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  /  Articles   /  Beyond Racism: The Challenge of Turning the Islamic Ideal into Reality

Beyond Racism: The Challenge of Turning the Islamic Ideal into Reality

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.1
– Malcolm X, “Letter from Mecca”

Much has been written about the transformative power of faith traditions, and history is rife with examples of social justice movements inspired by one religion or another. In modern times, the life and autobiography of Malcolm X, especially his experience in Mecca, not only fomented numerous individual and societal transformations but also popularized the notion that Islam is the religion of choice for overcoming centuries of color-based injustice. Malcolm believed that Christianity and Judaism lacked the revolutionary rigor to reform social institutions. He had negative experiences with white American Christians and he knew the history of their appropriation of the Hamitic curse2 to help justify the enslavement of Africans, and these undoubtedly shaped his views. Judaism’s Jew-gentile binary likely did not appeal to him, either.

For Muslims, Malcolm’s writings affirmed the otherwise fragile idea of a raceless or post-racial ummah (international Muslim community), a myth that raised the profiles of the Arabian and other Muslim-majority societies in the Middle East that he visited. The truth, rooted in a history that challenges the putative colorblindness of Muslim societies, is more complex.

Decades before Malcolm, another iconic twentieth-century reformer arrived at a similar conclusion about Islam: Gandhi felt that Islam, more than Hinduism, had a clear and absolutist vision of human brotherhood. On the contribution of Islam to India, he said,

Islam’s distinctive contribution to India’s national culture is its unadulterated belief in the oneness of God and a practical application of the truth of the brotherhood of man for those who are nominally within its fold. I call these two distinctive contributions. For in Hinduism the spirit of brotherhood has become too much philosophized. Similarly, though philosophical Hinduism has no other god but God, it cannot be denied that practical Hinduism is not so emphatically uncompromising as Islam.3

The words of Gandhi and Malcolm may inspire pride among Muslims today, but in the absence of a critical assessment of the reality of race and racism in Muslim history, such pride can feed a kind of Islamic exceptionalism, or at the very least, produce overly broad statements about a colorblind Muslim history. Still, a measured examination can tell us about Islam’s potential to contribute to solving the vexing problems of racism and of racial supremacism.

The Illusion of Colorblindness

The notion of race as a biological fact, rather than as a social construct, complicates modern discussions about race. We understand ideas such as “Whiteness,” “Blackness,” and “Arabness” as distinct empirical categories that represent homogenous genotypes. Although the three Abrahamic religions teach that all human beings are descendants of Adam, and scientific evidence indicates that we all share a common ancestry, many people have imbibed the polygenetic, or multiple-origin, theory of human genesis held by a minority of premodern philosophers, including Voltaire, David Hume, John Atkins, Edward Long, and Christoph Meiners. The theory that holds near consensus in scientific circles today is the single-origin theory, which traces the roots of homo sapiens to eastern Africa.

In the premodern era, race and group membership were determined largely by cultural traits, especially language and shared customs, rather than by skin color.4 For instance, acculturation, or acquiring Arab cultural traits, determined the authentic Arabness of most Arabs living outside the Arabian Peninsula. And while the stereotypical Arab has lighter skin, most original Arabs—at least those of the early Islamic period—had brown skin, according to historians and lexicographers.5This difference between cultural and biological race types complicates our reading of the past. Without taking into account such distinctions—and the hierarchies present in perceived black and white racial types6—contemporary scholarship on matters of race continues to misdiagnose the underlying causes of racial problems, and is unable to offer effective solutions to resolve it.

Some clarity about the definition of racism can serve us well before we consider its place in Muslim history. The New Oxford American Dictionary offers two definitions for racism: (1) prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior and (2) the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.7 The first definition appeals to critical race theorists8 because it is broad enough to support their claim that racism is systemic and that discrimination against minorities is embedded in economic and political structures. Regarding the second definition, the term ethnocentrism may be more appropriate. Any person—whether from an ethnic minority or majority—is ethnocentric if he or she prefers his or her own perceived race to another’s in areas such as marriage or even close friendship. As such, ethnocentrism is a prerequisite for racial discrimination. Critical race theorists, however, demarcate ethnocentrism from racism: for them, racism must be institutional or systematic. The problem is that such a demarcation conveniently ignores ethnocentric bias when an ethnic minority does not possess political power and does not control political and economic institutions. This can lead to declaring a clearly racist ideology to be nonracist simply because its exponents are not an ethnic majority with political power.

For Muslims immigrants in the West, this sort of thinking contributes to the illusion that they are colorblind, because they are mostly members of various ethnic minorities. Many recent Muslim immigrants to the United States have had little reason to seriously consider minority claims about racial discrimination here, whether individual or institutional.9 Some observers have even described Muslims’ refusal to tackle the specter of racism as “race agnosia.”10 Racially agnostic Muslims may acknowledge the existence of racism, but they often fail to specify its perpetrators and victims. They tend to avoid discussions about race and take comfort in viewing racism as anathema to Islamic orthodoxy, especially in light of teachings that originated with the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ himself, such as his famous statement “There is no superiority of Arabs over non-Arabs nor of non-Arabs over Arabs.”11 Hence, in their view, no Muslim could possibly be racist, and focusing on either structural or individual racism calls into question the sincerity of one’s commitment to Islam.

Racial Egalitarianism in Islam

What makes Islam exceptional in its potential to address the race problem, as Malcolm and Gandhi seem to believe? Indeed, the racial egalitarian teachings of Islam can be traced directly to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ. The Qur’an invites us to reflect on the brotherhood of all humanity, saying,

O mankind! Verily, We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you would come to know one another. Verily, the most noble of you in God’s estimation is the most conscientious among you. Verily, God is knowing, aware. (49:13)

On numerous occasions, the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ challenged the racial bias expressed by some of his Arab companions.12 When some complained that Bilāl, an Ethiopian, was chosen to summon the faithful to prayer, the Prophet ﷺ rebuked them, saying, “Men are of two types: those who are pious and conscientious, whom God considers precious, and others who are wicked and wretched, who are insignificant in God’s estimation. You are all from Adam. And God created Adam from dirt.” On another occasion, he scolded his companions for not awakening him to conduct the funeral rites for Umm Miĥjan, an oft-neglected African woman who kept the mosque clean.13 When Arab women belittled the Prophet’s Jewish wife, Śafiyyah, he told her, “Why don’t you tell them: ‘My husband is Muĥammad. My father is Aaron. And my paternal uncle is Moses.’”14 And in one popular account—considered spurious by Muslim traditionalists—some of the Arab men present at a gathering the Prophet ﷺ attended objected to the presence of Bilāl (the aforementioned Ethiopian); ¢Abd Allāh, a Jew; Salmān, a Persian; and Śuhayb, a Roman.15 The Prophet ﷺ responded, “Verily, the Lord is one. The father is one. And the religion is one. Arabic is neither a father nor a mother. It is nothing more than a language. And whoever speaks Arabic is an Arab.”16

The Qur’an and the example of the Prophet ﷺ teach that each person has the right to be treated well by others. The Qur’an describes the believers as brothers (ikhwah), warning, “And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell. God is also angry with him, damns him, and has prepared for him an enormous chastisement” (4:93).  The Qur’an also teaches, “Worship God, ascribe no partners to Him, and show goodwill to parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, the neighbor who is kin, the neighbor next door, the companion at one’s side, the wayfarer, and slaves.17 Verily, God does not like any boastful snob” (4:36).

In addition, the Prophet ﷺ said, “[The archangel] Gabriel counseled me about the neighbor so much so that I thought he would assign to him a portion in inheritance.”18 He also said, “You see the believers in their mutual compassion, affection, and sympathy like the body. If one part of the body falls ill, the rest of it reacts with insomnia and fever.”19 Other teachings of the Prophet ﷺ include “Each one of you is a mirror to his brother”20 and “One believer to another is like a single edifice. Parts of it reinforce others.”21

It is unlawful in Islam to refer to another pejoratively or by reference to racial slurs: the Qur’an says, “O you who believe! Let not some men mock others. Perchance they are the better of them. Nor are women to [mock other] women. Perchance, they are the better of them. Do not attack the honor of one another. Nor assail one another with names. Wicked is the name of iniquity given after faith. And whoever does not repent, those are the unjust” (49:11).

Race and Racism in Muslim History

These teachings about racial egalitarianism not only represent the ideals but also the lived reality during some periods in Islamic history. Nevertheless, the Islamic tradition has allowed a degree of sociopolitical privilege for select family members and even certain Arab tribes. For example, members of the Quraysh tribe and the descendants of the Prophet’s daughter Fāţimah from his cousin ¢Alī were given default leadership in early Islamic history.22 Naturally, if families can treat their kinfolk with preference, members of a race can prefer members of their own ethnic group over others. Still, Islamic teachings—and most Muslims—emphasize the importance of fair, if not completely equal, treatment of all believers. Islamic teachings do not tolerate prejudice, oppression, belittlement, ridicule, or disparagement of any person on the basis of race or color.

The early Muslims struggled with the transition from an identity based on patrilineal associations to one based on faith. Many scholars—including many Persians and other non-Arabs—acknowledged the sociopolitical privilege and favor (fađl) of Arabs as a matter of orthodoxy.23 When disaffected Persian Muslims in the ninth century rejected the notion of Arab superiority and launched a social equality movement (ĥarakat al-taswiyah) demanding equal treatment with Arabs, mainstream scholars dubbed the dissenters Shu¢ūbiyyah,24 a negative term placing them with the shu¢ūb (peoples) mentioned in the Qur’anic verse “We made you peoples and tribes in order that you know one another” (49:13). At the time, a number of exegetes posited that the “peoples” mentioned in this verse are a super category of non-Arabs, while the “tribes” (qabā’il) are a reference to Arabs, who receive preferential treatment from God.25 Not surprisingly, neither the Shu¢ūbiyyah nor many other exegetes agreed with such an interpretation.26

One might argue that Arab discrimination against Persians is not a valid example of racism because Persians are white, and ample evidence exists that Arabs preferred white over darker skin colors.27But, as mentioned earlier, race in the premodern world was not determined by skin color but by shared cultural identifiers, such as language and custom. Victims of xenophobia in those times included foreigners who looked the same but did not share the same culture. The Umayyads levied higher taxes on Persians even after their acceptance of Islam, an early example of institutional racism.

East Africans suffered mistreatment at the hands of Iraqi Muslims in the ninth century, which led to the eruption of a fourteen-year rebellion known as the Zanj Slave Revolt (869–883).28 The first year of this revolt came on the heels of the death of Jāĥiż (d. 869), the great rationalist and writer, and a pioneer of what can be called “Islamic Pan-Africanism.” Jāĥiż authored many important writings, including Fakhr al-sūdān ¢alā al-bīđān (Boast of the Blacks Over the Whites).

Approximately three centuries later, another scholar in Iraq, Ĥanbalī ¢Abd al-Raĥmān b. al-Jawzī (d. 1200), reintroduced the genre into the Muslim cultural archives with Tanwīr al-ghabash fī fađl al-sūdān wa al-ĥabash (Illuminating the Darkness Concerning the Virtue of the Blacks and Ethiopians). Then, after another three centuries, the polymath Imam al-Suyūţī (d. 1505), while expressing his indebtedness to Ibn al-Jawzī (but not Jāĥiż), wrote a similar work vindicating Blacks, titled Raf¢ sha’n al-Ĥubshān(Elevating the Stature of the Ethiopians).

The Zanj revolt was eventually put down, but Muslims in Iraq apparently continued to entertain negative views about the black East Africans living in their midst. This may be why Ibn al-Jawzī felt sympathy for the Blacks in Iraq, whose alleged sadness over their own Blackness inspired him to write his book.29 Anti-black sentiment intensified under Abbasid rule in Iraq (750–1258), and one can reason that it did not abate when the Abbasids transferred their capital to Egypt after the Tatar invasion (1261–1517). Sufficient evidence exists to conclude that the Abbasid caliphs favored a whitening of their population in Iraq. The custom for most of Abbasid history in Iraq of passing rule onto the son of the caliph’s concubine clearly suggests a whitening of the Arab archetype, as most of the concubines who birthed future caliphs came from regions typified by the white skin of their inhabitants.30 The evidence is less explicit, however, about whether Abbasid anti-black sentiment transferred from Baghdad to Cairo or had its own local genesis in Cairo. But the fact that scholars wrote works defending Blacks, which were not typical of the religious canon, suggests that Blacks living in Abbasid capitals faced discrimination.

Other examples that deflate the ideal of Muslim colorblindness throughout history include the Mālikī school’s classification of black women and unappealing non-Arab women as “ignoble” women (daniyyah) who were allowed to bypass normal standards for marriage in light of their “undesirability” and consequent compatibility with “any man.”31 Key Egyptian scholars writing during the European Enlightenment reinforced presumptions of black ugliness and white beauty,32in addition to the idea that brown was the natural color of slaves.33 Another example is the history of the slave trade and abolition in the Muslim world, with countries such as Sudan and Mauritania not legally abolishing slavery until the late twentieth century,34 as well as the prevalence of almost exclusively African eunuchs to guard the harems and Circassian slaves from Russia during the Tanzimat period of Ottoman rule.35

The anti-African and anti-Persian sentiment in Muslim lands undermines claims of a colorblind Muslim empire, as do the official policies that disadvantage certain populations on the basis of ethnicity.36 If we expand the definition of racism to include cultural and political domination, we see examples of that in the premodern Muslim world. Furthermore, if we see ethnocentric bias as a form of racism, then we must say that racism was not only prevalent among premodern Muslims but arguably constituted a small part of the Islamic legal and theological canon.37

We know that xenophobia was not unique to premodern Muslim society. However, skin color was a secondary factor to language and custom in group identity, and Arabs, for instance, had little reason to devalue brown complexions, because most Arabs were either light or dark brown, according to scholars of Arab history. In rare cases, Arabs had white skin. Many did, however, succumb to the apparently transhistorical and ubiquitous disdain for jet-black skin. These attitudes may have developed after black Axumite neighbors across from their western coast invaded and ruled parts of Arabia. The Arabs also disdained white skin—at least during the prophetic era—which may have originated from the fear of a type of skin ailment38 or from unpleasant encounters with their lighter Persian and Byzantine neighbors.

As for the phenomenon of black slavery in the Muslim world, unlike Europeans, Muslims never accepted the Hamitic curse as an orthodox narrative. Islam did not tolerate any overt or official policies of ethnic-based slavery, and no Muslim regime cited scriptural or legal support for the preponderance of Blacks among slave populations; most slaves in ninth-century Baghdad and during the late Ottoman period were African. The enslavement of black Africans can be attributed to Muslims who abandoned their religion’s ideals. Islamic teachings do not allow Muslims to enslave other Muslims, nor do they permit mutilating the body of any human—especially the removal of the male penis and testicles.39

Also, unlike in Europe, neither Blacks nor former slaves were officially barred from upward mobility, for the most part. On the contrary, the eunuchs of the Ottoman harems were known to be influential and enjoyed privileges not available to most Ottoman Turks.40 In the earlier Abbasid period, royal concubines had a limited freedom that almost paralleled the limited freedom enjoyed by free noble women, and reflected a broader premodern phenomenon: free women on society’s lower rungs enjoyed more freedom of movement but less protection than did noble women or concubines. However, some concubines could look forward to influencing the decisions of their sons, who were slated to rule the caliphate upon the demise of their fathers.

The trajectory of many former black slaves, as documented in biographical dictionaries by Muslim scholars, shows their rise to fame, wealth, and status due to their knowledge, piety, and leadership ability. In particular, the Mamluk and Ikhshidid dynasties of Egypt provided considerable agency to former slaves.41 And even though non-Arabs were barred from holding the high office of caliph, so were Arabs who were not members of the Quraysh tribe or descendants of the Prophet’s daughter Fāţimah and his cousin ¢Alī. In other words, this restriction was not contingent only upon race.

Beyond Racism, not Race

What harms a person placed in an ethnic classification is not the designation or abstraction, but rather the deleterious, unscientific associations and stereotypes. That harm is compounded when societies pass laws legitimating discriminatory treatment based on ethnicity. But if people believe that race taxonomies themselves are the root of racism, they will push to abolish all racial classifications. However, doing so would create a new problem: it would make irrelevant the historical experiences of those marginalized by race, which would then provide cover for racist sentiment because no one could claim racial discrimination when everyone is considered simply “human.” This is the danger inherent in Muslim racial agnosia. It is also a partial explanation for why black Iraqis continue to be marginalized,42 why black Tunisians are illegally segregated,43 and why Sudanese Muslims in Egypt suffer racial ridicule.44

Transcending the myth that we have a colorblind Muslim world and working to substantively eliminate racism are not easy tasks, but Muslims can begin to turn the Islamic ideals into reality by addressing the complex elements that contribute to the race problem. The challenge is not just systemic racism, which denies one group the privileges that other groups enjoy, and it is not just white persecution of Blacks or other of non-Whites. The real challenge is how color-based social stratification is reinforced by pseudoscientific theories that assign traits and characteristics to minorities. Those questionable assessments are then codified into policies that engender social castes and that sometimes lead to blatant acts of discrimination, persecution, demonization, and oppression. In other words, the race problem combines elements that are philosophical, biological, sociological, psychological, and moral.

We need a multifaceted approach to begin to solve the race problem. In the realm of philosophy, we can revisit the history of the concept of race, the negative stereotypes born during the Enlightenment period, and the enduring perceptions that plague us today. In the realm of biology, we must return to our single-origin story and relearn its merits, and reinforce it with the aspects of evolutionary theory that are consistent with our theologies. In the fields of sociology and psychology, we ought to challenge the common taxonomies of race and the stereotypes associated with groups. “The male is unlike the female” (3:36), the Qur’an says. It also reminds us that God “made you into peoples and tribes” (49:13). Clearly, an egalitarian existence is not the goal of Islam’s teachings, and Muslims must be mindful of this as they challenge harmful racial categories and stereotypes.

In the realm of morality, we must resist the urge to assign unequal value to each ethnic group. We can acknowledge the distinct gifts conferred by God upon men and women, and even the social distinctions between people (such as governors and the governed, experts and non-experts), but we must not consider those distinctions as divine indicators of superiority and assuredly not as signs of divine grace. We should all expect to be treated fairly, even if not equally.

Lastly, Muslims must remember that the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ censured racist and bigoted talk, appointed men from ethnic minorities to prominent positions, and located one’s identity in one’s character and piety. Islamic teachings call us to offer similar correctives that help promote communal trust, security, and peace. If we can begin to engage in open, honest, and dispassionate conversations about the concept of race and its evolution, conundrums, and merits, and do so in an atmosphere where no one feels judged for speaking honestly, in time—if the other elements of the race problem are simultaneously addressed—Islam can, God willing, live up to its reputation as “the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.”

(Press HERE for original Renovatio article)