Charlotte Bibby | Habeeb Akande
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Habeeb Akande

October 2017

 

Habeeb Akande is a British-born Nigerian Muslim author and historian, and a chartered accountant by profession. He studied Business and Film Studies as a BA then spent three years in Cairo, Egypt studying Islamic Law, Islamic History and Arabic before going on to write five books on race, erotic Muslim literature, Islamic history and Afro-Brazilian history. He is currently producing a documentary about race, religion and sexism in Brazil.

 

Twitter: @Habeeb_Akande | Instagram: @Habeeb_Akande

 

Click below to scroll through extracts from our interview.

 

Not many people are aware, even Brazilians themselves, that Brazil has a rich Islamic heritage dating back to the 19th Century where a number of African Muslims was enslaved and transported to Brazil. In the last 100 years between the beginning of the 18th Century and 19th Century, approximately 30% of the Africans that were enslaved were Muslims, primarily coming from West Africa. A large population. And a number of those Muslims lead a series of slave revolts between 1807 and 1835, and they were seen as a bit of a nuisance from the perspective of the Brazilian authorities, especially after the last slave revolt in 1835 when they deported a number of the Muslims because they saw them as being ‘trouble-makers’ to the establishment. They were encouraging people to preserve their faith, and teaching people, even though they were enslaved, about their (Islamic) religion, so because they were seen as a nuisance they were deported, some were killed and a number were imprisoned.

 

In terms of Brazil today, less than 1% of the Brazilian population is Muslim, approximately maybe one million or so, according to some reports. Most of the Muslims are of Arab descent, primarily from Syria and Lebanon, but there is a growing population of Muslims, especially amongst Brazilians of African descent, and a number of those Brazilians are converting on mass to Islam after hearing about the history of African Muslims in Salvador who lead a series of slave revolts and fought the establishment, they drew some inspiration from those African Muslim rebels.

 

So, although I’m from Nigeria, my tribe is the Yoruba, and the Yoruba influence in Salvador in particular is everywhere, you can see it, in terms of the food, the way people dress and even people’s mannerisms. So for me as a Nigerian, even though I was born in the UK, growing up and going to Brazil it was really fascinating because I’m seeing elements of my culture in South America and that’s what lead me to speak to a number of Brazilians and ask them about the African Muslims, known as the Malês. Many people weren’t aware about who they were, so I thought it might be a good idea to maybe write a book about the history of the Malês. It was just more or less a passion project that lead to me writing about it in my fifth book Illuminating the Blackness: Blacks and African Muslims in Brazil.

If someone’s going to ask me how would I identify myself I would say “I’m a British-born Nigerian Muslim.” I don’t feel like I’m fully British because I’m of African descent and I was brought up in an environment in which my parents instilled having pride in my Nigerian heritage. When I go to Nigeria though, I’m called British, I’m not called Nigerian. Whereas when I’m in the UK some people do ask me “where are you from”, meaning originally where you’re from, but if I were to say from the UK or from Britain, I don’t think many white British people would say “no you’re not from the UK” to be honest.

 

The question doesn’t offend me, though, because I can understand. If you were to see a black person and they told you that they were Chinese, let’s be honest, you’d be thinking, really? Because there aren’t many black people in China! And the same if I said that Cliff Richards was Indian, because he was born in India, you would be like “but he’s not Indian”. So personally I don’t feel offended by the question because my ancestors are not originally from this land and I accept that, and I don’t consider that question to be racist, xenophobic or anything like that.

There are different approaches to sexuality within African Muslim communities and other Muslim communities and that was one of the reasons why I not only wanted to write the book (A Taste of Honey), but even just research it because obviously being someone who is of a West African heritage, attitudes towards sexuality is quite laissez-faire; we’re not as strict as other Muslim communities like for example South Asian communities or Arab communities. That’s something which troubled me a few years ago, because even in terms of interactions between the opposite sexes, in parts of Nigeria it’s normal, whether it’s intimate or a friendship. Whereas amongst, for example, South Asian Muslims, even in the UK, it’s very strict in terms of gender segregation, how you interact, and what is considered to be ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

 

Coming from my Yoruba community in West Africa, we’re not as strict or conservative in terms of our attitude, in terms of gender relations and even female sexuality, whereas in a number of South Asian/Arab communities for example, unfortunately a lot of men seem to police women’s sexuality, whereas that doesn’t really exist as much in West African communities, although it does, but not as much from my experience.

 

In the Middle East dating back between the 9th century to the 13th century, Muslims had a very liberal attitude in terms of sexuality,  very different from the Muslims today, and that’s something that shocked me. A number of well-respected Muslim scholars that a number of  Arabs and Asians are aware of, spoke very freely about female sexuality, a woman’s right to sexual pleasure etc., whereas nowadays, for a lot of Muslims from the Arab and Asian worlds it’s a very taboo topic that they won’t talk about. So I wanted to understand why there was this attitude change; how did it come about? Is it something that came from the religion or is it something that came from the culture, and if it came from the culture how did we get to this stage? And that’s what basically all my research for my book, A Taste of Honey was about.

Victorian ethics and morality was imposed on a lot of the Muslim world in the 19th century, so that’s the reason why Muslims’ attitudes towards sexuality changed. Sexuality was seen as being ‘dirty’ because the British colonisers imposed their perception of sexuality and their views of morality onto parts of the Arab and Asian worlds as well as Africa. A lot of the British back then were very prude especially when it came to dealing with sexuality and sexual relations. You saw that reflected in the literature of that time so where a number of writers, poets, scholars etc. were open to talk about sexual relations, behaviours and acts, suddenly everything, even between a man and the woman within the confines of marriage was seen as dirty, so much so that you would find religious texts by Muslim scholars that would say things like; a man shouldn’t look at his wife’s private parts when they’re going to have relations, and the lights should be switched off when they make love because this was seen as ultra conservative and ‘modest’ sexual behaviour.

 

And a lot of Muslims of today, and even non-Muslims for example in India and Pakistan, have adopted these views of morality, this heightened sense of piety, and it’s seen as you’re being extra pious because you’re not engaging in such ‘foul’ acts unless it’s for pro-creational purposes. However, from the classical Islamic tradition it wasn’t like that. In terms of understanding early Muslims, their understanding of sexual relations is something that you do out of pleasure, not just purely for pro-creation. Whereas understanding that sex is really just for pro-creation, that came from Catholicism, and a number of Muslims have adopted it. It was interesting for me to see how attitudes have changed over a period of time, and a lot of it has been from external influences that aren’t actually from the Muslim world.

I’ve received some criticism [due to writing my book], but most of the critics, I’ll be honest, are people who haven’t read the book. So they’ve just seen sex or sexuality in the title and Islam, and are like “how can you be talking about sex in Islam?” Or people think that I’m encouraging promiscuity or that I’m encouraging people to engage in sexual relations outside of marriage and things like that, when in reality, all I’m doing is not only speaking about the history of sexuality within the Muslim world, but I’m acting as how a number of the writers of the past were, where they’re speaking like social commentators, in terms of looking at sexual ethics and critically examining sexual ethics, first and foremost from a Muslim perspective or within an Islamic framework.

 

We’ve got a Facebook fan page with maybe about 23,000 followers and it’s interesting because we put up some articles and one of the issues I wanted to talk about, because I’ve seen this first hand, was the issue of sexual assault which unfortunately goes on in Muslim communities by some preachers. It’s kept under wraps, no one talks about it. Also, the mistreatment of women as well as the issue of FGM (female genital mutilation), which unfortunately is practiced in some parts of the world. It’s actually a cultural practice, but people say it’s an Islamic practice to police female sexuality. All these kinds of topics which I know some people aren’t going to be ready to talk about, and it’s generally men unfortunately, so I knew I was going to receive some criticism.

 

We’ve had some funny instances on the page, I’ll give you one example. A man commented and was like “this page is un-Islamic, it’s terrible, you’re polluting people’s minds”, then I had another post about twenty minutes later by a woman and she said, “I really love this page, keep doing what you’re doing”. And the same man, posted about five minutes later saying, “I told you, you shouldn’t be reading this page, as your husband I’m banning you from watching this page”. Honestly! It’s just hilarious. That’s just an example even within a household, and a lot of the detractors, to be honest, are men, and men are very conservative.

 

A lot of men, not only within the Muslim community, but men in general, we have this bravado where we believe we can satisfy any woman or a woman’s sexual needs aren’t important, so when you’re trying to open up a conversation and engage with women when they’re speaking openly and honestly about how a number of men haven’t satisfied them, and not only the physical acts but emotionally and mentally as well, a lot of men don’t want to hear that, so they’re happy with the status quo. If you’re in power, as men are, you’re happy with the way things are. If someone’s trying to change or disrupt that, naturally you wouldn’t want to hear it, so I can understand why a lot of men are probably threatened by the book, because it might open up some home-truths that they don’t really want to hear.

Up until the age of maybe 18 I’d kind of hide my faith, because yes I’m Muslim and I’ve always been a Muslim, but I didn’t want that pressure because of everyone looking at you like you’re the representative of Islam, you’ve got your flaws, I’m doing things that I shouldn’t be doing as a Muslim, I didn’t want people to think that’s the religion so that’s why I used to hide my faith. But especially after 9/11 and 7/7 a lot of people were asking questions about my religion, they wanted to know, so that’s when I thought “ok, you know what, it’s my responsibility, as much as I’m not going to be the perfect Muslim and I’m not going to pretend to be the perfect Muslim, whether I like it or not, to some people I’m a representative of Islam”. So I have to speak and defend my religion.

 

I was fortunate enough to study a little bit about Islam so I put some of the knowledge I know out there in the form of books. If people have got questions they can ask me, but not look at just me as a representative of Islam, because obviously there are so many Muslims, we’re not a monolithic group. This idea of someone that’s religious, even within the Muslim community, is someone that’s quite stern, strict, doesn’t laugh, is not sociable, and even for me as a Muslim I find that problematic. Even for a lot of Muslims we don’t like to be considered ‘religious’ because our perception of someone that’s a religious Muslim is someone that you can’t really have a joke with, so even that perception I wanted to try and change. Like yes, I am a Muslim, but yes, I still do enjoy a number of things that a non-Muslim does enjoy, I’m still like a regular person, that’s the thing.

 

I think it’s important that even as Muslims, one thing that I do try to stress when I speak to different people is, it’s not about shoving our religion down people’s throats or even telling people about our religion, it’s about being a productive member of society. If you’re a productive member of society and people see benefits and you’re contributing positively towards society, people will respect you irrespective of your religion, and even if you’ve got issues, they’ll defend you. I always give examples of people like Muhammad Ali who is generally respected across the world by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and that’s because not only did he stand up for what he believed in, but he contributed positively towards society, that’s why people respected him. And as Muslims if we adopt that same kind of attitude and approach, then a lot of non-Muslims, even if they’re not of an Abrahamic faith, will speak up for us when we’re facing some difficulties. But, if we’re just complaining or talking about Muslim issues then I can understand why non-Muslims might feel like “why should I engage or try and support Muslims because they’re only looking out for themselves”, that’s why now my attitude is more of, yes I’ve got my religious beliefs, my Islamic beliefs, which again not everyone might agree with, but I’m just trying to be a productive member of society, and I think if people see that, not only that I’m a productive Muslim, but that I’m a productive member of society and is contributing positively, then people will hopefully see the good in that and they’ll realise that when they see some things in the media or whatever saying “Muslims are like this”, they will know that’s not the case because I know X is such and such, and not all Muslims are like that. So that’s why I think it’s important that we Muslims engage with the wider British community.

Up until the age of maybe 18 I’d kind of hide my faith, because yes I’m Muslim and I’ve always been a Muslim, but I didn’t want that pressure because of everyone looking at you like you’re the representative of Islam, you’ve got your flaws, I’m doing things that I shouldn’t be doing as a Muslim, I didn’t want people to think that’s the religion so that’s why I used to hide my faith. But especially after 9/11 and 7/7 a lot of people were asking questions about my religion, they wanted to know, so that’s when I thought “ok, you know what, it’s my responsibility, as much as I’m not going to be the perfect Muslim and I’m not going to pretend to be the perfect Muslim, whether I like it or not, to some people I’m a representative of Islam”. So I have to speak and defend my religion.

 

I was fortunate enough to study a little bit about Islam so I put some of the knowledge I know out there in the form of books. If people have got questions they can ask me, but not look at just me as a representative of Islam, because obviously there are so many Muslims, we’re not a monolithic group. This idea of someone that’s religious, even within the Muslim community, is someone that’s quite stern, strict, doesn’t laugh, is not sociable, and even for me as a Muslim I find that problematic. Even for a lot of Muslims we don’t like to be considered ‘religious’ because our perception of someone that’s a religious Muslim is someone that you can’t really have a joke with, so even that perception I wanted to try and change. Like yes, I am a Muslim, but yes, I still do enjoy a number of things that a non-Muslim does enjoy, I’m still like a regular person, that’s the thing.

 

I think it’s important that even as Muslims, one thing that I do try to stress when I speak to different people is, it’s not about shoving our religion down people’s throats or even telling people about our religion, it’s about being a productive member of society. If you’re a productive member of society and people see benefits and you’re contributing positively towards society, people will respect you irrespective of your religion, and even if you’ve got issues, they’ll defend you. I always give examples of people like Muhammad Ali who is generally respected across the world by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and that’s because not only did he stand up for what he believed in, but he contributed positively towards society, that’s why people respected him. And as Muslims if we adopt that same kind of attitude and approach, then a lot of non-Muslims, even if they’re not of an Abrahamic faith, will speak up for us when we’re facing some difficulties. But, if we’re just complaining or talking about Muslim issues then I can understand why non-Muslims might feel like “why should I engage or try and support Muslims because they’re only looking out for themselves”, that’s why now my attitude is more of, yes I’ve got my religious beliefs, my Islamic beliefs, which again not everyone might agree with, but I’m just trying to be a productive member of society, and I think if people see that, not only that I’m a productive Muslim, but that I’m a productive member of society and is contributing positively, then people will hopefully see the good in that and they’ll realise that when they see some things in the media or whatever saying “Muslims are like this”, they will know that’s not the case because I know X is such and such, and not all Muslims are like that. So that’s why I think it’s important that we Muslims engage with the wider British community.

I don’t think we (Nigerian Muslims in the UK) have any issues integrating with the wider British community, like other Muslims do, particularly of South Asian descent and Arab descent, especially for Nigerians of the Yoruba tribe, which is the tribe I’m from. It’s very common for us to inter-marry with people of different religious faiths, we’re very tolerant. So when Muslims, predominantly Asians or Arabs, are complaining about “how can we integrate with the wider community”, that has never been an issue being a Nigerian Muslim to be honest. If anything the Nigerian Muslim community in the UK needs to try and establish our Islamic identity so to speak, because we’re known as Nigerians, not really Muslims. It’s only recently in the last couple of years that maybe people are looking at Nigerians as Muslims, but generally people don’t know us as that.

 

Half of Nigerians are Muslim, and even within a family setup it’s common to have Muslims and Christians within the same household. It’s not an issue. We don’t really talk about our religious identity, it’s more about our cultural identity. That’s why for me it’s interesting because the narrative has changed over the last couple of years where now more Muslims want to hear the ‘black Muslim’ experience. Most Nigerians are born Muslims, they come from Nigerian households so they haven’t got an identity crisis (as in “am I black or am I Muslim?”), whereas if you were to speak to a number of revert/convert Muslims from the Caribbean, some of them have an identity crisis , because when they convert to Islam, they have this idea that in order to become a better Muslim they have to adopt an Arab or Asian culture. So for some of them they have this identity crisis and they’re not always accepted within some Muslim communities, whereas the mosque I grew up in in South East London was predominantly Nigerian, so I never had that kind of identity crisis or conflict until I started to go to predominantly Asian Muslim mosques in east London.

 

Many black Muslims have questions such as: “What is Islamic food?” “What is Islamic dress?” “Do I have to wear an abaya to be a better Muslim?” “Do I have to eat biriyani and curry to be a better Muslim?” Because these are seen as ‘Islamic foods’, whereas I see fish and chips as being just as much ‘Islamic’ food as biriyani! Even many Muslims don’t realise this. Because when they’re using terms like (‘Islamic’ or ‘halal’) they’re not saying, this is from our culture, they’re saying this is from the religion, but that’s wrong, they’re doing a disservice.

Rather than complaining or seeking validation from Arab Muslims or Asian Muslims, I think it’s incumbent upon Muslims of African descent or black Muslims to take it upon themselves to teach people their own history. I can understand why maybe even an Arab Muslim might not feel that racism is a big issue because he or she may not experience it, whereas a black Muslim does have to deal with it within the Muslim community, so I think it’s up to us (as black Muslims) to talk about this, rather than waiting for other people to validate our experiences.

 

It’s the same for Muslim women in Islamic history; we hear a lot about male Muslim personalities, but we very rarely hear about female Muslim personalities. That’s because most of the people writing the books and controlling the narrative are men, so they’re generally are going to be speaking about men who they either relate to or identify with, so that’s why it’s important for Muslim women themselves to start telling people the history of Muslim women,  otherwise they’re going to be erased from it.

 

I’ll give you an example, everybody knows who Malcom X is, but his sister, Ella Collins, wasn’t even mentioned in the 1992 film, Malcolm X (directed by Spike Lee) despite Ella playing a very significant role in Malcolm’s life, even by his own admission in his autobiography. She is someone that knew Malcom from when he was born right up until his death. She funded his historical trip to Mecca when he had a change in perception in understanding race relations. It was also Ella that instilled in Malcolm having pride in his blackness, not the Nation of Islam, and he talks about this in his autobiography. But for some reason, she’s omitted from the film! So this is an example of a woman, a Muslim, dark skinned, proud woman who was also an educator and a business woman, a very independent, strong woman who was influential in his life, being omitted from history.