If someone asked you to describe a Muslim, how would you respond? The most stereotypical of answers would be ‘Arab or South Asian sporting a long beard and a white robe’, yet the most common.
This stereotype however, ostracises and disregards those who do not fit this description. Especially Black Muslims.
A Muslim is a Muslim regardless of their appearance, race and gender yet those from a Black descent are often overlooked and forgotten; not only by non-Muslims but those within the community too.
There is an existing hierarchy prevalent whereby some communities are discriminated against because of their race. Black Muslims, who face intersecting oppression by virtue of their race and their religion, are often victim to this.
Black Muslims make up a large and important segment of the global Muslim population, and while they are a smaller group in the UK, they still make up approximately 10% of the UK Muslim population. Moreover, Islam is the largest religion within the African continent, so why are Black Muslims sometimes ignored and subject to racism?
I reached out to healthcare worker based in Pennsylvania, Tahirah, 22 in hopes of gaining an insight of what it’s like to be Black within the Muslim community. We spoke about any discrimination she has faced, the community’s perception on black Muslims, and whether there is a division that needs addressing.
‘Arabs look down upon black Muslims. They give off this very arrogant and haughty attitude that they are better than you because of where they are from. I do not like it at all [and] it irritates me’ she says.
The effects of colonialism are still very much prevalent within our society but even more so within the Muslim community. Historically, the conquest of Northern Africa in the 7th Century by the Arabian Penisula, is what allowed for Islam to spread beyond the Middle East. But the treatment of black people as inferior as well as the enslavement is the source of the underlying problem that infests the Muslim community.
For example, within the 9th century, Muslims that were moving from Medina to Baghdad, enslaved eastern Africans thus physically perpetuating the idea that black is morally and socially inferior. And to this date, modern slavery in Arab nations is still widespread according to The Global Slavery Index.
In a study conducted by the Black Muslim Forum, ‘63% of the participants stated that they did not feel they belonged to the UK Muslim community’ and ‘53.95% of people overall felt they did not belong to their local mosque’. The mosque is a place where all Muslims should feel comfortable and come together to pray despite their race, yet ‘48.98% of participants faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a UK mosque or religious setting’.
Tahirah commented that she too has ‘faced [discrimination] in masjids a lot and [doesn’t] understand why that is. At the end of the day, we are all Muslim.’
This poses the question- is this a cultural issue as opposed to a religious one?
Before becoming the second largest religion in the world, the emergence of Islam was humble. Deriving initially from the Middle East, Islam grew and spread across Asia, India, Africa, and the Balkans. Due to the diversity between each region, prejudice and discrimination grew because of the stark contrasts between the different cultures. The teachings of Islam however condemn such behaviour.
Islam translates to peace. In the words of American scholar, Zaid Shakir, ‘Islam is not a religion of empty laws and structures but one which points towards a higher ethical order’. Because equality and fairness are such an integral part of the faith, Islam does not condone the mistreatments certain communities face whether they are Muslims or not.
The Qur’an teaches Muslims that justice applies to all humans regardless of faith, race and gender, ‘[…] do not let the hatred of people prevent you from being just. Be just: that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is [fully] aware of what you do.’ Qur’an 5:8.
In addition, the Prophet, Muhammed ﷺ, also delivered a message about inclusivity after many of his followers began to think of themselves as better than non-Muslims and non- Arabs despite the Qur’ans teaching on race. He stated according to a hadith, ‘O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no favour of an Arab over a foreigner, nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin, nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness. Have I not delivered the message?’.
What seems to be forgotten is that there were many notable Black figures deriving from the Middle East within Islam for example, Bilal RA the first slave that embraced Islam and was a very close companion to the Prophet. Despite the torturing he experienced by his master for considering Islam, he remained resilient and was later freed by the Prophet. He was given the opportunity to perform the first ‘Mu’azzin’ ` (call to prayer) and given the title ‘Sayyedna’ (our leader).
Another notable figure was Moses who is known as Prophet Musa A.S within Islam. Contrary to popular belief, the Prophet was described to have been black and would have looked like the Abyssinians in present day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. He was given the Torah through the revelation and is the most mentioned prophet within the Qur’an.
Musa AS life was said to be parallel with Muhammed’s ﷺ and he was one of five of the most prominent prophets in Islam along with Jesus (Isa), Abraham (Ibrahim), Noah (Nuh) and Muhammed. These prophets are known as ‘Ulu’l azm prophets’ (Allah’s favoured).
Although Islam preaches about equality and featured prominent black figures, why are Black Muslims discriminated against?
‘I personally feel a lot of Muslim leaders and figures don’t speak on [racism or prejudice] enough or address it. That’s why it’s so rampant’ says Tahirah.
The majority of imams and Muslim leaders tend to be of a South Asian or Arab background as opposed to black because the stereotypes that are pervasive amongst Caucasians are commonplace among Muslims. Many view Black people as violent and lacking ‘true’ Islamic knowledge.
This negative attitude towards black leaders reflects insensitive to Black Muslim culture and only perpetuates the issue. No other Muslim community is as resilient as Black Muslims. Captured, bought and sold by merchants including Muslims, yet they remained devoted to their faith despite their circumstances.
It is this very history that is disregarded and ignored by imams and Muslim leaders. Books that entail Black Muslims and history are hard to find in Islamic centres which allows for ignorance and prejudice to flourish instead.
‘I haven’t been to the community mosque in about 3-4 years because of all the hostility and negativity. The atmosphere isn’t the same’ comments Tahirah.
It is estimated by Dr Aslam Abdullah that 99% of Muslim leaders are not trained in teaching about anti-racism when it is the very thing dividing the ‘Ummah’. Preaching the same passages regarding race from the ‘Qur’an’ will not diminish the growing racism in the community, it disregards it with a false pretence.
Dr Aslam Abdullah says ‘We have to acknowledge that racism is a significant issue in the Muslim community, and without a leadership training in anti-racism, we will not conquer it internally. We might keep on showing that we are against racism while wearing the mask of Islam and hiding behind God and his messenger.’
The racism against black Muslims is a cycle that can only be broken once we have acknowledged, Muslims can be racist too.