We can’t conjure, or think, or muse, the idea of a Muslim Atlantic without considering the work of Paul Gilroy and his theorisation of the Black Atlantic: it forms its very DNA. By extension the very idea of a Muslim Atlantic – if it has any genealogy at all – is deeply imbedded in the ways we understand Blackness, the Black experience and emergence of chattel slavery.
There are two ‘historical moments’ however that don’t quite complicate this view but do create a particularly Muslim mood music for the idea of the Muslim Atlantic. One is the sort of myth-making moments some strands of contemporary Islam love to celebrate, the other is largely forgotten, or ignored, a casualty of the ‘whitespots’ that plague the story of the Muslim past.
The first, as the lands of North Africa are conquered in the name of the emerging Islamic imperial authority in Arabia and the Levant, the famed, and stunningly successful, General Uqba ibn Nafi (622–683) finds himself at the shores of the Atlantic. Generations will be told that he rides his steed into the cold waters shouting Allahu Akbar, and looks across to a horizon that reveals no more land and declares, ‘O Lord be Thou witness, that I have taken Thy Message up to the end of the land and if this ocean were not in my way I would have proceeded to fight the pagans until none would be worshipped except Thee’. It’s one of those moments that no doubt deserves a Gulf-financed biopic with soaring sounds of oud and the banging of dafs. The cynic or the triumphalist might look to this moment and find the genesis of the Muslim Atlantic. I like to think that this story, at the very least, draws us to the idea of Islam as something mobile, adaptable, with the capacity to settle, change and re-form. Uqba may have conquered the lands in the name of God, but the culture – music, art, architecture, literature, theology, philosophy – that those lands produced are dizzying cultural eco-systems, an idea we will return to shortly, that are not merely the product of an imperial Islam.
The second, and by far my favourite, is the account of Mansa Abubakari II, the fourteenth century ruler of – let’s be honest – the richest empire in the world encompassing the western coast of Africa, extending into modern-day Mali and beyond. Mansa Abubakari II had an armada of 2,000 ships and, in 1311, desiring to explore the ‘other bank’ of the wide river we call the Atlantic, handed his throne to his brother and sailed into that landless horizon that Uqba had looked on centuries earlier. He left with ships laden to trade and exchange. The mysterious historian Ibn Fadl al-Umari is said to have chronicled this journey and noted that some made it back from the ‘other bank’ with stories of vibrant, verdant, rich and populated land. Naysayers discard al-Umari but thanks to recent scholarship the idea of an African passage before the middle passage remains a delicious possibility. Abubakari II’s ships are for me a significant symbol of the Muslim Atlantic.
Back to Gilroy for a moment. It’s important to keep in mind that Gilroy’s idea of the Black Atlantic endures because his conceptualisation is a sophisticated one. The Atlantic is a rich geography not constrained by nations and states. It’s not merely a body of water that is crossed for the purposes of exploitation or trade. It is the link between old and new worlds, or between civilisation and savageness. It is a rich maydan – field – of exchange, formulation, creation and emergence. The Black Atlantic is also a framework born out of modernity:
The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation I want to call the Black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through [a] desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. These desires are relevant to understanding political organising and cultural criticism. They have always sat uneasily alongside the strategic choices forced on black movements and individuals embedded in national and political cultures and nation-states in America, the Caribbean, and Europe.
Gilroy uses a number of emblematic symbols to represent the Black Atlantic. Central to his framework is the image of ships:
I have settled on the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising symbol for this enterprise and as my starting point. The image of the ship — a living, microcultural, micro-political system in motion — is especially important for historical and theoretical reasons … Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs.
I can’t help but imagine Abubakari II’s 2,000 ships imbedded in Gilroy’s evocation. It brings me back to the particular ways the Muslim Atlantic sits in and alongside the Black Atlantic and why that relationship is important when we centre culture in the conversation. In these Atlantic movements, Muslim bodies, identities, peoples are not interlocutors but central to the emergence of the very idea of the Muslim Atlantic. In this fertile field connecting Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe, engagement with Muslims and Islam as an idea and faith shaped the very emergence of the political, economic and social conditions that create the Black Atlantic. The colonial project, which looked to discover a passage to India and instead chanced upon a ‘New World’, was accelerated if not borne out of a desire to avoid Muslim power – empires, polities and Islamic governance which needed to be negotiated with, fought with, cajoled and compromised with. The Reconquista and the Inquisition which followed tried to wrest the ‘cancer of Islam’ from Christendom. The Convivencia – a remarkable cultural moment – collapsed under the weight of religious supremacy, domination and by 1609 eradication. The emergence of the empire-making project of finding a way to India, the institutionalisation of chattel slavery, and the reality of middle passage all emerge out of an engagement-altercation with Islam. As European powers tried to circumvent ‘Mohammedan menace’ and subdue African bodies as mercantile tools to fuel their economic expansion, they inadvertently carried the very Muslim bodies they wished to eradicate and remove from their midst (think about the 1609 order to expel the Moriscoes, ostensibly converted Christians tainted by Muslim blood), to their colonies. How much did Spain and other powers despise Islam and those who adhered to it. A visit to Seville’s Cathedral, built on the ruins of a Mesquita of course, will reveal how the visual imagery of the global Spanish empire encoded and commemorates this ongoing battle. The statue of Columbus over his grave inside the cathedral depicts him spearing a pomegranate – Qarnata – Grenada. The murderous process his voyages started have their roots in the destruction of that pomegranate. Islam’s defeat is at the very genesis of the project of conquest.
Much has been written about the emergence of a racialised worldview and in particular the institutions of anti-blackness and its connection to the project of conquest, colonisation and subjugation. In the diversity of black bodies – with the myriad of languages, tribes, ethnicities, civilisational histories and faiths they encompassed – brought to the ‘other bank’ of the Atlantic in chains, Muslim civilisations and cultures were an essential part of those peoples. Historian of African diaspora, Sylviane Diouf’s estimation of 30% or more seems to have become the shorthand of quantifying this. But it’s not the numbers that matter, it’s the enduring, resilient power of faith and culture that becomes an inseparable part of what the African experience in what becomes known as the Americas and the Caribbean is from the beginning and what it becomes.
Islam’s enduring presence means that the Black Atlantic has always encompassed the Muslim Atlantic – in other words, it haunts its conceptualisation, present even when its mention is absent. That is why, before we even begin to look at the processes of cultural production and the emergence of cultural leadership in the Muslim Atlantic, we need to be clear what ground we stand on. The erasure of blackness from Muslim narratives and the exclusion of Muslims from some black narratives, doesn’t change what we know to be germane to the emergence of this field and the way in which we theorise or understand this geography.
The Muslim Atlantic is an analytical lens, a discursive tool to sharpen the way in which we understand, observe, theorise and illuminate the Muslim presence – now and in the past – and how that presence has shaped the eco-system of Muslim culture and ideas and how it has shaped broader culture as well. As scholars like Suad Abdul Khabeer, Hisham Aidi and others have chronicled, we can’t talk about Hip Hop without talking about Jazz, we can’t talk about Jazz without talking about the Blues, we can’t talk about the Blues without talking about the field hollers and the music of enslaved people and we can’t understand the culture of plantation life without understanding the cultural manna that those who were enslaved brought with them – the griot traditions of Muslim West Africa, the recitation of Qur’an and qasidas, a rich corpus of poetry and language, sophisticated worldviews and theologies. Allah is in the Blues, Islamic personalities influence Jazz, Muslim movements and ideas are imbedded in Hip Hop. The most powerful cultural forces of our time have Islam’s presence and Muslim creativity imbedded in them. This is the cultural reality of the Muslim Atlantic.
Culture should never be reduced to resilience or resistance, but culture is certainly the foundation on which resilience and resistance is built and created, expressed and enacted. The legal and institutional denial of humanity meant that those enslaved had to preserve their humanity in other ways. There are particular ways in which Islamic cultural and religious practices inspired and were employed during moments of sharp resistance to enslavement and violence. The Bahia Revolution of 1835 had Muslim identity and practice at its core. The Hispaniola uprising in 1522 was also led by Muslim slaves. The animus by some European powers to Muslims even within the institutions of slavery suggest an acknowledgement of a pervasive culture of resistance. The work by Khabeer and others to document and preserve the spirit and practices of the Gullah Geechee peoples of Georgia and the Carolinas who incorporated Islam into the fabric of their unique culture again points to the resilience of Islamic cultural and religious forms. This spirit exists too in the oft-ignored experience of indentured labour in the Caribbean, the process whereby South Asian Muslims became deeply imbedded in the geographies of places like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica. This spirit of resistant, resilience and survival makes up the DNA of the Muslim Atlantic. Like Gilroy’s idea of the Black Atlantic, the Muslim Atlantic too mitigated against narrow conceptions of citizenship and nation-state belonging.
The migration of peoples from Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and beyond to the ‘other bank’ – whether directly or via Europe or some other stopping point – enriches the Muslim Atlantic, and is in many ways deeply tied to the post-colonial reality. This has resulted in an erasure of existing Muslim Atlantic histories and privileging of immigrant narratives of Islam and Muslimness. It also opens the possibilities of an ever-widening field of exchange. Malcolm X’s project of building a more purposeful political and cultural connection with Africa and the emergence of what scholar and cultural critic Sohail Daulatzai theorises as the Muslim International gives us a way of imagining a (messy) space of intersecting racial, ethnic, linguistic, national, cultural and religious expressions. In many ways, my own father was a product of this Muslim International – though he may never have used that term. Born in India before Partition, raised in both Saudi Arabia and then Pakistan, pursued higher education in England (a natural place of post-colonial orientation), backpacked through Europe and ended up an economic immigrant to Canada, welcomed as part of a much needed new workforce. Travel through the Commonwealth and across the Atlantic was a natural part of living between nations. My great-great grandfather worked with the Royal Engineers for a time and his service received a commendation from a Scottish officer. Almost every family from our part of Punjab had served in some capacity the occupying Raj. My father’s own political consciousness arising out of an engagement with political Islam was deeply affected by both personal and national history, as well as by a reading of the Muslim past and the culture that it produced. This was a migrating generation of global souls (to invoke Pico Iyer). Home was not just Canada or the United States or the United Kingdom, or Pakistan or Egypt. It was many places and with that comes a constant sense that the cultural ground is always shifting. This generation participates in the processes of Du Boisian double consciousness – and code switching – constantly. The Muslim Atlantic is space to imagine identities anew. It is a field in which Rushdie’s imaginary homelands emerge, which are not faced with fear, as Rushdie suggests, but by cultural creation and co-creation.
I would conceptualise the Muslims Atlantic as a cultural eco-system. An organic, messy space where complex networks of cultural production, creation, co-creation, curation and ideas exist in relationship with each other and cannot ultimately be controlled or directed by any particular authority, but rather are open or vulnerable to influence and adaptation synthesis and conflict. My own understanding and theorisation of this idea has emerged from the work of cultural organising and from a series of gatherings of cultural producers, curators and thinkers which were convened by Asad Ali Jafri, former Curator of Programs for the Shangri-La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design and now Executive Director of the South Asia Institute and myself.
Cultural producers, thinkers and curators are producing new work and knowledge, influencing each other, seeding new ideas, cross pollinating approaches, creating new boundaries and definitions, and synthesising wider circles of art forms. This Muslim Atlantic cultural eco-system exists within and across geographies with culture crossing from Africa to the Caribbean to the UK to Canada to the United States back to Africa. It is a dynamic cultural space and that dynamism has only grown as new forms of ‘connectivity’ have grown.
Where then are the nodes – the centres – of cultural change that are the engines of this dynamism? Thinking about the period following the liberation movements in Africa and beyond, as well as the emergence of a post Malcolm X Muslim International, we need to think about the way in which ideas and culture was emerging particularly in the context of the Atlantic. The anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements themselves were ‘global’ in the sense that they harnessed the energies of young people, cultural producers and thinkers in many geographies of the Atlantic simultaneously. The diasporas present in places like London, Paris, New York, Accra and Dakar were engaged in liberation struggles, in shaping them and amplifying them.
You can see this through the music of liberation and the emergence of jazz as a global medium for emancipation. The development of hip hop and its close connection to and adoption by cultural producers in Africa and the Caribbean results in the creation of new cultural languages. Music in particular is often theorised as means for resistance, dissent, the expression of discontent. It is also a music which affirms. It affirms new cultural identities, affirms cultural agency and creates cultural leaders. These vibrant Muslim musical cultural eco-systems are seen more clearly in the ways in which music criss-crosses the maydan of the Muslim Atlantic.
My own work over the past twenty-five years has wrestled and contended with the question of what constitutes relevant and credible Muslim leadership. Like others, I have sought to find such personalities in the category of religious leadership. As scholar Peter Mandaville often asks, who speaks for ‘Islam’ in the absence of centralised, formal and universally accepted religious institutions and structures? Indeed, some Muslim religious figures have laid claim to some kind of authority because they travel and circulate on both sides of the Atlantic, creating following and ‘influence’. The lens of the Muslim Atlantic allows us to expand the idea of what Muslim leadership is.
Religious, political, civic and thought leadership are all an important part of the web of influences on and flowing from Muslim communities. Cultural leadership is often ignored or undermined. Yet if culture is the water in which we swim and, if we follow cultural historian Jeff Chang’s mantra, that cultural change precedes political change, then I would suggest that the Muslim Atlantic needs to privilege cultural leadership in its understanding of power and influence. It is cultural leaders, those who are shaping culture through cultural production, through curation, through creating spaces and opportunities for exhibition and through funding that are facilitating the narratives and stories that the Muslim Atlantic tells about themselves. We are all producers and consumer of culture, of course. Cultural leaders are those who are able to harness cultural energies and make sense of what results from those energies.
When I think of a cultural leader, I think of someone like Imruh Caesar Bakari. Born in St Kitts, Bakari was among a small group of genre-breaking filmmakers and cultural visionaries who redefined Black British Cinema in the early 1980s (he worked alongside Menelik Shabazz) with films like the 1981 Riots and Rumours of Riots, Burning an Illusion which came out the following year and the celebrated Mark of the Hand, a 1986 profile of Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams. In one conversation I had with Bakari, he recalled the vibe in the Portobello Road cafes where he and other artists, writers and filmmakers from the African diaspora would sit with visiting legends like Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembene. This is where the craft became idea, where new ways of producing and seeing art were formed and where cultural synthesis happened. London became a centre for cultural and knowledge exchange and production in the Muslim Atlantic. Ideas cross borders with ease. Bakari became one of the important theorists of African Cinema. Even the audacity of creating such fields – Africa is after all a dizzyingly diverse, complex, culturally rich continent – is only possible when we are culturally confident. We can have an African cinema because of the transnational exchange, conversation and gathering. We can create our own lenses to view the world, our own frameworks because the Muslim Atlantic and the larger Black Atlantic give us the agency. In the works of political revolutionaries like Guyana’s Walter Rodney, there is a call to his brothers – those seeking similar political, social and economic liberation. These brothers are black, brown, African, Caribbean and in many cases Muslim. For those that claim the Muslim identity, they are certainly shaped by their particular experience but also connect to the universal ideas of the struggle shared by others. The shared language of Muslimness is part of what the Muslim Atlantic creates, yet the results of the thinking that arises from those identities is universal, accessible and part of larger cultural eco-systems.
As a child I grew up embedded in the Muslim Atlantic, even if I may not have called it that. My father was a product of his time in Britain where he convened with political activists from Africa and the Global South, followed anti-colonial liberation struggles and was in Paris during the May 1968 uprisings. When he finally settled in Canada, our mailbox was filled with journals and newspapers like Afkar Inquiry, Arabia: Islamic World Review, South, Crescent International and Impact International, which reported – from London – the news of the post-colonial world’s difficult birth into political freedom and the continuing liberation struggles in places like South Africa, Kashmir and Palestine. He was exposed to the literature of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas during his student days and those books ended up on our shelf. I always felt London was close and the liberation movements which were celebrated in our home were tied to my even young sense of the world. Later, it would be my beloved mentor, friend and colleague the late Fuad Nahdi, who worked as an editor at Africa Events in London, and later established Q News, who gave me an inside look at the mechanics of what I can now call the Muslim Atlantic. The constant exchange of ideas, the positing of new ways of thinking and most importantly of Muslim being an expansive identity, not just a tribal one. He would often say the most compelling reporting on what was then called the ‘Third World’ came from London during that time. The space to think broadly, across old fault lines and borders was only possible when those borders were challenged – as Gilroy’s formulation of the Black Atlantic challenged us to do. It is cities, place of intersection and prosaic encounter where the Muslim Atlantic finds its cultural manna. Cities become cultural engines more powerful than nation states. They are the energetic nodes in the network of transnational cultural exchange and production. They are the places where the Muslim Atlantic comes alive.
Sukina Abdul Noor Douglas and Tanya Muneera Williams, together known as Poetic Pilgrimage, hail from Bristol’s Afro-Caribbean community and its vibrant cultural milieu. After accepting Islam and making their faith central to their cultural expression, they began to emerge as not only the voice of the Muslim street, but as cultural ambassadors and translators criss-crossing from the UK to Sudan and Senegal to Europe and the United States, never losing their Jamaican heritage or musical DNA, but developing a sound and a poetry and cultural approach that is emblematic of the Muslim Atlantic. Hip Hop is of course a global language, and I would suggest a pre-eminent language of the Muslim Atlantic, but Sukina and Muneera are themselves leaders able to exert cultural, spiritual and even political influence through their music and to have that influence felt in mainstream Hip Hop spaces as well as within spaces more closely defined as Muslim. Sukina and Muneera are themselves part of a tradition that includes Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), the influential, ocean-hopping MC whose work is not only iconic but pushes the boundaries of collaboration. Note his track ‘R.E.D’: beginning with Bismillah, shot in Africa, composed with three indigenous DJs who grew up on reservations in Canada, R.E.D. is a product of the expansive cultural sensibility emblematic of the Muslim Atlantic. Bey is a cultural producer who is first a cultural cross-pollinator.
The so-called genre of ‘World Music’ itself celebrates some of the most important and influential artists of the Muslim Atlantic: Youssou N’Dour whose ground-breaking Senegalese-Egyptian co-production after 9/11 finds audiences first in London, Paris, New York (home to a large Senegalese and Egyptian diaspora) and Berlin. Mali’s Ali Farka Toure became the aural proof that the roots of the Blues are squarely in the Niger River Delta. Khaira Arby led the campaign to free Timbuktu organising concerts in places like Chicago’s Millennium Park where crowds shouted ‘Allah, Allah!’ at Arby’s frenzied rhythms, a testimony to the culture of her fallen city. The most celebrated ‘World Music’ in Muslim culture obscured by insufficient labels – Muslim culture borne on the banks of the Muslim Atlantic.
Digital influencers, creators and curators like Nadir Nahdi and his BENI platform are demonstrating how quickly cultural leadership can emerge, influence and mobilise support, interest and participation. By highlighting his own unique story as a child of many cultures and showcasing his network of creatives (through YouTube and Instagram), Nadir is showing us how to build actual and virtual communities of culture around ideas of shared experience, sensibilities and aspiration. That’s why he can turn a running club into cultural convening, a yoga session into a cultural conversation.
Listening to MC, actor, poet, writer and cultural producer Riz Ahmed’s latest album, ‘The Long Goodbye’, is to hear the work of someone who has decided to live in the fault lines of today’s toxic political culture and fragmented social, political and economic realities. Not only does it contend with what it means to be Brown, British and Muslim, it signs the divorce papers on some kind of easy reconciliation with ideas of empire, colonisation, racism, Islamophobia and the ghosts of the middle passage and other large-scale acts of organised violence undertaken in the name of trade, commerce and Christendom. This new work isn’t talking so much about representation as it is about assertion. It stakes claim to cultural agency, to producing culture on our own terms, to saying goodbye to toxic relationships and to being true to our history and our present.
MC, poet and educator Amir Sulaiman’s iconic poem ‘Danger’ is an incendiary and discomforting cry from the margins to be heard, to be recognised and to be free. The words make our skin crawl and lights a fire in the belly. ‘Freedom,’ Sulaiman writes/intones, ‘is between the mind and the soul’.
The possibility of the Muslim Atlantic is a dangerous idea: freedom. Freedom from white supremacy, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. Freedom from constraints of national borders and from brittle dogmas. It embodies the resistance of those who found ways to resist the middle passage and the resilience of those who survived it. The very idea of an emerging – albeit messy, confusing and evolving – cultural leadership which helps push the boundaries of Muslim possibilities is dangerous to existing religious and political institutions. It upends the applecart of power within Muslim communities. It’s of course not so simple, but the idea itself is tantalising and compelling enough. Cultural producers and leaders have many maydans to play in, the Muslim Atlantic is one of them – a potent and powerful field of interconnections and intersections that are only just beginning to be explored. Cultural change will continue to precede political and social change. Cultural leaders have an opportunity to nudge that change forward, creating spaces for intercultural, intergenerational, intersectional, interdisciplinary gathering and conversation. In the process, they have the opportunity to write the next chapter of not just the Muslim Atlantic, but what it means to be Muslim in the world now.