History International Affairs

History of Minorities

It hit me a few weeks ago how selective my knowledge of history is. My internal Black history database consisted of scattered facts on the slave trade and the civil rights movement; nowhere could I find information on achievements or accomplishments at the hands of African Americans. Fortunately, I was able to fill in some of these gaps in Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick’s class called “The Western Sunrise.” I especially realized some of the many opportunities that I missed to connect with Black students and other minorities on campus. Here are some of my reflections from the class. A special thanks to all those who helped me refine some of my ideas.

When we think of Africa, rarely do we think anything positive. Our minds are flooded by images of vast deserts, animals and savanna. Most of us cannot come up with a single contribution to humanity from Africa. The narrative of Africa we hear in the West is one of primitiveness and ignorance.

A great lie has been painted about Africa, and it is only recently that we have begun to appreciate the true heritage of the African people. When Europe was drowning in the Dark Ages of disease and illiteracy, Africa was a center of trade, wealth and knowledge. Timbuktu was a hot, dry, desert city, but hundreds of thousands of people would come from far and wide on foot and by caravan to benefit from the city. Timbuktu had one of the first universities in the world, specializing in various disciplines such as math, astronomy and Islamic studies. It was not uncommon for books to be bought for their price in gold. By the 14th century, long before the rise of European intellectualism and science, the university already had 25,000 enrolled students.

The 15th century was a pivotal century for the world. Gutenberg perfected the printing press for consumer use and Columbus set forth on his famous voyage in 1492. Towards the end of this century, the Spanish unleashed the Inquisition on the innocent Muslim and Jewish population. According to Dr. Quick, the Spanish took on a policy in which they would destroy the buildings, books and culture of the people they conquered. It is estimated by Bettany Hughes that as many as 1 million books were burned.

Contrary to popular belief, Columbus did not actually discover the Americas. Not only were there native people living there, but there is also evidence of African sailors, Vikings, and Muslims who traded and settled in the Americas. Few structures and books were left behind for us to remember the civilizations past, and history was rewritten. Instead of recognizing the important contributions and advancements of the civilization that came before, a block of history was left out. Finally, three centuries later, Europe started its own period of enlightenment as a result of the books and knowledge they translated from the civilizations they conquered.

As a result of this unfortunate crime, many groups are struggling to piece together a lost history. This loss is something we share with many other groups around the world. There is a systematic miseducation that seeps throughout our societal, cultural and educational system. It is critical for us as Muslims, more than ever, to connect with fellow minorities, especially Black Americans. Our histories are intertwined, histories of integration and assimilation. It began in the early days of the message with the Companions who migrated to Abyssinia to seek protection under a just Christian king and continued through the ages, forming deep and plentiful roots.  Unfortunately, my limited knowledge and the length of this article do not permit that we dig deeper into this history, but from what we do know, we can draw some important principles.

As Muslims living in the United States, we are shielded by the history of other minorities. We lean on the horrid experiences of the Native Americans, Blacks, Japanese, Jewish, Vietnamese and other minorities when we point out current double standards and bigotry. We should be appreciative and humbled by their struggles; we should especially stand by their side in seeking educational and political justice for crimes of the past.

Additionally, we should take a humble pride in the fact that the Islam eradicates ethnic, racial, and gender divides as emphasized by the Prophet ﷺ (peace and blessings be upon him) in his last sermon. Islam is free of the racist tendencies of Social Darwinism and the White Man’s Burden, and came centuries before the Civil Rights and Women’s suffrage movements.  In continuation of that legacy, we should break down the barriers between different ethnic groups in the Muslim community, especially those between the indigenous and immigrant Muslim population. As one brother asked, “How many of us that come from immigrant families have made the effort to go to a Black masjid?” They are of the largest segments of the US Muslim community, but we still remain largely segregated.

As Muslims, we should look to feel, appreciate, and internalize other cultures’ political, historical, and social narratives without judgment. We should seek to work with various groups in ensuring their narratives are shared from their own perspective. As Dr. Quick mentioned in the class, history is biased by nature. In an effort to obtain objectivity, we should seek the narratives of all races, ethnicities, and classes of society; from the rich as well as the poor; the famous as well as the common; the oppressed as well as the oppressor. This will build a comprehensive historical view that will allow everyone to make better judgments.

Some suggestions (especially to those on college campuses):

  1. Make contact with fellow minority groups and seek to understand their struggles. This should be a mutual, institutional relationship where members are encouraged to interact in different gatherings, programs, and events.
  2. Become champions for minority causes, especially educational justice. Establish or reform minority studies departments and put on programming to educate the student body.
  3. Share resources and create a strong network. This should include people, money, time, advertising, tutors, mentors, and experience.
  4. Make connections and parallels between causes. Some examples include the commonalities or intersections of history such as the ostracism of the Japanese during WWII, the religious motivation of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and the joint prosperity of Islam and many parts of Africa.

As we move forward to try to solve many of the ailing parts of our American society, these relationships and bonds will be essential to creating a just society.

About the author

Omar Zarka

Omar Zarka

Omar Zarka was born in New Jersey and raised in Southern California. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California Irvine, where he was involved with the Muslim Student Union. Omar is married and received a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California Los Angeles.

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  • JazakAllahu Khairun for a brilliant post. May Allah help us to always respect all people from all walks of life and increase our appreciation of their rich cultural history. Ameen. The suggestions at the end of the article reminds me of an event that a MSA at a local university held, in which the MSA and the Black Student Union played a documentary which described the struggles of early Muslim Africans who were brought to North America. It was very touching to see mashaAllah and I feel like collaboration that is very important.

  • MashaAllah excellent article. I am definitely planning to take that class with Sh. Abdul Hakim Quick when it comes to my area.
    My local university’s MSA held a great cross-cultural event that did exactly what you had described – built solidarity and mutual understanding of each other’s struggles. The Japanese struggles during WW2 were likened to rising Islamophobia faced today.
    See here for more info on the event- I encourage all MSA’s to have a similar event on their campuses too. It brings together so many people for a good cause and is great da’wah too: http://events.berkeley.edu/mobile/sn/student/alldays/event/40343

  • Great article. But do we ever ponder upon what led to the downfall of these civilizations?

  • 2 things i want to share……1)i think the rise of European intellectualism and science happened 2500 years ago. 2) from around 14th to 17th century we got several Renaissance Man…..good post by the way

    • @Brother Ibrahim,
      salam. You must have meant, Greek peripatetic school, the idea of Europe dawned much later, during the first muslim invasion of Europe in 8th century. However the intellectualism that Greek city states produced was lost as quickly as the flutter of an athenian woman, only to be replaced with totalitarian doctrines. The early arab philosophers who were intellectually homed in greek and roman sciences could not have pulled together any treatise on mathematics or astronomy of worth had not the indian and arab mathamaticians pieced together the various geographical and logical problems. In that sense knowledge is a social construct whose meaning is subject to experience and context, not to be found by straddling the fence of capitalism and its criticism. Edward Said, believed that there is no real orient to fight for, only contesting aaccounts of the orient. European intellectualism is that transition narrative of orientalism, we still carry on.

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