Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him said, “God does not look at your bodies nor your physical forms, but rather He looks at your hearts and your actions” (Related by Abu Hurayrah in Muslim, Riyad al-Salihin #7). In a world that is still largely driven by prejudices based upon race, color, and appearances, this teaching could not be timelier. Renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, in his 2012 The Social Conquest of Earth, writes about tribalism — the need to belong to or join groups and affiliations, usually ethnically based — as an abiding human instinct. When coupled with the need to feel superior to others, this ethnocentrism gives rise to prejudice, conflict, and war.
A recent Newsweek poll confirms that the race divide is not only still existent, but deepening within American society, amplified by the election of a black president. Our country is dissevered over this issue and the reactionary far-right simply isn’t ready or willing to see past the color of a person’s skin. I have long maintained that the political upsurge from middle America, with everything that it has spawned, from the Tea Party to Islamophobia to anti-immigration legislation, is the same old swagger of the beast of racism. America, and the rest of the world, have not yet solved the problem of race, and have much to learn from the Islamic tradition.
The only valid basis for superiority — for honor — is moral excellence, not race, not nationality
Physical appearance or outward aspect has no value with God, according to Islamic teaching. What matters are the internal states of mind and heart, as well as the individual’s deeds and contributions to the human fund of goodness and well-being. Tribalism is neither inevitable nor predeterminate. The Quran emphatically asserts the common origin of all human beings: “O mankind! We created you from a single male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know one another. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you” (Qur’an 49:13). Race and ethnicity exist as identifiers and bounties of diversity granted out of the munificence of God. Nothing more. And the only valid basis for superiority — for honor — as the above verse tells us, is moral excellence, not race, not nationality.
Prophet Muhammad solved the race problem in his own society in an incisive manner. His words and teachings reflect a heightened passion for perceiving and interacting with people with tolerance and appreciation of the diverseness of the human species. Few things irritated him more than people conflicting over race or tribal affiliations. In Makkah, his early followers included former black slaves and those from many different tribal and ethnic affiliations, including those who were scorned in the proudly tribal society of Arabia. Among his dearest Companions was the African, Bilal, who was to become the official caller to prayer. The Prophet continued the egalitarian tradition in his new-found home of Madinah, where he unified the various warring tribes into brothers and sisters in faith, teaching them that pride based on tribal identity or venerated ancestry was condemned. He, pbuh, said, “Let people stop boasting of their ancestors who are gone, otherwise they will stand more degraded with God than the dung-beetle that rolls dung with its nose” (At-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud). The simile used compares the one who venerates his ancestors to the lowliest imaginable creature — the dung-beetle which thrives on the excrement of other creatures!
After one of his Companions of prominent lineage expressed some disparaging remarks towards another in a crowded gathering, the Prophet asked him to look around and then said, “What do you see?” He replied, “I see people of all colors, white, black and red.” The Prophet informed him, “And you are not better than any of them, except by piety.” On another occasion, he told another close Companion, “Look, you’re not better than a white or black person, except by reason of your piety.” Once, heated words between individuals escalated into full-scale tribal threats and counter threats which earned the fury of the Prophet. He remarked, “Leave these calls, for they are abhorrent! You still call to the ways of ignorance?”
In his momentous return to Makkah, with his remaining foes humbled and surrendering, he ordered the ultimate symbolic display of egalitarianism, a sounding denunciation of racism once and for all. He directed Bilal to climb the Ka’bah in front of thousands to sound the call to prayer. One of the proud Arabs remarked, “Thank God my father did not live to see this day” and another asked, “Couldn’t Muhammad find other than this black crow to be the caller?” On this same occasion, as an inspired confutation to their ignorance, the Prophet delivered a sermon in which he reiterated the lesson on human fraternity: “There are only two types of people: the righteous, who are honorable in the sight of God; and the wicked, who are disgraced in the sight of God. In fact, all men are the children of Adam, and Adam was created from dust.” Then he recited the verse mentioned above on the common origins of humanity (49:13).
The Prophet never ceased his mission to eradicate the bonds of tribalism and racism. His final public address included the same lesson about egalitarianism and the only criterion for honor: “People, know that your Lord is One, and your father was one. No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor a white person over a black person, nor a black person over a white person — except by piety. The most honorable of you in the sight of God are the most pious and righteous of you.”
Muslims in the U.S. possess a vibrant egalitarian tradition that continues to inform our values and our experience, as it has for the Muslims who have resided over the generations in this country. We would do well to share the Islamic wisdom that can help heal the wounds still plaguing this nation; and Americans would be well-served to open their ears and hearts to those lessons from their fellow, well-wishing, Muslim citizens.