Before Malcolm X: The History of Islam in the Americas – a review

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

Before attending Before Malcolm X, I’d heard a buzz around Mustafa Briggs and his Black History in Islam lectures. Mustafa Briggs has already had great success with his first lecture tour focusing on Black Muslim History, titled Beyond Bilal. With a large cultural impact, Beyond Bilal has inspired many people to actively learn about Black History in an Islamic context. Outside of working as a speaker, Briggs holds degrees in Arabic & IR and Translation, and he is currently studying for an Islamic Studies & Arabic degree from al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. 

As indicated in the title, Before Malcolm X takes attendees on a whistle-stop tour of the history of Islam in North and South America. But Briggs’ impressive delivery provides for an engaging history lesson.

Mustafa Briggs starts his talk with a joke about not being approved as a speaker for a Queen Mary Black History Month event last year, “but we won’t get into that” he says. The difficulties of navigating academic spaces that tend to exclude Muslim voices is a whole other story, but looking at it from the outside, it looks like Briggs has gone from a ‘controversial’ figure to a highly sought after speaker in the space of a year. In fact, there had to be a last minute room change to accommodate the large turnout. But Briggs sets himself apart from other speakers with his relaxed manner and the accessibility of his language – Before Malcolm X lasts for just over an hour but leaves you feeling eager to know more.

Before Malcolm X starts in 1324 with the Mali Empires travels to the Americas under the rule of Emperor Mansa Musa and the evidence suggesting the Mali Empire arrived in the Americas before Columbus, evidence that appears in Columbus’ The Third Voyage. After the arrival of Columbus and the subsequent trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is estimated that 10-20% of the enslaved West Africans were Muslim (this estimate is thought to be much less than the true figure which some say is closer to 30%). 

Other very interesting parts were the discussion surrounding activism in the West African slaves in the Americas. The 1522 revolt on the island of Hispaniola saw bans on ‘importing’ Muslim slaves from West Africa. There is evidence to suggest that Muslim slaves in South America had ways of recording their history as there are links between the 1522 revolt and the 1835 revolt in Brazil that resulted in over 200 slaves being returned to West Africa. 

The lecture ends with the civil rights movement in the US, the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X. I was surprised to find out that African Americans make up 25% of Muslims in America, Briggs’ wife is an African American Muslim who he says sparked his interest in Black Muslim history in America. Mustafa Briggs does more than educate the audience on the usually unexplored history of Black Muslims, he shows you that it is possible to map your history despite prolonged erasure. That is why Before Malcolm X is having a substantial impact, it’s starting a conversation about themes that are much greater than Black Muslims in the Americas.

The event was organised by Decolonise QM, a student-led society that aims to address the structural inequalities at Queen Mary and academia in general. Decolonise have done a great job at organising an informative and inspiring event that fits well with their aims, and I can’t wait to see what else they have planned.

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