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What Does the Civil Rights Movement Mean For Muslims?


By Nabeed Hassan

Today is a time for remembrance for the cause of a people who fought for equality and freedom from oppression in America fifty years ago. This is a shared struggle for justice and human dignity that precedes the 20th century; a cause that can be shared by people of all colors and all religions, even, yes, Muslims. The cries for freedom, equality and unity heard in America in 1960 are the same heard in Sudan today, the same heard in Palestine today, the same heard in Makkah in the time of the Prophet (S). We join the rest of America in remembrance of the truly shared human cause, not just Muslim or American, which leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, and others who gave voice to that struggle. Let us not forget our black Muslim brothers and sisters who also fought and struggled alongside them in the Civil Rights Movement.

In Islam, it is a religious command to stand up for the oppressed and to fight oppression of all kinds.Click To Tweet

In Islam, it is a religious command to stand up for the oppressed and to fight oppression of all kinds. It was racial oppression that plagued the African Americans, and it was religious and ideological oppression that plagued the early Muslims in Arabia. The African Americans were denied legal rights and discriminated against as a de facto process because of the color of their skin, and the early Muslims were ousted from their homes and killed because of their belief in only one God. In essence the struggles were the same: fighting for justice and equality. It is important to recognize that similarity between our struggles for righteousness, so that the Muslims can work together their non-Muslim neighbors to ensure the existence of that equality today.

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The man in particular being honored this weekend was one of the greatest movers and shakers of the 20th century – this man won a Nobel Peace Prize preaching the same messages of love and unity for all people that Islam teaches us, a spearhead for a massive movement for social justice and civil rights in this country whose effects we now still enjoy today. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, we have a deferential and mutual respect for differences in race, religion, and views, and legal protection against discrimination in America. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man to be honored by all Americans as a champion of the American spirit, and more importantly, the human spirit. The movement he led serves as an example for the deep power of faith to carry a people through a mortal struggle and end up victorious in their quest for justice, similar to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (S) carrying the message with the Muslims and their faith in God so many centuries ago.

Both the message of Dr. King and that of Islam call for a world where all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, with no real distinction between races, where every member of the human community loves one another as family regardless of what he looks like. This civil rights message, this human rights message, is an inherently and deeply Muslim message.

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” (Prophet Muhammad (S), Farewell Sermon, 632 AD)

The Civil Rights movement came around at a time when large groups of people were being singled out because of some aspect that was feared or looked down upon, and these groups of people were harassed and killed, where even politicians supported the bigotry that caused such crimes against the state and humanity. Since the Civil War in America many racist groups conspired to limit and suppress the growth of the African American community with a constant threat of violence and societal norms. White supremacists in the South created rules and regulations to prevent African American students from receiving a proper education. The political voice of African Americans was silenced through the creation of barriers to society and commerce, barriers to employment and wages, and barriers to voting, including unconstitutional voting laws and the harassment and assault of African Americans at the ballot. And the worst part of it all was that the majority of the people of the country, even the youth, were either silent in fear, or propagating the bigotry themselves, perpetuating the corruption of morality and consciousness.

Today, if you take a look at a newspaper or watch the news carefully, or if you even listen carefully to the voices on the streets you will find the current time for Muslims is disturbingly similar to other climates of discrimination. This past year alone, hate speech, vandalism, and assaults aimed against Muslims broke out around the country. Here a Muslim taxi-cab driver stabbed, here a Muslim construction worker beaten into a coma, here a Muslim woman wearing hijab attacked, here a mosque in Florida bombed, and sadly the list goes on.

Muslims are feared in America even by important political figures, and it isn’t always discreet, as is the case in my home state, where both Peter King, Republican House Representative and chairman of the House Defense Committee from Nassau County, and former New York City mayor Edward Koch, openly declare a cautious and suspicious sentiment towards all Muslims in America, holding public hearings to discuss the danger that Muslims pose to America. Even then, it isn’t limited to the United States. There is violence, harassment, and political oppression all around the world. To even think that this is not a time of reflection and respect for Muslims is completely overlooking the fact that we are facing much the same kinds of struggles as the African Americans did then. And it is time that Muslims have their own civil rights movement.

In a way, the civil rights movement of the 60’s was not entirely successful in America. In a way, the world is due for another movement for social justice. However, in the last American civil rights movement it took an exemplary member of the oppressed community to show people the true value and base human spirit that connects them to each other. Some Muslims are either so scared or so indifferent that they even drift away from and reject their Muslim identity in order to avoid harassment or persecution instead of standing up and demanding fair coverage, fair treatment, and respect. There are some Muslims who do not speak out about harassment and violence against themselves or others in their communities because they are afraid of more violence, deportation, or because they don’t want the media exposure on their families. The Muslim community is silenced both externally and internally.

But will we be the example by which to move people to reconciliation? It has become imperative for Muslims to show the people through media and public exposure that we are a people of peace, a people of virtue, and a people that will stand up for justice.

As eloquently put by Dr. King, “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” The bigots are likely to continue being bigots and become bolstered in strength as time goes on. It is thus up to us to show our pride in the virtue of our religion of love and equality, of freedom and justice to the rest of the world and speak up so that the people of America can hear our salaams over the senseless instigation of the Islamophobes.

Interfaith gatherings, demonstrations, and living by public example are the very least we can do to have a voice against the bigotry, a peaceful war against ideological oppression. With a strong faith and our love for both our Ummah and our non-Muslim neighbors, we may dispel the fear that causes so much hate between our brothers and sisters in humanity in this country, insha’allah (God willing).

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  1. Wael -

    March 3, 2011 at 12:16 AM

    Certainly there are lessons Muslims today can learn from the civil rights struggle. As you said, “Interfaith gatherings, demonstrations, and living by public example…” I would add da’wah, as a crucial tool and a vital part of our mission here in the West. Also, the development of Islamic institutions including schools, universities, financial institutions, etc.

    And though it is very politically correct to take Dr. King as our example, let us not forget our own shining prince of that era, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X). The lesson we take from him is to speak our truth clearly and fearlessly, and to be proactive rather than reactive.

    I would be wary of taking Dr. King as an icon, or comparing him in any way to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Though he achieved great things and was a great man in the context of the civil rights struggle, he was also a man of deep character flaws. We can learn from him and admire the role he played in the struggle without sanctifying him. In fact the same moral failings undid the Black Panther Party, and in that there is also a lesson for us, namely that the government will not hesitate to use our weaknesses against us. The best defense is purity of intention and staying on the path of Islam.

    So yes, I do think it’s important to study the civil rights movement and to understand what worked back then, and what failed, so that we can apply those hard-earned lessons to our own struggle today.

  2. Malcolm X

    March 3, 2011 at 6:48 AM

    King is never the example for anyone. Although his message of equality was the right one, his method was deeply flawed.

    Our way is the one of Malcolm X. Speak the truth; expose hypocrisy from both sides as he did; work to give our people confidence in themselves – to be proud of who they are, what their background is and to look at the value of a person based on their deeds rather than their skin colour, nationality, or their religious label.

    This means fighting back against oppression and not NEEDING the acceptance of another person.

    King’s whole methodology was based on being ACCEPTED by white society. Malcolm’s was based on not needing that at all. I know which one I prefer.

  3. Uthman

    March 3, 2011 at 8:22 AM


    • Muslimah

      March 3, 2011 at 11:17 PM


  4. Syed J.

    March 3, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    Assalam alaikum Br.Wael and Guests,

    The best defense is purity of intention and staying on the path of Islam.

    You Bet.

    Jazak Allah Khair.

  5. Amman AA

    March 3, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    Even though we could learn something from Dr. King, I don’t think its appropriate for Muslims admire kaafirs. Especially when we all know where they are going to end in the hereafter. Regardless what the world thinks of Dr. King, we know as muslims that he denied the message and because of that he is the worst of creatures.

    Regarding civil rights, we have Islamic Civil Rights and So called Human Rights which the kaafirs have come up with themselves. So as muslims we should follow what Sharia says about Human rights and not be deluded by what the secularist or the humanist have to say. What our beloved Prophet (S) went through can’t be compared to what the kaafirs have went through in their own corrupt systems.

    Overall article was well written, but more Islamic stories should be used to inspire and motivate us.

    • Siraaj

      March 4, 2011 at 1:05 AM

      So the Prophet (SAW) didn’t love his mother or his uncle?


      • Amman AA

        March 4, 2011 at 11:35 AM

        Salaam Brother,

        1.) The Prophet’s Mother died when he was six years old. So she she never got the message of Islam. Correct me if i’m wrong about this, but BiBi Amina and he tribe or family believed in “One God”, i think they were called “Hanifs”. I’m not sure, but even then she never got the message so general rule wouldn’t apply for her.

        2.) Even though the Prophet showed love and respect Abu Talib while he was ALIVE, If you could give me one authentic hadith in which the Prophet (S) said something positive after his uncle’s death (He died in the state of kuffar). Did he say anything about his uncle on how he was a good man or how he protected him when he was young? There is a difference of showing a level of mercy and compassion to the kaafirs while they are alive so they could accept the true message of Islam. But when the person has died in disbelieve, then regardless what he has done, its pointless to even mention there accomplishments when you know they will be hell…

        “”The unbelievers of the People of the Book and the idolators shall be in the Fire of Hell therein dwelling for ever; those are the worst of creatures. But those who believe, and do righteous deeds, those are the best of creatures…” Qur’an 98.6

    • E. Salem

      March 4, 2011 at 9:32 AM

      It is reported that the Prophet (SAW) said: Oh Allah! Bless us with one of the Omars!

      Which, taking it very literally, would mean that he admired both of them although they weren’t JUST kafirs, but were ENEMIES of Islam, the Prophet (SAW) and everything related to either.

      We CAN admire non-muslims, we’re supposed to actually.

      In another narration: Seek knowledge even if it is in China.

      For you to learn from a person, you must first accept their views and to to do that you have to respect and admire the knowledge that they have which you don’t.

      Islam isn’t a closed up religion bro, it’s a PERFECT way of life. We have to interact with others, learn from them, help them and let them help us too.

      Your view is exactly why the Ottoman empire fell.

      • Amman AA

        March 4, 2011 at 11:44 AM

        Salaam Brother,

        1.) please read the reply I gave to Brother Siraaj, I think that would answer your question about “The Two Umars”

        2.) Regarding your hadith about going to China. Its not even authentic. Scholars of hadith have said that hadith is acutally mawdoo (fabricated).

        3.) The Ottoman Empire fell for many reasons. The Ottomon Empire joined forces with the central powers in WWI. They JOINED forces with them! With the KAAFIRS… Didn’t Allah say in the Qur’an:

        “O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.”

        So it looks like they was a bigger reason why the Ottoman Empire fell apart. They deviated from the teachings of Islam.

    • jock

      March 4, 2011 at 9:54 AM

      One of the saddest posts I’ve read in a while. Reminds me of this incident with the Pakistani Humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi who was asked ‘why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?’ And he aptly responded, ‘This ambulance is more Muslim than you’

      • Amman AA

        March 4, 2011 at 11:54 AM

        Salaam Brother,

        Please read my replies to Brother Siraaj and E. Salem.

        About Abdul Sattar Edhi:

        Does he speak for all muslims? If he does something that make it islamically sound? How dare he say that statement about the christian and hindus! The muslims are kind to the believers and harsh with the unbelievers. Regardless of how much he is doing, that does not mean we put him on a pedestal and make him the standard. Let’s put President Ahmedinejad on the pedestal. I mean, hes literally in America’s face right now. Should we accept everything that he doing and say that it is Islamic?

        And besides, Hindus and Christians do live in Pakistan and India, so it would be logical to hire kaafirs to help out in the hospitals.

        • jock

          March 4, 2011 at 2:38 PM

          Was anything I said about putting anybody on a ‘pedestal’? Edhi happens to be a well-known humanitarian and I used his example to make a point

          You seem to be unable to register the fact that this attitude of simply avoiding the good that somebody else has done and being ‘harsh with them’ because their beliefs are different from yours is nothing short of damaging and is one of the leading sources of hatred and division in the world. I’ve seen Hindus do it to Muslims, Christians do it Jews, Various groups do it to Muslims and yes, Muslims do it to other groups and other Muslims as well…and the results are always the same: more irrational hatred, fear and loathing and a distorted kind of envy at anybody’s achievements except one’s own. Only yesterday this Minister for Minorities (a Christian) was assassinated in Pakistan and the National Assembly refused to even draw up a resolution condemning it presumably acting on the same premise as you’ve just mentioned that the memory of a non-muslim is not worth bothering with.

          Try and reflect a little over this issue instead of responding with a barrage of misquoted ayaats and hadith and medieval fatawaa and you might get my point


          • Amman AA

            March 4, 2011 at 3:52 PM

            I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions about your comment on Edhi, but I feel you’re misinterpreting what i’m trying to say. The good that a person does in this world, regardless if they’re muslim are not is judged by Allah (swt). Yes, we should be objective, but that does mean we start admiring the kaafirs for who they are and what they have accomplished. If they have died in disbelieve then it makes so logical sense to admire them or even write articles about them. They’re so called “good works” didn’t lead them to Islam, so in short it was all pointless in the end.

            There is a difference between hating someone for there beleifs and showing them hatred. As muslims we are not allowed to show hatred because Allah has said in the Qur’an:

            “And insult not those whom they (disbelievers) worship besides Allah, lest they insult Allah wrongfully without knowledge. Thus We have made fair*seeming to each people its own doings; then to their Lord is their return and He shall then inform them of all that they used to do.” Qur’an 6:108

            Whatever has happened in pakistan is obviously wrong. Especially when the minorities are supposed to be protected in an Islamic country. No where did I say that we should treat kaafir’s badly. Please don’t jump to conclusions…

            Also you are trying to say that I’m clearly confused by the verses that I apparenlty misquoted? Go to ANY scholar of Islam, and if I have said anything which is contrary to Islam, i will take back everything that I have said….

            If I come off rude or disrespect then I’m sorry for that…

            Take Care

  6. What does that have to do with anything

    March 4, 2011 at 11:12 AM


    “In another narration: Seek knowledge even if it is in China.”

    what narration is this. It is certainly not in the authentic hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)

    And basically here the replies have nothing to do with what Amman was saying or his point.

  7. jock

    March 4, 2011 at 8:48 PM

    Thanks for your response

    I’m glad that we can both agree that being actively hostile to somebody is wrong. Sorry if I jumped to any conclusions regarding your statements

    I think its worth pointing out that if it is for Allah (swt) to judge the good ‘works’ of somebody (Muslim or non-Muslim), then it should also be left to Allah to judge the meaningfulness or pointlessness (as you put it) of their lives and actions. There is no logical contradiction at all here. The article’s title and content deal with the historical significance and relevance of the Civil Rights Movement and follows it up with a reminder that Muslims ought to stand up for justice. If it was some sort of rumination about what Dr. King’s position in the Hereafter was or wasn’t, you might have had a point but I don’t really see that happening here.

    I’ve interacted with a variety of Islamic scholars on matters like these and have received responses similar as well as different to yours and try to maintain as sincerely independent an attitude on these things, as I can But I want to avoid getting into a theological debate since, as you can tell from MM’s various other threads, they have a tendency to go on forever without any resolution.

    Take care

  8. lucield

    March 6, 2011 at 4:40 AM

    lawlz the picture that we Muslims try to paint for our non Muslim brothers (we respect our fellow Man, have tolerance and humility towards all creation in the manner that our Prophet taught us, that God created us into different peoples and tribes so that we can learn from one another) and thus try to show that we are no different from them ( and i fundamentally believe that) is unfortunately unrealized in the real world, and the last 20 or so posts show that.

    so many Muslims are filled with hate, bigotry, a superiority complex, a black and white view of the world and its people’s that its really no surprise that many Americans fear us.

    A few (or in our case, a lot) of bad apples can ruin it for all of us.

    thanks Ammann!

    • Amad

      March 6, 2011 at 10:13 AM

      What are you talking about?

  9. Kwame Madden

    March 8, 2011 at 2:20 AM

    I think we as muslims have been short sighted in not seeing that Dr.King in the final year was really vacilating .The Black power movement had tooken over and Johnson was going back on his promises of combating the war on poverty in favor of war spending.And even in Civil Rights Movement Dr.King had to sometimes cede to the new Black Power enthuaism that was taking place.Many of Black Power advocates,became muslim that is good.The book Islam the misunderstood religion by Muhammad Qutb resonate with many of them who got there hands on a copy.And the autobiograpphy of Malcolm X was defintenly was a major contributor as far reading material.Many also were encouraged by the Islamic stand on social justice as compared to Christanity.May Allah guide us all!Ameen

  10. marisela pina

    May 10, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    we would really love if he was still here in the world i think it would be better to have him here and he would of probley have made things better in people lifes

  11. marisela pina

    May 10, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    they should of never had starded slavery or nothing like that all the withe people should of just got along with black becuse now in the world these dayz it is mostly alot of withe kids and hispanic and black hanging out and having fun and they should of had that way back then

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