On March 6th, 2023, The Muslim Students' Association and Black Student Union at the University of Michigan co-hosted speaker Ustadh Mustafa Briggs, a Black Muslim scholar, to talk about the topic of “Before Malcolm X: A History of Islam in the Americas.”
Ustadh Briggs gave an hour-and-a-half-long interactive lecture about the history of Islam in Africa and the Americas. For example, he explained how Islam spread in Western Africa and showed evidence that suggests Muslim West African people traveled to the Americas before Christopher Columbus. After he concluded the lecture, he stuck around for over an hour, talking to people and signing copies of his book, “Beyond Bilal.” The event went very well, with many people complimenting the speaker, talking about the topic, and overall socializing. There were around 80 people in attendance, most of whom were Muslim, but there were a few non-Muslims there as well to learn more about the topic. We catered 75 boxes of gyro bowls from NYC Halal Eats and Adeni chai from Haraz Coffee, and the event started with people eating and socializing.
This event turned into one of our biggest events of the semester, following our annual Sacred Time Project in January and the annual banquet that was held on March 19th. There was a great turnout, and people stayed for hours, learning, talking to one another, and enjoying their night.
During the talk, Ustadh Briggs first explained the history of the northern and western regions of Africa and the Americas. For example, he told us about the richest man that has ever lived on earth, Mansa Musa, was a Black Muslim king of the Mali Empire. He had an older brother who took a tribe of people to explore the world, and he gave evidence of how this group might have reached the Americas in the 1300s before Christopher Columbus in 1492. Europeans would trade with North and West Africa a lot due to geographical proximity, so they knew the customs and traditions of the regions. There are many accounts from European travelers that the people in the Americas had similar customs to those in Africa, like the clothes they would wear. This suggests that there is a connection between the continents that existed before Europeans came to the Americas. He also talked about how Islam spread around Western Africa, mainly from traders coming from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Many people know that there were many Muslims in Africa, but only think of Northern Africa, like Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco. It is important to note that the majority of West African countries are also Muslim, specifically Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and Niger.
One of the most interesting facts we learned was that the start of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism was Islamophobic (as well as straight-out racist). With Islam growing, like the fall of the Byzantine Empire when Constantinople was taken over by the Ottoman Empire, Pope Nicholas V feared they would need to protect the rest of Europe from Islam. In 1452, the Pope charged Alfonso of Portugal with the Christian duty to enslave any non-Christian. Due to their geographical proximity, the people in West Africa is what he thought of, so the first few people from Senegal enslaved by Portugal were the official beginning of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1400s.
Some other topics he talked about were the lives of the enslaved in the Americas, the legacy of Malcolm X, and other key figures during the civil rights movement. This event connects to the greater purpose of Black History Month by shedding light on some of the forgotten histories of a population: Black Muslims. In America, most people seem to think that Muslims are just the Arabs and South Asians who immigrated during and after the 1960s, but forget about the long Presence of Muslims there was before. Many of the enslaved brought here were from west Africa and Muslim but were forced to assimilate to Christianity. Ustadh Briggs showed us pictures of the enslaved who were able to maintain their religion, having tiny Qurans in small bags around their necks. There were also Muslim people who were enslaved who would pretend like they weren’t religious or were Christian but teaching the religion in hiding during the nights. To forget this part of history would be an injustice.
The funding from GISC was used to pay for the honorarium to bring Ustadh Briggs to our campus and share his expertise with our community. We would not have been able to hold this informative event without the funding.
GISC is proud to cosponsor and fund events that promote the understanding of global Islamic culture and Muslim societies worldwide. Are you an undergraduate student group looking for funding for a similar event? Apply now: https://myumi.ch/RprGw