BLACK PANTHER, AFROFUTURISM,
AND ISLAMIC SUFISM
Human beings: The noblest among you in the eyes of God is the most pious.
Human beings, your Lord is one and your father is one. All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab over an Arab. Also, a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white. In God’s sight, superiority resides only in piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim, and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.
—The Prophet (the Farewell Sermon)
The movie Black Panther (2018) has been a tremendous box office success. It grossed an astonishing $218 million on its first weekend. The bold film earned more in its first four days than any movie in history at the North American box office, except for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After only 10 days, it outgrossed almost all other Marvel films, and this was just the beginning.
As a comic-book superhero, Black Panther debuted in 1966, a few months before the revolutionary Black Panther Party was formed. Politically, however, the hero was already empowered. And now his adventures have moved to the big screen.
Black Panther (T’Challa) is actually the king of Wakanda. He owes his extraordinary strength and agility to a bulletproof nanotech bodysuit and a quasi-magical potion. His sister is a tech genius who plays Q to Black Panther’s James Bond, providing him with a dazzling array of hyper-tech gadgets and weapons.
A True Story
Sometime around the Christmas of 1996, a man went on the Lesser Pilgrimage to Mecca. After the mandatory part of the Pilgrimage was completed, he spent his days (and nights) in the vicinity of the Kaaba (“the Cube”), praying at times and exploring at others. On one of these days, he was on the upper floor of the structure then surrounding the Kaaba (it has been demolished since and rebuilt differently). The Afternoon Prayer Call was sounded, and as people got ready to perform the Obligatory part of the Afternoon Prayer, two men came up and stood in the same line with him, one on either side.
Because of the great heat, everyone was barefoot. When the time for the first bending came, they bowed in genuflection. The man fixed his gaze on the big toe of his right foot, which was the proper thing to do. However, he could also see the feet of the men adjoining him. What he saw was this:
At first he couldn’t make sense of what he saw. What’s this? he thought. He was seeing three pairs of feet, yet the outer pairs were somehow different from the center pair. But because of visual symmetry, the center pair logically had to be his. Then it dawned on him.
With a shock, he realized that the men on his two sides were black. Yet as they moved up to stand in line with him, he had not noticed them as such at all... until he saw his own feet between theirs.
This is what Islam does to you, my friends. This is what Islam does for you, my friends. Islam makes you racially color-blind, no matter whether your skin is yellow, white, black, brown, or red.
Wakanda is a fictional supercivilization at the center of Africa, a cloaked technopolis that exists in secrecy, somewhat like an America—only more advanced—in the heart of that continent. Ages ago, a meteor containing the fantasy metal Vibranium—which has potentially devastating properties—landed somewhere around present-day Rwanda, providing the energy and raw materials resources for the development of Wakanda. (Niger, the world’s fifth richest uranium country, is not at the right place, but it’s close enough to have served as inspiration.)
To the outside world, Wakanda may seem like an African country in need of aid. From above, it appears as a dense jungle, but this is a holographic projection. Beneath that façade, its capital, the Golden City, is actually a technotronic utopia of skyscrapers that might put London’s Shard to shame, with mag-lev trains and flying-saucer-like craft as the principal means of transport. Its hidden splendor symbolizes the richness of the African heart. According to one reviewer, Wakanda is the real superhero in this movie.
Coined in 1992 by cultural critic Mark Dery, afrofuturism refers to a combination of African mythologies, science fiction, and hi-tech to empower black people in the future. It is a cultural movement that plays out in art, music, science fiction novels, fashion, and now the cinema. Wakanda is a black utopia: “a place of Afro-futurism, of what African nations can be or what they could have been and still be had colonialism not taken place.” (quoted in the New York Times.) And King T’Challa is a black version of Batman: rich, powerful, tech-savvy, and a fighter against injustice.
Seen in this light, Black Panther is the quintessential Afrofuturist movie of our time. Its immense success will likely inspire sequels, prequels, and spinoffs in the future. Moreover, it does not shy away from political issues, but tackles them head-on.
(Note: possible spoilers in this section.)
Into Wakanda’s paradise steps the revolutionary-cum-villain Killmonger (above left), a special-ops soldier and a relative of the king, a kill list as long as your arm, and a potentially earth-shaking agenda: global revolution. He challenges Black Panther for the throne.
His grievance: hitherto, Wakanda has kept its wealth and its technology to itself. His intention, however, is not to share these with the rest of humanity—which is what Black Panther would do.
Rather, he intends to foment uprisings and revolutions everywhere. There are two billion of our brothers in the world, he says, and he will use the vibranium and advanced weapons of Wakanda to liberate them all. He is going to burn it all down: the brothers will rise up all over the world, kill all the rulers, their children, and anyone who opposes them. He intends to topple the world’s racial order: “The world is gonna start over and this time we’re on top.” White supremacy will be replaced by black supremacy all over the world.
But what then?
One of the leading characters nails it on the head, not only for the present but also for that imagined future, when she tells Killmonger: “You are so full of hatred, you will never be a true king.”
Killmonger represents the temptation of black radicalism. It is to the credit of director Ryan Coogler that Black Panther is not your ordinary superhero movie, but explicitly brings thorny social issues up for debate.
Ultimately, Killmonger is defeated by Black Panther, who, as his speech at the U.N. during the finale bears witness, represents the best that Africa has to offer humanity:
Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.
Of the two, this is certainly the nobler vision—and its sentiments are entirely in accord with Islam and Sufism.
With its lavish design, dynamic action scenes and stunning visual effects, the film sets a
new standard for superhero movies. Click here for a longer video of the car-chase scene.
Islam and Race
So, let us turn to two scholars who have devoted considerable thought to the question of race in relation to Islam. The first of these is orientalist Bernard Lewis. His initial study on the subject, Race and Color in Islam, was published in 1971. An updated version was published in 1990.*
Lewis explains the position taken in essential sources, that is, in Islamic theology and law. The first go-to source is, of course, the Koran. Lewis states that there are only two verses in the Koran that deal with the issue of color, one of which has already been quoted in the epigraph above. (The other, 30:22, is less relevant to our subject.) He concludes:
It will be clear that the Qur’an expresses no racial or color prejudice. What is perhaps most significant is that the Qur’an does not even reveal any awareness of such prejudice.
(Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 21. Emphasis added.)
What this means is that racial differences are totally irrelevant in the sight of God—racial discrimination is beneath God’s contempt. The Prophet clarified this further: “God doesn’t look at your outward appearance or your possessions. He only looks at your heart and your deeds.” (Muslim, Birr (Piety), 33, etc. See also 1 Samuel 16:7.) Another Prophetic Tradition states: “He who has a white mother has no advantage which makes him better than the son of a black mother.” (Ibn al-Mubarak, Kitab al-Birr wa’l-Sila.)
As a result, beginning with the Prophet and his Companions—such as the black slave Bilal ibn Rabah of Abyssinia, whose liberation (emancipation) was arranged by the Prophet—racial preference has never been part of Islam. The Prophet also appointed Usama ibn Zayd, a black man and the son of a freed slave, as commander of his army for his last expedition. He thus demonstrated that race and color do not prevent a person from attaining high ranks in society, including the highest: “You should listen to and obey your ruler, even if he is an Ethiopian (black) slave...” (Bukhari, 9.89.256.)
Toynbee on Islam
Arnold Toynbee was a world-famous historian of the twentieth century and the author of the monumental twelve-volume A Study of History. Although he was culturally Christian in outlook (while describing himself as post-Christian), Toynbee praised Islam among the world’s great religions for being fundamentally free of any racist tendencies. Rabbi Jacob Agus has observed that Toynbee regarded the biblical notion of a “chosen people” (the doctrine of divine election) as “the source of the self-aggrandizement of Christian nations in the modern world.” (The Essential Agus (1997), p. 330.) Thus, they commited “the sin of self-glorification—what Toynbee has called ‘the idolization of the ephemeral [in our terminology, the Base] self.’” (Agus, “Toynbee’s Epistle to the Jews.”**)
In the first volume of A Study of History, Toynbee wrote:
Arabs and all other White Muslims, whether brunettes or blondes, have always been free from colour prejudice vis-à-vis the non-White races... [Muslims] divide Mankind into Believers and Unbelievers who are all potentially Believers [thus, no race-based division is implied]; and this division cuts across every difference in Physical Race. . . (Emphasis added.)
Bernard Lewis’s observations are pertinent for what comes next:
The advent of Islam created an entirely new situation in race relations. All the ancient civilizations of the Middle-East and of Asia had been local, or at the most regional. Even the Roman Empire, despite its relatively larger extent, was essentially a Mediterranean society. Islam for the first time created a truly universal civilization, extending from Southern Europe to Central Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to India and China. By conquest and by conversion, the Muslims brought within the bounds of a single imperial system and a common religious culture peoples as diverse as the Chinese, the Indians, the peoples of the Middle-East and North Africa, black Africans, and white Europeans. Nor was this coming together of races limited to a single rule and a single faith. (Ibid. p. 18. Emphasis added.)
The only race missing in this list is the American Indian. Back to Toynbee:
...White Muslims were in contact with the Negroes of Africa and with the dark-skinned peoples of India from the beginning and have increased that contact steadily, until nowadays, Whites and Blacks are intermingled, under the aegis of Islam, throughout the length and breadth of the Indian and the African Continent. Under this searching test, the White Muslims have demonstrated their freedom and race-feeling by the most convincing of all proofs: they have given their daughters to Black Muslims in marriage.
(Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 1, London: Oxford University Press, 1934, p. 226.)
After the Second World War, Toynbee returned to the subject of Islam’s humanism at greater length. Some excerpts from his Civilizaton on Trial follow.
Two conspicuous sources of danger—one psychological and the other material... in our modern Western society are race consciousness and alcohol [today, one would add drugs]; and in the struggle with each of these evils the Islamic spirit has a service to render which might prove, if it were accepted, to be of high moral and social value.
The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue; for, although the record of history would seem on the whole to show that race consciousness has been the exception and not the rule in the constant inter-breeding of the human species, it is a fatality of the present situation that this consciousness is felt—and felt strongly—by the very peoples which, in the competition of the last four centuries between several Western powers, have won—at least for the moment—the lion’s share of the inheritance of the Earth.
[T]he triumph of the English-speaking peoples has imposed on mankind a ‘race question’...
As things are now, the exponents of racial intolerance are in the ascendent, and, if their attitude towards ‘the race question’ prevails, it may eventually provoke a general catastrophe. Yet the forces of racial toleration ... might still regain the upper hand if any strong influence militating against race consciousness that has hitherto been held in reserve were now to be thrown into the scales. It is conceivable that the spirit of Islam might be the timely reinforcement which would decide this issue in favour of tolerance and peace.
Western civilization has produced an economic and political plenum and, in the same breath, a social and spiritual void.
If the present situation of mankind were to precipitate a ‘race war,’ Islam might be moved to play her historic role once again.
(Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization on Trial, London: Oxford University Press, 1948, pp. 205-212.)
Toynbee’s long journey through the rise and fall of civilizations led him, in the end, to the conviction that religion was essential to their existence. In his An Historian’s Approach to Religion, Toynbee reached an important conclusion: the barrier that separates man from God, he said, is his own self-centeredness, which must be given up in order to fully experience Absolute Reality. (pp. 274-275.) (About this, see the sidebar on the Base Self below.)
At this point, it would not be out of place to look at the opinions of some prominent Afro-Americans.
James Baldwin, the famous author, lived intermittently in Istanbul, Turkey (a Moslem-majority country), for almost a decade in the 1960s. In a documentary, Baldwin said he felt more comfortable as a black man in Istanbul than in Paris or New York. He wrote:
“All of the western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the west has no moral authority.”
“I have a dream”
Almost everyone knows about the famous speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Some excerpts:
I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day ... not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, ... little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Letter from Mecca
Yet even as MLK spoke those words, his dream was a living reality across vast swathes of the planet. The following year, another famed man, Malcolm X, made the Pilgrimage to Mecca. His impressions deserve to be quoted at length. Excerpts from his letter of April, 1964 follow.
Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’—but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)—while praying to the same God—with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.
With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called ‘Christian’ white American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem. Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster—the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventually destroyed the Germans themselves.
[This is] the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”
—Muhammad Ali Clay on alleged “Islamic” extremism
“Those who go to extremes are ruined.”
—The Prophet of God (Muslim, 2670)
... And Today?
Of course, some things have changed in the ensuing decades. We have come from interracial marriage to a black man as US president. And yet, social justice in America hasn’t really improved. As Suzy Hansen (a journalist who contributes to the New York Times Magazine) remarks, in some ways it has declined. A recent Foreign Affairs article states: “de facto segregation is firmly in place in much of the country.” (Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2018.) The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence doesn’t seem to have sunk in just yet: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...”
White supremacist attitudes still simmer just below the surface, accompanied by their reaction, racial animosity on the part of blacks. These sociological stressors are not quickly or easily dissipated. Black racism, no matter how justified in view of its historical backdrop, emerges as the mirror image of white racism.
The only solution is to renounce racism altogether, in whatever form. And a postracist society can be achieved only if Islam is embraced, as both Toynbee and Malcolm X wisely pointed out.
This is primarily an individual choice. But if enough people make it, it will become a collective choice.
Is the “Other” Our Greatest Enemy?
In the end scene of The Flash, S03E20, Flash’s worst enemy, Savitar,
is finally revealed as none other than—the Flash himself.
We have an enemy. It always plots our downfall and destruction. Yet it takes a long time to discover who it is, if we are ever even able to. That is because our greatest enemy is situated inside us. The inner beast is worse than the greatest external enemy you can think of. “Your own worst enemy,” said the Prophet, “is your (Base) Self betwen your two flanks.” He also said: “The greatest battle is the battle against the (Base) Self.”
I have known a woman who, more than anything else, wished to be close to her grandchildren. Yet when the opportunity was granted her, she inadvertently ruined it with her own hands.
I know a woman who, above all else, desired to secure a better future for her children. Yet when it was presented to her on a silver platter, she dashed it to the ground with the back of her hand.
I have known a girl who wanted to live in another country. But when she was presented with the opportunity, she wrecked it all by herself. No outside help was needed.
In the movie Doctor Strange (2016), the guru called the Ancient One triggers an out-of-body-experience (OOBE or OBE) for Dr Stephen Strange. Like an astronaut doing EVA (extra-vehicular activity) outside his space capsule, Strange is in for some breath-taking experiences. Click here for a longer video, and expect some psychedelic (mind-expanding) scenes.
Whether male or female, the human constitution comprises three items: the physical body, the spirit, and the self or ego.
The spirit has its own aspirations. It has wings, it wants to soar.
The self, too, has its inclinations, but these are very different from those of the spirit. The ego is selfish. The spirit wants to rise up, the self wants to drag it down.
This is because in its initial condition, the self is in a raw, unrefined state. For this reason, it is called the Base Self (nafs al-ammara) in Sufism.
The solution, however, is not to destroy it, because that is not possible short of suicide, which is a form of murder and hence, forbidden (4:29). What is necessary is to purify the self, to raise it to levels beyond the Base Self, until it reaches a stage where it shows zero resistance to the urge of the spirit to rise.
In The X-Files, S11E03, the doppelgängers of various people bring about their doom.
The Base Self will not miss the slightest chance to make you shoot yourself in the foot. Never side with your Base Self. Rather, step on it when it rears its head. It’s the hardest thing to do, but also the most necessary.
For instance, when your rage is about to boil over, do as the Prophet said: “When anger rises within you, remain silent.” Don’t say a word until it has passed.
Don’t engage in Illicit Gain. And don’t even approach Illicit Lust—extramarital sex with another (“marriage” being confined to a spouse of the opposite sex).
Otherwise, if you allow the Base Self to have its way, sooner or later it will ram you into a tree... or crash you into a wall.
You have been warned.
It is Better to Love than to Hate
Let us not make our hate our religion. Let us not make anger our religion.
As Muhammad Ali (born Cassius) Clay observed, “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” (Note: Clay moved from Sunni Islam to Sufism in his later years.)
The Buddhist Dhammapada states: “Hatred does not cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love.” Master Kayhan called this statement the interpretation of Koranic Verses and the Prophet’s Sayings. He said:
We’re human. We’re all brethren. All human beings aren’t relatives, they’re brothers and sisters. From one father and one mother. We’re not going to say ‘Go over there’ to non-Muslims. We’re going to love them, too. They’re brethren even if they don’t accept us.
(H. Bayman, The Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012), p. 56.)
He also said: “Love one another, love even an ant.” (And wasn’t this what Jesus also preached?)
“Our enemy is hate.”
—Yunus Emre, Turkish Sufi mystic-poet
But if we can’t love, let us at least learn to accept. Acceptance goes beyond tolerance, because you tolerate what you don’t like (you “grin and bear it”), whereas acceptance is being at peace with the “other” in full knowledge of the other’s faults, without attempting to change them or protest them.
In the first of Master Ahmet Kayhan’s “invitations to peace,” we find the following lines:
Man has an unbreakable, indissoluble partnership with neighbors or people of foreign countries whom he regards as enemies. Yes: human beings are partners in this global marketplace.
1. All human beings worship God [atheists being the exception that proves the rule]. But they express their faith in their own language [in their own various ways]. Humans share a belief in God.
2. They learn knowledge using the resources of the same world. They teach their learning in schools, they serve one another with knowledge. The brain of man is the computer of knowledge and emotion, the heart the center of intuition and love. Thus, human beings are shareholders in the knowledge imparted by such a brain and heart.
3. All human beings are descended from Adam and Eve (not from the apes). Human beings are united in a common wellspring of genesis.
4. Each human being, each society, does not have a separate sun. They benefit from the light of the same sun; they share the same sun.
5. They share the same water in this world. They drink the same water, they use the same water. They are shareholders in water.
6. Earth is the mortar of our mortal existence, and soil is what we live on. Human beings share the same earth.
[7. They breathe the same air. Leonardo da Vinci died five centuries ago. Yet with every breath, you inhale 100 million atoms that were once breathed by da Vinci!]
[Therefore,] what befits man is peace. And to achieve peace, the pen, the tongue, and unity are indispensable; it is essential to unite.
(Ahmet Kayhan, Man and Universe (Turkish, 1989), pp. 236-7.)
In this global village that is our spaceship, may humanity finally unite as one tribe, one race—the human race—however hard that might prove to achieve.
* The new version was published under the title Race and Slavery in the Middle East. The change in title would seem to reflect an attempt on the part of Lewis (or his publishers) to shift any blame away from Islam, and ascribe it more to social, historical and geographical circumstances. Racist tendencies may exist in Islamic societies, but they contradict the high ideals of Islam itself.
In addition to the issue of race, Lewis also focuses on slavery, which I have dealt with elsewhere (in “Islam and Democracy”). Some sources, such as this one (pp. 297-99), claim that Lewis's findings about Islamic slavery are misleading, calling them a gross oversimplification and citing significant achievements by black people in the Maghreb of which Lewis seems unaware. They also point out that some practices in real life violated the egalitarian message of the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet—the primary sources of Islam: “The moral principles suggested by the Qur’an and Hadith regarding the emancipation of enslaved people and the promotion of human rights and dignity conflicted with the interest of the dominant class and slave culture.” (p. 298.)
What distinguishes American slavery—which is the one we are really familiar with—from other ancient slave systems, is that it is race-based. (Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2018.) In other cases, slaves could be white, black, and so forth, but slavery was not built on white dominance. Thus, slavery and race are ordinarily separate topics for discussion; only in the American case do they merge. (The difference in the case of South Africa is that, unlike the Transatlantic slave trade that exported enslaved people from Africa, it was based on the enslaved society that existed within South Africa.)
Slavery was an entrenched condition in ancient societies, and Islam, while it vastly improved the lot of slaves, did not prohibit slavery immediately, but left it to linger on until it died out of itself. Ideals are not always easy to attain by real people living in an imperfect world.
And not just ancient societies: in the British Empire, slavery was only finally abolished in 1928 (it didn’t end in 1833). As for the United States, an article (by a law professor, no less!) was published there only recently, arguing for the reintroduction of slavery. (“What if you could get your own immigrant?”)
The examples given by Lewis notwithstanding, students of the institution of slavery in Islam have found that in general, what Muslims actually did with their slaves adhered closely to the requirements of the Prophet’s Traditions, Islamic theology and law:
the condition of the slaves with their Muslim masters was tolerable and not too much in variance with the quite liberal regulations which the official morality and the law had striven to establish.
(Robert Brunschvig, “‘Abd,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, second edition, Leiden: Brill, 1960, vol. 1, pp. 24 - 40.)
Returning, however, to the subject of race, we find Islam to be delightfully free of any racial prejudice, no doubt due to its total absence in the Koran, as pointed out by Lewis in the above quote.
**Agus writes this in a different context, but it sits equally well here.