As the level of racially-charged exclusionary politics grows throughout the Western world, Muslims will have to contribute to the developing discourse to counter this problem. Doing so will require a plunge into the murky waters of racial politics. We should not shy away from the challenge. We readily acknowledge that Islam opposes all forms of racism and bigotry. However, sometimes we deny the need for any involvement in a racially defined political arena fearing that by involving ourselves on such a basis, we are somehow implicitly legitimising racial distinctions.

Racial and ethnic distinctions are real, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. One of the greatest factors working to perpetuate the negative manifestations of such distinctions lies in a failure to acknowledge their existence. By failing to acknowledge the existence of a problem, we are robbed of any realistic basis to help eradicate it.

Such denial was not the way of our Prophet. He acknowledged the reality of racial prejudice and took concrete steps to eliminate it. For example, a companion insulted Bilal, one of the first appointed muezzins (callers to prayer), by derisively referring to him as the “son of a black woman.” The Prophet rebuked that companion by reminding him that his attitude displayed the influences of pre-Islamic incivility.

The Prophet took concrete measures to insure that social practices that displayed racist attitudes were broken down by public policy. One of the largely unmentioned examples is his active work to undermine the stigma that many aristocratic Arabs in his time attached to marrying black men: he ordered several Arab families to allow the marriage of their daughters to black companions.

Zayd ibn Haritha, the beloved companion, is described by Ibn Jawzi in his work Tanwir al-Ghabash, as being of very dark complexion. The Prophet ordered the family of Zaynab bint Jahsh to marry her to Zayd. Perhaps Zayd’s dark complexion was one of the reasons for the well-known resistance of Zaynab’s family to the marriage. Another marriage of this type involved Julaybib, a black companion. The Prophet asked an Ansar family to marry their daughter to Julaybib. The mother vehemently refused. However, the daughter, owing to her piety insisted that the marriage proceed. The couple would go on to enjoy a happy and blessed union.

An especially moving story, in this regard, involved a companion known as S’ad al-Aswad. Sa’d was a black man of pure Arab lineage from Bani Sulaym. He came to the Prophet and asked him if his dark complexion would prevent him from entering Paradise. The Prophet responded that it would not, as long as he was mindful of his Lord and believed in Him. Sa’d immediately accepted Islam. Sa’d later complained to the Prophet that he had searched persistently for a wife, but had been rejected because of his dark complexion. The Prophet sent Sa’d to marry the daughter of ‘Amr bin Wahhab, a recent convert from Bani Thaqif who retained many pre-Islamic prejudices.

Sa’d went to ‘Amr’s door and informed him that the Prophet asked that he marry his daughter to him. ‘Amr flatly refused. His daughter, overhearing the conversation between her father and the stranger, interceded telling her father to relent lest he be disgraced by Revelation. ‘Amr went to the Prophet and was strongly rebuked for refusing Sa’d. Hearing this, ‘Amr promptly married his daughter to him.

Shortly after, as Sa’d was in the market purchasing provisions for his new wife, he heard a caller rallying the faithful for a military campaign. He decided to first answer this call and purchased arms and a steed to set out for the battlefield, where he fought valiantly until he was slain. Learning of his death, the Prophet went to his body and placed his head in his lap until his grave was prepared. He then ordered that his arms and mount be sent to his wife’s family.

As we can see from these brief examples, the blessed Prophet acknowledged race and its implications in society. He then took steps to reform society to be less accommodating to racially-based prejudices and attitudes. This must be part of our duty as citizens in the West. We cannot sit silently aside as political forces organise themselves along racial lines and attempt to implement policies that are essentially racist, even though many of them are framed in anti-Muslim language. Those policies will have devastating consequences not only for Muslims, but for all racial and ethnic minorities. For example, here in the US, the most draconian measures of the Patriot Act have been enacted to ostensibly fight “Muslim” terrorism. However, it is the Latin American community that has suffered most severely as a result of the arbitrary arrests, summary detentions and deportations that those policies facilitate.

At a deeper level, the rise in racist politics and policies in Western democracies not only threaten racial minorities, it threatens the very nature of our countries. A monumental and heroic struggle has been waged in the West to create open societies that extend civil and human rights to all. This struggle was especially significant in the US which has had large numbers of non-white people among its population since its inception - the native Indians and the imported African slaves.

Because of that struggle, we have moved closer to societies - to paraphrase the words of the great American civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. - where people are judged based on the content of their character and not on the colour of their skin.

The full realisation of Dr King’s dream is now threatened. Those voices that continue to advocate the politics of inclusion are drowned out by those calling for the politics of exclusion. Those voices calling for co-operation and understanding are marginalised by the advocates of conflict and obscurantism.

Muslims must become a part of this raging discourse. We have to break free from the chains many of us have imposed on ourselves through self-censorship and a lack of self-confidence. When we censor ourselves, we assume that if we remain silent all of the controversies currently involving Islam and Muslims will simply go away. They will not. When we lack confidence in ourselves we assume we have nothing meaningful to contribute to the conversation. There is indeed much we can contribute as individuals and as
a community.

Ultimately, and ironically, in light of the growing negativity surrounding Islam and Muslims here in the West, Islam can help to create a social consciousness that works against a re-entrenchment of racist or white supremacist politics. The power of Islam to create such a social consciousness was grasped by Malcolm X, during his Pilgrimage to Makkah. From there he penned the following words: “During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or 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 blonde, and whose skins were the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among 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.”

This optimism that society could be reformed, which Islam kindled in Malcolm X, can be contrasted to the pessimism that seized Dr King after a lifetime of struggle in the arena of civil rights. He would conclude shortly before his assassination, “Yet the largest portion of white America is still poisoned by racism, which is as native to our soil as pine trees, sagebrush, and buffalo grass.”

Let us follow the lead of Malcolm X. Let us believe that Islam can indeed help to repulse the rising racism that threatens the future of these western lands most of us call home. Let us then work to translate that belief into effective action. Let us rid our own lives of any vestiges of racialised thinking and racist actions. Let us open our hearts to our neighbours and fellow citizens who may be of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Let us join or work to help build coalitions that work towards the advancement of ideals that foster peace, reconciliation and harmony in our societies. Now is our time. Let us seize it!

By Imam Zaid Shakir on 12 July 2011