“We were of the most disgraced of people, and Allah granted us honor with this Islam. Now, whenever we seek honor in other than that which Allah honored us with, Allah shall disgrace us (once again).”
—‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb
“Black people in America can never be Muslim,” he said to me as I stood next to his desk. I stared at my teacher with an expression that must have conveyed very little of what I felt right then. I didn’t know what to say. I studied his eyes, slightly enlarged by the thick glasses he wore. The deep olive of his Arab complexion was nearly the same as my American brown. We even shared the same hair texture—though my hair was covered right then.
But, even so, to an outsider looking in, he could have easily been my father. And given that he was the only Muslim teacher I had at the high school, I should have at least shared with him the commonality of “brother and sister” in Islam. But that, I knew, was impossible to this man. He was Arab. I was American—and “Black” at that. He wanted to make sure I understood this impossibility. I did.
I continued standing where I was only because I was waiting for my teacher to mention the reason he had called me to his desk. The other students were at their seats working, some looking up curiously every now and then, wondering what it was our teacher wanted from me. Naturally, like most students would, they imagined I’d gotten myself in trouble somehow, and they didn’t want to miss the action. I waited only because I didn’t want to miss his point.
The teacher’s matter-of-fact expression as he blinked back at me confused me only momentarily. I hesitated for only a second after the realization, mostly out of respect, and I made an effort not to display disdain for my elder as I excused myself and returned to my seat. But it was impossible for me to concentrate after that. I was genuinely perplexed.
“In life,” my father told us once, “you’ll meet many people who’ll say al-salāmu ‘alaykum, but they’re not really Muslim.” He shook his head. “No, I don’t mean they’re not Muslims to Allah. I mean they’re not living Islam. They have no idea what this religion means.”
I thought of my Arab teacher.
“Beauty is in carrying yourself like a Muslim,” my parents would say. “Beauty is in living Islam.”
I stood browsing the shelves of the modest store—“the Sooq”—adjacent to the prayer area of the Islamic center I liked to attend in suburban Washington, D.C. I did a double take before picking up the small box. I stared at it a moment longer, realizing my eyes hadn’t been mistaken at all. The skin-bleaching cream—manufactured in a Muslim country—did indeed say what I thought it said.
The solution to pollution.
Next to this tagline was the image of two faces, one brown (incidentally very close to my own skin tone) and the other white—the “before” and “after” of this product. Disgusted, I returned the box to the shelf and left.
“And here we have a black woman,” the Muslim lecturer told the audience, his voice rising to reflect the sincerity of his message as he shared the famous ḥadīth about the black woman afflicted with seizures, a story he hoped would encourage his Muslim sisters to take ḥijāb more seriously, “a black woman who wanted to guard her modesty. So she asked the Prophet, ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam, to invoke Allah so that she wouldn’t become uncovered. Sisters, this was a black woman…”
“My father would never let me marry a Black man,” my friend from Trinidad told me as we chatted one day. She laughed and shook her head. I couldn’t help noticing that her skin was a much richer brown than my own. “He told me, ‘You can marry whoever you want, but don’t ever marry a Black man.’”
“I must admit,” a sister from Somalia said after meeting me for the first time. We were at a book event for my novels held at an Islamic convention. “I’m really surprised you’re Black.” As we talked, she apologized for her prejudice: She had been unable to fathom that such “well-written” books could come from a Black American. Later at the same convention, a fellow American said something similar—but in different words. “And she’s really intelligent,” he said as he introduced me to his wife. His voice was between disbelief and awe. I smiled as I reached out to shake the hand of a woman who studied me with a sense of uncertainty that strangely mirrored her husband’s shock at my brain’s capacity. I read the question in her eyes. Really? Are you sure?
I could say that these experiences scarred me for life, that I went home in tears, and that these people’s bigotry incited within me that horrible inferiority complex due to my “Blackness” and my utter inability to be accepted not only by “White America” but also by the “real” Muslims of the world.
But I won’t. That would be dishonest. Truth is, I felt sorry for these people.
When I was still in high school, I would come home and recount such stories to my younger sister, and like myself at the time, she would become perplexed. And to be really honest, we would even laugh at times—not with the quiet, hesitant giggle most appropriate for our “lowly” status, but with the thunderous throw-your-head-back laugh that makes your stomach hurt and tears sting your eyes. This was how we dealt with much of the bigotry we witnessed in life.
Perhaps I am an exception. I can’t be sure. But I didn’t reach adulthood thinking I was less than anyone else. I didn’t shrink in the face of those deemed above me—whether Muslim or non-Muslim—and demurely accept their “superior” status. Quite frankly, I didn’t know they had one. Yes, I knew about those suffering from a tragic sense of insecurity, which made it necessary for them to release “statistics” about others’ intellectual abilities (or lack thereof) or call a student to their desk to say she couldn’t be Muslim.
Or to believe, perhaps, that those who aren’t Black are actually inferior. But, alḥamdulillāh, I didn’t go through any of that.
Yes, in childhood, I was mistreated—by non-Muslims mostly due to my Islam and brown skin and by Muslims mostly due to my “lack of Islam” because of my brown skin. And yes, it hurt. And yes, I cried from time to time. And no, I didn’t always feel confident in my Muslim headscarf and brown skin. And, naturally, I didn’t reach adulthood without insecurities (if such a thing is possible).
But, by Allah’s mercy, I also didn’t reach adulthood insecure. My self-image and self-esteem centered around one thing: my Islam. So when I picked up a “Muslim” magazine and happened upon the matrimonial section, it didn’t even occur to me that I should feel slighted or offended when I read dozens of ads by men looking for “fair” wives. I had a good laugh. And my sister did too.
“I’m Whiter than You”
I flipped back to the page of Al-Jumuah Magazine I had just seen. For a moment I just stared at the title. I couldn’t imagine what the article would be about. If there was a turning point in my youthful naïveté, reading this article was probably it—though I was a wife and mother at the time I came across this piece.
To the author’s credit, the article was well-written and reflective. She was a White American who had accepted Islam and, due to her (apparently) being the recipient of superfluous praise for her appearance, she wished to let us know the downside of having white skin—sunburns and the like.
What was life-changing about this for me was two-fold: that the author had been inspired to write it in the first place and, what’s more, that a reputable Muslim magazine had seen value in printing it.
I sat still for quite some time. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t indignant. I was…confounded.
When I was in high school, a local radio show held a citywide essay contest, and contestants were to write about the hero in their lives. The winning piece would be read live from the Indianapolis radio station and broadcast for all the city to hear. As I contemplated whom I would write about, many personalities crossed my mind. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks… But in the end, I chose my father. And, to my surprise, I won.
I stood before the microphone as the radio host looked on, and I shared with the world my honest testimony of what I felt right then—that my father was my hero in life. It wasn’t because he was a well-known community activist or because I’d grown accustomed to seeing his name in the newspaper or his face on television. It wasn’t even because he was the spiritual advisor to the famous boxer Mike Tyson. It was because, despite the many obstacles he faced in life and despite his being a rather ordinary man, he managed to instill in me, as well as my siblings, a love for the lives that Allah gave us. And never once did he make me or my siblings believe that our worth (or beauty) could be measured by—or limited to—our bodies or skin.
In a word, he taught us…truth. Today, I find it truly heartbreaking that of the more than one billion Muslims in the world, so few of them could say the same of their parents.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, Muslims—whether “fair” or “dark,” Arab or non-Arab, Black or White—seek honor in lifestyles and values that are far removed from Islam.
“Is it honor you seek among them? Nay, all honor is with Allah.”
—Qur’an (Al-Nisā’, 4:139)
While in truth, we should seek honor in only one lifestyle:
That of being slaves.
Not to our country, skin color, tribe, or family name. And not even to our “victim status” as oppressed people of the world.
But to Allah, our Creator. Who has given us Islam.
If we don’t seek honor through this religion, we will continue to live in humiliation and make utter fools of ourselves. Not only through revealing our tragic colonial mentality in racist comments, ridiculous matrimonial ads, and bizarre articles in magazines. But through our sullied souls when we die and meet Allah.
For to our Creator, there is but one measure of human beauty and worth: Being Allah’s slaves on earth. And these superior slaves are not distinguished due to their bodies or skin. But due to their pure hearts and righteous deeds…
And through having in their breasts not even a grain of pride when they are buried in the dirt from which they were created.
So as we take pride in the color (or lack thereof) of our fleshy dirt,
Tell me, O child of Adam…
Are you amongst these honored slaves?