IT WAS THE COMPANION OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD (peace be upon him), Ubadah ibn al-Samit, who made the insightful claim that while many thought the opening verses of the chapter of the Quran titled Surah al-Fath, “Verily We have conferred upon you a manifest victory,” referred to the conquest of Mecca, he knew that the real referent was the Treaty of Hudaybiya. Among the most important features of this treaty was that the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the Muslims would be allowed to make a pilgrimage to the Ka’ba the following year. Once this occurred, Islam, up until that point still an anomaly in Arabia, would acquire the status of a bona fide Arabian religion. And once this was achieved, there would remain no impediments to converting to Islam relating to issues of culture or identity. If becoming a Muslim up to that point had connoted a measure of “cultural apostasy” or “abandoning our way of life,” this would no longer be the case once Islam became legitimate in the hearts and minds of Arabians as their religion. This is clearly revealed in the exponential increase in the number of conversions following the Treaty, which was in clear evidence as the Prophet made his triumphant entry into Mecca some two years later.

Ubadah understood a lesson that many have forgotten today, namely that real victory takes place not on the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of people. In the American context, the process of indigenizing Islam, i.e., of endowing the indigenous population with a sense of ownership in the religion, has been largely ignored in favor of transferring old-world priorities and patterns of authority to the Western world. This can only result in conversions that are ultimately superficial, because it can never put the convert in touch with his or her self or with the religion. Instead, it is the carrier peoples and their vision with whom he or she relates. And to the extent that relations with the carrier people are altered or manipulated, so too is the convert’s relationship with Islam.

Here is where Islam in America, and particularly black America, faces an important challenge. While, through the efforts of proto-Islamic figures such as The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Blackamericans as a whole acquired a sense of ownership in “Islam” – even if this Islam was more imagined than real – immigrant Muslims have proceeded in a manner that both ignores and threatens this relationship. Whereas during the proto-Islamic era, to be a “Muslim” meant to be a dignified Black man! – indeed, the most dignified black man – Islam has now come to be identified with being an Arab, a foreigner or one of “them.” As a result, especially in the aftermath of 9 / 1 1 , Blackamerican Muslims have increasingly come under the charge of cultural/ethnic apostasy by those whom I refer to as “Black Orientalists.” Ultimately, if the Black Orientalists are successful, there will remain nothing to complicate the efforts of the enemies of Islam to convince the American population at large that this religion is a foreign, alien, hostile threat that all patriotic Americans must work to contain if not eradicate. In the end, it is only indigenization that will determine whether black, white or any other Americans enjoy a sense of ownership in Islam or are hopelessly alienated from it.

IF THE STIGMA OF BLACKNESS AND THE TRAUMA OF admitting to being creations of the modern West impede immigrant preparedness to assimilate an historical consciousness that ties them to Blackamericans, Blackamerican Muslims are also confronted with incentives, beyond simple frustration, to disassociate from their immigrant coreligionists. For at least a century, there has existed in Blackamerica a cultural /political orthodoxy dedicated to policing the boundaries between blacks and “pseudoblacks.” Pseudoblacks have traditionally been identified as those who are of questionable cultural authenticity and or political loyalty to the black community. This cultural/political orthodoxy has always been indexed into the sentiments and mores of the folk. And paying homage to it has always functioned as the sine qua non of success for any serious movement among Blackamericans, including those, such as that of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, that sought ultimately to alter the substance of Blackamerican culture. AU of the early Blackamerican Islamizers and even the early Old Guard understood and respected this fact. Immigrant Islam arrived, however, oblivious to, where not contemptuous of, it. Much of this myopia passed to Blackamerican Muslims who came under its sway. The result has been the emergence within the greater Blackamerican community of a phenomenon I shall refer to as “Black Orientalism.”

In its primary manifestation, Black Orientalism seeks to cast the Arab/ Muslim world as a precursor and then imitator of the West in the latter’s history of anti-blackness. In a secondary manifestation, the Muslim world is rendered not only the source of anti-black racism but of the most toxic reactions to this, reactions that continue to infect the otherwise civil approach of non-Muslim Blackamericans long after the propriety and usefulness of black radicalism in America has passed. In both cases, the implication is that through their association with immigrant Muslims and historical Islam, Blackamerican Muslims have contracted the disease of cultural /racial apostasy, alongside a set of sociopolitical attitudes that jeopardize the Blackamerican cause overall. On these attributions, Black Orientalism sets out to question, if not impugn, the status of Islam in the Blackamerican community and, by implication, the propriety of Blackamerican conversion to Islam.

The rise and logic of Black Orientalism must be seen against the backdrop of several converging facts. First, every Blackamerican convert to Islam defected either from the Black Church or some other secular movement among Blackamericans. In this context, Islam’s gains were perceived, virtually from the beginning, as someone else’s loss. At the same time, the charge of Christianity being the white man’s religion only aggravated this feeling and perception of loss. Second, the early Islamizers’ critique and reform of traditional Blackamerican culture announced the arrival of a new contender for cultural authority in Blackamerica. So did the cultural and linguistic innovations introduced by the rise of black Sunnism.1 Third, the dislocations engendered by Immigrant Islam resulted in a certain cognitive dissonance among Blackamerican Sunnis, according to which fossilized doctrines and practices from the Muslim world were imagined to be viable tools with which to confront the challenges of urban America. The resulting dysfunctionality, along with the appearance of being intellectually and culturally overrun by immigrants, saw the power and prestige of Islam in the black community dissipate and give way to a sense of betrayal and disappointment and a feeling that Islam and Muslims were irrelevant where not detrimental to the black cause. In this multilayered light, the emergence of Black Orientalism must be seen not simply as a desire on the part of Blackamerican non-Muslims, particularly Christians, to regain lost ground. It must also be seen as confirming the fact that the perspective and approach of Immigrant Islam and its Blackamerican clients are liabilities that threaten the status and future of Islam in Blackamerica.

Having said this much, Immigrant Islam cannot be made responsible for the actual substance of Black Orientalism. Substantively speaking, Black Orientalism is a thoroughly Blackamerican enterprise,2 an overtly ideological endeavor with far from objective methods or innocent aims. In this chapter, my objective will be to describe and critique three typologies of Black Orientalism: (i) Nationalist Black Orientalism; (2) Academic Black Orientalism; and (3) Religious Black Orientalism. I shall begin with a word about the genesis of the concept of Orientalism and how it relates to my construction of Black Orientalism. I will follow this with an important note on what Black Orientalism is and what it is not. From here I will enter my discussion proper of the three aforementioned modalities of Black Orientalism. In all of this, it should be noted that my aim is not to exhaust all instances and modalities of Black Orientalism. Similarly, my critique of the substance of Black Orientalism should not be mistaken for an attempt to deny or minimize the Muslim contribution, Blackamerican and immigrant, to the causes of its emergence.


The term, “orientalism,” was popularized by the late Edward Said, a professor of English at Columbia University. In 1978, Said, a Palestinian of Christian background, published a book entitled Orientalism. This work, which would soon become a classic, was devoted to exposing and describing the manner in which the self-perception, prejudices, interests, and power of Europe and later America colluded to create both a geographical object called the Orient and a scholarly tradition of speaking and writing about it. This was not the Orient of Japan or China; this was the “Near” and “Middle East.” And while Jews, Christians, and others contributed to the history and cultures of this region, Islam and Muslims were the primary if not exclusive targets. As the incubator and projector of Western fears, desires, repressions, and prejudices, occidental discourses on the Orient normalized a whole series of self-serving and condescending stereotypes about Arab and Muslim “Orientals.” These, in turn, justified the propriety and inevitability of Western domination and privilege. This self-serving, power-driven, psychological predisposition, deeply rooted and often consciously indulged, was what Said aimed to capture by the designation “Orientalism.”

Said was keen to note that Orientalism was not a purely political affair, something that only Western governments and armies did to Oriental despots and their cowering subjects. Western intellectuals and academicians played a major role in the enterprise. Even when British, French, or American scholars approached the Orient with no conscious foreign policy commitments, they could neither transcend nor disengage themselves from the social, historical, and institutional forces that shaped their mental schémas. The Western scholar, wrote Said, “[came] up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.”3 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.

If white Westerners approached the Orient as Europeans and Americans, one would only expect Blackamerican thinkers to approach it as Blackamericans. The meaning and implications of this would depend, of course, on where Blackamericans happened to be in their own existential struggle. Prior to the shift from Black Religion to historical Islam, the Arab and Muslim world are almost invariably included as constituents of an idealized Third World, a regiment of Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth grinding out the universal ground offensive against white supremacy and Western imperialism. In fact, at the height of the black consciousness/Black Power era, the masters of Blackamerican sociopolitical satire were none other than The Last Poets who within a span of five years, went from being partly to completely Muslim.4 After this shift, however, and the establishment of critical masses of immigrant Muslims in America, one begins to sec a growing number of Blackamerican scholars who deny the Arab and Muslim world this status and portray it instead as a precursor, partner, or imitator of the West in its denigration, subjugation, and oppression of black people. 5

Unlike Said’s “white Orientalism,” this attempt to recast the Muslim world was unrelated to any desire to control or dominate it. Like Said’s Orientalism, however, its bête noire was unmistakably Islam. Black Orientalism was and is 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 they are of any direct relationship with or knowledge of Islam, especially in the Muslim world. 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 Blackamericans by ultimately calling into question Blackamerican Muslims’ status as authentic, loyal Blackamericans.


None of the above should be understood to imply, however, that any and all criticism of the stereotypes, prejudices, and practices of Muslim Orientals constitutes Black Orientalism. Valid criticism, however, is distinct from ideologically driven projections. The former is based on direct experience, verifiable facts, and substantively fair and consistent interpretations; the latter is based on imagination, prejudice, and ideology. When Blackamericans condemn the bloodsucking activities of Arab (Muslim!) liquor-store magnates in the greater Detroit or Chicago areas, this is no more an exercise in anti-Muslim Black Orientalism than earlier critiques of Jewish slumlords were of anti-Semitism. And if the old antimiscegenation laws prove how deeply ingrained anti-black racism was among white Americans, de facto antimiscegenation among Muslim Orientals cannot be written off as a benign “cultural preference.” In short, if the association between Islam, Blackamericans, and the Muslim world should not be a cause for wild and unwarranted projections, neither should it be a cause for turning a blind eye to offenses and indiscretions that are known and or experienced firsthand.

Nor must Blackamerican criticism of Muslim Orientals be limited to contemporary facts or experience. Inasmuch as the premodern legacy remains the repository of the greatest authority for contemporary Muslims and continues to inform their thought and sensibilities, it remains a fair and reasonable target of critique. When we turn to this legacy, we find that Muslim legal, historical, exegetical, and bellelettristic literature are replete with anti-black sentiments. Exposing and holding these up for criticism or analysis constitutes neither Black Orientalism nor anti-Muslim bias. On the contrary, such criticism and analysis is critical to the establishment of a standard that can be applied fairly and consistently across the board.

Consider, for example, the following. In his famous alMuqaddimah (The Prolegomenon), Ibn Khaldun (d.8o8/ 1406), the celebrated and true father of sociology, says of blacks in the southernmost portion of Africa that “they are not to be numbered among humans.”6 The early Meccan jurist, Ta’us (d. 106/724), reportedly indulged the habit of refusing to attend weddings between a black and white because he deemed this to be “unnatural,” in accordance with his understanding of Qur’an 4:119, which speaks of the Satanic impulse to “alter God’s creation (taghyir khalq Allah).”1 Numerous early Maliki jurists (reportedly on the authority of Malik) held that while under normal circumstances a valid marriage contract required that the woman be represented by a male relative (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.8 In a similar vein, the twelfth/eighteenth century Maliki jurist, al-Dardir, categorically affirmed the Unbelief (kufr) of any Muslim who claimed that the Prophet Muhammad was black!? On a slightly lighter (but no less suggestive) note, when the black poet, al-Hayqatan, showed up at the annual Eid celebration all decked out in white, the Arab poet Jarir (d.i 1 1 /729) mocked him in improvised verse,

It is as if, when he appears before the people,

He were a donkey’s penis wrapped in paper. IO

Nothing would excuse the casual dismissal or platitudinous explaining away of such statements issuing from white Americans or Europeans. Nor should their author’s status as Muslim Orientals earn them any such exemption. Critical references to statements and actions by Muslim Orientals only approach Black Orientalism when they proceed on the uncritical assumption that their meaning – direct or illocutionary – are and must be the same as it would be had they issued from the ruling class of white Americans, that such statements reflect not an isolated or limited bias or predilection but an all encompassing constellation of power relations that are driven by considerations of race (or color). Race and color, in other words, are assumed to function as consistent and permanent determinants of human relations and possibilities. In short, Black Orientalism implies not only that Muslim society produced expressions of race or color prejudice but that such prejudice defined these societies and circumscribed the lives and possibilities of black people within them.

Among the strongest factors giving currency to the assumption that black life was circumscribed in Muslim society is the erroneous notion that blacks in Islam were a slave class as they were in America. Not only does this add credence to the notion that black life was circumscribed, it also confers upon all statements and actions that are or appear to be racially biased the appearance of being part of an ongoing effort by the ruling class to confirm the propriety of its position of domination over its subjugated wards. In point of fact, however – and every historian of Islam knows it – most slaves in Muslim society were probably not black but of Turkish origin, and there is no evidence to the effect that most blacks were slaves.11 But even if we assume that blacks were a slave class in Muslim society, there is a major distinction, as Ira Berlin points out, between “societies with slaves,” such as Roman society or African society, and “slave societies,” such as America, where color and slavery, incidentally, were coterminous. According to Berlin,

In societies with slaves, no one presumed the master-slave relationship to be the social exemplar. In slave societies, by contrast, slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations: husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, teacher and student. From the most intimate connections between men and women to the most public ones between ruler and ruled, all relationships mimicked those of slavery. . . “Nothing escaped, nothing and no one.” Whereas slaveholders were just one portion of a propertied elite in societies with slaves, they were the ruling class in slave societies; nearly everyone – free and slave aspired to enter the slaveholding class. ‘ 2

The presumption that blacks under Islam were a slave class in a slave society is a major premise of Black Orientalists and a primary means by which they are able to impose one and only one interpretation upon every racially tinged statement or action by an Arab or nonblack Muslim. But if views such as that attributed to Malik regarding blackness as an affliction are to serve as proof that Arab Muslims were all Jim Crow segregationists, what is to be made of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s statements about dark-skinned women, ‘3 or Frederick Douglass’s reference to the “ape-like appearance of some of the genuine Negroes,”1* or Alexander Crummel’s reference to West Africans as “virile barbarians,” ‘5 or, for that matter, comedian Chris Rock’s declaration, “I hate niggers!”? Clearly, Muslims south of the Sahara, who overwhelmingly adopted the Maliki school of law, went against the view attributed to Malik and upheld the requirement for a male relative to validate a marriage. Why should the prejudicial view attributed to Malik or some Malikis be put forth or accepted as the final, definitive word?

Or, take the statement of Ibn Khaldun. Is this necessarily a genetic antecedent to such scientific racialist theories as those of Jensen, Shockley, and the authors of The Bell Curve?1** And in our attempt to make such a determination, how justified are we in ignoring Ibn Khaldun’s explicit statements to the effect that “race” is an imagined social construct,1? the notion of black intellectual inferiority is flatly bogus,’8 the Old Testament story about Noah cursing his son Ham mentions nothing about blackness (only that Ham’s descendents be cursed with enslavement),1? and that it is climate, not blood, that affects such endowments as intelligence or civilization? According to Ibn Khaldun’s theory, the further removed a people were from the moderate climate of the Mediterranean, the less intelligence and civilizing potential they would have. Thus, the same savage status he imputes to Africans furthest removed to the south is imputed to white “Slavs (Saqalibah)” who are furthest removed to the north.20 Race, in other words, was simply not Ibn Khaldun’s thing. And one must ask why the history of race relations in America must serve as the only prism through which his statements can be understood.

It is true, and no amount of apologetics will change it, that the examples cited (and one could cite more)1” clearly indicate that Arab and other nonblack Muslims were afflicted with race and color prejudice. The insinuation, however, that such attitudes issued from the same place, psychologically, and translated into the same social and political reality as that erected by white Americans is grounded far more in ideology than in fact. In the year 659/1260 (some seven centuries before the Civil Rights movement) a black man appeared in Cairo claiming to be a member of the ‘Abbasid House, following the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols. The Mamluk Sultan (himself a former slave of Turkish origin) ordered the Chief Justice to make an official inquiry into this claim and, amid great fanfare, his genealogy was confirmed and, taking the name “al-Mustansir,” this black man was inaugurated amir al-mu’minini, that is, temporal successor to the Prophet Muhammad and leader of the worldwide community of Muslims.22 To date, not only America but no major Western democracy has been headed by a black man.

Not only does the record reveal numerous instances where blacks were held in high esteem or occupied powerful positions in Muslim society, but there are even expressions that connote black superiority over whiteness. In fact, early in their history the Arabs – or more properly the Arabians actually identified themselves as black, against the generally lighter-skinned Persians, Greeks, and others, whom they generally referred to as “red.”23 But even later, when this is no longer the case, we encounter expressions such as the following by the sixth-seventh/twelfth-thirteenth-century Arab poet, al-Baha’ Zuhayr:

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.24

Similar is the declaration of the third/ninth-century poet, Abu al-Hasan al-Rumi, this time speaking of black women:

Clearly, if the real, as opposed to imagined or ideologi- cally driven, significance of race and color prejudice in Arab /Muslim society is to be apprehended, facts such as these must be duly considered and objectively assessed. Black Orientalism, however, proceeds on a deliberate and con- sciously sustained ignorance and or suppression of such facts. This is in order to be able to impute to race prejudice in the Muslim world the same significance it has in Amer- ica. On this logic, however, cultural narcisism on the one hand, and deliberate, race-based monopoly and abuse of power on the other, become so indistinguishable that a cul- tural idiosyncrasy such as Rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot’s con- tempt for the gaunt figures and flat buttocks idealized by Cosmopolitan magazine20 takes on the same significance as Jesse Helms’s and the Republican party’s opposition to Affirmative Action.

Like any society, Muslim society (modern and premodern) included its share of good and evil. And like every people, Muslims (especially immigrants) like to think of their heritage as being essentially good and only accidentally evil. This may even deliver them into some rather facile and embarrassing apologies. But if the Muslim predilection for explaining away every unlovely fact finds little justification, Black Orientalism’s attempt to turn every indiscretion into proof that Muslims were the precursors or imitators of “Whites Only” racism must be condemned as being equally biased and unjustified.

But beyond this seemingly intentional myopia, Black Orientalism engages in an even greater indiscretion that itself borders on cultural/political heresy. From David Walker to Nat Turner, from Henry McNeil Turner to Malcolm X and even Martin Luther King Jr., the perennial nemesis of Blackamericans was identified as white supremacy and its debilitating false universal.27 Against this trend, Black Orientalism imagines Islam to be an equal if not a greater threat. One is tempted here to suggest that a significant contributor to the development of Black Orientalism is a tacitly accepted post-Civil Rights-era modus vivendi. As the Indian intellectual Ashis Nandy writes of Indian anti-Muslim bias, “the anti-Muslim stance of much of Hindu nationalism can be construed as partly a displaced hostility against the colonial power which could not be expressed directly because of the new legitimacy created within Hinduism for this [colonial] power.”28 Similarly, it may be that part of the price of sustaining the gains of the Civil Rights era is accepting the obligation to devise a critical discourse by which the black predicament can be addressed without expressing too much ingratitude or giving too great an offense to the powers that define the parameters of acceptable critique. In the end, however, it may be that such an approach, as the Sudanese say, “looks at the elephant but only curses its shadow.”

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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