Daniel Nilsson DeHanas & Peter Mandaville

As we tell stories about Muslims today, what kinds of worlds do these Muslims inhabit? When we speak or write about contemporary Islam, which geographies serve as the backdrop? The Atlantic Ocean region rarely comes to mind as a space of contemporary Muslim life. Other parts of the world have far more obvious claims to Muslim ideas and culture. Islam first emerged in Arabia and spread quickly to the Levant and the Maghreb. With Arabic being the language of the Qur’an, ethnically Arab societies have been deeply intertwined with Islam for its entire lifespan. This is to say nothing of the Islamicate richness of Persian, Turkic, or West African civilisations. And, of course, a broad world region closely associated with Islam is South and Southeast Asia, where Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India have some of the largest Muslim populations in the world. This final set of countries might give us reason to turn our focus to the Indian Ocean, rather than the Atlantic.

Yet the Atlantic holds within it a vast range of stories of Muslim interchange. Since the era of British colonialism, including the forced migration of the transatlantic slave trade, Muslim people, ideas, and cultures have moved and intermingled across an Atlantic space that includes Britain, America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. They continue to do so today. As Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed articulates in the story of her quest to learn more about the lived experiences of her Nigerian paternal grandfather and West Indian maternal grandfather, many of their narratives remain largely untold, or even unknown.

In a deliberate nod and with great indebtedness to the work of the British social theorist Paul Gilroy, we call this world region of interchange the ‘Muslim Atlantic’. Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness was first published in 1993. It argued that there is a kind of black culture that is not merely the culture of any single nation like the United States, Britain, or Jamaica, but one that instead exists at the confluence of all of these. Gilroy understood this ‘Black Atlantic’ culture as being forged through a shared history of collective suffering in the middle passage, when enslaved blacks were transported as cargo from West Africa to Britain and then to the Caribbean or the Americas. It was on the backs of these enslaved people that transatlantic capitalism was built and that modernity itself took shape. Black creative expression through the arts including music (such as blues, jazz, and eventually hip hop) and writing became what Gilroy has called a ‘counterculture of modernity’.

The ‘Muslim Atlantic’, as we understand it, is a space that overlaps with and is parallel to the Black Atlantic. Perhaps a third of the Black Africans trafficked across the Atlantic were Muslims, taken from places that include today’s Senegal, Mali, the Gambia, and Ghana. Their West Africa was a place of great intellectual and economic achievements: The seat of Islamic learning at Timbuktu was among the world’s first universities; the fourteenth-century Muslim emperor Mansa Musa was the single richest person who has ever lived. These forcibly transported Muslims brought with them a fusion of African and Islamic cultures that combined with new influences upon reaching the western shores of the Atlantic. 

A good example of such intermingling of cultures was the eighteenth-century griot, or storyteller musician, who would sing tales in an Arabic maqam-style melody and on African stringed instruments that became the guitar and banjo. This history is bought alive in the excerpt from Reginald Edmund and Ronnie Malley’s play American Griot. Told through the lens of the griot Mamadou, we are taken on a musical journey to the crossroads of Africa and America revealing the shared Atlantic history of Islam and the blues. Seen in this historic perspective, the Muslim Atlantic story is not separate from the Black Atlantic story but instead opens our eyes to its largely ignored Islamic and Muslim dimensions. 

Yet there are other sides to the Muslim Atlantic story, involving new kinds of collective suffering that have also in turn generated creative responses. As Tahir Abbas explains, upon entering the twenty-first century, Muslims in the Atlantic region were being subjected to increasingly invasive security measures. The terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 led to airport security measures affecting anyone with a ‘Muslim’ name, ‘Islamic’ clothing, or perceived Arab features, making ‘flying while Muslim’ a perpetually anxious experience. The American and British-led ‘War on Terror’ involved military incursions abroad while disciplining Muslims at home, including through Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the US and the closely associated Prevent in the UK. The impact of securitisation on the psyche of Muslims on both sides of the water, Shirin Khan recounts, has been profound. Perhaps the most vivid symbol of the securitised era was the orange jumpsuit, worn by hundreds of detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, many of them imprisoned indefinitely without trial or subjected to torture under extraordinary rendition. 

The Muslim Atlantic story unfolds across the Atlantic map of the twenty-first century. It includes the ways that Muslims have been subject to disproportionate surveillance and security measures, setting them apart as cultural pariahs and fostering widespread anti-Muslim sentiment. Indeed, in our current times the Anglosphere Atlantic powers of Britain and the United States seem to be in the grip of an especially anti-Muslim phase. From Donald Trump’s 2016 call for a ‘total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering the United States’ to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments about burqa-wearing women resembling ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ — both reflections of surging grassroots movements of white nationalism and nativist populism in their respective societies — these are politically fraught times for millions of Muslims across the Atlantic space. It is unclear whether the Covid-19 pandemic will blunt the momentum of anti-Muslim politics as other issues take priority, or if political leaders will simply renew their targeting of Muslims with an even more sophisticated arsenal of control measures and surveillance technologies.

Those within what we have termed the Muslim Atlantic have responded creatively to new challenges and circumstances. The increasing globalisation of markets, migration, and media has enabled a transnational flowering of Islamic thought and cultural production. These developments have only accelerated with the interweaving of relationships and ideas on social media. Today there are various Muslim scholars, politicians, actors, writers, stand-up comedians, fashion influencers, and musicians who have built wide transatlantic followings. Aina Khan’s reportage illustrates that the contemporary Muslim Atlantic is as much about heavy-hitting hip hop artists like Miss Undastood or Poetic Pilgrimage, as it is about formidable intellectuals like Amina Wadud or Ebrahim Moosa. 

The Muslim Atlantic is also about Muslims in the ordinary moments of their daily lives. Some have moved across the Atlantic for education or work, or to gain greater freedom. Others have transatlantic personal connections or family histories. And there are many others with less direct experience across borders who nonetheless participate in the Muslim Atlantic on a regular basis. A young British Muslim woman may read online about the achievements of Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar or about London-born Hollywood star Riz Ahmed and his ‘Riz test’ of Islamophobia. Discussing these on social media with like-minded Muslims, she will soon discover that she has been building networks that span the Atlantic. 

While we have been describing the English-speaking Muslim Atlantic, Muslim networks and culture have also crisscrossed the Atlantic in other languages over time. These include French, Spanish, and Portuguese, each with their own (post)colonial histories and different ways of inflecting the Muslim Atlantic world. Hisham Aidi’s book Rebel Music, for example, explores how the flows and disjunctures of post-9/11 global ‘War on Terror’ policies have revitalised Muslim consciousness in Afro-Brazilian communities, and have conjured in the work of French rappers new historical resonances between Maghrebi and African-American experience. The scholar Jason Idriss Sparkes provides perhaps the most geographically ambitious historical account of the Muslim Atlantic, locating the contours of an organised and energetic project of decolonial counter-modernity in the traditionalist Sufi milieu of the ‘Western Islamicate’ of Morocco and West Africa. His recently completed PhD dissertation ‘Tradition as Flow: Decolonial Currents in the Muslim Atlantic’ argues that the relevance of 1492 as a watershed date in the birth of modernity is not limited to Iberian voyages of exploration to a supposed ‘New World’ but also necessarily includes the experiences and responses of Muslims expelled from Spain.

Yet even if we simply consider the Anglophone Muslim Atlantic, we will be able to gain a new geographical lens for viewing the world. As we peer through this lens, we will begin to see things differently in at least three ways.

First, the Muslim Atlantic lens breaks us out of our default impulse to think of Muslims in terms of one nation or another. News stories and academic studies alike tend to be framed within national borders, describing how Canadian or American Muslims did this, or French or Algerian Muslims did that. The reality of life is much different. For a great many Muslims, life is transnational in some way or another, whether this means watching Bengali satellite TV, chatting with aunties in Lagos by WhatsApp, or planning travel to Mecca and Medina for hajj. The idea of the Muslim Atlantic draws attention to an often neglected set of transnational conversations and underlying histories between Muslims in the US, the UK, Africa, the Caribbean, and the wider Atlantic. This transnational dimension can be as mundane as comparing American and British Muslim fashion bloggers on Instagram, or as weighty as tracing one’s Muslim family roots back to enslavement from West Africa.

Paul Gilroy’s work emphasises how the Atlantic is neither American, nor British, nor Caribbean, nor African but something built from and existing in the midst of all of these. In the same way, looking through a Muslim Atlantic lens places our focus on the spaces in between. As we see how Muslims draw from — and also question and critique — various conversations and cultural influences from across the Atlantic, we become more aware of the dynamic, hybrid, and constantly re-contextualised nature of contemporary Islam.

Second, looking through a Muslim Atlantic lens reveals black Muslim experience as normative. In the US and the UK, black Muslims have frequently found themselves subject to disrespect by other Muslims. There are different reasons for this in each place: African American Muslims are often seen as associated with the ‘heretical’ Nation of Islam, while Black British Muslims are more often simply forgotten or ignored. In both countries, for example, it is rare for the visual ‘face’ of Muslims in a news story or a campaign to be a black Muslim — or at least a black Muslim with political agency. Such problems are deep-seated and can be painful, because they involve the erasure of the historical and contemporary contributions of black Muslims. The Muslim Atlantic narrative provides means for bringing black Muslims back into the foreground of the stories we tell.  

If for the moment we focus on African American Muslims, we can begin to see the richness of taking on a Muslim Atlantic perspective. Rasul Miller’s essay is an insight into how Black American Islam was reshaped in the crucible of an awakening Pan-African worldview — what Patrick Bowen terms in his 2017 book of the same title an ‘African-American Islamic Renaissance’ — whose defining impulse involved a conscious (re)entanglement of the black American experience of racial injustice with similar struggles in Africa. The emerging formations of a distinctly black Atlantic Muslimness were central to this movement, and some of its intellectual icons, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, saw Islam as integral to the making of Pan-African consciousness. Early expressions of organised black American Islam such as the Moorish Science Temple of America founded by Noble Drew Ali in 1913 drew inspiration from the transatlantic black nationalist ideals of Marcus Garvey, and these same currents of thought later went on to inform the creation of the Nation of Islam. The fact that much of twentieth century scholarship on Islam in America — and, until recently, the attitudes of many immigrant Muslims in the United States — viewed black American Muslim culture as an inauthentic aberration reflects both the hegemony of the Middle East and Asia as sources of purported religious orthodoxy and the persistence of pervasive racism within American Muslim communities well into the twenty-first century. Similarly, many discussions of the US Countering Violent Extremism program still fail to appreciate how closely it resembles the security state apparatus of COINTELPRO (including techniques of surveillance and counterinsurgency) that were used to police the Nation of Islam and Black Panthers in the 1960s. Thus, an exploration of the Muslim Atlantic serves to re-centre African-American Muslims and to show that if there is such a thing as an indigenous tradition of Islam in the United States, then it lies in the black American experience.

The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 has called us to urgently recognise the importance of black Muslim experiences along with those of other black people. Floyd’s murder and the global Black Lives Matter protests that it catalysed have powerfully exposed decades of police brutality against black bodies which had been plastered over and whitewashed. In Bristol, UK, Black Lives Matter protesters gained international attention when they toppled the statue of slaveholder Edward Colston, hurling it into the river. As black Muslim performance artist Tanya Muneera Williams explains in her narrative about growing up in Bristol, the city’s street names, buildings, and adornments are brimming with associations to its past as a major slave trade port. Removing the statue of a slaveholder is a poignant symbolic act which echoes across the Muslim Atlantic.

There is perhaps no figure who embodies the black Muslim Atlantic more than El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, popularly known as Malcolm X. This is not only because of his historical role in building bridges between struggles against racist violence in the United States and global emancipatory activism, but also because his legacy continues to inspire and animate alternative political imaginaries today. Malcolm is also singularly important in that he helps us to understand how and where the Muslim Atlantic intersects with what Sohail Daulatzai evocatively terms the ‘Muslim International’. Insofar as it is composed of flows of peoples, histories, and ideas whose journeys trace back to Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, what we are calling the Muslim Atlantic implicates a global geography that reaches far beyond the shores of Europe and America. What Malcolm X enables is a route into a Muslim International that is at once centered in the specificity of the black Atlantic fight for emancipation and equality while simultaneously engaging with liberation struggles around the globe. It stands in stark contrast to more conventional modalities of political Islam, if these are understood as the authoritative (often verging on authoritarian) imposition of religious norms in the political domain. The Muslim Atlantic ethos of Malcolm X, therefore, is a form of Muslim politics that finds in Islam first and foremost a radical injunction to prioritise global and universal understandings of social justice. His agenda was clearly relevant to his contemporaries in British Muslim communities, with Malcolm visiting the Birmingham Mosque in England just weeks before he was killed in 1965.

There is yet another way that the Muslim Atlantic lens changes our view: it makes us aware of the centrality of Muslim contributions to what it means to be modern. The Muslim Atlantic story is a narrative of common suffering faced by Muslims across the Atlantic, from those in centuries past who were kidnapped and forced into chattel slavery, to those in recent decades who have been securitised, surveilled, or subject to anti-Muslim hatred. As historian AbdoolKarim Vakil once explained in a keynote address to the annual general meeting of the Muslim Council of Britain, nearly all of the legal and political rights that we have come to expect on the shores of the Atlantic had to be hard won through the courageous resistance of minorities, including blacks and Muslims alongside women’s movements, working class movements, and others. The contemporary Muslim Atlantic has become a zone of struggle against securitisation, Islamophobia, xenophobia, populism, and white supremacism. It is through such struggles that new generations of activists rise up and that new legal and political achievements are made. 

In our late modern times, we find that Muslims are at the sharp edge of the most fear-laden and hostile of political pressures. Muslims therefore have a central part to play in recovering from these troubled times, forging new values, and eventually re-humanising our societies. When that day comes, today’s forsaken griots of the Muslim Atlantic – the non-violent protesters donning orange jumpsuits, the intellectuals risking censure, and the hip hop Muslimahs speaking their minds – will have led the way by producing a new counterculture of modernity.

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