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SPECIAL REPORT VOLUME 8 ISSUE 1

RACE & PLACE

by Donna Auston


“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 ACQUAINTED.” (49:13)

 

As Muslims, most likely we are already very familiar with this verse from Surah Hujurat, as well as the related texts that extol the virtues of human diversity and universal brotherhood. The ummah is meant to be united, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him, made it clear that there was no inherent superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, and that piety and character are the defining characteristics of a believer. Despite this, Muslims can be racist towards one another.


Fifty years ago, Malcolm X performed the hajj, and his now famous words about his generous treatment at the hands of Muslims from across the racial spectrum are still powerful: “Never before have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient holy land,” he wrote. That potential for uniting with fellow human beings under the umbrella of shared belief in Allah is still a powerful draw for converts to Islam.


In American mosques, while it is fairly common to find heterogeneous collections of worshippers gathered alongside one another, praying, breaking fast together, and otherwise implementing the mandate to “know one another” given in the verse from Surah Hujurat, significant barriers to cross-racial acceptance remain firmly in place within the ummah. Put another way: while we can say that Allah absolutely does not discriminate against people on the basis of race or ethnicity, Muslims often do just that. This manifests in a variety of ways: when Muslims seek marriage across racial or ethnic boundaries, when believers find themselves sharply divided in opinion over social or economic issues, or even in everyday encounters where insensitive language or racial epithets are directed toward one group of believers by other Muslims.


The sheer diversity of the worldwide ummah is stunning. Globally, the Muslim population consists of over one billion believers from every nation on earth, representing nearly every demographic category in existence. In the U.S., there exists a rather unique situation—with believers from nearly eighty nationalities making up the American Muslim “community”—circumstances which present both wonderful opportunities and difficult challenges. Esteemed African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois famously declared that “the problem of the twentieth century is the color line,” and though Islam’s position on color prejudice is clear, Muslims are human beings who are socialized into particular environments for better and worse. As a result, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are a part of the larger culture have a tremendous impact on all of us. In short, we are as susceptible to racism as anyone else. In spite of the fact that American Muslims are often, as a whole, on the receiving end of widespread stereotyping, profiling, and Islamophobia, prejudice and bigotry, within the Muslim community is an ongoing problem.


“For an in-depth look at discussions about race in the American Muslim community, buy an issue of Azizah now.

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