Western culture throughout the centuries has taught fear and contempt of racially and culturally ‘different’ people and in its languages has retained derogatory terms for these ‘others’. By contrast, the history of the Islamic civilization shows little evidence of racism. However, in recent times, some Muslims, under the impress of the Western example, have begun to develop feelings of racial prejudice. Following the retreat of Western imperial powers, Muslims have the opportunity to develop away from Western attitudes and ideologies. God willing, more Muslims will rediscover their Islamic heritage, and racist feelings will be removed from their hearts.
We must remember that in the days before Islam racism and slavery existed, but Islam effectively abolished the inferiority associated with slavery and integrated people of various ethnic origins into a single civilization. Muslims are one ummah and Islam is their culture and allegiance. God says in the Qur’an: Verily this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood (21.92). God has created us different so that we may know and distinguish one another: worth lies not in belonging to this or that nation but in belonging to God, in taqwa or consciousness of Him. Getting on with the differences in creation is a part of the trials of this life, a test of our kindliness and humanity towards those who are ‘other’.
Do you not see that God sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colours. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of colour, and intense black in hue. Similarly, among men, and crawling creatures, and cattle, they are of various colours (35.27-8).
We should rejoice in the variety of mankind and try to learn about the cultures and languages of others. We enjoy fruits of diverse kinds, and take pleasure in the differences in nature, so why not also take pleasure in the differences between peoples?
The Muslim world has never been afflicted with the intense problems which still affect the Western world. There still exist in the US groups of white supremacists who want to bring back racial apartheid and even slavery. Then, besides the problems of race, there are also problems arising from the discrimination of the rich against the poor. However, God does not judge human beings on the basis of their race or nationality or social class, but on the basis of their quality of worship and their actions.
In the first days of Islam, the pagan Arabs practised slavery. Many slaves liked the message of equality and, attracted to the truth of Islam, converted. The behaviour of the first Muslims tells us that they did not uphold racist attitudes. For instance, Abu Bakr rescued Bilal from torture by buying and then freeing him. Bilal was then honoured with the dignity of being appointed to make the call to prayer: he was the first muezzin. God commands in the Qur’an that to express remorse for certain sins a Muslim should emancipate a slave if financially able to do so. If a slave woman bore a child she was immediately considered free. Also, Islamic law provided legal means to enable slaves to purchase their freedom. Islam was thus the first civilization to gradually abolish slavery and, much more important, the attitudes of racial and cultural superiority which, in non-Muslim societies, have kept the descendants of slaves-even after a hundred years of emancipation-in positions of inferiority. In Islamic societies, slaves were considered a part of the household and fully integrated into the community, many attaining positions of great eminence- Harun al-Rashid was the son of a slave.
It is of the highest importance that Muslims should avoid becoming infected by Western ideologies. The Western nations have nowhere created a successful, stable plural society. Even between nations there is not so much peaceful co-existence as a cynical balance of power. Only Islam has ever succeeded in establishing and sustaining a feeling of common humanity among different peoples and cultures. Many verses of the Qur’an and the ahadith of the Prophet, upon him be peace, reiterate that all people are equal. A hadith qudsi related by Abu Dharr al-Ghifari records the words: ‘0 my servants, I have forbidden oppression for Myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another’ (Muslim). In another hadith in the Sahih of Muslim, Abu Huraira related that the Prophet said:
Do not envy one another; do not inflate prices one to another; do not hate one another; do not turn away from one another; and do not undercut one another; but be you, 0 servants of God, brothers. A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim: he neither oppresses him nor does he fail him, he neither lies to him nor does he hold him in contempt. Piety is right here-and he pointed to his breast three times. It is evil enough for a man to hold his brother Muslim in contempt. The whole of a Muslim for another Muslim is inviolable: his blood, his property, and his honour.’
As long as Muslims hold to the Qur’an and Sunna and make these sources a part of their lives, they shall be spared the social evil of this age. But, having practised what they have heard preached, Muslims must have the conviction to commend (by example as well as by word) Islam to others. Unless the Western peoples come to respect Islam and learn from it, they will end up destroying themselves because of their national and cultural separatism. Muslims need to work at getting rid of the racism in the world and promoting brotherhood and peace instead.