by Jerrmein Abu Shahba
- Black, brown, tan or white…what difference does it make?
- African, Asian, European, or Middle Eastern…what difference does it make?
- Arab, Persian, Indo-Paki, or English-speaking…what difference does it make?
We live in a world where many consider differences as a serious problem, a disgrace for humanity, something to be shameful about, or a reason to feel superiority over others. Whether the difference is the color, ethnicity, race, or language, we are all human beings from the same father and mother, Adam and Eve, originating from a simple blood clot!
Racism is indeed one of the most dangerous and treacherous diseases which has afflicted humanity since centuries ago. Everyone remembers how black Africans were transported across the oceans, packed in specially designed ships, thought of and treated like livestock. They were made slaves, forced to change their names and religion and language, were not entitled to hope for true freedom, and were refused the least of human rights. Decades have passed yet the disease still exists despite the development in technology and education. Racism exists in different colors and forms, but the most prominent nowadays is discrimination against people of color. We hear every here and then stories about black men and women getting treated unfairly and targeted by law enforcement officers. They are beaten brutally like animals to the point of murder!
What is the position of Islam with regards to racism and discrimination against people of different color, ethnicity, or any other difference? The purpose of this article is to scan history to find out the position of Prophet Muhammad (SA) and the infallible appointed Imams (AS) towards racism and bigotry and what the Almighty Creator says in the Holy Quran.
Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another, or one color of skin is superior to another, or the people of one country are superior to another. Such beliefs are the characteristic of pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah). What some of us may not realize is that during the time Prophet Muhammad emerged as a messenger, a type of racism was prevalent in Makkah. It was racism under the name of tribalism where the people of Quraish considered themselves in particular and Arabs in general, superior to all the other people of the world. Along with the message of oneness of God, Prophet Muhammad came with the Divine Message and proclaimed that no Arab is superior over a non-Arab, and no white is superior over black and superiority is by righteousness and piety alone. Hence the holy verse, “O mankind! 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 most righteous among you, surely Allah is Knowing, Aware.” (49:13)
Islam unites the entire human race under one banner without any kind of discrimination. In another verse, Allah (SWT) says, “And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors; most surely there are signs in this for the learned.” (30:22) This verse explains to us that diversity in race and color is strength not weakness, it is a positive point, not a negative one, it is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Islam declares equality among people as one human race, one humanity, that is because Islam respects a human for being a human not for any other reason; Islam does not distinguish between two races, or two groups of people, or between two colors. Islam excludes no one, though some exclude themselves; it discriminates no one, though some discriminate others, and it makes no differences, though some may insist on being different.
It is by the unity and harmony of the different people from different backgrounds that bring completion to the human race. As Sayyid Mujtaba Lari mentions in his book, “Islam and Racism”, “The institution of Hajj (annual pilgrimage) to Makkah, incumbent on all Muslims at least once a lifetime if the means are present, has been a profound influence for unification and equality above color and class.”
We hear the story of Prophet Nuh (AS) who built the Arc of Salvation which served as a refuge for a handful of believers and also creatures from the animal kingdom. The Almighty Creator instructed Prophet Nuh to bring along one pair of every animal and creature, and the purpose of that was to preserve the diversity of the creation, with all its forms and kinds, big or small, four-legged or two-legged. Even animals are appreciated for their diversity and none are excluded whatsoever or treated as superior or inferior to one another.
We have an example in Bilal, the Muazzin of the Prophet, who was from Ethiopia. Being colored-skin and not speaking with a perfect Arabic tongue did not prevent the Prophet (SA) from selecting him for such an honorable role. It was not a random selection or a coincidence; rather it was Allah’s wisdom to teach us a lesson till the end of time. There is no shame in being ethnically different, at the end we are all human and it is only righteousness which distinguishes us and elevates us to higher levels in the rank of humanity.
We also have an example in Lady Fizza, the maidservant of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahra (AS) who had come from Abyssinia to Arabia as a slave and was freed by the Holy Prophet (SA). How did Sayyida Fatima (AS) treat her? Did she boss her around and over work her as many who have servants and maids do? Absolutely not! It is narrated that Sayyida Fatima (AS) divided her house work equally between herself and Lady Fizza and they would take turns to do the chores. Sayyida Fatima (AS) did not feel ashamed to select this colored lady who was honorable in her character and carried a heart recipient to the divine light. This noble lady was further honored by serving the Master Youth of Paradise, Imam Hasan and Husain, and took part in the “Three-Day Fast” with AhlulBayt (AS).
Any person who educates themselves about the tragic story of Karbala and all the events which transpired on the day of Ashura in the year 61 A.H. will realize that there are a myriad of lessons and morals that can be learnt. Among these important lessons is the Islamic view regarding racism and discrimination against other human beings. As we know, the status of the martyred companions of Imam Hussain is above all status and they are the ones praised by the Imam when he said, “I never witnessed companions better or more faithful than my companions.” Who are those 72 lucky companions and what are their backgrounds?
Actually, they include the young and the old, the Muslim and the Christian, men and even women. Surprisingly or not, one of them is Joan bin Huwai, a Christian freedman and a former slave of the esteemed companion of the Prophet, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari. When Abu Dharr was exiled from Madina by Uthman ibn Affan, Joan went to Imam Ali (AS) and stayed with him. After Imam Ali (AS) departed this life, John stayed with Imam Hasan and then he moved in with Imam Hussain. When Husain left Medina, John insisted on accompanying him to Karbala. On the night of Ashura, Imam Husain urged Joan to go away to seek his safety by telling him, “You have accompanied us all the way but now you may go”. To that, John replied, “How is it fair that I benefit from your company and hospitality but abandon you in your hardship?”
Narrations say that Joan expressed to Hussain out of humility and submission, “my odor is unpleasant, my origin is low, and my color is black, please honor me with Paradise by permitting me to attain the honor of martyrdom in your defense! By Allah I will not separate from you until my black blood mixes with your blood!” Sure enough, Imam Husain granted him permission and he attained the honor of martyrdom. When Joan fell to the ground and was breathing his last, Imam Hussain (AS) rushed over to him and place his cheek on his cheek. Our world today has been and continuing to experience systemic racism and bigotry that has escalated with people of color. It wasn’t too long ago that the killing of George Floyd by a brutal and heartless policeman took place after he pressed his knee on the neck of a man simply because he is black. Yet the most purified and elevated of people in excellence, that is Imam Hussain, has no hesitation to place his purified cheek on the cheek of a black slave while others place their knee on the neck of others! Islam does not judge people for their color or race, rather Islam elevates those who are pious and righteous, and for that reason Joan was elevated and honored by Imam Hussain (AS)
Then Hussain stood over his body and raised his hands in prayer, “Oh Allah, bring light to his face, make his fragrance pleasant, and gather him with the Prophet and his progeny.” It is narrated that whoever passed Joan’s body in the battlefield smelled a pleasant fragrance emanating from his pure body! Subhanallah, what an honor!
Imam Hussain has taught a lesson to mankind that will resonate till the end of time – a lesson that black lives and its sanctity is to be respected and valued just like any respected life. Joan represented them on the day of a Karbala and through him, all colored men are represented and honored by supporting Imam Husain on the sorrowful day of Ashura.