“Pakistanis are the worst!” a young Desi woman exclaimed wrinkling her nose, “I would never advise marrying any of them.” The other Pakistani women present nodded in emphatic agreement while others shook their heads knowingly.
“Arabs are so extreme,” an Arab woman interjected, “Everything is harām to them.” “Americans are much better,” another woman agreed, “They're the only men worth marrying.”
At the last comment, unease knotted in my stomach…
Like most people, my friends and I enjoy the lighthearted discussions that allow us to look at our cultural flaws and critique them. But recently, amidst this sort of talk, I find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. Perhaps I'm being oversensitive. I've certainly considered this possibility. But careful introspection suggests that Allāh is simply answering my oft-repeated supplication…
O Allāh! Make me love what you love, and make me hate what you hate.
And no matter how much I tell myself that our talk is harmless, that there's nothing wrong with having a “good laugh” every now and then, there remains in my heart a wavering that tells me this talk isn't amongst the speech beloved by Allāh …
Once when the Prophet was asked about righteousness, he said, “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil, and sin is what creates restlessness in the soul and moves to and fro in the breast, even though people give you their opinion (in your favor) and continue to do so,” (Ahmad and Al-Darimi).
I certainly don't think it's contrary to righteousness to critique ourselves from time to time. Surely, there are even moments when we may find humor in our faults and ignorance. The famous story of how 'Umar b. Al-Khaṭṭāb laughed as he recalled eating his “date god” during his pre-Islamic days makes that point quite clearly.
However, there is a marked difference between having a healthy sense of humor or engaging in necessary self-analysis and being condescendingly judgmental — even if we imagine ourselves as part of the group we are judging.
“O you who believe! Let not a group scoff at another group. It may be that the latter are better than the former. Nor let [some] women scoff at other women. It may be that the latter are better than the former. Nor defame one another, nor insult one another by nicknames. How ill-seeming is it to insult one's brother after having faith. And whosoever does not repent, then such are the wrongdoers.” (Al-Ḥujurāt, 49:11)
We often think of this āyah as referring to scoffing at the other—a group wholly disconnected from ourselves. But even if this is the case, Allāh does not limit this “other group” to those who share no common traits with us. As such, it is quite possible that those whom we are cautioned against mocking share our race, ethnicity, or background.
Moreover, most times when we are speaking with condescension about “our” culture or ethnic group, we are excluding ourselves from “our” group. Thus, even if we never take time to analyze the implications of our scoffing, our condescending speech suggests that we imagine ourselves as “remarkable exceptions” to a “deplorable rule.”
“I would never marry my daughter to a Black man,” an African-American woman shared honestly as we sat amongst a group of mostly Black Americans.
“And I would never let my sons marry a Black woman,” another African-American woman responded quite brusquely.
I grew quiet, and again I felt that knotting in my stomach. Then who amongst our children will marry at all? I wondered. I found it quite sad that these women had memorized Qur'an, studied Islam from scholars, and were actively engaged in da'wah, yet they somehow missed a quite basic point of human righteousness…
That “good” or “bad” is determined by the state of one's heart and commitment to righteous action—regardless of the color of their skin.
“My parents are so racist,” an Indian woman told me once after saying she would never marry a man from her country, “They would never let me marry outside my culture.”
“And why can't you marry a righteous Indian man?” I'd asked. “Allāh has placed righteous people amongst all cultures. Why can't your future husband be from yours?”
I then added, “Make du'ā'. Certainly Allāh is capable of making your spouse someone whom you and your parents approve of.”
“A righteous woman is a righteous woman,” my husband said once in response to some brothers expressing disdain for marrying women of a particular ethnic group, “And an unrighteous woman is an unrighteous woman. And if a woman isn't righteous,” he added, “it doesn't matter what race she is.”
Unfortunately, this is not the lens we use to view the world. Rather, it has become quite “in vogue” for us to cast judgments based primarily (if not solely) on race, culture, and ethnicity—especially if we happen to be part of these groups. What's most heartbreaking is that amongst many of us, this form of self-hate is associated with practicing “true Islam”—as if Allāh is asking us to leave racism and nationalism that harms others only so that we may inflict this same harm on those who look like us.
“…And [reverence] the wombs [that bore you]. For Allāh ever watches over you.”
And what are these wombs if not our parents, homes, and cultures from whence we all come? And how do we imagine that we can attain righteousness by scorning those whom Allāh chose to nurture us from young? Is this not one of the greatest forms of ingratitude to our Creator?
Yes, we will certainly find amongst all people—especially amongst ourselves—much that needs to be improved, rectified, or even shunned. But if Allāh graces us with knowledge such that we see the faults of our people, this is not an opportunity to scorn or mock the wombs that bore us; rather, it is an opportunity to show patience and gratitude for the favors that Allāh has bestowed on us.
Is it not amongst Allāh's innumerable bounties that He provided us with parents, homes, and cultures at all?
“Verily, Allāh is full of bounty to mankind, but most of them are ungrateful.”
So let us not rush to express hatred and scorn for the bounties that Allāh has bestowed on us—even when these earthly bounties come with human fault and erred cultures. Instead, let us be thankful for these favors—through showing patience with the faults of others (even if these “others” are from our own race, ethnicity, or culture) and through showing gratitude for the good within ourselves.
Like racism toward the “other”, racism toward the self is what deserves our scorn—no matter how “in style” it is amongst some Muslims to harbor bigotry toward the wombs that bore them.
Surely, for the believer, reverencing the wombs that bore them—like living a life of patience and gratitude—is always “in style”.
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.