Islam & Racism

It is simply breathtaking that in the 21st century we continue to find ourselves engulfed by the tides of racism, resulting in continued injustice – particularly towards black communities in America and other western nations. The fight against oppression and denial of basic human rights of BAME groups has been an ongoing struggle for centuries. However Islam has addressed this issue over 1,400 years ago, categorically forbidding every form of racism, nationalism and tribalism.

Islam is much more than just a religion or faith; its compass directs us to a complete way of life. The guidance we receive through the teachings of Islam is comprehensive and includes not just the spiritual aspects of life, but also the social, political, economic as well as moral aspects too. By saying that it is a complete way of life, we mean that it serves for all possible fields of human existence. Our beloved messenger Muhammad (PBUH) was sent as a mercy to all mankind, seeking to remove all forms of oppression- however and whenever they manifested. By removing the highest pillar of oppression, that of the worship of idols, false gods and the ego, and only condoning the worship of Allah alone, Islam has removed all avenues for superiority based on race, gender and other superficial factors.

Racism defined:

Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another; that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. It is the idea that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another. Such racist attitudes are abhorred and condemned in Islam. Differentiation and rank between individuals in Islam is not based on race, but rather it is measured by the piety within the hearts of the believers. Allah says in the Qur’an:

‘O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you nations and tribes so that you may recognise one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.’ (49:13)

All races that are found in the world today are, in fact, the branches of one initial race that started with one mother and one father. In this process of creation there is no basis whatsoever for the divisions and distinctions simply based on false notions. The origin of everyone is one, and we were all created by the same Creator.

Unity through Diversity:

The appreciation of the variety of Allah’s creation and rejection of racism is a sentiment mentioned in the Qur’an:

‘And of His signs is the creation of the heaven and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. There truly are signs in this for those who know.’ (30:22)

Since its inception in the sandy desserts of Arabia over 14 centuries ago, Islam has now spread far and wide to all four corners of the globe. Currently ranked as the second largest religion after Christianity, Islam boasts approximately 1.8 billion followers- which makes up about 24.1% of the entire world population! Our Ummah consists of Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds and this is evident by the astounding diversity we find within our own Muslim communities and societies. Diversity is one of the basic characteristics of any human society and is an asset indispensable to the progress of humanity as a whole. Islam advocates the utilisation of cultural dialogue and commonalities for maintaining peaceful co-existence. Peaceful co-existence is favoured by knowledge, learned from other cultures and supported by multi-culturalism.

Early Islam also attracted non-Arabs, outsiders with little standing in traditional Arab society. These included Salman (R.A) the Persian, who traveled to the Arabian Peninsula seeking religious truth, Suhayb (R.A) the Roman, a trader, and an enslaved Ethiopian named Bilal (R.A). All three personalities would rise to prominence in Islam during Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) lifetime.

Bilal’s (R.A) much-improved fortunes, in particular, illustrate how the egalitarianism preached by Islam transformed Arab society. An enslaved servant of a Makkan aristocrat named Umayya, Bilal (R.A) was persecuted by his owner for embracing Islam. Umayya would place a rock on Bilal’s chest, trying to choke the air out of his body in an effort to force Bilal (R.A) to abandon Islam. Moved by Bilal’s (R.A) suffering, it was Abu Bakr (R.A) – the close companion of the Messenger (PBUH) – who eventually set him free. Bilal (R.A) would go on to create a close bond with the Prophet (PBUH) and become exceptionally close to him. In 622 AH, the Prophet (PBUH) appointed him as the first person to give the public call to prayer in recognition of his powerful, pleasing voice and personal piety. Bilal (R.A) would later marry an Arab woman from a respectable tribe — unthinkable for an enslaved African in the pre-Islamic period. Bilal’s (R.A) incredible journey and rise to such an honourable position was due to the even playing field set out by Islam; all members of the Muslim society were granted equal opportunity and rank was only measured by righteousness, not skin colour, financial status or otherwise.

Gems of a crystal clear message:

During the Prophet’s (PBUH) last sermon, distinctions based upon a person’s colour were cast aside. Rather our united heritage in being from the Prophet Adam (AS) was emphasised: 

’O people, your Lord is One, and your father is one: all of you are from Adam, and Adam was from dust. No Arab is superior to a non-Arab, and no black person to a white person, nor a white person to a black person except by Taqwa (piety)’. [Tirmidhi]

The message of the Prophet of Allah (PBUH) is direct and transparent; there is no room for racism in Islam, nor any form of discrimination based on skin colour, ethnicity or lineage. Islam, with its universal concept of brotherhood, rejects all artificial and man-made marks of distinction. As previously mentioned, no claim to superiority over others can be filed on these bases. Supremacy between individuals can only be based on piety and righteousness, and that can only truly be judged by Allah himself.

How can we stand up to racism?

Racism does exist. It’s very unfortunate that we often find racism prevalent in attitudes, cultures, typical stereotypes and beliefs simply due to implicit bias. The first step to tackling racism is acknowledging that there is indeed a racial crisis existent. Having accepted this, we must then express our commitment to condemning and suppressing all forms of racial injustice. This can be achieved by initiating productive and respectful discussions, aiming to raise awareness to create a better understanding and overview on issues of racial discrimination. We should also seek to create channels whereby people feel safe speaking up about racial issues they face or have faced previously, offering them support however we can, for instance through advice or referral to the appropriate authorities.

Next we must embed an anti-racist approach to our values and actions; as the prominent saying goes: ‘Actions speak louder than words’. Building stronger, healthier and unified societies and communities is dependent on having a solid set of core values that are integrated into every policy, decision and process. These core values can be found within our detailed teachings of Islam through the Qur’an and instructions of our beloved Messenger PBUH. It’s critical that there are actions to underpin our words or else they’ll remain empty promises. 

In an authentic narration, the final Messenger of Allah advises us to practically and actively combat oppression within our means:

‘Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.’ (Muslim)

We can all make a difference if we stand together as one Ummah, preventing racial injustice from dividing us. We must challenge all microaggressions we face or see others experiencing in our everyday lives in the fight against racism. The time is now to step up, stand up and speak out in support of the oppressed and act in unison to help lift the barriers and burden of fighting everyday racism for a better tomorrow.

by Saiyed Mahmud, 7th Year Alim Class

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