Assessing racism from an Islamic Standpoint

 By Imam Didmar Faja
November 16, 2020

Racism is as old as the human race

All praise is due to God. May His peace and blessings be upon His Prophet Muhammad, his family members, companions, and everyone who followed his teachings.

As someone raised in a single race environment, I never experienced the different races’ struggles. I will never claim that I have fully understood the struggles black people and natives in this country go through. That’s because to understand those struggles fully, one has first to face them. Nonetheless, God blessed me with a good understanding of Islam, a long interaction with people of different races, and the chance to study and discuss such matters in an academic environment.

According to our Islamic belief, racism is as old as the human race. In the Quran, God elaborates on the story of creating the first human being, Adam (pbuh). He describes how angels and even Satan were instructed to prostrate to Adam (pbuh). Angels obeyed His command while Satan refused to do so. When God asked Satan about the reason for his refusal, he answered, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay.” (Quran. 7:12)

In a different verse, God reveals the state of Satan upon his refusal by noting, “…he refused and was arrogant and became of the disbelievers.” (Q. 3:34) After reading these verses that are often repeated throughout the Quran, one may realize that Satan was the first to demonstrate superiority towards another being, based on the physical composition. Moreover, the Quran relates pride to be the reason for his rejection of prostration. Since then, Satan committed to diverging humankind from the divine path. Satan’s crucial strategy to mislead humanity from the sacred path is his very first sin, arrogance.

Racism, too, is a product of arrogance. Throughout human history, different individuals and societies expressed their superiority towards others based on their skin color. This is the core of racism, leading to mass slavery, especially in the last six centuries.

Racism in modern days

 Nowadays, slavery is banned in the US and worldwide, but the motivating cause, racism, is awkwardly prevailing. There is even an escalation of racist remarks and impacts in recent years, especially towards blacks and native people in the US. Sadly, such racism is a systematic one and deeply rooted in the US. A few examples of this systematic racism from recent years is the police brutality towards black people. Many blacks lost their lives because of their resistance to police brutality. As a result, there were many demonstrations across the nation against systematic racism towards black people. These demonstrations were primarily lead by Black Lives Matter, a decentralized political and social movement advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people.

One layer of systematic racism is the environmental racism found primarily in marginalized black neighborhoods where different industries pollute the air to such a degree where people die because of the physical ailments they acquire from such pollution. According to an article written by Linda Villarosa for New York Times Magazine it mentions, “Black Americans are exposed to 1.5 times as much of the sooty pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels as the population at large. This dirty air is associated with lung disease, including asthma, as well as heart disease, premature death and now Covid-19.” (Villarosa)

Native Americans are also obstructed deeply from the different layers of systematic racism in the US. In 2015, Gold King Mine spilled uranium in the San Juan River. The river turned to a bright orange color and impacted the Navaho Nation in Arizona.

One year later, natives of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota struggled against environmental racism as well. Dakota Access pipeline received the government’s permission to pass their oil pipelines under Lake Oahe and traversing the Missouri River and only half a mile away from the tribe. In an article written for yesmagazine.org, Jenni Monet mentions, “North Dakota, a state of nearly 740,000 people, is similar to other conservative states with sizable Native American populations, places like Arizona and Oklahoma, where natural resource extractions have terribly harmed indigenous land—like the uranium mining fallout across the Navajo Nation or the lead contamination on lands leased by the Quapaws. Yet where these environmental ordeals did not so much draw the kind of activism now swelling at Standing Rock today, they have similarly intensified attention to the greater systemic problems that exist whenever ancestral tribal lands are targeted for energy development.” (Monet)

The combo of intersectionality

 Not all the people who face racism struggle with its consequences in the same way. Besides racism, there are other societal negative factors that, if combined with racism, may lead to more suffering for some individuals. For example, a black woman may suffer the consequences of discrimination for being black and, at the same time, gender bias for being a female. Or a black Muslim may suffer the consequences of racism for being black and being abused for being a Muslim. Sadly, intersectionality is not addressed sufficiently, even withing the distinctive anti-racist gatherings and protests.

Combating racism and advancing racial justice

 American society is very diverse. It has been as such for many centuries. People of different races and backgrounds are the ones who built the US. Therefore, any attempt that prompts an expression of superiority against others based on race, religion, or culture is a call to hate and division amongst the people. Blacks, natives, and emigrants in the US should be treated fairly like the whites who are privileged and with respect, dignity, and receive unbiased equal opportunities. Natives in recent centuries were massacred, robed from their land, and faced massive relocations. Blacks were brought into the US as slaves against their will and suffered under the chains of slavery for centuries. Even after slavery was abolished in 1865, blacks continue to be discriminated against. Also, emigrants, who come to the US to engage in hard labor, dreaming that perhaps their children can live the American dream in the land of freedom and opportunities, should be respected and treated with dignity and fairness as well. But sadly, that’s not always the case. Often, the lack of education and dehumanizing misinformation about others can easily lead many individuals to employ racist remarks and treatments.

Often, privileged individuals expect the marginalized communities, particularly blacks and natives, to excel in life, just like many do. They often bring up the notion that the US is a country of equal opportunities for everyone. Nonetheless, such individuals are color blinded and irreflective of the fact that blacks were slaves until 150 years ago, and natives have been abused, oppressed, and massacred systematically for centuries as well. Therefore, the new generations of the blacks and natives are still impacted by unhealed old wounds of systematic racism, bigotry, injustice, suspiciousness, and mistrust. Hence, claims such as; the marginalized communities share equal opportunities as the privileged communities are nothing but apparent attempts to disregard the inherited struggle that discriminated communities continuously face.

Combating racism cannot be achieved by only the continued efforts of individuals who are victims of discrimination but also by the determinations and the positive actions of the privileged whites as well. Such involvement could advance racial justice. Choosing to remain silent and not speak against racism when necessary is also another form of racism called passive racism.

Islamic teachings encompass some unique approaches to combating racism and advancing racial justice. In the Quran, it states, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Aware.” (Quran. 49:13)

This verse calls upon all humankind to reflect that we all come from the same humble beginnings; therefore, there is no room for arrogance based on color or ethnic background. Another significant point highlighted in this verse is that humanity is created in different nations and tribes so that people may learn from one another. Cross-cultural learning and sharing experiences can help individuals and communities improve and develop faster without reinventing the wheel. During this learning progression, there are always challenges. However, if people recognize the fact that it is not the choice of the humans but it is the will of God to create people to different nations and tribes, and ponder on the fact that this differentiation exists so humans can develop by learning from one another, they may foster better relations and eradicate racism. In the Quran, it states, “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (Quran. 30:22)

Through my work as a Muslim leader of diversified communities and my extensive cross-cultural experiences, I recognize a minimum of four approaches that could assist effectively in sharing experiences between people. Those are: mutual respect, attentiveness, patience, and collaboration.

Despite the opposite currents of his time, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) combatted racism in multiple instances. In his historical Farwell Pilgrimage, he noted, “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except based on personal piety and righteousness.” (Musnad of Imam Ahmad, reported by Abu Nadra with an authentic chain of narration) Even though people are distinguished based on their righteousness in this hadith, it is critical to note that Islam leaves no room for individuals to show superiority towards each other based on righteousness. That’s because righteousness is essentially a matter of the heart, and individuals can’t see the level of righteousness in other people’s hearts. Only God can distinguish the superiority level among his creation based on their righteousness. Then what is left for humans is to be humble among themselves and assume that the person they are facing could be in God’s eyes more superior.

References

Monet, Jenni. “Climate Justice Meets Racism: This Moment At Standing Rock Was Decades In The Making – Yes! Magazine”. Yesmagazine.Org, 2020, https://www.yesmagazine.org/democracy/2016/09/16/this-moment-at-standing-rock-was-decades-in-the-making/. Accessed November 14 2020.

Villarosa, Linda. “Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back.”. Nytimes.Com, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/magazine/pollution-philadelphia-black-americans.html. Accessed 15 Nov 2020.

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