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Stories Aren’t Just for Bedtime: How Oral Traditions Are Key to Preserving Histories

Posted on Jun 24, 2020
Guest Contributor


By Layla Abdullah-Poulos

Black history is Islamic history. Black Muslim scholars and leaders, including sahabah (companions) of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), contributed to the foundations of the faith and continue to play pivotal roles in scholarship, leadership and social activism. In the United States, African American Muslims represent a native-born Muslim population with roots in Islam through their enslaved African ancestors.

Our unique social group combines layers of Islamic, African and American cultures and traditions that create dynamic, multifaceted identities instituting elements of each and impacted by the effects of dominant White supremacist systems.

Margari Aziza

(Image to the left: Margari Aziza) African American Muslims maintain an affinity for knowledge via oral traditions, which connect Islamic and African traditions and the historical need to preserve our identities, customs and narratives. Many of us revere oral histories and work to preserve them despite the dominant culture’s prioritizing written archival texts. The prevailing thought in capturing history might be that written materials hold more weight, but that, unfortunately, dismisses much of the importance of oral history and storytelling.

“There is a problem when we think about the archive and materialists,” explains historian Margari Aziza. “There is a lot of debate within the history field and critique of the materialist analysis, which focuses on the written word as the key source to understand [the past].

“[Historians] have pointed out that collected documents contain inherent bias,” says Margari. “If we look at pre-modern history, only a certain class of people got to write and [have] their narratives told. Even a pre-modern state may record particular things. As a historian, I must triangulate and consider what are the silences?”

Margari, executive director of the Muslim Anti-racism collaborative and educator, holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Santa Clara University and a master’s in History of the Middle East and Islamic Africa from Stanford University. She has engaged in decades-long work in history, Islamic studies, gender in Islam and anti-racism. She shared her perspective on the links between Islam, Black Muslim experiences and African American Muslims preserving oral traditions.

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Islamic Oral History

Oral traditions involve diverse mediums to store and transmit knowledge, art and ideas that formed and sustained societies for millennia, including Muslim ones. Aziza explains the essential placement of oral traditions in Islam: “Islamic history is a combination of both oral and written history. The Quran was oral literature first, which was just as important as the written text that would come later, if not more so. If every Quran is burned, we can reproduce it because people have internalized the text. It is a living document that doesn’t change.

“We [also] imagine the sunnah as written, but it is primarily transmitted through isnad (chains of authority attesting to the historical accuracy of hadiths). It’s passed on from person to person orally and through demonstration. For example, you can write down how to pray but never learn how to actually pray until you see someone doing it. We know things because people have been doing them and passing them on generation to generation.”

Margari talks about the value of written text but not as a replacement for oral transmission. “The written word is still important, but when we are engaged in historical study, and trying to understand what happened in the past, it is important to keep in mind whose stories are documented and whose are left out.”

African Oral Culture

Modern history, founded in Eurocentrism, contains an aversion to oral transmission, prioritizing written text and using it as a means to discount the accomplishments of oral-based societies. “White supremacy structures attempted to erase the rich histories of complex African societies by promoting the concept that they don’t have a history because they don’t have a written archive when they have rich traditions of transmitting what happened in the past [orally],” explains Margari.

She contends that by embracing generational knowledge through oral tradition, African Muslims reinforce not only their cultural connections with their faith but their African ancestry. “We go into our own indigenous systems of knowing when we acknowledge the importance of transmitting stories. There is the West African tradition of the griots passing on a lot of epics through songs and poetry. People did write them down eventually, but they wouldn’t have mattered if no one articulated them. Those texts aren’t meant to be read silently.

“As Black people, the fastest ways we have been able to get our voices out there is through our music and spoken word,” she says, adding that “We read Malcolm’s speeches but we [also] heard them long before reading them. We hear Black Muslim women long before we read them.”

Margari explains that oral tradition is more than conversing. “Oral history is important with intricate methodologies to navigate them and look at the consistency of stories. There are ways that people collected narratives showing social change during Colonialism. If we only focused on the written text of colonized people, writing in the colonizer’s language, you will get this imperfect story. You’ll never learn what it was like for children during the social upheavals of the pre-colonial and colonial period or what happened with women. What were the stories they told and passed onto their children? Some of the stories I found to be the best narratives to understand things were passed on generation to generation.”

African American Oral Transmission

slave ships

Part of African American Muslim culture is the harsh reality of interrupted lineages and disrupted histories. Aziza talked about the tear created between African Americans and their traditions as they were forced into bondage across the Atlantic, and how African Americans preserved what they could.

“One of the challenges of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is that we had ruptures in our oral literature. We had them in our own lands, but [slave owners] kept people from sharing their language," Margari says. "Part of that control was to make the transmission of our oral histories – our memories – vanish, but they didn’t fully disappear. There are certain stories we have and things we learned that we pass on to each other, which is important to our survival.

“The South has a lot of transmission of oral stories of what happened, who’s who, whose family you belong to, how people eat, the food, the herbs and medicinal stuff. Those were passed on through showing and telling,” she says.

Margari asserts that African American Muslims and all Muslims should not discount our oral tradition roots. “The text has no meaning without the oral component. We have to understand things intertextually. There are things that are never captured in the written word. There are things we do as Muslims, like our salah, that words can’t express. We have to be mindful of those things that archives don’t hold.”