Muslim American slaves

Muslim African slaves in America

Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?

I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.

Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.

They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.

Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.

Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.

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During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.

In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.

Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.

Muslim Spain – heaven or hell for Jews and Christians?

For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.

This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.

The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.

It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.

READ MORE: LGBT Muslims in history

But this view has been trashed in a new book called The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. He argues the following points:

  • It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
  • The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
  • The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
  • Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
  • Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics

I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.

His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:

  • Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
  • Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
  • Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?

It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.

Celebrating LGBT Muslims in history

Abu Nuwas – a great Muslim scholar who wrote unashamedly about LGBT love

Muslim LGBT visibility has been increasing in recent years. On Pride in London – Muslim LGBT groups are often very vocal and one carried a placard last year saying: “See ya down at the mosque!”

Obviously this scandalised many. But there is a strong LGBT tradition in the Muslim world going right back through the centuries.

It may come as a surprise to know this but in Muslim history, homosexuality was often considered as perfectly acceptable. And there were leading scholars and even members of the ruling elite who expressed love and affection for members of their own sex.

Many Muslims I know today are exasperated that bigoted views within Islam – especially from violent extremists – have clouded out the more exotic and colourful history of the religion. They also dispute claims that the Qur’an prohibits gay and lesbian love. In fact, it doesn’t even mention homosexuality.

The rulings that are often cited from anti-LGBT Muslims frequently come from later “hadiths” – claimed sayings of the Prophet – that range from reliable to totally unreliable in terms of authenticity. Or they originate in the schools of jurisprudence that arose centuries after the Prophet’s death in the Abbasid Empire.

I was surprised several years ago to find wall paintings in a bathhouse in Jordan dating back to the two hundred years after the emergence of Islam that depicted dancers and even animals like bears playing musical instruments.

It sparked my realisation that Islam was far more tolerant a thousand years ago than it is in many countries today. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to that version of the faith with its inclusivity and joyousness. Let me give you some examples of LGBT people in Muslim history.

Abu Nuwas was a poet whose full name was Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami and he lived most of his life in Baghdad – the incredible capital of the Abbasid Empire. Much of his poetry is too racy to quote here but this is one of his milder verses:

He sports a short tunic over his slender thighs
But his shirt is long of sleeve.
His feet are well-shod, and under his coat
You can glimpse rich brocade.

Other Muslim poets in history who publicly declared their homosexuality included the Persian Ibn Dawud (868-909 CE), the Andalusian Ibn Quzman (1080-1160 CE) and Ibn Hamdis (1053-1133 CE) who lived in Sicily when it was under Muslim rule. None of them faced a real threat of being put to death because in the “Golden Age” of Islam (when Muslim culture influenced the whole of Europe), the authorities turned a blind eye.

So why did things change?

The usual explanation is that the European powers introduced harsh anti-homosexual legislation in Middle Eastern countries when they ruled them in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s, however, part of the story. Because since then, the same European powers have liberalised their attitudes and laws towards LGBT people – while in contrast the Middle East has, if anything, got way more intolerant.

Why?

The main reason is the emergence of political Islamism which has characterised homosexuality as a western decadent phenomenon. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution – but even before that – there’s been a movement against LGBT rights that we can see getting worse in countries today like Indonesia.

It’s very sad to see countries that once had a vibrant LGBT scene – even if it was underground – now becoming fiercely homophobic. Take for example the detention in Lebanon last year of the organiser of a Gay Pride march. This in a country where the capital Beirut was once described as the “Paris of the eastern Mediterranean”.

This leaves many LGBT Muslims feeling marginalised and some even coming to believe that they might even be undermining their own faith by “tainting” it. Mercifully, there are those prepared to speak out bravely and advocate a reconciled Muslim and LGBT identity. Groups like Imaan in the UK come to mind.

And in many ways, they are helping to revive a traditional, pluralist and tolerant Islam that if revived, could help us all to move forward together in harmony.

Now isn’t that a nice idea?

Filming with the History Channel in Templar Tomar

I’ve been busy filming with the History channel in the Portuguese town of Tomar for a thrilling new documentary series about the Knights Templar. It’s called Buried: Knights Templar and the Holy Grail and is presented by Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin.

This will accompany the new Templar drama Knightfall about to grace your TV screens.

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Buried follows the Templar quest for the Holy Grail and I caught up with the team in Tomar, the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal.

Tomar, in central Portugal, was on the frontier between the Christian crusader kingdoms of northern Spain and Portugal and the Islamic caliphate to the south. This is when cities like Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba were ruled by emirs. But slowly, the crusaders and Templars conquered the whole Iberian peninsula.

One Muslim army tried to storm Tomar and the cost of much blood, the Knights Templar held the city and pushed them back. One gate where a very vicious struggle took place between Knights Templar and Muslims is still called the Gate of Blood.

I’ve visited this town many times, dominated by its Templar fortress. It’s a hugely atmospheric and enigmatic place. Nowhere I’ve been to in the world captures the essence of the Templars like Tomar.

After the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, the Portuguese simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. And this is why we wondered in the programme whether Tomar could have been a safe haven for Templars worldwide? And could their treasure have been buried there?

Together with the team, we set out to unearth some Templar secrets and you can find out how we got on later in the autumn – or Fall for my American followers!