The Master Teachers Speak: Dr Ben and Dr Diop on the African Origins of Islam
One of the most overlooked works of our great Master Teachers is Dr Yusef Ben Yochannan’s The African Origin of the Major ‘Western’ Religions, first published in1970 and reprinted by Black Classic Press in 1991. Much new data and information has come to light since Dr Ben wrote this great work in 1970 which either invalidates or renders suspect a number of his conclusions. For example, Dr. Ben’s suggestion that the prophet Muhammad converted the female divinity Allat into his male divinity Allah is contradicted by the linguistic and the epigraphic evidence. Nevertheless, The African Origin of the Major ‘Western’ Religions is still a classic and a trail blazer, far ahead of its time. The work I do is in many ways an attempt to continue what Dr Ben started in this important work.
In his chapter on the African origins of the religion of Islam, Dr Ben makes the following remarks:
“The fact that within the last three to four hundred years the role of the indigenous Africans in these major religions has been carefully and purposefully denied, suppressed, and in most cases, omitted, will not stop the ‘truth’ about their indigenous African origins from coming to the surface.”
“none of the Gods, prophets, or founders of any of the three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - …was indigenous to Europe (a Caucasian, or White man.)…Judaism and Islam, both, had indigenous Africans in the leadership roles from the first day of their recorded origin. In Judaism, after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it was Moses and his fellow indigenous African-Jews of Egypt and those in Kush…Islam had Mohamet – whose grandfather was of African origin, and his closest advisor and co-founder of Islam – an African from Ethiopia …named Hadzrat Bilal ibn Rahbab.”
“Africans were involved in Islam’s creation…But, the Moslem Arabs…have been for some time recently teaching a sort of religious history in which the indigenous Africans find themselves omitted from the historical role they played in Islam’s origins. They are also excluded from the highest posts of the administration of Islam in Mecca, which they had traditionally held from the beginning of Islam with the Prophet Mohamet, and Hadzart Bila Ibn Rahab…Islam was no better than Judaism and Christianity, as its modern administrators attempted to eliminate its indigenous African founders from the eyes of the faithful, and the world in general. But history, written history, once more acted in her own way, and mannerism, as it clamoured, once again, for Islam’s indigenous African originators.”
Dr. Ben frequently stresses “Islam(‘s)…Arabian Peninsula African Origins” and that “Islam(‘s)….foundation…is so intensely African…in structure.” He declares categorically that “Islam, with her God – Allah…cannot escape its indigenous African origin” because “it was the Africans, and others of African ancestry, who were most instrumental in Islam’s creation.”
My book, Black Arabia and the African Origin of Islam (2009) sought to continue this line of research opened up by Dr. Ben and to flesh it out by adding the weight of new ethnographic data as well as the evidence found in the Classical Arabic sources.
The great Dr Cheikh Anta Diop (d. 1986), historian, scientist, scholar par excellence, also had some very interesting things to say about Islam and its relation to African religious tradition. Now Diop's main source for his ethno-history of Arabia was the 1869 work by the French Assyriologist Francois Lenormant (d. 1883) entitled Manuel d'histoire ancienne de l'Orient jusqu'aux guerres médiques. While Lenormant was an accomplished historian and his book even today might still be profitably consulted, the wealth of new information, not the least of which derives from Arabic sources, means that many of Lenormant's theories are severely outdated. Thus, relying on this work as he did means that even the great Dr. Diop's ethno-historical reconstruction of Arabia, Arabs, and Semites needs significant updating and modification today. For example, Lenormant’s theories contributed to Diop’s conclusion that “Anthropologically and culturally speaking, the Semitic world was born during protohistoric times from the mixture of white-skinned and black-skinned people in Western Asia (The African Origin of Civilization, Myth or Reality , xv).” In fact, it is clear today from the linguistic, archaeological, and anthropological evidence that the Semitic world was originally a purely African world, and remained so for quite awhile. Whites did “convert” to Semitism much later, but they added nothing to the original formation and spread of the Semitic world. Nevertheless, Diop’s thoughts on Islam and Arabia are worth quoting, because they ultimately agree with the current data, at least in their broad outlines.
Dr Diop discusses Islam in the context of his Two Cradle Theory. The theory postulates that the severe climate and environment of Europe and Asia, i.e. the Northern Zone or Cradle, caused biological and cultural changes in the original human type resulting in the loss of pigmentation biologically and the development of an individualistic, xenophobic, aggressive, nomadic culture among the white northerners, in contrast to the cooperative, xenophillic, peaceful, sedentary culture among the African peoples who still inhabited the more benign climatic and environmental Southern Zone or Cradle. These distinct climatic and environmental conditions of the two zones/cradles produced two distinct types of civilizations, epitomized by Greece and Egypt.
Southern Cradle-Egyptian Model
1. Abundance of vital resources.
3. Gentle, idealistic, peaceful nature with a spirit of justice.
4. Matriarchal family.
5. Emancipation of women in domestic life.
6. Territorial state.
9. Social collectivism.
10. Material solidarity of right for individual which makes moral or material misery unknown.
11. Idea of peace, justice, goodness and optimism.
12. Literature emphasizes novel tales, fables and comedy.
Northern Cradle-Greek Model
1. Bareness of resources.
2. Nomadic-hunting (piracy)
3. Ferocious, warlike nature with spirit of survival.
4. Patriarchal family.
5. Debasement / enslavement of women.
6. City state (fort)
10. Moral solitude.
11. Disgust for existence, pessimism.
12. Literature favors tragedy.
In addition to these two polar zones, North and South, Diop acknowledged a third zone, a “zone of confluence” or meeting place of Northern and Southern zones. According to Diop Western Asia, especially Arabia, is the true zone of confluence in which the two polar cultures met, interacted, and mingled. While Diop’s theory seems a bit too reductionist, it does have heuristic value. It is in this context that Diop discusses Islam.
“Arabia was at first peopled by Southern (i.e. African/Cushite) peoples who were later submerged by those (whites/Jectanides) coming from the North and the East…The Jectanides ‘who were still, at the moment of their arrival in an almost barbaric state,’ only introduced (to Arabia)…the system of pastoral tribes characteristic of the Northern Cradle and the institution of military feudalism…The religion (of Arabia) was (on the other hand) of Cushite origin…it was to remain unchanged until the coming of Islam…The god Il (i.e. Ala) was the object of a national cult; he bore the following names: Lord of the Heavens, Merciful, etc…The only triad which was worshiped was that of Venus-Sun-Moon…prayers were offered to the sun at different moments in its course. There was neither idolatry nor images nor priesthood. Invocations were made directly to the seven planets. The thirty days fast (as in Islam) already existed – as in Egypt – and seven times a day prayers were offered with faces turned to the north. These prayers are allied to those of the Mohammedan religion. All the elements necessary to the birth of Islam were thus present more than a thousand years before the birth of Mohammed, and Islam appears as a ‘purging’ of (Babylonian) Sabaism by ‘God’s messenger.’ This superimposition of the two influences, Northern and Southern, on the Arabian peninsula, occurred in every sphere…
“It is remarkable that many Arabic religious terms can be obtained by a simple combination of the three Egyptian ontological notions, Ba, Ra, Ka. As examples we can cite:
KABAR (a) = The action of raising the arms in prayer
RAKA = The action of placing the forehead on the ground
KAABA = The holy place of Mecca
It is sufficiently obvious from what has just been said that Arabia was first inhabited by Southern peoples, sedentary and agricultural, who prepared the way for the nomads in different fields of progress. In early society, woman (sic) enjoyed all the advantages pertaining to the matriarchal régime; this is proved by the fact a woman could be a queen…The triumph of the Northern nomadic element was accompanied by the dominance of the patriarchal system, tinged with apparent anomalies, survivals of the previous régime. Thus, the dowry was given to the woman, as in the matriarchal régime. This fact can only be explained by invoking the influence of Sabaism on Islamic society (The Cultural Unity of Black Africa [1963/1989], 84, 87-89).”
According to Diop, then, Arabia was originally a Southern land and its indigenous people a Southern people, i.e. Cushites. These Cushites originated the religion of Arabia, which worshiped Il/Ala, somehow through the agency of the astral triad Venus-Sun-Moon. In this Arabian Cushitic religion that is related to the Babylonian Cushitic religion, the seven planets were honored, though there were no idols, images, or priesthood. Prayers were offered seven times daily and according to the sun’s position in the sky, similar to the Muslim prayers; and there was a 30-day fast, not unlike the Muslim Ramadan or the ancient Egyptian fast. This all suggests to Diop that the Islam of Muhammad – who was himself “mixed with Negro blood” - was continuous with the ancient Arabian Cushite religion, only ‘purified’ of some ‘Sabaen (?)’ elements. Islam will also, however, like everything else in Arabia, be negatively impacted by the invader Northern Cradle culture, e.g. the eventual dominance of the patriarchal régime. Nevertheless, that Islam is continuous with the ancient Cushite religious tradition is indicated by terminology for some of its central religious expressions (kabar, raka, kaaba); many of these terms seem to be combinations of cognate ancient Egyptian religious terms. These central religious terms, along with the Islamic deity Allah, the 30-day fast (Ramadan), the multiple prayers whose occurrence was determined by the position of the sun (salat); the Islamic rejection of idols, images and priesthood, all are “survivals” from the ancient Cushitic religion of Arabia.
These positions of two of our Master Teachers are significant and most often overlooked. However, while the positions of both scholars need some refinement and elaboration, we overlook them at grave cost to a full and proper understanding of Arabia’s and Islam’s place among Africa’s contributions to the world, and we thus deprive Africa of yet another of her ‘stolen legacies.’ Both Dr. Ben and Dr Diop seem to agree that Islam has, as Dr Ben said, “indigenous African origins.” Both agree, also, that whites took over the religion and negatively impacted it, partly by removing the original African creators from positions of authority and influence. In Dr. Diop’s terms, Islam is a ‘purified’ survival from the pre-Jectanide, Cushite religion that was however impacted by those invading and usurping Northern Jectanides (whites). Islamic society as Diop knew it in his day is ultimately an amalgam of indigenous Southern and invading Northern Cradle cultures.