rescued from the fire abdullah nazir uhuru

Rescued from the Fire: Reading Reflections on Race

Rescued from the Fire, by Abdullah Nazir Uhuru was given to me by a sister I’d met through work and was one of those books that sat on my shelf for months before I picked it up. When I finally did it was the type of read you don’t want to put down until you’ve finished.

I related a lot to his story as he shared his life as a British, Caribbean (African) convert to Islam who tried to reclaim his connection with Africa, accepted Islam and struggled with what he perceived as fundamental and inherent cultural distinctions and experiences that couldn’t co-exist with his Islam.

He discusses Christianity in parts and shares his reasoning for following the Shia path, and tells us his heartbreaking experience with his ex-wife, and of his son whom he was stopped from having a relationship with. It really is heartbreaking and left me in tears near the end, but I do cry at everything.

The central theme I took from it was the conceptions we have of race and identity and the exploration of certain cultural features (that being black British/Caribbean); how they originated and how beneficial or detrimental they are.

Excerpt: As a youth back in England I had always wished that I was born in Afrika. They the Afrikans had their own name, their own sense of national identity and in some cases their own religion. But in many ways we the conscious Afrikans born in the West had an advantage over our brothers and sisters at home. We had literally survived in the belly of the beast and were well aware of the dirty tricks and deeds played on us by the racist society we lived in. Amongst the Egyptians I sensed a level of naivety when attempting to understand the relationship between Black and White people world wide.

This resonated with me a lot because of my own context, the conversations I’ve had with people from Africa living in the UK, and when contemplating the breadth of differences of opinion when it comes to defining the realities of race and racism.

Our experiences pertaining to our race differ greatly depending on where we are in the world. This influences our perception and understanding of the impact the dynamics of race has within our own society, in other countries, and in general. Who identifies as and is considered by others as black in the UK will be different to other places in the world; the US, Brazil, Somalia.

People have different concepts of what race is; some will consider your heritage and others will depend on the actual colour of your skin. But what he’s saying in that last sentence can work both ways: one can argue that considering only your black British perception of race also keeps you naive to the worldwide dynamic. As a side note, more could’ve been said about colonialism in Egypt and how that history would inform the Egyptian understanding of race.

Excerpt: How can any West Indian realistically deny that he/she is an African? What is a West Indian? A West Indian/Caribbean is an Afrikan who is still a mental slave. He/she is an Afrikan who was transported like sardines to the West Indies to slave for the rest of their life, short as it was to be. But most importantly they were sent there to replace the indigenous Carib people that the Europeans had so brutally eradicated. The existence of the “West Indian” was also an attempt to hide the slaughter and destruction of the peaceful Carib people and the fact that Afrikan Muslims had already discovered the Americas before the Europeans.

“When Christopher Columbus discovered the West Indies about the year 1493 AD he found there a race of white people (ie. half breeds) with wooly hair whom he called the Caribs. They were seafaring hunters and tillers of the soil, peaceful and united. They hated aggression and their religion was Mohammedanism and their language was Arabic.” P.V RAMOS. 1946.

This part, is really personal. My ancestry is Carib (who are ethnically people close to what we recognise as ‘Native Americans’ who travelled to the islands) as well as African and European. To read even a mention of my people being Muslim is emotional, as a revert and as having no real connection with any of my non-European family (actually, no real connection with any of my extended family at all- sad), never mind our ancestry.

His idea here alludes to our ownership of a culture that essentially began with the erasure of our own history; the loss of ancestral African culture replaced by a Caribbean one ultimately shaped by our oppressors. Do we want it? Should we want it?

He indicates here with the mention of the Carib (or Kalinago) people that there a lot of peoples that we consider to be Caribbean, we are not monolithic. Lots of people who are Caribbean are descendants of Africans, and are descendants of ‘indigenous’ people who were there long before slavery was.

When we categorise several peoples into one out of ignorance aren’t we also participating in the erasure of our own history, culture, and heritage?

Excerpt: We later met up with one of Mahmood’s closest friends. This young man was the blackest individual I had ever seen in my life, there was no difference between the colour of his hair and the colour of his skin. I thought to myself, if there ever was a 100% Nubian here he was, they couldn’t come much blacker than him. I greeted the beautiful brother warmly.

“Why is this man so pleased to see me?” Mahmood’s friend asked.

“I think he thinks that you are a Nubian like me”, replied Mahmood.

“Nubian”, his friend replied “I am Arab!”

“Arab!” I exclaimed.

Mahmood started laughing “Yes, he is an Arab”, he said.

(Excerpt continued) By now I was totally confused. Arabs to me looked like Omar Sharif, coffee coloured, wavy hair and a bushy moustache-the total opposite of Mahmood’s friend. As we sat and talked I became intrigued by the notion of who was who. I asked Mahmood to tell me the difference between an Arab and a Nubian. He looked at me confused as if he hadn’t understood the question. He said there was no difference. The answer wasn’t good enough, so I pushed him further. Was it their hair, their complexion or their nose. Mahmood looked even more confused.

“What is your problem, brother?” asked Mahmood.

(Excerpt continued) By now I had given in. What I was trying to do was divide these people and what was worse was that I was trying to use a slave system of categorisation to do this. The hair, complexion and facial features of the West Indians had been polluted by years of rape by our perverted slave owners. This is how we were divided as slaves and still divide and value ourselves today.

The lesson summarised here must be taken from this book: We should stop defining and judging people by what our own standards of race and culture are.

Blackness is not monolithic. Africans aren’t a monolith. Caribbeans aren’t a monolith. What I’m not saying is that race doesn’t matter. It does. It matters for as long as, and to the extent that it is embedded within societal structures and experiences.

But what we can’t do is define that experience and understanding for others from the diaspora, no one holds the law on what blackness is or what Caribbean culture is; we need to listen more to each other and stop trying to convince ourselves that our perceptions are the only correct ones. 

One thing that stood out to me in other parts of the book was his being overzealous in examining the Caribbean woman in a negative light. This is no doubt influenced by his experiences, which is an essential part of how we form our views. There is some generalised truth in his analysis and he did explore some of the causes of the issues he described.

This, however, still appears to be in contrast to his newly found acceptance of self and self-worth through his re-connection with Africa and finding of Islam. He was still projecting the inward disapproval that had been ingrained onto him by structures in society. He failed to give the women who were of the same circumstance as him the compassion that he granted himself in order to evolve from his past life to his new life in Islam.

The effects of slavery, and racism in all it’s forms impact the very processes we use to overcome them, maybe he hadn’t fully granted himself that compassion and consideration and that’s why it couldn’t extend to ‘the Caribbean woman’.

Nonetheless, he offers a lot to consider when we think about our culture, why we are the way we are and if all of that is positive – and if it’s not? Should we perpetuate harmful culture that is detrimental to the betterment of our people? Or are we in the realm of acceptability politics and judging our cultural qualities by societal standards that never existed to benefit us?

One answer is to set Islam as our standards, which means first knowing Islam, and work outwards from there. This is what the author, if given the benefit of the doubt, was doing throughout the book as he explored his own reality.

I definitely recommend this book, especially if you are a black British person and a revert to Islam. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it anywhere online to provide a link for you. If you find it, please let me know.

Abdullah Nazir Uhuru passed away in 2007, may Allah grant him mercy. Ameen.

Want to explore race a bit more? Here’s some links to get you started:

This book: The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

This article from Black Women of Brazil

This video on genetics in North Africa

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