Muslims pray around the Kaba, Library of Congress, reproduced in Simerg

Islam’s anti-racist message from the 7th century still resonates today

By ASMA AFSARUDDIN
Indiana University

One day, in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad dropped a bombshell on his followers: He told them that all people are created equal.

“All humans are descended from Adam and Eve,” said Muhammad in his last known public speech. “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 on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”

In this sermon, known as the Farewell Address, Muhammad outlined the basic religious and ethical ideals of Islam, the religion he began preaching in the early seventh century. Racial equality was one of them. Muhammad’s words jolted a society divided by notions of tribal and ethnic superiority.

Today, with racial tension and violence roiling contemporary America, his message is seen to create a special moral and ethical mandate for American Muslims to support the country’s anti-racism protest movement.

Apart from monotheism – worshipping just one God – belief in the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God set early Muslims apart from many of their fellow Arabs in Mecca.

Chapter 49, verse 13 of Islam’s sacred scripture, the Quran, declares: “O humankind! We have made you…into nations and tribes, so that you may get to know one another. The noblest of you in God’s sight is the one who is most righteous.”

Muslims pray around the Kaba, Library of Congress, reproduced in Simerg
Muslims of all backgrounds praying around the Kaʻbah during Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, in a photo taken between 1885-1889. Photo: Al Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffār, Physician of Mecca / US Library of Congress

This verse challenged many of the values of pre-Islamic Arab society, where inequalities based on tribal membership, kinship and wealth were a fact of life. Kinship or lineal descent – “nasab” in Arabic – was the primary determinant of an individual’s social status. Members of larger, more prominent tribes like the aristocratic Quraysh were powerful. Those from less wealthy tribes like the Khazraj had lower standing.

The Quran said personal piety and deeds were the basis for merit, not tribal affiliation – an alien and potentially destabilizing message in a society built on nasab.

As is often the case with revolutionary movements, early Islam encountered fierce opposition from many elites.

The Quraysh, for example, who controlled trade in Mecca – a business from which they profited greatly – had no intention of giving up the comfortable lifestyles they’d built on the backs of others, especially their slaves brought over from Africa.

The Prophet’s message of egalitarianism tended to attract the “undesirables” – people from the margins of society. Early Muslims included young men from less influential tribes escaping that stigma and slaves who were promised emancipation by embracing Islam.

Women, declared to be the equal of men by the Quran, also found Muhammad’s message appealing. However, the potential of gender equality in Islam would become compromised by the rise of patriarchal societies.

By Muhammad’s death, in 632, Islam had brought about a fundamental transformation of Arab society, though it never fully erased the region’s old reverence for kinship.

Early Islam also attracted non-Arabs, outsiders with little standing in traditional Arab society. These included Salman the Persian, who traveled to the Arabian peninsula seeking religious truth, Suhayb the Greek, a trader, and an enslaved Ethiopian named Bilal.

All three would rise to prominence in Islam during Muhammad’s lifetime. Bilal’s much-improved fortunes, in particular, illustrate how the egalitarianism preached by Islam changed Arab society.

An enslaved servant of a Meccan aristocrat named Umayya, Bilal was persecuted by his owner for embracing the new faith. Umayya would place a rock on Bilal’s chest, trying to choke the air out of his body so that he would abandon Islam.

Moved by Bilal’s suffering, Muhammad’s friend and confidant Abu Bakr, who would go on to rule the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death, set him free.

Bilal Prayer Call
Bilal, center, found freedom in Islam. Wikimedia Commons

Bilal was exceptionally close to Muhammad, too. In 622, the Prophet appointed him the first person to give the public call to prayer in recognition of his powerful, pleasing voice and personal piety. Bilal would later marry an Arab woman from a respectable tribe – unthinkable for an enslaved African in the pre-Islamic period.

For many modern Muslims, Bilal is the symbol of Islam’s egalitarian message, which in its ideal application recognizes no difference among humans on the basis of ethnicity or race but rather is more concerned with personal integrity. One of the United States’ leading Black Muslim newspaper, published between 1975 and 1981, was called The Bilalian News.

More recently Yasir Qadhi, dean of the Islamic Seminary of America, in Texas, invoked Islam’s egalitarian roots. In a June 5 public address, he said American Muslims, a population familiar with discrimination, “must fight racism, whether it is by education or by other means.”

Many Muslims in the U.S. are taking action, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting police brutality and systemic racism. Their actions reflect the revolutionary – and still unrealized – egalitarian message that Prophet Muhammad set down over 1,400 years ago as a cornerstone of the Muslim faith.The Conversation

Date posted: July 16, 2020.

[Editor’s Note: I first read the above piece in the religion section of the Salt Lake Tribune, which republished it from The Conversation under a Creative Commons Licence. We do likewise, and invite our readers to read the original piece by clicking HERE; it includes several more hyperlinks within the body of the article that some readers may find useful for further study. Image(s) in Simerg’s piece may vary from those posted in The Conversation and the Tribune .]

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies and former Chairperson, Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. To read original article in The Conversation, please click HERE.

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The editor highly recommends the following recent pieces published in Simerg:

1. His Highness the Aga Khan on partnership between races as a condition of peace and prosperity; and
2. Ismaili Youth Perspectives on Black Lives Matter and Social Justice Issues.

Ismaili Youth Perspectives on Black Lives Matter and Social Justice Issues

By ALYNA NOREEN DADA
(Special contribution to Simerg)

Pluralism

We hear this word constantly and are reminded of the ethics of pluralism in Mawlana Hazar Imam’s, His Highness the Aga Khan, Farmans and speeches how we can integrate this in our everyday lives. What does pluralism mean and how can we, as Ismaili Muslims, understand our role in the Black Lives Matter movement and apply the tenets of our faith to make a meaningful contribution to improving the quality of life for our African-American community?

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Aga Khan address Global Centre for Pluralism Jean-Marc Carisse Barakah and Simerg
Guests listen as His Highness the Aga Khan delivers his remarks on May 16, 2017 at the inauguration of the international headquarters of the Global Centre for Pluralism. Photo: ©Jean-Marc Carisse.

His Highness stated in his speech on May 16, 2017 at the opening ceremony of the new headquarters of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, “Pluralism does not mean the elimination of difference, but the embrace of difference. Genuine pluralism understands that diversity does not weaken a society, it strengthens it. In an ever-shrinking, ever more diverse world, a genuine sense of pluralism is the indispensable foundation for human peace and progress.” [Bold emphasis added here, and in remainder of article]

We are grateful to be a part of a religious ummah which prides on serving others and the societies in which we live and also allows us to build upon our moral compass by leveraging our intelligence, experience and humility with guidance from the Imam. In order to create a pluralistic society, our duty as Ismailis must be to support the movement and black-led organizations, particularly when we see African-Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others murdered unjustly when fighting for their own human rights.

However, this begs the question, why is anti-blackness so prevalent in the South Asian including our own Ismaili Khoja community and why do older generations continue to question the purpose of Black protests and police brutality that we see on a plethora of news channels every second of every day?

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President Kennedy with Civil Rights Leaders after March on Washington on August 28, 2963. Simerg,Library of Congress
Civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King (3rd from left), meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. Photo: Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection /
US Library of Congress.

This is a turning point in history that should serve as an awakening: our presence in the United States is as a result of work of Black activists who often sacrificed their lives to achieve equal rights.  During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, African Americans led by the notable Dr. Martin Luther King used protests and civil disobedience to help abolish some of the most racist laws in the US not only for themselves, but for all communities of color like South Asians. Ultimately, this led to the US government implementing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eliminated the racist quotas and allowed South Asian communities to emigrate to the US. We should be indebted to the civil rights movement and black activists who eliminated major barriers that allowed us as a community to settle and thrive in various parts of the United States and beyond.

I believe that the youth in our community have an obligation to educate our first-generation immigrants on their microaggressions and inherent biases pertaining to Black people.

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Fortunately, many Ismaili youth activists from all over the world have come together to vocalize racial injustices, particularly in light of recent killings of Black men and women due to police brutality in the United States.

They have been doing a wonderful job mobilizing resources (that I will discuss in greater detail later in this article). The goal of these coalesced resources is to target larger audiences initially at a local level, ultimately expanding this to a national platform to highlight this systemic issue.

South Asian/East African youth who are typically first or second younger generation Americans can begin to have these conversations, starting with their families and escalating it to a wide scale audience. Citing guidance from Mawlana Hazar Imam is paramount as this will quickly resonate with the older members of our community. Given that we’re a group of multicultural individuals with distinctive backgrounds should serve as a great example of strength in diversity and solidarity. Islamic principles of inclusion, peace and generosity should be used as our guiding principles when engaging various constituents of the Ismaili Jamat.

(Please note, these activists’ groups are not associated with the official Jamati institutions. They are Ismailis who have a passion for social justice issues and grassroots organization and want to create a forum for discussion to help implement change within our community)

Ismaili Activists 

An Instagram Account was created to underscore social justice issues that exist in USA and bridge the gap with what Ismailis should be addressing within our community. The purpose of this social media platform is to provide an open forum to for members to have honest discussions about topics that are seldom talked about within Ismailis due to either lack of knowledge, awareness or inability to vocalize these issues. Please click on Ismaili Activists Instagram Platform.

Ismaili activists Instagram Simerg
Please click for Ismaili Activists on Instagram

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Ismailis for Black Lives Matter

A group of Ismaili youths from USA & Canada created a GoFundMe campaign, Ismailis for Black Lives Matter, an independent fundraiser set up with the purpose of involving the Ismaili Community in the discussion around racial injustices pertaining to African Americans.

This initiative symbolizes ally hood to the Black Lives Matter Movement and helps to educate members of the Jamat as well as mobilize the financial resources of the Ismaili community in accordance with the faith’s core principles. The campaign raised over $20,000 and was supported by platforms like Twitter and Ismaili Mail.

Please click on Ismailis for Black Lives Matter GoFund Me Website (all proceeds will go directly to Black Lives Matter Movement).

The team also created a library with talking points and helpful resources to further education on the Black Lives Matter Movement.

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Ismailis for Change

This Slack group is focused on taking action based off an open letter addressed to the Jamat written by Alia Jeraj, a Minnesotan Ismaili. The Slack work group, created by Zahir Surmawala, is comprised of Ismailis from a variety of professional backgrounds including: product managers, tech entrepreneurs, attorneys, diversity and inclusion educators, healthcare professionals, artists, interfaith preachers etc. These individuals have all been brought together with one common goal of educating the Jamat on social justice issues to build solidarity for the African-American Community. Please click Open Letter Resource Guide.

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Additional Resources Created by Ismaili Youth

1. Combating Implicit Racial Biases in the Education System

2. How to talk to your Ismaili Family About Black Lives Matter

3. The Model Minority Myth

4. Defunding the Police

I, along with my Ismaili brothers and sisters, hope you find these resources helpful and we continue to make the voices of our Black community heard.  

Date posted: June 18, 2020.

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We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the feedback box which appears below. If you don’t see the box please click please click Leave a comment. Your comment may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.

Alyna Noreen Dada portrait for Simerg

Alyna Noreen Dada is a healthcare professional working for a national physician organization that transforms the healthcare delivery experience for providers and consumers.

Originally from the New Jersey area, she is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, DC with a degree in public policy and public health and has been living in the District for a decade.

Alyna’s family hails from Kenya and South Africa by way of the UK and settled in the United States in the early 1980’s.

Living in DC for the last few years has certainly piqued Alyna’s interest in social justice and policy issues, particularly around racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter Movement. After all, she lives blocks away from the White House!

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Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.