First off let me start by apologising for my prolonged absence from the blog. I’ve been indisposed due to a rather hectic workload and personal issues. Ok, fine, I’m just plain indolent – so sue me.
Anyhow, I was inspired to tackle the subject of racism due to the #BlackAndMuslim hashtag that was trending a few weeks ago on Twitter. Now it’s a given that racism is a topic that generates strong passions and resonances in many people and when combined with religious zeal and idealism doubly so. Neither political correctness nor deference to cultural sensitivities are hallmarks of my persona so if what follows is likely to offend or upset you then perhaps it’s best to stop reading this piece now? I disclaim responsibility for any conniptions or apoplexies incurred from here on in – caveat lector!
Racism is variously defined in English dictionaries as the hatred and intolerance of a race, usually accompanied by a belief in the superiority of one’s own. Whilst nationalism means an excessive devotion and attachment to one’s nation it is often closely linked to the concept of racism as usually the defining feature of a nation (at least in the nationalist’s eyes anyway) is the belonging to a particular racial group.
The direct translation of the word “racism” in Arabic is “unsuriya”. This word doesn’t occur in the Qur’an or hadith corpus (to the best of my knowledge) but instead we encounter the word “’asabiyah”. ‘Asabiyah refers to the bond of kinship (‘asaba refers to the male relatives from the father’s side) and therefore seems strongly linked to the concept of race. When we encounter the word ‘asabiyah in the hadith it refers to the excessive pride and devotion to one’s tribe or clan – a concept deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of 7th century Arabia. Although used primarily in this context its can be extended to cover excessive devotion and attachment to any grouping based upon a multitude of different defining factors.
The effects of ‘asabiyah / racism
In the pre-Islamic jahiliyyah (literally “ignorance”) period the concept of ‘Asabiyah was the cause of innumerable conflicts. Often these wars would span generations and be the product of petty disputes which the latter generation of participants wouldn’t even be acquainted with. The maxim “my brother right or wrong” predominated and to side with the “other” would have been simply unfathomable regardless of the righteousness of their cause; mercy and kindness were certainly forms of weakness to the mind of the pagan Arab. These feuds would only abate when one or both sides had been depleted of able bodied men to such an extent as to endanger the continuation of the clan.
In more contemporary history the horrific crimes of the Nazi regime during World War Two bears testimony to the ruinous effects of state and societally adopted racism.
‘Asabiyah was also a major factor in bringing about the end of the Caliphate; indeed the Ottoman state’s defeat to French and British forces during World War One can be attributed to the nationalist inspired Arab revolt against Turkish rule. The chaos and bloodshed – overwhelmingly Muslim blood – witnessed today in the Middle East is the legacy of that nationalistic, foreign inspired, war between two groups of Muslims. By embracing Arab nationalism the Arabs gained neither honour nor freedom and the brutal oppression they have endured these past 90 years far surpasses anything they experienced under Ottoman rule.
Muslims are not a race
Often detractors of Islam talk of “Islamic racism” and of Muslims being “racist” against kuffar. The absurdity of such statements become self-evident when one takes a look at an image of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah. The Muslim ummah is comprised of every race under the sun – black, white, brown and yellow – and likewise the kuffar “ummah”. The dividing line between a Muslim and a Kafir is not the colour of their skin or any other superficial physical feature – as quite often in any given locale these will be identical – but rather the concepts that each respectively holds. Whilst it is impossible to change one’s race or ethnicity (notwithstanding the late Michael Jackson’s attempts to prove otherwise) it is certainly possible to change the concepts one carries.
Islam forbids racism
For the first instance of what can be termed racism we need to go back to the dawn of time to the very creation of man. When Allah (swt) created Adam (as) he ordered the angels to prostrate and all did so except for Iblis (Satan) who when questioned as to his disobedience arrogantly proclaimed:
“I am better than him, You created me from fire, and him You created from clay.” [TMQ 7:12]
So the accursed reject – from whom we seek refuge in Allah (swt) – decided that he was superior to Adam (as) based upon his essence and consequently spurned his Lord’s command to prostrate to him.
Although the prohibition of racism/tribalism/nationalism in Islam is well known it is worth reminding ourselves of a few of the Prophetic narrations relating to this subject.
(i) Abu Huraira (ra) reported: The Messenger of Allah (saw) said, “There are certainly people who brag about their ancestors who have died. Verily, they are coal for Hellfire such that they are more contemptible to Allah than the beetle that rolls dung with its nose. Verily, Allah has removed from you the pride of the time of ignorance with its boasting about ancestors. Verily, either one is a believer who fears Allah or a miserable sinner. The people are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from dust.” [Tirmidhi]
(ii) Narrated Jubair ibn Mut’im (ra): The Messenger of Allah (saw), said: “He is not one us who calls for `Asabiyah, (racism/nationalism/tribalism) or who fights for `Asabiyah or who dies for `Asabiyah.” [Abu Dawud]
(iii) Narrated Ibn ‘Abdullah al-Bajali (ra) that the Messenger of Allah (saw) said: “One who is killed under the banner of a man who is blind (to the justness or otherwise of his cause), who raises the slogan of family or supports his own tribe, dies the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya.” [Muslim]
(iv) Narrated Abu Umamah (ra): Abu Dharr (ra) reproached Bilal (ra) about his mother, saying, “O son of a black woman!” So Bilal (ra) went to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and he told him what he said. The Prophet (saw) became angry and then Abu Dharr (ra) came although he was unaware of what Bilal told him. The Prophet (saw) turned away from him and Abu Dharr (ra) asked, “O Messenger of Allah, have you turned away because of something you have been told?” The Prophet (saw) said, “Have you reproached Bilal about his mother?” Then the Prophet (saw) said, “By the one who revealed the Book to Muhammad (or however Allah willed for him to swear), none is more virtuous over another except by righteous deeds. You have none but an insignificant amount.” [Bayhaqi]
There are others also – including the oft quoted statement from the last sermon regarding Arab and non-Arab equality – but for the sake of brevity I have restricted myself to the aforementioned narrations.
Muslims are not perfect beings – they can be racist too
Despite the unambiguous prohibition of ‘asabiyah it remains an unfortunate fact of history that this debilitating affliction was never completely eradicated from the Muslim Ummah. From the last hadith quoted above we can see that even the Sahaba were not immune from its evil. In another similar incident once some of the Arab companions of the Rasul (saw) mockingly enquired of Salman al-Farsi (the Persian) [ra] as to his lineage. Upon hearing their invidious question the Prophet (saw) replied that “Salman is from my family”, instantly conferring upon him the noblest of lineages – regardless of his actual bloodline – due to his piety and attachment to the prophetic sunnah.
Of late a popular subject in Islam-hating circles has been the Arab involvement in the black slave trade which is used to somehow buttress the contention that Islam is merely a manifestation of Arab nationalism lacquered with a thin veneer of plagiarised Judeo-Christian theology. While it is true that millions of black Africans were seized by Muslim Arabs slavers it was not racism that inspired these endeavours but rather the Islamic injunction to subjugate the non-Muslims. A proof in this respect was that millions of Europeans also suffered a similar fate – including an estimated quarter of a million Britons.
“One important commodity being transported by the Arab dhows to Somalia was slaves from other parts of East Africa. During the nineteenth century, the East African slave trade grew enormously due to demands by Arabs, Portuguese, and French. Slave traders and raiders moved throughout eastern and central Africa to meet the rising demand for enslaved men, women, and children. Somalia did not supply slaves — as part of the Islamic world Somalis were at least nominally protected by the religious tenet that free Muslims cannot be enslaved — but Arab dhows loaded with human cargo continually visited Somali ports.”
—Catherine Lowe Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery
As further proof the primarily religious nature of this slavery it seems that black Somali Muslims were active in enslaving and subjecting black southern African races to lives of humiliating servitude.
“Bantu [black southern Africans] adult and children slaves (referred to collectively as jareer by their Somali masters) were purchased in the slave market exclusively to do undesirable work on plantation grounds. They were made to work in plantations owned by Somalis along the southern Shebelle and Jubba rivers, harvesting lucrative cash crops such as grain and cotton. Bantu slaves toiled under the control of and separately from their Somali patrons.”
While the contemporary hatred between Arab and Persian Muslims can be conveniently attributed to theological differences – the majority of Arabs being Sunni and the majority of Persians being Shia – the sorry truth is that Persians and Arabs have long held a deep seated disdain for each other and this didn’t end with the adoption of Islam (initially Sunni) in Persia.
Unfortunately it would appear that the Islamic legal injunctions pertaining to slavery were often abused both in letter and in spirit for the sake of monetary gain. Whilst it is permitted to seize non-Muslims who are not dhimmis or citizens of treaty states the better course of action, clearly, is to bring them to Islam by missionary activities or via jihad i.e. conquering and annexing their territory to the Islamic state thereby making them ahlul-dhimma (subject of the state). The idea of using non-Muslim nations as slave reservoirs is completely against the ethos of Islam and in the contemporary age – anticipating the rebirth of the Islamic Caliphate – it simply would not occur.
Having not studied the question of Arab/Muslim involvement in the black slave trade I cannot comment (other than by posting excerpts from Wikipedia articles) on the treatment of these slaves although I am led to believe that it was better – for the most part – than their counterparts in Europe and the United States. All I can say is that the distinguishing feature between men throughout Islamic history has always been religion not race.
Racism amongst British Muslims
Yes it exists. I have been subjected to it myself albeit they were fairly mild, innocuous incidents at the hands of Bengali and Gujarati Muslims respectively. Many mosques in the UK are run along racial or even narrower tribal/caste lines reflecting the parochial mentality of the original south Asian immigrants who established them. I recall with much amusement a Bengali gentleman nudging me in the mosque one day several years ago, gesturing towards my English revert friend sat a few rows in front and enquiring in hushed tones whether he was Muslim. I have also been to African mosques in south London where the imam and the congregation are almost exclusively Nigerian or West African although I hasten to add I never felt in the slightest bit unwelcome.
On occasions there have been incidents of vicious overt racism by south Asian Muslims towards black Muslims including the use of pejorative labels and exclusion from mosque affairs and decision making despite seniority in age and length of attendance. Similarly many Arab Muslims feel an inherent sense of superiority over South Asian Muslims, viewing themselves as the “original Muslims” and others as upstart latecomers, especially given the fact that Arabic – the language of the Islamic scriptures – is not spoken or understood by most south Asians. Yes it’s also true that many of the elder generation south Asian immigrants do not view black African Muslims as equal to them – a psyche completely at odds with Islamic teachings and diametrically opposed to the example of the Prophet (saw). That racism exists amongst British Muslims is not in question, the question is how to tackle this ugly phenomenon in the most effective manner?
What is to be done?
It would be easy to wheel out the usual bromides about Islam forbidding racism or that “Islam is the solution”, however this doesn’t provide any real guidance as to how to tackle the ingrained ‘asabiyah prevalent within our community.
Let me begin by stating that it is my belief that the situation is improving. Amongst the 2nd generation Muslims inter-racial marriages for example are far more common than they were amongst my parent’s generation. This is in no small part because of the growing awareness that Islam transcends racial and cultural divides. The kind of racist discourse that may have been commonplace amongst the elder generation is now frowned upon by most of the younger generations of British Muslims – a combination of the effects of not only Islamic teachings but also in part due to the multi-cultural nature of 21st century Britain. Growing up with and especially going to school with people of different ethnicities and cultures has a harmonising effect on community relations and in London at least this has for the most part been a success notwithstanding the unfortunate and accelerating phenomenon of “white flight”. Inshallah, the major cities of the impending Caliphate will be similarly cosmopolitan in their ethnic make-up.
The key of course is education, education, education. And this education has to be a community wide effort. Children need to be taught from a young age the history of the ALL the Islamic polities including entities such as the Mali Empire. How many south Asian or Arab Muslims know of the rich Islamic literary history of towns such as Timbuktu? Racist discourse and the viewing of another human being, let alone another believer, as less deserving of respect due to his/her ethnicity must become anathema to the community.
Mosques must conduct Friday sermons in English, the common language, rather than having a 30 minutes speech in Arabic/Urdu/Bengali followed by a 5 minute précis in English. Mosque committees need to be elected based upon criterion such as aptitude, Islamic knowledge, technical knowledge, charisma and commitment; they must not be appointed based upon the clan affiliations of “the elders”.
Muslim children in the mosque and at home must be inculcated at an early age with an Islamic identity that transcends the artificial nationalistic boundaries imposed upon the Ummah over the course of the past century – indeed the very concept of “Ummah” needs revitalising. Mosques must no longer be “Pakistani”, “Bengali”, “Moroccan” mosques but simply “houses of Allah” as described in the Qur’an. Clearly this will be an uphill struggle given the absence of a unifying Caliphate but it is one that we must nevertheless engage in, seeking Allah’s (swt) good pleasure and anticipating the fulfilment of His (swt) promise.
Ironically those of us who were born in the West, into a predominantly non-Muslim society, find ourselves better placed in this respect to guide and educate those of us who grew up in Muslim majority nations. There was a time a Somali Muslim, a Bosnian Muslim and a Pakistani Muslim might have been viewed as Black, White and Asian respectively by the indigenous white British majority but today all three are seen as simply “Muslim”; a testament to the evolving nature and focus of right-wing media commentary.
Different but equal
Allah (swt) made us into disparate tribes and nations and whilst we may not be identical vis-à-vis various extraneous physical characteristics we are all equal in the eyes of our Lord in respect of our spiritual worth, legal obligations and rights.
“O mankind! 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 honourable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa [i.e. one of the Muttaqun (pious – see V.2:2)]. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” [TMQ 49:13]
Commenting on this ayah the celebrated exegete, Ibn Kathir stated: “you earn honour with Allah the Exalted on account of Taqwa [piety], not family lineage.” So let those who boast about their family/tribe/race or caste take note.
Similarly Imam Tabari commented:
‘And His (swt) saying: “In order to know each other”: In order to know one another in the descent. The Almighty says: we but made these peoples and tribes for you, O people, to know one another in terms of who is near in kinship and who is far, not that there is virtue (fadeelah) for you in it. Qurbah (closeness) is closeness to Allah, in fact, the most noble if you in Allah’s estimation is the one with the most Taqwa.”
And his saying, “Verily, the noblest of you in Allah’s sight is the one with the most Taqwa”: truly the noblest of you, oh people in the sight of Allah is the one who is most stringent in taqwa by doing the obligations (faraa’id) and abstaining from the evil acts, not the mightiest of you nor the one with the biggest family.’
The bond of Islamic brotherhood transcends race, culture or language and the following two traditions of the Prophet (saw) go a long way to explaining the eagerness of so many European Muslims to travel to Syria in recent months:
“The similitude of believers in regard to mutual love, affection, fellow-feeling is that of one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches, because of sleeplessness and fever.” [Sahih Muslim]
“A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim – he does not wrong him nor does he forsake him when he is in need; whosoever is fulfilling the needs of his brother, Allah is fulfilling his needs; whosoever removes distress from a believer, Allah removes from him a distress from a distressful aspect of the Day of Resurrection; and whosoever conceals the faults of a Muslim, Allah will conceal his faults on the Day of Resurrection.” [Sahih Muslim]
After the battle of Badr – the first military encounter of Islam – while the Qurayshi captives were being bound and lead away a Muslim, Musab ibn Umayr (ra) exclaimed to his companions that they should bind the hands of one particular captive well to ensure he didn’t escape as his mother would undoubtedly pay a handsome ransom for him. The captive happened to be none other than Abu Aziz ibn Umayr, Musab’s own blood brother, who expressed his astonishment at his sibling’s dispassionate indifference to his plight. In retort Musab replied that Abu Aziz, as a pagan, was not his brother despite their consanguinity but rather that the ones binding his hands were his true brothers.
On a personal level whilst I can’t deny I feel a certain affinity to the part of the world that is today called Pakistan due to it being the land of my (Muslim) forbears I also feel an affinity to England due to it being the land of my birth and where I have spent virtually my entire life. My identity, however, has and always will be Muslim. I may share a common ethnic, linguistic and cultural background with millions of Sikhs and Hindus yet I feel no sense of closeness to them nor do identify with them in any way. In fact I feel a closer affinity to a European Jew or Christian than I do to an Indian Sikh or Hindu – the former being ahlul kitab (“people of the book”) whilst the latter being mushrikeen (“polytheists”).
In answer to the proponents of the #BlackAndMuslim HT I say I was also subjected to a constant stream of vicious, sometimes physical, racial abuse growing up yet I have never seen myself as anything other than a Muslim. I do not see, for example, “White Muslims” as “White” merely as Muslims, as fellow believers who bear witness to La ilaha ilallah. Similarly I do not see “Black Muslims” as “Black” rather once again as fellow believers; such thinking inspires organisations such as the egregiously misnamed “Nation of Islam” and has nothing to do with the deen of Allah (swt). We need to stop utilising a human taxonomy inspired by non-Islamic concepts and instead revert to the one provided by Islam – Muslim and Kafir.
What is NOT helpful
‘Asabiyah is not the cure to ‘asabiyah. When Bilal (ra) was racially abused by Abu Dharr (ra) he did not respond in kind but rather complained to the Prophet (saw). While we don’t have the Prophet (saw) or one of his successors (a Khaleefah) to complain to we still have our Rabb and it is to him that we must turn in testing times such as these. If we encounter racism or any form of ‘asabiyah from our Muslim brothers or sisters we must advise them that such concepts and discourse are not from the Book of Allah (swt) or the Sunnah of His Rasul (saw) rather they are the malodorous excreta of a way of life based upon a rejection of the aforementioned guidance. Beyond that we must have sabr and make du’a – for the guidance of the offender and for the rebirth of a state where one is judged by the content of their character, primarily their propinquity to the example of the Prophet (saw), rather than by their lineage, wealth or skin tone.
Returning to the theme of #BlackAndMuslim which originally inspired this piece I feel as though it was misguided and unhelpful on many levels. For instead of confronting the root of the problem i.e. the kufr concept of nationalism/racism, it attempts to remedy it with a nationalism of its own. Many South Asian Muslims have been subjected to quite horrific levels of racial abuse – in many cases physical as well as mere verbal – at the hands of Arab Muslims; yet the answer to this is not to retreat into reactionary south Asian nationalism and promote initiatives such as an #AsianAndMuslim hashtag. Such initiatives only serve to exacerbate the problem and prolong the ailment. I was once asked by another Pakistani Muslim why we are always so concerned about Palestine and Syria and the oppression of Arab Muslims while in contrast Arabs never mention Kashmir or express any concern for the suffering of the Muslims anywhere outside the Middle East (please accept my humble apology @jala_leb as this obviously doesn’t apply to you). I replied because it was our Islamic duty to do so and the fact that some are negligent a particular duty doesn’t lift that obligation from upon us – no more than a group of Muslims neglecting their daily prayers would remove the need for us to pray either.
The question I would ask of those who promoted the initiatives such as #BlackAnd Muslim would be which of those two identities would you choose if forced to? If it came to war between the army of the Islamic state composed of predominantly Asian Muslims and that of a Black non-Muslim state, where would your allegiance lie? I recall with much dismay an African-American alima who on the eve of Obama’s first Presidential run stated that his candidacy touched her on so many different levels so that she would be voting for him. In other words because he was black she would support him regardless of his open, unswerving support for the Zionist state and his desire to take the helm of a state that is foremost in the war to abort the rebirth of the Caliphate.
Do races exhibit behavioural tendencies?
As politically incorrect as it may be I would say, yes. Yes the English do seem predisposed towards understated politeness and a certain degree of reticence. Yes the Germans do exhibit a tendency towards exactness, preciseness and a certain degree of brusqueness about their nature. The French…well let’s leave that one there…and so on. With every race there are certain exhibited characteristics that might be regarded as positive and those that one might regard in a rather less favourable light. When I talk of these characteristics I want – although I realise scant protection will it afford me from those desperately seeking to take offence – to make it clear that these are overarching tendencies on a societal level not individual blueprints that strictly define each and every individual member of that particular race. Ultimately we are all individuals with our own particular idiosyncrasies – not products of a clone factory production line.
Is it useful to recognise such characteristics? Possibly. Is it right to pre-judge an individual based upon these assessments and deny them opportunities/services or accord them a lesser degree of respect or deference as a result? No. Do I think sometimes some people are overly sensitive with respect to the above? Yes. Do I think sometimes some people are overly insensitive regarding the same? Yes. Does anyone one paradigm fit every conceivable scenario? But that life was so simple!
Islam is the only religion that solves the race issue
Why? Because it is the one religion that actively seeks to eradicate race consciousness from its adherents and provides for a mechanism to do so – the Islamic State or Caliphate with its concomitant political vision of a global, borderless state and race blind citizenship. The current fragmented state of the Ummah, divided into 50+ nation states, is but a temporary aberration in the timeline of Islam and one which millions of Muslims are earnestly striving to overturn. By contrast Christianity, whilst promulgating a similar concept of universal brotherhood of believers, provides no mechanism by which to make such unity a tangible reality. Instead it surrenders the managing of man’s worldly affairs to the existing rulers and ruling systems thereby implicitly recognising and endorsing the concept of the nation state. So a Christian in Britain feels loyalty first and foremost to Great Britain while similarly a Christian in Germany feels a sense of loyalty first and foremost to the German Republic – neither seeing this as conflicting in any way with their Christianity. Islam effaces every vestige of allegiance or loyalty to race and nation replacing it with an unalloyed loyalty to an ideology and to one state based upon its implementation of that ideology thereby at a stroke doing away with racial/nationalistic competition and conflict.
I end with words of the late Professor Arnold J. Toynbee: “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue.”
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon our master Muhammad. Ameen.