Race Relations: An Islamic Perspective

One of the ways most people know about Islam is through the TV footage of Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam. What is remarkable about the ritual is that people of all colors, races, and nationalities come together and as they approach the Kaaba (the cube like structure toward which Muslims turn to pray) chant a simple verse; O Lord! We have come to you (Allahumma Labbaik). This unity and uniformity comes directly from the universal concept of oneness of God or Tawhid. The concept of Tawhid in theological sense means God is one, in a mystical and spiritual it means oneness with God, and at the social level it means all humanity is one under God. The oneness f God, oneness of life and of humanity is a unique contribution of Islam to human civilization. In the Qur’an mankind is one (Ummatan Wahidatun), under one God who nourishes, sustains, and loves and guides.

The fact that humanity comes from one single source is the basic principle of faith and the differences between various nationalities, communities and races are nothing but a sign from god. These differences are as much a sign from God as the revelation of the Qur’an itself.

“And it is a sign of Allah that he created the heavens and the earth And He created the diversity of languages and colors” (Qur’an. Rum: 30;22)

The positive value one can draw from this diversity is that it is a source of identity and mutual recognition.
“O Mankind! We created you from one source And then divided you into communities and nations So that you may know each other” (Qur’an. Hujurat: 49;13)

This diversity is a reason of celebration in the complexity and beauty of nature and not a basis for superiority of one group over another. The Qur’an makes it clear that the only basis for distinction between people is their moral alertness or Taqwa (inner virtue). The Qur’an emphasizes the importance of Taqwa because it feels it binds people together even more than blood ties. As depicted in the story of Adam’s sons Able and Cain, and the story of Joseph and his siblings, without Taqwa even brothers can kill and hurt each other. Without the moral vision of Taqwa society can’t function properly.

This moral vision of Islam wasn’t confined to the scripture, the Qur’an, but was realized in a practical manner in the life of Muhammad ( S ), the Prophet of Islam and his community. The Prophet’s mission started in a society which placed a very high value on elitism. Arabs considered themselves superior to non-Arabs or Ajamis, and each tribe amongst the Arabs considered itself superior to others. This distinction, based on tribe and race was very fundamental to the society en which Muhammad ( S ) brought his mission. It is therefore quite remarkable that he was able to change these long established beliefs and notions so quickly. Among his early converts were former slaves like the African Bilal, and the powerful among the Quraish like Omar and Abu Bakr. The messenger of Allah, Muhammad ( S ) was to forge a brotherhood of people of such diverse class, status and background wit the moral message of Islam.

“O Muhammad! Even if you had spend the entire wealth of mankind to forge this love, you would not have been able to do so.” Qur’an. Anfal: 8;63)

In the special model which Islam created, a former slave would call people for prayer and Muhammad ( S ) would lead the worship. The prayers were not merely rituals because the mosque was essentially the center of all social, political, and community activities. This equality and brotherhood in the mosque became the norm for relationships and attitudes in the community at large.

If the Prophet appeared to favor one person over the other because of status the Qur’an immediately corrected him. The Qur’an comments on one incident where Muhammad ( S ) was busy talking earnestly to a powerful Arab leader hoping to gain his conversion to Islam and ignored or showed mild displeasure to poor blind person, Ibn Umm Maktum, who interrupted the conversation;

“(The Prophet) frowned and turned away Because there came to him a blind man But what could tell thee But that perchance he might grow in piety Or that he might receive admonition and teaching might profit him” (Qur’an. Abasa: 80;1-4)

Muhammad’s (S) farewell sermon at the last Hajj he performed is a succinct summary of the major concepts in Islam. There he reinforced the unity of human race, and equality of all in the eyes of God, and the fair treatment of the vulnerable in the society, especially the slaves and the women.

Brotherhood, justice, and equality , became a fundamental part of the piety minded in the historical Muslim societies. Egalitarianism and inclusiveness were the hall marks of all regions of the Islamicate through most of history and remain so amongst the Muslim societies today. One curious phenomenon in the history of the Muslims is the number of kings who were former slaves as was seen in Egypt (the Mamluks), and India (the slave dynasty of Balban and Iltutmish). Islamic history has many sordid chapters in it but there is no instance of mass persecution based on color or race.

Long before the United Nations charter on equality of humans and the publication of a list of universal human rights, Islam had created a community based on equality and free of racial and class prejudice.

Islam is sometimes criticized for having replaced other forms of bigotry with religious bigotry. This does hold true on scrutiny of the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet. Islam makes it clear that all of God’s religions are one and all the prophets are one. Muhammad ( S ) accepted the legitimacy of other religions, and the freedom of men to practice the religion of their choice. In Madinah when he lost hope that the majority of Jews and Christians would accept his mission, he accepted them as valid communities and the Qur’an demanded that they should live according to the standards of the Torah and the Bible. In the letters he wrote to the rulers of the neighboring regions inviting them to ponder over the message of Islam, Muhammad ( S ) extended his protection to those communities and their places of worship, even if they chose not to accept his mission. The Qur’an considers the diversity of religions a divine mystery, which can be solved only on the day of judgment.
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