Encountering the self as a Black Muslim African Woman in Cambridge

This week, I attended a talk on black Muslims entitled “Beyond Bilal” – Bilal with reference to the first Muezzin of Islam, a black man who grew up as a slave in Mecca. To say that this talk filled my heart and elevated my spirits is an understatement. Being a Black African Muslim Woman in a place like Cambridge can be challenging – always navigating around edges and pushing back at narratives from the margins. It is also a privileged space to be because when with seating at the margin comes the opportunity to grow constantly and to expand worlds, yours and others. This is where I seat.

The talk “Beyond Bilal: Black History in Islam” by Mustafa Briggs was one of the first talks in my three (3) as a student at the University of Cambridge where I saw myself represented in my fullness, a Black Muslim African Woman whose father is from Boboye and the mother with roots cast, across the Sahel, as wide as the Sokoto Caliphate – one that drew its progressive policies on women from Islamic teachings brought to that context by the teaching of Nana Asma’u. This does not diminish the power and value in (de)construction that other talks have provided. However, with identities as intertwined and as complex as the ones I embody, few “Venn Diagrams” bring to life the colourful and unique experiences, perspectives, insights, “manques”, and ideas. The “Venn Diagram” is in a never-ending quest for layers upon layers – that is, it’s very nature.

I learned so much from Mustafa Briggs’ two-hour lecture. And to me as a researcher, learning is deeply intertwined with “quest”, a genuine search for something that becomes sweeter with the search despite the sweat. Here are a few things that have rekindled my hope and belief in the power of genuine research and inquiry to humanise, to validate, to elevate, and to acknowledge.

Briggs’ work acknowledged the invaluable contributions of Black people in building Islam and the Islamic identity in a contemporary context of racism, classism, and imagined hierarchies amongst ad between Muslims, particularly towards their black brothers and sisters. Needless to cite examples here – if you need examples, talk a Black Muslim or ask google. Race sadly matters in a religion that has draws its fundaments on elevating all humanity. In his final sermon in the year 632, the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) said,

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

It is a beautiful message that we need to hear more and more because it is more relevant today than ever before. There is a history of scholarship created, beautified and solidified by Black Muslims and communities – this should be known as a given but it is not – especially when listening to some of the discourse around “Islam” or what is commonly referred to as the “Muslim World”. By serendipity, “Beyond Bilal” led me to “Beyond Timbuktu” by Professor Ousmane Oumar Kane. These “beyond”s are a call to demystify and deconstruct our default references when thinking about the contribution of Africans, particularly Black Africans, in building the identities of the religion of Islam. It is a call to recognise and see those voices that are overshadowed, overlooked, silenced, or marginalised in a discourse that has failed to validate certain voices.

It was was a walk down memory lane, an invitation into re-imagined futures, a whisper unto the crowns over the head of the Muslim black African woman, cornrows or headscarf or Afro, a call for “not settling” – one that ultimately led to the Cambridge UL to contemplate the portraits of Black Cantabs pioneers who have left their marks on the world or are redefining spaces they find themselves into or are recreating new spaces. It is a continuation but also a finality in the humbling quest for wholeness.

Thank you to the Islamic Society organising this talk.

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