Liberating Minds


http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcolman/416665028/We know that prejudice exists in every society; it’s a sickness we encounter transnationally. Unfortunately, despite explicit texts in Islam disregarding race and valuing only the state of our hearts and actions, this disease extends into some Muslim communities. We know some Muslims are even racially biased towards other Muslims. We hear about parents who refuse to allow their children to marry outside of their race/ethnicity, we hear about mosques that are sometimes ethnocentric, and we hear the random gossip which people share on their thoughts of deficiencies of various racial groups.

But those are just issues of prejudice within some segments of the Muslim community. A similar problem is the apathetic ignorance and stereotypes which some within the Muslim community hold towards others. In the suburban Muslim communities of the West Coast, I have sometimes heard incredibly uninformed stereotypes of Latino and Black communities who do not identify as Muslim. This paradigm is a disheartening reflection of our lack of implementation of Islam.

God tells us in the Qur`an, “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 God is the most righteous of you. Indeed, God is Knowing and Acquainted,” (Qur’an 49:13).

And before this verse, “O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers,” (Qur’an 49:11). Clearing our hearts of suspicion directly links to clearing our hearts of racism.

Are we not doing anything less than taking Satan the accursed as an example when we allow our hearts, our words and our actions to claim some of us, by default of race, are better than others? When God commanded Satan to bow to Adam, his response was, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay,” (Qur’an 7:12).

Satan acknowledged that God created him from one type of substance and Adam (may God’s peace be upon him) from another. Satan was in no way involved in choosing or molding the substance of his own creation. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He) is the One Who created him in the way He `azza wa jall chose, and then Satan, in his complete arrogance, had the audacity to refuse to obey God’s command on the basis of something which he had nothing to do with.

It is just like those of us who attach some type of greater significance to our race or culture when, in fact, we have absolutely no ownership in how we were created or what race we were created to be. How are we going to be so arrogant about something which we had nothing to do with in the first place?

Islam is very clear on the issue of race and racism. The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) has specifically told us, “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 black nor a black any superiority over white – except by piety and good action,” (Ahmad). How can any of us claim superiority when we cannot see within hearts? Judgment can only be left up to God, as He is the Only One Who knows in what state we will meet Him.

It can be difficult to feel comfortable with a new group of people if we have never had personal or positive interactions with them. This difficulty dramatically increases when we also have to consider the stereotypes which communities of color must endure within our inherently racist society.

The Muslim community in the United States knows this firsthand; the plethora of misinformation about Islam in our society negatively affects the way people interact with us and the policies enacted that affect us continually. Thus, should we not be even more inclined to open our hearts, minds and souls to love our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity, regardless of race? Should this not be the prime time for us to come together and build relationships with other communities?

While it may be difficult to free our minds and hearts from the shackles of colonialism which have gripped our minds for too many centuries, Allah (swt) has given us continual guidance on how to understand and appreciate our human diversity. He tells us, “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge,” (Qur’an 30:22). Our differences should serve as reminders for us, as opportunities for us to reflect – if we want to be considered amongst “those of knowledge.” To be amongst them, we must seek liberation from falling victim to the inherent racism and prejudice that colonialism has spread throughout the globe. We must strive to train our hearts and souls, working to replace ugly feelings, words and actions, with dignity, love and impeccable justice.

A few suggested solutions and I gratefully welcome all of yours so that I can learn as well, God willing:

    1. BECOME a part of the communities we fear or experience distaste for in our hearts. Build relationships and coalitions with people who come from different backgrounds. Volunteer, shop and mingle in different communities.
      1. Finding oneself uneasy or continually checking on one’s purse/wallet when one is in an area where most shoppers are people of color is a great indication that one needs to have more interaction with these communities.
    2. Educate Ourselves.
      1. Hating or fearing a group of people—without even knowing them!—is called stereotyping. It’s kind of like how many fellow Americans who do not know Muslims, have not researched Islam, and take Fox News as a religious savior, think of us all as terrorists. Why is it that when it affects us, it bothers us? And yet when we do it to others, it’s somehow justified? Not to burst our bubble or anything but…um, that’s kind of called hypocrisy.
      2. Just like Muslims do not appreciate it when references are made to us as if we’re one big race or ethnicity, neither do our brethren from other communities. For example, referring to people who one *thinks* come from Spanish-speaking communities (aka Latino/as) as, “Mexicans,” is like referring to all Arabs as “Egyptians,” or all South-Asians as, “Indians.” While perhaps stated without evil intentions, it exudes ignorance. Let us take some time to learn about other people in other communities, seeking to create understanding, respect and mutual brother/sisterhood.
      3. Movies are often a source of the perpetuation of false stereotypes which can inform our interactions with people whom we do not feel we connect with. Instead of monetarily supporting such proliferation, watch films which will help provide greater understanding.
        • Watch El Norte to understand just a few of the struggles of some within the Latino community. El Norte should help increase our appreciation for an incredibly hard-working, highly aspiring people.
        • Watch Crips and Bloods, Made in America to understand how these two gangs in America were actually born out of poverty, racism, police brutality and the FBI targeting community groups which provided social and civil help for their own communities. These gangs emerged because of our country’s systemic, institutional racism and policies to keep certain segments of certain communities of color in poverty.
        • Read The Shame of the Nation by Jonathen Kozol to begin to have an understanding of the institutional discrepancies students of color experience in the education system. Look up Landson-Billings’ (2006) From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt to have an understanding of the historical background of the inequities these amazing students are forced to experience and reasons why those immediately impact their future opportunities.

Our beloved nation, the United States of America, was founded on murder, pillage and manipulation (think: Native Americans/Indians). It was built on the backs of free people who were enslaved, coerced, beaten, killed and stripped of their culture, language, religion and families (think overwhelmingly free Africans). Those of us living in this country are a part of that wretched history, but we do not have to allow it to define our actions.

We can be those foremost in defining our country’s future narrative, but we need to make the decision. Will we continue to allow our own minds and hearts to be shackled with spiritual diseases which impact the ways we interact with others? Or will we take it upon ourselves to live and embody the Qur’an and the noble Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ messages of social justice, humanity and impeccable respect for all others?

The great Malcolm X (may God be pleased with him), was once openly racially biased. However, after the heart-changing experience of Hajj, he was transformed. He said, “Because of the spiritual enlightenment which I was blessed to receive as a result of my recent pilgrimage to the Holy city of Mecca, I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of any one race. I am now striving to live the life of a true…Muslim. I must repeat that I am not a racist nor do I subscribe to the tenants of racism. I can state in all sincerity that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.”

Islam is revolutionary. Malcolm X allowed the teachings of our religion to liberate his heart and mind from any sweeping misgivings he once carried towards a particular group of people. It is the sweetness of the Islamic spiritual experience which allowed him to transform prejudiced tendencies into those of justice for all.

I want to follow in Malcolm X’s steps and join those who are consciously working for justice, beginning with their own personal hearts, words and actions. I’ve decided that I want Islam to revolutionize the way I think, speak and interact with others. What about you? What will you decide?

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles on racism within and outside of the Muslim community.

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14 Comments

  1. Leila says:

    Assalamualaikum! May Allah swt bless you, your article hits the nail on the head.

    Everyone should treat others the way, he or she want to be treated.

    For me, the biggest difficulty is, not to take the measure of somebody because of his or her outward appereance, I mean the way he or she is dressed and which impression I firstly receive, because this decides wether I adress somebody or not.
    Just recently I noticed, that a person, who I thought is unlikeable, is very friendly and pleasant!

    Subhan Allah!May Allah swt help us to improve our character and behavior, amin.

  2. Yasmin says:

    Jazakallah kair for this truly eye-opening and thorough post on the problem of racism. If we claim that we are Muslims than we should know that no one specific race or ethnicity is better than the others. My dad always reminds me that all humans bleed red blood so that means that on the inside we are the same!

  3. Asad123 says:

    I work at an Islamic school, where the kids are very smart and generally well-behaved, Mashallah. However, one very bad habit that a few of them have is to insult each other by saying things like, “You’re so Jewish.”
    I do not tolerate this. I tell them that Muslims do not insult other religions or the people who practice them. Here is my proof, “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witness to fair dealings and do not let the hatred of a people lead you to treat them unjustly. Deal with them justly; it is closer to piety.” (Quran 5:8) I need Muslims to work with me to eradicate this behavior of insulting the people who Allah has honored in the Quran as People of the Book.

    • Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

      subhan Allah, I hear this rhetoric as well. It’s so important to have someone like you point out these issues and help provide an alternative example. may Allah give you success!

  4. Great Post! says:

    I think the issue in the Muslim community is more classism and colorism than racism. People are obsessed with the idea of light/white skin and “passing”/”fitting” into the upper class so to speak, in order to break the glass ceiling.I also know Desi, Middle Eastern and Asian individuals who experience the brunt of colorism because of their deeply colored skin.

    I understand the point that your point of view but some of the examples written may have been articulated differently, maybe you have dealt with Muslims who are only/mostly prejudice toward the African American and Latino community but I think the issue could have been approached in a different manner.

    “But this comment came from someone I did not know, in a conversation of which I was not a part.” You felt the need to share that you are personally not racist as if to protect yourself but some of the statements in this article may propagate the “us and them” mentality, where people note racist behavior, acknowledge that it’s wrong but they don’t consider us (African Americans etc.) as equals. They consider us with sympathy, they feel sorry for us, they don’t see the perspective that with any group, there are those who are a product of a negative society/history and there are those who are leaders in their community whether that be through religious or educational merit, despite this (as you said) no man is greater than another in terms of their worldly possessions and accolades, this is in each individual group, AND across color lines. There are plenty of doctors and lawyers etc. in the black “professional class” for example who are arrogant towards black men and women who “become statistics”, including those who cannot move forward in education because they are from school districts with poor funding or those who are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, facing unfair circumstances etc. People read blog posts like this and they say “You’re right, I should treat THOSE people better. They have been through so much in this country.” but this does not mean that they will invite us into their communities, their homes, executive boards, businesses or even families.

    I know plenty or Muslims who speak of Malcolm X, speak against racism but are still manifesting racism within their own homes, because they feel that as long as they treat us decently they have done enough. They cannot see us as a everyday people who are part of the human race, just as a separate group that needs to be studied, understood and slowly integrated (depending on the shade of your brown and your education).

    Anywho, I could write about this subject for hours. I just feel that the opening comments are offensive because I believe that instead of highlighting the detriment of racism and how it is against Islam and effects many of us, they target certain groups, possibly feeding the idea “us” and “them”.

    If any of that makes sense.

    JazakAllahu Khair for your references to the Quran and your suggestions.

    signed,

    That Mexican and Ghetto Black Girl

    • Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

      Thank you so much for your comment and please accept my sincere apologies for any hurt or offense that I have caused. I am so sorry as that was the exact opposite of what this post was meant to do.

      I chose those statements because they are similar to ones I have frequently heard, stated with complete ignorance or prejudice, specifically towards African American and Latino communities who do not identify as Muslim. (They also hurt me so much personally. I have Mexican relatives and some of the people who I hold most dearly to my heart are African American. I take personal offense when I hear these types of things and feel like it’s an attack on me myself.)

      You are so right; this is an issue that spans class, color…everything. And yes, in the Muslim community and in society in general, it is an issue that affects everyone, regardless of race.

      A Latina friend of mine who read and re-read the like 7 drafts of this I went through so that I would make sure I was clear and effective specifically said about my first draft that it was too “us/them,” so I worked on it, re-did it, seeking to change that. I asked her and 13 other people, from all different races and backgrounds, to read through it to make sure it didn’t create that same vibe because I hadn’t even realized that it did and for the final draft, all of them gave me positive feedback so I hoped I would not have caused any ill feelings.

      Unfortunately, I guess it still did :( I am so sorry.

      Also, just quickly, I mentioned that it was in a conversation that I was not a part of to possibly help others think about times where they’ve been in similar situations; where we’ve heard something but felt powerless to say or do anything about it because it didn’t directly involve us, but we were the bystander in some way. Perhaps I should have included more clarification so that it wouldn’t have seemed like I was trying to abdicate myself.

      Jazaki Allahu khayran again for your comment and for adding to the conversation. Please forgive me again for my unintended shortcomings.

      Sincerely,
      Maryam

  5. As’salāamu `alaikum,

    A brilliant and courageous post. Not too many people have the fortitude to discuss this openly. I happen to be a Black Muslim convert of almost seven years and I’ve become absolutely disgusted with the racism, both overt and covert (the covert is far worse in my opinion), classism, colorism, culturalism (my neologism for this over-emphasis on cultures and customs), and any other sort of negative “-ism” one could possibly conceive of on the part of Muslims, at least as far as my being Black is concerned.

    For whatever it’s worth, I actually have a few suggestions which might help at least as far as us Black folks are concerned, insha’Allah.

    1) I think there are some books, works of fiction and non-fiction, which be required reading. We as Muslims, after all, SHOULD be literate peoples – right?

    “READ in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created created man out of a germ-cell! Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen taught man what he did not know!” 96:1-5

    For example, every person – every Muslim, be they born Muslim or immigrant to this country – should be perhaps consider reading books like “Autobiography of Malcolm X” (The Spike Lee movie based on this book is also good), “Malcolm X Speaks” (his book of speeches transcribed), Dr. Sherman Jackson’s book entitled “Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection,” Dr. Jamillah Karim’s book “American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Culture in the Ummah,” “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B DuBois or “The New Jim Crow: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. As for fiction, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”

    2) Try volunteering at a school or after school program in a low-income area, if you have the free time. You’ll have a chance to see how the injustice manifests itself and how it’s perpetuated throughout the generations.

    3) Invite some Blacks (or Latinos or whoever) to your house for a meal. I’m being dead serious about this – like a heart attack or a stroke. Eating with a person in masjid is one thing; inviting them into your home is something totally different. Even something as simple as this could alter your perspective. Never underestimate the power of interaction. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    4) Prison du’a can be eye-opening. I’ve yet to do it myself, but I would like to in the future, insha’Allah.

    My biggest qualm with Muslims thus far is that we take for grant that the concept of “ummah” exist in real life and thus we don’t seem to be willing to put forth the effort to actually MAKE it exist. As a result, I feel many stereotype, prejudices, etc are free to lurk in the background, unchecked, unchallenged, and unbounded. Building an “ummah” requires some conscious effort on the part of those who subscribe to the notion; it doesn’t just happen automatically. We can’t, as many Muslims I’ve seen do, continue in one breath to claim Islam to be the panacea to all of America’s social woes and in the same breath not take any pro-active measure to evince that suppose panacea into reality: it isn’t going to manifest itself; Islam doesn’t, as I’ve heard some people say, “speak for itself:” it has no mouth, no appendages, etc. We therefore have to be them.

    • Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

      wa alaykum as salam warahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

      This was so informative. Jazak Allahu khayran for providing suggestions and resources!

  6. There is also a plethora of lectures on iTunes, if you happen to use it. With some much information readily available, ignorance becomes purely a matter of choice or pride these days.

  7. RCHOUDH says:

    Assalamu alaikum wr,

    Jazakillah ul khair for this; it was very informative and worth spreading around to others Insha’Allah.

  8. Seth says:

    How many of us stay within our own circles?
    What does it feel like being the outsider?
    Frightened or welcome?

  9. Abubakar sadiq yahaya says:

    Jaz kumullah khairi. I always enjoy your piece every time i visited this great forum.may Allah reward you aboundantly.

  10. Abubakar sadiq yahaya says:

    Jazaki Allahu khayran.tank you sister for facing the bull by the horn and may Allah reward you with aljannahtul firdausi.

  11. Muslimah says:

    Salaam ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
    I have always been mixing with other cultures and never thought in my family there would be an issue such as racism because I want to marry a black practising muslim brother, my own parents whom I thought were not racists, have actually turned they back on me, refusing to let me marry this suitor for no shar’i reasons but just because he is black and they are afraid of people’s reaction. This is truly sad. I am sure I’m not the first person to face such issue, especially when it comes to marriage. The Ummah must do something to get rid of this disease, it’s truly disgusting…

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