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Addressing the understated racism within the Muslim community

24th Jul 2020
Addressing the understated racism within the Muslim community

Muslim pilgrims of diverse races at Jabal Rahmah (Mount of Mercy), Arafah, Makkah (Photo credit: Fahad Faisal/WikiCommons)


Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari

Islam’s emphasis on equality and current Muslim reality

The shocking killing of George Floyd in the US on May 25 reignited global protests and discussions on the issues of racism and human equality with a view to redressing the dark chapters of European colonialism and slavery.

In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, the events have also sparked a sombre introspection amongst conscientious Muslims about the less-discussed and understated prejudices and racism within Muslim communities.

It is an irony that an egalitarian religion like Islam, where racism was nipped in the bud by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), contains followers with covert — or not-so- covert — racism in their midst.

Beneath the beautiful displays of equality during public rituals of congregational prayers and pilgrimage, the attitude and dealings amongst some Muslims towards others of a supposedly ‘inferior’ ethnicity, clan, colour or class is nothing but a disgrace.

Like structural or systemic racism embedded in western countries, discreet racism is alive and kicking in sections of our communities.

Islam has a clear demand on Muslims to firmly believe in Tawḥīd (the Oneness of God); it is this which sows the seeds of human equality and respect for one another in a believer’s heart.

The Qurʼān (49:13) declares that humans originate from the same source and only righteousness matters in the eyes of God. In his last sermon, Prophet Muhammad emphatically declared that all human beings are equal.

“Our master emancipated our master”

The second rightly guided Caliph Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb uniquely expressed his respect for Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ, who, in spite of his status as a freed black slave, was chosen as Islam’s first mu’azzin (prayer announcer) by Prophet Muhammad, by saying, “Abu Bakr is our master, and he emancipated our master.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī).

Although Islam defeated racism in regard to race and class, it is also less known that Bilāl did encounter prejudices from still untrained companions of Prophet Muhammad.

But the Prophet wasted no time in correcting their wrongdoings in his characteristic manner. On one occasion he rebuked a companion for calling Bilāl “O son of a black woman.”

The life of Bilāl, who later become the governor of Syria, serves as a reminder to all Muslims that human status and dignity lay in piety and character, not in one’s colour, class or race.

Class or caste-based prejudice

This is known to be prevalent amongst south Asians including Muslims, though it is by no means an exclusive issue. South Asians constitute more than two-thirds of the British Muslim population.

It is often brazenly exhibited by some of our Muslim institutions and families, especially when it comes to choosing marriage partners. In the name of maintaining kufu (parity, equivalence or family match), the colour, caste or clan of marriageable boys and girls — rather than their education, piety and character — sometimes become determining factors.

Amongst some in diaspora communities the terms farsha (fair skin) and kala (dark skin) as well as family lineage of, say, Sayyids or Chowdhurys can create huge tensions within and between families.

One British social observer writes that Anti-Blackness isn’t just about the N-word, “It’s the aunt who judges people on the fairness of their skin or the uncle who blindly uses the term kala.” Sadly, caste-based prejudice has entered into the minds of many South Asian Muslims because of their proximity to Hindu culture. The fact that a distinction is still being made between the ashraf (Arabic for noblemen) and the non-ashraf amongst many Asian Muslims flies in the face of basic Islamic brotherhood.


Black people have suffered the most during different stages in history because of their skin colour and should not be referred to as ‘just former slaves’ in any public discourse.

Islamic history is rich in its tradition of protecting the racially persecuted, from the lineage of one of the sons of Prophet Nuh, to kings like the Abyssinian Najashi (of modern day Ethiopia) who sheltered and protected Muslims from the persecution of the pagan Makkans in the early phases of Islam.

At the time of the Black civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the 1960s, there was also a radical tradition of opposition to racism, led by the likes of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, two global Muslim icons.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has created a global consciousness on the historic and ongoing prejudice, discrimination and injustice towards Black people as well as other non-white minorities in the West. It is time Muslims from all backgrounds rise above the cultural baggage that is often embedded in such prejudice.

Racism cannot be ended with just rhetoric, quotes from the Qurʼān or references from Islam’s history. As Muslims, we should be willing to listen, understand and reflect on our fellow humans’ sufferings before transferring our enlightened ethos to the next generation of British Muslims who belong to multiple identities. What makes people dignified as stewards of God are only our actions.

As parents, it is vital we focus on educating our children with the legacy of our beautiful history and invest in creating a positive environment at home, in our mosques and community bodies. Only then will our children grow up as mature adults with proper moral character, values of egalitarianism and respect for other human beings.
Racism, hidden or public, is a scar on humanity. We must call it out wherever it is found and however it is expressed.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari (Twitter: @MAbdulBari)
Educationalist, parenting consultant & author.

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