This article will focus on commentaries written by West African scholars on the 11th
verses of Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt
. I first encountered these commentaries while in Mali and Senegal, during my studies in West African scholarship and in particular my studies of the exegetical sciences of the Qur’an with Shaykh Ali Sulaiman Ali (may Allah preserve him), who is from Ghana and is affiliated with the Hausa tribe. I do not claim that these two commentaries are superior to others produced inside or outside West Africa, nor do I claim that they bring forth any novel interpretations. But the perspectives of their authors are at once analogous to ours—they are surrounded by the dynamics of anti-black racism
—and yet refreshingly different, as they meet that challenge as Muslim scholars untrammeled by the identity crises and insecurities of Muslims living as marginalized communities.
Shaykh ʿAbdullāhī ibn Fūdī
The first exegete is Shaykh Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdullāhī ibn Fūdū (1180AH/1766CE–1245AH/1829 CE), may Allah have mercy upon him. Hailing from the Fulani people of West Africa,
his family settled in Hausaland, now within contemporary Northern Nigeria, Niger, and much of Chad. It was there that his famous brother Shaykh ʿUthmān ibn Fūdī, aka Uthman dan Fodio (may Allah have mercy upon him), established the Sokoto caliphate, in which Shaykh ʿAbdullāhī was a senior minister.
The socio-political backdrop of this era involved, on the one hand, the struggle to purify the beliefs and practices of Muslims in the area from pre-Islamic practices such as animism and, on the other, the combating of corrupt Muslim chiefs who enslaved fellow Muslims for sale, including the enslavement of over 300 memorizers (ḥuffāẓ
of the Qur’an.
Shaykh Ibn Fūdī was a prolific scholar in the Islamic sciences. He was not only a ḥāfiẓ of the Qur’an but was also a master of hadith, having memorized over 100,000 Prophetic narrations. He was also a chief jurist in his time of the Mālikī tradition in which he wrote three treatises on Islamic rulings and governance entitled Ḍiyāʾ al-ḥukkām (Light Regarding the Magistrate), Ḍiyāʾ al-siyāsa (Light Regarding Politics), and Ḍiyāʾ al-khulafāʾ (Light Regarding the Caliph). His first exegesis, entitled Ḍiyāʾ al-taʾwīl fī maʿānī al-tanzīl (Light of Interpretation Regarding the Meaning of the Divine Revelation), shall be referenced later in this article; however, he wrote a second exegesis titled Kifāya ḍu’afāʾ al-sudān (Sufficiency for the Blacks of Weak Understanding) which dealt more specifically with commentary based upon the Warsh reading of the Qur’an as well as verses with legal implications based upon his studies of the Mālikī tradition in Hausaland. Regarding the sciences of Qur’anic interpretation, he also skillfully condensed the meaning of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī’s book Al-Itqān fī ‘ulūm al-Qurʾān (The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an) into Arabic poetry (naẓm) which he entitled Sulālat al-tafsīr (Descent of the Qur’anic Exegesis). He wrote two dozen other works on subjects such as Arabic grammar and morphology, foundations of Islamic jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh), sciences of Prophetic narrations, and spiritual purification.
Shaykh Aḥmad Dem
The second exegete is Shaykh Aḥmad Dem b. Muḥammad al-Amīn Dem (may Allah have mercy upon him). Shaykh Aḥmad Dem, who passed away relatively recently in 1973, was also Fulani and lived in Sokone, Senegal. He too followed the Mālikī tradition, which has long been the predominant madhhab in West Africa. Like Shaykh Ibn Fūdī, Shaykh Dem produced a commentary on the Qur’an. He was less prolific as a jurist and writer, perhaps because he did not enjoy the support of an Islamic government. Shaykh Dem was born into an environment in which racist French colonial rule dominated Senegal until the nation achieved quasi-independence in 1959. Shaykh Dem primarily dealt with two intellectual challenges. The first was the influence of French thought due to the colonial control of public education, which included the use of Christian missionaries. None of the indigenous Senegalese population had been Christian prior to the advent of colonialism, after which up to five percent converted.
Shaykh Dem’s second challenge, more theological in character, was his public dispute with the Senegalese Mālikī scholar Shaykh Ibrāhīm Niasse (may Allah have mercy upon him), who authored an exegesis of the Qur’an entitled Fī riyāḍ al-tafsīr li-l-Qurʾān al-karīm
(In the Meadows of the Exegesis of the Noble Qur’an) that argued it was possible to see Allah ﷻ in dreams. Shaykh Dem staunchly opposed this claim.
Such theological debates were without precedent at that time, as theologians in Senegal unanimously followed the Ashʿarī creed. Niasse’s view was seen by Dem as firmly unorthodox. Shaykh Dem and Shaykh Niasse eventually reconciled before the former passed away, though they still disagreed on the issue.
Compared to Shaykh ʿAbdullāhī ibn Fūdī’s concise four-volume exegesis, Shaykh Dem’s is far more comprehensive at a length of twenty volumes. It delves deeper into such subjects as the occasions of revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl
), the abrogating and the abrogated (al-nāsikh w-al-mansūkh
), and the variations of the Warsh and Qālūn recitations of the Qur’an as transmitted from the early successor (tābiʿī
) Nāfiʿ al-Madanī (may Allah have mercy upon him), which he had authorization (ijāza
) in. Shaykh Dem’s tafsīr
also makes frequent reference to the tafsīr
of Rūh al-Ma'ānī
(Spirit of Meaning) by Sayyid Maḥmūd al-Alūsī (d. 1217/1802-1270/1854).
His exegesis Ḍiyāʾ al-nayyirīn al-jāmiʿ bayna ʿulūm al-tifatayn
(Light of the Bright Stars Between the Sciences of the Two Readings)
will be referenced in the succeeding comments as well.
Surah al-Hujurat, Ayah 11: Do not make fun of others
The 11th verse of Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt states:
O you who believe, let not a qawm ridicule [another] qawm; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another nor call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wicked is the name [i.e., mention] of disobedience after [one's] faith. And whoever does not repent, then it is those who are the wrongdoers.
Shaykh Ibn Fūdī stated that people (qawm
) in this verse specifically means “the men from them [a people],” not people in general meaning women and men, as the verse addresses women separately.
Shaykh Dem stated regarding the verse:
It was revealed pertaining to three occasions. The first occasion of those of His speech “better than them” according to Ibn ʿAbbās [may Allah be pleased with him] stated, “It was revealed about Thābit b. Qays b. Shammās that he was told to make room in a gathering for someone in which he referred to him as the son of his mother, then made light of his status in the Era of [pre-Islam] Ignorance which predated them coming to Islam.
The second is narrated from al-Ḍaḥḥāk that Tamīm mocked some of the poor companions, including ʿAmmār, who was a Black Arab, Ḍaḥḥāk, Ibn Fuhayra, who was African, Bilāl the Abyssinian, Ṣuhayb the Roman, Salmān the Persian, and Salīm Mawlā Abī Ḥudhayfa, who was also Persian.
Shaykh Dem mentioned the same.
The third is that some of the Muslims referred to ʿIkrima b. Abī Jahl upon him entering Medina as the Son of the Pharaoh of this Nation (ibn firʿawn hādhihi al-umma), about which he then complained to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).
Shaykh Dem, commenting on the verse, wrote that “it is concluded that the associate of one making mockery of anyone is one who is involved in the mockery.”
Such an individual shares the burden of responsibility of judgment, because s(he) is complicit by not speaking out against the mockery. Moreover, the companion of mockery collects sin along with the active mocker. In all three occasions relayed by Shaykh Dem, the mockery targeted matters of lineage. Although the mockery in the second instance was fueled in part by socioeconomic disparity, there was a clear connection at that time, as in many instances today, between lineage and socio-economic status. Shaykh Dem also mentioned that a man reportedly said to Luqmān (peace be upon him), who was Abyssinian, “What an ugly face you have!” Luqmān replied to him, “You find fault with what has been engraved upon or created [by Allah]?!”
“Nor let women ridicule [other] women”—Shaykh Ibn Fūdī stated that this part of the verse addresses some of the wives of the Prophet ﷺ who mocked his wife Ṣafiyya (may Allah be pleased with her) by calling out to her, “O Jew, the daughter of a Jew” (ya yahūdiyya bint yahūdī
These wives were Arabs, whereas Ṣafiyya was not. Shaykh Dem, referencing the same narration from al-Tirmidhī (may Allah have mercy upon him), said that Ṣafiyya came to the Prophet ﷺ in tears and told him what had been said to her. He ﷺ replied, “Surely you are the daughter of a prophet, your uncle was a prophet, and you are under the guardianship of a Prophet, so how can one take pride over you?”
Shaykh Ibn Fūdī stated that the command in the verse to not make mockery means, “Do not find fault with one another for the believers are like one body.”
Shaykh Dem concurred with this meaning, noting the Prophetic promise of “glad tidings to whom is preoccupied with his [own] faults instead of the faults of other people.”
He also stated that this verse “indicates that no human being will completely rid themselves of faults.”
One’s faults, however, do not relate to lineage or skin color, as these are given by the decree of Allah (Mighty and Sublime) and are not mistakes, nor errors.
Shaykh Dem commented that not calling people by bad names carries the meaning of not belittling converts from Judaism and Christianity by referring to them as “O Jew” or “O Christian.”
However, he stated that it is not prohibited to give people nicknames that are praiseworthy, such as “how ʿUmar [b. al-Khaṭṭāb] is referred to as Distinguisher Between Truth and Falsehood (al-Fārūq
), ʿUthmān [ibn ʿAffān] is known as the Possessor of Two Lights (Dhū al-Nūrayn
), and ʿAlī [ibn Abī Ṭālib] is known as Father of the Dust (Abū Turāb
Shaykh Dem also mentioned that those who refuse to repent of their mockery are of the wrongdoers that are on the accursed path of Satan (Iblīs)—Iblīs, who refused to repent, who fancied himself to be better than Adam (peace be upon him). This is the path of being accursed, meaning being deprived of Divine mercy, as referenced in Sūrat Hūd, verse 18:
Surely the curse of Allah is upon the wrongdoers.