Racial ‘Othering’ in Shi‘i Sacred History #BlackMuslimsMatter

Jawn ibn Huwayy ‘the African Slave’, and the Ethnicities of the Twelve Imams


The Islamic College, London, UK

This paper explores how Shi‘i sacred history and hagiography communicate social norms about race. It problematizes the characterization of Jawn ibn Huwayy in the Karbala narrative as the African slave at the Battle of Karbala and traces the evolution of a racialized portrayal of him in Shi‘i texts. It also raises the question of whether Jawn ibn Huwayy actually existed, or whether he was a racialized construction built upon the stereotype of an African slave who entered communal memory later. It contrasts the ‘othering’ of Jawn through his Africanness against the common perception of an Arabo-Iranian norm, reinforced through drawings of the twelve Imams with Arab or Iranian features. This norm is then challenged through presenting the Imams in an ethnic image which reflects their racial backgrounds (as reported in Shi‘i narrations) to create cognitive dissonance and explore subconscious assumptions about race and divine authority in contemporary Shi‘ism.

a concern #blacklivesmatter

The treatment of African American Muslims in the US by Muslims of immigrant background (who, more than often, are either from affluent backgrounds, or are upwardly mobile – proudly proclaimed so by groups such as CAIR and ISNA)- is how they would treat their servants “back home.”

A servant is not allowed to talk back when the master has spoken – but to say (specific to Pakistan) “ji (mem)sahib” (“yes sir, yes maam”). This poison is both a racist and classist mentality – that is not just limited to those who are themselves immigrants, but is passed on to their children, and grandchildren. The children are taught, through innuendos, while outwardly keeping a liberal facade, that the equivalents of servants in the US are two major groups: African American, and to a lesser extent Latino(a). But the brunt of this poison is reserved for African Americans.

Those Muslims (of immigrant background) who wish to be in solidarity with such movements as #blacklivesmatter – must go through a detoxification process before they’ll be of much use. And going through detox means that you do what you are being told / prescribed to do. Talk back to the counselor, but remember that you (who have come to detox) is the one who has the problem.