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A Response To Habib Ali Al-Jifri’s Comments On Uyghurs

Toqa Badran and Aydin Anwar respond to the statements made by Shaykh Habib Ali Al-Jifri

Ghulja

Protests preceding the Ghulja Massacre, 1997

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By Toqa Badran, Aydin Anwar 

We acknowledge that those individuals who have devoted their lives to the spiritual empowerment of others are to be admired and respected. The Ulema often serve as beacons of guidance and sources of emulation for the Ummah with their scholarly and moral leadership. Their critical role means that they are also expected to speak and act according to a higher standard of truthfulness and ethics. Bearing this in mind makes it especially dismaying and hurtful to witness inaccurate comments from a famous preacher and scholar who should be a part of this heritage of high intellectual rigour and superior moral conduct. It is even more problematic that these erroneous statements pertain to a group of fellow Muslims presently experiencing almost unprecedented duress to criminalize and eradicate their religion and cultural identity. 

It is unfortunate that Habib Ali al-Jifri, a popular scholar in the Arab world, in a recent lecture has misused his platform by propagating information that is all at once incorrect, biased, and otherwise detrimental to the lives of an entire Muslim nation colonized and oppressed by China. Although he tepidly acknowledges that China has done wrong to Uyghurs and is not fully innocent, a number of his claims remain inaccurate and deserve to be corrected. This article attempts to walk through some of these inaccuracies, and correct such claims that ultimately work to delegitimize and downplay the deplorable reality of Uyghurs and other Turkic-Muslim peoples, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, of East Turkistan (renamed and referred to as Xinjiang, meaning new territory in Mandarin, by the Chinese occupation). 

#1: Shaykh Ali al-Jifri claims that only around half of Uyghurs are Muslim

The first glaring error made by the shaykh is his statement that only around half of the Uyghur population is Muslim. His error may have been a result of confusing the presently reported demographic makeup of East Turkistan with the religious composition of the Uyghur people. While the Uyghur and indigenous inhabitants of the region are overwhelmingly Muslim, the Han Chinese population has climbed drastically from only 6% in 1949 to an estimated 40% – due largely to incentivized migration and other – settler colonial programs embarked upon by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This statistic itself may be unreliable as many undocumented Uyghurs are unaccounted for and, in recent years, scores of Uyghur prisoners and forced laborers have been forcibly transferred to mainland China. 

If, however, al-Jifri meant to propogate the notion that only half of Uyghurs are Muslim, this is another matter altogether. To deny the self-professed Islamic faith of the utter majority of Uyghur people is to commit one of atrocities perpetrated by the CCP itself — the denial and erasure of this long persecuted population’s faith. As for the rootedness of Islam among this people, it has been the predominant religion among Uyghurs in East Turkistan– long before Egypt, or even the Levant, became majority Muslim societies during the Mamluk era. Much of the Islamicization of Central Asia and the Turkic world has been credited to the Karakhanids – a group of Turkic tribes who lived in the Uyghur homeland and converted to Islam in the 10th century (4th century Hijri), after their ruler Sultan Abdulkerim Bughra Khan entered the faith (Svat Soucek. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press. 2002, pp 84).

Uyghurs were also historically part of the Chagatay Turkic Khanate, whence the rulers of the Mughal Dynasty — who ruled much of India for over two centuries — hailed. Tasawwuf-inflected preaching was a key driver in conversions among these Turkic tribes in ways reminiscent of Islam’s spread at the hands of itinerant Hadhrami Sufi scholars and merchants — from whom Habib Ali hails  — across the Indian Ocean littoral and Nusantara (Malay world).

Map of East Turkistan in relation to the rest of Central Asia. East Turkistan is the same size as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada combined. 

Source: International Crisis Group

Starting with the aforementioned Karakhanids in the 10th century, Islamic institutions were founded and devoted to the study of theology, natural science, arts, music, and more. These institutions allowed for the emergence of hundreds of prominent Turkic scholars, who helped shape and record Islamic, Turkic, and specifically Uyghur history through their works: The likes of Mahmud Kashgari’s Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk, the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages. Yusuf Khās Hājib’s Kutadgu Bilig, a mirror-for-princes in prose from the 11th century that shed light on Turkish-Islamic history and culture, and is perhaps one of the earliest surviving Turkic works in the genre of akhlāq (Islamic morality and ethics). The Turks of the region have also been greatly impacted by the Yasawī sufi order which helped make communal dhikr gatherings part and parcel of Uyghur culture. The influence of sufism is also evident in the prevalence of  Sufi shrines — most of which have since been systematically destroyed or left abandoned after being blocked off with barbed wire by the CCP.

The survival of old Quranic manuscripts from the area, as well as manuscripts from the 19th and 20th century, testify to the centrality of the Islamic intellectual tradition and its preservation within Uyghur culture. Thousands of beautiful mosques were constructed throughout the region, many of which have been demolished in recent years by the CCP regime. Had they not been places of great significance and visitation, it begs the question as to why the Chinese government would  bother razing them. Kashgar, the historic capital of the Karakhanid Empire and “jewel” of the Silk Road, became a prominent center of learning and hub showcasing the rich Uyghur past. Yarkend had also been a particular center of Islamic learning and culture for centuries, with dozens of madrasahs present in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It even holds Queen Amanisa Khan’s shrine, where the 12 Muqam (classical Sufi dance and song performance pieces that are a central Uyghur heritage form) were established. 

It is now clear that not only have the vast majority of Uyghurs been Muslim since the 11th century at least, but that the history of East Turkistan cannot be separated from that of the greater Muslim world. Like most Turkic Muslims, Uyghurs have traditionally belonged to Ahl as-Sunnah (the mainstream and overwhelming majority of Muslims), the legal school of Hanafism, and have immense love for the noble Ahl al-Bayt (family and descendants of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ). Uyghurs had even established a maqam (shrine) dedicated to the 8th century scholar and descendant of the Prophet ﷺ, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq – through whom Habib Ali traces his lineage back to the Prophet ﷺ – near the town of Khotan in East Turkistan, which was destroyed by the CCP. If segments of Uyghur society are not practicing Muslims today, it is mostly due to the Communist repression since WWII, just as Soviet anti-religious repression led to the radical decrease in religious literacy and practice in neighbouring Turkic republics. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy and heartening to see that some of the Central Asian republics are currently experiencing a gradual revival of Islamic observance thanks to the demise of oppressive policies, hinting at how the Uyghur religious life could flourish if and when repressive policies in East Turkistan cease.

Before and After of Imam Jafari al-Sadiq shrine. L-R Dec 10 2013, April 20, 2019. 

Photograph: Google Earth/Planet Labs 

The systematic aggression with which the Chinese government has sought to stamp out the works produced by Uyghur scholars and the many ancient Muslim cities scattered across East Turkistan is evidence of their historical importance. From banning the publication of texts in the Uyghur language, closing all religious spaces, and transforming historic sites into propaganda centers for the dissemination of a sanitized, non-religious, and state-sponsored Uyghur identity, it is clear that the CCP feels not only threatened by Uyghur culture, but is aware of its power in maintaining a social fabric worthy of any independent nation. 

And with all of the aforementioned said, we pose the question: Even if the majority of Uyghurs were not Muslim as the shaykh incorrectly claimed, does this excuse Muslims elsewhere of their duty to stand against oppression? Over the course of his commentary on the plight of the Uyghur people, the shaykh himself asked the audience why we [Muslims] are only angry when China oppresses Uyghurs and not the Buddhist Tibetans. Not only does this question contradict his initial premise that the Uyghur community cannot be referred to as overwhelmingly Muslim, but also deeply confuses the listener: “Are we to fight against oppression, regardless of the religion of the oppressed, or not?” We would argue that it is not only an obligation for Muslims, but for all people to resist their own oppression and the oppression of others — especially if this oppression manifests as the criminalization of the most fundamental practices of a people’s faith, Islam in this case. The East Turkistani independence movement itself has always allied itself with those of the Tibetan, Palestinian, and Kashmiri people. It has been incorrectly posited by the shaykh that Uyghurs have only been oppressed for the last 3-5 years. While this is demonstrably false, through the decades-long occupation Uyghurs have faced, what is worse is that he makes this claim in order to draw a false equivalence (between East Turkistan and the Tibetan people) in the hopes of delegitimizing the plight and cause of those in East Turkistan. Worse still, is that when the shaykh is confronted with the truth of the 70+ long years of Chinese colonization of Uyghur lands, he contests its factuality by responding that if China were really so bad then we would see the individual politicians responsible for the colonization personally affected by the Chinese Coronavirus. We question the legitimacy of this apparently necessary correlation and will do so again later in this paper. Furthermore, now that we know that the Uyghur identity is as much an Islamic one as his own Arab identity and that Chinese oppression has been occurring for almost a century, do the scholar’s recommendations change? 

#2: Shaykh Al-Jifri claims that the question of Uyghur oppression is a political, not religious, one 

We would like to preface this section by making it clear that Islam rejects the false dichotomy between the religious and the secular. What is “political” is not necessarily devoid of religious significance, and what is “religious” is not necessarily apolitical. While the Sharia’s precepts pertaining to siyasah (governance and ‘urfi/customary-public law) are mostly general, with few exact prescriptions established by the sources of Sharia (al-adillah al-sharʿiyyah), Muslims have always conceived of politics as a space bound by Islamic morality and ethics, akhlāq. As with any other dimension of human life, a person’s moral culpability before God extends into the domain of the “political” just as it extends into the domain of the economic, familial, ritual, etc. 

While it is true that colonization is often understood as a political phenomenon and not a religious one, religion has featured prominently both as a pretext and the locus of subjugation in China’s crimes against the Uyghur people. China brands its campaign against the Uyghurs as a fight  against “Islamic extremism” in an attempt to ride on the coattails of the global “War on Terror” thereby garnering  sympathy for its policies — including the imprisonment of millions of Turkic peoples into concentration camps and prisons — and insulate itself from backlash it would otherwise face as a result of its inhumanity in East Turkistan. Like Modi’s India and many Western nations, China exploits the world’s frenzied paranoia surrounding “Muslim terror” to justify its crackdown on innocent Muslims.

“Ubiquitous scene on the streets of  #Xinjiang these days. Men and women (inc. the elderly) trudging around with enormous clubs, part of the ‘People’s War’ on terrorism.” – David Brophy, Nov 15th 2017 

We acknowledge, however, that if this matter was purely religious, and not political, we would see Hui Muslims, who do not have a territorial claim at stake, rounded up into concentration camps and being subject to the same forms of oppression Uyghurs and other Turkic people are. However, this is not the case. Huis have historically been left largely undisturbed for the sake of maintaining the CCP’s facade of religious acceptance — or at most they are subject to the usual disruptions any religious group faces under the anti-religious CCP. Historically, the Hui have been staunch supporters of the Chinese state, and even played a critical role in the dismantling of the first East Turkistan Republic of 1933 and the second of 1944.. This did not spare them, however, from the current religious crackdown they and other faith groups like Christians face, once again highlighting the inextricably religious dimension of the CCP’s supposedly merely “political” project. As though rounding up innocents into concentration camps and subjecting an entire people to violations of fundamental human rights as part of a larger campaign of ethnic cleansing and cultural destruction would be anything less than heinous, even if religion played no role in the matter.

Much of Uyghur and, by extension, all Central Asian Turkic identity, has centered on religion; Uyghurs and other Turks are Muslim, just like Malays have been Muslim based on historical development in the past millennium. Historically, up until the 1930s, Uyghurs were not commonly referred to as “Uyghurs” — they and other Turkic Muslims of East Turkistan were simply referred to as “Musulman” (Muslim), “Turki” (Turk), or “yerlik” (local). This truth further explains why China has been so adamant in removing religion from the lives of East Turkistanis — Islam is so critical to the history and culture of the Turkic presence that the CCP knows that, without it, East Turkistanis will be left weak and purposeless– easily converted into malleable forced worshippers of the party, and indistinguishable from the rest of China’s largely atheist, but nominally Confucian, Buddhist or Taoist Han majority. Not to mention that they are then exploited in China’s massive hypocritically capitalistic labour scheme — which most of Chinese masses also suffer from. 

Claiming that the oppression is not a religious matter implies that Muslims need not care about the Uyghurs out of religious concern, while in reality our blood should be boiling knowing that the rights of God and His worshippers are being violated by the CCP. Muslims around the world rightly condemn and stand in solidarity against zionist oppression in Palestine, though, by the shaykh’s standards, this would be appear a purely political project undeserving of collective Muslim outrage. The Israeli state-apparatus oppresses Muslim and Christian Palestinians alike. The CCP has singled out Muslims, however, especially those in East Turkistan, as the targets of their brutal project. Again, we see that this is both a religious and political issue against which all Muslims and conscientious human beings should speak and fight. Just as we all wish for the freedom of Palestine sooner rather than later, we should pray, speak, and fight for the freedom of our brothers and sisters in East Turkistan.

Practicing Islam is categorically forbidden in East Turkistan, despite China’s constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. Islamic texts and names are banned, practicing most of the five pillars of Islam is forbidden, and centuries old Islamic institutions have been destroyed and converted into communist propaganda centers. Religious scholars (ulema) have disappeared, sentenced to life in prison, or killed.

These tragedies are never publicized within China’s borders — and their occurrence is aggressively denied by the Chinese media apparatus. Instead, the media tokenizes and highlights a few religious acts, in reality no more than complex theatrics which the government has directed in order to showcase the power of “CCP Islam”. Journalists and political actors from other countries, especially Muslim ones, are invited to East Turkistan to witness a beautiful charade of “harmony” and happiness that, in reality, is no more than an open air prison for the Uyghurs. Albanian academic and journalist, Dr Olsi Jazexhi, was one of these visitors, who later reflected on his experiences and observations on such a CCP-sponsored trip. He and other journalists toured many mosques with the CCP’s aim being to show to the outside world that there are mosques, and indeed religious freedom, in East Turkistan. Jazexhi recalls venturing into one of the mosques near Urumqi’s Grand Bazaar and finding only a store. He also recalls his visit to a concentration camp or what China calls a “vocational training center”:

“The center was in the middle of the desert. It was a kind of Alcatraz, and by its appearance, we were expecting to find some criminals, terrorists, and killers, and people who were dangerous to society. When we went there, the criminals presented us with a concert. These poor boys and girls who were being held there since many years. They were told to dance to me; Uyghur dance, Chinese dance, and Western dance. The authorities wanted us to film them only dancing and smiling and singing. They were all speaking Chinese, even though they were Uyghurs [sic].” 

Jazexhi, a dual Albanian and Canadian citizen, was later fired from his university position in Albania — demonstrating the reach of Chinese economic blackmail diplomacy. The professor was blacklisted by China due to his truthful reports on East Turkistan, highlighting the CCP’s suppression of criticism abroad, even within the context of academia, with its diplomatic and economic pressure. 

Scene from a staged tour of a ‘vocational training center’. Uyghur detainees are playing music to show  ‘harmony’ and ‘happiness’ inside the camps. Source: BBC 

Of course, this harmony would not be complete without the millions of Han Chinese who have been settled, with the aid of the government, within the borders of East Turkistan. While Uyghurs are systematically transported outside of the borders of their homeland and into mainland China to work as forced laborers or to be imprisoned and “reeducated”, it is hard to ignore the demographic erasure of Uyghurs in East Turkistan. As more and more Han Chinese are brought into Uyghur land to replace the displaced natives, the CCP razes ancient mosques, homes, and sanctuaries to make room for the new settlers. 

Photo from Gilles Sabrie: “Sledgehammer: The Chinese say Kashgar must be destroyed because it is susceptible to earthquakes” (TIME

These settlers act both as continuous reminders of the disappearance of Uyghur autonomy as well as wardens over the remaining Uyghur population. There have been many accounts of Han Chinese living with Uyghur families in their homes as “big siblings”— feeding the government information on the family’s every move and assisting in Uyghur imprisonment for even the smallest of religious offences. Aside from simple demographic engineering and ethnic cleansing, the Chinese program of destroying Uyghur cities and patrimony is intended to deracinate East Turkistanis from their culture and make them self-internalize that they are a people with no heritage, and to imprison them in easy-to-surveil panopticons with Han colonialists wardens. Destroying ancient cities and heritage is an old authoritarian communist strategy, reflecting the idea brillianty summarized by Alexander Solzhenitsyn that “to destroy a people you must first sever their roots.” 

Muhammad Salih Hajim (82), widely known as the first scholar to translate the Quran to modern Uyghur, is amongst one of the martyred and was killed in detention in January 2018. Source: RFA

One former prisoner, Adil Abdulghufur, in an interview with our co-author, Aydin Anwar, recounted how he was beaten unconscious by Chinese prison authorities and forced to wear a 25 kg cement block for a month hung by a thin string around his neck after saying “Bismillah” (in the name of God) in his sleep. Countless Uyghur women and men, who have been sent to camps and prisons due to religious practice have been raped, forcibly sterilized, drugged, and their bodies used for organ harvesting. Uyghurs are punished with long prison sentences; one Uyghur woman was sentenced to 10 years in prison for promoting the wearing of headscarves, a Kazakh man was sentenced to 16 years in jail after Chinese authorities found audio recordings of the Quran on his computer, and several Uyghur refugees we have spoke with said that even saying the Muslim greeting Assalāmu Alaykum (Peace be upon you) can get them locked up for 10 years. Saying Insha’Allah (God-willing) is also prohibited. In one of the many documentaries published on the dystopian existence of the Uyghur people, VICE interviews a woman who states her charged crime was the learning of the Quran and the Arabic language. A man, later in the documentary, details how he was punished for refusing to eat pork even while imprisoned. By many accounts, the word God or Allah itself must be replaced with “Party” (Chinese Communist Party), or the name of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

Portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands with Uyghur Imams placed in Kasghar’s historical Id Kah (Eidgah) mosque in East Turkistan. Note that the picture is facing the congregants in the direction of Muslim prayer – Qiblah. Source: David Brophy 

#3: Shaykh Al-Jifri claims the reason people are fighting for East Turkistan is because they do not want China to build the so-called ‘New Silk Road’ and become 2x as strong as America economically

This claim reduces the East Turkistani freedom movement to a China vs America binary– thereby completely erasing the decades of occupation East Turkistan has endured under China. In 1759, the Manchu Qing Empire invaded East Turkistan and made it its new colony. Uyghurs rebelled against Qing rule, and in 1863 were able to break free and establish Kashgaria under their leader Yaqub Khan, now known as East Turkistan. Two decades later, the Uyghurs were invaded by the Qing again, and, this time, the Uyghur homeland was formally incorporated under the Chinese empire as “Xinjiang”. Chinese nationalists overthrew the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1911, putting East Turkistan under the rule of Nationalist China. The Uyghurs carried out numerous rebellions and were able to establish the East Turkistan Islamic Republic in 1933 and 1944, both of which briefly lasted before the Chinese government reoccupied the region through the military intervention and political interest of the Soviet Union. The most recent occupation started in 1949 when the Communist Party of China came to power, and since then, millions of East Turkistanis have been subject to various forms of brutal systematic genocide. 

The Declaration of Independence of the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan, November 12, 1933 Note: As is visible, the local ulema/scholars spearheaded the effort for independence.

It is deeply condescending to not only delegitimize the efforts of a Muslim people in standing against their oppressors, but to also deem them to be no more than American pawns. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s China seeks to continue solidifying Chinese hard power in East Turkistan while working towards the larger CCP strategic goal of establishing China as a global hegemonic power with a new Chinese-dominated global economic-political order, via the multi-trillion dollar One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative. This strategic-economic project — the largest the Eurasian Landmass ever seen — spanning over 70 countries via railroads, gas pipelines, and other infrastructure projects, is one of the greatest attempts of China to secure itself a superpower position in the 21st century. Without East Turkistan, deemed by the CCP the “Chinese gateway” to Eurasia and the West in general, the entire OBOR initiative’s immediate feasibility is truly brought into question. In addition to this strategic importance East Turkistan, the land of the Uyghurs is also extremely rich in oil, gas, and coal. According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report, the region contains the second-highest natural gas reserves and highest oil reserves of any province-level jurisdiction of China, reportedly producing more than 30 BCM of natural gas in 2015. 

A statement that reduces the intention of the freedom movement to a simple modern economic enterprise further belittles the rich history of a people that once lived with centuries of independence, and its rightful effort to reclaim its full rights and freedom. The Uyghurs played a crucial role in establishing the Koktürk Khanate (552-744), the Uyghur Khanate (744-840), the Kara-Khanid Khanate (840-1212), Gansu Uyghur Kingdom (848-1036), and Idiqut State (856-1335). They lived co-independently in the Mongol Empire, even playing crucial roles in its administration through Gengiz Khan’s usage of the Uyghur yasa law system and the Uyghur script. After the Chagatai Khanate, East Turkistan was integrated into the Turkic-Muslim milieu of the larger Turkistan stretching from the Caspian to Mongolia including cities and polities like Bukhara, Samarkand, Kokand, etc. with scholars, traders and others moving east and west. Thus, it is truly ridiculous to understand the issue of Uyghur colonization solely through a lens of Sino-American politics. The colonization of East Turkistan began long before China was a real contender in the quest for international political-economic hegemony, and will continue –ceteris paribus– long after a change in the foreign policy of either the United States or China. The recent interest American politicians have taken in the plight of the Uyghurs has never even clearly crossed into the realm of East Turkistani independence– it is Uyghur, Turkic, Muslim, and anti-colonial activists who are at the forefront of the East Turkistani independence movement. Just as it was completely understandable that Afghans accepted American assistance in the fight against Soviet occupation, and that the Viet Cong accepted Chinese assistance to protect against American invasion on the other hand, the Uyghur crisis is so dire that the people are justly tempted to accept the assistance of any powerful nation against the century long Chinese oppression they have faced. Had China, under the yoke of CCP, not suffocated the Muslim peoples inhabiting East Turkistan, Uyghurs could maybe regard China differently…

The only way to secure Uyghurs and other East Turkistanis their essential rights — to practice their faith, operate economically, and take pride in their rich culture and history without fear of imprisonment, assault or death — is to secure the sovereignty of their occupied homeland. For many Uyghurs, the human rights/autonomy discourse is dead. The Chinese government has proven over the course of its long occupation that it can never guarantee Uyghurs the safety or the freedom they deserve. Although China claims Uyghurs to be one of its “proud 56 ethnic minorities”, it sees Uyghurs not only as foreigners, as made clear with their completely distinct language, history and culture, but also as existential threats to its despotic power. As internal but “foreign” threats, the Uyghur people have been imprisoned, enslaved, indoctrinated and murdered. There can be no going back after this horror. The only solution is for the Uyghur people, completely foreign to China, to formally exist outside of the jurisdiction of the Chinese government as their own nation.

#4: Al-Jifri asks how COVID-19 can be divine punishment if Communist Party authorities themselves remain untouched by the virus

While we agree with al-Jifri that we are in no position to state definitely whether any worldly occurrence is a direct act of Divine punishment, we question a few of the implications presented during the lecture. For example, the shaykh asks how the coronavirus pandemic can logically be considered Divine punishment if the individuals, who made the governmental decisions resulting directly in the oppression against Uyghurs, themselves remained unscathed by the virus. We respond: How can a virus which has debilitated the economy and social structure of a country, whose government is committing genocide against millions of colonized peoples, including millions of Muslims, not be? This article does not aim to delve into a metaphysical discussion on the nature of blame and culpability, but we can simply ask how the shaykh knows that none of those individuals he identifies did not fall ill. 

Additionally, we question why such a punishment could not target an entire corrupt regime — or even a complicit or apathetic populace — and not simply certain individuals, who he might deem actually culpable. 

The fact of the matter is this: We do not know how many of the Uyghurs who are trapped in concentration camps, prisons or forced labor factories, have been additionally subject to this seperate CCP oppression — a virus which only became as terrible of an international menace as it has due to the deception and inadequacy of the CCP. We hope their number is very low, but also understand that the illness of Uyghurs does not indicate that the CCP is any less problematic or morally horrific in its dealing with the virus and with the regime’s colonial holdings. The shaykh  also asks why other oppressors would not be more deserving of a plague such as this one. To this we repeat the shaykh’s  question to himself: Who are we to question God’s methods? The burning of the Amazon is not certainly a punishment for the South American nations whose borders it crosses, or it may be a punishment for humanity at large — we cannot know. 

It does not take an act of divine punishment for us to recognize the immorality of an action or event. We do not wait for lighting to strike us down before we realize we may have committed a misdeed. In the same way, we do not know if COVID -19 is divine punishment, but we do know that the oppression of Uyghurs is a moral outrage and requires immediate international action, especially from fellow Muslim brethren. 

 As previously noted, we do not seek to act as interpreters of God’s will. On the contrary, we only seek to act according to a well-established Islamic tradition of taking ʿibrah, a lesson derived from a moral experience, from what we observe in the world. Even while carefully performing this observation, we acknowledge that our derivations are zannī, or of uncertainty. This being said, we believe that our history and faith have so clearly called for justice and religious freedom that to ignore the direct suppression of Islam or Muslims, especially through means as violent and cruel as those practiced by the Chinese Communist Party, is to commit a definitive moral misdeed.

This kind of deduction by ulema and regular Muslims alike has been practiced for centuries. One pertinent example is of an individual named Mirza Ghulam of Qadiyan, who apostatized from Islam in the late 19th century as a claimant of prophethood, and experienced a rather gruesome death due to dysentery. His downfall has been commonly interpreted (taʾwīl) as punishment, for his attempting to act as a divinely ordained prophet of God. This kind of informed and qualified interpretation has been performed for centuries and is allowed for any individual so long as they ultimately believe in the finality of the Knowledge and the Will of God. W’Allāhu Aʿlam (God knows best).

Action Items & Closing Notes

We do not seek to find out the intention of Habib Ali al-Jifri’s speeches on the situation of our Uyghur brothers and sisters – he may have simply been misinformed. What we can do, however, is question the sources of his information and highlight the graveness of his actions and words. The fact of the matter is that millions of Muslims are detained by China for committing simple acts of faith that people elsewhere have the pleasure of doing each and every day– including saying “Bismillah” before they take a bite of food. As we observe Ramadan currently, it is devastating to think of the Uyghurs, who are forced to eat and drink, let alone drink alcohol and eat pork, during the holy month to prove their “innocence” from Islam to the Chinese government. While we sit with our families and break our fast, Uyghurs and other Turkic people suffer silently in thousands of prisons and labor camps far from their families. 

This scholar, or those who have misinformed him, have not only dismissed the CCP’s violations against our religion and the Ummah at large, but have also attempted to disincentivize hundreds of thousands of free Muslims from aiding the Uyghur people in their plight against the CCP.

We ask that you to pray that the oppression of the Uyghur people ceases as soon as possible; but also urge you to boycott Chinese or Chinese-made products likely to be reliant on Uyghur slave labor; to actively spread the word on the suffering of East Turkistan; and to build interest groups and networks to pressure governments to lower their dependency on China, while increasing economic and political collaboration between Muslim people. Change starts with and around each and every one of us; inquire about Uyghur-East Turkistani exiles in your area and country, and organize your communities to help stranded Uyghur orphans, students and other disadvantaged individuals survive as Muslim Uyghur people with their culture. Lobby for issuing Uyghurs passports and securing Uyghur emigres refugee-asylee status and protection. Stop “extradition-repatriation” of Uyghurs to China. Call for a united diplomatic effort of Muslim, Arab, and/or Turkic and others concerned for freedoms countries against China’s atrocities. They should act according to inter-state relations and not as slavish would-be vassal states, and hold a respectable diplomatic stand vis-à-vis China from our countries.

We ask that you get your universities involved by both raising awareness on campus as well as by assessing your university’s relationship with China. Check to see if your school has a Confucius or China Institute. These entities often serve as a public educational arm of the Chinese government abroad, and are controlled by the CCP — thereby enabling them to exercise soft power all over the world. Insist that these institutes make a statement and acknowledge the atrocities faced by those in East Turkistan, and call them out if they do not. Call for a double background check for Chinese researchers lest they actually be informants as often happens in the U.S. Countless events and panels discussing the horrors committed by the CCP have been canceled by universities around the world due directly to Chinese pressure. Call for university endowments to divest from China. Finally, call on your school to increase funding for Uyghur/Turkistani studies and to set up scholarships and grants to assist exiled Uyghur students and scholars — their lived experiences are essential to hear, accept, and make sure fewer people have to go through again. 

 It is important to ensure the political and economic independence of academia– without which generations of students will maintain worldviews colored by propaganda and complicit in the oppression of millions. Insist that your school cuts ties with Chinese bodies violating academic freedoms, similar to how Cornell cut ties with a Chinese university. Hold your universities accountable regardless if they are directly complicit in, or just silent on, the human rights abuses China commits. Demand that these important institutions divest from these China and the CCP. 

We have seen large-scale protests across the Muslim world, especially in countries, whose governments have remained silent against the oppression in East Turkistan for fear of Chinese retribution, and hope to see even more people push their governments to pressure the CCP. The shaykh encourages members of the audience to maintain an Islamic guiding moral principle and to act on it. We agree with this wholeheartedly — but we vigorously disagree with his calls to (in)action. Instead of focusing only on ourselves and our individual economic and academic developments, we also hope to fight for the Uyghur and other Turkic people’s ability to do the same — to practice their faith, live without fear of imprisonment, and in a homeland that is formally their own. This is not a hopeless cause– our voices can and must be heard, inshAllah. 

عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ رضي الله عنه قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِنْ قَامَتْ عَلَى أَحَدِكُمْ الْقِيَامَةُ وَفِي يَدِهِ فَسْلَةٌ فَلْيَغْرِسْهَا

From Anas Ibn Malik, Allah be pleased with him: The Prophet Muhammad, the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him, said: if the day of judgement is upon you, and in your hand is a seed, plant it. 

Action Items:

  1. Keep making Dua for the oppressed of East Turkistan and the world
  2. Boycott Chinese products– do not be complicit in slave-labour
  3. Raise awareness on the plight of Uyghurs and the East Turkistani cause, learn more at SaveUighur.org
  4. Work towards reducing your country’s economic dependence on China
  5. Build alliances with all people of conscience to demand a cessation of China’s oppression of all faith groups, be it Muslim Uyghur, Hui, Christian or Tibetan Buddhist
  6. Encourage and promote fairer trade and commerce with Muslims and others rather than China
  7. Inquire about Uyghur diaspora members in your area. Organize to help out orphans, widows, and students.
  8. Pressure governments to provide legal protection to Uyghur refugees-exiles by either citizenship or refugee-asylee status. Stop the “extradition-repatriation” of Uyghurs to China! 
  9. Get your universities-endowments to divest from China. Raise awareness about Chinese espionage and hired guns in academia. Demand academic and financial support for Uyghur scholars and students. Request more academic attention and funds for Central Asian, Uyghur, Turkistani studies.

Dislclaimer: The authors acknowledge Habib Ali’s willingness to retract his statements, and appreciate his dua for the oppressed Uyghur when faced with rightful criticism. However, the retraction came to our attention towards the very end (on May 12, article published May 14) of writing the piece (a month long process) and despite being a welcome move, does not remove the falsehood of most of his takes. He only corrects the first item from his otherwise totally-problematic takes. After an online correspondence with Uyghur activist Abdulghani Thabit, Habib Ali only corrected his statement number 1 from the longer talk. The three other misleading takes remain and were thus addressed in the piece. The authors tried their best to give all due respect to someone who dons the mantle of ‘scholar’. Our intention is not to attack Habib Ali or any other scholar, rather we seek to use his misleading commentary (corrected albeit in part by the Shaykh later) as a segue into educating the largely ignorant Muslim masses susceptible to Chinese propaganda on Uyghurs and the East Turkistani cause.

Here is a condensed Arabic version of this article translated by Imam Abdul Jabbar

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Toqa Badran is a recent graduate of Columbia University where she earned a degree in political science and anthropology, and advocated for the rights of minority students. She will be returning to the university as a graduate student to study the history and cultures of Muslim societies, especially in premodernity. Her grassroots organizing has mainly dealt with anti-colonialsm and advocating for the rights of economically, politically or religiously subjugated people globally.Aydin Anwar is an Uighur American and Outreach Manager of the Save Uighur campaign under Justice For All, a 501(c)(3) human rights non-profit dedicated to issues on Muslim oppression. During her youth and college years, she had worked heavily in East Turkistan advocacy by raising awareness through media, film, public speaking, and working on relief efforts for Uyghur refugees in Turkey. She has spoken on multiple media outlets, with her most notable piece on Now This garnering over 100 millions views worldwide. Aydin holds a BA from Duke University in International Comparative Studies.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    May 13, 2020 at 4:27 PM

    Thank you so much for enlightening us about the Islamic history of East Turkestan, and the shocking depth of the oppression happening there. Sadly, there are many so-called Muslim leaders who benefit financially and politically by allying themselves with the Chinese Communist government, against their own brothers and sisters. Such people are the lowest of the low.

    • Avatar

      Ashaq

      May 13, 2020 at 10:36 PM

      Just another celebrity Scholar that needs to be put on the ignore list.

      • Avatar

        Habeeb

        May 14, 2020 at 8:11 AM

        We have no any right to judge the Scholastic power of shiekh.there might be fault.we all are ‘insan’..which derives from ‘nisyan’..so forgive..but don’t use this to undermine his spiritual greatness.jazakalllah.

        • Avatar

          Abu Ali

          May 16, 2020 at 8:24 PM

          There was no intent to judge “scholastic power”. Whatever in the heck thats supposed to mean. Your comment about insan doesn’t make much sense either. This piece was written to defend the Muslims. Best not be a jifri worshipper.

          • Avatar

            Wulf Nesthead

            May 17, 2020 at 5:29 PM

            It looks like the brother was referring to the comment to which he was replying, not to the article itself. I agree with his sentiment, if not his grammatical phrasing: the scholar may be in error in this matter, but that is neither a reason to dismiss him as “just another celebrity shaykh” nor a reason to ignore his considerable scholarly contributions on other matters.
            That goes for the comment, not for the article itself, which is outstanding; and I pray that its message gets the exposure and reception it deserves.

    • Avatar

      Habeeb

      May 14, 2020 at 8:19 AM

      Good one to understand the sufferings of Uyghur Muslims.But lack in the way used to refute a argument.dont use this to undermine the Scholastic power of shiekh.judge his words on the context.Morover he has already corrected this.

  2. Avatar

    Amir

    May 14, 2020 at 12:04 AM

    It’s true the Muslim world failed east Turkestan just like the muslim world failed Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and everywhere else they are being oppressed and blood spilled but for the love of god don’t manipulate our emotions and make the muslim world a tool for other communities interest to destabilize china in a proxy fashion. Mike Pompeo Doesn’t give a crap about Uighurs or Muslims We saw her thank him! Muslim blood is finger licking good off his hand. We are all sinful until oppression is lifted and I don’t have the solution. This article at best is emotional driven but lacks wisdom and complete understanding. If you cant see the political element between China and its geopolitical oppositions which they will come to an understanding at the cost of the Uighrs then god help  you.

    • Avatar

      Aydin Anwar

      May 14, 2020 at 12:17 PM

      Assalamu Alaykum. It seems you either simply did not read section #3 of the article or did not understand what you read. Go over it again please.

      • Avatar

        Amir

        May 15, 2020 at 12:02 AM

        Wa alaikum salam,
        I did read it and I reread it out of respect to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I Stand  100% with eastern Turkestan but I am not going to pretend like the Chinese and Russian political moves land, sea, economic, influence, diplomacy  and what have you and the counter moves from their oppositions are not as obvious as day. We all failed, me being the first one, and I don’t know how to rectify it. If you think congress or Pompeo gives a hell and you are looking towards them to get your rights as they bless the annexation of Palestine and continue to kill us all over the world then you’re delusional. Many tried that before you afghans in the 80s and kurds recently. it’s the same game that’s being played over and over. To them our Uighurs brothers and sisters are just a tool in their tool box to achieve their goals. I know talk is cheap and it’s easy for people to say anything but a Muslim is  a Muslim I don’t differ on race and I am from a back round that knows a thing or two about oppression and I don’t want it on anyone it’s important to navigate wisely we might be in a worldly hell right now we have to find a way to climb out not go to the lowest part of the worldly hell. May Allah rectify our affairs and may he give every Uighur a joy of sweetness and comfort with his presence.

  3. Avatar

    search4guidance

    May 14, 2020 at 9:06 AM

    Thank you for providing this information. Could you kindly provide a link to his post of the refutation?

  4. Avatar

    Aydin Anwar

    May 14, 2020 at 2:56 PM

    Assalamu Alaykum Muhammad, thank you for your comment. We will be adding a disclaimer regarding this shortly, but adding it here as well. The authors acknowledge Habib Ali’s willingness to retract his statements, and appreciate his dua for the oppressed Uyghur when faced with rightful criticism. However, the retraction came to our attention towards the very end (on May 12, article published May 14) of writing the piece (a month long process) and despite being a welcome move, does not remove the falsehood of most of his takes. He only corrects the first item from his otherwise totally-problematic takes. After an online correspondence with Uyghur activist Abdulghani Thabit, Habib Ali only corrected his statement number 1 from the longer talk. The three other misleading takes remain and were thus addressed in the piece. The authors tried their best to give all due respect to someone who dons the mantle of ‘scholar’. Our intention is not to attack Habib Ali or any other scholar, rather we seek to use his misleading commentary (corrected albeit in part by the Shaykh later) as a segue into educating the largely ignorant Muslim masses susceptible to Chinese propaganda on Uyghurs and the East Turkistani cause.

    • Avatar

      Ff

      May 14, 2020 at 4:24 PM

      You misled people by publishing something despite having had knowledge of it being retracted.

      • Avatar

        Abu Ali

        May 16, 2020 at 8:28 PM

        Jifri misled people. This article’s was to clear things up. Direct your frustrations where they started, aka jifri. Respect the shaykh, don’t worship him.

    • Avatar

      Muhammad Jawad

      May 14, 2020 at 10:48 PM

      I was referring to statement number 1. It is dishonest of you to include something you know does not illustrate the reality of the Shaykh’s views.
      I wasn’t referring to the rest of the response, which contains many strawman arguments and contradictions.

  5. Avatar

    Abu Ali

    May 16, 2020 at 8:26 PM

    Great, maybe he can post this refutation as well. The more the better. Who knows the amount of damage he’s done. The more he corrects himself the better.

  6. Avatar

    Faiz ali

    May 22, 2020 at 7:26 AM

    thanks for sharing good article.

  7. Avatar

    Faiz zulfiqar

    May 22, 2020 at 7:26 AM

    thanks for sharing good article.

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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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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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