanna sell it to a nigga, ya see. But nobody waz gon’ buy it from him tho, so he waz gon’ sell to da Black man. Naw, when he waz ’bout ta sell it to da Black man, an Arab man came and bought da house from him for cheapa dan wat da Black man waz gon’ pay fo it! Can you believe dat?! He ain’t won’ da Black man to have it so bad dat he wen’ an sol’ it to a ol’ cracka Arab!”
~Part of a conversation I had with an older Black man
I must confess I almost fell into a grave intellectual sin: I just about succumbed to trap of Orientalism, more specifically, Black Orientalism. The sneaky, subtle little bastard crept up on me and I’m remiss to have not seen his-slithering-self sooner. Subhan’Allah, I must be losing my discerning touch; or, I’ve been letting the racial dynamics of the Muslim community get the better of me. Perhaps it’s more so the latter than the former. I’m sure it is. In any case, I feel dreadful about it, as I should have known much better, as a person of consciousness, than to be duped into such a fallacious canard; and I moreover feel it necessary to explain my intellectual faux pas as a matter of penitence. Much of my ruminations are from my second reading of Dr. Jackson’s seminal work, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection.
At the outset, I must say this, in my own defense. I read Dr. Jackson’s book shortly after becoming Muslim, and I, being new to the community, didn’t quite understand his cogitations or his interpretation of history. I returned to the book, nearly six years later, after having waded through the cultural, racial, and socio-economic mire of the American Muslim community and now his words make much more sense than they did back then. Please bear with me, especially if you happen to be an Arab. I’m a work in progress. Perchance you the reader and I will learn and grow because of it. Insha’Allah.
“As an individual, he or she might look across the Atlantic or Mediterranean to the Orient; but as a Westerner, he or she could only look down from his or her self-appointed perch of superior civilization, a perspective destined to shape the Orient into a reflection of the most deeply ingrained Western fears and obsessions.“
~Dr. Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection
What is Black Orientalism? In order to define this term, let’s first remove the word “Black” and examine what’s left, “Orientalism,” and really, what is implicit, the word “White.”
In 1979, Dr. Edward Said, a Palestinian of Christian background and a professor of English at Columbia University, wrote a book called Orientalism, in which he set out to expose and describe the self-serving, psychological predisposition within academic and political discourses of objectifying the Near Orient (the Middle East) with the projections of White Westerner (i.e. Europe and those along her distaff side, America, Australia, etc) prejudices, interests, fears, obsessions, sensibilities, and self-perceptions. I only read the introduction to Said’s classic, as literature and literary criticism really aren’t my forte, more like dangling hobbies I indulge in if and when I ever get the time. Nevertheless, the introduction is sufficient enough to grasp the crux of his argument.
Let’s tack back on the adjective “Black” and trek forward. Blackamericans, despite how much people love to refer to us as “African-American,” which I can’t stand because we’re neither culturally nor linguistically African, are as much as a product of the West, her darker and paradoxical side to be sure, as our White counterparts, and it therefore stands to reason that some would develop this tendency to view the Orient with condescension, though the manifestation of it would differ because of the historical, social, and existential circumstances of Blacks vis-a-vis Whites.
Dr. Jackson defines Black Orientalism as the following:
…essentially a reaction to the newly developed relationship between Islam, Blackamericans, and the Muslim world. Its ultimate aim is to challenge, if not undermine, the propriety of the esteem enjoyed by Islam in the Blackamerican community by projecting onto the Muslim world a set of imaginings, self-perceptions, resentments, and stereotypes that are far more the product of the black experience in America than than they are of any direct relationship with or knowledge of Islam, especially in the Muslim world.
He goes on to say,
By highlighting the purported historical race prejudice of the Muslim world, as well as, in some instances, the alleged responses to this prejudice, the aim is to impugn the propriety of the relationship between Islam and the Blackamericans by ultimately calling into question Blackamerican Muslims’ status as authentic, loyal Blackamericans.
So, what does all this mean, in plain English? As I understand, some Blacks were ideologically driven to cast aspersions on Islam and Muslims, particularly Arabs, because Islam had assumed a new status in the minds and hearts of the Blackamerican community in the wake of the mass exodus of Black Christians. They capitalized on the racial prejudices prevalent in the Muslim (read Arab) world and projected certain racial and historical realities of Blacks in America unto Islam and the Muslim world, not with the intent to dominate, but with the intent to defame.
Does it sound weird, out of place? It shouldn’t really. I’ve seen this phenomenon myself. Some Blacks, Jews and Christians alike but mostly Christians, and even some Whites, will charge the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه and by extension Islam of endorsing a Black slave caste, tantamount to the atrocities of the Europeans. Because of this false charge, they say Blacks have no business being Muslim, as if Christianity or Judaism (Curse of Ham anyone?) have fared any better in this regard (which they haven’t). The whole situation rings of a puerile religious jealousy and a feeble attempt to project the evil maliciousness of European slavery, American racial bigotry, and the perceived failures of Christianity, more specifically Whiteanity (Europeanized Christianity replete with anti-Black racism), onto Islam and the Muslim world. They are guilty of having tunnel vision: they are the sort who only see what they’re looking for and disregard everything else, especially if it contradicts or impugns their views.
With that being said however, I must put forth a caveat: valid criticism and ideology are two completely different beasts. One can put forth valid criticism without falling prey to ideology. No amount of apologetics can assuage the historic racism and color prejudice of the Muslim world. It exists, and there is absolutely no excuse for it. None whatsoever. If one cannot defend the anti-miscegenation laws of Jim Crow, then one likewise cannot simply write off the de facto anti-miscegenation among Muslim Orientals as mere “cultural preference.” Ibn Khaldun, the celebrated Tunisian scholar and the grandfather of sociology (Emile Durkheim is consider the father of modern sociology), in his famous al-Muqaddimah (The Prolegomenon or the Introduction), asserted of blacks in southernmost portions of African that “they are not to be number among humans.” Dr. Jackson also notes that “numerous early Maliki jurist, supposedly on the authority of Imam Malik himself, held that while under circumstances a valid marriage contract required that the woman be represent by a male (a wali), there were instances in which this requirement could be relaxed, such as where the woman hailed from lowly origins, was ugly, or was black. This, they argued, was because blackness was an affliction that automatically reduced a woman’s social standing.” And again, “in a similar vein, the twelfth/eighteenth century jurist Maliki jurist, al-Dardir, categorically affirmed the Unbelief of any Muslim who claimed that the Prophet Muhammad was black!” Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, in his blog, made mention of a well-known principle among hadith critics: any hadith, even one with a strong chain of narration (isnad), that disparages blacks or Africans is deemed false. To think the prejudices ran so long and so deep that people would even go so far as to put such words in the mouth of the Prophet!
Yet, these criticisms must be examined further to get the complete picture. Ibn Khaldun, who just so happens to be a personal hero of mine, categorically refuted the Curse of Ham mythology with his climate theory and the bogus claim of Blacks being intellectually inferior, despite his prejudice. To be fair, he said those farthest from the equator – including Whites! – are equally barbaric. And, if you look at the sub-Saharan Muslims, you’ll find most of them subscribe to the Maliki school of law, despite the purported prejudices of Imam Malik and other subsequent Malikis. I myself happen to be of the Maliki madhhab (school of law) and I obviously don’t give credence those views of Imam Malik, assuming he even had them. The supposed prejudicial views of Imam Malik, other subsequent Maliki jurists, or jurists within any of the other schools of law, don’t have to be accepted as the end-all-be-all. And as for the hadith, that the muhadditheen (the scholars of hadith) even recognized this racist proclivity among some transmitters of hadith and developed mechanisms to filter and explicate the words attributed to the Prophet speaks volumes.
“I have often been asked by Arabs who hear me speak Arabic if I am an Arab. I have never been asked by a white person who heard me speak English if I was white.”
~Dr. Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection
Sometime ago, about two years or so after I converted to Islam, I found myself in the presence of Omali Yeshtali, the founder of the Uhuru Movement, a Black Nationalist, Socialist organization based out of St. Petersburg, Florida. A dear friend of mine, who is – by the way – a Jew of Russian descent (so much for the “Muslims hate Jews” thing) and who was, at the time, a doctoral student in the sociology of religion, was traveling to event from Gainesville, Florida along with his then current girlfriend, and he had extended an invitation to me and to another Muslim sister to join them. My friend always identified himself as one who hailed from among the White privileged caste, having wealthy Jewish immigrant parents and having had the best of everything the money of his parents could afford, and, back then, he, almost with a sort of masochistic, self-loathing guilt, vocalized his support for or was an exponent of such Marxists struggles, especially if it involved the racial and class struggles of Blacks, Latinos, and Palestinians. My exposure to the world was still at a minimal, having been raised in a poor yet insular environment. And My experience with Marxist philosophy and Black Nationalism was relegated only to a few selected readings of Marx and Engels and a few scant articles on the Black Panthers. Since I knew nothing else beyond what was provided in those close confines of literature, I decided to tag along.
I won’t bore you with the details of the event. I honestly can’t remember everything that transpired anyway. However, I do recall this: Yeshtali said something perplexing that evening, a phrase consisting of a combination of two ideas I had never heard before juxtaposed to one another: he said “Arab cracka.”
My mind reeled. Wait a minute, what is an “Arab cracka?”
Now, I know, rather intimately, what “cracka” means. You hear the Southern, old-school Black folks, the Old Black Collard Greens as a friend of mine might say, use it all the time, like it’s going out of style. It’s a pejorative term used to describe White people in general as the Masters who would crack the whip during the periods when Blacks were in the yoke of slavery and oppression. And I knew what an “Arab” was. “Arab” is NOT a race, as most erroneously think since everything in contemporary society has been excessively racialized, but it refers to an amalgamation of people – Egyptians, Syrians, Sudanese, North Africans (Morocco, Tunisia, Libya), Palestinians, Lebanese – and of various ethnic makeup – Phoenicians, Copts, Romans, Persians, Berbers, Sub-Sahara-Africans (Afro-Arabs), Hellenes, etc – who adopted the Arabic language and certain cultural traits through the acculturation (read: Arabization), whether voluntary or forced, of the original Arabian conquerors, thereby becoming Arab. “Arab,” I knew, was a cultural and linguistic designation, NOT a racial or an ethnic one.
So then, being a good engineering student, I did the math in my head. I concatenated the two ideas, but the result didn’t make any sense to me. Some Arabs are fair skinned, just like some White people, and some Arabs are pretty prejudice against Blacks, just like some White people, but I hadn’t perceived a history of a racial caste system like in America, of whip cracking. To my knowledge, for all the prejudice of some Arabs, there was no Arab Klu Klux Klan, no burning crescents and stars, no terrorizing or burning of houses, no lynchings, no Arab Jim Crow or Black Codes, none of that. I knew of the Arab slave traders, but the institution paled in comparison to what was in America.
Besides, while there certainly was a plethora of Black (Zanji) slaves, scholars agree that there was a sizable Slavic slave population and that the majority of slaves were actually Turkish, hence the Mamluk (“owned”) Turks. Slaves came from everywhere, usually as prisoners of war, not just from the Blacks. The Muslim societies weren’t economically based upon slavery like in America, and thus upward social mobility was possible even to point of acquiring the sultanate, hence, the Mamluk Turkish dynasties in the Muslim world, or even of a Black man, named al-Mustansir, being christened as amir-al-mu’minin (Prince or Commander of the Believers)! No such thing existed in America or Europe for that matter. Let’s acquire some perspective here. It’s 2011 and we just elected our first Black president three years ago in America. What does that say?
So then, back to my original question, what then was an “Arab cracka”? I didn’t get it. I tuck the concept into the back of mind, where it remains.
“Part of what renders blackness superior to whiteness –
And truth has many levels and depths –
Is that darkness is never blamed for being black
While extreme whiteness may be rebuked for being white.”
~Abu al-Hasan al-Rumi, third/ninth-century Arab poet
“Do not revile blacks because of their features
For they are my portion of this world
As for whites, I am repulsed by them
I have no appetite for the color of old age.”
~al-Baha’ Zuhayr, sixth-seventh/twelfth-thirteenth century Arab poet
What was my gaffe, my intellectual failure? Despite knowing all this, I fell into the trap perceiving the racial and cultural prejudice of the Immigrant Muslim community through the prism of American racial realities since those are the only realities I know. It’s like I compared apples and oranges, and I can’t believe I did that.
The term “Arab cracka” really has no meaning whatsoever because the historical circumstances and realities of the Muslim world are completely different to those here. I think it’s usage is emblematic of the frustration felt by many Blacks because of how some Arabs (and Desis) treat them, such as the vampiric, parasitic leeching of Arab (and Desi) Muslim liquor-store merchants in the ghetto. (I have seen a few myself). But, as I mentioned earlier, there is no excuse for such prejudices, even from Blacks. Everyone has prejudices, but that doesn’t mean they are all justified.
I have never used the term “Arab cracka” – I don’t even use the term “cracka” to describe White people – but I lost perspective, almost to the tune of Black Orientalism. Almost. Arabs come in all colors, from white as snow, like some Syrians, to black as coal, like the Afro-Arabs of Sudan; it’s therefore not really fair, just, or sensible to label them as “crackas.”
While none of what I’ve presented exonerates the guilty parties for their anti-Black prejudices, it does serve to highlight a major point I’d like to make. When it comes to race, Muslims have a tendency to be racially agnostic and to idealize their history and their paragons in light of the Prophet’s directive about color and cultural: that a white is not superior to a black and vice versa, and that an Arab is not superior to a non-Arab and vice versa. Perhaps the bent to idealize one’s own history is a trait all humans share to some degree. Even so, nothing is gained in the way of understanding in doing this and it’s a temptation which must be held at bay. You just set yourself up for disappointment when the whole truth comes to light – and it will come to light one day, as it is destined to, for falsehood, by its very nature, is destined to perish. If you idealize, then I think you miss part of the big picture and you miss an opportunity to learn something. Allahu’Alim.
Anyway, I won’t make such a foolish mistake again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, well then, I must really be stupid.