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Dion Waiters, Islam, The NBA And The Star-Spangled Banner

I was 14 years old in 1996 when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf brought Islam and patriotism together as a topic for debate at America’s dinner table.

The Denver Nuggets point guard, one of the best pure shooters in the NBA at the time, stepped under the spotlight of controversy when it was revealed that he had been routinely sitting out the traditional pre-game playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” due to his religious beliefs as a Muslim.

Across the nation, pundits of print and television media weighed in on this suddenly-famous basketball player and his allegedly disrespectful act that to some resembled treason against the United States of America. Talk-radio airwaves went wild. This story transcended the sports page. Hate mail and death threats were sent to Abdul-Rauf. The NBA suspended him for one game before Abdul-Rauf agreed to compromise and stand for the national anthem while saying a prayer to Allah (SWT).

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Having just converted to Islam three years before the anthem incident, Abdul-Rauf was a relatively new Muslim in ’96. And I, still many years away from my own conversion, was in the relatively early stages of studying Islam. But even back then I held a deep respect and admiration for Muslims, and I can say now that back then I knew deep down that Islam was the right and true path. And so I sided with Abdul-Rauf throughout his ordeal. I hated that he was treated so badly for exercising the same freedom of expression that his tormentors would claim made America great, and I hated that Abdul-Rauf seemed to be blackballed from the NBA in the years that followed the anthem incident.

But truly, I expected no less from the public and from the media in the country in which I was born and raised.

As I grew up and got into the media business myself, Abdul-Rauf’s story has been one that I’ve often wondered about in a modern context. How might things have been different for Abdul-Rauf, for the NBA, and for Muslim Americans had this happened in today’s social and media climate?

I thought we were going to finally find out following the events of Nov. 7, 2014.

On that day, at around the same time the Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers were tipping off in a nationally-televised game, news wires were lighting up with a breaking story about Cleveland shooting guard Dion Waiters citing his Islamic faith as the reason why he hadn’t stood with his team for the national anthem at a game in Utah earlier that week.

“It’s because of my religion,” Waiters was quoted by Northeast Ohio Media Group reporter Chris Haynes. “That’s why I stayed in the locker room.”

Haynes wrote that Waiters said he was a Muslim, that he had been rededicating himself to his faith, and that Waiters “appears to be in a happier state” even though the third-year pro had recently lost his spot in the Cavaliers’ starting lineup.

Haynes’ initial story on Waiters skipping the national anthem was not released in time for the live crowd in Denver that night to see it before the Nuggets-Cavs game began, and hence Waiters was not greeted with the boos and verbal venom you’d expect had the crowd known. (Waiters did stand with the Cavs for the anthem prior to the game against the Nuggets.) In the first half, when Waiters was on the receiving end of a flagrant foul by Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur and fell hard on the court, there was no cheering the potential injury nor applauding Arthur for acting as de facto defender of America.

But outside of that arena, the bell had been rung, and there Dion Waiters was getting the venom you’d expect when a racial or religious minority expresses the slightest displeasure with conditions in the US of A. (“Get out” and “Go back where you came from” are popular responses, ironically from a nation of immigrants and their descendants.)

This was a story that promised to grow into something bigger and uglier as long as it had America’s attention. Dion Waiters, a well-known professional athlete whom almost no one would have assumed was Muslim had they been judging books by their covers, had become an overnight representation of all Muslim Americans. And he assumed this role while performing an act that would certainly inspire more anti-Muslim rhetoric.

This was about to become the Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf story transported to 2014.

But on the next day, things got confusing.

On Saturday, Nov. 8, Waiters went on Twitter to refute Haynes’ report, claiming “whoever made that up about me & the national anthem is a (expletive) lie.” He added, “I can’t believe yall believe everything yall hear … I love everything about America!!!!!!” and finished with, “Dnt believe that BS!!!”

What was America to believe now? What was the Muslim-American community to believe now? What were Waiters’ supporters and newfound haters to believe?

Because Twitter doesn’t ask follow-up questions, it was unclear if Waiters was simply saying his decision to sit out the anthem had nothing to do with religion, or if he was saying he never said what Haynes wrote in his article. It was unclear if Waiters was simply saying he hadn’t told the reporter he is a Muslim, or if he was denying the report that he is a Muslim.

And then later Saturday night, Waiters and Haynes publicly cleared the air. From an article by Haynes that reads like a correction from the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

I never recalled Dion missing a national anthem performance before, but he did mention he is rededicating himself to his religion. I then asked if he planned to continue this pre-game ritual the remainder of the season, and he replied, “Yes, I do.”

Thus, the story was born.

Dion and I had a long conversation on Saturday and we came to the realization that we were thinking two different things.

When I asked if he planned to continue his pregame ritual, I meant did he plan on skipping the national anthem from here on out. He said he was under the impression that I was asking if he would continue his prayer and meditation before games.

On Sunday, Nov. 9, Waiters addressed the media again following a Cavs practice.

He said that on the night he wasn’t on the court for the national anthem, he was doing his “normal routine” in the locker room and simply lost track of time as his routine took longer than expected. Waiters clarified that his routine does not include praying and has “nothing to do with religion.” He did allow, however, that he might have mentioned his Islamic faith to Haynes on Friday.

If these claims from Waiters makes the rounds like the first story did on Friday, perhaps this controversy may cease to exist by the time the Cavs play at home against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, Nov. 10. Or at least by the time the Cavs have their next road game, on Friday, Nov. 14, against the Boston Celtics.

Whether or not the Waiters controversy lives long enough to see the lights of Boston, it nonetheless brought a few questions to mind:

What does Islam say about standing for a national anthem or honoring one’s national flag?

I have found that there appears to be two prevailing philosphies or interpretations on this topic among Muslim scholars. The first comes from the Permanent Committee of Research and Verdicts, and reads in part:

It is not permissible for the Muslim to stand out of respect for any national anthem or flag, rather this is a reprehensible innovation which was not known at the time of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) or at the time of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (may Allaah be pleased with them), and it is contrary to perfect Tawheed and sincere veneration of Allaah alone. It is also a means that leads to shirk and is an imitation of the kuffaar in their reprehensible customs, and following them in their exaggeration about their presidents and in their ceremonies. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) forbade imitating them. And Allaah is the Source of strength; may Allaah send blessings and peace upon our Prophet Muhammad and his family and companions.

The second philosophy or interpretation comes from Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi of the European Council for Fatwa and Research. It states in part:

Muslims living in non-Muslim countries are to respect the symbols of those countries such as the national anthem, national flag etc. This is part of what citizenship dictates as per modern customs. I’d like to make it clear that there is a far cry between this simple form of showing loyalty and the other forms acts that imply a blind loyalty to un-Islamic regimes, overlooking the hostile trend adopted by those regimes against Muslims. It is worth mentioning here that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, spent more than thirteen years in Makkah without showing any form of disrespect to the symbols of polytheism. For him, it was enough not to participate in the pagan rites prevalent in that society and he warned the people of Quraysh against worshipping them.

Thus, standing up for the national anthem is not a form of prohibited loyalty. If a Muslim is to change a wrong action in a majority non-Muslim country, let him do that through Da`wah, wisdom and fair exhortation. At the same time, he should not obey any rules that involve disobedience to Allah.

In perusing the fan and media reactions to Waiters and even going back to Abdul-Rauf, I’ve noticed that there is a common misperception that Muslims who oppose standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner” are doing so because of the song itself or its lyrics. Since there’s nothing in the national anthem about God, people ask, what are these Muslims complaining about?

Hopefully the scholarly responses would clear up that misperception. It’s not the lyrics of the song, it is the act of standing out of respect for anyone or anything other than Allah (SWT). The lyrics are irrelevant.

My next question:

Why is it socially acceptable for some American citizens to loudly oppose the country’s government, insult the President, dismiss and disrespect about one-half of the House and Senate, complain about taxes, spin their own election and voter-fraud conspiracy theories, protest or just openly refuse to follow certain laws … but it is socially unacceptable for others to sit out “The Star-Spangled Banner” or refuse to salute the flag?

If it’s OK for the Tea Party-types — who are often America’s loudest critics — to express their displeasure with things that are wholly American dating back to the days of the founding fathers, it should be OK for racial and religious minorities to express themselves without being called anti-American.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a silent stand for his Islamic beliefs and against the tyranny and oppression he felt defines the U.S., and he may have paid for it with his NBA career. That was in 1996.

In the post-9/11 era, when Islamophobia is at an all-time high and Western media outlets consistently fail to present a fair and balanced view of Muslims — and in an era in which social media and online anonymity has become the new pointed hood of ignorant and hateful individuals — Dion Waiters faces a much different world. Abdul-Rauf received threats because he is a Muslim who challenged an American tradition. Waiters lives in a world where it’s likely he’ll receive threats simply because he’s revealed that he is Muslim.

If it turns out to have only lasted for a day or for a weekend, the Dion Waiters national anthem controversy at least shed a brief light onto what could have happened if Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s story were retold in 2014.

It gave us a glimpse of how mainstream America’s view of Islam has changed since 1996, and how this country responds to when those who live outside of the box have the nerve to do something outside of the box.

As an American, were you proud of what your country showed you?

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Amaar Abdul-Nasir was born and raised in Seattle, Wash., and received his B.A. in Journalism from Seattle University. A sports writer and editor by trade, Amaar founded, which focuses on Muslim athletes and health and fitness in the Muslim community, following his conversion to Islam in 2013.



  1. Pingback: Dion Waiters, Islam, The NBA And The Star-Spangled Banner | NEWYORKUSTAN: American Muslim Series

  2. Zeba Khan

    Zeba Khan

    November 11, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    “Why is it socially acceptable for some American citizens to loudly oppose the country’s government, insult the President, dismiss and disrespect about one-half of the House and Senate, complain about taxes, spin their own election and voter-fraud conspiracy theories, protest or just openly refuse to follow certain laws … but it is socially unacceptable for others to sit out “The Star-Spangled Banner” or refuse to salute the flag?”

    That’s a great question to ask, and having grown up in the US at the same time you did, the double standards have always rankled. “Regular” Americans can call POTUS any number of expletives and be within their rights as American citizens to criticise the government by the people, for the people, as they are its people. But if a Muslim has a respectful difference of opinion that he privately exercises in a discreet way supported by the type of freedoms America is supposedly founded upon- then well- he doesn’t deserve to live here.

    And he should go back to A-rab where here came from.


    • Avatar

      John Howard

      November 12, 2014 at 4:33 AM

      WE here in the west always criticize and harangue our leaders It is part of our culture. It is our way of letting them know that they are our employees and we not theirs. It is the sign of a virile democracy. But some things are sacrocanct as citizens whether America Canada UK or Australia etc The National Anthem and our Flags represent us all Not any party religion or colour they represent every one from atheists to Muslims They identify us as a nation You claim you are an American Muslim and yet as a Muslim you do not accept these precious symbols of your country In fact I get the impression that you sneer at them. You want all the freedoms that the US or the UK my country can offer and that includes respecting their values and symbols. It is not double standards It is their standards Remember that in a Muslim country a non Muslim would be expected to respect those country’s values and indeed have to without any of the leniency of the west

      • Avatar

        Release the Kraken

        November 13, 2014 at 7:35 PM

        I think what she meant is that why should we be expected to perform the same actions if we dont receive the same treatment as nonmuslims. Sort of like working the same job as someone else but for much less pay. Personally i dont think it is a problem to stand for the national anthem as i would probably be insulted if someone in Egypt didnt stand for our National Anthem. It is my understanding that we shouldnt say something is haram unless we provide a verse from the Quran forbidding it or a hadith of the prophet forbidding it. Those who refuse to stand for the anthem could be misinformed or extra informed.

    • Avatar

      Release the Kraken

      November 13, 2014 at 6:17 PM

      I think its unfair to generalize an entire population by the actions of rude vocal minority. Not everyone has the same feelings toward us Muslims and the media’s incorrect portrayal of Islam, on US tv, doesnt necessarily reflect most citizen’s actual belief. Who is funding the media? THEY THINK THEY KNOW WHAT WE ARE ABOUT BUT THEY DONT, THATS WHY THEY ARENT MUSLIMS. AFTER ALL, WHO WOULD WANT TO SUFFER IN HELL? You shouldnt waste your time getting angry from people’s ignorance. #MostMuslimsAreAgainstISIS

    • Avatar


      June 16, 2016 at 2:00 PM

      It’s my belief that a person that decides to be Muslim and even the ones who were born into being Muslim and stay Muslim, have perverted minds………why I say this is because at some point in their growing up their minds had to at least compare their destructive religion to life enhancing,life loving, life in Grace such i.e. Christian Beliefs and KNOW they are wrong………so if they stay Muslim; that’s a bad choice. My opinion.

  3. Avatar


    November 11, 2014 at 5:20 PM

    Islam teaches that Muslim should be loyal to the country. In Holy Quran chapter 4 verse 60 Allah says, ““O ye who believe obey God and obey the Prophet and obey those in authority from among you.” The Arabic expression “in authority from among you” should not mislead anyone into thinking that loyalty to authority is limited only to Muslim authority. No, the verse teaches obedience to authority no matter which religion. It clearly shows that to salute the flag or respect national anthem of the country is not forbidden in Islam. Please visit

    • Avatar


      November 11, 2014 at 10:25 PM

      That link is to an Ahmadiyya website.

    • Avatar

      John Howard

      November 23, 2014 at 5:33 PM

      The fact that so many people gave this comment such a low rating begs the question Are Muslims loyal to the United States or any country that they live in that is a non Muslim state?

  4. Avatar

    Abu Noor Abdul-Malik Ryan

    November 12, 2014 at 9:01 PM

    This article makes many good points, but I think analyzing the issue simply as a question of fiqh is misleading. Although there are certainly general points that can be made about nationalism in general, or standing for any anthem, for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf as well as for many other Muslims part of the issue is whether the United States, and particularly the kind of right wing, forced symbolic displays of patriotism version of the United States which can be symbolized by the anthem and the flag does in fact represent a history of oppression, genocide and aggressive imperial war that is part of the history of this nation.

  5. Avatar


    November 23, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    Waiters is brown/black, so he is oppressed, being a Muslims makes him more oppressed, so he can do what he wants and its fine. On the day of judgment he can tell Allah them white people were the reasons for his sins. This isn’t my views, but the view of the brown/black skin contingency on Muslim Matters.

    My opinion is Waiters is being a hypocrite here, there is a lot more anti Islamic about the NBA and professional sports then just the Star Spangler Banner. The players, like nations when the National Anthems are sung, are being worshipped. The players are running around half naked, the cheerleaders are almost entirely naked, the crowds are boozing, the sexes are mixing, the music is blasting. The NBA preaches an egalitarian message. That everyone is equal, gays and straight, all ethnicities, all religions, etc. If Waiters was serious about his religion he wouldn’t be making his living playing in the NBA.

  6. Avatar

    Mustafa Siddiqui

    September 17, 2016 at 9:04 AM


    The reaction of the public to Dion Waiters then, and now Colin Kaepernick reflects something at the root of the American psyche. It’s not often revealed as explicitly as David Brooks did in his NYT article entitled “The Uses of Patriotism”, but the fact is, patriotism (or rather “Americanism”) is the real national religion of the United States of America. From the comments there, many disagree with him, but many others echo his sentiments.

    He uses terms such as “civic religion” and “idea system”, and he glorifies an “American creed” that bonds people from identities together. He bemoans the fact that the “civic religion” is under assault by a “multiculturist mind-set” and that Amercians are lest “fervent” about it. To him and other thought-leaders, rituals (he uses that word too!) such as the national anthem the 4th of July are meant to re-inforce that creed.

    It is shocking, even more so when you realize that substituting “aqidah” for “American creed”, “salah” for “rituals”, “Islam” for “the civic religion”, “salaf” for “ancestors”, etc. and the article still wouldn’t lose much meaning. It also underscores the fact that Americanism is meant to supplant your loyalty to any other religion or identity. That is how you can make a cartoon joke of Isa عليه السلام or make irreverent jokes about religion all you want and the common Christian American will laugh with you, but if you choose not to stand for the anthem, he’ll curse you for all the days until you mend your ways.

    My advice is to make sure that we understand that it’s not necessary for something to be named as a “religion” in order for it to actually be a creed and mindset. Stick to Islam completely in your mindset and your actions, otherwise you will unwittingly find yourself on a religion that the devil is happy with.

    Nationalism is a disease, but one step to fight it is to change the words we use about ourselves. There is a slight difference between “American” and “American citizen”, one is credal and one is circumstantial.

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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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Social Justice

Podcast: Priorities and Protest | On Muslim Activism with Shaykhs Dawud Walid and Omar Suleiman

Islam teaches us to stand up for justice, to enjoin good and forbid evil, and to help our brother whether he’s the oppressor or the oppressed, but how?

To help us fully understand the answer to this question, we have the honor of speaking to not one, but two subject matter experts on Muslim activism. Dr. Omar Suleiman and Shaykh Dawud Walid are both scholars, authors, and Imams internationally known for their work in civil rights and social justice.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Excerpts from the interview:

“You can’t say I don’t believe any bad things about black people because I love Sayyiduna Bilal. We have to move past, and move beyond the tokenization of Bilal and talk about the haqeeqah (reality) of America and how the broader super culture really has influenced a lot of anti-black frameworks inside the Muslim community of those who are not black.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

'We believe very deeply that our deen calls us to stand for the sanctity of life and to stand against oppression, and to stand against state violence and all that it represents in this regard.' - Imam Omar SuleimanClick To Tweet

“We can never elevate any other cause to where we equate it to anti-blackness in America, we can and rightfully should point to the fact that the same frames that have been used to justify state violence and white supremacy embedded in state policy towards black people in America is what guides America’s foreign policy and imperialism as well.” – Imam Omar Suleiman

'When the Muslim community stands up for the importance of black life, it is standing up for itself and with itself.' - Shaykh Dawud WalidClick To Tweet

“You know your name, and you know what land your family came from and you know the language that they spoke. Imagine the centuries of trauma that African Americans have gone through in this country, where we were brought here as chattel, like a cow or a chicken, our children were separated from our parents, our names were taken from us, our language, our culture, our religion, and then we were forced into the religion of Christianity, and the psychological warfare and violence of then having to look at a picture of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that looked just like our slave-master, and to be told that our slave master looked more like the embodiment of civilization and purity of Jesus. And then we looked at ourselves and we saw the exact opposite. And then this dehumanization, being baked into every single system of the socio-political life of black people in America.

Anyone who is named Jones in America, it’s because their great, great grandfather was owned by someone named Jones. It has nothing to do with their lineage or their culture. And people like me, who are lighter skinned African-Americans – there’s no one from Senegal or Gambia indigenously who looks like me – it’s because my great grandfather’s mother was raped by a white man on a plantation in South Carolina. What we face in America isn’t just a moment or two of discrimination here or there.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

'Why should cops with a list of seventeen prior violations of excessive force still be on the force? Why is it that penalizing of everyone but the police exists?' - Imam Omar SuleimanClick To Tweet

“Many Muslims feel very stressed when they’re driving across the border to Canada or flying back into the country. They’re very fearful about CBP or about being interrogated or held. Take that feeling, multiply it by about three, and imagine every day of your life living in America feeling that way. That’s about the best way I can explain it, but if you’re black AND you’re Muslim, that’s double trouble.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

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On British Muslims & Racism: Do Black Lives Matter?

Q. As Muslims, what should our stance be on racism or racial discrimination, and should we be supporting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? And isn’t all of this support for BLM privileging justice for black people over others, especially when we Muslims realise the increasing Islamophobia and injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters around the globe?

A. At the outset, let me be clear about how I intend to engage these concerns. And that is by rooting them in mainstream teachings of Islam so as to address the issue of racism in a manner that might be meaningful in a British context, and recognised as being Islamic in a Muslim one. I have divided the response into five parts: [i] Islam & racism; [ii] modernity & racism; [iii] Britain & racism; [iv] Muslims & racism; and [v] BLM & racism.

I. Islam & Racism

Although the following verse is not speaking of the modern social construct of racism per se, it is speaking to the pre-modern concept of groupings of people related by significant comment descent; in terms of location, language, history and culture. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an: O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and then made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most pious. God is indeed Knowing, Aware. [Q.49:13]

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The Prophet ﷺ brought skin colour into the mix in these words: ‘O mankind! Indeed your Lord is one, and indeed your father is one. Truly, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor white (ahmar, lit. ‘red’ or ‘reddish’) over black, nor black over white – except by piety. Have I not conveyed [the message]?’1

In fact, the Qur’an doesn’t only negatively condemn such discrimination, but it positively and actively celebrates diversity too: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and your colours. In this are signs for people of knowledge. [Q.30:22]

The above verses and prophetic statement, then, were a total restructuring of the moral or ethical landscape prevalent throughout Arabia at the time. True worth would no longer be determined by skin colour, lineage, or even by grandiose shows of courage or generosity. Rather, true worth would be measured by taqwa – ‘piety,’ ‘godliness’ and ‘mindfulness’ of God’s commands and prohibitions.

Once, when one of the Prophet’s wives hurled a racial slur (or ethnoreligious insult, as we might say today) at another co-wife in a state of annoyance, disparagingly called her ‘the daughter of a Jew’, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, your [fore]father [Moses] was a Prophet; your [great] uncle [Aaron] was a Prophet; and you are married to a Prophet. What can she boast to you about?’2 Again, when one companion insulted another person, by insulting his mother because she was a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ said to him: ‘You still have some pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah) in you.’3 Thus no Muslim has even the slightest right to resurrect the vile attitude of racism; xenophobia; tribal bigotry; or insulting people due to them being seen as the ‘Other’, when the Prophet ﷺ radically eliminated such attitudes from the believer’s worldview and relationships. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘There isn’t a single verse in God’s Book that praises someone or censures someone due to just their lineage. Instead, praise is due to faith and piety, while blame is because of disbelief, immorality or disobedience.’4

II. Modernity & Racism

In the 1830s, Samuel Morton, an American craniologist, amassed and studied hundreds of human skulls so as to measure differences in brain size between people from various ethnic backgrounds. Morton believed he had used science to prove that white people were intellectually superior to other ‘races’. In his Crania Americana, Morton declared that not only did white people have larger brains and thus were intellectually superior to all other races, but also that black people had the smallest brains sizes and were hence inferior to all others. Morton and others used this conclusion as a ‘scientific’ justification to continue slavery in the United States and negatively stereotype black people. Many hold Morton to be the founding father of scientific racism. It’s here that, based upon this pseudo-science and on certain superficial differences in physiological traits, the categorisation of people into distinct ‘races’ begins in earnest. And while the institutional racism, racial prejudice, and white supremacy that was to follow were directed at all races in Morton’s descending hierarchy, providing adequate grounds to treat other races differently, in terms of rights and privileges, it would be black people (at the supposed bottom of the heap) that would bear the greatest and most sustained brunt of it.

Of course, modern science has long since shown that brain size isn’t necessarily related to intelligence. Instead, brain size is tied to things like environment, climate and body size, while intelligence is more related to how many neurons, or how efficient the connections between neurons, are in the brain. Indeed, modern science has also largely debunked the biological basis of race, showing that there is as much genetic diversity within such racial groups as there is between them. Science now regards race as a conventional attribution; a social construct, but not a scientifically rooted or valid classification. And while today we tend to favour the term ethnicity over the arbitrary construct of ‘race’ based upon skin colour and physiognomy, race remains, for some, a focus of individual and group identity, particularly members of socially disadvantaged groups, like blacks, where it oftentimes is a source of pride and joy. All this has led many anthropologists to argue that since there is no scientific basis for race, we should just chuck the whole idea in the bin. Others say that if we’re going to continue to insist on the social fiction of racial differences, let it be based on ethical considerations that enhance justice, fairness and familiarity between peoples, not hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. In fact, this latter way of looking at ethnic or racial divides is probably more in keeping with what Islam wants for humanity. After all, God made of us nations and tribes lita‘arafu – ‘that you might know one another.’

The above, then, amidst the activities of European empires and colonialism is where such modern ideas of racial discrimination and racism were birthed; ideas and realities which still reverberate frustratingly down to these present times. Just how many ordinary white Britons internalised the racist pseudo-science over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, not because they were particularly bad or evil people, but because they believed the ‘science’, is anyone’s guess. Add to that the usual xenophobia that often exists against the outsider, the modern feats and achievements of white Western Europe which feed into the idea of white exceptionalism or supremacy, and the political utility of whipping up blame against immigrants in times of national difficulty and economic downturn, make for well-entrenched myths and discrimination against people of colour.

III. Britain &Racism

Although the history of the United States is drenched in racism; with the issue of race still being the most painful, divisive one for its citizens, it is racism in Britain – my home, and where I was born and raised – that I’d like to confine my remarks and anecdotes to. And in Britain, just as in America, while peoples of diverse ethnic minorities have undeniably been, and continue to be, victims of racism, it is discrimination against black people that is by far the more endemic and systemic.

The recent anti-racist protests that are taking place across the country aren’t just to show anger about the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of yet another American police officer. They are also protests against the systemic racism here in Britain too. Long before racism against blacks, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, Jews as a people, and also the Irish, suffered racism in Britain. Jewish people still do.

Whilst structural or institutional racism is difficult to conclusively prove, the lived reality of people of colour, as well as statistics after statistics, or report after report, all point to similar conclusions: Britain has a race problem. It doesn’t just have a problem with casual racism (now called micro aggression; as experienced in schools, jobs or everyday life), or racism born from unconscious bias (snap decisions conditioned by cultural upbringing or personal experience); it has a problem of systemic racism too – racial discrimination and negative stereotyping within many of its key institutions: the police force and the criminal justice system deemed to be among the main culprits.

It is, of course, argued that although Britain does indeed have individual racists, and that acts of racism do tragically still occur here, but Britain itself; even if it may have been in the recent past, isn’t institutionally racist anymore. We have the Equalities Act of 2010, as one of the clearest proofs against any institutional racism.

Or the case has been put that, ever since the Macpherson Report of 1999, which came as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and the two words in it that stood out from the rest of the 350 page report, that London’s Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ – Britain’s police forces have internalised the criticism and have come on leaps and bounds since then: individually and institutionally. So to describe Britain’s police forces as still being systemically racist is unjust and unfair; or so the argument goes.

Be that as it may; and while many positive changes of both mind and structure have been sincerely made, the stark, present-day statistics tell us another story. Modern Britain is a place where black people, in contrast to white ones are: 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 4 time more likely to be arrested; twice as likely to be temporarily excluded from school; and 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded from school; and twice as likely to die in police custody. From any unbiased standard, does this look anywhere like equality? And just as importantly, are we saying that institutional racism is totally absent from these numbers?5

For most of my life, I’ve lived on one council estate or another in East London. In my pre-teen years, I grew up on an estate in Chingford, where most of the people were white, with a few Afro-Caribbean families and a couple of Asian ones: my family being one of them. I, like many other non-whites of my generation, encountered my share of racist abuse; and for a short time, a little racist bullying too. On the whole, I got along with most kids on the estate and at its primary school, regardless of colour; and they got along with me.

For my entire teen years, I lived on another estate in Leytonstone, where this time most of the residents were black. It was the mid 1970s, and it was a time when many young black people were, I wouldn’t say suffering an identity crisis, but more that they were searching for an identity. For unlike their parents, they were neither Jamaican, Bajan [Barbadian], or Trinidadian, nor did they feel (or were made to feel) totally British. Instead, young black Britons were turning to their Blackness to make sense of their place in Britain, developing a sense of collective cultural identity in the process. I felt a greater affinity to that culture, than I did any other. Voices like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru spoke to our plight and our aspirations. But whilst their conscious lyrics of roots reggae was coming out of Jamaica, it was home-grown, British reggae artists that would tell our own specifically British story: artists like Steel Pulse, Black Roots, Mikey Dread or, particularly for me, Aswad (or early Aswad, from ’76-’82). Aswad sang of African Children (which I’d swap in my mind for ‘immigrant’ children) ‘living in a concrete situation;’ in ‘precast stone walls, concrete cubicles. Their rent increasing each and every other day; Structural repairs are assessed and yet not done; Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor; And when they work, they smell.’ All of us youths crammed into the estate’s small youth centre, smiled, nodded away approvingly, and perfectly identified with the message when we first heard such conscious lyrics booming out at us. Whilst Marley spoke of the daily ghetto struggles of growing up in the concrete jungle of Kingston 12; Trenchtown, for me, Aswad spoke of parallel struggles growing up in the concrete situation of Leytonstone E11. We all a feel it, yes we a feel it!

Back to racism. My one little anecdotal proof of black victimisation from the police comes from the time when I was living on Leytonstone’s Cathall Road Estate. Police raids were a fairly usual occurrence on our estate as well as in the youth centre; sometimes with actual justification. In the youth centre, the police (usually with their police dogs), would stomp in; turn off the music; stamp out any spliff that was lit up; and then we’d all be told to line up against the wall with our hands behind our heads. Every time this happened, without exception, when it came to searching me, they never did. They’d simply insist that I leave the centre, or go home, which I would. I’d then usually come back half an hour or an hour later, and resume playing pool, table-tennis or bar football; or just soak up the vibes (not the spliff). Once, after a raid had happened, I came back to the centre, only for one of my close Rasta friends to advise me that it would be best if I stay home for a few days. I asked why? He told me that some people who hang out at the centre, but who don’t really know me, nor live on the actual estate, are saying that it’s odd that I never get searched and that maybe I was a grass. It would be an understatement if I said that I was scared stiff. I took the advice, and stayed away from the centre for a week, till I got the nod that things were all okay. A month or so later, and yet another raid. But this time, for me it was a Godsend: they actually searched me! I felt relieved, vindicated, and took it as a badge of honour. My point being is that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, there were countless times when I saw specifically black people stigmatised and victimised by the police.

To be honest, by the mid 1980s, with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism doing their thing against the far-right National Front; with Reggae and Two-Tone Ska bands and gigs more and more mixing blacks and whites; and with attitudes of the young positively changing, I thought (perhaps naively) that racism in Britain would liklely be a thing of the past by the mid ’90s. Optimism, of course, is entirely healthy, as long as it doesn’t become blind to realism.

IV. Muslims & Racism

Here I’d like to speak about something that some Muslims will find uncomfortable: which is that we [non-black]Muslims need to admit the anti-black racism that infects our own communities. Sadly, racism against black people – including fellow black Muslims – is all too common among British Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. Whether it is being stared at by elderly Asians in the mosque and so made to feel self-conscious, to the way we of South Asian descent use the word kala, ‘black’, in a derogatory way; or whether it’s about marriage, or thinking all black Muslims must be converts and then dishing out patronising praise to them over basic acts like making wudhu – this un-Islamic nonsense; this jahiliyyah, simply has to stop.

We must speak to our elders about their anti-black racism. We need to respectfully discuss why so many of our mosques continue to make black Muslims feel unwelcome, or drive them away, and what can be done about it? Yet while our masjids are undeniably masjids; ‘Most mosques function as “race temples” created as enclosures for single ethnicities, and their mono-ethnic and introspective leadership are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos.’6 Such ‘race temples’ are where Ethnic Islam rules the roost, even at the cost of shari‘ah race equality, sirah hospitality, or sunnah unity.

But racism isn’t just an issue with South Asian elders? It lurks in the hearts and minds of my generation too; and maybe that of my children’s? It’s less the stares or the ignorance about Black achievements, and more the negative stereotyping; post-colonial complexes; desperation to whiten-up; or outright racism when it comes to marriage. Here as an Asian Muslim parent, I’m happy for my daughter or son to marry – religiously speaking – some adamant fasiq or fasiqah – especially if they are of a lighter complexion: but I could never accept them marring a godly, well-mannered, responsible Black person! But we convince ourselves we are not racist: after all, I love the sahabi, Bilal. I weep when I read Bilal’s life story. My good friend, Bilal, is black. But the proof is in the pudding, and the truth is that we need to move beyond tokenism; beyond Bilal.

Those Muslims who make an issue of colour; whose racist or tribal mindsets lead them to look down upon a person of darker colour or treat them unequally, let them consider the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, and fourth Caliph, sayyiduna ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The classical biographers all state: kana ‘ali adam, shadid al-udmah – ‘Ali was black, jet black.7 Or take our master ‘Umar who is also described in the same terms.8 The colour, adam may refer to skin complexion which is dark brown, like a native American; or darker still, like in native Australian aborigines; or jet black, like many Africans. When the phrase, shadid al-udmah is added, ‘extremely dark’, then there’s no mistaking what is meant: a person who, for all intents and purposes, is black. Such a description seems quite usual for the Arabs among the sahabah. Black skin is also the colour of the lady with whom the whole Muhammadan saga begins: our lady Hagar (Hajarah); she was a black Egyptian. Or consider the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Our Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘As for Moses, he was tall and dark brown, as like the men of al-Zutt.’9 The Zutt were a well-known tribe of tall dark men from the Sudan.10 After knowing the above, if we are still going to look down at people merely due to their darker complexion, then what ghustakhi; what mockery and disrespect will we be possibly drowning in?

Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.

Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.Click To Tweet

So let’s have the conversations. Let’s have some serious introspection. Let’s listen to what Black Muslims have to say. Let’s desire to be healers, not dividers. Let’s educate ourselves about the reality of Black lives in general, and Black Muslim lives in particular. Olusoga’s Black & British and Akala’s Natives are good places to start. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering is, with its theological insights, a must read. Above all, let’s work towards not just being non-racist, but anti-racist.

Change, thankfully, is in the air. For urban, millennial Muslims, and those of a generation younger still, these older ethnic divides are more and more of an irrelevance in their lives (though I’m not sure how much this applies to those raised in ethnic silos in Britain’s less urbanised cities). Such millennials have heard the stories of the intra-ethnic fighting; the anti-black racism; the token hospitality to black Muslims, but without ever giving them a voice; and the fruitless attempts to make the ‘race temples’ more inclusive, and how after decades, it’s a case of banging heads and brick walls. So owing to this, they are seeking to create more inclusive, culturally more meaningful spaces; away from all this toxic, ethnic Islam. Surely that’s where the rest of us should be heading too?

V. BLM & Racism

The Qur’an says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2] Between this verse and the hilf al-fudul pact the Prophet ﷺ upheld and endorsed even after prophethood, we have a solid religious basis for supporting any individual or group working for issues of social justice: be it for Muslims or non-Muslims; be it led by Muslims or non-Muslims.

The Black Lives Matter movement has proven itself to be a powerful and effective vehicle over the past five years to demand reform in terms of anti-Black racism; with their current focus on justice for George Floyd and his family. Thus, how can Muslims not support it? Of course, we cannot give any organisation carte blanche support. Religiously, we Muslims cannot give unconditional support to anybody save to God and His Prophet ﷺ. Given that BLM has a few stated aims that are inconsistent with Islam’s theology (‘freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’ is one of them, for instance), our activism must be guided by sacred knowledge and illumined by revealed guidance. Our intention is not supporting BLM, as such. Instead, it’s a case of making a stand against injustice, in this case anti-Black racism: supporting those individuals or organisations that are likely to be the most effective in achieving this goal. (It should go without saying, that we can work for justice for more than one cause or more than one set of people at the same time). And this is what the above verse and the hilf al-fudul pact have in mind. And just like the BLM describes itself as ‘unapologetically Black’, perhaps some of us need to be a tad more unapologetically Muslim?

But let’s take our focus off such theological nuances for now, and tie a ribbon around the whole thing and say: Let us, at least in spirit and in principle, if not in body, fully support Black Lives Matter as a cause, more than as a movement, in seeking to resolve structural racism; get justice done for all the George Floyds and all the Stephen Lawrences; and to get people to reflect on their own attitudes to racism and the racial ‘Other’ – ensuring our knee isn’t on the necks of others. We should support the overall goals of any grassroots movement that is working for a fairer, more just and tolerant Britain for everyone: black or white. Of course, for that to happen, from a Black Muslim perspective, anti-Black racism as well as an ever-growing Islamophobia must be tackled. Currently in Britain, God forbid that you are ostensibly a Muslim and Black!

Racism affects all people of colour. But when it comes to Black people, they face a unique anti-black prejudice as the ultimate Other, propagated both by white majorities and even other ethnic minorities. As a marginalised community South Asians, no doubt, have their own prejudices thrown their way. But they are not the same lived experiences as that of Black people. And while it can be easy to lump everyone together and perceive ourselves as having a shared trauma, statistics show that this equivalence is not really true.

In closing, I’d like to thank my youngest daughter, Atiyyah, for inspiring me to revisit and renew my ideas on anti-black racism; and my friend, Dr Abdul Haqq Baker for prompting me to write this piece, offering invaluable suggestions, and then reviewing it for me.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22978. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be sahih in Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Dar Ishbiliyah, 1998), 1:412.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3894, where he declared the hadith to be hasan sahih.

3. Al-Bukhari, nos.2545; 6050.

4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:230.

5. GOV.UK: Black Caribbean Ethnicity Facts and Figures.

6. Abdal Hakim Murad, Travelling Home (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2020), 49-50.

7. See: Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinat al-Dimashq (Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 42:24.

8. As per Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, al-Isti‘ab fi Ma‘rifat al-Ashab (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1971), 3:236

9. Al-Bukhari, no.3438.

10. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 8:61.

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