In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Racism is a destructive ideology that is responsible for innumerable evils throughout the history of humanity. At one time or another, it has invaded every nation, every culture, and every religious tradition in every era. It can be rationalized by its adherents in many ways, yet it always results in oppression against its victims and divine punishment for its practitioners.
Allah created humans differently as a means for us to recognize and benefit from one another:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ
O people, We have created you male and female and made you into peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.
Surat Al-Hujurat 49:13
In fact, modern world civilization is the culmination of contributions from people of every race, geography, and tradition. The great diversity among humankind was part of the divine plan all along, as Allah said:
وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّلْعَالِمِينَ
Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Verily, in that are signs for those with knowledge.
Surat Ar-Rum 30:22
The only criteria that makes some people better than others is good deeds; not race, lineage, wealth, status, or anything else. If we cut ourselves off from other people simply because of who they are or where they come from, then we will lose the blessings of mutual cooperation that Allah has encouraged.
Hence, Islam emphatically rejects all forms of racism and bigotry, seeing as it is the constant temptation of arrogance for people to view themselves as superior to others. Arrogance was the original sin that caused Satan to disobey Allah, when he refused to bow to Adam and he said:
أَنَا خَيْرٌ مِّنْهُ
I am better than him.
Surat Al-A’raf 7:12
Because the tendency to indulge this primordial sin exists in every person, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, warned us about its racist manifestation in his final sermon:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ أَلَا إِنَّ رَبَّكُمْ وَاحِدٌ وَإِنَّ أَبَاكُمْ وَاحِدٌ أَلَا لَا فَضْلَ لِعَرَبِيٍّ عَلَى أَعْجَمِيٍّ وَلَا لِعَجَمِيٍّ عَلَى عَرَبِيٍّ وَلَا لِأَحْمَرَ عَلَى أَسْوَدَ وَلَا أَسْوَدَ عَلَى أَحْمَرَ إِلَّا بِالتَّقْوَى أَبَلَّغْتُ
O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness. Have I not delivered the message?
Just as Allah is one, so is the human family one. This is the oneness of humankind; all of us are brothers and sisters in this sense.
Historically, racism used to justify itself by reference to theories of inherent racial superiority, based upon an interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution combined with eugenics. If one race was more evolved than others, then it was only natural and even divinely-ordained for the superior race to dominate, or so it was believed. These ideologies underpinned the colonial enterprises that sought to subjugate allegedly inferior races to the ambitions of empire.
Today, this biological racism has largely fallen out of favor due to the scientific consensus that states there is no meaningful difference between human races, nor even such a thing as race at all, as well as the hard won gains of civil rights movements. All human beings descend from Adam and Eve, thus all human beings can connect with each other at this most basic level.
Even still, the world is pervaded with racist behavior and its consequent injustice and instability. If biological racism is a relic of the past, then what is driving racism in the modern world? Racism is no longer justified in biological terms, but rather as a matter of culture. This is known as cultural racism.
Races used to be viewed as inherent, unchanging, and destined to define the worth of a human being. Now it is culture (or religion) that is viewed as inherent, unchanging, and destined to define the worth of a human being. The truth is that cultures and religions are fluid and changing systems, influencing, being influenced, and adapting to those around them. There is no such thing as a singular “Islamic” culture or “Western” culture, but rather it is more accurate to speak of Islamic and Western “cultures” in the plural.
At the end of the day, racism is not defined by the ideology that justifies it, but rather by racist practice. The inferior out-group in the racist paradigm is subject to arbitrary discrimination, prejudice, hostility, and disenfranchisement. Racists will draw up a cartoon-like caricature of their victims, a false straw man defined by only the worst characteristics whom they can knock down in their arguments.
Islam teaches us to reject such characterizations of people that exaggerate their flaws and ignore their positive traits. Speaking about the people of the Book, Allah said:
لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً ۗ مِّنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُسَارِعُونَ فِي الْخَيْرَاتِ وَأُولَٰئِكَ مِنَ الصَّالِحِينَ وَمَا يَفْعَلُوا مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَلَن يُكْفَرُوهُ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِالْمُتَّقِينَ
They are not all the same. Among the people of the Book is a community standing in obedience, reciting the verses of Allah during the night and prostrating in prayer. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to do good deeds. Those are among the righteous. Whatever good deeds they do will never be denied, for Allah knows well the righteous.
Surat Ali Imran 3:113-115
Even as the Quran criticized some Jews and Christians, it also praised the good traits of people among them. This balanced attitude in Islam lead El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, known as Malcolm X, to reject any blanket indictments.
Malcolm experienced a lifetime of racist abuse by white people, resulting in his activism for a radical Black Nationalist movement that viewed white people as intrinsically evil. It was only after his journey to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage that he was convinced of the injustice of these stereotypes:
The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.
X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Penguin Books, 2001. p. 479.
The same principle holds true for any group of people: Muslims, Christians, Jews, blacks, whites, and so on. A blanket indictment of an entire demographic group is a form of collective punishment, a war crime and a blatant wrong. It is never fair to compare “our” best deeds to “their” worst deeds.
Since classical racism can no longer be sustained intellectually, the new racists attempt to justify their supremacism by the theory of the clash of civilizations. What used to be a supposed inevitable clash of races is now expressed in the terminology of culture and religion, but the results are the same: oppression, subjugation, and war.
We need to investigate the common paradigm underlying the ideologies of all racist groups. When we do so, we will find that all of them are motivated by what the Prophet described as tribalism:
مِنَ الْعَصَبِيَّةِ أَنْ يُعِينَ الرَّجُلُ قَوْمَهُ عَلَى الظُّلْمِ
Tribalsim is for a man to support his people in wrongdoing.
Tribalism is the real root of this evil, a callous disregard for the human rights of others, and people arrive at this behavior from a number of angles: race, culture, religion, class, ideology, politics, and so on. This is why all extremist groups share similar characteristics regardless of their beliefs, from extremist Islamist terrorists, to the Christian Ku Klux Klan, to the Jewish Kahane Chai, to the Marxist Red Brigades.
Yet, the potential to devolve into racist and tribalist paradigms exists within all of us. Each of us has the capacity to be consumed by arrogance, hatred, and a rejection of Allah’s planned diversity. It is something we need to oppose not only in society “out there,” but even more so within our own souls. The battle against injustice is just as much internal as it is external.
As Muslims, we must develop a spiritual anti-racist paradigm to act as a counter narrative and an enlightened alternative to all the racist groups in the world today. We unconditionally reject discrimination, prejudice, demonization, stereotypes, xenophobia, supremacism, and bigotry against any person no matter who they are. Our paradigm can be a template not only for us but for all people, as its universal appeal can easily be transferred to other belief systems and social contexts. It can be our great contribution to humanity in the 21st century, a gift from the heart of Islam to a suffering world in urgent need of a paradigm shift.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.