Friday, November 4, 2011

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kemet's Prison: A Note on the Problem of Giving Blind Deference to Our Master Teachers

"The student's obligation was to build upon the previous generation's work, to find what is missing, omitted (intentionally or not), neglected, and flat-out incorrect, so we can make the necessary changes for the following generation..." Dr John Henrik Clarke

Taqlīd is an Arabic-Islamic legal term signifying “blind deference” or the act of following the decisions of a religious authority without question and without examining that authority’s proofs or reasoning; blind obedience or face value acceptance due to the perceived ‘authority’ of a religious figure. Taqlīd is the opposite of ijtihād, independent reasoning and personal intellectual striving. The majority of the (Sunni) Muslim world today advocates taqlīd: Muslims are expected to simply defer to the decisions and opinions of such authorities as Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855), Malik b. Anas (d. 795), al-Shafi’i (d. 820) and Abu Hanifa (d. 767), the eponyms of the four orthodox schools of Islamic law.

The practice of taqlīd has ill-served the Muslim world in the long run, resulting in an intellectually and culturally stagnant ummah. The prevalence of the spirit of taqlīd is in fact a prison in which has been arrested and confined the intellectual creativity and cultural maturity of most of the Muslim world. I myself cannot be a muqallid (i.e. one who practices taqlīd), neither to the Classical Islamic authorities nor to the current Islamic authorities. Nor can I make taqlīd to the great Master Teachers of African History. Dr Chancellor Williams; Dr Yosef Ben Yochannan; Dr Ivan Van Sertima; Dr John Henrick Clarke; Dr Cheikh Anta Diop. These, and many more, are our luminaries. Their work is foundational, but NOT final. They have all made contributions that have greatly advanced the Black community intellectually and spiritually. These revolutionary scholars have helped us tremendously along the path of freedom from the psychological and spiritual chains of white supremacy and black inferiority. These luminaries have also, however, made scholarly contributions that must be reexamined and updated today.  These great Black Minds have earned and deserve honor, respect, and an honest hearing of everything they have said. They are not due taqlīd, however. There are errors and omissions in each of their work, as there are in the works of all us human intellectuals. It is the duty of every new generation of scholars to build on, correct, and move beyond the previous generation of scholars, all the while paying the proper respect to our predecessors.

The above words state a general principle, but I feel the need to demonstrate the soundness of this principle in this Note by showing a concrete example.

The great Dr. John Henrik Clarke is no doubt one of our paramount Master Teachers. He is one of the greatest warrior scholars that we have produced, and his influence on Black Thought, particularly with regard to Self, is almost unparalleled today. Many in the Afocentrist and African-Centered movement have such an emotional attachment to this luminary, however, that they believe that his scholarly output was infallible, and to simply quote Dr. Clarke on any subject is believed to be a sufficient guarantee of truth and accuracy. This is perfectly understandable, even if misguided. We in the Nation of Islam likewise have such a confidence and emotional attachment to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (hereafter THEM), and it is generally believed (errantly) that he could speak no errors. But THEM himself admitted having to correct in his later years statements he had made earlier, and his teacher, Master Fard Muhammad, declared THEM’s early theo-historical recitations only “almost nearly correctly.”Regardless, in as much as THEM affirmed an ultimate truth value to his Teachings, the academic and scientific community has the right and duty – and was indeed invited – to subject all of his claims to critical objective scrutiny. No Black Muslim should presume that THEM’s Teachings are beyond being critically analyzed. The truth claims of Dr Clarke and our other luminaries are no less eligible for dispassionate academic critical scrutiny.

In a lecture now posted on Youtube and there entitled, “Dr John Henrik Clarke on Organized Religion vs Spirituality, Part 1” which can be accessed here,          

the Master Teacher made the following statement (starting at 1:30):

“Every element that went into the making of every major religion in the world started in Africa. Why is it that you (Black people) are so naïve that you let people redress something that you invented, sale it back to you, and then enslave you with it. I’m saying that all organized present religions are male chauvinist murder cults…There is no exception…

“We created peaceful nations that had no word for jail, because no one had ever gone to one. No word for old peoples’ home because no one had ever thrown away grandma and grandpa. No word for orphanages. We did all of this, and over half of human civilization was over before we knew that a European was in the world.”

I would like to parse this statement into three basic claims. The first, that “every element that went into the making of every major religion in the world started in Africa,” is no doubt accurate, particularly if by ‘every major religion’ we mean Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also true that the forms that these religions took when most Black people of the medieval and modern worlds encountered them were “redressed” versions, redressed by European/Caucasian peoples, rather than the original African versions of these religions.

The second claim, that these religions are “male chauvinist murder cults,” is certainly hyperbolic, and it gives no awareness or recognition of African precedents for such. I will document these precedents in an upcoming writing.

The third claim is what I would like to focus own in this Note: that Black people in the past created peaceful societies which lacked any need for jails, convalescent homes, or orphanages, and this lack of need is reflected in our ancient languages in which there are no corresponding terms. This strikes one as a quite romantic vision of ancient African society. While there are documented fundamental, philosophic and ethical differences between Western and African civilization, it is also well documented that the latter was in no way utopic prior to our encounter with whites. But more importantly, this romantic view of ancient African nations – presumably Kemet (or at least including Kemet) - is supported by a factual error.

The single greatest and most richly documented African civilization of antiquity was Kemet. Kemet was certainly great, but was Kemet utopic? Or at least, was it peaceful with no jails, old folk’s homes, or orphanages, such that no corresponding terms even existed in Medu Netjer?

The Oxford History of Prison (1998) informs us:

“The earliest records of prisons in Egypt date from the period of the Middle Kingdom (2050 BC – 1786 BC). The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom acknowledged a sacred duty to preserve public order. Every injury inflicted on (or by) an Egyptian troubled the sacred order, which the pharaohs were bound to reestablish through the judiciary, legal procedures, and punishments…Middle Kingdom pharaohs appear to have preferred public beatings and imprisonment to the death penalty…

”The prisons of Egypt…might have resembled fortresses with cells and dungeons or institutions like a workhouse or labor camp, since Egyptian prisoners appear to have be expected to work during their time of confinement…The prisons were directed by an overseer with a staff of scribes and guards. Prison records were meticulously kept, and prisons themselves seem to have housed the criminal courts…”[1]

Indeed the records of Middle and New Kingdom Egypt make it clear that Africans in the Nile Valley had the need for and utilized jails and prisons. See for example Papyrus (hereafter P.) Westcar, dating from the Hyksos period (c. 1650 BCE - 1550 BCE) but recognized as a Middle Kingdom text relating Old Kingdom tales of magic. The text may be found published in Adolf Erman, Die Märchen des Papyrus Westcar (Berlin, 1890) and an English translation is available in Adolf Erman and Aylward Manley Blackman, The Ancient Egyptians (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966) 36-47. In one passage we read of King Khufu who wishes to see a ghastly magical display: he wants a magician to replace a severed head. For this trick, a not-yet decapitated (in)volunteer is needed. The king orders: “Let there be brought to me a prisoner (nri) who is in the prison (nrt), that the injury may be inflicted on him!” (P. Westcar, 8, 14-17).    

Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, in their authoritative Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache(hereafter Wb), inform us that the ancient Egyptian terms nrt and nri derive from the verb nr, “to restrain,” “to confine.”[2] As Sir Alan Gardiner pointed out, nrt signifies a “place of restraint,” “place of confinement.”[3]

According to P. Brooklyn 35.1446 (probably dating to the reign of Amenemhet III, c. 1860 BCE – c. 1814 BCE), as well as other Middle Kingdom sources, there was a ‘Great Prison’ nrt wr located at Thebes, modern day Luxor.[4] P. Brooklyn 35.1446 indicates that this Great Prison was, among other things, where fugitive corvées or statute-laborers served their sentence when caught. The corvée system was an old and long lived institution of forced labor in the Nile Valley. Free citizens were obligated at regular intervals or when called upon by the state to labor for the state with no recompense other than the necessities. By this means Egypt’s irrigation system was maintained, crops were harvested, and public buildings were erected. This, of course, was not slavery, which was a different institution that did exist in ancient Egypt/Kemet. Nevertheless, some citizens fled their temporary service to the state. P. Brooklyn 35.1446 contains government directives on the various punishments to such fugitives or deserters. Not only are the recovered fugitives consigned for life to penal servitude in the Great Prison, but also their families are seized while the fugitive is still on the run and assigned to a labor camp. According to David Lorton, the term nrt implies “a sort of concentration camp for persons assigned to penal servitude on government lands and building projects.”[5]  William C. Hayes, who published the text of P. Brooklyn 35.1446, notes:     

“While ‘prison’ is probably as good a one-word translation of nrt as can be achieved it almost certainly does not convey a complete picture of the institution in question…it appears to have functioned also as a workhouse or labor-camp, a sort of combined barracks and administrative center for housing, disciplining, and directing the efforts of those unfortunates condemned temporarily or permanently to a life of compulsory labor on behalf of the state. Its inmates evidently included not only the convicted criminals, some awaiting execution for capital crimes, but also gangs of statute laborers such as peasants…”[6]

Besides the Great Prison in Thebes, there were also local jails in the different towns. It seems that these smaller, local prisons or jails were given the generic term th (Wb i, 148, 24), also deriving from a stem meaning “to restrain.”

Besides imprisonment, public beatings were also a form of state-sponsored punishment. P. Mook, dated probably to the reign of Thutmosis IV of Dynasty XVIII, records an unfavorable hearing of a soldier named Mery, who was sentenced to be “beaten with 100 strokes.”[7]  In the Old Kingdom, beatings for non-payment of taxes were handed out on-the-spot. See e.g. the beating scene inscribed on the West Wall of the tomb of Mereruka from Dynasty V. A citizen is restrained by two Egyptian officials to a whipping pole, while a third official whips him.[8]    

New Kingdom royal decrees treating crime and punishment, such as that of Seti I of dynasty XIX inscribed on a rock at Nauri below the Third Cataract, mentions punitive mutilations such as the cutting off of the ear or nose of an offender for such offenses as trespassing on official land. This text, and others, also mentions capital punishment by impalement.

In the flag ship nation of our ancient civilizations, jails existed and the language had distinct terms for them. And as great as Kemet indeed was, “peaceful” is an apt description only if by ‘peaceful’ we mean not overly aggressive and bellicose to other nations. This too will change however in the New Kingdom and is in fact only relatively true for the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

It would thus be very inaccurate for us to go around quoting Dr Clarke’s claim that “We (Africans) created peaceful nations that had no word for jail, because no one had ever gone to one.” Our flag ship nation had need of jails, we (and others) were imprisoned within them, and the language of that nation has corresponding terms for them.

Now, the fact that such a Master Teacher as Dr John Henrik Clarke can make an historically inaccurate claim does not at all mean that he is any less of an authority on African and even world history. We all make errors. The greater our scholarly output, the more errors we are prone to make. That is, frankly, a matter of simple mathematics. What this does mean, however, is that even the great works of our Master Teachers must be scrutinized and, at times, corrected. This also means that making taqlīd to them is as ill-advised as our making taqlīd to Classical and/or modern Islamic ulema on matters of Islam.  Taqlīd to our Master Teachers is just as much a prison, not unlike the Great Prison of Kemet. Making taqlīd to our Master Teachers imprisons our generation’s scholarly achievement and advancement. This is not, I suspect, what our Master Teachers wanted for us.  

 Now, before anyone accuses me of subjecting Afrocentric scholarship, which is often hostile to Islam, to the type of analysis that I don’t welcome for Islam, please note that I have offered the same criticisms and subjected my own communities (which includes the African-Centered community) to similar critiques. See my Notes, “Ending Hustle Scholarship and Black Muslim Dogmatism: An Imperative,” and “Has the Nation of Islam Become a Personality Cult?” I am painfully aware of both the mote in my brother’s eye and the beam in my own.



[1] Edward M. Peters, “Prison Before The Prison: The Ancient and Medieval Worlds,” in Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (edd.), The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 8-9. 

[2] Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, (edd.), Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache in Auftrage der deutschen Akademien (Leipziq, 1926-1963) iii, 295-6.  

[3] See further Sir Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, 3rd edition (London, 1957), 201, 444 sign D19.

[4] For the text and translation of the papyrus see William C. Hayes, A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom In the Brooklyn Museum [Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446] (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1955).

[5] David Lorton, “Treatment of Criminals in Ancient Egypt: Through the New Kingdom,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20 (1977) 17.

[6] Hayes, Papyrus, 37-38.

[7] On which see Lorton, “Treatment,” 23.  

[8] The Sakkarah Expedition, The Mastaba of Mereruka, Part I (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1938), pls. 36-38.