The Choice of Islam: Edward Wilmot Blyden and the
Rejection of Christianity in Black-Nationalist Discourse
The Meaning of Africa
Africa, you were once just a name to me
. . . So I came back
sailing down the Guinea coast
....You are not a country Africa,
You are a concept
. . . I know now that is what you are Africa
Happiness, contentment and fulfillment.
— Abioseh Nicol
The struggle for African-Americans to attain self-conscious personhood since their histories of slavery has often led to major conflicts in the larger American society. In the nineteenth century, the Back-to-Africa movement idealized Africa as the place where populations of the African Diaspora could escape the clutches of racism, and realize a true independence. Edward Wilmot Blyden was one of the pioneers to leave America in the hopes of developing a new home in West Africa.
The body of biographical work written about the nineteenth century Presbyterian has focused on his contributions to the Black Nationalist movement.1 Scholars have described his work as “one significant source of present day black pride”.2 Blyden has further been acknowledged as pioneering the concept of the “African personality”, which attempts “to express the unique features and distinctive psychology of the African” in an uplifting manner.3 However, a much smaller amount of scholarship has been dedicated to his complex engagement with religion within his work.
Blyden became the first English-speaking black author to praise Islam over Christianity, for the way in which it incorporated Black identity.4 However, Blyden’s true intention in making such a statement remains unclear. Was he supporting Islam as the best religion for Blacks, or was he simply challenging Christians in the West to rethink their racial attitudes? Alternatively, was his main goal simply to frighten Westerners into raising funds for the development of African nations?
Drawing on readings out of Blyden’s seminal work, Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (CINR), this paper will argue that fragments of Blyden’s work became essential to twentieth century Black Nationalist movements within the United States. Even though repatriation remained as unpopular concept during this period, Africa and some of its most dynamic people, such as Blyden, became vital cultural reservoirs. Black Nationalists employed, and at times exaggerated, the notion of Islam as an empowering religion for Blacks as a means of escaping white oppression.
Part two of this paper will present a short biography of Blyden, listing some of his precise arguments as to why Islam presented a better religious alternative for individuals of African descent, including his motives for being a spokesperson for African causes. Part three will explain why his praise for Islam was unique and polarizing. After unearthing why Blyden’s intentions remain ambiguous, we will lastly look at applications of his theory in contemporary African-American Muslim thought.
II. A Short Biography
Born on August 3, 1832 to free and literate parents on the small Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Blyden exemplified a level of maturity and intellectual giftedness at an early age, and was encouraged to become a clergyman by a young white American missionary. However, he dealt with racial discrimination early on in his life. “In 1850 Blyden failed to gain admission to three different theological colleges in the United States because of his race. He rightly concluded that the United States in the 1850's was no place for a black man”.5
After several friends urged him to immigrate to Africa, Blyden moved to the newly founded Liberian Republic as an agent for the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was a movement to repatriate people of African descent back to Africa to develop their own nation-state. Black-nationalists, as well as slaveholders and white Northerners who feared the growing population of manumitted African-Americans in the States, supported this movement.6
In Monrovia, Blyden continued his high school education in theology, after which he independently mastered Arabic, Greek, Latin and studied Roman classics and historians.7 With his recruitment efforts in the U.S. becoming exceedingly difficult,8 Blyden focused his struggle toward the realization of a flourishing Liberian and Sierra Leonean state, where he would eventually figure in a prominent position in government and education. Throughout this time, the black missionary maintained the role of a mediator in Africa and the West. He turned out a steady flow of original writings against racial chauvinism, which inspired a whole generation of younger Black-nationalists, Marcus Garvey among them.9
Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race, first published in the United States in 1887, was Blyden’s first book. It was a huge success with the first edition of five hundred copies selling out immediately. Thus, a second edition would follow. Critics were enthralled with the black intellectual who had not even received a Western education past high school. According to Lynch, some readers enjoyed learning about the possibilities of the Christian missions. Others could not understand why a Christian man would be attracted to Islam. Again, other readers were simply outraged by his critique of Christianity.10 Blyden remained an intriguing and prominent character until the time of his death in 1912.
III. Africa & Islam - A Nineteenth Century Western Perspective
Blyden spent the majority of his lifespan fighting for the recognition of the rich history, and unexplored potential of West Africa, as well as Egypt and Ethiopia. Based on the articles in his book he foresaw a magnificent future for these areas, but only under the control of Africans and people of African-descent. Before this could occur, however, Americans and Europeans would have to eliminate their racial and cultural prejudices, and refrain from exploiting the continent economically and intellectually.11
The consensus in the West was that Africa was a place of backwardness, and that Africans had neither a sense of rationality, nor the tools to govern their own lives. The nineteenth century academic discourse on Africa only helped to further shape the continent as Europe’s infinite Other. Between 1830 and 1831, affluent German historian Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was the first person to give a series of lectures on the subject of world history in its entirety. In his speech, Hegel insisted that Africa was,
"No historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it, that is in its northern part, belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Nahoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World's History”.12
Africa, in Hegel's mind, was neither a part of the world historically, nor would it be a prominent part of his discourse. In addition, he separated North Africa from the rest of the continent, in spirit, as its contributions to civilization were widely known. The rest of Africa was in a state of underdevelopment in every sense of the word.13
In speaking about African religion or spirituality, Hegel continued to employ a theme of underdevelopment.
“The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas, the category of Universality. In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence, as for example, God, or Law, in which the interest of man's volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. This distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting. The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality, all that we call feeling, if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and [Islam] appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture”.14
Not only was Hegel's Africa apart from history, Africans were apart from humanity. Hegel’s assumptions that Africans were not governed by any kind of social consciousness, that they had no God, or law, would be a popular myth for decades to come; particularly, because it legitimized the growing presence of missionaries on the continent, and because it approved of the enslavement of Africans who, according to him, were so primitive that they would likely not think much of it. Hegel mentions Islam, not in a complimentary fashion, but as a last redeeming factor of a people without any notion of a Higher Being.
Long before Hegel’s lecture, the image of Islam and the so-called Orient was replete with falsities and prejudice. This religion was considered to be of inferior quality; its followers in need of being saved by Christianity. Taymanova, an expert on Eastern literature described the transforming perception of the Orient, a location description encompassing all areas between North Africa and Asia, the presumed home of the Muslim. She says,
“The Allusion to the Orient began to appear in European literature in the Middle Ages in relation to the Crusades, when the Orient and its Muslim inhabitants, who wherein possession of the Holy Sepulchre, were perceived as infidels and pagans who deserved to be exterminated. This hostile disdainful attitude towards the Orient, and sublime confidence in the fundamental moral superiority of the West, prevailed until the nineteenth century. Hence the abundance of the comical Turks, Chinese, Persians, e.g. in Moliere's plays, the appearance of the term turquerie in French (barbarity), or the expression 'po-kitaiski' [a Chinese way] in Russian, in the meaning 'absurdly'".15
According to Taymanova, the beginning of the nineteenth marked a new vision of the Orient. The image of a “deep and mysterious culture replaced that of a wild, barbaric and often hostile Orient, which has earlier dominated European consciousness”.16 Famous Arabic scholar E.W. Lane, for example, who spent several decades of his life in Egypt, wrote a detailed manuscript about the region.17 Included in his writing were observations of what he portrayed as a most irrational belief: Islam.
“The Arabs are a very superstitious people; and none of them are more so than those of Egypt. Many of their superstitions form a part of their religion, being sanctioned by the [Qur'an]; and the most prominent of these is the belief in ‘Ginn,’ or Genii, in the singular, ‘Ginnee’. ”18
Clearly, exoticism was not without its perversities. Exaggerating the faiths of others to make them into believable, yet laughable, characters, was simply another way of affirming the Western or Christian way of life. In Orientalism Said implied that these new romanticized writings were even more dangerous because of their seeming neutrality.19 Even though Blyden’s writing of African Islam is often classified as romantic, his sincerity should not be automatically undermined. Although it was astonishing to many Westerners that a person of Christian faith could show such idolization for Islam, Blyden was persuaded by his first-hand experience of Islamic practices in Sierra Leone and while traveling to North Africa and the Middle East. After witnessing the fruits of Islam, he found plenty of grievances with the activities of missionaries in Africa. Blyden used his observations of African Islam to critically evaluate Christian practices. The following paragraph will list some of Blyden’s most intimate quarrels.
IV. Islam in the Mirror of Christianity
Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race incorporated several of Blyden’s miscellaneous articles comparing Islam to Christianity. One article, “Islam and Race Distinction”, for example, argued that even though Christianity, Judaism and Islam had all originated with the Semitic people, Islam was diffused through various peoples in the world, while Europeans had become the sole proprietors of Christianity.
“There is, we doubt not, one and only on Prophet for all times and for all nations – the immaculate Son of God; and the teachings which He inculculate contain the only principles that will regenerate humanity of all races, climes, and countries. But the Gospel, though it has been promulgated for eighteen hundred years, has, as yet, taken extensive root only among one race – the Indo-European”.20
He went on to posit that Europeans were using the religion to legitimize an oppressive social agenda.
“The religion of Jesus, after eighteen hundred years, nowhere furnishes such practical evidence of cosmopolitan adoption and power. ‘Christianity is not to blame for this’, to use the suggestive words of Mr. Bosworth Smith, but Christian nations are”.21
Christianity as a religion was not directly to blame. Instead, Christians had abused the religion, and made it into a source for the accumulation of wealth and power. In contrast, Blyden believed that Islam eliminated a secular discourse from its teachings;22 thus allowing the inclusion of all diverse populations.
Blyden also addressed the issue of African representation in the Christian faith. Christianity, in practice, was full of negative interpretations of Africans. These images often helped to justify their enslavement. Additionally, White Anglo-Saxon faces occupied all positive picture representations of holy figures, alienating the Black individuals who were supposed to worship them. Pictures were incidentally not a part of Islamic faith, it was in fact strictly forbidden to recreate any likeliness of Allah. The advantage for Blacks was that they could focus on what they were learning, and not whom they were learning it from.23
Still, not everything was left to the imagination. Blyden points to several positive figures of African-descent in the Qur’an. There was Bilal Ibn Rabah who became “Islam’s first mu’adhdhin, who recited the call to prayer”, because of his melodious voice. Luqman the Wise received wisdom directly from Allah. This advice was passed on to all of his sons, and extended to all Muslims. “Islam thus gives tribute to a black man as the pattern of wisdom for all believers to emulate, which Blyden compared to the intellectual incapacity and mental inferiority ascribed to blacks by the [Church] of his time”.24
Islam was associated with wealth and industriousness. On both the west and east coast of the continent its first converts were African traders. In West Africa, the African Berber traders dealt with Muslim traders traveling across the Sahara. Middle Eastern and Asian traders active in the Indian Ocean trade were responsible for converting Africans on the east coast.25 The bonds that the religion created increased commercial traffic and led to the stability of major African empires.26 Blyden observed that, “Large towns and cities have grown up under [Islamic] energy and industry. Dr. Barth was surprised to find such towns or cities as Kano and Sokoto in the centre of Africa – to discover the focus of a complex and widely-ramified commerce, and a busy hive of manufacturing industry, in a region which most people had believed to be a desert”.27 All of Africa’s largest kingdoms were dependent on either the Indian Ocean or trans-Saharan trade routes in order to keep their citizens supplied with diverse goods.
Religious practices also led to increased levels of literacy and improved social and economic organization. Blyden commented that, “[Muslims] have given the initiative of intellectual progress to the tribes of the interior. It is through them that the natives have acquired all they have of knowledge of the outside world, or of the past history, sacred or profane”.28 Christianity, in contrast, did not offer Africans much other than accusations of inferiority. There were initially simply no immediate benefits for the average African to convert to Christianity. Blyden wrote that, “West Africa has been in contact with Christianity for three hundred years, and not a single tribe, [collectively], has yet become Christian. Nor has any influential chief adopted the religion brought by European missionaries.29 European missionaries only much later, around the end of the nineteenth century, linked themselves to the commercial world, and thus became more appealing to potential converts.
Africans were always calculating and clever in their decision to convert. The choice of Islam, for example, had spread dramatically during the years of the slave trade. According, to Blyden “the introduction of Islam into Central and West Africa has been the most important, if not the sole, preservative against the desolation of the slaves-trade. [Islam] furnished a protection to the [social groups] who embraced it by effectually binding them together in one strong fraternity”.30 Africans converted, or were forcibly converted by other African Muslims, in order to secure peace from slave raiders.31 They did not simply convert for the sake of obtaining a higher spiritual experience, as was the occasional assumption of some missionaries, worldly factors were a critical part of the decision-making process.32
Another point that lay at the heart of Blyden’s engagement with the Christian Church was the hope that like-minded Black Christians would gradually assume the “civilizing mission”.
Africans enforced the spread of Islam. They had been successful in spreading the benefits of the Muslim faith to other Africans in an environment of freedom, in order to make strong and independent individuals out of them. This mentality stood in dire contrast to the imposition of Christian Africans.
“Wherever the Negro is found in the Christian lands, his leading trait is not docility, as had often been alleged, but servility. He is slow and unprogressive. Individuals here and there may be found of extraordinary intelligence, enterprise and energy, but there is no Christian community of Negroes anywhere, which is self-reliant and independent . . On the other hand there are many [Muslim] communities and states in Africa which are self-reliant, productive, independent, and dominant, supporting, without the countenance or patronage of the parent country, Arabia, whence they derived their political, literary and ecclesiastical institutions”.33
The fact that Christianity weakened the identity of the African Christian was mainly a problem of who was doing the converting.
In his 1886 Inaugural Address as President of Liberia College, Blyden called for black Christians to convert Africans. He disfavored the white missionaries who came to Africa with a superior attitude and insisted that Europeans had to teach Africans the way of the Gospel.34 Blyden argued against Reverend Henry Venn, then secretary of the Church Missionary Society, who in 1867 stated that,
“My experience in my diocese has taught me to be mistrustful of intellectual gifts in the [colored] race, for they do not seem generally to connote sterling work and fitness for the Christian ministry . . . I do not think the time has come, or is even near, when the rank of the clergy will be largely recruited in the West Indies by the Negro race”.35
Black Christians would never be accepted into the Church as equals, and at the same Black clergymen, like Blyden, disallowed from engaging in missionary activities.
However, there were even concerns about the presence of black Christians from the United States, as they were likely to bring their own racial biases with them. The tension between light-skinned African-American immigrants and the dark-skinned natives had led to much bloodshed in the early nineteenth century. Americo-Liberians, as the manumitted slaves called themselves, took to oppressing indigenous Africans by excluding them from politics, educational opportunities, as well as the elite life-style.36 In CINR, Blyden equates Western influences in political, educational, and social life to pumping African with “overdosages of morphine”.37
“And it is for this reason, while we are anxious for immigration from America and desirous that the immigrants shall push as fast as possible into the interior, that we look with anxiety and concern at the difficulties and troubles which must arise from their misconceptions of the work to be done in this country. I apprehend that in their progress towards the interior there will be friction, irritations and conflicts; and our brethren, in certain portions of the United States, are, at this moment, witnessing a state of things among their superiors which they will naturally want to reproduce in this country, and which if reproduced here, will utterly extinguish the flickering light of the Lone Star, and close forever this open door of Christian civilization into Africa”.38
Blyden feared that Black Americans would attempt to establish an exclusive social hierarchy, like the Whites in the United States. If that were to occur, he predicted that the African-American presence would be detrimental toward the progression of African nations.
V. Ambiguity and Invention
The ambiguity and changing character of Blyden’s arguments leave open a lot of leeway for people to interpret his ulterior motives. We can only very cautiously categorize his writings as pro-Islamic, because he was at times terse and disparaging of the religion.
Blyden often disparaged Islam by categorizing it as secondary religion in comparison to Christianity.
An instance of this attitude appears in an article published in the Methodist Quarterly Review of 1871. Therein, Blyden insisted that,
“We are persuaded that, with the book knowledge they already possess, and their love of letters, many [Africans] would become ready converts of a religion which brings with it the recommendations of a higher culture and a nobler society. And, once brought within the pale of Christianity, these [Muslims] would be a most effective agency for the propaganda of the Gospel in remote regions, hitererto impervious to European zeal and enterprise, and the work of African regeneration would proceed with uninterrupted course and unexampled rapidity”.39
Blyden seems to imply that since Islam had laid the groundwork for religion, i.e. literacy, monotheism, etc., Christianity could effectively complete the job of spirituality. Islam was not a completely justifiable choice for Blyden. For example, he mentions the notion that Islam was a superstitious religion. According to him “it [had] introduced superstitions, [but] it has expelled superstitions far more mischievous and degrading”.40 Despite his assumption that Islam was not as superstitious as perhaps indigenous African beliefs, he still maintained its shortcomings.
Overall, however, we need to take into consideration that Blyden produced his publications for a predominantly Western Christian audience. Several of his articles appeared in conservative or Christian-religious publications.41 He generally refrained from making derogatory statements about Islam when addressing an African audience. In fact, when in Sierra Leone, Blyden was intimately engaged in working together with Muslims.42
Many scholars have commented on Blyden’s vacillating stance on religion. Curtis, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies, illustrates Blyden as a partial opportunist who used the threat of Islam for fundraising purposes.
“When Blyden was seeking support from European or American Christian missionaries, for example, he might present Islam as a menacing adversary to Christianity, trying to spur his missionary audience to fund his education projects or other concerns of the young Liberian state, which he hailed as a Christian outpost in the infidel wilderness. When in Sierra Leone, however, he might actually call for better cooperation between Muslims 'natives' and Christian immigrants . . . The point is that Blyden constantly shifted his rhetorical strategies in his life-long mission to build black nation-states in West Africa, which was the only truly consistent theme in his intellectual life".43
Blyden’s writings were constantly evolving through time and space, making it extremely difficult to claim that he stood for one particular message. Even though he never addressed these fluctuations, it is highly doubtful that that he was unaware of his personal motives.
It was his critique of Christianity, however, that leaders within the Black-nationalist movement would focus on for decades to come. The spirit of pan-Islam was influential to a few African-American movements that equated the rejection of Christianity to the rejection mainstream U.S. culture.
V. African-Americans and the Question of Christianity
The twentieth century revival of African-American Islam conceived of Christianity as an alien religion. According to Muslim leaders like Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Muhammad, Christianity was a religion of the White man; a religion that was rooted in slavery and colonialism, as opposed to Islam, which had notable roots in Africa.44
In the late 1920s, Noble Drew Ali founded the Moorish Science Temple as an alternative to existing black religious groups who were perceived as being too content with the status quo of inequality. The movement, created by southern migrant workers in Chicago, sought to unite non-whites around a common origin.45 Critics described it as a mixture of “Black Nationalism and Christian revivalism with an awkward, confused mixture of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad”.46 In an argument that reminds one of Blyden, the Moors emphasized Islam as the true religion of blacks. Ali called for African-Americans to recognize their "ancient and divine creed," Islam. He defined this Islam, which, according to the Temple, had been a discovery of their ancient ancestors, as "Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom and Justice” – a phrase that was a central part of Moorish American life. This phrase summed up all that African-Americans felt they were being denied by the whites in the United States, often by those who were self-proclaimed ‘good’ Christians”.47 Ali announced that, “Therefore we are returning the Church and Christianity back to the European nations, as it was prepared by their forefathers for their earthly salvation," to argue Christianity had failed to elevate African Americans politically and socially because God had designed it for the salvation of whites only”.48 The contrast between an authentic African religion versus an artificial European one would continue to be a trend among Muslim religious movements within the African-American community.
At a time when the Moorish Temple Church began to lack in prominence, a new movement was on the horizon. The Nation of Islam was far more outspoken about its intentions to uplifts African-Americans. The Nation’s most well known leader was the charismatic Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad arrived in Chicago during the time of the Great Migration. In the mid-1930s, after experiencing little success in the urban industry, he made a faithful encounter with W.D. Fard, a wandering prophet, who taught him that Islam was an ancient African religion.49 Fard claimed to be the reincarnation of the late Noble Drew Ali.50 In order to be saved from the grasp of white society, African-Americans would need to return to their origin, follow Islam, and learn Arabic.51 Muhammad declared, “There is no hope for [black people] in Christianity; it is a religion organized by the enemies (the white race) of the black Nation to enslave us to the white race’s rule. But our unity under the crescent with our Allah’s guidance can get us anything we deserve and some of this earth we can call our own”. Even though Muhammad did not encourage his followers to engage in an exodus back to Africa, as was Blyden's wish, an inner-exile was necessary in order for blacks to counter the oppressive forces of American society.
A most notable, though only temporary, follower of the Nation was Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, X became a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. “As a result of Muhammad's successful black nationalist economic programs and Malcolm's militant speeches and television appearances, the Nation of Islam achieved national prominence as the richest black organization in American history”.52 After, his Hajj to Mecca, however, Malcolm denounced some of the racial policies of the NOI. Instead, he placed the struggle of the civil rights movement within a pan-Islamic, pan-African, as well as a Third World independence context. Malcolm X’s prominence and courageousness would make him a popular character among African-Americans in the inner-city, and would further encourage conversion to Islam.
The Hip Hop community of the 1980s and 1990s was especially enthralled with the speeches and character of Malcolm X. Hip Hop became an expression of a general dissatisfaction with U.S. policy. “Rap presents serious social, political, and spiritual critiques of systematic racism and classism, just as was done four decades ago by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X”.53
“They see as the faith of a guilty and indifferent establishment. Christian America has failed them, and stripped them of their "ethnic honor." Estranged from the US, and in the case of Latinos, from their parents' homelands, many minority youth search for a sense of community and identity, in a quest that has increasingly led them to the other side of the Atlantic, to the Islamic world. Sunni Islam, the heterodox Nation of Islam and quasi-Muslim movements such as the Five Percenters and Nuwaubians allow for a cultural and spiritual escape from the American social order that often entails a wholesale rejection of Western culture and civilization”.54
Since Christianity was not responsive to the concerns of the urban youth, such as unemployment, single-mother homes, and violence, specialized American Muslim movements in contrast, such as the Five Percenters, attacked these issues full frontal. Inner-city Muslim leaders tended to be especially concerned about issues like racism, and “Western immorality”.55 In the words of Aidi, who wrote about the attraction of Islam to disadvantaged youths, “Pan-Africanism and pan-Islam were fused together by African-Americans and Muslim intellectuals over a century ago to fight colonialism, racism, and Western domination. Today that resistance strategy had been adopted by tens of thousands of urban youth (judging by NOI rallies in the U.S. and Europe) in the heart of the West”.56 The essence of this discourse rings true to a fragment of Blyden’s advocacy.
Some mention must be given to the fact that the black missionary contribution is not merely alive within the disadvantaged urban youth population. More recently, Sherman Jackson, one of the leading U.S. scholars on the subject of Islam in America, dedicated an entire chapter to Blyden in his book Islam & The Blackamerican. In his writing, Jackson argued that Blacks could never truly appropriate Christianity because it was still a preserve of white Americans. “[Black Americans] simply could not assume the status of ultimate authorities on, as opposed to mere consumer of Christian priorities and thought”.57 Sherman targets the Black Christian Church using the logic, and at times, the words of Blyden, to propose a better religious path for African-Americans.
The equation of Christianity to the general European and American mainstream, as was hypothesized by Blyden, has been a trend among these subcultures of African-American religion. As a result of this, true escapism could only be reached in the total rejection of the Christian Church. African-American Muslim groups have used this concept to distance themselves from what they regard as an oppressive state.
Edward Wilmot Blyden was an extremely remarkable figure for his time. Like many other Black nationalists, he moved to Africa in order to shape a newly independent identity for himself and other members of the African Diaspora. He used his education and reputation to advocate self-rule for Africans and inspire Blacks all over the globe. Yes, he believed that Africans needed religion, however, that religion had to be without any issuance of white superiority and cultural dominance. Blyden turned eyes toward the richness of African culture by focusing on Islam, a monotheistic religion directly related to Christianity, but which had helped to strengthen the continent, and unify its people.
Blyden’s intentions in praising Islam, which many Europeans deemed inferior to Christianity, were not completely clear, however, there are several speculations. He may have wanted to put a spotlight on the activities of European missionaries in Africa and challenge them to rethink their methods. He could even have viewed both religions as equals, through their Semitic connection to Abraham. Many African-American Muslims, however, are convinced by the idea that Blyden discovered an authentic Black religion in Islam.
This notion of Islam as a more practical religion for Blacks carried over into Black Nationalist movements of the twentieth century. Since members of various African-American as well as Muslim groups continue to perceive Christianity as going hand in hand with the status quo of a racist and immoral Western society, choosing to convert to Islam has paralleled the movement of self-identity, creating a space of inner-exile from white supremacy, as well as establishing a direct connection to Africa.
1. Lynch, Hollis R. Edward Wilmot Blyden: Pan-Negro Patriot 1832-1912. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
2. Henriksen, Thomas H. “African Intellectual Influences on Black Americans: The Role of Edward W. Blyden”. Phylon (1960-), Vol. 36, No. 3. (3rd Qtr., 1975), 279.
3. Frenkel, M. Yu. “Edward Blyden and the Concept of African Personality”. African Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 292. (Jul., 1974), 283. Blyden, like most of his contemporary scholars, believed in the popular notion that each race had its own qualities, an idea usually invoked to the disparagement of Africans. He, however, turned it into a way of celebrating the virtues of “the African personality”.
4. Curtis, Edward E. "Islam in Black America Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought." Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002, 21.
5. Henriksen, Thomas H. “African Intellectual Influences on Black Americans”. 280.
6. Zuberi, Tukufu. "Swing low, Sweet Chariot: The Mortality Cost of Colonizing Liberia in the Nineteenth Century." Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1995. 46-48, 61. Zuberi, also known as Antonio McDaniel, traces the efforts of the ACS is creating and developing the Republic of Liberia. McDaniel compares the mortality rates of Liberian emigrants, due to disease, to those of other migrants to tropical areas. He finds that, contrary to popular belief, black immigrants during this period died at unprecedented rates because of the great variance between the environment in the US South and the West Coast of Africa. He concludes that black immigrants were no more immune to diseases than any other previous migrant populations.
7. In the name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Durham, N.C. : Duke University Press, 1996, 19.
8. African Americans generally were not interested in repatriating to Africa. The fear of mortality and “backwardness” was too great. Many of those who did agree were usually persuaded by financial gifts from the ACS.
9. Lynch, Hollis R. Edward Wilmot Blyden, 60.
10. Ibid, 75-76.
11. Blyden, Edward W. Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Edinburgh University Press, 1967. 8.
12. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. New York, Collier, 1901. 99.
13. Ibid., 91. According to Hegel, “Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained-for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World-shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself-the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. Its isolated character originates, not merely in its tropical nature, but essentially in its geographical condition”.
14. Ibid., 93.
15. Taymanova, Marianna. "Alexandre Dumas in Egpyt: Mystification of Truth?" Travellers in Egypt. Paul Starkey and Janet Starkey (Eds.), London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001 (original edition published 1998), 181.
16. Ibid., 181-182.
17. Lane, Edward William. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians Written in Egypt During the Years 1833-1835. Egypt: E.P. Dutton. 1908.
18. Ibid., 228.
19. Edward W. Said. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, , c1994.
20. Blyden, Edward W., Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, 32.
21. Ibid., 246.
22. Ibid., 244.
23. Ibid., 328-329.
24. Gardell, Mattias. In the name of Elijah, 36.
25. Hanson, John H. “Islam and African Societies”. In Africa. Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara (eds). 1995. 102-104.
26. Ibid., 102.
27. Blyden, Edward W., Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, 186.
28. Ibid., 229.
29. Ibid., 21.
30. Ibid., 186.
31. Hanson, John H. “Islam and African Societies”. 102-104.
32. Keim, Curtis.”Africa and Europe before 1900." In Africa. Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara (eds). 1995. 125. Livingstone, the most famous of all nineteenth-century missionaries wrote several books and letters exciting Europeans with the idea of spreading “Christianity & Commerce” in Africa.
33. Blyden, Edward W., Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, 10.
34. Ibid., 74.
36. Moses, Wilson J. (ed). Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.
37. Blyden, Edward W., Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, 79.
39. Ibid., 187.
40. Ibid., 174.
41. Two of the articles in CINR were originally printed in Fraser's Magazine, For Town and Country, which was a general and literary British journal that took a strong Tory (conservative) line in politics. Blyden also sent articles to Christian-oriented journals like the Methodist Quarterly Review.
42. Lynch, Hollis R. Edward Wilmot Blyden, 214.
43. Curtis, Edward E. Islam in Black America, 21.
44. Gardell, Mattias. In the name of Elijah Muhammad, 36.
45. Nance, Susan. “Mystery of the Moorish Science Temple: Southern Blacks and American Alternative Spirituality in 1920s Chicago”. Religion and American Culture, Vol. 12, No.
2. (Summer, 2002), 135.
46. Ibid., 123.
47. Ibid., 137.
49. Gardell, Mattias. In the name of Elijah Muhammad, 50.
50. Ibid., 51.
52. Turner, Richard B., “The influence of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on Hip Hop”. USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), July, 2004.
53. Turner, Richard B., “The influence of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on Hip Hop”.
54. Aidi, Hisham. “Arabs, Muslims, Race in America”. 36-43, 39.
55. Ibid., 39.
56. Ibid., 43.
57. Jackson, Sherman. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection. New York: Oxford University Press. 41. Blyden attempts to shape the particular position of African-Americans within the tradition of historical Islam.
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