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Teach Your Kids About Black Lives Matter Now

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by Sana H. Aaser

[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]hile Muslims were celebrating the final days of Ramadan and Eid, two unarmed black men – Philando Castile and Alton Sterling – were shot and killed by police officers in separate events in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge. These recent events underscore a disheartening trend: young black men in America are nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than any other demographic.

Race relations have become all the more tense as self-proclaimed, “freedom fighters,” have killed six police officers in Dallas and three police officers in Baton Rouge. Although the news and social media have been filled with updates and opinions, few articles have been geared toward kids. Even those articles that make a case for why we should talk to our kids about it, don’t explain how.

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So, what do we tell our kids?

In the following sections, we will discuss: (a) a rationale for discussing race relations in America with kids, (b) a historical narrative to teach, (c) key topics to discuss, and (d) action items.

Why Muslims Must Tell Their Kids

As a parent, you might be asking yourself, “Why should I tell my child about race relations in America?” Here are three important reasons:

Instilling Justice

The cases of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are each examples of a grave injustice in which police officers used their positions of power and authority to make a judgment and exert force unfairly. Islam teaches us to stand up against injustice wherever we see it. The Qur’an states “…do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is acquainted with what you do” (5:8).

Standing for Equity

The events that transpired in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge are part of a larger narrative of the persistent unequal treatment of people of color. This is not only morally reprehensible, but also against the teachings of Islam. Allah says “Oh mankind, indeed We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you” (49:13).

Creating Consciousness

Reflecting on the stories of the police officers who shot and killed these Black men, a discussion on our own awareness of biases and stereotypes is required. While the police officers might deny being racist, their actions say otherwise. Their hasty judgment led to the death of young men. In the same way, our own assumptions and prejudices can have terrible consequences.

This isn’t just an American problem, it is an American-Muslim problem as well. The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative released a study in 2015, documenting serious forms of racism within the American-Muslim community. If you don’t have time to read through the study, a summary (in pop-culture form) is available here.

Why Parents Don’t Tell Their Kids

These are tough conversations. Parents may not want to have these conversations because they are personally uncomfortable. The American Psychology Association, believes that it is integral for parents to keep talking anyway, and that the discussions get easier over time. However, there are two common hesitations that parents have.

My Kids are Color Blind

One common hesitation that parents cite when discussing topics related to race is that “my children [and I] don’t see color; we treat all people equally.” This argument, often referred to as “color blindness,” lacks merit because even if a parent allegedly does not see race, it still does not account for institutional racism. Secondly, studies show that our brains naturally discriminate and therefore, it is irresponsible to claim that one, “does not see color.”

My Kids are Too Young

Another common contention is that, “my children are too young to speak to about race,” or that “my children aren’t affected by racism.” This is simply not true. An in-depth investigation by CNN, titled “Kids on Race,” in 2012 showcases that children as young as six years old have varying attitudes on race.

We recommend the following discussion for parents of children age six and above.

The Story to Share with Kids

Our goal is to share a historical narrative to help children understand the concept of institutional racism, as it pertains to Black people in America. This narrative follows advice provided from the journal, Multicultural Education.

What Monopoly Can Teach Us About Racism

Let’s begin with a story. Imagine everyone in the family except for you (the child) are playing a game of Monopoly (or pick another game that may be more appropriate for your family, e.g. Pokemon, Chutes & Ladders, LIFE). We play for one hour, and now, each of us owns properties and has earned lots of money. Now imagine, after all of this, we let you (the child) join the game. You start with nothing. If each of us does the same amount of work, do you think you could win? No, there is very little chance, because you are starting so far behind.

This game is similar to the experience of Black people in America. Nearly 400 years ago, White European settlers in America went to Africa. There, the settlers kidnapped Black Africans and brought them to America. These Africans were enslaved. This means that they forced the Africans to work for them. From the time the Africans were children, they had to work all day and were not able to go to school either.

For more than 200 years, this is how Black people lived in America. Finally, a lot of people – some White and some Black – gained the courage to stand up against this. They said that enslaving people was bad, and that it needed to stop. And, they succeeded. Slavery was abolished, meaning that it ended. Black people were freed so that they could begin leading normal lives. Meaning, they could buy homes, go to school, and get normal jobs!

But, remember that game of Monopoly we played? Just because somebody is playing the game, that doesn’t mean it was fair. Today, because they were treated unfairly from the beginning, Black people have to work harder than others for the same results. Not only that, when slavery was abolished, some people still had bad feelings towards Black people just because they looked different. Because of that, they treated Black people very badly. For example, Black people weren’t able to eat at the same restaurants or even use the same bathrooms. These actions are called, “discrimination,” and some still treat Black people unfairly today.

For a more detailed history of slavery in America, this website is a good source. Additionally, “If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America,” published by Scholastic, paints a picture of slavery in America for children age five and above.

Key Watch Outs

Important notes: (1) Do not refer to the Africans as “slaves,” but rather say that they were “enslaved.” This slight difference underscores the initial act of injustice, instead of labeling a group of people with a term of disempowerment. (2) Clarify that over time, enslaved Africans were called African Americans, who are also called Black people, or people of color. (3) This narrative is a very simplified version of the history, and can be modified depending on the age of your children.

Given this history, below is a set of questions and activities that parents can engage in with children to help foster an understanding of fairness and discrimination.

inequity

Activity #1 – The Sweet Taste of Fairness

What does it mean if something is fair? Have Black people been treated fairly in the history of our country? We seek to answer these questions through this activity. You will need 12 pieces of candy. Follow the instructions and questions below.

Imagine President Obama gave me five pieces of candy and only gave you one. How would you feel? The goal of this discussion is to help children understand the meaning of “fairness.” It is in our fitra, or human nature, to be opposed to injustice and attracted to justice.

Now what if the roles were switched, and you received five pieces of candy and I only had one. How would you feel? The goal of this discussion is for children to understand that when we are in situations of privilege (e.g. when we have the candy), we must give to those who do not have it.

So let’s say President Obama gave me five pieces and only gave you one. Now, President Obama comes back. He has four pieces of candy. Who should he give the pieces of candy to?  The goal here is to foster a desire for equity instead of equality. By the standards of equality, each individual should be given two. But, this isn’t fair because the child will only have three pieces total and the parent will now have seven! However, by the standards of equity, the child should be given all four pieces to make up for the prior deficit. That way, each individual has five pieces of candy.

In the American context, this goes against our beliefs about hard work paying off (the Protestant work ethic, the land of opportunity, etc). We like to believe that the good that comes to us is a product of our own efforts, not a privilege handed to us by a rigged system.

Final question: Now that we know about fairness and equity, do you think Black people have been treated fairly in the history of the United States? The goal here is to bring the conversation together. Black people in America have not been treated fairly. The over 200-year history of slavery (and lack of equity) means there isn’t a level playing field.

In the Holy Qur’an, “Allah orders for justice and fairness, (16:90). Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) continues saying, “O you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…” (4:135). Not only with your family and relatives, but even with others, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) commands us to be fair and just.

Activity #2 – Tart Discrimination

Is it okay to treat people differently based on how they look? We seek to answer this question through the following activity. You will need at least four people and four lemons. This activity was originally created by the Anti-Defamation League.

Assign each person a lemon and ask the individual to become an expert on the lemon – how it looks, smells, and feels. Next, collect the lemons in one basket and move them around such that their order is not easily discovered. Finally, ask the participants to locate their lemon from the basket. Remarkably, most will be able to find their lemon.

Ask the individuals how they were able to spot their lemon. Some may reference the size, others may talk about color, etc. This is a precursor to a discussion on how people are like that – different sizes, shapes, and colors.

Now, collect the lemons again. This time, peel the lemons, and ask the kids to find their own lemon. Presented with this, the children will respond saying, “All of the lemons look the same!” This comment opens the door to the realization that people, similar to lemons, look different on the outside but are all essentially the same on the inside.

Final Question: If we, like the lemons, are all similar on the inside, is it okay to treat people differently based on how they look on the outside?The goal here is to bring the conversation together. Black people in America are still being treated unfairly because of the way they look.

The Holy Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) says, “If one of you sees something evil, he should change it with his hand. If he cannot, he should speak out against it, and if he cannot do even that, he should at least detest it in his heart, this being the weakest form of faith.” We describe this notion of justice in our book, “Noor Kids Stand Up to Bullying.”

As parents, we recommend the following three actions to help alleviate the inequity associated with race in our communities. Some activities involve children, others do not.

Step One – Reflect on Our Biases

Where do biases stem from? According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue at Columbia University, it starts at home. She says, “Many parents talk to their children about embracing difference, but in subtle, covert ways, they communicate something very different. For example, when approaching a group of black youngsters, a mother may unconsciously pull the child nearer to her.” As parents, it is our responsibility, firstly, to reflect on our biases. If unchecked, these biases may manifest themselves in our children.

Step Two – Role Model Behavior

How can we protect ourselves from negative biases? The answer is simple: people. Dr. Wing Sue explains, “many [non-Black] parents often talk to kids about the evils of prejudice and discrimination, yet in their own lives they have few friends or neighbors of color with whom they regularly socialize. These implicit communications are more powerful than any intentional efforts on the part of parents.”

As parents, if we expect our children to grow up with an appreciation for humanity, we too must reflect such diversity in our daily lives through our friends and neighbors.

imamomar

Step Three – Participate

As the Holy Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) saying goes, if we cannot solve this issue with our hands, we should at least speak out against it. Many scholars of note, including Shaykh Omar Suleiman and Imam Suhaib Webb, have taken to the streets and participated in locally-organized protests. Participating in such events sends a strong message to children that we, as Muslims, have a responsibility to stand up with the oppressed.

If it is not possible to attend a protest, it is valuable to either call or write a letter to your local state representative. In your phone call or letter, you and your children should each discuss why you are troubled about recent violence towards Black people in America and express a need to hold responsible parties accountable. This too sends a strong message to children to participate in their local government.

This work has been created by Sana H. Aaser, Educational Director at Noor Kids. Sana has a Master’s degree in education with a focus on equity and social justice. Her research on American-Muslim youth identity earned her San Francisco State University’s highest honors as a graduate hood recipient.  

Noor Kids is a Harvard-supported monthly, at-home Islamic education program designed by creative and scholarly experts to help 4- to- 8 year-olds learn and love Islam. To see a free sample, click here.

 

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umm Jehan

    July 21, 2016 at 3:49 PM

    Teach your children deen and the Seerah of RasoolAllah (pbuh). They will learn how to spend their lives as Allah wants us to lead.

  2. Avatar

    GregAbdul

    July 23, 2016 at 2:32 AM

    There is a pattern here I want to address. It seems there are certain Muslims who can only speak about racism and oppression when they are doing a sort of stealth government bashing. As if, the biggest problem American Muslims face is the FBI. There has always been a strong conservative strain among Western Muslims. After all, we don’t drink or smoke and we are constantly reminded to dedicate ourselves to our families. None of this is wrong, but what is wrong is that the backbone of American racism does not lie at your local police department, but with American culture and custom and usually how we are mistreated and not given equal opportunity in the workplace. In other words, it’s the business world that really maintains prejudice and unequal treatment of blacks and Muslims and too often we go along. Haven’t you ever heard? “You’ll never get anywhere dressed like that? You don’t see the costume changes in the masjid parking lot? They are not for fear of the police. I am African American and this black struggle thing is very emotional for me. So emotional I can’t even directly address this right now. I am waiting and trying to cool down. All the dead black people before me…I can’t talk now, but if Muslims want to join black people, don’t play this slick game where the only pointing out you do always happens to be some arm of government official while you smile and go along with the rampant white racism that takes place in America’s businesses. Money is the coin of the realm. The police act under instruction. Muslims have less and less of a choice everyday and this nonsense where you always warn me about the FBI, I am not even hearing. Said this before: if you are stupid enough to let a stranger walk up to you and convince you to go kill Jews or whoever, I want them to remove you from my masjid and they can’t remove you soon enough.

  3. Avatar

    Rene

    July 24, 2016 at 12:29 AM

    ” Teach your kids about Black Lives Matters now “.

    I don’t have any kids, nor do I plan to have any as I’m too old to birth any,but if I did.. as with my parents did with siblings and me as children..I would teach them about African- American history, the civil rights era of the past and present.

    I would also definitely teach them about BLM and the truth behind their movement.. to teach them how they are making some life altering sacrifices to improve the lives of African-Americans/Black people and for all people in terms of quelling police brutality. I admire anybody who are willing to stand their ground against a giant obstacle like David and Goliath.

  4. Avatar

    Nadia

    July 24, 2016 at 3:03 AM

    I find it strange that any kid wouldn’t know what racism is unless very young. The majority of muslims are non-white themselves and have felt ot heard or seen racism in their lives. No one ever needed to explain it to me.
    Even the article itself says kids know themselves what race is its natural. Its nothing to do with slavery, its hatred of people due to the colour of their skin plain and simple.

  5. Avatar

    Omer Riaz

    July 29, 2016 at 3:07 AM

    “Respect and honor all human beings irrespective of their religion, color, race, sex, language, birth, property and so on” – Quran [17-70]
    Learn Quran with Tajweed

    • Avatar

      M

      July 30, 2016 at 3:56 PM

      Brother, which surah is this from? I checked both Surah Al-Isra and Al-Ma’arij

  6. Avatar

    noble peace

    August 9, 2016 at 2:25 AM

    Bism Allah

    if there’s any xtians that happen to visit this page and happen to read this; first welcome and peace………. with out insult to the current day bible or the jews……because we love jews..contrary to what is being promoted..etc. what I wanted to bring to attention is the curse of ham promoted by the bible…please to refer to what al-hujjarat (Quran 49:13) states about as alluded to above, about God making us into different peoples, so that we know one another and that we also know that the best of us in His eyes are those whom are most God conscious.

    As to add insult, and hopefully it is not taken as such, but personally I believe, like most of the biblical stories, satan’s hand is involved, as to help wave the wand….

    by any means necessary and white supremacy-spoken word-I sincere. and please do remember that there is nothing more anti-Semitic than zionism

    in the end human lives matter…..just as a reminder to muslims and the non-muslims-please read Muhammed’s final sermon- if you wish.

    peace unto you

  7. Avatar

    noble peace

    August 9, 2016 at 2:31 AM

    anti-semitic quote was a lyric in a song. wonder if any of you know/knew it?!

    peace

  8. Avatar

    noble peace

    August 9, 2016 at 2:33 AM

    subhan Allah…now that is scarey……HEEELLLLLLLLPPPPPPP!

    • Avatar

      unnoble in-sha-Allah peace

      August 10, 2016 at 5:45 PM

      * correction…..or mostly an error……should be…..
      Subhan Allah…helllllpppp…now that was scarey…..

      continuation.and an explanation ….. that was…..part of the spooky……..does one have to spell it out?..albeit time is most definitely running out……round and round,,,do not mind me….I’m singing in the rain….as I know not…so let me make it worse not just for me……everybody is a wave whether we like it or not…lets just pray we do not end up as foam……just to confuse a bit more…go ahead satan and tell them what they know not…..

      peace.

  9. Avatar

    Sarah

    September 16, 2016 at 12:43 PM

    Hello,
    I’m a white parent with a very young child and googled how to talk to my kid about BLM. I fell uncomfortable asking my black friends to talk to my child about it. She’s too young for monopoly yet, but the candy thing she’ll get.

  10. Avatar

    Ameerah

    February 11, 2017 at 1:37 PM

    I dont see the point to tell my kids about something that is long over with. Alot of races have had to fight to get to the place they are at in life today as well. Wed have to teach out kids about their background and struggles too. Lets focus on teaching out kids about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and about the deen and less on racism. There is no place for it in islam.

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#Culture

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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#Society

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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