Tracing Africa’s central role in growing Islam

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AFTER a period of seven months, Ella Asbeha returned to Africa, leaving behind him a joint Government of the South Arabian nobility and the Ethiopian military. 

This arrangement lasted until 532 when Abreha, a junior Ethiopian military officer, seized the South Arabian throne. 

The 3 000-man Ethiopian army sent to suppress the revolt quickly defected to Abreha. 

A second expeditionary force was rapidly and soundly smashed. Abreha’s stunning success was apparently facilitated by the deep class contradictions within Ethiopian society (including the military), creating a base from which a junior officer could rise to become one of the major personalities in early Arabian history.

Although officially acknowledging Ethiopia’s overall supremacy, Abreha worked unceasingly to strengthen South Arabia’s autonomy; helping extend its influence into the northern and central portions of the Arabian peninsula.

After his death in 558, Abreha’s exploits were recorded and embellished in Arabian, Byzantine and Ethiopian literature and no history of pre-Islamic Arabia is complete without him.

One of the most illustrious single figures in pre-Islamic Arabia was Antar (ca. 525-615). 

Graham W. Irwin notes that: “There has always been a considerable population in Arabia of African origin. 

Perhaps the most famous of these people was Antara. 

He had an Arab father and an Ethiopian mother and became in time the national hero of the Arabs.” 

That’s not too strong a statement. 

There was nobody to equal the valour and strength of Antara. 

He’s rather like King Arthur in the English tradition but, in fact, more important, because he was a more historical figure.

Before the advent of Islam, Southern Arabia already possessed, as we have emphasised, large and influential Christian and Jewish communities. 

She also possessed the sacred Kaaba sanctuary, with its black stone, at Makkah.

Makkah was considered a holy place and the destination of pilgrims long before Muhammad. 

At the same time, Allat, the Arabian goddess supreme, was worshipped at Ta’if, in Makkah’s immediate proximity. 

Allat may have been regarded as the ultimate reality in female form. 

She was worshipped in the form of an immense uncut block of granite, as firm as the earth she represented. 

The most solemn oaths were sworn to Allat beginning with the words, “By the salt, by the fire, and by Allat who is the greatest of all.”

Another significant Arabian deity, Dhu-al-Shara, was represented by a quadrangular block of black stone.

It was in this rich religious tradition that the prophet Muhammad, who was to unite the whole of Arabia, was born. 

The seeds of Islam were already ripe and Africa was instrumental in its growth. 

According to oral history, the first Muslim killed in battle was Mihdja – a black man. 

Another blackman, Bilal, was such a pivotal figure in the development of Islam that he has been referred to as ‘a third of the faith’. 

Many of the earliest Muslim converts were Africans and a number of the Muslim faithfuls sought refuge in Ethiopia because of Arabian hostility to Muhammad’s teachings.

Five years after the proclamation of lslam (615), a number of Muslims sought refuge in neighbouring Ethiopia in order to escape the persecutions of the Kurayshites in Mecca – their sojourn in Ethiopia greatly impressed these early Muslim migrants and influenced the future development of their new faith. 

Muslim biographical sources (tabakat) enumerate not a few Ethiopian converts to Islam who migrated to Medina and ranked amongst the Prophet’s companions. 

They were referred to as the ‘Ethiopian monks’ (ruhban al-habasha).

It was this relationship which caused Muhammad to declare that: “Who brings an Ethiopian man or an Ethiopian woman into his house, brings the blessing of God there.”

Another eminent blackman, Ata ibn Abi Rabah ( ca. 700), became a mufti at Makkah. 

He was born in southern Arabia of Nubian parents. 

Eventually, he moved to Makkah and became a famous teacher and jurisconsult there. 

In his later years, his reputation spread far and wide. 

According to some accounts, including the brilliant black writer and historian Uthman Amr ibn-Bahr al-Jahiz, the prophet Muhammad himself was partly of African lineage. 

According to al-Jahiz, the guardian of the sacred Kaaba-Abd al-Muttalib, 

“…fathered 10 Lords, black as the night and magnificent.” 

One of these men was Abdallah, the father of Muhammad.

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