بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
All praise is due to Allah who created all of humanity from a single pair and then made them into nations and tribes that they may know one another. May the best benedictions and peace be upon the best of creation, Muhammad, who was sent to the black and the white, the Arab and non-Arab as a guide to that which is most pleasing to The Lord. To proceed:
There is absolutely no room in Islam for racism, amongst the Muslims however, something else is found. This occurs between immigrants and indigenous Muslims, between immigrants amongst themselves and sadly, amongst the indigenous community as well. It seems as though racism is as American as apple pie. Interestingly, in an age when racism was supposed to be something of the past, there seems to be far more discussion of it in the media and within various communities and so, it is for this reason that I have chosen that this article will take up the discussion.
To introduce this topic, we will begin with excerpts from a speech delivered on October 21, 1890 by Frederick Douglass. This speech, entitled “The Race Problem”, was delivered to the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington D.C.. It is from this Classical American voice that we will then take up and discuss the issue from an Islamic perspective. I have entitled this work:
The Problem of Racism
Amongst the Muslims
Wm. Halim Breiannis
Frederick Douglass said, “Members and Friends of the Bethel Literary and Historical Association: I esteem it a great privilege to be with you … It is an institution well fitted to improve the minds and elevate the sentiments not only of its members, but of the general public. Nowhere outside of the courts of law and congress of the United States have I heard vital public questions more seriously discussed. The men selected to address you know very well that what they may utter is subjected to close scrutiny and severe discussion. mere rant, bombast and self-inflation May pass elsewhere, but not here. For this reason, and for my own self respect, I shall endeavor to say only what I believe to be the truth upon what is popularly called “The Negro Problem.”
“My first thought respects the importance of calling things by their true names. This importance can not be over-estimated or over-stated. Truth is the fundamental, indispensable and everlasting requirement to obtaining right results. No department of human life can afford to dispense with truth. … No shot is certain of its aim where the gun-barrel is not true. As in mechanics, so in politics, morals, manners, metaphysics, and philosophies, nothing can stand the test of time and experience that does not stand on the unassailable, indestructible, unchangeable, foundation of truth. Considering how important this truth is, it seems strange that falsehood should hold such sway in the world. One main advantage by which error is able to darken, blight and dominate the minds of men is the skill of its votaries in using language deceitfully, in pandering to prejudice by misstating and misapplying terms to the existing relations of men. It has been said that in an important sense words are things. They are especially such when they are employed to express the popular sentiment concerning the Negro: to couple his name with anything in this world seems to damage it and damage him likewise. Hence I object to characterizing the relationship subsisting between the white and the colored people of this country as the Negro problem, as if the Negro had precipitated that problem, as if he were in any way responsible for the problem. … A lie ceases to be very dangerous when it parts with its ability to deceive. The devil is less dangerous as a roaring lion than when transformed as an angel of light.
“… Good men knew that slavery was wrong, but how to get rid of it was the great question. neither pulpit, nor the press, nor the statesman could see a solution of the great problem, and yet the problem has been solved. The Negro is free, and the country is cleansed of its greatest curse, crime and scandal. … But now, though all this has been done, though slavery has been abolished, though the Negro has been freed, though he has become a citizen, though the union has been saved, in part by his valor, the negro is not to be let off quite yet. he is to be made the victim of a new deal by precipitating upon the country a false issue. He is to face another problem. … it seems that the Negro is to lose, by their sectional harmony and good will, all the rights and privileges that he gained by their former bitter enmity.
“This, it is found, cannot be accomplished without confusing the moral sense of the nation and misleading the public mind; without creating doubt, inflaming passion, arousing prejudice, and attracting to the enemies of the Negro the popular sympathy by representing the Negro as an ignorant, base and dangerous person, and by presenting to those enemies that his existence to them is a dreadful problem.
“…the true problem is not the Negro, but the nation. Not the law abiding blacks of the South, but the white men of that section, who by fraud, violence and persecution, are breaking the law, trampling on the constitution, corrupting the ballot-box, and defeating the ends of justice. The true problem is whether these white ruffians shall be allowed by the nation to go on in their lawless and nefarious career, dis honoring the government and making its very name a mockery. It is whether this nation has in itself sufficient moral stamina to maintain its own honor and integrity by vindicating its own constitution and fulfilling its own pledges, or whether it has already touched that dry rot of moral depravity by which nations decline and fall, and governments fade and vanish.
“…And what are the reasons they give for demanding of the nation this retreat from its advanced position? They are these: they tell us that they are afraid, very much afraid; they are alarmed, very much alarmed, by the possibility of Negro supremacy over them. This is the calamity from which they would be delivered. And with eloquent lips and lusty lungs they call out: “Men and brethren, save us from this threatened and terrible danger!” … My reply to this alarm is easy. It is that the wicked flee when no man pursue to.
“…Now I am here to say that there is nothing whatever in this supposition. I can hardly call this invention a cunning device, for the pretense is too open, too transparent, too absurd to rise even to the dignity of low cunning. It is an old ragged pair of trousers, an old mashed and battered hat of the last century stuck upon a pole in a field where there are neither crows nor corn. It is the cry of fire by the thief when he would divert the officer of the law. It is as I have said, a red herring to divert the hounds from the true game, and the strange thing is that any class of our citizens, white or black, can be deceived by it.
“…It is worthy of emphatic remark that the men of the south who are loudest in their outcry against the ignorance of the negro are not those who wish to have him instructed, but those who would make his ignorance a reason for depriving him of the rights secured to him under the constitution. … Their laws have made it a crime to enlighten the black man’s ignorance. It has been the policy of the ruling class there to oppose education not only for blacks, but for poor whites as well.
“…But let me say again, the South neither really fears the ignorance of the Negro, nor the supremacy of the Negro. It is not the ignorant Negro but the intelligent North that it fears; not the supremacy of a different race from itself, but the supremacy of the Republican Party. It is not the men who are emancipated but the people who emancipated them that disturb this repose. In other words, the trouble is not racial, but political.
“…But I am asked, what of the future? and will the various people of this country ever be thoroughly assimilated? Or, to speak more plainly, will they ever intermarry? … It touches no question of politics, statesmanship or religion. … Individual interests, personal preferences and public sentiment may be safely left to regulate the relations of the races in respect of intermarriage. Such, I think, is the view that common sense will take of it.
“…And now comes Mr. Isaiah Montgomery of Mississippi, with his solution to the pretended Negro problem. … He has virtually said to the nation: ‘You have done wrong in giving us this great liberty. You should give us back our bondage.’ He has surrendered a part of his rights to an enemy who will make this surrender a reason for demanding all of his rights. He has conducted his people to a depth from which they will be invited to a lower deep, for if he can rightfully surrender a part of his heritage from the national government at the bidding of his oppressors, he may surrender the whole. … They want all that is to be had, and will take all that they can get. … I speak of this Montgomery business more in sorrow than in anger. I hear in the plaintive eloquence of his marvelous address a groan of bitter anguish born of oppression and despair. It is the voice of a soul from which all hope has vanished. His deed kindles indignation to be sure, but his condition awakens pity. … In a moment of impatience and despair he has thought to make terms with the enemy, an enemy with whom no colored man can make terms but by sacrifice of his manhood.
“…I am hopeful. I have no doubt whatever of the future. … I admit that during many years to come the colored man will have to endure prejudice against his race and color, but this constitutes no problem to vex and disturb the course of legislation. The world was never yet without prejudice. There exists prejudice in favor of and against classes of men of the same race and color. There is prejudice between different religious sects and denominations; between Catholics and Protestants; between families and individuals. … But what business has government, state or national, with these prejudices? Why should grave statesmen concern themselves with them? The business of government is to hold its broad shield over all and to see that every American citizen is alike and equally protected in his civil and personal rights.
“… I have seen dark hours in my life, and I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing and the light gradually increasing. One by one I have seen obstacles removed, errors corrected, prejudices softened, proscriptions relinquished, and my people advancing in all the elements that go to make up the sum of general welfare. And I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that what ever delays, what ever disappointments and discouragement may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”
This speech was given in a very difficult period in American history and it was chosen to be the foundational voice here because I believe it covers some of the most fundamental issues of race relations in the U.S., if not the world. Frederick Douglass began by mentioning how he was aware that his words would be scrutinized and so he was very wary of what he was going to say. Then he immediately entered into one of the major issues of race relations and that is naming. Just formulating a name for something, labeling it, is a form of argumentation. In naming a discussion you are also framing it, establishing how it is to be looked at and thought about, and so, the one who names or labels an issue is establishing a form of dominance over it, claiming authority. To counter such a claim to authority, falsehood needs to be exposed, not only the falsehoods of the issues but the falsehoods of the labels themselves. Exposing lies is one of the ways in which falsehood is defeated. Douglass went on to mention the fact that many people recognized the injustice of slavery yet it seemed that none could find a way to disrupt the established way of life – not the churches, the media or the state itself. Why? Perhaps because that was how people learned to understand their world, and it was exactly because of that limited perspective that even after slavery was abolished the black man in America was not truly free.
Frederick Douglass then continues to point out how injustice and corruption can not be established, nor continued except with the aid of propaganda to effect the hearts and minds of the masses. The miseducation and established ignorance of classes is also used as a weapon wielded to oppress, and this, as he mentioned, crosses racial lines. Several times in this speech Mr. Douglass pointed out that the real issue was manipulation of the masses for political reasons, and then he calls the people to remember that the way forward is not through the passing of laws but the changing of personal views.
In the end we can take warning of those who, regardless of how sincere, seek to compromise with the unjust and so end up compromising until there is nothing left to compromise. Frederick Douglas points out that there will always be some form of bias, some form of prejudice – be it racial, religious, or otherwise – but despite differences, and even some preconceived notions about others, the duty of each person is to be civil, humane and cooperative. Through hard-work and patience, working together for the sake of God, we will find obstacles removed, by His permission.
This message served in its time and I think it is still a very relevant message today. With that said, I want to turn our attention to the issue of racism amongst Muslims.
There are many ayat in the Quran wherein we take the lessons that all of mankind are from a single pair, and so we are all related as the human family. We also find in the Quran that if it were Allah’s will we would all be one people. So then, why are there differences? Perhaps the best known ayat to deal with race relations is the oft quoted words of our Lord from Surah Hujuraat,
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا
إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
We have created you from a male and a female,
and made you into nations and tribes,
that you may know one another.
Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah
are those who are most pious.
Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.
This ayat makes it very clear that there is no superiority associated with one nation or another, one tribe or another, rather the differences allow mankind to recognize one another. The people of this climate are not like the people of that climate, the people of mountainous terrain are not like the people of flatlands, the people from this region are not like the people from that region, the people of this tribe are distinguished from the people of that tribe. In this way we can not only recognize one another but also come to know one another, our varying cultures and perspectives.
What is more, to know one’s ancestry is praiseworthy in Islam. Lineage is one of the rights whose preservation is at the heart of the Shariah. It was preserved and taught from one of the scholars of Timbuktu, “Whoever does not inform his children about his grandparents has destroyed his children, marred his descendants and injured his offspring the day he dies. Whowever does not make use of his ancestry has muddled his reason. Whoever is unconcerned with his lineage has lost his mind. Whoever neglects his origin, his stupidity has become critical. Whoever is unaware of his ancestry, his incompetence has become immense. Whoever is ignorant of his roots, his intellect has vanished. Whoever does not know his place of origin, his honor has collapsed.” These words, though very critical and scathing, show the heavy emphasis in Islam placed upon knowing one’s own lineage.
I would add that, this ayat talks about nations and tribes, not race. Today, in America, we point out black, white and Latin Americans as though each is a homogenous whole…this is not a reality. Amongst the white you have those of English origin, Irish, French, German, etc. and each of these had tribes within each nation. Amongst the black you have Nigerian, Senegalese, Somali, etc. and amongst them you have Wolof and Fulani and many other tribes. Amongst the Latino there are Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, etc., not to mention non-Spanish speaking peoples such as Peruvians and Brazilians, and there are hundreds of tribes in each nation. To see only collective races is a failure to see the beauty of diversity amongst humanity, it is failure to see one of the signs of Allah. There is no problem with loving one’s people. This is natural and even healthy. It is a sign that something is wrong when a person has a dislike for his own people. Despite the persecution and oppression, the prophets (peace be upon them all) loved their own people…how else could they continue to call them to success despite their wrongdoing? The problem is not in loving one’s own people but rather in looking down upon others, treating them unfairly, or being unjust towards them. The problem is never loving one’s own people, but hating others. It is through fear and hate of others that the worst crimes are committed.
All of this, the tribe, the nationality, the race…in the end, none of it is grounds when judging one another. We can love our own people, our own cultures, our ancestry…but the criterion of honoring others is based on their uprightness before God. It doesn’t matter if a person is from another land, another nation, another race…or just another family, if they are upright and pious before God, we are to honor and respect them. While if a person is from one’s own race, or tribe, even if it is one’s near relatives but they are upon a path displeasing to God, how can you honor them? The most noble before God Almighty are those who are the most upright in their piety. That is our criterion.
It is upon an individual’s submitting to the guidance of Allah or lack thereof that the believer honors another person. To judge according to appearances, according to the decreed of Allah, according to one’s origin is Satanic. This was the very first sin ever committed as Allah informs us,
وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ صَوَّرْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ لَمْ يَكُن مِّنَ السَّاجِدِينَ
قَالَ مَا مَنَعَكَ أَلَّا تَسْجُدَ إِذْ أَمَرْتُكَ قَالَ أَنَا خَيْرٌ مِّنْهُ خَلَقْتَنِي مِن نَّارٍ وَخَلَقْتَهُ مِن طِينٍ
“And surely, We created you and then gave you shape,
then We told the angels, “Prostrate to Adam”, and they prostrated,
But Iblis (Satan), he refused to prostrate.
(Allah) said: “What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate, when I commanded you?”
Iblis said: “I am better than him (Adam),
You created me from fire, and him You created from clay.”
So we find a choice – do we follow the criterion given us by our Lord or do we follow the footsteps of Satan? Blameworthy pride, arrogance and discontent with the decree of God Almighty is from the greatest evils, and they corrupt the heart, blocking one from obeying the commands of their Lord. It was these very diseases of the heart that lead directly to the first sin, when Satan thought he was better than Adam due to outward forms.
Knowing that racism is evil, knowing that this is not how we judge one another seems to be insufficient. Many people carry baggage due to past experiences – whether personal or collective. When a person identifies that they fear or hate or look down upon others due to something decreed by Allah, such as race, they must take action to cure this. Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari is a beautiful example of this. Abu Dharr (May Allah be pleased with him) came from a tribe of raiders, a very rough people, and once he got into a heated conversation with Sayyidina Bilal (May Allah be pleased with him) in which he used a racial slur. When this was taken to the prophet (May the best benedictions and peace be upon him), he told Abu Dharr that he had some traces of pre-Islamic ignorance remaining within him. What then did Abu Dharr do? He went out and found an African woman to marry. He (May Allah be pleased with him) believed that if his family was black, how then could there remain any dislike for black people. You see, once he came to know, then he sought a cure…he acted. I am not calling for inter-racial marriages, as Frederick Douglas made clear, that is a personal matter. The point is, when someone finds this quality in themselves, it is not enough to recognize it and have knowledge about its evils, rather they must actively seek to cure themselves of it.
Despite this knowledge, despite everyone knowing racism is unlawful in Islam and that it is from the pre-Islamic ignorances, we still find it in the Muslim community. It is wide spread amongst the immigrant Muslims community but our concern here is with our own communities, the indigenous Muslims. There are certainly realities of racism within the indigenous community. This is due to the racial history of our homeland more than any other reason. It is very true that slavery was not unique to the United States, and it is also true that slavery based on race and racism was also not unique to the U.S.. It is also true that abolition was not unique to the U.S. – but the outcome is very much American. Even after abolition, as we find in the words of Frederick Douglass, the Blackman in America was not truly free. There was much injustice that continued. Even after the civil rights movements you found racial division in politics, business and family affairs. So much can and has been said about these matters and it is not the aim here to go into details.
It is as a consequence of this history that there is still, to this day distrust between the races – and I say this because we should not pretend it is one sided. There is no doubt that there is a deep seated mixture of fear, distrust and hatred for whites found in black communities and vice versa. Today, with the growing Latino community in the U.S. distrust and fear is being further exploited so that one now finds a three way split in the racial divide. This is found in the greater society and so what this means is that it has an effect on our communities as people enter into Islam with their pre-Islamic baggage. I do not say this to mean that we should forget the past – instead we need to explore it more. I also do not say we should put on a show as though the psychological and emotional realities of our own experiences are not and/or haven’t been real. Instead, I am saying we need to rise above our former conditioning and live lives according to our faith, transforming our views and perspectives.
The companions of the prophet (May Allah be pleased with them all) were not singular in their backgrounds. There were those from wealth and those from poverty, those from nobility and those who were not; there were Arabs, Abasiniyyans, Romans and Persians; they came out of paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. These men and women came from different clans, some of which spent generations with a state of tension between them, if not outright conflict. There were sub-groupings based on where they came from and what dialect of a language they spoke; these people each had their own cultural backgrounds and preferences as well. What united them was their faith, their Islam. And because of the inward unity, that real and deep unity, they were able to change the world, spreading Islam from China to the western most coast known to them. And when they spread this deen, they did not force others to change their cultures, rather they purified the customs and habits, the beliefs and perspectives based upon the Shariah. They called the people to submit to the guidance of Allah and His messenger (May the best benedictions and peace be upon him), not to become someone else, not to adopt someone else’s culture. Once this occurred, once the people embraced Islam, they too became part of a brotherhood that is unified at its deepest core.
We have this saying, “what men have done, man can do.” If we fail to change, we must realize it is because we fail to take lessons and instead make excuses. The guidance is there, the examples are there, the way is made clear for us…so what then are our excuses? We need to understand that separation and division only benefits the enemies of Islam, as it weakens us and our efforts as a community as well as polluting our hearts with toxic thoughts and feelings towards our brothers and sisters. We, the indigenous Muslims are made up of Blacks, Latinos and whites from myriad backgrounds. This affords us the opportunity to know one another and to work together across racial lines. Establishing our Islam with love for one another in our hearts is the greatest service to racial justice we can do in this land. There are cases in the media which are turned into racial causes for which Muslims divide, some support “the cause” while others say it has nothing to do with us as a community. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, did anyone take the time to refer this back to the Qur’an and sunnah? Are we not told to verify news when it comes to us from transgressors? The point here is that, as Muslims, we must avoid knee-jerk reactions to every situation. Instead of being reactionary, we must be activists…beginning in our own communities.
We need to love our people, we need to love one another and we need to love ourselves. When we seek nobility through Islam, then we will become ennobled. When this happens, when we become truly unified, with love in our hearts, we too will change the world.
And all success is with Allah.