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Islamic Perspectives on Race and Diversity
Historically in Islam conversations about pressing social issues have been intrinsic to its identity. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) sought to make many social strides in the Arabian Peninsula during the beginning of his sacred mission, seeking to eradicate the injustices and inequities that were present. Examples included the abolishment of female infanticide and reforming the social position of women. An examination of the socio-political factors in pre-Islamic Arabia demonstrates widespread corruption, which often stemmed from systemic racism and discrimination against minority groups, as well as marginalization of the poor. The Quran coupled with prophetic instructions indicated the steady reforms made by Islamic teachings, particularly in eradicating these social deficits. Similarly, when we look at the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (pbut), we see that they made concerted efforts in their own lives to tackle such social ills. This article highlights Islam’s approach to race and diversity, which the Quran and prophetic teachings emphasize as a critical element of human advancement. Moreover, it describes how we can utilize the wisdom offered to us by the Prophet and his family to drive reform in our own communities.
Why Did God Make Us Different?
A common question that theologians and philosophers pondered is why God created us and why are we unique and diverse. In a beautiful verse that requires deep contemplation, God gives us the answer as He states, “Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors. There are indeed signs in that for those who know.”1 The Quran notes the word ayat and speaks to the fact that the heavens, earth, languages, and colors are all God’s signs in other Quranic verses as well. In our practical lives, we know that the purpose of a sign on a street or on a highway is to point out how we can get to our destination. In the context of the Quran and this verse, the diversity that we see in languages and skin color are also signs that are meant to help us to reach our ultimate destination—the Creator. Like the sun, moon, stars, oceans, rivers, mountains, plants, and all the natural world, God has displayed His unique signs for us to recognize and appreciate His beauty. Acknowledging the diversity that we see in our communities, and even the uniqueness of the languages and dialects that we speak, should be an opportunity to humble ourselves in front of our Lord. Beyond language and skin color, which this verse speaks about, we see diversity is in the laws that God applies to govern human nature. Differences of culture, food, clothing, and even interests and hobbies can be strengths because they solidify our relationship with the Creator through a recognition of the fact that we are the creation.
In His wisdom, God has created all the diversity that we see, and we should contemplate and appreciate our differences as opposed to creating barriers and hurdles. The verse concludes by stating, “There are indeed signs in that for those who know.” Perhaps God is shedding light on the reality that many may not apply their intellect and see diversity as a way of knowing God, and instead use it for the vilification and oppression that constantly bombard us.
Know, Learn, and Appreciate!
With an awareness that God created us in a unique manner such that we seek closeness to Him through an appreciation of this uniqueness, we see other Quranic verses that speak about our direct responsibility in this regard. In Surah al-Hujurat, for instance, God states, “People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other. The most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. God is All-knowing and All-aware.”2 In the Arabic language the phrase “recognize each other” comes from the root word, “to know,” and thus the verse could be understood as seeing the differences in gender, culture, background, or ethnicity, as ways to know and learn about one another. Unfortunately, pride and arrogance often enter our hearts, leading us to a path that draws us away from God and makes us haughty in front of others. A hadith from the Messenger (pbuh&hp) warns us against this, “Whosoever possesses in his heart prejudice even to the extent of a mustard seed, God will raise him on the Day of Resurrection with the Bedouins of the pre-Islamic period.”3 Numerous historical examples exist of the discriminatory nature of many in the Arabian Peninsula. The tribal culture created a system of hierarchy—often marginalizing minority groups and the most vulnerable—and a major effort employed by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) sought to eradicate any racist traces. Thus, this narration seeks to speak to the care we need to take to examine our own souls and check our potentially racist tendencies. When we allow racist or discriminatory tendencies to enter our hearts, we are rejecting the wisdom, beauty, inclusivity, and mercy with which God created us.
Building towards Equity
Human beings truly have great potential and the ability to be transformative, yet when we build self-constructed labels and divisions, we are going against our innate nature that seeks to have mercy and to care for one another. In a world that continues to be drowning in inequities and social injustice, it becomes more imperative for us to use the values taught to us by the Quran, the Messenger, and the Imams from his progeny (pbut). God states in the Quran, “We have honored the children of Adam, carried them on the land and the sea, given them pure sustenance, and exalted them above most of My creatures.”4 In this verse, God presents several important lessons to us. First, all the children of Adam are honored and have received a gift from the Creator. The boxes we put others into due to their skin color or ethnic background go directly against the divine wisdom of God. Secondly, this verse demonstrates the potential of the human being—the fact that God has exalted us above many of His other creations. With this potential should come a sense of responsibility, coupled with drive, to create systems of equity and justice, as well as the humility to recognize our deficits and then strive to be the best of God’s representatives on earth.
What are some practical steps we can take to build toward the ideal system of equity and justice?
1. Start at home: Teaching our children and building our families to be socially conscious is of the utmost importance. Practicing unity by learning together about the diversity we see in addition to redirecting intolerant behavior are just a few important practical steps that we can take to cultivate anti-racism at home.
2. Demand more from community centers: Inherent discrimination that marginalizes minority groups often plague our mosques and Islamic centers. Calling upon community leadership to include diverse voices from the podium can help us collectively grow.
3. Learn and reflect: We should try to learn, read, and even travel to understand how societies develop and the culture, rituals, and tendencies of others, for it will allow us to truly humble ourselves. The Quran commands us to travel and see the world and those who have come before us.5 Today, we see numerous studies dedicated to the positive effects of cultural diversity and social interactions with people who come from diverse backgrounds.6
1. The Quran 30:22, Ali Quli Qurai translation.
2. The Holy Quran 49:13. Unless otherwise noted, Quranic quotes in this article are from the Muhammad Sarwar translation.
3. Al-Kulaini, Al-kafi, vol. 2, p. 308, hadith 3.
4. The Holy Quran 17:70.
5. The Holy Quran 3:137, 6:11, and 22:46.
1. قال تعالى: ((وَمِن آياتِهِ خَلقُ السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضِ وَاختِلافُ أَلسِنَتِكُم وَأَلوانِكُم ۚ إِنَّ في ذٰلِكَ لَآياتٍ لِلعالِمينَ))
2. قال تعالى: ((يا أَيُّهَا النّاسُ إِنّا خَلَقناكُم مِن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثىٰ وَجَعَلناكُم شُعوبًا وَقَبائِلَ لِتَعارَفوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكرَمَكُم عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتقاكُم ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَليمٌ خَبيرٌ))
3. روي عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِاللهِ عَلَيْهِ السَّلامُ قَالَ: “قَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ: مَنْ كَانَ فِي قَلْبِهِ حَبَّةٌ مِنْ خَرْدَلٍ مِنْ عَصَبِيَّةٍ بَعَثَهُ اللهُ يَوْمَ القِيَامَةِ مَعَ أَعْرَابِ الجَاهِلِيَّةِ”
4. قال تعالى: ((وَلَقَد كَرَّمنا بَني آدَمَ وَحَمَلناهُم فِي البَرِّ وَالبَحرِ وَرَزَقناهُم مِنَ الطَّيِّباتِ وَفَضَّلناهُم عَلىٰ كَثيرٍ مِمَّن خَلَقنا تَفضيلًا))
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