One of the greatest ways racism is perpetuated is through stereotypes, which create biases that influence real people’s choices and lives. These great Black leaders who have lead remarkable lives are examples of Black excellence. Black history isn’t only teaching about enslavement; that is racism at play to ignore the many accomplishments of legendary Black historical figures and leaders. The lives of these leaders shatter stereotypes, and touched many, forever changing the course of history. Here are six Black leaders you should know about.
Bilqis: To have a woman lead
One of the most famous Black leaders ever is no doubt Bilqis, Queen of Ethiopia. Her presence in the Quran is cited by Amina Wadud in her groundbreaking work Women and the Quran as a evidence that the hadith about the dangers of women leading has little base in Islamic history. Bilqis is discussed in the Quran as a highly competent leader, who converts to Islam after meeting King Solomon, and is also mentioned in the Bible. Many people believe that she became pregnant in the meeting with Solomon and returned to Ethiopia to have a baby who was the great ancestor of the Ethiopian King His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie-I. While many are familiar with the tragedies of the colonization of Africa, not everyone is aware the Ethiopia was never colonized and remained free of European occupation. In World War II, in fact, HIM leadership in the battle against the Italians, and the ability of Ethiopia to remain free is named by many as a watershed moment in African history that led to the end of colonialism and the victory of African people across the continent to re-establish self-rule. Bilqis is a huge figure in the Bible and Quran, prominent as both a woman and a leader.
The Negus: The hidden Muslim hearts of Christians
There is a trend among Muslims, perhaps rightfully to question the authenticity of people’s faith and whether or not they are sincerely Muslim. However, not as often do we see Muslims recognizing that many people who are not openly Muslim are Muslims in fact and in substance. Additionally, the idea that Christians and Muslims have a history of conflict stands as a major myth of the modern world, with stories of the crusades, and the persecution of the Moors and destruction of Al Andalus. However, early Muslim history holds the story of the Negus, an Ethiopian King who provided security to the early Muslim community when they were being persecuted. When the Negus died, the Prophet (PBUH) was notified and prayed the janaza prayer for him, telling his companions that while people did not know the Negus was a Muslim, he had taken shahada in his heart.
Mansa Musa (1312-1337).: Africa, pinnacle of civilization and the crossing of the Atlantic by Africans
It is endlessly upsetting to see the false information and offensive talk about Columbus. It would be sufficiently upsetting to hear the talk of the “discovery” of the Americas when the Americas were densely populated by Indigenous people. However, even more upsetting is the knowledge that Columbus was not the first to cross the Atlantic, nor were the Vikings. The advanced and developed civilization of Mali thrived for hundreds of years in West Africa and was ruled at one point by a famous king, Mansa Musa. Renowned for his voyage to Mecca where he took camel loads of gold which he passed out along the journey, he also fitted out and sent ships exploring the trade routes to the West, and his ships successfully crossed the Atlantic to the Americas from West Africa in the 9th century.
Nana Asma’u (1793–1864): Women’s rights in Africa were more advanced than Europe
It is an ongoing rant that we have as Muslim women that the only thing Muslim women need saving from is white feminism. There are few figures who stand as witness to this more completely than Nana Asma’u. Nana Asma’u was teacher and leader in West Africa who established a system of education for women that lasted hundreds of years. Highly trained in education and highly learned, she was a part of the great African system of women’s education which predated colonialism. She stands as a witness to the extensive rights and freedoms enjoyed by African women in Islam prior to the invasion of Europeans and the destruction of African culture. You can read more about Nana Asma’u in Dr. Anse Tamara Grey’s recently published essay here.
Omar ibn Said (1770–1864): Highly educated, Muslim, who was enslaved
There is a myth that many people have of Africa perpetuated by Safari culture and jungle themes which portray Africa as uncivilized. The idea that people live in huts, strung with beads, carrying spears is a widespread image. This portrayal of the lack of civilization of the Africans has contributed to ideas like White man’s burden where Europeans told themselves that they were bringing civilization to Africa. However, Omar ibn Said, among others stands as a witness that not only was Africa highly civilized, so were many of the Africans brought to the Americas in slavery. Captured because of war in Africa, Omar ibn Said was brought to the Americas highly educated, trained in Quranic sciences and highly skilled in writing and thinking. While living in slavery for much of his adult life, he wrote numerous volumes in Arabic, including an autobiography which is now in the Library of Congress.
Ilhan Omar: Changing the stereotype of passive and submissive Muslim women who wear hijab
To fast-forward to modern times, we can add to this list with our own beloved Ilhan Omar. Representative Omar stands as a complete refutation of the pervasive Orientalist stereotypes of passive submissive Muslim women. Outspoken, fierce, pro-LGBTQ+, progressive, radical, and of course part of the Squad, the idea that Muslim women wear hijab so they can disappear into a back room behind a curtain. Standing as a testament to the political and social engagement that characterizes Muslim women, Ilhan Omar destroys the stereotype of the oppressed and silent Muslim women in hijab.
Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.