Ancestors and Cousins

In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth

Lester A. Knibbs aka Doctor Hakeem

Moses Towe Jr. was my mother’s father. He would not allow smoking, drinking, gambling, or dancing in his house. Those are not Christian prohibitions — even though he was the choirmaster and a trustee of the New Chapel Baptist Church in Plymouth, North Carolina. Those prohibitions are specifically characteristic of the Maliki school of law as practiced among Muslims in West African nations.

When I mentioned these prohibitions to my father, who is Jamaican, he told me that his mother had similar values.

Because of this — and other indications — I am convinced that my ancestors were Muslims of the Fulani people of West Africa.

The Fulani Connection

The three principal Fulani nations of the Atlantic slave-trade period — that I am familiar with — were Futa Toro and Bondu, in what is now Senegal, and Futa Jallon, in what is now Guinea. At the time of the slave-trade, 100% of the men and 20% of the women were literate in Arabic. Fula, the language of the Fulani people, is not even a distant relative of the Arabic language. It has incorporated many Arabic words as a result of so many Fulani people being Muslim for several centuries. West Africa — and the entirety of Africa south of the Sahara and east of Lake Chad — was never invaded or conquered by Arabs or other Muslims. The prevalence of Muslims in this area is the result of contact with merchants and other travelers. Two exceptions are the Fulani Jihad of Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), in the region of Nigeria at the beginning of the 19th century, and the empire of al-Hajj Umar Tall (1797-1864), spreading east from Senegal in the mid-19th century. Uthman dan Fodio was a teacher of the Maliki school of law.

Several men who had been captured and sold into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean were scholarly men of the Fulani people — Ayyub ibn Sulaiman, Bilal Muhammad, Salih Bilal, Abdur-Rahman ibn Ibrahim Sori, Omar ibn Sayyid, and Abu Bakr As-Siddique. Prior to their enslavement, they had been university students and teachers, and one or two were law students, one was a merchant (whose knowledge of Arabic earned him a reputation as an Arabic scholar in England), and one was a military general (who was also the son of the ruler of Futa Jallon). These are the people — intelligent, literate, scholarly, professional, civilized people — from which my African American (and Jamaican) family is descended.

Abu Bakr As-Siddique, a university scholar and teacher from Timbuktu, who was captured in Ashanti territory during a civil war and sold into slavery in Jamaica, British West Indies — his family claimed descent from Prophet Muhammad. Following the full emancipation of slaves in Jamaica in 1838, Abu Bakr returned to Africa. I doubt if there is any direct family connection, even though my father is from Jamaica. But his example opened my eyes to the possibility that some of those caught up in the slave trade and transported to these lands could be descendants of Prophet Muhammad (and therefore descendants of his ancestors, Ishmael and Abraham, as well).

The Tall Family

As pronounced by the Fulani people, the family name “Tall” rhymes with the English word “pal”.  My grandfather’s family name — Towe — is pronounced the same as the West African Fulani name “Tall” would be pronounced in the local dialect of northeastern North Carolina, in which “Towe” and the English word “tall” both rhyme with “how”. (“How tall are you, Paul?” would be pronounced, “How tow ah you, Pow?”) When my mother went to school, she was told that “Towe” should be pronounced the same as “toe”. That is not how we pronounce our own family name.

The Tall family — an extended family — is an illustrious family in West Africa. Its most famous member was  al-Hajj Umar Tall, mentioned above, whose empire stretched from what is now Senegal almost as far as what is now northern Nigeria, and who also impressed the scholars of Makkah with his intellectual superiority.

The name “Tall” (actually “Ta`l“) does not seem to be Fulani in origin. It contains two consonant sounds (the emphatic taa’, and `ain) out of the three, which are not a regular part of the Fulani language — but which are part of Arabic and of Berber languages.

The Berbers, the Muraabitoon, and Spain

Directly north of the Senegal River lived the Sanhaja people (from whose name the word “Senegal” seems to be derived), a prominent Berber family. The most illustrious member of this family was Yusuf ibn Tashfin (1061-1106), one of the two leaders of the movement known as the Muraabitoon, which established an empire stretching from Timbuktu to Seville. Over 950 years ago, Yusuf went north from his homeland along the Senegal River to Spain, whose Muslim leaders had asked his help against the advancing Christian monarchs. These Black Africans — the Moors in Spain — were the main factor in raising Europe out of the ignorance and degradation of its Dark Ages. The first European universities were established for the purpose of acquiring the Moorish learning. Among many other things learned from the Moors, the Europeans acquired algebra (invented by Muslims) and the fundamental principles and practices of symphonic music.

This history of Fulani and Berber Muslims connects my ancestry directly to the Muslim civilization which stretched from the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Spain, across Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India, to the Pacific coast of Indonesia — a civilization that preserved, led, and advanced world-wide civilization for eight centuries (from at least 711 to 1492 and beyond) while Europe languished in its Dark Ages.

The guiding principles of the Moorish Muraabitoon movement and of my Fulani ancestors were drawn from the Maliki school of law, the same school of law from which my grandfather got the rules of his household.



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4 Responses to Ancestors and Cousins

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