Toni Morrison, John Ralph Willis, and Black Muslim History

By Kristina L. Richardson

Allow me to share a factoid about Toni Morrison’s (1931-2019) little known connection to Islamic historians. She grew up in Lorain, Ohio, with her younger cousin John Ralph Willis (1938-2007), who carried the name of their grandfather, a violinist named John Solomon Willis. The cousins forged separate paths as adults, only to reunite on Princeton’s campus in their 50s. Willis joined the faculty in 1972 as Professor of Near Eastern Studies, and Morrison as the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities in 1989. (The family has even more links to Princeton University, as Morrison’s daughter-in-law Cecilia Rouse is the dean of the School of Public and International Affairs, while also serving as an economic adviser in President Biden’s cabinet.)

Morrison and Willis insisted on centering Black humanity and experience, especially those of enslaved people, in their respective fields of American letters and Islamic history. Morrison famously complained about the self-satisfaction that ignorance allows itself. “[S]ome powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text.”[1] Their work decentered the presumed neutrality of whiteness and Sunnī Arabness, and I’m grateful that this was not a rare perspective on Princeton’s campus. I studied with others working on topics of Black history like the African-Americanists Nell Painter and the late Colin Palmer, the Africanist Emmanuel Kreike, and the Ottomanist Jane Hathaway, who as a visiting professor in 2002 introduced me to the subject of Black eunuchs at the Ottoman court.

Toni Morrison’s signed note sent to her cousin John Ralph Willis through Princeton’s campus mail, currently for sale at

When I arrived on Princeton’s campus as a freshman in the late 90s, Toni Morrison was offering a jointly taught creative writing course with fellow Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014). Enrollment was by application, and fluency in Spanish was a requirement. I had never studied Spanish, but I did have an interest in Arabic, so I soon found myself – by complete serendipity – in Willis’s course on the Great Books of Islamic Civilization.

Undated photo of John Ralph Willis

He cut a striking figure: tall, slender, exceedingly polite and dignified, always impeccably dressed, and the only Black faculty member in the Near Eastern Studies department. The class met in Willis’s beautiful, wood-paneled office in Jones Hall. He assigned the Qur’ān, the earliest adīth compiled by Central Asian Muslims, poetry from Andalusia, and all three volumes of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah. I was most intrigued by his assignment of the legal opinions of the scholar Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti (d. 1627), who was horrified that his fellow Saharan Muslims did not recognize Black Muslims as their brothers and for this reason willingly enslaved them.[2]

Slavery in Muslim societies in Africa animated Willis’s teaching and research, and like his cousin, he lamented the ease with which historians had erased his field from the historical imagination. “If the subject of Islamic slavery in Africa has failed to arouse the interest which has attended the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the New World, it must be said that it compares with the latter in scale and scope, and out-distances the more popular subject in its length of duration.”[3] Since Willis wrote these words in 1985, slavery in Muslim Africa has received considerable treatment, even its legal aspects.[4]

My own impression of the field is that scholars have focused on the extreme social categories of Black actors: elites (the wealthy Malian king Mansa Musa, chief Ottoman eunuchs, Malik Ambar) and the abject (anonymous enslaved men, women, and children). These are all important historical actors, but I’d like to pivot towards the middle. What of the free African craftworker or the regular family men? What of ordinary free Blacks? What can we know of the Black African skilled laborers who mined salt pits in the Sahara or the craftworkers who poured molten gold into coin molds in medieval Tadmekka (Mali)?[5] All of my research has been animated by a desire to understand how ordinary people lived in the past. And writing now for Islamic Law Blog, I started to wonder what we can learn of Black African legal scholars? So many students from Takrūr (Chad), the Horn of Africa, and West Africa came to Cairo that wealthy Black Africans funded schools and dormitories for them in Cairo. The earliest such endowment may have been Madrasat Ibn Rashīq, whose founding al-Maqrīzī described in his Khia:

This madrasa belongs to the Malikites and is situated in the Ḥammām al-Rīsh quarter (khuṭṭ) in Old Cairo. When the Kānim (one of the communities of the Takrūr) reached Cairo in the 640s/1240s proposing to make the Pilgrimage they paid to the qadi ʿAlam al-Dīn Ibn Rashīq money with which he built it. He taught there and so it took its name from him. It acquired a great reputation in the land of the Takrūr and in most years they used to send money to it.[6]

In 1258, the Bornu monarch Mai Dunoma Dabalemi (r. 1210-1259) endowed al-Riwāq al-Burnawiyya, which were living quarters on the grounds of al-Azhar mosque for students and pilgrims from Borno.[7] It still exists today. In the 15th century, there was Jabarti riwāqs in Mecca, Medina, and Cairo, which catered to students and pilgrims originating from Jabart, a Muslim region of East Africa. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī, who famously chronicled Napoleon’s 1798 occupation of Egypt, is the seventh-generation descendant of another ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī who served as shaykh of the Cairene riwāq in the late 15th century.[8]

When the coronavirus pandemic subsides, international travel resumes, and libraries reopen, I will attempt a history of communities of Black scholars in Mamlūk Cairo, Mecca, and Medina, that puts me in mind of the community of Black intellectuals and students at Princeton I found as an undergraduate. Did any riwāqs maintain libraries, however small, whose contents can be reconstructed? Were their shaykhs memorialized in biographical dictionaries? Did residents scratch graffiti into their cell walls? Were any of them buried nearby? I want to turn Toni Morrison’s questions about Black American civilization towards Black civilizations in central Islamic lands. As she put it,

I want to find the black civilization that functioned within the white one. And the question I must put to it are: What was the hierarchy in my civilization? Who were the arbiters of custom? What were the laws? Who were the outlaws—not the legal outlaws, but the community outlaws? Where did we go for solace and for advice? Who were the betrayers of that culture? Who did we respect and why? What was our morality? What was success? Who survived? And why? And under what circumstances? What is deviant behavior? Not deviant behavior as defined by white people, but what is deviant behavior as defined by black people?[9]

I think we all will be richer for asking and for knowing.


[1] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Penguin Random House, 1992), 13.

[2] Bernard Barbour and Michelle Jacobs, “The Miʿraj: A Legal Treatise on Slavery by Ahmad Baba,” in Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, Vol. 2: The Servile State, ed. John Ralph Willis (London: Frank Cass, 1985), 125-59.

[3] John Ralph Willis, “Preface,” in Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, vii.

[4] See the extensive bibliography in Jonathan A. C. Brown, Slavery & Islam (London: OneWorld, 2020).

[5] Sam Nixon, Thilo Rehren, and Maria Filomena Guerra, “New Light on the Early Islamic West African Gold Trade: Coin Moulds from Tadmekka, Mali,” Antiquity 85, no. 330 (2011): 1353-68.

[6] Translated in Nehemia Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2011), 353.

[7] Ousmane Oumar Kane, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016), 44.

[8] Julien Loiseau, “Abyssinia at al-Azhar: Muslim Students from the Horn of African in Late Medieval Cairo,” Northeast African Studies 19, no. 1 (2019): 61-84.

[9] Toni Morrison, “Hard, True, and Lasting,” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2019), 223.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Kristina L. Richardson, Toni Morrison, John Ralph Willis, and Black Muslim History, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 11, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Kristina L. Richardson,, “Toni Morrison, John Ralph Willis, and Black Muslim History,” Islamic Law Blog, March 11, 2021,

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