Anti-Racism: A Reflection on the Islamic Tradition

Alienation

The Masjid is a sanctuary of protection from forgetting Allah. It is a house of worship, education, community, friendship, and wisdom. While the Coronavirus has spread across the world, prompting travel restrictions and unprecedented bans on movement, Muslim communities worldwide have been painfully severed from their Masajid. To many, this has been an awakening of gratitude and appreciation, how thankful the best of us become when deprived of something so necessary and easily taken for granted. Now, for a moment, imagine that the virus did not exist. Imagine that it and all the attendant travel restrictions and social distancing rules had never occurred. Imagine the ease of normality returning to you. The open and welcoming doors of the Masjid almost call you in; the warmth of even the stranger’s familiarity, of friendship, and the transcendent peace of prayer in the congregation. I say this not to torture the reader; this small thought experiment is a necessary exploration of the belonging and safety we take for granted without even realizing it. We must remember that there are so many within our community who have been deprived of these emotional and spiritual needs due to nothing other than the color of their skin. 

The Black Muslim Forum recently published a report revealing shocking levels of alienation experienced by black Muslims within the British Muslim community. The report was based on questions posed to participants from June to November 2019. The statistics showed that 53.95% of participants felt that they generally did not belong to their local mosque; 84% felt that they did not belong to their University’s Islamic society; 63.41% felt that they did not belong to the UK Muslim community and 79% of participants said they had faced anti-black discrimination or colorism within a secular setting in the UK. Several participants remarked on how they are often stared at and made to feel unduly self-conscious in Masjids. Others said they had also experienced derogatory comments that stereotype black people, insinuations that they were not Muslim, or patronized as reverts. Participants detailed experiences at Madrassas; Many were called names, had their skin color made fun of, and one instance of physical violence. Others reported feeling invisible, a common reaction to social isolation. Another was publicly humiliated in a religious setting after being “neighed” at like a horse in a Kurdish Mosque.

Several of the participants spoke about the dominance of Arab or South Asian cultures within some of these Masjids as being related to why they were excluded. They felt as though being an Afro-Caribbean Muslim counted for less, and that they were not immediately associated or accepted as being Muslim. As someone familiar with the depth of colourism in South Asian culture, its attendant racism has multiple forms. Many participants reported various stresses and internal discomfort due to how they were made to feel like outsiders. For the sake of commentary, colorism has a large prevalence in the Indo-Pak communities. This is something that cuts across religions in the region, with an understated and frequently overlooked relationship with the baggage of the caste-system. The corrosive and racially charged nature of these poisonous tropes only build walls of distance and isolation between Muslims. This stain of Jahiliyya has followed us through the ages in a variety of forms and has spread to many of our sanctuaries of remembrance of Allah and His messenger. In place of well-being and welcome is powerlessness and anomie; the antithesis of the Qur’an and the Message of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

An Inviolable Command

Racism has no place in Islam. This is a literal and irrefutable statement which carries important practical applications. For instance, Islam can never be reconciled with Nazism, or any other fascistic form of ethno-nationalism, which is a sad fact to those few Muslims among the extremities of the “red-pill” crowds. It then follows, as so many know, that racism has no place within our homes, in our communities, in our places of learning or within our hearts. This is not an attempt to say, “therefore racism does not or cannot exist.” Rather, it is an invitation to reflect on the importance of the anti-racist guidance of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and our belief in the commands of Allah Himself. As Dhu al-Hijjah reached its ninth day, we fasted the day of Arafah, remembering the day on which Allah revealed, 

This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion.[1]

Alongside this came some of the most important words ever commanded to a nation. In the Uranah valley of Mount Arafat, something often forgotten to the shame of many, the Holy Prophet ﷺ remarked,

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety (taqwa) and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.[2]

Erudite and metaphysical are the wise words of the Rasul ﷺ, a mirror of both who he was and how he lived. It is a reminder to us of our promise to him and to one another as Muslims. It is a reminder of precisely what is involved in our understanding of the social contract; one in which Allah has an immovable position and where interpersonal moral rights are the branches that uphold the cohesion of our community as an interwoven physical and spiritual body. The Prophet ﷺ reminds us of mankind’s sole father, Adam (عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ). After recalling the Deluge Noah (عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ) faced, Ibn Kathir, in his Qasas al-Anbiya (Stories of the Prophets), reflects on mankind’s descent from him and his sons. It is through them that humanity retains their descent to Adam. As many know, Noah’s sons traveled far and wide following the Deluge, and from them the nations developed and grew. The spiritual significance of reflecting on this saying of the Prophet ﷺ and on Ibn Kathir’s reflection on the Quran is trifold: 1) to hold fast to humanity’s unified descent; 2) the irrefutable equality of all men and women regardless of origin or race and; 3) the immovable place of Islam’s unique social contract. The findings of the Black Muslim Forum’s report should shock many more than it already has. The words of the Holy Prophet ﷺ should provide knowledge and comfort; In both instances, it does not, for they know not. To this problem, we can take a leaf from Abdullah bin Mas’ud (May Allah be pleased) when he remarked, 

[K]nowledge is not by learning a lot of narrations. Knowledge is fear [of Allah].[3]

The Believer, in some ways, mirrors the bird. We are each carried by two wings: fear and hope. It is only by being upright and aiming toward balancing both qualities that we can ever hope to take flight and live in moderation with the actual knowledge of Allah’s commands and the words of the Holy Prophet ﷺ. 

Many of the participants in the Black Muslim Forum’s report felt as though, due to their Afro-Caribbean heritage, that they were not immediately perceived as Muslim. Many were ridiculed simply for being from a separate race and nation. Little do those spreading the darkness of their ignorance remember that Allah said, 

O you who have believed, do not let a nation ridicule [another] nation, perhaps they are better than them.[4]

The arrogance of those who ridicule those of other races and ethnicities stands opposed to the lofty moral character we have been commanded to as Muslims and serve as a reminder of what we must constantly confront. Abdullah bin Mas’ud remarked, 

Don’t read the Qur’an like speech, separated like date seeds, and don’t recite it like the flow of poetry. [Rather], stop at its amazing parts, and move hearts with it. None of you should be worried about ending the chapter… [5]

A gift to us, the miraculous beauty of the Qur’an is something we have constant access to in our age of technological advancement. As a result, it is no surprise that many become lost in harsh ingratitude, forgetting, even for a moment, precisely what they have been gifted and commanded toward. A portion of the Qur’an we must frequently return to and reflect on in relation to racism is the arrogance of the Shaytaan when rejecting Adam due to his physical characteristics. Allah said to him, 

“What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” [Satan] said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay.”[6]

Many within our diverse community will need to address the many biases they hold and the rotting baggage of Jahiliyya that racism is. It is the only way of beginning to reach the ideal of racial equality set out in Islam. While sinful, warned against, and prohibited, the arrogant will continue to defy what has been commanded to them. As Abdullah bin Mas’ud reported, the Holy Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, 

“No one who has the weight of a seed of arrogance in his heart will enter Paradise.” Someone said, “But a man loves to have beautiful clothes and shoes.” The Prophet said, “Verily, Allah is beautiful, and he loves beauty. Arrogance means rejecting the truth and looking down on people.“[7]

Meaningful Change

The re-occurring tendency toward glorifying one’s race or class over others across social systems in this Ummah ought to make us alert to the immorality of racism. Words such as abd are used by many Arabs to negatively refer to Black and Afro-Caribbean people – Muslim or not – and a large amount of unhelpful far left politics has lead many to make sweeping generalizations about White people, whether Muslim or not. Such demonizing politics, as well as devotional ethno-nationalism, can distance many from what we understand as Islam. Islam is not distinctly right or left wing; orthodox Islam is free from such fleeting generalizations. Muslims, however, do inhabit each ‘sphere’ to differing degrees and for a myriad of different reasons. While we may share a variety of similar opinions to thinkers on both sides, we would do well to remember that we are still distinct from political labels and in making this distinction lies the beauty, strength, and character of our faith. The racism the participants of The Black Muslim Forum report faced within secular settings cannot be divorced from this either. The reality of both Islamophobia and racism combine into a most poisonous cocktail sold to many within secular society, exacerbated by bullish nationalism and a hostile social environment. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad surmised the root of this matter best when he remarked

This quick and radical loss confuses the older generation, who sometimes think immigration is to blame. Perhaps the Brexit vote was a sort of attempt to turn back the clock to a more bucolic English age. The politicians, endlessly speechifying about the future, underestimated the English affection for the past. But immigration, and the Muslim presence which for many nationalists looks like the true emblem of the alienation which it brings, is not really at fault at all. It is not the tandoori restaurants and Kurdish cab drivers who have confiscated our old identity; it is globalisation, and particularly the Americanisation of our culture. And that is something which we deliberately imported and asked for gleefully; it was not pressed upon us by others.

Many must move toward worldliness in their education, express brotherhood by accepting the uniqueness in form or culture of their fellow man or Muslim, and commit to inner purification by asking Allah to help us rectify our faults. The truth of the matter is that anyone can slip up, even the most authentic in faith. The Sahabi Abu Dharr once slipped in anger, and racially insulted the Sahabi Bilal by calling him the “son of a black woman.” To this, the Prophet ﷺ said to Abu Dharr, “You are a person in whom is jahiliyya.”[8] Even with his esteemed status, Abu Dharr’s sin was not downplayed, and due to his high character he immediately repented. It is this act of rectification grounded in internalization of the Prophetic teaching that separates the sincere from the ignorant. Abu Dharr’s act did not make him a horrible person as a whole, for it did not represent what sat in his heart. Our upbringing, society, and our experiences through life can sew misinformed or immoral biases within us. Some can manifest in ways that contradict our moral belief. The best way to respond to a moral error is to seek forgiveness and rectification. And to meaningfully learn, internalize, and express the salience of the moral teaching(s) through our actions. 

Transcendent Character

What the Dīn asks of us in the development of virtue and what Allah commands us toward is far beyond what drives the political expediency of public, media, or YouTube polemics; they are those who live with an undying thirst for power and toxic influence. The Holy Prophet’s life ﷺ is a continuous reminder that the best of individuals and leaders are those who do not thirst for blameworthy traits or power itself for the sake of power. This standard of sincere leadership was embodied by the Sahaba and by the Awliya. What this should indicate to us is both hope and an understanding of what to admire in individuals and leaders of nobility and virtue. The pursuit of racial equality through sincere, absolute brotherhood is an immovable part of this. Malcolm X observed this best in his Letter from Mecca, and I would not confine his statement just to America. It speaks of a universal truth, buried deep into the instincts of the human soul,

America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white—but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color…

Each hour here in the Holy Land enables me to have greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white. The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities – he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites. 

But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth – the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.

Works Cited:
[1] Qur’an, Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5:3
[2] Al-Bukhari, Hadith 1623, 1626, 6361; Imam al-Tirmidhi has mentioned this sermon in his Hadith: numbers 1628, 2046, 2085
[3] Hayat al-Salaf, Ahmed bin Nasir al-Tayyar, p 62
[4] Qur’an, Surah Al-Hujarat 49:11
[5] Athar al-Tanzil, p 159
[6] Qur’an, Surah al-A’raf, 7:12-13
[7] Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 91
[8] https://yaqeeninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Racism-Talk-Toolkit-.pdf; Sahih al-Bukhari 6050, Book 78, Hadith 80 (supporting the general meaning of Abu Dharr’s rectification).

Photo Credit: danslespleen


About the Author: Bharath Syal is a graduate in Law, currently completing a Masters in Law in criminal litigation. He is a junior lawyer, a boxer, and a traveler. His interests include Hanafi jurisprudence, legal and South Asian history, constitutional & human rights law, business, and politics. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s