Umm Zakiyyah | Prejudice Bones in My Body

“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…

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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.

Allah says,

“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.”

—(Al-Baqarah, 2:12)

How then can a believer imagine himself free of such evil when Allah himself has described some evil as beyond the guilty one’s perception?  Is it that Allah himself has declared us pure from corruption?

Or do we ascribe such purity to ourselves?

“So ascribe not purity to yourselves.  He [Allah] knows best who fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him.”

—(Al-Najm, 53:32)

And the only way we can truly keep our duty to Allah 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 Allah to protect him and his children from the grave sin of shirk — joining partners with Allah:

“…And keep me and my sons away from worshipping idols!”

—(Ibrahim, 14:35)

Who then are we in comparison to Allah’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” (Bukhari 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.

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22 responses to “Umm Zakiyyah | Prejudice Bones in My Body”

  1. Rana06 says:

    MashAllah profound piece, as it read the ending it resonated in my head! Powerful message too we always point our fingers about others for being ignorant, racist, apathetic, etc but when we commit the same horrid acts we sadly sometimes don’t even realize our actions–and to me that is worst. And like you said, we are all guilty of this crime.

  2. NayiMuslimah says:

    MashAllah thank you for this enlightening peace, it is very convicting. May Allah keep us safe from hypocrisy and may we continuously reflect on ourselves inshAllah.

  3. Abdulmujeeb says:

    Another gifted piece from someone who has a set of GIFTED HANDS.Jazakillahu khairan Ukty. Looking forward to getting your review on BECOMING A STRANGER:AS I AM

  4. batoul says:

    thanks so much for such a shaking, just like a boomrang, the glance we send to others is just coming back to ourselves, and who knows? the others may be better than what we transcend of inimaginable feelings, May Allah help us master our basic nature

  5. tariq nisar ahmed says:

    Alhamdolillah, there is a lot of truth here. Jazakumullahu khayran for this piece.

  6. Maha says:

    Amazing article. I honestly did not want it to end. Jazaki Allah khairan.

  7. Abu Yousuf says:

    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” (Bukhari and Muslim)

    Does being a proud american count as being nationalistic?

  8. Qamara says:

    I want to share this!! For a myriad of reasons, one of which is so that our brothers and sisters can recognize the affect we have on each other. The sister, who said, “Good. Now they will know how it feels.” was an optimistic sister, someone who was wise enough to counsel you on matters, someone that you looked up to and yet this was her response to her brothers and sisters in Islam suffering? A response that was so unlike her that you had to pause in order to process what you had heard. If this is a not a testament to the the old adage, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words shatter the soul”, I don’t know what is. The prejudice she had endured turned her into a person even she would probably not recognize. Is it no wonder that Allah so greatly emphasizes that Islam TRANSCENDS race and ethnicity yet those who have read these words since birtha nd have read it in the same language Allah revealed it in are sometimes the most liekly to practice the exact opposite.

    Good. Now they will know how it feels.

    I am crying. Not because what she said meant that she too has momentarily played into them same prejudice that has poisoned her righteous existence. I know the power of hate, I fight it every day. I am crying because even when people “know how it feels”, they don’t stop. They somehow excuse their actions and dismiss the power of their prejudice and the affect it has, or they justify who they are prejudiced against. And that, THAT truth hurts my heart because I don’t know how to ensure that my Black, Muslim kids — who will grow up in a world that hates them simply for those two things despite all of their other accolades — will choose NOT to respond by saying, “Good. Now they will know how it feels.” when their oppressors suffer the same fate they will undoubtedly inflict upon my babies. *sigh*

    Thank you for sharing this. I didn’t know you wrote.

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  10. Umm Muslima says:

    MashaAllah, what an intense piece of work!

    In the racially diverse city that I live in with a high Muslim population, I heard that statement or something near to it MANY times after 9/11.

    The Muslim population here is about 2/3 American/African American and 1/3 Arab & Asian or maybe even a little closer to 50/50. In years past the American/African American Muslim community has reached out to include our Arab and Asian brothers and sisters in the Eid celebrations and other Islamic festivities that are held. 99% don’t respond and keep to their own prayers and masajid.

    After 9/11 they were suddenly our brothers and sisters in Islam and sought out the support of and alliance with the American/African American Muslim community. Alhamdulillah, they received it. But after only a few months to a year everything was back to “normal.” Once again we are a city of Muslims mostly divided except for the few American/African American Muslims who venture into the Arab & Asian masajid because they are closer or they have friends/neighbors/relatives that also attend that masjid.

    Alhamdulillah, I have been able to visit many masajid in my city. I have heard plenty of khutba in the American/African American masajid on the plight of out brothers and sisters in Palestine and the encouragment to embrace all Muslims as our brothers and sisters. I have never heard such a khutba in an Arab nor in an Asian masjid. Of course it could be because I missed it that day and was at a different masjid at the time. But Allah SWT knows best.

    I don’t feel any ill will towards any of my Muslim brothers or sisters Alhamdulillah. But I do feel sad for those that believe that either they are the only Muslims and those of other races/ethnicities are not, or that they feel superiour or separate because of wealth or color. On the day that we are all raised up before Allah SWT, we will all have to answer to how we treated our brothers and sisters.

    May Allah SWT guide all of our hearts towards behaviour that will bring us closer to Him. Ameen.

  11. umm abdullah says:

    JazakAllah Khair! may Allah Swt bless you and your family. Your father’s advice is, mashaAllaah, so deep!!

    Really how small our hearts are, yet we magnify it (or imagine it to be so).

    May AllahSwt pardon us and grant us hearts purified from all these diseases.

  12. Greg Abdul says:

    as salaam alaikum,

    Some of us, may Allah reward us for all our study, we start thinking that all the knowledge we get from Allah makes us better than other people. Allah tells us we are not all equal and we should not stop giving our scholars and Imams the best treatment, but sad to say, sometimes the better treatment does come because you and me are from the same culture. Prejudice is so hard to stop because most of it is simply engaging the more familiar more than you engage the less familiar. We are all moving consciously and unconsciously towards what we grew up with, towards the same language we grew up with, towards the same skin color we grew up with and most of all, towards the same culture we grew up with. I used to believe Islam took people beyond their prejudice. After being a convert for a few years, I learned the hard way to be even more careful around Muslims because we take our prejudices for granted and many of us don’t see our prejudice as wrong. I may be wrong, but I believe the answer lies in nationalism, but Western nationalism. In the West, there is more experience with dealing with diversity and difference than there is in Muslim countries. Pakistan doesn’t have a long civil rights history. They have the huge struggle they made to separate from India, but after the separation, they have not had blacks or even whites live with them side by side. Then they come to America or Europe with that lack of experience, and make more mistakes than a non Muslim because even though Islam emphasizes equality of race and ethnicity, some of us have come from places where there is no minority to worry over. So in this matter, we have some lessons to learn from American (kuffar) history. We have to search for the best ideas and not just the deepest pockets or the people who look or think like us. We have to work hard to execute Islam the best way here in the West. If that means using ideas from Pakistan or Bangladesh or Jordan, al hamdulillah. But if it means those ideas don’t work for Allah’s deen in the West, then we have to drop bad ideas like hot rocks, no matter where they come from. To free ourselves from our prejudiced behaviors, we first have to be color blind in how we sort our ideas in adapting Islam to our Western environments.

  13. Yousef says:

    A truly excellent article, reflecting honesty and open-heart. Your findings are true. THis goes along perfectly with the Islamic teachings that come form Quran & Hadith. Allah SWT told us that when believers enter Paradise, He (Allah SWT) would extract the “Ghill” (غِلّْ) from their hearts. This word (غِلّْ, said: Ghill) can be close to the meaning of “grudge, or bad feelings” against others, (see Holy Quran, chapter 7 (Al-A’raaf), verse 206):

    وَنَزَعْنَا مَا فِي صُدُورِهِمْ مِنْ غِلٍّ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهِمُ الْأَنْهَارُ وَقَالُوا الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي هَدَانَا لِهَٰذَا وَمَا كُنَّا لِنَهْتَدِيَ لَوْلَا أَنْ هَدَانَا اللَّهُ لَقَدْ جَاءَتْ رُسُلُ رَبِّنَا بِالْحَقِّ وَنُودُوا أَنْ تِلْكُمُ الْجَنَّةُ أُورِثْتُمُوهَا بِمَا كُنْتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ
    “And We shall remove from their hearts any lurking sense of injury;- beneath them will be rivers flowing;- and they shall say: “Praise be to Allah, who hath guided us to this (felicity): never could we have found guidance, had it not been for the guidance of Allah: indeed it was the truth, that the messengers of our Lord brought unto us.” And they shall hear the cry: “Behold! the garden before you! Ye have been made its inheritors, for your deeds (of righteousness).”

    And by the way, even messengers of Allah SWT are born with this potentially harmful quality, because it is part of being human (as opposed to angels), but Allah SWT removes it from them in the worldy life to perfect them, as indictaed in the reference in Seerah in the Sahih books of Hadith, that prophpet Muhammad SAAW was subjected to an incident when he was about 7 years old where two angels placed him down on his back, opened his chest, took his heart out, opened it, and removed a black clot from inside it. Of course in terms of angels doing that by Allah’s permission it is a miracle, that is why he SAAW was not harmed. Furthermore, Allah SWT could have of course created all of His prophets and messengers already without this “imperfection”, but since they are humans, we needed to know that we all (humans) have it, and it is ok, because our test is to overcome it with our self-Jihad, and if and when we succeed, then we deserve to earn the title of “MutaQeen – God-fearing or righteous” and win the paradise, and it is important to keep in mind that only Allah SWT knows whether we are succeeding or not, so that we never fall prey to self-conceit. And we shall always trip and fall, we shall always sin, and we shall never reach perfection.. never ever… and that is exactly whay Allah’s mercy is there…. our only task is to have the right intentions in the heart and do out best all the time with sincere and authehtic repentence!

  14. saffy says:

    MashaAllah,a provocative and introspective article sister !

    I always wondered why Turkey sent the Gaza flotilla when they had somalis and ethiopians kids in the
    famine dying like flies,why no flotilla for them? because they are black and african,and generate no political points like the palestinian issue does?

    No muslim country has put sanctions on North Sudan(the arab side of sudan) when it committed a 2 million genocide(and continues on the new borders with the new country south sudan). 99% of muslims I know in the US have no clue about the war in sudan that has raged for so many years,one of the most brutal and exhausting wars against the civilian population.And they do not want to talk about it either

    With collective righteous anger over percieved injustices committed against muslims,we need collective guilt also over the injustices committed BY muslims. No role comes with rights and duties.
    And sorely,our ummah rants about our rights and never about our duties in terms of justice for all

    • Yousef says:

      dear Saffy, with all due respect, you need to understand the complex nature related to Palestine. Palestine is a universal Islamic issue. A whole nation (the Palestinian people) has been displaced unjustly over half a century ago and their oppression is still ongoing by the Israelis!

      The siege around Gazza and the intentional systematic humiliation and starving carried out by Israel dwarfs other world problems now a days, (with the exception of famines of Africa and Asia), and in fact represent a dual ground between the good and evil of the world.

      The Gaza flotilla is a symbolic representation of the good people of the world standing in the face of tyranny and defying injustice…it is never for actually feeding the mmillions in Gazza!!!

      Regarding the famines of Africa, the Muslim countries and Turkey are relentless in sending foods and support rations. And further, the Muslim in the world is responsible for hundreds of millions in donations for Africa, still, they are not doing enough, I agree, but they are doing something! And what does this have anything to do with prejudice against color of skin!!!

      And what is this 2 million genocides figure you brought up against non-Muslims in Sudan? Could you substantiate it with references and proof please?

      Writing is a witness for you or against you. Please let us watch what we say.

  15. saffy says:

    Assalaamu Alaykum Brother Yousef. Let me clarify that you can start with a salaam to me,I am a Muslim as well as you are.I have been part of an NGO which works closely in the field,and so might have a more realistic idea of the regional politics there,than what is shown by the Arab media

    Nobody is denying the plight of the Palestinians but it is the reluctance in grasping the problems of Muslims in Africa,is what smacks of racism here.Ethiopia experienced its greatest famine in the 1950s,if you are not aware.So this famine that they alternate into every 5 yrs,has been a 60 yr problem as well.And people die to the tune of a 1/2 million or more in each crisis,such ‘death’ is not marked by the Palestinian problem.And the oil-rich neighbors and the turks who are only a swim away from the somalian shores,agreed to open up their purse for the first time in history for this repeat-famine struck region only after the UN demanded that they also contribute substantially this time,despite their rise to economic power since the 70s.
    While we fight for immigration rights in the west,somalis who desperately swim across the sea are repeatedly deported by the arab nations,they lack giving even basic human rights to the african illegal immigrants that West has most definitely given here.Africans care a damn about Palestinian issue now,because they feel arabs are cornering most of the aid and attention in the name of the Palestinian issue,which has chances of reconcilation but the african situation only gets worse with their population out to top 600 million just among the 3 african muslim majority countries
    It is like a parent feeding a child that has a visible handicap while the rest of the children are in their death bed in starvation.
    And if you are not familiar with the Darfur crisis that created the largest refugee crisis ever and the aftermath of the Sudan partition,you need to familiarize yourself to know the numbers of the arab vs black conflct,and the slavery angle to it

    Wasalaam,
    Safiya

    • Yousef says:

      Dear sister Saffiya,

      As-Salamu Alaikum Warahmatu Allah Wabarakatuh. I apologize for neglecting the salam in my previous response. And I apologize for my ignorance in some of the points you mentioned; points well taken I might add! You are quite correct about the utter negligence of poor Muslim countries by other Muslim countries. I might add a positive point here, that Muslims who care, Muslims who are devout in their faith do care about all other world Muslims, no matter where they are or how poor or neglected they may be. Devout Muslims know that Allah SWT sees these neglected Muslims and hears them.. that He hears their supplications. Allah Almighty promised them great reward for their patience and suffering.
      As to the ones who fail the test of extending their hand to the poor and neglected ones, they are the ‘real’ losers …they favor their materialistic and self-serving interests over having hearts! Their materialistic world will sooner or later leave them…rendering them in remorse and sorrow, they would be wishing they could come back to the dunya to do good, but no way back….
      By the way, I lived in the USA for 19 years in a very close netted Muslim community, and I can tell you that our Muslim community used to rally with all we got to help Muslims everywhere… despite the fact that most of us did not have much to give, but for the most part, the Islam practiced in the West with all its sweet community togetherness sure beats the Arab world Muslim communities (I speak about communities). We felt true sense of ‘brotherhood’ with ALL ethnicities and colors. We were totally color-blind because Islam unified us and made us BROTHERS and SISTERS.. and it was very very special indeed.

  16. RCHOUDH says:

    Mash’Allah beautiful piece with a very important message! May Allah reward you sister for your efforts to remind fellow believers (all of us) the meaning of constant self-reflection and correction. BTW I recently purchased your book If I Should Speak and hope to read it soon. I didn’t know it was part of a trilogy Insha’Allah I hope to get the rest of the series soon! I’m also hoping to include a review of your book(s) within my blog soon Insha’Allah.

  17. Umm Zakiyyah says:

    […] Previously published December 2, 2011 via MuslimMatters.org […]

  18. hamida bithi says:

    ma shaa Allah, this article brought tears to my eyes. We are indeed unjust to our souls, and we are ought to constantly engage in repentance and humbleness. May Allah forgive us, and guide us to the straight path, Ameen.

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