Like many converts, I was drawn to Islam’s egalitarian message. Through Muslim student groups on college campuses and community life in various masajid, I developed close friendships with Muslim women from all parts of the world. We were brought together by our mutual love for Allah and His Messenger. The bonds that I developed with some of them gave me a sense of real belonging and acceptance that I had not felt with my high school friends and even member of my own family. But there were also times when those cross cultural encounters brought to light some unsettling realities of racism and colorism. But by addressing our shortcomings we can meet the challenge and create communities that are more closely aligned with the example set by our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
Although language and cultural differences can create challenges to forming social bonds, perceptions of race and ethnic identity can have the greatest impact on how well some women are received by a community. When asked how her ethnic identity influenced her integration into the Muslim community, Keziah. S. Ridgeway, an African American high School Social Studies teacher, responded that her outgoing personality helped bridge the cultural divide. She noted, “however, as time wore on I did realize that many of the people that I hung out with had biases towards people who looked like myself.” Safiyyah, a white American convert, said that her ethnicity as an Ashkenazi Jew influenced her integration because some Muslims were suspicious of her and others denied her cultural identity. She added that by extension of her African American husband, she has experienced discrimination. “We rarely get invited to the homes of immigrant Muslims. This is despite the fact that the Muslims in our mosque know us very well, and that my husband and I are active in our mosque.” Some argue that this is old world thinking and they place their hopes on the next generation.
In many Islamic schools, students socialize along racial lines, repeating the social patterns of their own racially segregated Muslim communities. The language that many of the Arab American students use alienates a number of African American students. Kezia highlighted the common usage of the word abeed (Arabic for slave) to refer to African Americans. She said, “their parents use it on a regular basis to describe African Americans. To them it’s just a cultural term and many don’t understand why it evokes anger from their Black counterparts.” In a Michigan school, when two weekend school teachers disciplined a child for using the term, the parents came to the child’s defense. Islamic schools are often a crucible for race relations in our ummah.
The sad reality in our Islamic schools and segregated communities contrasts with the egalitarian message that we find in the Qur’an, which says:
“O Humankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into peoples (shu‘ub) and tribes (qaba’il) that you may know one another; truly, the noblest (akram) among you before God are the most pious (atqa) among yourselves; indeed, is God the All-knowing, the All-seeing.” (49:13).
The Prophet (PBUH) said during his farewell pilgrimage:
Oh humankind, your Lord is one and your ancestors are one. You are from Adam and Adam was from dust. Behold, neither the Arab has superiority to the non-Arab, nor the red to the black nor the black to the red except by virtue of piety (taqwa). Truly the most distinguished amongst you is the most pious
Yet, Muslims old and young are often stereotyped and categorized by their ethnic background and color of their skin.
Some have argued that the colorism and racism we find in the Muslim ummah is due to colonization. Yet, we can find even in classical Islamic literature racial hierarchies. Ibn Khaldun wrote disparaging of sub-Saharan Africans as lacking intellect. A famed Andalusian poetess, Hafsah Ar-Rukaniyyah (1190-1191) asked Abu Jaffar how could he love a Black woman, ”Who is altogether like the night, which hides beauty/ And with darkness obscures the radiance of a face?” In the chapter on marriage in the Revival of the Religious Sciences, Imam Ghazali wrote, “a black woman is better than a barren beautiful women,” implying that black women cannot be beautiful. Blacks were assumed to not have status in Arab society. This was reflected in some classical positions where a man could marry a black woman as a guardian. Their documentation points to how Muslims fall short of our ideals. Blind acceptance of social norms and customs perpetuate ignorance and bias. Ethnic chauvinism leads to arrogance and robs us of our ability to see the inherent value and beauty of each human being.
Like racism, colorism is a blight in our community. I found the traces of colorism in my students’ creative writing projects as they wrote about protagonists with skin as white as milk. Dark skin has been looked down upon in many Muslim societies through the ages. And now, there is a huge market playing into fears and insecurities. Some halal and international markets in the US are stocked with bleaching cream. There are young girls who fear playing outside lest they become black and ugly. Girls and women with curly and kinky hair struggle with issues of self worth and shame because they can’t tame their curls into submission. The standard of beauty is centered around pale skin and straight hair, with as European features as possible. An international student from the Gulf suggested that I pinch my daughter’s nose to make it grow straight and pointy. She recently expressed a desire to have work done on her own nose. The frequent comments about my daughter’s fair complexion and the Muslim obsession with European features makes me shudder to think about what type of self image will my curly haired, button nosed daughter have in the Muslim community. While living in abroad, one friend said that in the West there are many types of beauty, but in Egyptian society there was one standard. It worries me that we use veiled rhetoric about liberating ourselves from western standards of beauty with hijab, all the while embracing notions of beauty that are just as oppressive, if not more. The beauty regime of whitening and straightening continues even as the society becomes more outwardly religious.
Challenging beauty norms or patterns of racism in our community can seem daunting for the individual. Muslim womanSafiyyah said to “Remember all the Qur’an and ahadith that speaks out against racism” and “defend victims of racism when it occurs.” Citing the example of the “We’re All Abeed of Allah” campaign, which uses T-shirts and wristbands to deliver their message, Kezia argued that Muslims must unite and form coalitions to change racial perceptions. Her role as an educator, activist, and Muslim fashion blogger places her in a special position to address these changes through education and meaningful dialogue. Both women point the power of women’s voices. We need to speak up and against expressions racism and colorism. The disease of prejudice that plagues our community can be cured if enough of us create a stigma against violating the prophetic example.
You can read the full article and other thoughtful pieces at Sisters Magazine January 2013 edition “All the Colours of the Ummah”
5 thoughts on “Pilgrimage for Life”
There is racism in the masjed and Islamic Schools, but I have also seen Muslim sisters that will not follow someone simply because she is not black. They dislike a sister just because she is Asian, or Arab, or Caucasian…Or I have heard sisters that say they will not listen to a lecture or a piece of advice unless it comes from an African American sister even if the person doing the lecture or giving the advice is a person with sound knowledge. That’s not right either. All in all, if you hear the truth you should follow the truth regardless of who the message is from, as long as it is the truth. And the difference among one another is not in race, but in our piety. I have seen African American sisters bond together and support people when they are wrong just because they are all of the same race. I have also seen that happen in other races as well at the mosque. I have seen African American sisters gang up and pick on other sisters that are not African American. Some of the best Muslim sisters that I know are African American, masha’Allah. Not because of their race, but because of their hearts, their piety, and their willingness to always follow what is right and whoever speaks the truth as Allah says in the Qur’aan. It is only when we leave behind our differences for the sake of Allah — after all — isn’t that even a point of hijab — to help us all be seen as equal — we all wear the same modest clothing and we all line up together to pray together. There are always some strong sisters that will stand up for good regardless of who they are dealing with masha’allah, and that’s how all sisters should strive to be. I agree with the author that there is racism and we should all work together to eliminate it. Locally I know of only a handful of African American sisters that even return a salaam to me in the masjed masha’Allah but I just keep saying my salaam to my sisters in the deen. It’s hard to say anything I try to do will help with racism. No matter how kind I am to the African American sisters in my community, very few are kind back to me. Alhamdulillah I am thankful for those that are kind and are willing to leave behind issues of race to be a sister. I used to cry about it because I felt alone, but then alhamdulillah I decided that since these sisters have been harmed by people when they didn’t deserve it I guess these sister have a right to be mean to me even though I didn’t do anything, right? So I just leave myself to Allah and try to be kind to all my sisters in Islam and help all my sisters in Islam, regardless of who is kind to me, regardless of who invites me, regardless of who is willing to help me, regardless of who is willing to be my sister in Islam back to me.
Walaikum salaam Jamila,
I have heard of things like this happening in some WD communities, which tends to be provincial and suspicious of non-Black Muslims especially in terms of religious authority. However, by and large I see Black American Muslims are willing to follow other women as long as they are knowledgeable and address their realities.
I actually asked some other people from various ethnic groups to describe their experience, but one informant could not provide full disclosure due to her position. Others had not yet responded to my interview inquiry. One part of my article was based on my personal experiences as a Muslim of nearly 20 years. The other part was drawn from interviews. And the important part was a historical consideration of anti-Black racism in the Middle East.
Still, this does not excuse alienating or isolating other Muslim women. That is 100% wrong on their part, as it is your right to have your salaams returned. I think this has to be addressed with the masjid leadership. Honestly,I think that their refusal to return salaams is a sign of their ignorance of the deen, as well as arrogance.
My hope is to document the many experiences that Muslims have of all backgrounds. I would like to explore this topic more fully to examine how ethnic boundaries serve and undermine our communities.
Masha’Allah may Allah reward you for your efforts to hear the voices of all sisters. ❤
throughout human history diversity of all kinds hasn’t been something easily accepted and Muslim societies hasn’t been exceptional unfortunately
however,because of Islamic teachings, racism hasn’t been prevailing factor as it was and still to some extent in some other cultures.
a chief reason for its persistence today is luck of talking about it in all levels as if it were not exist,and this resulted in a wide spread ignorance.
as you mentioned a word abid means simply black in some Arab societies also in some other African societies words with similar meanings used to refer to Africans of certain racial background!
In the end, we shall remember always,that people regardless of their racial,background or skin tone look down on weak ones and worship powerful ones
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