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Racism And The Plagues of Egypt – Coronavirus And Racism: America’s Two Pandemics

Dr Amina Darwish, Guest Contributor

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Introduction

The fight against anti-Blackness has once again hit the global stage, and American Muslims have a central role to play in the movement of racial justice. The spiritual history of America is a history of Black Muslim voices. Mansa Abubakari, a West African King, landed in South America almost 200 years before Columbus began the massacre of the indigenous population.[1] The biggest migration of Muslims to America was the slave ships where scholars fought to teach Islam to their enslaved communities. Modern Islamophobic attacks such as the Muslim Ban of 2016 are not just Islamophobic, but also deeply racist because it denies the humanity of the previous generations of Muslims. Black Muslims have carried the mantle of preserving Islam in America and have fought for racial justice for last four centuries. The immigrant Muslims who arrived during the last 50 years were a direct result of the civil rights movement that allowed immigration from Muslim majority countries. The fight for racial justice is a Muslim fight. We owe it to the generations of Muslims before us to continue their work.

The 400 years of struggle for racial justice in America can be compared to the Children of Israel’s fight for emancipation from Pharaoh’s Egypt 3000 years ago during which the country was hit by a number of plagues. Sheikh Mendes and Imam Dawud Walid have recently referenced the story of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), whose demand to Pharaoh to, “Let my people go[2]” is well known in many religious circles fighting for racial equality in America. [3] The Quran discusses of the plagues of Egypt in the story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) in Surah Al-A’raf. “So We sent upon them the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood as distinct signs, but they were arrogant and were a criminal people.” [7;133] The plagues of Egypt are similar to the current coronavirus pandemic in that they made systemic oppression clear for all to see. The goal here is to explain the relationship between the coronavirus and racism epidemics.

First, the name of the surah will be discussed. Then, the story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will be put into context with the story of the other prophets mentioned in the surah. The events leading up to the Plagues of Egypt are explained and compared to the current American pandemics. Finally, there are recommendations for how to make our community spaces antiracist. A few Black scholars have been quoted throughout as to elevate their voices, and to provide some much-needed groundwork for readers who might be unfamiliar with these great American Muslim scholars. For further reading, Dr. Kayla Renée Wheeler compiled a far more exhaustive list of Black Muslim narratives in the BlackIslamSyllabus.

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To put this verse into perspective we must first reflect on Surah A’raf as a whole, and I encourage everyone to read and contemplate the surah in depth. The A’raf, mentioned in ayah 46, are an elevated place on the Day of Judgement where people of no consequence get stuck. They watch as others are sorted towards Heaven or Hell. The people of the A’raf are not evil, but they also would not leave their comfort zones to actually commit to righteousness. Their comments to the people of Paradise and the people of the Fire are mentioned in the Surah, but do not earn a response because they are then, as they are now, people of no consequence.

The surah begins by telling Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) to not feel distressed by forcing people out of their comfort zones, and warns of previous peoples who were destroyed as they slept in their heedlessness. And how many cities have We destroyed, and Our punishment came to them at night or while they were sleeping at noon. [7;4] We cannot go back to the previous norm when Black people were suffering alone, while non-Black people could comfortably enjoy their lives whilst ignoring—and even benefiting from a system built on—the suffering of their Black brothers and sisters. A critical mass of people must refuse the continued oppression and the suffering of others for the current system to change. American Muslims should do more than give lip service to their Black brothers and sisters.

Anti-Blackness in Human History

The first prophet mentioned in the surah is our father Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), whose name indicates his dark black skin. And We have certainly created you, [O Mankind], and given you [human] form. Then We said to the angels, “Prostrate to Adam”, so they prostrated, except for Iblees. He was not of those who prostrated. [7;11] [Allah] said, “What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” [Satan] said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from mud.” [7;12] Satan hated our father Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) for the form Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave him, which included dark black skin. Anti-Blackness is as old as humanity itself. Dr. Bilal Ware has spoken extensively about the satanic nature of racism. Claims of superiority based on a birthright are rampant throughout human history. Egyptians claimed superiority over the Children of Israel based on where they were from centuries before. Jahili[1] Meccan society claimed superiority based on lineage. The American system claims superiority based on proximity to whiteness. These are characteristics determined at birth and are beyond any human being’s control. Such claims of superiority are counter to the Islamic ethos that sets the value of individuals based on their relationship with God alone. And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” [7:172] Many other prophets and their specific fights against the oppressive power structures are referenced in the surah, which illustrates the continuity of the struggle between the children of Adam and Satan.

A series of prophets (peace be upon them] are briefly discussed with striking similarities in the messages they delivered to their people. All the prophets teach their people about the Oneness of God and called them to rectify the vices that were specific to their society. The mala’a, or the elites, in each of their societies were mentioned as those who fought the prophets. They did so to maintain their chokehold on power, not because of a theological difference. The elites in Meccan society did not fight Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) until he began publicly preaching. They did not care that he prayed differently from them. They feared that his message would make them equal to people they belittled and disparaged. Similarly, it was the elites in Pharaoh’s court who demanded he increase the torment of the Children of Israel. This was a direct result of the magicians publicly declaring their belief and turning public opinion against Pharaoh’s magic, one of the pillars of his power. Similarly in America, the institutional structures of racism need to be dismantled.

Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)

The story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) begins with the demand mentioned in the introduction, “so send with me the Children of Israel.” [7;105]. Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) shows Pharaoh and his elites the signs Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has sent him with. So Moses threw his staff, and suddenly it was a serpent, manifest. [7;107] And he drew out his hand; thereupon it was white [with radiance] for the observers. [7;108] They refuse his message and demand a public contest with magicians in hopes of spinning the narrative in their favor. They fail miserably when the magicians recognize the truth and publicly declare their belief in the Lord of Prophet Haroon 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) despite Pharaoh’s threats of torture. Pharaoh said, “You believed in him before I gave you permission. Indeed, this is a conspiracy which you conspired in the city to expel therefrom its people. But you are going to know.” [7:123]

This now leads us to the discussion of the plagues, and how they came about. After that public humiliation, the elites around Pharaoh demanded that he increase the torment of the Children of Israel. [Pharaoh] said, “We will kill their sons and keep their women alive; and indeed, we are subjugators over them.” [7;127] Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a book specifically addressing how the White supremacist system feared a successful Black presidency and responded with an increased level of racism. As a spiritual response to this heightened oppression, Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) preached patience during the struggle because he knew Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) would deliver them.  The people of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) complained about the increased pain they were now experiencing as they had been suffering for years before a messenger was sent to them. Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) asked them to develop their spiritual strength and prepare themselves for a time when they would be empowered and would need spiritual discipline. Shaykha Ieasha Prime has recently called on the ummah to be increasing its spiritual strength as they organize against anti-Blackness.

The Economic Downturn

Then Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) tested the people of Pharaoh with an economic downturn. “And We certainly seized the people of Pharaoh with years of famine and a deficiency in fruits that perhaps they would be reminded.” [7;130] These circumstances are very similar to the economic recession of 2008, and as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Whenever something good would happen, the people of Pharaoh would claim credit for it, and whenever something bad happened, they would blame Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and his people. But when good came to them, they said, “This is ours [by right].” And if a bad [condition] struck them, they saw an evil omen in Moses and those with him. Unquestionably, their fortune is with Allah, but most of them do not know. [7;131] And they said, “No matter what sign you bring us with which to bewitch us, we will not be believers in you.” [7;132] This rhetoric is very similar to the wave of nationalism that took over the world in the last few years. It is used by nationalist political leaders, who blame marginalized groups for the economic recession. However, the oppression of those marginalized communities was a preexisting condition that was exacerbated and exploited by nationalist leaders.

The Plagues

Then Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) sent them the plagues, “the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood” [7;133]. These were such overwhelming tests for Pharaoh. He was a man that claimed to be a god, but the True God was now sending him something that destroyed the riches he had built and could not be blamed on someone else. It revealed all of his lies. The plagues sent to Pharaoh were specific to the land of the Nile that depended on the production of agriculture and built imposing monuments. It is difficult to look grand when your fields are flooded or consumed by locusts, your water turns to blood, and you and your monuments are covered in lice and frogs. Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic exposed the faults in our health care system, the shortcoming of our food supply, the fragility of the economy, and the deep racism that is embedded into the entire system. The people who were deemed essential to work were treated as sacrificial and were forced to choose between paying for food and rent or risking exposure. They were offered empty platitudes that did not include the protective equipment they needed, increased financial compensation, or health care if they were to fall ill.

Coronavirus attacks the body’s ability to breathe, and it has been widely reported to have affected communities of color far harder than any other group. Black Americans are far more likely to have asthma due to highways going through their neighborhoods, and therefore more likely to die from Covid-19. This is a direct link to a racist system of redlining and highway construction that took away their ability to breathe. Black Americans are imprisoned at disproportionally high rates where social distancing is impossible. There are many false assumptions about the imprisoned population. The truth is that more than 90% of all cases never go to trial, and an accused person’s ability to defend themselves is almost impossible with exorbitant amounts of money. Many Muslims now claim affiliation to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), may Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) have mercy on him. Covid-19 could be killing the next Malcolm X in prison this very moment. All that without even discussing the economic impact of coronavirus on communities of color that if left unchecked will widen the racial wealth gap. The scarcity of food and resources that were created by the plagues undoubtedly affected the Children of Israel and not just their oppressors; however, the end result of plagues was justice for the oppressed.

From Eric Garner to George Floyd, Black Americans have been fighting to breathe in America. The Arabic word nafs which is usually translated to a soul/self has the same root word as nafas, which means a breath. So, a more accurate translation of nafs is actually a breathing soul. Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a nafs (breathing soul) unless for a nafs or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he/she had slain humankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he/she had saved humankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors. [Surah Al-Ma’idah; 32] American Muslims have tended towards the medical profession as a means of fulfilling the above verse in saving people. We should be focusing the same level of energy at saving populations by fighting both the coronavirus and racism epidemics.

Naming the Oppression

The coronavirus epidemic and the recent public murders of Black Americans created a tipping point that did not exist before. Former NBA player and prolific author, Kareem Abdul Jabbar said, “it feels like hunting season is open on blacks.” The murder of George Floyd was so egregious that groups dedicated to preventing police accountability called for Derek Chauvin to be held accountable. America was force to collectively acknowledge the murder of a Black man at the hands of a police officer. Corporations who peddled in racism were issuing apologies when they saw the tide of public opinion turn. The murder of George Floyd made America look the ugliness of racism in the eye. Of course, police brutality and racism did not begin with George Floyd nor did it end with him. Many more people lost their lives at the hands of the police during the protests. For every name we know, there are countless others we do not know. Police brutality is a leading cause of death for Black men in America. Even if we do not know their names, every victim leaves behind a family to mourn their loss while knowing that the murderer not only walks free, but wears a uniform that allows him to continue to kill without consequence. May the brave young woman who took the video receive Divine reward and healing for her bravery. May the burning in the heart of every mother who lost a child be granted Divine patience and healing.

In Surah A’raf, the people of Pharaoh also acknowledged their oppression of the Children of Israel, and they vowed to stop oppressing them. And when the punishment descended upon them, they said, “O Moses, invoke for us your Lord by what He has promised you. If you [can] remove the punishment from us, we will surely believe you, and we will send with you the Children of Israel.” [7;134] We know that the people of Pharaoh reneged after the plagues were lifted. But when We removed the punishment from them until a term which they were to reach, then at once they broke their word. [7;135] So We took retribution from them, and We drowned them in the sea because they denied Our signs and were heedless of them. [7;136] Pharaoh in his arrogance witnessed all of the signs Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) including the staff, his hand, and the plagues. He then witnessed the Red Sea split, and still he followed Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) into the sea until he was drowned. His hatred blinded him, and his racism killed him.

America is now at the same moment of realization. Of course, Black Muslims have never been unaware of racism. It is a privilege for non-Black Muslims to learn about systemic racism rather than experience it firsthand. The ability to see right from wrong is not guaranteed for us. Arrogance can blind us as it has blinded Pharaoh and his army. I will turn away from My signs those who are arrogant upon the earth without right; and if they should see every sign, they will not believe in it. And if they see the way of consciousness, they will not adopt it as a way; but if they see the way of error, they will adopt it as a way. That is because they have denied Our signs and they were heedless of them. [7;146] The ability to see the racism is a mercy from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). May we be protected from spiritual blindness. No Muslim in America should be able to claim a lack of awareness of systemic racism any longer. No should they continue to favor their comfort zones over our love for our Black brothers and sisters and assume they will be forgiven. And they were succeeded by generations who, although they inherited the Scripture, took the fleeting gains of this lower world, saying, ‘We shall be forgiven,’ and indeed taking them again if other such gains came their way. Was a pledge not taken from them, written in the Scripture, to say nothing but the truth about God? And they have studied its contents well. For those who are mindful of God, the Hereafter is better. ‘Why do you not use your reason?’ [7;169]

Fighting the Oppression

Pharaoh claimed to be god, and White supremacy is the false god of our time. It is built into our psyches, our financial systems, and our power structures. Statues were erected to idolize those who upheld it. White supremacy is a system where lighter skin makes people smarter, more trustworthy, and more beautiful. We know this is a lie on its face, and yet it breads anti-blackness that is deeply engrained into everyday life. Fighting anti-blackness is a spiritual struggle, and we should make sincere intentions to fight it in all its forms. We must stand with the people of righteousness who fought for the abolition, civil rights, and an end to colonialist exploitation.

White supremacy in America is in a housing system that segregates people and exposes them to pollutants in their air and their water. It is in an education system that funds or defunds schools based on that segregated housing, and uses the police as an extreme punishment for a child’s infractions. It is in a judicial system that criminalizes poverty and imprisons those who cannot afford bail. It is in a prison system that forces people to work without financial compensation and is protected by the Thirteenth Amendment. Plans to fight the coronavirus pandemic were halted because communities of color were more likely to be affected in yet another disturbing attack. White supremacy is so deeply engrained that it leads some to harm themselves by bleaching their skin and burning their hair in hopes of appearing more like their oppressors. It is everywhere including our spiritual spaces.

Muslims often quote ayah 48:13 and the last sermon of Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) with pride that the tradition stands firmly against racial injustice. While Islam itself does, Muslims often unfortunately do not. One of my community members recently shared a story about entering a masjid in hijab, and being asked if she was Muslim. What was even more egregious is that after a discussion, the family that asked concluded that because of her black skin, she was in fact NOT Muslim despite praying in a masjid. Many of the non-Black Muslims were shocked to hear this, but the truth is that I have never met a Black Muslim who did NOT have a racism in the masjid story. Ask the Black Muslims in your circle about their experiences, and the flood gates will open. You will also see the hurt and betrayal in their eyes for having to endure racism inside their places of worship. Apologize to them for not listening sooner and thank them for being willing to teach you and trust you to want to be better despite their trauma.

Call to Action

It is not enough for anyone to not be racist; we must be anti-racist. Acknowledge the anti-blackness you have internalized within yourself and have those difficult conversations with your family members. Ustadha Zaynab Ansari speaks about the pathological ideologies of how black bodies are viewed in America.  Join and support organizations like the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and the Muslim Alliance of North America. Embrace a Black Muslim ethos of viewing Islam as a theology of liberation. Support Black scholars and the Black masajid. Invite them to speak not just about anti-Blackness, but on their areas of expertise in Islam, history, community development, etc. Demand that the immigrant masajid be antiracist. Black Muslims should be on the Board of Directors and on the Zakah committee to ensure the equity of those spaces. Hire a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert to have a difficult conversation about race in your organization. If the Black Muslims do not share their experiences of racism in the masjid, it is not because they did but happen, but because they do not trust the community to care to change it. Build that trust and build coalitions of communal healing to end the segregation of masajid into Black and immigrant masajid in the first place. The way out of the pandemic is to take care of those who are most vulnerable. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “You are given rizq sustenance based on the most vulnerable among you.” Communities who have turned the tide have done exactly that. Learning to be anti-racist is one of many steps we can take to lift the difficulty our communities are facing. We need at least be as non-discriminatory as the virus that only sees a human body.

Anyone who is not Black has benefited from the theft and subjugation of generations of Black Americans. We should not meet Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) having sided with an oppressor. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) says, “Oppression is layers of darkness on the Day of Judgement.” We can choose to follow the prophetic path, or we can choose to let our racism destroy us. And for every nation is a [specified] term. So when their time has come, they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it]. [7;34] There will be an accounting for our society as a whole, and there will be an individual accounting. Those who follow Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will enter eternal gardens and those who follow Pharaoh will enter an eternal fire. And the people of no consequence, those who choose to do nothing, will sit on the A’raf.

[1] This story is mentioned in West African oral histories

[2] “Let my people go.” (Exodus 5-1: NIV)

[3] The plagues of Egypt are discussed differently in the different Abrahamic faiths. “The Christian and Jewish traditions discuss the angel of death taking the life of the first-born son from every family in Egypt except those who left a marking on their doors so the angel of death could pass over them.”

[4] Jahili is a Quranic descriptor for Pre-Islamic Arab society. It is derived from a root word meaning ignorance.

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Amina Darwish "Imamina" is the Muslim Life Coordinator at Columbia University. She earned ijazas, traditional Islamic studies certifications, from the Qalam seminary in Dallas, TX and the Critical Loyalty seminary in Toronto, ON. She has also studied individually under different scholars from all over the world. She earned a PhD in Chemical engineering before switching careers to follow her true passion for community building. She worked as an adjunct faculty at the University of Cincinnati Clermont and Northern Kentucky University. Amina also served as the content development coordinator at the Muslim Youth of North America.

1 Comment

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    Abdus Shakur Abdelrahman

    October 22, 2020 at 7:41 AM

    inshallah brothers. i hope allah blesses you all on this fine day. i fond this artcile to be exceptional, tru;ly excellent

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