“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.”
In his last sermon, delivered shortly before his death, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) delivered these legendary, visionary, egalitarian words to his followers. In urging his audience to “take these words to those who could not be present here today,” the Prophet (SAW) was reinforcing for eternity the fundamental tenet that racism should have no place, ever, in Islam.
Yet, is this the reality in today’s Ummah? Do Black sisters and brothers enjoy equal footing amongst their white and Other counterparts? Are the bonds between us truly colour blind, or have we forgotten the words of our Prophet (SAW), relying instead on cultural beliefs, stereotypes and un-Islamic standards?
To find some of these answers on a local level, I spoke with three African American Muslimahs from the United States. Admittedly, their homeland – my homeland – is notorious for its racial strife. With its long and tragic history of slavery, prejudice, inequality and nearly two centuries of government-sanctioned racial discrimination, the US has never been a utopia for those with dark skin. Even the briefest glance at recent news stories confirms that racial tension continues to be a major problem in this nation. But surely, I thought optimistically, Black Americans don’t encounter racism in the Muslim community?
Sadly, my optimism was unfounded. I was unaware of the deep-seated bigotry in our Ummah because I hadn’t experienced it myself and hadn’t – until now – bothered to ask about it. Listening to these three sisters’ experiences was life-changing for me. I have known them for over a decade, and yet I had never heard their reflections on racism. Only when I asked direct questions did they share their experiences and challenges with me. Although they spoke matter-of-factly and without a trace of self-pity, their stories made me weep. How far we have strayed from our Prophet’s (SAW) advice! How disappointed he (SAW) would be, surely, to see the way some of us treat our fellow Muslims!
Victoria Caldwell, Founder of Barakah Biz Network and Host of the “From Ordinary to Extraordinary” podcast, gave me my first shock when she confided, “I lived in South Carolina and attended a prestigious, predominantly white university with hardly any Black people. There were some clueless, naive people and some racist people, but I didn’t experience as much racism there as I have in the Muslim community.”
“Over time,” agrees Monica Boddie, Creator of ‘Your Full & Happy Life Rocks!’ at YourFullHappyLifeRocks.com, “I’ve seen manifestations of racism in the Muslim community from the minor to the more disturbing.”
Why does racism persist in our Ummah, despite the unequivocal Islamic stance against it? “It’s ingrained in people in most parts of the world that Black people are inferior,” explains Victoria. “White skin is the Holy Grail. Most Muslims will admit that valuing light skin is a problem in their culture. There is a stigma in many cultures, for instance, against marrying a black-skinned person, and few are brave enough to defy the taboo. Also, you see that white converts are put on a pedestal, but Black converts don’t receive the same enthusiastic welcome.”
Monica, too, has observed prejudice among certain sectors of the Muslim community. “From the very beginning,” she says, “I noticed tensions with the Desi, or ‘Indo-Paks’ as they were referred to, who were seen as highly racist. It was typical for Desi Muslims to call us “aabid” (servants or slaves) to our faces, even though we are all servants of Allah in Islam and despite the extra sensitivity African Americans have to the term ‘slavery,’ given the painful histories of many of our ancestors in this country.”
With the Arab community, there were other issues. Monica elaborates, “What I’ve observed is a blind spot; it as if the current Arab culture is the definition of Islam and, surely, we African Americans have to adapt to that, with any of our ways being suspect. The point is made in subtle ways. In planning masjid events for example, the sisters never want the African American sisters to cook, as if any of our several American regional cuisines are not good enough. We are eagerly put on other duties, however… like cleaning.”
When Black sisters speak up about racism, does anyone listen? “Some privileged white Muslim Americans insist that racism doesn’t exist in the Muslim community,” asserts Victoria. “Converts who have never experienced it themselves know that racism exists in America because they see it, but when they come into the Muslim community, they learn Islam from a beautiful, idyllic point of view, so they don’t see the other dark side of cultural racism. They’re not experiencing the racism if they are white, so they live in la-la land forever, unless they witness it with their own eyes. Dark-skinned converts see the racism all the time, the second we walk into the door of the masjid.”
“It always makes me laugh,” adds Jenna Solorio, a business owner, wife and mum from Southern California, “to hear non-African American people talk about the racism our people have endured, but when we try and talk about the racism we are currently enduring, then the behaviour is excused, or we are accused of holding on to a ‘victim mentality.'”
Many Muslim leaders in the US like to draw a parallel between African Americans’ struggle for equality and the challenges that are faced by Muslim Americans today. “Is this a fair comparison?” I asked my three sisters.
“No,” insists Jenna, “because as African Americans we do not know where we come from, our native language, or our history. My children are half African American and half Mexican, and half of my children’s history starts on a slave ship. All they know of their ancestors is that they picked cotton and were sold in chains. Those who are not African American have a rich history that they can pull from and we don’t, so of course our struggles will be different as we fight to be accepted in the only place we know.”
“This is not a fair comparison for several reasons,” supplements Victoria. “One, I don’t think most of the people who say that have a lot of contact with African Americans to begin with. They base their statements on what they’ve seen in the media, or what they’ve heard, or what they’ve experienced in their own culture. If they did have contact with African Americans, I don’t think they’d make that comparison.”
So what can concerned Muslims do to help eradicate racism? “When a person tells you about the injustice they have experienced due to prejudice, please work to learn more about it, validate what they are going through, do not excuse the offence, and do not accuse them of having a victim mentality,” advises Jenna.
“Before you deliver a khutba or put on a programme about racism,” adds Victoria, “at the very least consult with some African Americans before the event. And have some African Americans on the panel!”
“Our brothers and sisters in Islam can first of all acknowledge the differential treatment that occurs in our community specifically because of our ancestry and social status here,” suggests Monica. “What needs to be collectively admitted is that when immigrants come to this country, they are trying to carve out and secure their place and rank in society. Nobody wants to be at the bottom of the social totem pole, inside or outside of the masjid. So we must be vigilant, all of us, and call out those situations where we see this happening.”
Victoria offered a final, powerful insight. “If you are white, you can technically hide your Islam,” she says. “You can remove your scarf if you want. You have an escape if you are that insecure about yourself. We have black skin underneath our hijab. We can’t change it or hide it. African Americans are fighting two battles: the struggle of being Black and the struggle of being visible Muslims.”
However, even with all the obstacles, Victoria is pragmatic. “We all have the responsibility to be a part of the solution to whatever hardships we face,” she says. “If the Muslim community at large is concerned with racism, then every Muslim has a responsibility to contribute to the solution. Everybody has their struggle and their test,” she concludes. “There is no suffering that Allah is not going to reward.”
Laura El Alam dreamed of being a writer since the age of twelve. She never imagined she would be the mother of five and a Muslim, too, but has embraced her roles with gratitude, and often with enthusiasm, and frequently with exhaustion – and sometimes even with exuberance. She, her husband, and their lively children reside in Southern California.