Recently, there has been much coverage in the media about racism in the UK. This follows the revelations concerning Azeem Rafiq and Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Rafiq mentioned that, while he was employed by the Club as a cricketer, he faced “inhuman” racist treatment and that the “P word” was used constantly. His view was that English cricket was “institutionally” racist. Some in the media have compared this case with that of the Metropolitan Police, which was also found to be institutionally racist by the Macpherson report in 1999. And others have commented that the abuse suffered by Azeem Rafiq reveals a latent racism which is much more widespread in the UK than was previously thought.
A valid question, relevant to this blog, is whether such racism would be tolerated in a society ruled by Islam. And how did the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ deal with bigotry?
According to the BBC’s Bitesize website:
“Islam first spread throughout the Middle East absorbing different nationalities, customs, classes and religions. Later, it spread through Asia, India, Africa and the Balkans. Prejudice and discrimination were not common in Muslim societies due to the diversity of their inhabitants. This tradition of tolerance is reflected in the teachings of Islam.”
So what are these teachings? How do they relate to race, racism and antisemitism?
The Qur’an states:
“Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may come to know each other. The noblest among you in Allah’s sight is the one with the most taqwa [God-consciousness]. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.”[49:13]
Thus Allah is telling us that we are all equal in humanity, regardless of our racial background. And that we will be judged by Him according to merit, not race.
“And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. Surely in this are signs for those of [sound] knowledge.”[30:22]
In his last sermon, which is widely reported in the books of hadith, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ emphasised a similar message regarding race and colour:
“All mankind is from Adam and Hawa [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.”
And it is related elsewhere:
“Verily, Allah Almighty created Adam from a handful which He took from the earth, so the children of Adam come in accordance with the earth. Some come with red skin, white skin, or black skin, and whatever is in between…”[Sunan al-Tirmidhi #2955 (graded sahih [authentic])]
The Prophet strongly condemned ‘asabiyyah (tribalism and nationalism) and those who promote it:
“He is not one of us who calls to ‘asabiyyah. He is not one of us who fights for the sake of ‘asabiyyah. He is not one of us who dies following the way of ‘asabiyyah.”[Sunan Abu Dawud #5102 (graded sahih)]
So how did the Prophet ﷺ deal with racism when he encountered it? Did he overlook and ignore it, as the staff and players of Yorkshire County Cricket Club did when they witnessed the appalling treatment of Azeem Rafiq? The answer is an emphatic ‘No.’
Abu Umamah reports:[Al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, #4760 (graded sahih)]
Abu Dharr reproached Bilal about his mother, saying, “O son of a black woman!” Bilal went to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and he told him what he said. The Prophet became angry and then Abu Dharr came, although he was unaware of what Bilal told him. The Prophet turned away from him and Abu Dharr asked, “O Messenger of Allah, have you turned away because of something you have been told?” The Prophet said: “Have you reproached Bilal about his mother? By the one who revealed the Book to Muhammad, none is more virtuous over another except by righteous deeds. You have none but an insignificant amount.”
Abu Hurairah narrates:[Ibn Rahawaih]
“Two people swore at each other once, and one of them insulted the other by ridiculing his mother. This reached the Prophet ﷺ, and he called the man and said: ‘Did you scoff at his mother?’ and he kept repeating it. The man said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, ask Allah to forgive me.’ He said to him: ‘Raise your head and look about, you are not better than any individual regardless whether he is of a red or black skin colour. No one is better than the other except through piety.’”
The colour-blind attitude of Muslims who followed these anti-racist teachings is exemplified by an anecdote from the rule of the second Caliph ‘Umar:
When Muslims conquered Egypt and advanced to the Fort of Bablion, Muqauqis the ruler of Egypt sent a delegation to speak to Muslims to find out what they wanted. He also expressed a desire to receive a delegation of Muslims. Therefore ‘Amr bin al ‘As sent a delegation comprising ten people. This delegation was led by ‘Ubada ibn Samit, and he alone was authorized to talk to Muqauqis.
‘Ubada was tall and very black, and when the delegation approached Muqauqis to speak to him, he was struck by his appearance alone, and said to the members of the delegation, “Keep this black person away from me, and bring forward somebody else to speak to me.” The members of the delegation unanimously said to him, “He is superior to us in intellect, knowledge, opinion, insight and in every other way. He is our leader. We all turn to him for his opinion and advice. Moreover, our governor has given him some particular instructions, and he has ordered us not to go against him in any matter whatsoever.”
At this, Muqauqis said to the delegation, “How could you agree to make him your leader and superior, whereas he ought to have been your subordinate?” To this the delegation replied, “No, despite the fact that you see him as black, he is the best among us in knowledge, in nobility, in intellect and opinion, and we do not look down upon the black man.” Muqauqis said to ‘Ubada, “Come forward, O black [man] and speak to me gently, for I fear your colour, and if you were to talk to me in a harsh tone, my distress shall be all the greater.” ‘Ubada, noticing Muqauqis’ fear of black people, said, “We have in our army a thousand people darker than me.”[Dr. Mustafa Siba‘i, The Islamic Civilization, Awakening Publications, Swansea, 2002, pp. 67-68]
Does Islam teach hatred of Jews?
While criticism of Israel by Muslims is often conflated with antisemitism, a minority are indeed guilty of racism. However, the Prophet ﷺ is on record as denouncing anti-Jewish bigotry when he came across it.
Anas ibn Malik reported: Safiyyah heard that Hafsa referred to her as, “Daughter of a Jew!” So Safiyyah started crying. The Prophet ﷺ entered while she was crying and he said, “What makes you cry?” Safiyyah said, “Hafsa said about me that I am a daughter of Jew.” The Prophet said, “Verily, you are the daughter of a prophet [Harun/Aaron], your uncle is a prophet [Musa/Moses], and you are married to a prophet [Muhammad], so how can she boast over you?” Then the Prophet said, “Fear Allah, O Hafsa!”[Sunan al-Tirmidhi #3894 (graded sahih)]
Ibn Kathir relates another incident involving Safiyyah.
Once the Prophet ﷺ was accompanied on a journey by Safiyyah and Zaynab bint Jahsh when Safiyya’ s camel went lame. Zaynab had an extra camel and the Prophet asked her if she would give it to Safiyya. Zaynab retorted, “Should I give to that Jewess!” The Prophet turned away from her in anger and would not have anything to do with her for two or three months.
The Prophet’s view of Jews is illustrated by an incident related by Imam Muslim:
It is narrated on the authority of Ibn Abi Layla that while Qays bin Sa‘d and Sahl bin Hunayf were both in Qadisiyyah, a funeral procession passed by them and then and they both stood up. They were told that it was a funeral procession of one of the people of the land (who were non-Muslim). They said that a funeral procession passed before the Prophet ﷺ and he stood up. He was told that he (the dead man) was a Jew. Upon hearing this, he ﷺ remarked: “Was he not a human being, or did he not have a soul?”[Sahih Muslim #961]
The benevolence of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ towards Jews was also proven when he took charge as the ruler of Yathrib in the first ever Islamic State, and drew up what is now known as the ‘Charter of Medina’. Ibn Hisham relates from Ibn Ishaq:
“The Messenger of Allah [ﷺ] wrote a document (stipulating the relationship) between the Muhajirun [Emigrants] and the Ansar [Helpers] in which he made a peace with the Jews and pledged himself to them that they will be established in security regarding their religion, wealth and property.”[Ibn Hisham, Sira, Vol. I, p. 501. For more detail about this document, please click here]
And in the Caliphate which came after the Prophet, the Jews were similarly treated with fairness and justice. One example is from the time of the fourth Caliph ‘Ali.
Al-Suyuti relates that Caliph ‘Ali had noticed that a coat of armour that belonged to him had gone missing, and he observed that it had come into the possession of a Jewish man. When the Caliph said the armour belonged to him and that he had not sold it or given it away, the Jewish man insisted it belonged to him. ‘Ali’s response, as the powerful ruler of the Islamic State, was quite astonishing. He asked for the judge, Qadi Shurayh, to decide who the rightful owner of the coat of armour was. When Shurayh ruled in the Jewish man’s favour, he was amazed. The Jew said, “The Amir of the Believers brought me before his judge, and his judge gave judgement against him. I witness that this is the Truth, and I witness that there is no god but Allah and I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and that the armour is your armour.”
[Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa’, cf. partial English translation by Abdassamad Clarke, Ta-Ha Publishers, 1995, pp. 204-205]
Another, much later, example is from the time of the Ottoman Caliphate:
“Sultan Bayazid II sent his Ottoman (Turkish) flotilla to Spain in 1492 in order to rescue the Jews that were being expelled as well as the Muslims. He then granted them permission to settle in the Ottoman Empire, become Ottoman citizens and become of service to the Empire wherever possible. He ridiculed the behaviour of the Spanish rulers (Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile) by pointing out the absurdity of deporting people that were of such great benefit to their country. He said: ‘You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler … he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine,’ as we read in the ‘Jewish Encyclopedia’ by Singer.”[Joram van Klaveren, Apostate: From Christianity to Islam in times of secularisation and terror, ’t Kennishuys and Sunni Publications, Den Haag and Rotterdam, 2019, p. 135]
[More on how the Ottomans treated Jews can be viewed here]
Malcolm X [Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz] on Islam and Universal Brotherhood
To conclude this article and further exemplify the stance of Islam towards race, there follows an excerpt from the letter Malcolm X sent when he was in Mecca while he was performing the Hajj (pilgrimage):
“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colours and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colours.
I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca, I have made my seven circuits around the Ka‘ba, led by a young Mutawaf named Muhammad, I drank water from the well of the Zam Zam. I ran seven times back and forth between the hills of Mt. Al-Safa and Al Marwah. I have prayed in the ancient city of Mina, and I have prayed on Mt. Arafat.
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colours, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour.
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.
We were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behaviour, and the white from their attitude.
I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man – and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in colour.”[Excerpted from The Autobiography of Malcolm X]