Practicing Ummah is Anti-Racist
by Abed Awad
Racism in America is systemic, deeply embedded, and real. Whiteness – an American social construct – is a state-of-racist-mind. While fiction, this state-of-racist-mind is evil and destructive. Unfortunately, this racism is endemic in America, including among Muslim American communities. It is long overdue for the Arab and South Asian Muslims to recognize how anti-black racism and bigotry defiles Islam. This month hundreds of mosques across America dedicated their Friday sermon to speaking out against racism in America, including racism in their own communities. Our path to stopping anti-black racism starts by meaningfully practicing the Islamic concept of ummah.
The rise of western colonialism and the fall of the Ottoman Empire paved the way to ‘Muslim’ nation-states to be born on ‘ethnic nationalist’ lines, which was viewed as a natural evolution for Muslims to finally join ‘modernity’. The modern nation-state dissolved the spirit of the ummah, supplanting universal unity with post-colonial nationalism. The concept of the ummah has much to teach us about ending racism. Revisiting the central role of the ummah in creating a sense of an inclusive multiracial community can help combat racism in Muslim American communities.
Belonging to the ummah was based on the absolute belief in the oneness of God and that the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) as the carrier of this monotheistic divine message. Faith has always and continues to be the common bond holding the ummah together – not race or ethnicity. Spirituality, not skin tone, was the definitive marker of belonging. The Islamic civilization thrived and prospered because of this intercultural fertilization of all races and ethnicities united and anchored in the oneness of God. Blacks or Africans were an integral part of the ummah – both in its creation and its intellectual underpinnings.
Blackness is indigenous to Islam
‘Umm Ayman is my mother after my [biological] mother’, said the Prophet. The infant Muhammed suckled his sustenance from Umm Ayman, his black wet nurse. Not surprising, according to Islamic law, if a child suckles five times from a woman, the woman becomes like his mother. After hearing her child’s divine message, Umm Ayman was one of the earliest converts to Islam.
The first family to accept Islam was Sumayya b. Khayy??’s family. Her husband Y?sir b. ‘?mir and her son ‘Amm?r b. Y?sir all embraced Islam as a family. The first formal Muslim call to prayer was the ringing voice of Bilal b. Rabah. Mahja’ was the first believer martyred at the battle of Badr. Usama b. Zaid was the beloved to the Prophet ( hubb rasulillah). All of them were black.
When the Arab people savagely persecuted the Muslims, the Prophet sent his followers to seek refuge with an African King. The Prophet did not send his persecuted followers to Rome, Egypt, Persia, India or China. He sent them to Africa, the other home for Muslims.
With this multiracial upbringing and community, it is not a surprise that the Prophet’s Farwell Sermon directly addressed Islam’s anti-racism message: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
Luqman in the Quran, who Allah endowed with wisdom, was Nubian. Ali b. Abi Talib said that ’Ash ? b al-ukhd ? d in the Quran were Abyssinian believers. One of the world’s greatest kings mentioned in surah al-Kahf, Dhul-Qarnain , according to Quran commentators, was black too.
Many of the early Muslim scholars were of black extraction. Ata’ b. Abi Rab?h was a prominent Quran and hadith expert, who was the Mufti of Mecca in the 8 th Century. Other examples include Yazid b. Habib, the scholar’s scholar (sheikh al-Fuqha) in Egypt and prominent Hanafi scholars Jamal Al Din al-Zayla’i and Fakhr al Zayla’i. Let’s not forget Ahmad Baba (d. 1627). Probably, the greatest Muslim scholar to ever emerge from Timbuktu, he was renowned as a jurist, grammarian, theologian, political writer, and historian, writing over 40 works during his lifetime.
Al-J??i? (d. 869) one of the most important literary figures and master of the Arabic language in Islamic history was half black. The ninth Im?m in the Twelver Shi’i tradition Muhammad b. ‘Al? al-Jaw?d al-Husayn? (d. 835) was of black extraction. Ab? al-Fay? b. Ibr?h?m al-Mi?r? (d. 859), one of the most prominent early mystics in the Islamic world was from Nubia.
Many great Muslim military commanders were black. In the tenth century, Ab? al-Misk Kaf?r (d. 968) a military commander and later sultan of the Ikhshidid dynasty ruled territory encompassing modern-day Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Another military conqueror, Sonni Al? (d.1492) founded the Songhai Empire in West Africa.
These are but a few examples from millions of prominent and transformative black Muslim scholars, military leaders and intellectuals from the past. The present is just as prominent, rich and plentiful. What is Islam in America without brother Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jaber? Can we understand the Muslim American spiritual awakening without Imam Zaid Shakir and Imam Siraj Wahaj? Again, black is indigenous to Islam from its birth to its present – in the United States and beyond.
The greatness of Islam and the Islamic Civilization was that it created an inclusive ummah that accepted anyone who recited a simple yet most sacred oath that made us equal brothers and sisters irrespective of race or ethnicity: l? ?il?ha ?ill? ll?hu wa mu?ammadun ras?lul-All?h. Muslim Americans should honor their sacred oath and bond that rejects racism as a matter of divine directive and commit themselves to purge the anti-Black racism that mars our communities. This is the mandate of our faith.