In the previous post, we talked about what goes on in the mind of a racist person. We talked about how all things begin with ideas, that form a belief, get associated with feelings of superiority and hatred, and manifest themselves as actions, which can be very harmful.
We also talked about the ways we can change those beliefs. We talked about the power and the importance of education and faith. In this post, we’re going to focus more about faith, and more specifically about what Islam says about this very important issue of Racism
The first racist creature
The story of how God created Adam (father of all humans) is reported with great detail in the Quran. Adam is the first human being that Allah created and He presented him to the angels (Al Malaika) and asked them to make Sujoud for Him (the ultimate prayer position: putting their heads on the floor). All angels did exactly as God asked except for Iblis, who refused to do so.
When God asked him why he refused, he said: “I am better than him, you created me from fire and you created him from clay”. And so some scholars say that the first sin ever been made was to refuse something because of a feeling of superiority, which is in the essence of what racism is, as we explained in the previous post. The story continues about Adam and Eve, but we will stop here, for now, to stay within the topic. And so, the first racist creature was Iblis, also called Satan (Shaytan), he believed he’s better than Adam, he refused to lean for him and so he became his long time enemy until the day of judgment.
The arab society before Islam
Before Islam came, racism was a reality in society. The Arabs in Jahiliyah lived in tribes, and they gave great importance to the family tree. Slavery was a reality, people were sold and bought in markets as if they were merchandise. Slaves were mostly dark skin people but there were also some while color slaves especially among women (jawari). These practices were considered to be normal, but then Islam came to change those beliefs and actions in different ways.
What does the Quran say about racism?
“O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. Surely the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous. Allah is All-Knowledgeable, All-Aware.”The Holy Quran, Surah 49, Ayah 13
This verse in the Quran starts with O mankind, or O humanity as some other translations say. Scholars say that the Quran has different messages to different types of publics. Sometimes God is addressing men, sometimes He’s addressing women. Sometimes He is addressing the believers or Muslims, and sometimes He’s addressing the prophet Mohammed Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH).
But, there are some verses that are addressed to all mankind, it doesn’t matter if they believe in islam or not. Their sex, religion, ethnicity, the era they live in don’t matter at all for this type of messages. It is a message for every human that ever lived on this earth and that will ever do. It is just a general reality or a law of the universe!
This verse informs that God created us all from a single pair of male and female and then made us into different nations, tribes, ethnicities, etc. It reminds us that we are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and so even if we come from different places in the world, we still have the same father. The verse also explains the reason why Allah made us into different nations and tribes which is so we can know each other, and learn from each other. We now know that countries institutions that support diversity in their people or staff are usually places where people learn the most, because there is beauty in the diversity, it is exciting to know each other and to learn from each other and being different should never mean being opposite.
And then, later on the same verse, Allah tells us about the single indicator of preference in His sight, which is righteousness. It is not our nationality, the color of our skin, how much money we have, the language we speak or the way we look that will determine who is better than another, it is only righteousness (taqwa) which is something that only God can know for sure. Because while it can be manifested on our actions, it is originated mainly from our hearts.
And so, to me, the message is clear! Nobody is better than anybody, God made us different so that we can know each other and learn from each other. If I understand and believe that verse which is addressed to all human beings, I cannot be racist. You don’t have to be a muslim, if you just think that this one verse is true, you can never think that you’re better than some other human being just because of how you look, because it just tells you that you’re not the one to judge who’s better. God is the only one who can do that because He is the only one who knows what is in the heart of every one of us and who can judge our righteousness.
If you understand that, there will be absolutely no place for racism in your mind and heart, because that belief of superiority is the exact opposite of what we learned from this verse. And two opposite beliefs cannot coexist in the same brain or heart of a human being. So, the question will be which of the two beliefs is stronger? And that’s why I had said before that especially when it comes to moral issues, education alone is not sufficient to change ideas and beliefs but it can be much more efficient if it is reinforced by faith. If you believe without any doubt that that verse we just talked about is God’s word to humanity, then it will be the stronger one and it will question and completely kick out any opposite belief of superiority from your mind and heart.
What did the Prophet Mohammed PBUH say about Racism?
During the final Hajj ( also called the last sermon) that the prophet Mohammed PBUH did before dying, he had given an outstanding lecture to his companions. The lecture was a form of a conclusion of all what Islam came to do in society. It treated aspects related to the relationship of the human being with his creator and how to keep it strong. However, the lecture talked more about human rights, about woman rights and about racism. You can find the text of the entire lecture here. But, since we’re talking about racism today, let’s see just focus on that for now:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white- except by piety and good action.”From the last sermon of prophet Mohammed PBUH
Pretty clear and straight-forward right? No superiority except by piety and good action, not because of the color of the skin, nor by origin. This is a declaration that was made more than 1400 years ago. It is the ultimate anti-racism declaration, because as we’ve seen before in the definition, it all starts with the idea of superiority, that transforms into a belief, that manifests itself by the help of feelings of hatred into actions from ignoring that person to actually killing them just because you think that you’re better than them because they’re different. And so fighting racism starts with denying and eliminating those ideas and beliefs of superiority.
There are other places in the Quran and stories from the life of the prophet PBUH that talk about equality of rights, racism and human rights. But, I chose to talk about the ones that are easy to understand and that give the message in a very clear way. But is it just words that were said and were never applied? Or did Islam actually do something to fight racism in society? Good question, let’s find out.
Negociating with racists
It is well known that when Islam started, there were very few people who believed in the message of the prophet PBUH, which is the case in almost all prophets before him such as Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and so on. And so, the leaders of the arab tribes back then were harming the prophet and his compagnions and were using their political and financial power to do so.
Most of the early muslims were black slaves, which means that they were owned by these rich and powerful men but they heard about the message of the prophet and they believed in him and decided to join Islam. The prophet was a free white man and came from a very big and respectful family among arabs, but he cared more about his message and not his place in society. During the early years of his revelation, there was a time where he was asking to meet with the leaders of Quraish (the name of the arab community they lived in) to talk to them about his message and to make a deal with them so that they stop harming him and other muslims. Those people said that the prophet is only followed by weak people and slaves and that they don’t accept to meet with him if these people will be with him. Some scholars say that that’s where these verses were revealed:
“Recite what has been revealed to you from the Book of your Lord. None can change His Words, nor can you find any refuge besides Him. And patiently stick with those who call upon their Lord morning and evening, seeking His pleasure. Do not let your eyes look beyond them, desiring the luxuries of this worldly life. And do not obey those whose hearts We have made heedless of Our remembrance, who follow ˹only˺ their desires and whose state is ˹total˺ loss.”The Holy Quran, Sourah 18, Verses 27-28
These verses are revealed to the prophet but the bottom line here is that God asked his messenger to stick with his guys, which were mostly black slaves back then, and He complimented them for their actions, while asking him not to follow the others who are free rich white leaders in their tribes but are not righteous. So this is a revelation that was translated into action, but that also showed that those ideas of superiority are wrong and that the prophet should stand with what is right, not with the “powerful” and “racist” people.
Islamic legal and social instruments against racism
Like I said before, when Islam came, slavery and racism was a reality in society, it was considered to be normal and was not even frowned upon. And so apart from changing ideas and beliefs, Islam also tried to address this issue on a political and institutional level by building legal system that gives the rights for the oppressed no matter what the color of their skin was. It also encouraged freeing slaves on a large scale. Abu Bakr who was a very close companion of the prophet PBUH was a rich man and was asked to buy slaves from their owners and to give them their freedom.
But then, later on, when the Muslim community was large enough, strong and in all its glory and when questions about faith and beliefs were no longer an issue, there were some legal instruments that encouraged to reduce slavery as a social reality. I don’t want to go deep into that, but I’ll just give an example of the punishment (al kaffara) of killing somebody by mistake. Killing is the number one biggest sin that a Muslim can do. However, if somebody does that by mistake, this legal system of sharia law said that he should first give a sort of a fine (diya) to the family of the victim and then he should free a slave, and if he doesn’t find how to do that ( no slaves left to free for example) then he should fast two consecutive months.
Another sin that requires a muslim to free a slave according to this legal instrument is if he/she does what is called al Yamin (which is swearing on lies or swearing by God to do something then not do it, etc.). Although it might seem like no a big deal, we all know that lies can sometimes destroy our lives, and so this legal system requires that whoever does that should free a slave. They were judges who could issue orders of course depending on the case. I’m not saying that we should do that now, we have our advanced legal systems now, whether it’s national or international laws and we should respect those. All I’m trying to say here is that Islam tried to change a reality of discrimination, racism and slavery by a series of instruments whether educational, awareness raising, living by the principles themselves and also by issuing legal instruments to fight this phenomenon.
Living by the rules against racism 14 centuries ago
I’ll just end by a quick version of the story of Bilal ibnou Rabah. Bilal was a black man from the early muslims, he was a slave of one of Quraish leaders, he was tortured by his owner in very horrible and violent ways but he stood by his faith. He was a close friend of the prophet PBUH, he was then bought and freed by Abu bakr Assidiq. Bilal had a beautiful voice, and so when God asked his prophet in the Quran to start the call for prayers (Al Athan), the prophet had a dream that Bilal is the one who should do that. Bilal became the first “Moadhin” in Islam, which was a high position in the community and which was given to a black man. A lot of other companions were black and most Muslims hear about names of some of them and don’t know that they were black, because it is rarely mentioned that they were since it was considered normal to be equal that the colour of these people ‘ skins were not even worth mentioning.
There is no racism in Islam, and there should be no racism in any other religion. You don’t have to believe in Islam to know that racism is wrong but you can use what it said to help change ideas and beliefs.
We might look different but we are alike, we are all human, we have exactly the same rights and nobody is better than anybody because of how they look or where they’re from.
Let’s change that hatred and replace it with love, with acceptance and with compassion.
Until next time, stay blessed