Encircled around Shaykh Arona Faye in the dining hall of Masjid Muhajjirun wal-Ansar of Moncks Corner (South Carolina), a dozen or so students listened intently as he recounted a story of resistance and spiritual power about one of his ancestors, Abdullaye and Shamsudeen, told to him by Shaykh Muhammad Mustafa Gueye Haydara which describes the measures taken to avoid capture by Spanish slavers in Mauritania.
“…Moncks Corner is located about 30-40 minutes driving distance from Charleston, a port city through which a significant portion of all enslaved Africans were forcibly brought into the American South during the American Slave Trade.”Such a narration illustrates the manner in which secretive knowledge and spiritual power passed down from within Shaykh Faye’s lineage provides a backdrop for discussing resistances to the bodily disempowerment of slavery in diasporic context. It should be obvious that the telling of this story by a West African marabout to his family and imparted to a predominantly African-American audience in the American South is particularly meaningful insofar as they have varying relationships to the historical legacy of chattel enslavement. And therefore, this scene is an example of how collective memory in religious context emerges amongst Muslims of varying African descent.
Moncks Corner and Diasporic Emergence
Moncks Corner, South Carolina is a blue-collar town located about 30-40 minutes driving distance northwest of the city of Charleston, South Carolina and is home to a small, but robust community of African-American, West African, and a few Anglo-American Muslims who comprise the major North American contingent of a transnational Sufi Order that originates in the majority Muslim country of Senegal. This order has spread to a number of locations that include major American cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C, and Atlanta, as well as within Senegal, Gambia, Morocco, Mauritania, Indonesia, and Spain. These Muslims are members of the Mustafawiyya Tariqa, which was conceived in 1966 by the late Shaykh Muhammad Mustafa Gueye Haydara in Thiès, Senegal, and brought over to the United States in 1994 by his protégé, Shaykh Arona Faye Al-Faqir.
The vignette I shared above centers upon the participation in West African Islamic pedagogies which are understood as routes through which varying forms of historic ruptures among Muslims of African-descent are addressed. Further, it is through this means that specific pasts are remembered (and others forgotten) and meanings are placed within imagined kinships and practices of ‘remembrance’ (dhikr) of African-American Muslims, which form the largest group of students in North America, alongside their Senegalese and Gambian counterparts. By looking at specific interactions among the Muslims of Moncks Corner with regard to how they rely upon spiritual care and esoteric knowledge to collectively reckon with the historical legacy of forced migration westward and the ever-present reminder of enslavement, I offer a glimpse into the manner in which Sufi networks impact the cultivation of religious identities and diasporic emergences. This phenomenon occurs through the utilization of the Moncks Corner mosque as a space of diasporic identity construction, which makes possible the dispensation of spiritual care that, I argue, simultaneously addresses personal growth and collective historical trauma for African-American Muslims in particular.
I pose that the multiple iterations of African-American Muslim bodily practice which are informed by West African pedagogical approaches to religious observance and spiritual knowledge, as they emerge amongst the Mustafawiyya in South Carolina, cannot be analyzed unless it is against the backdrop of histories of transatlantic dispersions and partially motivated by narratives of lost identities in the Moncks Corner mosque. Therefore, the voyages of African-American Muslims from the United States to Senegal, for either spiritually-motivated visitation (in Arabic: ziyara) or religious learning, should be understood as processes of reconnection that are constructed by such discourses in which they participate and mobilize through the placement of network nodes on either side of the Atlantic.
“…multiple iterations of African-American Muslim bodily practice which are informed by West African pedagogical approaches to religious observance and spiritual knowledge, as they emerge amongst the Mustafawiyya in South Carolina, cannot be analyzed unless it is against the backdrop of histories of transatlantic dispersion…”
History, South Carolina, and the Moncks Corner Mosque
It is by driving into Moncks Corner, South Carolina that reveals to the visitor the manner in which the history of enslavement seems to linger as a ghost that cannot be shoved neatly into the pages of school textbooks. This ever-present phantom haunts the many acres of cotton fields between the dogwood trees that sway in the swift breeze created by automobiles driven along the highways and backroads that lead into and out of town – a presence that the traveler cannot miss. It is a legacy explicated by plaques that dot the town commissioned by the city’s historical society and implied by every other street sign that reads ‘Plantation Lane,’ or ‘Plantation Road’ or some iteration thereof. Therefore, the landscape itself utters a hushed narrative of black subjugation via enslavement which is inescapable. It should also be mentioned that Moncks Corner is located about 30-40 minutes driving distance from Charleston, a port city through which a significant portion of all enslaved Africans were forcibly brought into the American South during the American Slave Trade. Omar Ibn Said, a Senegalese Muslim scholar, was enslaved and brought to the United States through Charleston in 1807, and would be enslaved for the remainder of his life. It is examples like this that provide a point of departure for thinking about discourses of loss and rupture that occur in the Moncks Corner mosque as members, some who have relocated from northern urban centers, discuss the legacy of enslaved African Muslims in the American South and participate in envisioning themselves ‘returning home’ to Senegal as they travel abroad.
Mosque as Site of Memory
The Moncks Corner mosque was originally located closer to downtown, first on Carolina Avenue in a residential area not far from the ‘center’ of town, and later on 304 East Main Street, which is adjacent to the town’s banking section.
“In my talks with some of the men at the Mosque, they brought up approximated histories regarding enslavement of African-descended people in that very place.”However, the mosque was moved away due to a rental dispute with its landlord from whom the building was being leased and is currently situated on land that was formerly a slave plantation. Gippy Plantation is set aside Old Highway 52, which is a two-lane road that it shares with the Mosque. Most of the land that comprised Gippy Plantation has been partitioned into mostly residential properties. Yet, in spite of its shrinking, fencing and signage impose themselves quite thoroughly in line of sight from Mosque property.
In my talks with some of the men at the Mosque, they brought up approximated histories regarding enslavement of African-descended people in that very place. While they held varying degrees of acquai
ntance with the local history of enslavement, it was quite apparent that the memory of enslavement – and the subsequent identification as descendants of enslaved Africans – lives on in the minds of the African-American Muslims with whom I spoke. In other words, the trauma of enslavement (perhaps exacerbated by more recent national discourses around institutionalized racism and police violence) is something that indeed has an afterlife. In my time spent with Abdur-Rasheed Watson, one of Shaykh Faye’s more advanced African-American disciples originally from Philadelphia, he has frequently shared with me that he sometimes imagined how enslaved Africans were marched up and down Old Highway 52.
Whenever we drove either away from or toward the mosque in order to visit the cleaners nearby, or to purchase supplies from the local Walmart, he never hesitated to audibly ponder the anguish that the unfortunate souls must have had to endure in that very same space not even 150 years prior. In fact, during one of the slower days during my time conducting research at the mosque in Moncks Corner, Abdur-Rasheed and I visited the nearby history museum in town. The Berkeley County Heritage Museum, located in the town’s Old Canal Santee Park, traces its role as a southern location in American history. We had both visited that location prior, although it had been a few years since I had last walked into that exhibit. Abdur-Rasheed, noting the Museum’s use of terms such as ‘planters’ as opposed to ‘slaveholders’ and the central focus on white landowners instead of the enslaved people who actually did the planting and harvesting, indicated his awareness of the creeping and subtle difference regarding narrative that most contemporary historians share about a difficult past.
A Heritage of Strategic Forgetting
What has been outlined thus far marks a subtle dissonance between past and present as represented by the town of Moncks Corner and its residents, particularly its Muslim community which is composed mainly of African-descended people. On one hand, the physically imposing Gippy Plantation located near the Moncks Corner mosque highlights a geographic erasure of access to historical memory as significant portions of it are converted to suburban housing – land historically harvested by the forced labor of black hands to be later whitewashed by the momentum of economic development. Additionally, there also is the question of the crude fencing that resists entry. It is made quite obvious that Gippy Plantation, from its signage to its security measures, is private property. For past owners, the plantation was a source of wealth, and for others, a source of economic and bodily dispossession. Therefore, it is ironic and meaningful that a mosque filled with Muslims of African descent devoted to spiritual empowerment would be placed on land where enslaved Africans (some of which were Muslim – see Gomez 2005; Diouf 1998) years ago were disempowered.
“On one hand, the physically imposing Gippy Plantation located near the Moncks Corner mosque highlights a geographic erasure of access to historical memory…”
Meanwhile, the county’s willful mis-recollection and reconstructive forgetting of historical narrative away from the complicity of racial and economic dispossession via enslavement toward a focus on the agricultural pursuit of white wealth is couched in the language of heritage. The Berkeley County Heritage Museum’s exhibits reveal little to no historical knowledge about the enslaved populations whose imprisonment and forced labor took place within its boundaries. This notion, I argue, can be situated in broader politics of strategic forgetting in the wake of postbellum articulations of ‘Southern Pride’ where the chance sighting of confederate flags is, still, highly likely.
Remembrance as Strategy
Similarly, it should also be noted that such a fact operates in conjunction with the invisibility of the religious identities of enslaved Africans facilitated by the antebellum legal categorizations that transformed people into property (Beydoun 2014). I place this process of forgetting as opposite to the strategies of remembrance that have taken place amongst African-American Muslims in, or around, the Mosque during my stay. One example would be the multiple conversations that involve somewhat happenstance pondering on the religious lives of the enslaved Africans in the region.
“I place this process of forgetting as opposite to the strategies of remembrance that have taken place amongst African-American Muslims in, or around, the Mosque during my stay.”Shaykh Faye, for example, has repeatedly remarked in front of his students how an old Qur’an had been discovered in the region and has also articulated his envisioning of African-Americans as the descendants of his own kin taken away from Senegal centuries prior. Additionally, upon the recent publication of a book, entitled “Bilali Muhammad: The Muslim Jurisprudist in Antebellum Georgia,” the relationship between religious expertise and Islam among the enslaved was discussed in the Moncks Corner Mosque during a visit by one of Shaykh Faye’s older students.
Through discussions of enslavement in the wake of the strategic forgetting on the part of the town of Moncks Corner (and Berkeley County), I argue that these remembrances are a strategy for vital spiritual and historical reconnections for African and African-American Muslims. These demographic groups cultivate identities via West African Muslim pedagogies that are accompanied by such instances of historical remembrance. The Moncks Corner Mosque thus provides a medium for the strategic cultivation of broader transatlantic Muslim identities through the conversion of physical space that coincides with an emphasis on spiritual care. Considering the discourses of esoteric vision communicated via Shaykh Faye that are accompanied by explanations of economic motivation for moving the site of the Mosque to its current location, it is beyond the capability of this analysis to judge whether the specific move was a matter of spiritual foresight. Yet, the location of the community in Moncks Corner is certainly meaningful in terms of its placement in the American South – a region where the supplications of African Muslim ancestors is believed by mosque members to have taken place.
This notion becomes especially salient as Shaykh Faye has repeatedly referred to enslaved African Muslims in the American South as his ‘ancestors’ and has identified an imagined linkage between his own Senegalese forefathers, some of which may have been forcibly relocated to the antebellum United States, and African-Americans, some of which may be related to those forcibly removed from the African continent centuries ago. It should be understood that discussion of actual genealogies in these articulations of historical descent are not emphasized and might certainly complicate the emergence of these spiritual solidarities. Yet, connections forged between African-American Muslims and West African Muslims are discursively produced through approximate histories and realized via the larger transatlantic spiritual network of the Mustafawiyya Tariqa. Moreover, when histories of transatlantic enslavement are considered, they overwhelmingly emphasize those who were taken and shipped across the ocean into a new world. While this is somewhat understandable, it is essential to take into account that this history does not merely involve a vital rupture betwe
en people and the lands from which they were torn; transatlantic enslavement also has meant a vital rupture between people and the family members from which they were stolen (see Sylviane Diouf 2003). Therefore, it is vital to understand these discourses amongst Moncks Corner Muslims as a process of reconnection between lands and peoples. Furthermore, these interchanges are both discursive and performative, and involve an imaginative process of reconnection to the faith traditions that these practitioners’ forefathers and foremothers carried with them over the Atlantic.
In summary, it is important to remember that the West African Islamic tradition is the point of origin for the practice of Islam in the United States in general (see Rudolph Ware 2014; Gomez 2005; Diouf 1998), and should be considered as a starting point when thinking about the long historical development of African-American Muslim communities. Based on ethnographic research on the Muslim community of Moncks Corner, I argue that there is vital (re)connection between modalities of spiritual cultivation among Mustafawiyya Tariqa members in South Carolina and Senegal, and the multiple frames of remembrance that have taken place on both sides of the Atlantic. While I do not have the space here, I do illustrate in my broader dissertation project how these collaborations result in religious technologies that combine West African learning traditions with African-American cultural formations.
“In my dissertation, I look squarely upon balladry and religious schooling as formations of remembrance, both strategies of reconnection in the Mustafawiyya Tariqa…”
In my dissertation, I look squarely upon balladry and religious schooling as formations of remembrance, both strategies of reconnection in the Mustafawiyya Tariqa – that is, the maintenance of cultural re-formation via techniques of healing and spiritual care that are imprinted with discourses of (historical) remembrance. Just as approaches to spiritual growth and religious pedagogy have been brought over to the United States from Senegal, the black American experience has been shared locally, expressed explicitly throughout the Moncks Corner mosque, and then carried across the water into Senegal. Surely, the creation of Masjidul Muhajjirun wal Ansar in Moncks Corner and the creation of the Fuqara International Academy, a Qur’anic school in Dakar that has since closed, are neither solely African-American nor Senegalese. These religious institutions are the consequence of a globally-oriented West African Sufi tradition and the infrastructural components of a transregional Sufi network that has been reconfigured into diasporic formations through which traumatic histories and religious memory is reckoned with.
*Cover image: Abdur-Rasheed Watson reads a qasida of Shaykh Mustafa Gueye, photograph by Youssef J. Carter, 2014.