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Race & Religion Speaker Series: "Wrestling with the Present, Beckoning to the Past"

On November 1st, 2023, Dr. Abdulbasit Kassim delivered the first lecture in the two-part Race & Religion Speaker Series co-sponsored by the Religious Studies Department and Program in Africana Studies. Dr. Kassim is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Africa and the African Diaspora at New York University and an interdisciplinary historian engaged with the histories and cultures of Muslim societies in West Africa and the African Diaspora.

Dr. Kassim’s lecture, entitled “Wrestling with the Present, Beckoning to the Past,” examined the persistence of proslavery thought through juridical and religious corpuses. He began the presentation with an introduction to the Trans-Saharan and Trans-Atlantic slave trades and the eventual outlaw of such an act in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Northern Nigeria, and Mauritania in a span of a slow 150 years. Of course, this illegalization did not immediately remove the institution of slavery from society.Dr. Abdulbasit Kassim

Raised in Northwest Nigeria, Dr. Kassim grew up in an environment in which acquiring knowledge about one’s culture is highly valued. As soon as children can read, they receive a scholarly education, immersing themselves in the rich history of Africa’s many written legends and centuries-old texts, often delving into the original sources. This immersive learning experience took a sharp turn when Kassim enrolled in Western schools. There, he was compelled to position African contributions within a global discourse that systematically marginalized them, deeming them inferior to those of the West. Kassim challenges this pervasive perception, contending that the West often portrays African communities as mere “knowledge producers” while simultaneously labeling them as “inferior knowledge consumers”, implying that they hoard their vast knowledge and do not seek to learn from others. When confronted with this assumption in his Western schools, Kassim recognized its falsity, and from this, his life’s research blossomed.

Kassim's lecture then shifted to the chilling tale of the 2014 kidnapping of Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria and their forced sexual enslavement by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, which sought to restore religious order through this practice. More disturbing news emerged from Africa: a slave master’s charges were dropped, lives auctioned for $400 on the black market, and religious leaders were blackmailed into silence. Through these examples, Dr. Kassim emphasized that slavery continues to permeate various cultures and societies due to its deeply entrenched roots in religious and legal systems despite being outlawed. He highlighted the enduring influence of slavery-justifying doctrines in Northwest Africa, the African Diaspora, and other regions. He did not solely focus on the West; he explored the historical context of slavery, referencing Buddhist slavery laws and social expectations from the time of the Buddha, along with insights from the Hebrew Bible, the Islamic Quran, and ancient Hindu texts. Dr. Kassim highlighted the enduring challenge posed by slavery’s deeply entrenched roots in certain religious and cultural traditions. Despite legal abolition, the lingering influence of these foundational texts in modern societies necessitates a continued examination of the complex interplay between race and religion. He underscored the urgent need to address this intricate web of historical and contemporary factors to dismantle the persistent grip of slavery’s legacy.

We thank Dr. Kassim for providing a heavy and thought-provoking lecture on the long-lasting implications of the ties between race and religion by providing examples from Boko Haram, primary religious texts, and his own personal experience of grappling with a Western academic world. This talk was an excerpt from his upcoming book, From the Black Atlantic to Sankoré: Reverse Diaspora, Return Mission, and the Global History of Muslim Place-Making.