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On The Bahía Slave Revolt : Notes From A University About Religion And Politics

The phrase, “secular fabric” has been thrown at every single person who is attempting to do politics beyond that of a materialistic frame, and beyond that of a liberal, or Marxist understanding of the world.

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On the face of it, these two spaces may be hard to invoke together. What connects Bahía and student politics? In this article, I will attempt to do what we must in order to understand our political context today: turn to history. The Bahía slave revolt in Brazil, that occurred during Ramadan in 1835, holds several valuable lessons for us to hold onto today as we attempt to create some form of resistance in campuses and beyond, whether in terms of access to education, social justice, or address many questions of loss, struggle and failure. Beginning from a brief understanding of the revolt itself – its contexts, framework, and consequences – I will attempt to see what lessons it holds for us, and how it might help us answer one of the most common accusations that are thrown at us: that Muslim political resistance is a dangerous mix of religion and politics, one that is almost incendiary and dangerous.

The history of the slave trade from Africa to the Americas is a long and complicated one, and one, that I as a student of Indian politics am not equipped to fully do so. But as we know, the slave trade is one of the most shameful, violent and exploitative parts of history that has shaped life as it exists today across the world. Millions of African people were forcibly taken to many parts of the Americas to work as slaves. This is well documented. But what is also documented, and deserves further attention is the history of slave revolts. Bahia is one such case. But what makes Bahia special and located in a legacy of its own, is that it was almost entirely planned, organised and carried out by Muslims, and solely from within Muslim social spaces such as mosques and schools. Not only did the Muslims of Bahia refuse to submit to Catholicism, despite much pressure, they also maintained a flourishing socio-political-religious life and society, which would later form the basis of the revolt. As Firas Alkhateeb points out: “In 1814 and 1816, the Muslims of Bahia attempted to organize a revolt against the Portuguese. They wanted to overthrow the local law enforcement, free all the slaves, and commandeer ships back to Africa. Unfortunately, some slaves were serving as informants to the local police, and the revolt was crushed before it even started, with its leaders being killed. Over the next 20 years, intermittent minor revolts by Muslims and non-Muslims alike were met with no success in bringing freedom to Bahia’s slaves.”

So, there was relentless effort, by a severely subjugated group of people, who, incidentally were divided on the lines of language and cultures of their different communities and origins back home, but were united by this common thread of Islam. As Margarita Rosa points out in “Duas of the Oppressed”, previous revolts were put down quickly and faded away because they only drew participation from one or two communities, for example the Hausas. This time, however, there was something else holding people together.  These multiple failures – or what is deemed in history as “failure” – led up to the moment of the 1835 revolt. The revolt, scheduled for the 27th night of Ramadan, was formulated, planned, and organised from within the mosques of Bahia in Salvador – of which there where over twenty. As Rosa argues,  it was a revolt “…cultivated in Bahían madrassas…  it was not purely a physical attempt to liberate Africans from the institution of slavery. Rather, [it] was a spiritual struggle…brought about by the desire to reunite with exiled spiritual leaders, and ultimately, to preserve Islamic education and through it, spiritual fortification.” The other major important point Rosa makes is that there is often an assumption that slavery erased whatever little cultural, social and political identity the slaves had. In that sense, history has often been written to completely erase the life of these people under slavery, instead painting a picture which leaves no room for resistance possible. Instead, as she points out, there was a determined effort to maintain a distinct identity, a  life drawn from and driven by the framework Islam gave them, whether it was by the primary mode of education, or by teaching and spreading the message of Islam to fellow enslaved peoples, or by maintaining Islamic codes such giving of zakat (even though the ones carrying this out were slaves themselves) or stitching (in secret) kaftans and kufis, thus resisting also against the humiliating and poor quality of clothing that the slaves were generally made to wear.

The revolt was, due to the sheer force and power of the authorities, put down quickly, and the leaders of the revolt – imams, teachers, clerics, men who had sustained a community and its learning – were put to their death, and many other punished. But the legacy has been long-lasting, not merely as a source of inspiration, but directly in terms of how slavery was imagined and contested by other communities in South America and in Brazil in particular for many years, all the way till it was eventually criminalised in 1888. Even after the legal outlawing of slavery, the traces of it remain in the forms of deep racist exploitation and discrimination.  The aftermath of the revolt, was also bloody and scarring in the sense that “…every Muslim activity or item, including Arabic documents, were thereafter criminalized and associated with the rebellion. Witnesses, especially Brazilian-born slaves and blacks, came out en masse to report instances of Muslim activity that had been observed before the rebellion, further distancing the social relations between Africans and Brazilians…The strongest evidence for the association of Arabic documents with the rebellion was the fact that many Arabic pages were found on the dead bodies of the Muslims who took part in the revolt. A written folio that began with Surah Ya-Sin was found around the neck of a Muslim who had been killed…”.

Why do I retell this rather long and winding story of a revolt that happened in 1835, in a country, context and time so far away from our own? It is not merely to seek inspiration – that enslaved peoples in the worst possible conditions did not merely keep themselves alive, but also dreamt of a better and freer tomorrow, driven by their faith – or to question the meaning of failure – it was indeed a “failed” revolt in a single sense but a success in many other ways. It is in order for us to understand that our struggles, whether on campuses or in other battles, do not have to be dictated by certain overriding categories and pre-given frameworks of politics. The phrase, “secular fabric” has been thrown at every single person who is attempting to do politics beyond that of a materialistic frame, and beyond that of a liberal, or Marxist understanding of the world. Every single act is seen as a threat to an invisible, overarching “secular fabric.” In a more crude sense, we are told not to mix religion with politics, whether when we speak of Najeeb as a Muslim student, or when we speak about Kashmir and the Islamic underpinnings and sources of organising the movement for freedom has seen, or when we speak of the mere right to exist of Muslim organisations on campus. Solidarity for people, movements, dreams – whether a man who has been disappeared by force from a campus, whether for a movement for self-determination, whether for Palestine, whether for people who have been convicted in false terror courses using the discourse of anti-terror – only be grudgingly offered as long as there is no relationship or interest in the question of theology and the question of identity and religion behind these fights. And the closer it gets to home, the more hesitant people are to engage with these questions. Palestine can still be loved, as can Ahed Tamimi, but Asiya Andrabi, still in jail, is a deeply discomfiting figure for many of these progressives, who, for all their calls for gender equality and representation, see no inspiration in a Muslim woman being part of a struggle for freedom. As for Muslim organisations in and around campus, in protests, in meetings and in intimate spaces of campuses – all they offer to self-confessed progressives is some fearsome image of a dystopic future.

Religion and politics – if the revolt in Bahia can teach us anything, it should be that we should stop listening to these detractors. Some of it has come from blatant Islamophobes on campus from the varying shades of the parliamentary left, but a great deal of it has also come from those who distance themselves from these forces and speak of themselves in an “alternative” framework. Much like how Indian media – whether “big media” or “alternative” media often speaks in the same tone because they are in essence owned and operated by just differing shades of people from the same caste-religious networks – many of these differing voices on campus also come together when the question is of Muslims doing politics, especially those who are consciously and publicly seeking to work, organise and protest injustice guided by the principles of Islam. While there has always been this discomfort among many shades of the left and the liberal organisations, some of this has been further highlighted and exposed in the recent years, with the emergence of many Muslim student organisations around higher education campuses in India. What are the reasons often given to avoid collaborations with, or in order to delegitimise Muslim politics on campuses? Apart from the “fear” of mixing religion and politics, the usual bogey of gender/sexism/homophobia/masculinism is often invoked in order to claim that Muslim politics allows no space for women or people with different sexual identities. But I believe the question is far more fundamental. I do not think that these detractors actually care much for the questions of gender or sexuality. As a queer woman, I can attest to this fact that most left organisations are far more interested in being politically correct about sexuality and gender than doing any actual work around it. But in this peace, I did not want to write about the question of mobilising and deploying gender in order to undermine the legitimacy of Muslim politics, but instead on something far more positive. We cannot always bemoan the tired critiques of those who do not like us – sometimes, and indeed, always, we must turn to our own rich history of doing politics and fighting for justice in an entirely different language, and in an entirely unique ethical framework of justice. Instead of asking, “why don’t they like us”, let us remember that the day they do start liking us and applauding our politics, we will be doing something wrong.

References:

Firas Alkhateeb, “The Bahia Muslim Slave Revolt”, Lost Islamic History. November 2012. http://lostislamichistory.com/the-bahia-muslim-slave-revolt/

Margarita Rosa, “Du’as of the Enslaved: The Malê Slave Rebellion in Bahía, Brazil”, Yaqueen Institute. January 2018. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/en/margarita-rosa/duas-of-the-enslaved-the-male-slave-rebellion-in-bahia-brazil/#ftnt7

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