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Islam and Racism

 Night #5 - Islam and Racism

Thursday, January 1, 2009



 Islam’s position on racism is both a historical and contemporary issue. While the abolition of slavery and the more recent end of the Apartheid could be seen as the last stand of racism, it is still prevalent in different forms in today’s society. For example, one can look at the football supporters of certain clubs in Spain and Italy, where the organization governing the sport banned certain fans due to racist chants and taunts.


According to the sociological circles, there are 5 types of racism. The first is called pre-reflective gut racism. This occurs when the emotions are used above the intellect, such as when one sees someone of a different colour for the first time, due to fear, they may act with racist undertones without thinking first. On the other hand, there is also post-reflective gut racism, which is when one uses the intellect above emotions. They use this intellect to convince themselves of their racial supremacy, as can be seen in the example of Hitler’s Germany and its Aryan supremacy model.


The third type of racism is cultural racism, where one acknowledges other cultures, but makes jokes about them due to stereotypes or supremacy complexes. The fourth type is institutional racism, which occurs when institutions don’t allow people of other cultures to reach the top, especially in politics and business. For example, it has taken 44 Presidents of the United States to see the first black man be elected to office. The last type of racism is paternalistic, where one race believes that they are the father figure to another, and thus look down on them as not advance or backward.


Pre-Islamic Arabia had a big problem with non-Arabs in their state. For example, Antarra, one of the poets who had their poem on the Kaaba, did not have it so easy at first. His father, Shaddad, had married an Ethiopian slave-girl, and their child was coloured like his mother. Shaddad then hid this from the rest of the community, and it took years for Antarra to be accepted by his own father as his son. This acceptance only occurred for two reasons: Antarra’s poetic skill and his military prowess.


This man then wanted to get married to his uncle’s daughter, but was discouraged by his father due to the fact that his uncle was one of the most racist men in Arabia. After much persuasion, Antarra was finally allowed to ask his uncle, who replied that he would accept on one condition: Antarra bring him 100 pure yellow camels from northern Arabia. With all of his money, Antarra traveled to north Arabia until he came to one of the most noble men of the time, An-na’man b. Mundhar. Antarra proposed to buy 100 of his yellow camels, and when asked why, he replied that since his complexion was dark, his uncle gave him this condition to marry his daughter. Antarra then bought the camels, and was successful in his marriage proposal.




When the Prophet (SAW) came, he saw that the society would not accept coloured people. This was amended in 4 ways. The first was the revelation of Sura 49 Verse 13, where Allah says that He has created different races and tribes so that they may know one another. It then continues to say that the only scale for superiority is Taqwa. This shatters racism as it shows that one race is not superior over another; rather, Taqwa is the deciding factor.


The second verse to counter racism was Sura 30 Verse 22. This verse says that different tongues and complexions are signs of Allah; thus none of them are worse than another. The third Qur’anic measure against racism was in the revelation of Sura 31: Luqman. Luqman was a black scholar, who could only give his sage advice to his son because his community would not listen to a man darker than they. The Prophet (SAW), however, compared Luqman with Salman al-Muhammadi, the famous companion and adherent to the Ahlul-Bayt. Finally, the Prophet (SAW) himself used a black priest who had converted to Islam as the man who recited the Nikkah of his marriage to Umm Habiba.


There were many people of different races who made an invaluable contribution to Islam. One such person was Umm Ayman, who was originally a servant of Abdullah, the Prophet’s (SAW) father. She not only brought up the Prophet (SAW) to such an extent that the Prophet (SAW) called her his mother, but she was the one who organized the marriage of Ali (AS) to Fatema (AS). With her first husband, Ubayda b. Zaid, she had her son Ayman, and with her second husband, Zaid b. Harith, she had her son Usama. Both of her sons fought for Islam in the battle of Hunain.


She was also a staunch defender of Fadak. When asked by the 1st Caliph regarding the owner of Fadak, she replied first by asking what the Prophet (SAW) had said of her. When the Caliph replied that the Prophet (SAW) had guaranteed heaven for her, she then said that Fadak was given to Fatema (AS) by the Prophet (SAW) in accordance with Allah’s orders in Sura 59 Verse 7. However, the 2nd Caliph then reprimanded the 1st for taking her as a witness due to her non-Arab status, highlighting the racist nature of some Arabs.


Another famous woman in Islam was Fidha, the Ethiopian who was in service to Fatema (AS). She is an exemplary role model for all, for example, in the last 20 years of her life, she did not reply to any question except with a verse of the Qur’an. This is shown in the following conversation she had, as narrated by Abdullah Mubarak.


He states, "I saw a woman passing through the desert who had fallen behind the caravan and asked her, "Who are you and where are you from?"


She replied:


And say, "Salaam" for they shall soon know! (az-Zukhruf, 43:89)

I learned that she expected me to greet her and say "Assalámu `Alaykum" first, before any question. I did as she reminded, and then enquired why she was in the desert. She answered:

And whomsoever Alláh guides, there is none to lead him astray! (az-Zumar, 39:37)


On hearing her reply, I asked her, Are you from mankind or from the jinn?" She replied:


O Children of Adam! be adorned at every time of prostration. (al-A`ráf,7: 31)


I asked her, "Where are you coming from?" She replied:


They are (like those) who are called to from a place far off. (Há Mím 41:44)


I asked her, "Where are you intending to go?" She said:


And (purely) for Alláh is incumbent upon mankind, the Pilgrimage of the House. (Áli Imrán, 3:97)


I asked her how many days she had been travelling. She told me:


And indeed We (Alláh) created the heavens and the earth and what is between them two, in six days. (Qáf, 50:38)


I asked her, "Do you feel hungry?" She replied:


We (Alláh) did not make them such bodies that ate no food. (Al-Anbiya, 21:8)


I gave her food and asked her to hurry up to catch the caravan but she replied:

Alláh does not task any soul beyond its ability. (al-Baqaráh, 2:286)

I suggested that she sit on the camel behind me, but she said:


Had there been gods therein besides Alláh, there would have been disorder in both (the heavens and the earth). (al-Anbiya, 21:22)


On hearing this I realised that, because we were not husband and wife, it was unlawful for both of us to ride the camel. So I got off and mounted her on it. When she sat on the camel, she said:


Glory to Him Who subjected this to us. (az-Zukhruf 43:13)


When we reached the caravan, I asked her, "Do you know anyone among them?" She called out in reply:


O Dáwúd, Verily, We have appointed you a Khalifa in the earth. (Sád, 38:26)


And Muhammad is not but a Messenger. (Áli Imrán, 3:144)


O Yahyá! Hold the book with firmness! (Maryam, 19:12)


O Músá! Verily I am Alláh, the All-Mighty. (an-Naml, 27:9)


I began to call out these four names at which four youths came out of the caravan and ran towards Bibi Fizza. I asked her who they were and she replied:


Wealth and children are the adornment of the world. (al-Kahf, 18:46)


I realised that they were her sons. The woman turned to the youth and said:


O my Father, employ him, verily the best of those who you can employ is the strong man and the trusted one. (al-Qasas, 28:26)


She thus made them understand that I had helped her. Then she told them:


And verily Alláh increases manifold to whosoever He wills. (al-Baqaráh, 2: 261)


The sons understood their mother's hint and paid me well.

I enquired from the them as to who this noble lady was, and they replied, "She is our mother, Fizza, the maid-servant of Lady Fátimah (A), daughter of the Holy Prophet (S). She has conversed in nothing but the Holy Qur'án for the last 20 years."

Non-Arabs were also prominent in the Imam’s (AS) army at Karbala. For example, there was Shaudhab, a prominent scholar from Africa who gave his life on Ashura. Another famous companion of Imam Hussain (AS) was John, the Abyssinian slave. He was bought by Imam Ali (AS), who then gave him to Abu Dhar. After Abu Dhar’s exile, John served Imam Hassan (AS) and then Imam Hussain (AS). On the day of Ashura, Imam (AS) excused him from the battle, to which John countered with the question, “what will I answer to Allah and to Fatema (AS) when she asks me if I defended her son?”


These esteemed people show that regardless of race, anyone can serve Islam with Taqwa.


“O you men! Surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one among you most careful (of his duty); surely Allah is Knowing, Aware.” (49:13)


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