“Good,” she said so matter-of-factly that I was momentarily confused. Blinking, I held the phone's receiver as I processed this simple response that held little connection to what I had just said.
It was months after the 9-11 attacks, and I had just shared with my friend my distress over Muslims being unjustly detained and imprisoned on charges of “terrorism,” an injustice that affected mostly immigrant Muslims.
“Now they'll know how it feels.”
I felt weak as the cruelty of her words took meaning. Like myself, my friend had repeatedly encountered the sober reality that dulled any lingering dreams of the “universality of Islam.” Muslims worldwide were “brothers and sisters” in Islam, we had been taught, joined by a bond that transcended color, race, and ethnicity. And we'd believed it — until we met those “brothers and sisters.”
But my friend's hurt was deeper than mine. While I had grown up Muslim because my parents had accepted Islam the year I was born, my friend had accepted Islam after the tumultuous confusion of disbelief. Part of her inspiration for embracing the religion was its universality — which was an antidote to the colorism and racism that had plagued her life since childhood. She had never imagined that while the “universality of Islam” was an authentic concept, the universality of Islamic brotherhood was not.
In that brief moment — as I held the phone, shocked at what she'd just said — I felt a host of emotions. Disgust, anger, and helplessness…
For years, my friend had been a mentor and confidante to me. I had admired her self confidence, her remarkable intelligence, and her persevering strength. She would offer me a shoulder when I was despondent, and a patient, attentive ear when I was distressed. And always it was her optimism, even in the face of adversity, that I cherished most. But we had lost friends along the way, she and I. Some to disbelief, some to betrayal, and some to death…
Good. Now they'll know how it feels.
At the reminder of her words, I understood the source of my pain.
Now, I had lost her too.
“If I were rich,” I proclaimed earnestly one day while chatting with my sister, “I would give soooo much money to the poor.”
My sister nodded heartily in agreement. As we were in our early teens at the time, we were having a difficult time understanding all the “rich snobbery” in the world. There was plenty of wealth, but somehow there were still starving children, homeless people, and so many who did not have even the small conveniences of life.
And it hurt most that Muslims played a part in this injustice. In our very own hometown, my sister and I regularly witnessed the way affluent Muslims treated others — and how we ourselves were treated time after time. People behaved as if our not being wealthy was something that affected not only our material lifestyle but our personal character or likeability as well. And it didn't escape us that this mistreatment was most pronounced by wealthy Muslims who did not share our brown skin and “Black American” status.
“People don't change overnight,” someone interjected in response. My sister and I stopped talking and looked up to find our father walking toward us. We hadn't realized he was in earshot.
“If you don't share what you have right now,” he said, “you won't share it when you have more.” He explained, “If you're not willing to let your sister wear your new shirt” — the example touched on an argument my sister and I had just had earlier that day (I was upset with her for trying to wear my new clothes before I had a chance to) — “then don't think anything's going to change when you have a lot of money.” He paused. “The only difference will be that you'll have a lot more that you're not willing to share.”
It has been more than twenty years since my father spoke these words, and still, they stay with me. His simple insight incited in me a self-reflection that I had never engaged in. Before then, I hadn't thought of myself as greedy or selfish. I hadn't imagined that those whose stinginess I resented so thoroughly were merely a mirror image of myself at the time.
Yes, it's true, I realized that day in silent self reproach. I was not generous with my new clothes. In fact, I was not particularly generous at all. I'd argue with my sister about “my side” of the room. I'd taunt my little brothers and sisters “just for fun.” I'd even neatly tuck away some prized treat for the sole purpose of making sure I'd have it later — when no one else did. If I finished my chores early — oh, you better believe it! — I'd jump into my cozy bed and enjoy the fact that my sister couldn't do the same!
If I were rich, I would give soooo much money to the poor.
My heartfelt proclamation returned to me as I settled under my covers for the night, and for some reason they didn't seem so heartfelt anymore…
“It's not their fault that they're rich,” someone had said once. “Just like you can't blame someone for being poor, you can't blame someone for being rich.”
And these words gave me pause. So often I'd reflected pensively on the injustices inflicted on those who were underprivileged or poor (and, certainly, the injustices toward them were plenty), but I didn't think of the injustices I may have inflicted upon those of privilege and wealth — even if my injustice would never reach them in any tangible fashion.
But the truth is, I realized sadly one day, we are all guilty of injustice. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we judge each other harshly, paint sweeping generalizations of “the other”, and keep our distance from those we view as “too different.” Yet, amazingly, we become frustrated and even perplexed by all the injustice in the world…
“I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body,” I often hear my fellow Muslims say — with the same heartfelt earnestness that I'd proclaimed my generosity so many years ago.
Now, when I hear these words (that I'm sure I myself have uttered on many an occasion), my heart falls in sadness, and I grow pensive. Then we have no hope at all, I reflect.
I just can't imagine how the Muslim ummah, let alone the world at large, will ever work to end classism and racism — and injustice itself — if we don't openly and honestly acknowledge the magnitude of the job before us.
Yes, so many of us eagerly proclaim, “Our job is never done.” But we somehow imagine this ever-unfinished job is “out there” somewhere—and not inside our own hearts and souls. Yet, in truth, if there is any fight against injustice that is never done, it doesn't have roots in an elusive “corrupt world.” Corruption does not sprout from the dirt of the earth; it sprouts from the dirt of our own souls.
And like so many evils around us (and within us), those of bigotry are continued most destructively by those who imagine they have within them no bigotry at all.
“And when it is said to them, 'Make not mischief on the earth,' they say, 'We are only peacemakers.' Verily! They are the ones who make mischief, but they perceive not.”
How then can a believer imagine himself free of such evil when Allāh himself has described some evil as beyond the guilty one's perception? Is it that Allāh himself has declared us pure from corruption?
Or do we ascribe such purity to ourselves?
“So ascribe not purity to yourselves. He [Allāh] knows best who fears Allāh and keeps his duty to Him.”
And the only way we can truly keep our duty to Allāh is by constantly engaging in self-reflection, never feeling safe from any sin. For surely, our righteous predecessors were known for their weeping in self-reproach and ever guarding themselves against evil — and no evil did they proclaim safety from.
Even Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) prayed earnestly to Allāh to protect him and his children from the grave sin of shirk — joining partners with Allāh:
“…And keep me and my sons away from worshipping idols!”
Who then are we in comparison to Allāh's Khalil — His devoted friend? Who then are we to imagine freedom from a sin more easily committed than the shirk about which Ibrahim prayed?
It is true that I detest classism, racism, colorism, and any other form of bigotry; for I myself have suffered many a time from these injustices, so I cannot imagine condoning them within myself. The Prophet, sallallaahu'alayhi wa sallam, himself advised us to stay away from the evils of racism and nationalism when he said, “Leave it, it is rotten” (Bukhāri and Muslim).
But my despising the putridity of these sins does not guarantee my safety from them — just as my abhorring entering the Hell Fire does not grant me salvation from its torment.
So, yes, I detest the idea of having even a single prejudiced bone in my body, but that does not mean I am free from guilt. None of us are — even those who are frequent victims of prejudice.
Good. Now they'll know how it feels.
Even now I shudder at my friend's words. Indeed, it is terrifying to witness a victim of prejudice finding comfort in the very injustice that caused her pain.
But despite my shock and disappointment at these cruel words, I can't help wondering why they truly affected me so …
Today, I know it is because somehow — amidst the prejudiced bones in my own body — I can understand what she meant. No, I certainly do not share her sentiments. But I do share her heart — her human heart.
And a human heart is never free from injustice.
Yet our greatest calamity is in feeling that ours is.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and the novels Realities of Submission and Hearts We Lost. To learn more about the author, visit themuslimauthor.com or join her Facebook page.