In midst of Ferguson violence, Islam teaches racial lessons

Syed Rizvi

Editor’s Note: “Peace be upon him” (abbreviated “pbuh”) is a salutation for the prophets of Islam. Who receives salutations depends on the school of thought. It is a mandatory practice per the Quran and hadiths.

Malcolm X once said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” In the context of the aforementioned quote, Malcolm X addresses the point that western imperialism and the colonization of foreign lands led to the subjugation of its native peoples, which, among other things, led to the deprivation of identity and heritage. Institutional racism was at the heart of the grievances of civil rights activists. Considering our foreign policy, immigration policy and the legal system, these grievances are still dangerously relevant. Nothing better demonstrates this than the tragedy that is unfolding surrounding Ferguson. As a Muslim UT student, I’m reminded of the bleach bombings in West Campus, and that Islamic wisdom would prevent such racism, regardless of religiosity. Islam addresses all the different roots of racism, from the social to the economic causes. To briefly explore how Islam rejects racism, I will address four types of racism. 

Pre-reflective gut racism is racism that describes the progression of feelings of wonder to fear to aggression, to things which are alien to us. This is where emotions rule over the intellect, and a difference in appearance evokes fear. The Quran tells us that God made us into different peoples and tribes so that we might know each other. The Quran goes beyond accepting diversity by celebrating it. By commanding us to know each other, ignorance is removed, making pre-reflective gut racism impossible because fear is supplanted with curiosity and community.

Post-reflective gut racism is racism that describes the rationalized belief in a race’s superiority over another, like Zionism. The previous Quranic reference also notes that all humanity shares a common origin, and it’s only those who are God-conscious who are honored in the eyes of God. Humanity’s common origin undermines any claim of a race’s superiority. In addition, it’s the metric of “God-consciousness,” not one’s race, that determines self-value. This is exemplified in one of the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which states: “…all of you are from (Prophet) Adam and Adam was (created) from mud… best servant of Allah is that servant who has consciousness of Him.”

Cultural racism is racism that describes the belief in the superiority of one’s culture. This is wholly rejected by Islam in many accounts since cultural racism in the form of tribalism was one of the major signs of ignorance that was abolished by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). To address tribal and nationalistic racism, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have stated, “… all of mankind — from the time of Adam until our time — are like the teeth of a comb (all equal to one another) and there is no greatness for an Arab over a non-Arab and no greatness for a red-skinned person over a black-skinned person, except due to one’s consciousness of Allah.”

The rejection of racism goes beyond scripture and narrations. When Muslims were being prosecuted, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) sent his followers to take refuge with a black Christian priest. This same priest, who later converted to Islam, performed the marriage rites between the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his wife, Umm Habiba. 

Institutional racism is racism that describes institutional differential treatment based on race. This form of racism manifests itself in different ways, such as discriminatory policies, immigration laws and legal systems. Considering the points made thus far, institutional racism cannot stand, but to be thorough, consider the Islamic rituals which institutionalize community, thus rejecting institutional racism. The primary examples of such rituals are prayer and Hajj. Prayer, especially congregation prayer, is a ritual wherein five times a day Muslims submit to God, evoking humility and God-consciousness. Hajj, the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, is a ritual where unity is constantly reinforced to participants in a myriad of ways, like shaving one’s head and donning a white cloth, a symbol of unity and submission to God’s will. 

Malcolm X notes that poverty is racism. Without economic freedom, a people will be disadvantaged, deprived and oppressed. That is why Islam, in rejecting racism and its causes, mandates that the economics of a society must protect the values of Islam, sharing wealth and opportunity. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) gave, against protests of the racist Arab elites, Bilal, who was a black ex-slave, the important religious post of Muaddhin, or the one who made the call to prayer. The Prophet Muhammad explained his action as a denunciation of racism and the promotion of character.

Remember, racism has many faces with many causes. Racism in Ferguson or in Austin cannot be resolved simply by equality in the eyes of the law; we must recognize first what racism truly is, all four of its types. More than equality, we need justice in the execution of law, in society, and economics. Islam taught me this. 

Rizvi is a government senior from Chicago.