Islam In Fact Does Do Race

اسمعوا و أطيعوا و إن استعمل عليكم عبد حبشي كأن رأسه زبيبة

الراوي أنس بن مالك والمحدث البخاري

من باب السمع و الطاعة للإمام ما لم تكن معصية

“Listen and obey, even if an Ethiopian slave is appointed as your leader and his head be like a raisin.” — related by Anas Bin Mālik, collected by Imām al-Bukhārī.

Last week I gave a talk at the University of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with CAMP-Philadelphia and the Muslim Student Association at Penn entitled, African American Contributions to Islam: Bridging the Gap. When the event was posted on Facebook, one brother responded, critiquing Islam’s involvement in anything “racial”:

“salamon ulaikum…i am attending…but I think this event is a bit racist and historically incorrect. Why are we focusing on ‘African American’ contributions to Islam. Correct me if I am wrong, but there were no ‘African Americans’ during the time of the Prophet. They were all Arabs. Not American, Not African. Only one African, Bilal, and his contribution was minimal compared to Abu Bakr (r) and Umar (r) and Osman (r) and Ali (r)” — Abdul Basheer.

The person’s comments enraged and offended many if not most who read his reaction. While being equally offended by the ignorance of the gentleman’s statement, I feel that his words reflect a broader audience, black, white, Arab, or in the case here, Pakistani, who continue to labor under the delusion that “Islam,” simply “does not do race” (Sherman Jackson). However, there are a number of Qur’anic, or as the case above, Prophetic narrations, that support that “Islam,” as Dr. Jackson said “does do reality”. I concur that Islam does not do racism, but it does do race, and in fact, Islam recognizes the ills of racially-hierarchical thinking and its pitfalls. In fact, if we continue our conversation with Abdul Basheer, we must ask ourselves, who was the immediate audience of the Prophet when the above hadith was uttered? If Mr. Basheer’s thinking has any credence to it—specifically the majority-Arab theory, then it becomes even more interesting that the Prophet would clearly demarcate this social space for non-Arabs. But without a doubt, this message was directed at the Arab majority that made up his beloved Companions, may God be please with all of them.

In the end it is clear that Islam does do race and that having discussions about race in no way jeopardizes one’s commitment to Islam. I believe this to be an integral part of the development and maturation of Muslims in their religious worldview. This is especially important if Muslims have hopes of engaging America in meaningful dialog. Any such interaction must engage America on her level, which will involve coming to understand what race is in America on America’s terms and not simply dismissing race in the name of some misplaced sense of religiosity.

“The absence of race [from society] enables the powers that be to hide their intentions.” — Dr. Sherman Jackson


  1. national spirit or aspirations.
  2. devotion and loyalty to one’s own nation; patriotism.
  3. excessive patriotism; chauvinism.
  4. the desire for national advancement or independence.
  5. the policy or doctrine of asserting the interests of one’s own nation, viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations.
  6. an idiom or trait peculiar to a nation.
  7. a movement, as in the arts, based upon the folk idioms, history, aspirations, etc., of a nation.

26 Replies to “Islam In Fact Does Do Race”

  1. Wow! The brother’s comments are so crazy racist its laughable. Its infuriating at the same time. I’m amazed. It’s actually ignorant. Truly ignorant. The prophet’s Sahaba weren’t reported as having been all Arabs. We know there were at least Persians and Africans in the mix. One of the the saddest things in the statement is that the brother first stated that there were NO Africans, and then, after of course realizing the obvious falsehood in that atatement went on to say, well, yeah, there was one, his name was Bilal, but he wasn’t important. Hmmmn, I suppose getting revealation about the Iqama is not so important huh!? I mean, we only recite it five times a day before every salat. Not important huh!? And, that the prophet Muhammed (SAW) saw Bilal (RA) in his dream walking above him in paradise is not so important huh. I mean, this only led to the Prophet keeping his wudhu whenever possible. And Negus and the rest of those Abassynians to whom the early Muslims made the first hijra to in the horn of… yes! Africa. Those guys, not so important either huh!? Well, the Arabs did it all by themselves?

    I think some people only want to discuss one race – their own. And those people actually won’t say they are discussing race. They will say they are just discussing the norm, or “people” in some false universal sense. Oh yes, another term among Muslims is “Islamic culture”. This sort of dishonest “color-blindness” is only an effort to ignore and erase other people’s existence. I hope that we can be honest and honestly recognize one another as Allah’s creation. He put us all here to play a significant role as he saw fit – yes, even Africans and African Americans.

  2. @Nsenga. Wa ‘alaykum salaam. Yes, the brother’s statement is highly offensive, but what I wanted to do was not only admonish him for his lack of tack, but also to highlight that his mode of thinking is indicative of a strain of thought in our community, and not solely stemming from immigrant Muslims. There are Blackamerican and Whiteamerican Muslims who also uphold this line of thought.

    Part of the issue, which you repeated in “some people only want to discuss one race – their own”, is that it’s not only the folks want to discuss their own race, but in fact, they pretend to see themselves as un-raced; they are just universal human beings. This trajectory is upheld in the Muslim community so long as one is either of one of these “universal races” or, in our case, if we’re willing to abandon Blackness in favor of some utopic, sanitized, de-racialized identity.

  3. ASA;

    First I think people including muslims need to do much more reading, thinking, praying, and working than talking about about the issues. If we don’t discipline ourselves to do that then at least we should ferverently support the people who have and those who have dedicated their lives to it like Dr.Jackson and many others by reading their works and being genuinely aware of the ISSUES!!!.

  4. @Imam Sohaib. How is studying in Saudi Arabia a qualifier? How and why are African Americans Black nationalists when they wish to discuss the relationship between Black folks and Islam in America but the Palestinian struggle is a general Muslim concern.

    And I’m curious, I thought that it was Bin Baz, not Ibn?

    Did you see the that the hadith is sahih? Also, who are “the great scholars”?

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. @Pat. What makes you think that I have not equally dedicated my life to Islam? Do you have any qualitative or quantitative data to support your accusation? Secondly, is it a sin to write about issues?

    Thank you for your concern and thoughts.

  6. “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allâh is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa. Verily, Allâh is All-Knowing, All-Aware.”

    –Surah Al-Hujurât 13

    “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 has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”

    –The Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) Last Sermon delivered on the Ninth Day of Dhul Hijjah 10 A.H. in the ‘Uranah valley of Mount Arafat’ (in Mecca)

    Islam does do race, it focuses on racial equality. Nothing in Islam forbids one group from talking about their history. Northing prevents us from sharing our heritage in a dialogue with others so that we may know what each community contributes to our wonderful diverse Ummah. Sohaib wasn’t there to hear the panel composed of two Black Americans, a white American, and Pakistani American discussing how to overcome the many ethnic divides in the US. People like him assume we are some flag waving nationalists. The truth is, unlike our brethren overseas, Black American Muslims aren’t infected with the spirit of nationalism. We don’t wave flags, sing the Black national anthem. We are much more willing to socially integrate with other ethnic groups in the Muslim communities, rather than vice versa.

    As a teacher in a 50% Arab and 50 % African American school and 17 year member of the Muslim community I can say that the nationalism and ethnic chauvinism I’ve seen is often on the part of immigrant Muslims, who seek to preserve their ethnic identity in America. My Palestinian tag lines in their text messages about how they will die for Palestine, stickers with signs about Palestinians only. Egyptian students write on white boards “Egypt is #1!” I’ve never seen anything about Black Power. I’ve hardly ever seen any people coming out and censoring any Egyptians, Tunisians, Palestinians, and Libyans for supporting their homeland’s causes. We have people posting pictures of nationalistic heroes such as Umar Mukhtar, but I haven’t seen anyone say “Oh you nationalists!”

    I remember I used to be criticized for being involved with Black student organizations, even though I spent a considerable amount of time and resources to Muslim student groups. Yet people of one ethnic group would have iftars and picnics ONLY for people of their own ethnic group. Their reasoning was they were all Muslim. I find it interesting how people from the groups that do so much to preserve ethnic divisions in America (i.e. threaten to disown or even kill their kids for marrying into other Muslim ethnic groups-especially black American and barely socialize with converts on a substantive level) are the ones who will talk about unity of the ummah.

    Nobody was promoting a separatist or exclusivist agenda. So how can a multi-ethnic panel coming together to talk about Black American Muslims contributions to the American Muslim ummah and bridging ethnic divide be a Black nationalist event? It wasn’t We were at that panel to get to know ourselves and each other, as Allah had intended.

  7. @Imam Sohaib. Salafism, in its current form, is in itself a fitnah and an innovation. It has wreaked havoc on the Muslim community, splitting and dividing instead of healing. I call you to return to Islam and to good sense instead of to a meaningless slogan.

  8. As-salaamu `alaykum,

    I’ve been following this conversation, debate or diatribe, and I must say that it is extremely revealing and somewhat troubling. But it is only disturbing, if we do not take this opportunity to address the ignorance and racism (or is this being redundant) among Muslims themselves. We don’t need to bash each other over the head with Quranic verses and ahadith that we claim must only mean what each of us says it means (or have the authority or status we say they have. In fact, according to Islamic law, a hadith considered “weak” or “da`eef” doesn’t mean it is not valid or cannot be upgraded juristically. The hadith that is a major foundation for shari`ah itself, e.g., “Mu`ath ibn Jabal” or “kayfa tahkum…” is weak too but because other accounts exist, its status is raised). But these sources are much too important and reverential for this kind of cocky pettiness. Let’s be candid and frank by having a straight forward talk, speaking truth to power, if necessary, in light of the work of scholars and thinkers like Shaykh Abdul Qader Audah’s critical treatise, Islam: Between Ignorant Followers and Incapable Scholars (1982). Yeah, I studied in Saudi Arabia myself, but this doesn’t exclude me from being racist, sexist, or wholly naive of the critical need and appreciation for diversity and pluralism of various kinds. Nor does it obviate my exposure to bias ideas or racist “scholars” in Saudi Arabia, though I also met and befriended real believers there in the early 1980s and 1990s. With over one billion Muslims on the planet, why should we or, in fact, how CAN we adhere to the opinions of one group (a clique of teachers and followers), in one small part of the world, and fit their singular interpretation into the complex experiences of thousands of Muslim cultures and perspectives? Given the ikhtilaf and ahkam (differences) of varied legal opinions made by different jurists throughout Muslim history and across geographical regions, this clearly runs contrary to Islamic heritage and, quite honestly, baffles common sense. Put simply, it defies Muslim intelligence and understanding (`aql wa `ilm), two values fiercely upheld in Islam.

    In the end, we need to be brutally honest and call “a camel a camel” (I don’t want to say, “a spade a spade”). There ARE racist Muslims (who secretly dream of heavenly houris as White American women and European girls flying around them, tantalizing their passions). These undercover racists need to just put some holes (for eyes) in their white `iqaal (head scarf) and reveal their true identities as international members of the KKK (Klu Klux Klan)! You already have head start with the white gear!

    Abu Hamza

  9. Marc,

    It always astonishes me when Saudi Arabia is viewed as unstoried. It’s as if you had the Prophet (SAW) and then the modern KSA, with no history in between. On this thinking, the Saudis become the original Muslims. And if anyone needs to become part of these “original Muslims”, they would need their validation. Hence, I’m not surprised that people like Sohaib have to list their affiliations to Saudi Arabia. I just hope that these people contemplate on the kind of Shirk that might come along with seeking validation from other than Allah.

    On a similiar note, do you really think that this hyper-salafisim even needs to be engaged with anymore? It’s almost like talking to a sign on a brick wall. It’ll stay the same no matter what you say to it. It has been said that religions usually die due to “apathy born of irrelevance”. I fear very much for the children of the hyper-salafies. Are they still a majority in the city you live in?

  10. @Abu Hamza. Thank you for your comments. It is sad indeed that we cannot have a discussion without, as you say, bashing each other with this or that verse or hadith. I too have studied in Saudi Arabia, but again, in no way is that any qualifier of knowledge (this is not aimed at you). It’s a chest-thumping stick in the sand. Only problem is, sticks don’t talk. Sticks aren’t qualifiers.

  11. @Abu Hamza and all,

    Your remarks about the KKK only point to one part of the issue. Aside from Dave Chapelle’s KKK skit, you will not find Black folks in the KKK peddling that kind of racist rhetoric. You will find, however, as Cornell West and Dr. Jackson have pointed out, African-Americans who have internalized white supremacist values. Part of what I am getting at above is that this dilemma cannot be put solely at the feet of Arabs, Pakistanis or any other immigrant Muslim group. Blackamerican Muslims themselves have done a stand-up job as proponents of anti-Black sentiment. So if we were to take your statement “You already have head start with the white gear!”, we must included Blackamerican Muslims in that group as well.

  12. Dear Marc, my reference about the “white” gear speaks to a kind of uniform and mode of thinking predicated upon an Arab cultural hegemony or Arabism that has become normalized or Islamized among Muslim groups like the Salafis. These groups are somewhat of a mixed bag, with people from various places. But the ordinary Muslim in the West often suffers from a strand of Arabism as well. Many African American Muslims are still “borrowing” their religion (deen) from other Muslims rather than “owning” it (validating their own Islamic religiosity), which could be deemed a kind of shirk (shirk asghar), since the moral imperative in Islam is to release all of Allah’s creatives from not just political oppression but psychological or cultural oppression as well. How can you be a free Muslim, if you are worshipping Allah through the ETHNIC VEIL (the cultural prism) of another group. Islam gives believers a direct line to Allah, and not a line that meanders through that of other folks before it gets to tawheed (God’s oneness and unity). So, yes, the internalization of racism is a problem but so is the disease of only “seeing oneself through the eyes of others,” as WEB DuBois articulated in his Souls of Black Folks in 1903. Now, is this a part of racism? Perhaps. But Arabism is a very specific issue that speaks volumes about a particular kind of cultural hegemony and ethnocentrism.

    Abu Hamza

  13. @Abu Hamza. Yes, I agree. I was only highlighting that for readers who may not be familiar with that. But your points about ownership are critical to this whole topic and dialog.

  14. @Sohaib. If that is your choice, then that is your choice. You do not have to “go along with it”. You seem to have difficulty grasping the intricacies of language. If you think that Abu Hamza, myself, or anyone else is proposing that Blackamericans or any other group own Islam exclusively, then in my opinion you are choosing to not see the argument for what it is. The times we live in will no longer abide this juvenille approach to religion. I encourage you to re-think your words as well as what was written in this post and not succomb lexical empiricism.

  15. My dear brother, Sohaib,

    I do believe you are misunderstanding the nature of the discourse, as Marc mentioned above. Allah says in the Quran that Islam is “ours” and that He completed it for us–not for Himself, when He (ta `ala) says, “akmaltu lakum deenakum” (al-Ma`idah 5:3). The emphasis is on ownership in “LAKUM” (for you, which indicates possession and for someone to take ownership of) and DEENAKUM (not Allah’s deen (religion) as in “DEENEE” or my deen or my religion) but YOUR religion as in “deenakum”. Another verse talks about “Your Islam” in “Islamakum” (al-hujuraat 49:17, though the English mistakenly renders it simply as “Islam” without the pronoun of possession “kum,” which is in the original Arabic). So, the believers are to “own” it for themselves; apparently Allah completed it for that purpose.

    And Allah knows best!

    Abu Hamza

  16. Very good. You articulated in precise words what I had been mulling over. I hope that folks (Muslims) will come to see that having ownership is not the same as exclusivity. When we talk of ownership, as Abu Hamza has pointed out, we’re not talking about an exclusive franchise but rather a more critical engagement of the blessing that God “has bestowed” upon Bani Adam.

  17. Sohaib. I fail to understand your animosity. I also fail to comprehend your branding me (and presumably anyone else who thinks along these lines) a nationalist. Did you see the small quote above? None of what I have written here pertains to nations or states. Neither am I espousing “excessive patriotism” or “chauvinism”. This is, after all, a dialog. I wrote a piece, you disagreed and challenged my views, I wrote back and made a counter claim, re-stating my perspective (which I believe to be correct naturally). It was you who took us down the path of “innovation” and “fitnah”. Abu Hamza and myself simply provided more evidence to support our claim to be more (but not exclusively) correct. I will assume your labeling me a shaykh is sarcasm and not genuine admiration. I have no title and I don’t need a title in order to be able to have a thoughtful and meaningful dialog on Islam. You, on the other hand, introduced your self as “Imam Sohaib” who studied in Saudi Arabia. From the beginning you seemed to be in a defensive posture. Perhaps if you were so secure about your beliefs you might be able to have a more engaging conversation, even if you end up differing with me (or anyone else you might disagree with). And finally and perhaps most curious of all, you have not addressed the specific points that I used in the post, that Abu Hamza provided in his comments. You’ve resorted to name calling, for what appears to be for no other reason than you are not capable of either fully grasping the arguments presented, or you simply choose not to. If that is your modus operandi, than I would suggest that you just read the post (or not at all) and refrain from commenting altogether.

  18. My commenting policy for someone who is not willing to engage the points that I have addressed, but instead resorts to name calling and brow beating, is not to post them. It is not useful or beneficial conversation. The web is wide, and they can use their own venue to build their ideas. On occasion, however, I have left some comments up to prove a point (for example, that there are Muslim men who expressed their anti-Black women stances on my blog).

  19. Salamuaikum dear brothers and sisters this whole thing about nationality identity is leagues beneath the pure teachings of Islam.It’s better to join together in good from one race to another-in the RACE for good,Fisabeelilah.And yes there is a UTOPIA of one face of this great real nation of Islam encompassing many tribes but look back in the history when one starts to bask in the dim glow of nationalistic pride it is the cursed seed of racism and human division. I am a Muslim before I am an American I am a Muslim before I am whatever race I am. Islam is the Deen of ALLAH. AND ISLAM DOES NOT DO RACISM. ONLY THE PEOPLE OF IGNORANCE. BUT NOT THE BOOK OF ALLAH. OR THE SUNNAH OF OUR BELOVED RASULULLAH (SAW) MAY ALLAH HAVE MERCY ON US AND FORGIVE US.

  20. SUBAHANALLAH I saw the Sherman Jackson video(as much as I could stomach)his opening words up until the two minute warning I could no longer listen…no mentioning of Allah or the Prophet-and speaking as an Imam as well as Dr. of sorts was unbelievable. Forgive my intrusion for to further comment on this is a waste, I could be reading Quran or giving Dawah. May Allah guide us.

  21. assalaamu `alaykum,

    There is a hadith that states, “la hayaa fi-deen” or “There is no shyness when it comes to inquiring about one’s way of life (deen)”. The word deen (badly translated as “religion”), when you look it up in an extensive Arabic dictionary, has hundreds of meanings and religious faith/practice is one meaning among many others that include the social, cultural, political, etc. realities of one’s life.

    As we all know, the Quran is a text that fundamentally deals with the basic premise of the ebb and flow of life (this doesn’t mean every detail, for if the Quran dealt with every detail, it would have been obsolete outside of its 7th century, Arab context very quickly). Figuring out the details of life is the obligation of Muslims in each society and culture and at each epoch. In fact, the word, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) literally means “understanding” as in putting forth the effort to come to some understanding, which according to the verbal structure of the word (faqiha), also indicates an ongoing action and not something static or complete. And it also implies one singular fiqh (understanding) among others. So, different understandings of Islamic practice is key, as in the saying “al-ikhtilaaf fi ummati rahma” (differences of opinion in my umma is a divine mercy). When you read how the Muslims developed different kinds of legal decisions and theological determinations for a huge range of conditions throughout the ages, it becomes clear that there is certainly a fard kifaaya (social or communal obligation and not just the fard `ain or personal obligation related to the five pillars). This requires each Muslim community to understand their environment and devise the best Islamic and social practices in response to that environment. This is the reason there is a different hukm (religious judgment or decision) in the form of hukm juzi’ (or partial judgment) that will differ from one Muslim community to another during the same period. Even when we study the social context of the four Sunni schools (not to exclude Ja`fari) of jurisprudence [usul al-figh], we see how their social conditions forced each one to understand Islamic practice in light of particular sociocultural or political experiences, particularly for Imam al-Shafi’i, who traveled most widely and, thus, gathered his own understandings or interpretations.

    Now, as our dear sister, Margari Aziza, already eloquently stated days ago, the Quran draws our attention to not only the fact that Allah created so-called “tribes” and “nations” that are not to be merely ignored (and the fact that the Quraysh as a tribe, like any other “ethnic,” “racial,” or “national” group, was not denounced in the Quran as an illegitimate group, but what was denounced was tribal arrogance, injustice and violence, which would apply to even an arrogant or violent Muslim). The ethnic or “tribal” differences were created according the book of Allah so we might know each other (lita`aarafu). Now, we definitely understand race to be a social construction or not biologically legitimate but all other groups including “tribes” or “nations” are likewise socially created. Still, the Quran mentions them because they are real in their social consequences. That is, they are a reality that Muslims are encouraged to “understand.” And how are we to “lita`arafu,” (know them), as the Quran states, if we don’t talk about their construction, formation and relationship to other realities and our social worlds?

    To be honest, this issue is so very clearly spelled out in our textual sources and in the vast materials of Islamic history. Take, for example, the medieval and Arab Muslim scholar al-Jahiz (776-869), who was born in Basra as Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri. He wrote books on Islamic theology, biology, zoology, Arabic literature, etc and a very important book on race examining blackness and whiteness during his time in the 8th and 9th century. I just wish Muslims today would study, I mean really study, their own literary and religious sources, particularly including and BEYOND the first 23 years of Islam. There is almost 1,500 years of Muslim histories (plural not singular) and materials that we don’t even talk about, read, or know. And this history reveals a great deal about how Muslims have already dealt with these issues over time and in a variety of ways.

    This is a great discussion and real learning moment!

    May Allah guide us!

    Abu Hamza

  22. The term Sharif (nobleman) or Sayyid is used to describe a descendant of the Prophet Mohamed (SAWS) through his daughter Fatima (RAA). They are descendants of Al Hasan and Al Husein- the two sons of Ali ibn Abi Talib (RAA) and Fatima the daughter of the Prophet Mohamed (SAWS). The Prophet Mohamed (SAWS) and Ali ibn Abi Talib (RAA) are from the Bani Hashim branch of the tribe of Quraish. They are the noblest of the Arabs. The Prophet Mohamed (SAWS) and Ali ibn Abi Talib (RAA) were first cousins. Ali’s father, Abi Talib, was the brother of the Prophet’s (SAWS) father. Once it has been established that the Bani Hashim were a black-skinned people, there should be no need to prove that the pure Arabs of the past were, in general, a black-skinned people.

    Read more:

  23. I think if you are a black minority in islam you will suffer more,somalis arabs and black muslims are all different in as much as they all feel they are all muslims,I live in Kenya and trust me very few muslims like somalis consider other muslims specifically black muslims apart from arabs to be their brothers and sisters.Most muslims are therefore racist and nationalistic.If you dont come from a big race or you are a black reverteee their is no greater challenge than that,trust me.Im a revertee and honestly speaking my social life is very difficult because of this issues.Find myself really isolated.If i go to my people they are not muslims so you end up stagnating.

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