In this verse, the whole of mankind has been addressed to reform it of the great evil that has always caused disruption in the world, that is, the prejudices due to race, nationality, or other group affiliation. On account of these prejudices, man in every age has generally drawn around himself some closed circles, and regarding those born within those circles, they are seen as his own people, and those outside the accepted group as “others.” These circles have been drawn on the basis of accidental birth and not on rational or moral grounds. Born in a particular family, tribe, or race, or in some particular geographical region, or in a nation having a particular ethnicity or speaking a particular language – these are the chance factors by which the circles are established.
The Creator divided human communities into nations and tribes for that was a natural way of creating cooperation and affection-enhancing social experience
Superiority of One’s Own Group
Discrimination toward “others” involves looking upon one’s own group as superior, and this has resulted in the worst forms of hatred, conflict, and tyranny. New philosophies have been propounded based on such supremacism, new religions invented, new codes of law developed, and new moral principles framed; so much so that nations and empires have made this distinction a permanent way of life. A supremacist mindset gave birth to class distinctions (varnashrama) among the Hindus, according to which superiority of the Brahmins was established and all other human beings came to be regarded as inferior and unclean, and the shudras (the working, servant caste, the lowest of the four varna) were subjugated in the depths of disgrace and degradation. Jewish people regard themselves as the chosen people of God and even in the practice of their religious rites look upon non-Jews as inferior in rank and human worth. It is a tragic irony that the concept of the chosen people and its conflation with superiority as claimed by Jewish people was ruthlessly matched by the supremacist ideology of Nazi Germany.
Another example is in the atrocities that have been committed against people of color in Africa and America on account of the white man’s notion of his own supremacy. The treatment that the Europeans meted out to the indigenous Indian race in America and to the weak nations of Asia and Africa has the same concept underlying it. These ethnocentrists thought they had the right to plunder the wealth of other peoples and take them as their slaves, exterminating them if need be to advance their agenda of exploitation.
Three Cardinal Truths
One can easily see how devastating is the error of fanatic tribal loyalty to one’s own group, unequivocally condemned by the above Qur’anic verse. In just two lines, AIlah has drawn the attention of all mankind to three cardinal truths:
(1) The origin of all human beings is one and the same. The human species has sprung up from one man and one woman. Thus, aII races found in the world today are, in fact, the branches of one initial race that started with one mother and one father. In this process of creation there is no basis whatever for the artificial divisions and distinctions which humans have established based on false notions. One God alone is the Creator of all, having made all people from one and the same substance. it is not the case that some people have been made from some pure and superior substance and some others from an impure and inferior substance.
(2) In spite of being one in origin, it is natural that human beings have been divided into nations and tribes. Obviously alI individuals on the earth could not belong to one and the same family. With the increase of the population, it was inevitable that countless families should arise, and then tribes and nations emerging in time. Similarly, it was inevitable that after settling in different regions of the earth, the various populations developed distinctive genetic traits such as color of skin and facial features due to geography, climate, and reproductive separateness from other groups. Distinct social features such as language also developed among the particular populations. But these natural differences never demanded that distinctions of human value and rank should be established, that one group should claim superiority over others, that skin color or any other accident of birth should bring favor and preference to one and deprivation and abasement to another. The Creator divided human communities into nations and tribes for that was a natural way of creating cooperation and affection-enhancing social experience and a common way of life among them. But due to ignorance, those natural differences among mankind – created by Allah to be a means of recognition, a way to acquire greater understanding and awareness of the human condition – became an expression of ego, overweening pride, and impulse to debase and exploit others. Every kind of injustice and tyranny emerged from that ignorance.
(3) The third cardinal truth proclaimed in verse 49:13 is that the only basis of surpassing merit and excellence is that of piety and moral elevation, yielded by God-consciousness. The substantive thing that makes one person superior to any other is that he or she, with greater God-consciousness, is a devoted avoider of evils, a follower of the way of piety and righteousness. Such an individual, regardless of race or nation, is elevated on account of personal merit. And the one who is bereft of that merit of character is of less stature, whether black or white, male or female, born in the east or the west.
Confirming the Superiority of Taqwa
These same truths that have been stated in this brief verse of the Qur’an, have been explained in greater detail by the Holy Prophet in his addresses and traditions. In the speech that he made on the conquest of Makkah, after going round the Ka’bah, he said: “Thank God Who has removed from you the blemish of ignorance and its arrogance. O people, men are divided into classes: the pious and righteous, who are honorable in the sight of Allah, and the sinful and vicious, who are contemptible in the sight of Allah; whereas aII men are the children of Adam and Adam was created by Allah from clay” (Baihaqi, Tirmidhi).
On the occasion of the Farewell Pilgrimage, in the midst of the Tashriq days (the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth of Dhu’l-Hijjah, during which the Prophet forbade fasting), the Prophet addressed the people, and said: “O people, be aware: your God is One. No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, and no non-Arab any superiority over an Arab, and no white has any superiority over a black, and no black any superiority over a white, except on the basis of taqwa (piety). The most honorable among you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most pious and righteous of you. Say if I have conveyed the Message to you?” And the great congregation of the people responded, saying: “Yes, you have, O Messenger of Allah.” Thereupon the Holy Prophet said: “Then Iet the one who is present convey it to those who are absent” (Baihaqi).
In a hadith he has said: “You are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from dust. Let the people give up boasting of their ancestors, otherwise they will stand more degraded than a mean insect in the sight of Allah” (Bazaar). In another hadith the Holy Prophet said: “Allah will not inquire about your lineage on the Day of Resurrection. The most honorable in the sight of AIIah is he who is most pious” (Ibn Jarir). In still another hadith he said: “Allah does not see your outward appearances and your possessions, but He sees your hearts and your deeds” (Muslim, lbn Majah).
These teachings cannot remain confined to words only, as Islam aims to establish a universal brotherhood of the believers on such basis, disallowing any distinction on account of color, race, language, or nationality, bestowing on all human beings equal rights. Even the opponents of Islam have had to admit that no match is found in any religion or any ideological system as to the principle of human equality and unity that has been given practical shape in the Muslim society. Islam is the only religion which has united multiple races and communities, scattered to all corners of the earth, into one universal Ummah.
A Misunderstanding in the Case of Marriage
In this connection, a misunderstanding needs to be addressed. In the case of marriage, the importance that Islamic law gives to the likeness of socio-economic status between prospective spouses has been taken by some people to imply that a person of the upper class is better than one who is of a lower socio-economic status, and that marriage between these two is objectionable. But this, in fact, is a wrong idea. According to Islamic law, any Muslim man can marry any Muslim woman, but the success of the matrimonial life depends on maximum harmony and understanding between the spouses as regards characteristics, habits, ways of living, family traditions, and economic and social status. Where there is unusual difference and disparity between the man and the woman in this regard, lifelong companionship will be difficult. That is why Islamic law discourages such marriages; not, as claimed by some, that one of the spouses is elevated and the other lowly.
As we have shown in this article, the true character and merit of a human being is defined by Allah. The standards of distinction that human beings have set up of their own accord and by their own design are not acceptable to or approved by AIIah. It may be that the one who has been regarded as a person of high rank in this world will be declared as the lowest of the low in the final judgment of AIIah; and maybe the one who has been looked upon as a very lowly person here, will attain to a very high rank in the Hereafter. The real importance is not of the honor or dishonor of worldly considerations and its emphasis on ego aggrandizement, but of the honor or dishonor that one will receive from Allah. Therefore, what every human being should be most concerned about is that he should create in himself those genuine qualities and characteristics which make him worthy of honor in the sight of AIlah.