Post-colonial and decolonial theory produced in the Western and Westernized academy tends to be soft on the Left and hard on the Right. Although some scholars, such as Ramon Grosfoguel,[i] state that they wish to decolonize or decolonialize the Left, they tend to draw overwhelmingly from intellectual genealogies which are leftist, humanist, and secular. These genealogies are heavily influenced by such men (yes as in mostly not women) as Michel Foucault, Immanuel Wallerstein, Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Karl Marx.
The same can be said of previous generations of scholars and activists engaged in the struggle against Eurocentric colonialism, such as Edward Said and Frantz Fanon. This is problematic for two reasons: (1) because Western colonialism and imperialism have drawn upon ideologies from both sides of the Eurocentric Left/Right binary, and (2) because secularism, as the dominant ideology in the core of the modern/colonial world-system,[ii] has for centuries peripheralized all other approaches to reality. Every position within the Left/Right spectrum—born from where French politicians sat in the National Assembly in 1789—has been used to present people in the colonial periphery with the choice between subjugation and genocide. Communists, socialists, social democrats, centrists, conservatives, and fascists have all served the interests of elites from the core of the world-system, and for a time the Soviet semi-periphery, by slaughtering Africans, Asians, Indigenous Americans, and other peripheralized peoples.
“I contend that thinkers sincerely engaged in decolonial struggles should access genealogies outside the Eurocentric and secular Left/Right spectrum to help them apply their critique as sharply to the Left as they rightly do to the Right.”
Therefore, I contend that thinkers sincerely engaged in decolonial struggles should access genealogies outside the Eurocentric and secular Left/Right spectrum to help them apply their critique as sharply to the Left as they rightly do to the Right. This article proposes a decolonial perspective genealogically rooted in the Muslim Atlantic.
Islam and the Emergence of the Modern/Colonial World-System
The Islamic intellectual tradition is the only global counterhegemonic discourse to the West which has been present since the birth of the modern/colonial world-system in 1492, when the Christian conquistadors of Spain defeated the last Muslim Ruler in Spain and sent Columbus westwards across the Atlantic. In fact, the modern/colonial project was largely motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and a desired rebirth, indeed a ‘Renaissance’, after centuries of being surrounded by Muslims in the tight Northwestern margin of the enormous African-Eurasian landmass. Upon realizing that people living in lands ruled by Muslims were much more advanced in terms of science, technology, and even arts, Western European elites yearned to exit a period they came to perceive as the ‘Dark Ages’ and enter an ‘Age of Enlightenment.’ They also sought to become wealthier and more powerful than their Muslim rivals. One way to do so was to seek trade routes to Asia which did not go through lands dominated by Muslims.
“In fact, the modern/colonial project was largely motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and a desired rebirth, indeed a ‘Renaissance’, after centuries of being surrounded by Muslims in the tight Northwestern margin of the enormous African-Eurasian landmass.”
Because rivalry with and indeed hatred of Muslims fueled the rise of the modern/colonial West, Muslims have unique viewpoints to offer decolonial conversations. In the lands neighboring the Atlantic, such critical perspectives have been developed for over five centuries by Muslims resisting the annihilation of their distinct traditions of knowing, being, and behaving.[iii] Western dominance has long represented an existential menace to Muslim bodies in the Atlantic world, but it has also threatened spiritual, intellectual, social, economic, artistic, hygienic, erotic, culinary, and all other dimensions of Muslim life. Genocide and epsitemicide (the destruction of knowledge traditions)[iv] have led Muslims and other peripheralized peoples in the Atlantic world to develop robust multigenerational critical traditions of resistance born from a deep mistrust of those who represent the interests of the modern/colonial core. Nowhere is this critical suspicion more acute than in the North American Muslim intellectual tradition which overlaps considerably with Black American thought.
Foxes and Wolves
El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, was deeply suspicious of those he described as liberal ‘’foxes’’ and conservative ‘’wolves.’’ Commenting on the 1964 presidential election, Shabazz argued that “the American black man only needed to choose which one to be eaten by, the ‘liberal’ fox or the ‘conservative’ wolf—because both of them would eat him.” But Shabazz was especially wary of foxes, explaining that ‘’the wolf’s very growling would keep me alert and fighting him to survive, whereas I might be lulled and fooled by the tricky fox.’’ In fact, Shabazz respected the wolf for not ‘’whispering to racists and smiling at integrationists.’’[v]
“Shabazz drew upon his experience as a black man in the United States to theorize his suspicion towards Left/Right politics, but he also echoed an Islamic tradition of mistrust towards those in power, formulated by scholars and saints since the first generations in Mecca and Medina.”
Shabazz drew upon his experience as a black man in the United States to theorize his suspicion towards Left/Right politics, but he also echoed an Islamic tradition of mistrust towards those in power, formulated by scholars and saints since the first generations in Mecca and Medina. His description of foxes and wolves is reminiscent of how the Qur’an compares hypocrites and outright unbelievers, specifying that ‘’hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire’’ (Quran 4:145). In the aftermath of the 2020 US American election, Muslims in North America and around the world have good reason to remain critical and keep a safe distance from foxes and wolves, and indeed donkeys and elephants. Rather than simply adopting a Eurocentric position which focuses on the complex diversity within Western political thought, Muslims should remember the simple fact that nearly all Western governments participate in submitting Muslims to invasive surveillance, economic coercion, cultural engineering, political interference, and constant bombing. Despite periodic shifts of intensity, these policies seem remarkably consistent from the perspective of a mosque in Detroit or a refugee camp in Lebanon, just as the continuity between successive French governments was clear from the viewpoint of working-class neighborhoods in Casablanca or Algiers a century ago.
“Rather than simply adopting a Eurocentric position which focuses on the complex diversity within Western political thought, Muslims should remember the simple fact that nearly all Western governments participate in submitting Muslims to invasive surveillance, economic coercion, cultural engineering, political interference, and constant bombing.”
Decolonial scholars should remember that foxes are often so good at sweet-talking that they convince themselves that they love you, but when you refuse to offer yourself as lunch, their sense of betrayal is so great that they respond as violently as wolves. This tendency can be traced back to the birth of the modern/colonial world-system. Columbus first described Indigenous people in the Caribbean as noble savages, essentially predisposed to being dominated by Europeans; however, when they showed resistance to his colonial project, he immediately changed his assessment and portrayed them as beasts requiring urgent subjugation or elimination.[vi] The binary opposing good and bad savages was subsequently adapted and applied to Muslims and all other peripheral peoples within the modern/colonial world-system.
“Decolonial scholars should remember that foxes are often so good at sweet-talking that they convince themselves that they love you, but when you refuse to offer yourself as lunch, their sense of betrayal is so great that they respond as violently as wolves. This tendency can be traced back to the birth of the modern/colonial world-system. “
Soon, Catholic authorities debated whether Indigenous Americans were human or not in the Spanish city of Valladolid (1550-1551). Ever since, colonial subjects everywhere have been stuck between the foxes who consider them human but primitive and the wolves who consider them subhuman and even beastly. Foxes argue that so-called primitive people simply need to Westernize partly or in whole, but when their assistance is rejected, they join the wolves in calling for the complete subjugation or elimination of colonial subjects, such as those they depict as bad Muslims.
One can infer from the dominant modern/colonial discourse, that a stereotypical good Muslim is a white, gay, progressive, Sufi woman who wears colorful shawls; the bad one is a dark-skinned, polygamist, conservative, legalist man with a monochrome wardrobe. This caricatural stereotype is just as prevalent on the Left as it is in those circles on the Right which still believe there exist good Muslims. Understandably, some Muslims seek protection under the umbrella of progress by attempting to meet all the expectations of the colonial core. But this is not an acceptable long-term solution since it leads to the annihilation of any difference between the Muslim periphery and the secular humanist core. Muslims and all other peripheralized peoples who wish to resist such genocide and epistemicide have no choice but to disentangle themselves from colonial binaries. This decolonial process requires strength, courage, prudence, patience and, I would argue, digging deep into one’s own tradition for inspiration.
Some proficiency in Islamic traditions of being, knowing, and behaving can also be helpful for non-Muslims committed to decolonization on a local and global scale. Muslims and other peoples peripheralized within the modern/colonial world-system can learn from one another. Likewise, people socially situated in the core of the system can benefit from the perspectives of Muslims and others in the periphery, as well as premodern European thought, in order to take a step back from the current Eurocentric ideologies. Wherever one is socially situated, it is possible to develop empathy towards others and open oneself to being transformed by their perspectives. Peripheralized peoples can adopt Eurocentric perspectives and serve the interests of the core, even unwittingly. In fact, this is unfortunately the dominant approach in Westernized universities around the world. Although it is far less common, people in the core who seek truly compassionate and fair interactions with all human communities can certainly contribute to the decolonial process. The first step is to begin the long arduous process of decolonializing their own minds and allowing themselves to be deeply transformed by other epistemic perspectives, such as Islam.
“Some proficiency in Islamic traditions of being, knowing, and behaving can also be helpful for non-Muslims committed to decolonization on a local and global scale. Muslims and other peoples peripheralized within the modern/colonial world-system can learn from one another.”
One trap for decolonial scholars is to only seriously engage the minority of Muslim scholars promoting a progressive interpretation of Islam, deeply influenced by the Western Left. It is important to note that many Muslims perceive their progressive coreligionists as agents of the colonial core, trained in Western institutions, and generally living either in the West or among the Westernized elites. For example, anyone familiar with Moroccan social dynamics knows that members of the infamously corrupt and arrogant elite[vii] tend to promote an openly progressive agenda, along secular and loosely leftist lines, in French, Spanish, and increasingly English. Moroccans who only fluently speak Arabic or Tamazight are generally quite suspicious of such missionaries of progress. But non-Muslim decolonial scholars are sometimes unaware of these dynamics. Happily, some of the leaders associated with Progressive Islam, such as the South African Farid Esack,[viii] have denounced how their movement is frequently utilized to legitimize unsavoury colonial power dynamics.
“One trap for decolonial scholars is to only seriously engage the minority of Muslim scholars promoting a progressive interpretation of Islam, deeply influenced by the Western Left. It is important to note that many Muslims perceive their progressive coreligionists as agents of the colonial core, trained in Western institutions, and generally living either in the West or among the Westernized elites.”
Muslims are increasingly wary of both the foxes and wolves in their midst, who react to the Eurocentric political binary by producing an analogous one. On one end of the spectrum, there are Muslim foxes who are regularly cited by Western powers to justify military, political, economic, and cultural invasions. These foxes include a variety of pro-Western and Westernized Muslims, generally found among socioeconomic and political elites. In the name of modernity and progress, they want Muslims to constantly deconstruct their institutions—from the family all the way to the state—and reconstruct them every time a new ideological trend arises in the West. They offer Muslims the sweet illusion of peace built on an unstable foundation. On the other end of the spectrum, Muslim wolves seek to destroy much of their Islamic heritage and kill all those Muslims who disagree with them. An obvious example of such wolves is the radical fringe of the often-overlapping Salafî and Wahhâbî movements. In a knee-jerk reaction to Eurocentric modernity, they would lead Muslims into a violent head-on conflict against a much more powerful enemy. Furthermore, by condoning Islamically prohibited and questionable combat tactics, these wolves would have Muslims lose their ethical principles as well as their lives. I am suggesting here that there is a third way—a decolonial Islamic middle way.
Muslim Atlantic Genealogies
With nearly 2 billion Muslims spread across the entire globe, there are in fact multiple intellectual genealogies upon which to draw when developing decolonial options adapted to diverse Muslim communities. Where I live, in the northeastern regions of the Muslim Atlantic, Malcolm X represents an excellent entry for a decolonial Islamic genealogy. He is the heroic figure to which are indebted many contemporary North American Muslim scholars, such as Ingrid Mattson, who works just down the road from Waterloo, in London, Ontario, Dawud Walid, a bit further along the road, in Detroit, Michigan, and Tamara Gray, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. If we follow the spiritual, intellectual, political, economic, and cultural routes which intersected in the biography of Malcolm X, we must inevitably cross the Atlantic to Africa.
“With nearly 2 billion Muslims spread across the entire globe, there are in fact multiple intellectual genealogies upon which to draw when developing decolonial options adapted to diverse Muslim communities. Where I live, in the northeastern regions of the Muslim Atlantic, Malcolm X represents an excellent entry for a decolonial Islamic genealogy.”
Africa is the birthplace of Islamic intellectual lineages to which are attached such North American scholars as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in Washington D.C., as well as Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir, and Abdullah Bin Hamid Ali, in Berkeley, California. It is the homeland of scholars and activists who have resisted Western European hegemony since at least 1492, by drawing upon the traditions of being, knowing, and behaving formulated by the likes of Ibn Rushd, Ibn ‘Arabî, Ibn Battûta, and Ibn Khaldûn.
Muslim resistance in the modern/colonial world began in Africa, whose northern shores welcomed Muslims and Jews fleeing genocide in Spain from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. Among the Andalusian exile community was Sayyida al-Hurra, the daughter of Zuhra Fernandez, a Spanish woman who converted from Christianity to Islam, and ‘Alî Ibn Râshid, a descendant of Idrîs, the first Muslim king of Morocco. Her parents fled Granada in the fifteenth century to establish the Northern Moroccan city-state of Chefchaouen. Sayyida al-Hurra was fluent in many languages and trained in all the basic Islamic arts and sciences. She became Governor of the Northern Moroccan city-state of Tetouan and eventually married the Sultan of Morocco. Iberian Catholics knew her as the Pirate Queen, because of her fierce naval resistance to their forces. Another Muslim born from the union of an ethnically mixed couple was Anthony van Salee, the first non-Indigenous person to settle in the place now known as Brooklyn, New York. His father was the Dutch privateer Jan Janszoon van Salee, who converted to Islam, joined the Moroccan naval forces based in the city of Salé (Salee), and apparently married an African woman named Margarita.
“Africa was the land of the great Islamic Revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which reorganized West African society in response to the devastating impact of the transatlantic slave trade.”
Africa was the land of the great Islamic Revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which reorganized West African society in response to the devastating impact of the transatlantic slave trade. The Senegambian king and scholar ‘Abd al-Qâdir Kan abolished slavery in his lands more than two decades before the British did, and was considered a role model for the Christian kings of Europe by the British abolitionist, Reverend Thomas Clarkson.[ix] Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate (c. 1808-1903), which stretched over present-day northern Nigeria and surrounding regions, believed that Islamic traditions of justice had been corrupted over time in his lands and wanted to build an Islamic state which was strong enough to protect both Muslim and non-Muslim subjects. One of his major concerns was to promote the well-being and education of women within an Islamic framework. This was not antitraditional progress in the Eurocentric sense, but the expression of one current within the Islamic tradition. Dan Fodio came from a long family tradition of learned women, and he passed this tradition on to his descendants. His daughter, Nana Asma’u, was a major Muslim scholar, poet, Sufi, and social reformist who authored dozens of works in Arabic, Fula, and Hausa.[x]
The African Revolutions also had a profound impact in the Americas, where countless Muslim warriors captured in West Africa led revolts against colonial slavers. For instance, François Mackandal, was a Muslim warrior and Maroon whose armed resistance led the way for the Haitian Revolution. In their struggle, Mackandal and other Muslim Maroons utilized their knowledge of Arabic, warfare and various other disciplines studied by West African Muslims.
The selection of names presented in this article should be sufficient to establish that other options exist for decolonial Muslims scholars to explore beyond the canon of the Western Left. Sayyida al-Hurra was leading the fight centuries before Marx wrote about revolution from the core of the world-system. In fact, Marx died in 1883, the same year as another revolutionary figure whose name must be mentioned here: the Algerian prince, scholar, Sufi, and poet ʿAbd al-Qâdir. Whereas Marx and Engels supported European imperial and colonial ventures, such as the French invasion of Algeria begun in 1830, ʿAbd al-Qâdir was nominated prince (amîr) by a council of tribal chiefs in 1832, at the age of 24. He established an Islamic state and led the armed resistance against France for fifteen years before surrendering. In exile for the rest of his life, he devoted himself to worshipping, writing, and pursuing a critical but sincere inter-civilizational and interfaith dialogue with Jews, Christians, and scholars from a variety of traditions. ʿAbd al-Qâdir did not stop resisting Western dominance. He simply accepted his fate and adapted to his circumstances by shifting from political and military resistance to defending his tradition on a spiritual, intellectual, and cultural level. By critically engaging Eurocentric modernity, he refused to be a subaltern colonial subject and to surrender to the intellectual or epistemic colonialism which tends to invade the minds, hearts, and souls of the defeated. This is a very different attitude than that of the many modernist Muslims who led the struggles for political decolonization in the twentieth century.
“ʿAbd al-Qâdir and the selection of scholars and activists from the Muslim Atlantic presented here offer a model of critical resistance to Western hegemony which involves mistrust of political power and opposition to oppression rooted in a broader ethic of compassion and love.Critiquing the Left/Right binary and positioning oneself outside it does not require hating individuals committed to Eurocentric ideologies.”
ʿAbd al-Qâdir and the selection of scholars and activists from the Muslim Atlantic presented here offer a model of critical resistance to Western hegemony which involves mistrust of political power and opposition to oppression rooted in a broader ethic of compassion and love. Critiquing the Left/Right binary and positioning oneself outside it does not require hating individuals committed to Eurocentric ideologies. In fact, it opens the way to selectively engage both conservative and progressive scholarship produced in Western and Westernized institutions and avoid the cancel culture so prominent across the Left/Right spectrum today. Most of the Muslims examined in this article seek not to destroy oppressors and wrongdoers but oppression and wrongdoing. They start from the premise that everyone is redeemable and that divine mercy is beyond human comprehension. But decolonial love is not the focus here. It deserves a separate article.
Dr. Jason Idriss Sparkes teaches Religion and Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. In his research, he applies a decolonial and transdisciplinary approach to examine Muslim traditions of being, knowing and behaving west of Mecca. His personal website is www.jasonsparkes.com.
[i] Grosfoguel, Ramón. 2011. “Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political-Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality.” TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World (eScholarship University of California) 1 (1).
[ii] Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. 2008b. “Secularism and Religion in the Modern/Colonial World-System: From Secular Postcoloniality to Postsecular Transmodernity.” In Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate, edited by Carlos A Jáuregui, Mabel Moraña and Enrique D Dussel, 360-387. Durham: Duke University Press.
[iii] Sparkes, Jason Idriss. 2020. Tradition as Flow: Decolonial Currents in the Muslim Atlantic (PhD Dissertation). Waterloo: Wilfird Laurier University.
[iv] Grosfoguel, Ramón. 2013. “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11 (1): 73-90.
[vi] Columbus, Christopher. 2010 . The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492-93) and Documents Relating the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real, translated by Clements R Markham. London: Halkut Society.
[vii] Benhaddou, Ali. 1997. Maroc, les élites du royaume: essai sur l’organisation du pouvoir au Maroc. Paris: L’Harmattan.
[viii] Esack, Farid. 2018. “Progressive Islam – A Rose by Any Name? American Soft Power in the War for the Hearts and Minds of Muslims.” ReOrient 4 (1): 78-106.
[ix] Ware III, Rudolph T. 2014. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 114.
[x] Mack, Beverly B and Jean Boyd. 2000. One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.