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The Fiqh of Forming Alliances and Building Coalitions

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by Mateen A. Khan

Islam and Muslims have a long history in America and are very much a part of the legacy of the United States. Muslims and non-Muslims have worked together, lived together, and played together. We have constructed institutions of peace and have even fought wars together. And so, we increasingly find ourselves having to form political and communal alliances. Often, this involves collaborating with groups whose values and teachings may be in direct opposition to Islamic morality. This article attempts to guide Muslim American leaders at all levels and the general Muslim public at-large in a direction which benefits the national interest and protects normative Islam.[1]

Assessing the Situation Through Jurisprudence

Muslims, in general, and their leaders, in particular, need to be thinkers by assessing and re-assessing individual situations. We cannot be swept up in the euphoria of nationalism or anti-establishment rhetoric by simply following the masses or the words of a dynamic speaker. After the Prophet’s ﷺ migration, jurisprudence and state legislation were unified under his guidance and the guidance of several khulafā’ afterward. However, since this time, the two have been separated, and Islamic scholarship has been engaged in a process of risk management and defense of normative Islam.[2] Our main priority as Muslims is to be able to believe, worship, and live our lives in a way that is pleasing to Allah. The Qur’an states rather clearly, “I only created humans and jinn so that they worship Me.”[3]The Qur’anic exegetes have explained ‘worship’ as obedience to the Divine. Every Muslim by necessity believes the All-Wise has guided us solely for our benefit. The role of Islamic scholarship and leadership has been and continues to be charting a course that defends normative Islam through a constant harm-benefit analysis.

Whenever collaboration with another group is suggested, potential harm (mafsadah) and benefit (maṣlaḥah) is assessed through principles found in the Qur’an, Sunnah, and scholarly opinions. For this, we turn to the legal maxim of ‘the prevention of harms precedes the attainment of benefits’ (درء المفاسد اولى من جلب المصالح). This particular maxim is extrapolated among other things from the prophetic ḥadith, “If I forbid you to do something, then keep away from it. And if I order you to do something, then do as much as you can of it.”[4] It is based on this maxim, for example, that Muslims are not permitted to make beneficial changes to their property that might cause harm to their neighbor.

We may find mafsadah in the form of oppression through institutional biases. Ẓulm, one of the classical Arabic terms for oppression, is defined as “to place a thing where it doesn’t belong.”[5] It will be to give one something that isn’t his or her right or to withhold the legitimate right of another. Allah says, “Indeed, shirk is a great ẓulm.”[6] In other words, giving another what is the Right of Allah (i.e. obedience and worship) when He alone has given you life, nourishment, etc. is a very great ẓulm. Oppression is not only forbidden in our relationship with Allah, but also with one another. In a ḥadīth qudsī, the Prophet ﷺ quoted Allah saying, “My servants, I have made oppression unlawful for Me and unlawful for you, so do not commit oppression against one another.”[7] Repeatedly, the Qur’an associates oppression as a character trait of disbelief and not of Believers. If a harm is identified – for example, governmental discriminatory practices – then Muslims may rally against it using permissible means. We are not permitted to assist in it nor should we sit idle when we are capable of removing it.[8]

In collaborating, we may find benefits in the form of increased security, peace, well-being, or most of all, freedom to practice our religion. Maṣlaḥah, in the Islamic terminology, refers to what provides benefit and is consistent with the objectives (maqāsid) of the Sharī`ah. These objectives are extracted from the totality of the Qur’an and Sunnah and refer to – in order of importance – protection of one’s Islam, life, intellect, progeny, and property. It is worth noting that these objectives and benefits are secondary to what is explicitly stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah,[9] since they are extractions of divine text rather than explicit commands. For wisdoms and benefits that oppose the primary texts of the Shari‘ah are what the Noble Qur’an refers to as “desires” (al-ahwā’).[10] Hence, maṣlaḥah is not determined by unlearned individuals or the masses, because “if the truth had followed their inclinations, the heavens and the earth and whoever is in them would have been ruined.”[11] All this is to say that when the sharī`ah declares something as good, we take the necessary and legal steps to encourage it. When something is not mentioned in the primary texts (nuṣūṣ), – for example, securing voting rights for minorities – learned people may endorse it as a maṣlaḥah so the rest may fall behind it.

Check the Collaboration

Whether removing a harm or obtaining a benefit, our primary intent as Muslims is Allah’s Pleasure. Today in America, we live with non-Muslims while fulfilling all the rights due to them as neighbors. We work and engage in business with them while refraining from impermissible jobs and transactions as dictated by our religion. We share infrastructure, drinking water, and permissible foods. Islam allows all of this. While reminiscing one day, the Prophet ﷺ spoke of the Pact of the Virtuous (Hilf al-Fuḍūl). He praised the Pact and announced that had the same situation – an agreement enjoining a common maṣlaḥah shared with non-Muslims – come up today, he would join it readily. Not only is there no issue with Muslims joining non-Muslims for shared causes such as eradicating poverty or safe havens for abused women, but it may also be recommended or a communal obligation based on the situation.[12]

The contention lies when due to our small numbers, weaknesses, and other deficiencies, Muslim Americans often find themselves in need of collaborating with other groups who may hold ideas antithetical to Islamic morality. Groups may exist primarily to further another belief or lifestyle considered sinful by Islamic standards. Can we collaborate with them? If so, what are the conditions? Before we get into this discussion further, it behooves us to first review the Islamic injunction against helping another in sin.

Near the end of the second ayah of Surah al-Mā’idah, Allah states, “Rather, help one another to virtuousness, and to the fear of Allah. And do not help one another to sin and to aggression.” From the first part of the quoted line, we may work with people to assist in virtuousness, but the latter part strongly warns against assisting in sin. Muslims not only refrain themselves from sin, but also cannot assist another in it. As the Prophet ﷺ mentioned in an authentic hadith, “The one who directs towards sin is as the one who commits it.”[13] Conversely, this statement supports a weaker narration, “The one who directs towards evil is as the one who commits it.” Even stronger words have been attributed to the Prophet ﷺ that on the day of Judgment, a caller will declare, “Where are the sinners, those who followed them, and those who assisted them?” Such that even those who assisted by bringing them pens and ink will be gathered with them in an iron box and thrown into Hell.[14]

With this in mind, we can now turn towards prophetic history, in which we find many analogous examples of Muslims collaborating with non-Muslims. I would like to highlight four of them:

  1. In the Makkan period of the Prophet’s ﷺ life, he and the early Muslims underwent extraordinary hardships including torture at the hands of Makkan polytheists. For a time, a unilateral trade embargo was instituted against the Muslims. The Muslims, when able, continued to trade with the same non-Muslims that oppressed them and made trips together to other areas to trade with other non-Muslim tribes.
  2. Upon migrating to Madinah, the Prophet ﷺ formed a constitution with the Madinan Jews. The charter outlined how they were to live in one community as neighbors. They traded with one another, fulfilled each other’s rights, and shared a common infrastructure.
  3. With the treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah, the Prophet ﷺ made an agreement with the non-Muslim Makkans including issues about trade, extradition, and visitation.

We see in these instances that the Prophet ﷺ made agreements with the Makkan polytheists and Madinan Jews despite each group adopting elements of disbelief and un-Islamic morality. Through these joint activities, they warded off a greater harm that would have occurred by total segregation and isolation.

  1. Another example occurred during the Battle of Uhud. The Muslims set out from Madinah with one thousand men. Among them were the Hypocrites who would flee later under the leadership of `Abdullah ibn `Ubayy. The Prophet ﷺ, when setting out from Madinah, knew that among his soldiers were Hypocrites. Yet, he allowed them to accompany the Believers to remove a greater harm – the attack from the Makkan polytheists.

In these situations, the Muslims and non-Muslims agreed to fulfill shared goals, and in doing so, the two groups worked more in parallel than together. The Muslims did not intend to assist them in those things that were antithetical to Muslim beliefs although that may have happened as an unintended consequence. When sufficient need arises, Muslim American scholars in conjunction with other experts may recommend collaborating with non-Muslim groups – even those advocating un-Islamic beliefs and morality – with an important condition: the safeguarding of people’s Islam.

Safeguarding Islam

Our Islam is our most important possession. It is the cause of revelation and the source of our connection with Allah. Its protection is the highest objective. So much so that when the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions were unable to safeguard their deen, Allah commanded them, “O My servants who have believed, indeed My earth is spacious, so worship only Me.”[15] They were given the order to leave their beloved hometown of Makkah. We find in each instance of Muslim collaboration with non-Muslims, Allah and His Messenger ﷺ made clear the distinction between a path of guidance and one that displeases Allah. For example, after the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah, Allah reaffirmed Islam as the truth, “It is He who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religion.”[16] Similarly, after the Battle of Uhud, He said, “And what struck you on the day the two armies met was by permission of Allah that He might make evident the Believers. And that He might make evident those who are Hypocrites.”[17] The purpose of the distinction is to safeguard our religion by pointing out our differences. Collaboration at the expense of one’s religion will be impermissible without taking steps to safeguard it. If there is a risk of altering or losing Islamic beliefs, then clarification must be made. Interestingly (and perhaps a subject of another article) this is not only true when collaborating with groups whose primary agenda is antithetical to Islamic beliefs, but also during mundane life-activities when Muslims are the dominated minority.

How do we safeguard our Islam?

  1. Gain Knowledge. One must learn the basic, necessary knowledge about Islam, its tenets, rulings, wisdoms, and guidance. A relationship with people of knowledge is key to fostering one’s religion and filling in knowledge gaps when coming across new challenges. “Ask the people of knowledge if you don’t know”[18] and, “The cure to ignorance is to ask”[19] are just a hint as to the vast amount of Islamic texts on this subject.
  2. Keep company with the pious. Just as important as knowledge is companionship with the pious since the hadiths equate our religion with the religion of our companions.[20] The Qur’an states about un-Islamic companionship, “And whoever among you takes them as an intimate friend, he is one of them.”[21] Islam has been passed from Prophet ﷺ to Companions and so on among the pious. Connect yourself to that lineage.
  3. Love Islam. Stemming from the first two is an apparent Islamic identity through the love of Islam. Muslims need to be comfortable with their identity without feeling as if they must hide. Even more, their love for Islam should surpass anything else.[22] Otherwise, indiscriminating friendship and partnership with non-Muslim organizations can garble one’s beliefs placing their very Islam at risk.[23] Whether individually or communally, identity tells others who you are and your religion, what you stand for or against.
  4. Know what is Islamic and what isn’t. A very important condition, which applies to Muslim leaders especially when working with groups with beliefs antithetical to Islam, is that those who take on the role of making decisions for and leading the Muslim public also take on the responsibility of warning them of the dangers in that decision by distinguishing what is Islamic and what is not. Foremost in this responsibility, is the danger to each Muslim American’s Islam. For example, if a need arises such that we form a coalition with LGBTQIA groups, it is imperative that everyone be aware the coalition is one of achieving a shared goal and that their morality is antithetical to our divinely-mandated morality. Yes, this might place us in the precarious position of defending their human and civil rights while simultaneously vocalizing their lifestyle as a sin that draws Allah’s displeasure. We have a duty to both. This is an essential safeguard to protect the Islam of the Muslim public and future generations.

Additionally, working with non-Muslim groups in not a permission to work un-Islamically. We may not commit the harām hoping for a benefit. At times, our leadership may leave something preferable (mustaḥabb) or allowable (mubāḥ) as the Prophet ﷺ had expressed near the end of his life. He said to his beloved wife, “O `Ā’ishah! Were your nation not close to the pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance, I would have had the Ka`bah demolished and would have included in it the portion which had been left.”[24] He ﷺ left a preferable action (to include the left-out portion) to avoid a harm (confusion among the Quraysh).[25] That being said, in general, we must still abide by the guidance and necessary dictates of the Sharī`ah. When the direction of the Qiblah was changed, the Prophet ﷺ was concerned about what the Jews would say about it. Allah counseled him saying, “So if you were to follow their desires after what has come to you of knowledge, indeed, you would then be among the wrongdoers.”[26] Avoiding a perceived harm (the statements of the Jews) is not permission to engage in the impermissible (not fulfilling Allah’s command). The Prophet ﷺ is reported to have said, “A death in the obedience of Allah is better than life spent in the disobedience of Allah.”[27]

Final Thoughts

As a group, we must ask some hard questions as to who represents us. Beyond expertise in their field and enthusiasm for activism, our representatives must have some basic working knowledge of normative Islam. They will be actively forming relationships with fellow Americans and groups with Islamically divergent beliefs and practices. Will they lean towards ideas against well-established Islamic tenets? Will their own beliefs be affected such that they are rendered unfit to guide the Muslim public? For example, if a Muslim is not firm in his or her religion such that s/he can withstand the proselytizing efforts of evangelicals or atheists, it will not be permissible for him or her to work with them. This responsibility is not for everyone. Both Islamic scholars and activists need to be aware of the limits of their knowledge and develop a humility to acquiesce to experts in other areas.

Islam encourages Muslims to live and cooperate with non-Muslims. We are one nation, and we share a land, governance, and a future. We should extend a hand to work together on shared values and goals. In times of need, when differences exist between us and other groups that are antithetical or even directly oppositional to our morality, we may still work alongside one another as long as we safeguard our religious moralities. “Sufficient need” should be assessed jointly between properly trained Islamic scholars and various leaders of the relevant fields involved. Inter-Islamic cooperation is necessary before intra-organizational cooperation can be fruitful. In fulfilling our responsibility to Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, we can never lose sight that our accomplishment lies in obedience to the Creator.

The success of Muslims lies in Allah’s Pleasure even if they be in bondage. If we gain power and act to displease Allah, then what is the difference between our governance and that of Fir`awn’s? Rather, worry about pleasing Him and connecting with Him. Be committed to Islam and its guidance. You’ve tried following those false idols for some time. Now, bow down before Your Lord, ask about your needs, and see what happens! (paraphrased from Shaykh Ashraf `Ali Thanwi)[28]

Dr Mateen A. Khan is a Emergency Medicine Doctor and a graduate of the Aalimiyah program at the illustrious Dar ul Uloom Canada. He has ijazah to teach the Sahih Sittah as well as other subjects.

 

[1] Normative Islam refers to the tenets of belief and practice representing the majority of Islamic scholarship since the Prophet ﷺ. Many narrations attributed to the Prophet ﷺ, the salaf al-ṣāliḥīn, and scholarly consensus indicate that the path of divine guidance is the path of the majority.

[2] Mohammed, A.M. Muslims In Non-Muslim Lands: A Legal Study with Applications, p. 125-128.

[3] Surah al-Dhāriyāt: 56

[4] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: 7288, Ṣaḥīḥ li Muslim: 1337b. Retrieved from Sunnah.com

[5] Lisān al-`Arab

[6] Surah Luqmān: 13

[7] Saḥīḥ al-Muslim: 2577a. Retrieved from Sunnah.com

[8] `Umdah al-Qārī: 12/290, Dār al-Ihyā’ al-Turāth al-`Arabī

[9] Al-Muwāfaqāt lī al-Shāṭibī, Kitāb al-Maqāsid

[10] Usūl al-Iftā wa Ādābuhu lī Muftī Taqī Uthmānī, Chapter on Maqāsid al-Sharī`ah

[11] Surah al-Mu’minūn: 71

[12] `Umdah al-Qārī: 12/290, Dār al-Ihyā’ al-Turāth al-`Arabī

[13] Sunan al-Tirmidhī: 2670. Retrieved from Sunnah.com

[14] Rūh al-Ma`ānī under Surah al-Qasas: 17

[15] Surah al-Ankabūt: 56

[16] Surah al-Fatḥ: 28

[17] Surah Aal-Imrān: 166-7

[18] Surah al-Naḥl: 43, Surah al-Anbiyā’: 7

[19] Sunan Abū Dāwūd: 337. Retrieved from Sunnah.com

[20] Sunan al-Tirmidhī: 2378. Retrieved from Sunnah.com

[21] Surah al-Ma’idah: 51

[22] Rahmānī, K.S. Samāhī Baḥth wa Naẓr. Apr 2012. P. 67-68.

[23] Shafi, M. Maariful Quran. Surah al-Ma’idah: 51.

[24] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1586. Retrieved from Sunnah.com. When the Ka`bah was last rebuilt by the Quraysh, they left out a portion (ḥaṭīm) from the rest of the building. The Prophet ﷺ indicated here that he thought of rebuilding the Ka`bah and including this portion in the building.

[25] Sharḥ al-Nawawī `ala al-Sāḥīḥ li Muslim, Book of Hajj, Chapter on Demolishing the Ka`bah and Rebuilding It. Also, Ahsan al-Fatāwa of Mufti Rashīd Ahmad, Vol. 6, Pg. 38-39.

[26] Surah al-Baqarah: 145

[27] Majma` al-Zawā’id: 5/241

[28] Al-Ifādāt al-Yawmiyyah: 5/168-9

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Muhammad

    April 13, 2017 at 8:56 AM

    In Shaa’a ALLAH, informative. It provides fundamental perspective to challenges faced by the Muslim minority.

  2. Avatar

    Ahmad B.

    April 14, 2017 at 4:34 PM

    Assalamu ‘alaikum Br. Mateen,

    Jazakumullahu khayran for a well-though out, informative piece that departs from the spirit and specifics of normative Islam. As usual, the devil is in the details, so I’m wondering if you could clarify what you mean when you say, with respect to LGBT groups: “Yes, this might place us in the precarious position of defending their human and civil rights while simultaneously vocalizing their lifestyle as a sin that draws Allah’s displeasure. We have a duty to [do] both.”

    Which “human and civil rights” do you mean specifically, and under whose normative paradigm are these to be determined when deciding as a community which specific claims we support and which we don’t? LGBT groups *claim*, for example, the right to marriage on “discrimination” grounds. Five Supreme Court justices agreed with this, while four strongly disagreed. Hilary Clinton, a liberal Democrat, did not recognize such a right either as recently as five years ago. Our Shari’a certainly does not recognize, on its own terms, anything like the “right” of a man to marry another man and, in fact, criminalizes the behavior upon which such an arrangement serves to confer legal and cultural–and hence, moral–legitimacy. [Given the definition you quote of zulm, “to place a thing where it doesn’t belong,” sodomy is, by definition, a flagship example of zulm.]

    So working *with* LGBT and other groups against, say, racism, poverty, or the excesses of runaway capitalism is one thing. But what does it mean, exactly, to support the “human and civil rights” of the LGBT community as a discrete identity group when, in our religion, we don’t even accept the notion of an essentialized, social identity based on sexual desire? From our perspective, people are men and women, Muslim and non, etc., some of whom choose to engage in same-sex behaviors and relationships. Almost every right they demand *as a class of people* has the direct effect of normalizing their behavior in society, which seems like it’s something we should oppose, given the first part of your essay which provides strong statements against assisting people in sin.

    This is particularly the case when the rights claimed–like that to marriage–directly serve to enshrine the legitimacy of homosexual practice, even at the expense of normative social institutions like (male-female) marriage and natural family bonds, which the Shari’a values very highly and which we, it would seem, should recognize a strong social and state interest in preserving. Gay marriage is currently a moot point, but if another conservative justice is appointed to the Supreme Court under Trump and the court were, say, to overturn the Obergefell decision, what would our stance then be? “Alhamdulillah, that’s wonderful news. Some of the craziness is being rolled back, the oppression of an unjust law (since it enshrines and enables zulm) has been removed, and we are happy to see things moving more in a direction of what Allah approves” or “Let’s get out and march against this encroachment upon the ‘human and civil rights of a minority,’ which we are duty bound to fight for and uphold, even while proclaiming their lifestyle and behavior sinful and unpleasing to God”?

    Jazakumullahu khayran,
    Ahmad B.

  3. Avatar

    Ahmad B.

    April 14, 2017 at 4:46 PM

    By the way, by “departs from the spirit and specifics of normative Islam,” I meant “takes these as its point of departure” (a compliment), not “departs from these” in the sense of “abandons them” (which would have been a critique). I apologize if there was any confusion.

    Ahmad B.

  4. Avatar

    DI

    June 9, 2019 at 1:43 PM

    Dr. Khan,

    A good attempt. But you really didn’t get into any ‘fiqh’ of the matter per se. There are also instances of Muslims having protection of non-Muslims in Mecca.

    I used to think we need alliances with LGBT but now I changed my mind. They are not a good ally when it comes to success. More of a liability really. Here is why:

    1) The LGBT community does not need an alliance with Muslims. They are doing fine on their own. They are smart and know how to use marketing to their benefit.

    2) We are not capable of making an alliance with LGBT or even benefiting from it – Sunnis can barely make alliances with Shi’a’s, Ismailis and Qadianis.

    3) LGBT will very quickly challenge us because they know Muslims who are gay. How do we respond?

    4) The whole “Hate the sin and not the sinner” line does not make any sense. This sin is a part of that person. Ulema who teach tarbiya and tazkiya, make the point some people have built their whole lives around certain sins so it is hard to make a change from that. Similarly, LGBT have built their whole identity and lives around LGBT lifestyles.

    The reality: Muslims are on their own and only have Allah. We have no reliable allies. It is better for us to build up our own strength. Make the marketplace want to market to Muslims. Become an economic force independent of oil-money. That is more likely to benefit us.

    If we do want to build alliances – we need to start first with building alliances with journalists and news publications.

    di.

  5. Avatar

    Ali

    June 17, 2019 at 8:28 PM

    I really, really am enjoying this conversation. Thank you for a wonderfully written article. I also liked the comments by Ahmad B. Ahmad B. do you have any suggestions as to how to address LGBT “REALITY” in our society? Any practical ideas as to what can/should be done as far as Muslims are concerned? Being an imam myself, I need to know how other Muslim scholars are addressing this topic. When I am invited to a high school to speak about Islam, I occasionally get questions about Islam’s position with regards to LGBT. The Quran is very clear about it while the laws in USA are something else. So, how does one reconcile between the two? Thank you.

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Civil Rights

Podcast: Lessons from the Life of Malcolm X | Abdul-Malik Ryan

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One of the things that happens with historical figures who continue to remain well-known and influential years after they can continue to speak for themselves is that others seek to speak for them.  Attempts are made to co-opt their legacy, either in sincere efforts for good or in selfish efforts for ideological or even commercial gain.  This is especially true of Malcolm X, who is not only a historical and political icon but in many ways a “celebrity” remembered by many primarily for his style and attitude.

The only real and meaningful tribute we can pay to Malcolm X is to follow his example. Click To Tweet

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Once, while in class at college, an Arab girl I was sitting next to said quite loudly to another, “Hey, give this paper to the ‘abdah” referring to a black girl in the class. I wondered if she was even aware of what she was saying in English. Did she think that ‘abdah translates to “black girl” and never thought of its true meaning? Did she think that I didn’t understand?

 

Read by Zeba Khan, originally posted here on Muslimmatters.org.

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When Racism Goes Viral: The Coronavirus And Modern Muslim Orientalism

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Lumping an entire people together for collective punishment, reveling in their suffering, and sniggering at their food choices isn’t an exercise in science, Sunnah, or compassion. It’s good, old-fashioned orientalism.

In the eight weeks since it was identified, the 2019 novel coronavirus has infected nearly 12,000 people in China alone, 200 of whom did not survive. Symptoms are flu-like in nature, and global side effects include acute, apparently contagious… racism.

Online, in Muslim as well as non-Muslim spaces, social media feeds are sniggering “Eww, you eat gross things! Of course you’ll get gross diseases!” In the midst of this human tragedy, orientalist tropes about the Chinese are being sloppily repackaged as health concerns over the coronavirus, and served with a side of bat soup.

Yes, bat soup.

The coronavirus in question is found in bats, and thanks to the scientific expertise of social media, videos of Chinese people consuming anything from bat soup to baby mice and rats are popping up as “proof” of the disease’s cause.

However the coronavirus made the jump from bats to humans, the initial source of the outbreak seems to have originated from the Wuhan Seafood market, where a number of employees and a few shoppers were the first casualties to the infection. The 2019-nCoV is moving from person to person the same way the flu does, and what a person eats – or doesn’t eat – has no bearing on whether they contract the virus or not.

In an article titled, No, Coronavirus Was Not Caused by ‘Bat Soup’–But Here’s What Researchers Think May Be to Blame, Health.com writes:

“Coronaviruses in general are large family of viruses that can affect many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In rare cases, those viruses are also zoonotic, which means they can pass between humans and animals—as was the case with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory system (SARS), two severe coronaviruses in people.

Initially, this novel coronavirus was believed to have started in a large seafood or wet market, suggesting animal-to-person spread, according to the CDC. But a large number of people diagnosed with the virus reportedly didn’t have exposure to the wet markets, indicating that person-to-person spread of the virus is also occurring. However, it’s still possible that the novel coronavirus began with an infected animal at the market—and then went on to person-to-person transmission once people were infected.”

Being uncomfortable with things you’ve never considered edible before isn’t necessarily a racist reaction. When my husband told me he ate a chocolate-covered cricket once, I hid my toothbrush for a week, but that’s not what’s happening right now. There is a deadly virus threatening a group of people, and the internet sees fit to make fun of them. Why? Because orientalism.

Orientalism is the “intellectual” framework through which Western societies create a clear and permanent line between Western superiority and “Oriental” inferiority. If orientalism were an Instagram filter, it would take any picture of any person, event, or thing, and distort its appearance to be “other,” and in some way inferior.

Orientalism is the “intellectual” framework through which Western societies create a clear and permanent line between Western superiority and “Oriental” inferiority. If orientalism were an Instagram filter, it would take any picture of any person, event, or thing, and distort its appearance to be “other,” and in some way inferior.Click To Tweet

The inferiorizing feature is step one, because in order to position yourself as a winner, the other guy has to be a loser in some way.

The otherizing is the step 2, and both steps are important because if you say that your little brother is a loser, in the end you’re still family and you’ve got his back. This would be inferiorizing, but not otherizing.

But if you say that other kind of guy is a loser, then you have no common ground. And when the other kind of guy is in trouble, you need only gloat and make nasty comments on Twitter. That’s inferiorizing with otherizing. Orientalism can be loosely translated as US vs THEM, normal versus weird, and local versus invasive foreign, or exotic.

The otherizing of orientalism is so subconsciously embedded in people that it even creates auditory illusions to maintain the “otherization” of the subject being viewed. As crazy as that sounds, everyone has their own experience. Mine for just last month played out as follows. A homeless man approached my window and said “Ma’am, do you have two dollars?”

I smiled and responded to him, “I have exactly two dollars!”

As I dug around for my wallet, he cocked his head and said, “Your accent. There’s something different about it. Something… foreign, exotic?”

“It’s Chicago,” I said, handing him two dollars.

He blinked a few times. “What’s Chicago?”

“My accent. It’s Chicagoan. English is my first language. My accent is from Chicago.”

He narrowed his eyes at me suspiciously, this gatekeeper of Chicagoness. “What part of Chicago?”

“North side, Lincolnwood area,” I said. “I grew up on Devon Ave.”

“Pulaski Park!” he beamed, pointing to himself. “I’m from Chicago too!”

We smiled at each other, basking for a moment in our mutual Chicagoness. Then I waved and drove away, adding his insistence of my  exotic“otherness” to the dozens of other peoples’ who have heard my perfectly flat, perfectly blandly midwestern accent and perceived something foreign. I call that one “hearing with your eyes.”

I have lost track of people who have tried to insist that I have an accent. One woman even went so far as to imply that I was lying about being a native English speaker, that I must have some other first language, because there’s “Something else in there, I can hear something foreign! But you’re very articulate though.”

(To form your own opinion on my exotic accent or the lack thereof, visit the MuslimMatters podcast here!)

Compliments like “You’re so articulate!” or “You’re so different!” give you partial credit for your exceptionality, while still discrediting every other member of your general race, religion, region, or hemisphere. The left-handed compliment has a long history, and follows a predictable pattern. Take, for example, this excerpt from The Talisman, a crusade-genre fiction published in 1825.

In this scene, our gallant, invading knight finds himself unable to defeat the enemy “Saracen,” aka – Muslim defender of the Holy Land. In grudging admiration, the knight concedes:

“I well thought…that your blinded race had their descent from the foul fiend, without whose aid you would never have been able to maintain this blessed land of Palestine against so many valiant soldiers of God. I speak not thus of thee in particular, Saracen, but generally of thy people and religion. Strange it is to me, however, not that you should have the descent from the Evil One, but that you should boast of it.”

Translation: “Your people and your religion are the spawn of satan, but not you. I speak not thus of thee in particular. You’re so cool for Muslim!” Spoiler alert: turns out it’s Salahuddin.

From the crusades to colonialism to America’s chronic invasion of Muslim lands, the misrepresentation of people from Over There is both a cause and effect of policy decisions. Orientalism creates the “bad guys” necessary to justify the “good guy” response by “proving” the bad guys to be so weird, inferior, and intrinsically bad that it becomes necessary to call for the good guy cavalry. That gives the good guys permission to take over the resources that the bad guys are too incompetent to manage anyway, and overthrow the governments they’re too stupid to run, and free the women that they’re too barbaric to appreciate.

One excellent reference on this is Dr. Jack Shaheen’s brilliant documentary Reel Bad Arabs, which summarizes a hundred years of Hollywood’s orientalist portrayal of “Arab Land,” a mythical, exotic, treacherous, incompetent, and seductive place, whose capital city is apparently Agrabah which, in 2015, a public policy poll found that 30% of GOP voters were in favor of bombing.

Another side effect of orientalism is the refusal to allow for individual accountability and the insistence on collective blame. “Western” men who harm and oppress women are rightly labeled as jerks and abusers who don’t represent Western morals, ethics, or ideals through their individual actions. Same for white racists, extremists, and criminals in general.

However, Muslims jerks who do the same are awarded representative status of the entire Muslim population (1.9 billion) and Islamic tradition (1441 years). The perception as all Muslim men based on only the worst of them seems ludicrous on paper, and such generalizations are no longer acceptable to make about race, but are still perfectly popular to make about minority religious groups.

Orientalism enables the belief that Muslims are terrible terrorists who are terrible to their women. If they say otherwise, it’s because their religion is terrible and lying about it is part of the religion too. They don’t deserve their own lands or resources, they’ll just use them for more terribleness. We should go in there and save them from themselves! And also, make lots of predictable, idiotic romance novels and movies in which a poor, beautiful Oriental Female is rescued through the power of Love and Freedom. Because just as violence is the natural state of the Muslim man, oppression is the natural state of the Muslim woman. Miskeena. Habibti.

Human beings can be horrible to each other. No ethnic, religious, or racial group is any exception. The problem arises when individual horribleness is elevated to collective attribution, and that collective attribution is used to justify collective punishment, as well as collective suffering.

When millions of Americans get sick from the flu, and tens of thousands die every year, why aren’t we making fun of the weird things that white people eat? Like Rocky Mountain Oysters (which are bull testicles) and sweetbreads (which are bits of an animal’s pancreas and thymus glands)?Click To Tweet

When millions of Americans get sick from the flu, and tens of thousands die every year, why aren’t we making fun of the weird things that white people eat? Like Rocky Mountain Oysters (which are bull testicles) and sweetbreads (which are bits of an animal’s pancreas and thymus glands)? What about snails, frog legs, crawfish, chocolate covered ants, and those tequila-inspired lollipops with an actual worm candied in the center?

The filtering effect of orientalism means that our weird foods – be it maghz masala and katakat– are quirky and fun, but their weird foods are disgusting and totally cause to celebrate infectious disease.

If the tables were turned and a deadly coronavirus originated from say, Saudi Arabia, would it be alright to ridicule Muslims for what they ate, or how they lived? What if that specific coronavirus actually originated in camels.

Yes, camels. The Islamophobic internet would have a field day with that one. Yes, we ride camels and prize camels and even eat camels – and they’re delicious I might add – but if a deadly virus originated from camels, found its way into humans in the Middle East, and from there caused death and destruction in other countries- would it be our fault? Would we deserve scorn? Would the suffering and death of our people be justified by how “gross” it is that we eat camels, even if only a few us actually do, and the rest of us prefer shawarma?

Pause for dramatic emphasis. Open the Lancet. Read.

“Human coronavirus is one of the main pathogens of respiratory infection. The two highly pathogenic viruses, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, cause severe respiratory syndrome in humans and four other human coronaviruses induce mild upper respiratory disease. The major SARS-CoV outbreak involving 8422 patients occurred during 2002–03 and spread to 29 countries globally.

MERS-CoV emerged in Middle Eastern countries in 2012 but was imported into China.

The sequence of 2019-nCoV is relatively different from the six other coronavirus subtypes but can be classified as betacoronavirus. SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV can be transmitted directly to humans from civets and dromedary camels, respectively, and both viruses originate in bats, but the origin of 2019-nCoV needs further investigation.

The mortality of SARS-CoV has been reported as more than 10% and MERS-CoV at more than 35%.”

MERS-CoV, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome –Coronavirus emerged in 2012, traveling from bats to camels to humans, killing 35% of the people who contracted it. It originated in Saudi Arabia and found its way across the continent all the way to China. So could the Chinese internet have been justified in ridiculing our deaths because we ate camels?

Could they legitimize posting “gross” videos of whole, pit-roasted camels? Could they say it was science, not racism, as they moved on to our other “gross” foods, like locusts and the dhab lizard?

Read more about the Sunnah of the Dhab Lizard.

Locusts and lizards have as much to do with MERS-CoV as mice and rats have to do with 2019 novel coronavirus, but doesn’t our grossness in general mean we deserve our fate?

No, it doesn’t. Making fun of what people eat isn’t science, epidemiology, or the sunnah. It’s racism, and it is hugely disappointing to see Muslims hurt others with to the same tropes that are used to hurt us.

No, it doesn’t. Making fun of what people eat isn’t science, epidemiology, or the sunnah. It’s racism, and it is hugely disappointing to see Muslims hurt others with to the same tropes that are used to hurt us.Click To Tweet

Orientalism is alive and kicking both of our communities in the teeth — Chinese and Muslim – but to further complicate the matter, there’s the ongoing genocide of the Uighur Muslims in China, and that’s rooted in orientalism too.

The Chinese government has imprisoned 3 million Muslims in concentration camps, a number equal to the entire Muslim population in America. It is not unexpected that some people wishfully assume the 2019 novel coronavirus epidemic to be the comeuppance that the Chinese government deserves for its cruelty, but that’s sad and wrong on many, many levels.

People cheering the coronavirus on fail to understand a few very big, very important things about the situation. I will list them, because the internet is no place for subtlety and these points have to stand out for those who would sail over the entire article so they can trash it in the comments. They are as follows:


  1. The entire population of China is no more responsible for the actions of its government than you are for yours. If you hate Donald Trump, his border wall, the separation of families, the Muslim Ban, cuts to medical benefits, and corruption in general but STILL live in America, then you understand that a great, frustrated, and powerless mass of citizens can have little to no effect on its government’s choices. Such is politics. Such is life. Such is China too.

    This guy is all our fault specifically. So I hope we all die of the flu.

  2. The coronavirus’s lethality is exponentially higher in people with poor health and weak immune systems. Like the flu, the coronavirus is overwhelmingly most lethal to children and elderly. The coronavirus is not targeted at, nor limited to the Chinese leadership for its crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, that is not how epidemics work.
  3.  The spread of Coronavirus – like all respiratory infections – is greatly accelerated through close living quarters as well as poor sanitation and hygiene. The 3 million Uighur Muslims interred by the Chinese government are imprisoned in distressingly cruel, cramped, and unhygienic conditions. Their close proximity as well as population density mean that if the virus makes it into the captive population, hundreds of thousands – if not millions of Muslims – would die. Don’t root for the coronavirus. It does not discriminate based on religion or race, even if you do.

And now we come full circle. When Muslims ridicule the Chinese for “being gross,” they are simply echoing the same racist, Orientalist talking points that labeled the Chinese – and later the Japanese – as the “Yellow Peril,” a filthy, faceless, monolithic mass deserving all of our scorn and none of the individual considerations that we insist on for ourselves.

Given the abuse that Muslims have been subject to by orientalist tropes, it should make us all the more aware of its dangerous cultural impact. We know what it’s like to be looked down on, laughed at, and blamed for our own suffering. We know what it feels like to have our foods gagged at, our accents mocked, and our cultural clothing turned into Halloween costumes.

Worse still, we know, very painfully and very currently, what it looks like for an entire people to be treated as a disease in and of themselves. China has declared Islam to be a contagious disease, an “ideological illness,” and on this very basis is it holding 3 million Muslims hostage. In an official statement loaded with situational irony, the Chinese Community Party officially stated,

“Members of the public who have been chosen for reeducation have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient.

… There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a reeducation hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind … Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and not seeking treatment is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs … There is no guarantee that it will not trigger and affect you in the future.” – source

The dangers of racism and orientalism are real, and the victims number the millions. Knowing how much damage orientalism causes in our community, we must commit to never, ever stooping to the same ideologies that are used to justify our own oppression. No matter how many bats people eat, or how evil their government can be, people are individual people. We stand on equal footing, equally deserving of respect, compassion, and acknowledgement of our humanity.



The Orientalist mindset that diminishes and distances us from each other strips us of our dignity, whether we are its victim, or its the perpetrator. Such racism is antithetical to the Prophetic compassion and mercy that Islam demands from us as Muslims. When Muslims celebrate the suffering of innocent people as some sort of epidemiological revenge for the suffering of innocent people, that’s not Islam.

That’s prejudice.

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