Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

The Darkness of Racism In Muslim Culture

Expand Messages
  • Tarek Fatah
    Friends, The e-magazine MuslimWakeup.Com is fast becoming the conscience of progressive Muslims. Ahmed Nassef, the magazine s Editor-in-Chief deserves our
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 31, 2003

      The e-magazine MuslimWakeup.Com is fast becoming the conscience of
      progressive Muslims. Ahmed Nassef, the magazine's Editor-in-Chief deserves
      our compliments and support for providing an amazing place for frank debate
      and honest discourse.

      On this last day of the year, MuslimWakeup.com carries a highly provocative
      article by Adam Misbah al-Haqq where he challenges us to face the cancer of
      racism so prevalent among Muslims, calling it blasphemy.

      Read and reflect.

      Tarek Fatah
      Blasphemy Before God:
      The Darkness of Racism In Muslim Culture

      By Adam Misbah al-Haqq

      Islam is often spoken of as a universal faith that transcends culture and
      ethnicity. Imams will often sermonize on how Islam dispelled the darkness of
      racism and created a pluralistic and just society. However, beneath this
      carefully constructed cosmetic, beneath the layers of rhetoric, the Muslim
      community includes just as much bigotry and racism against people of African
      descent as in Western society itself.

      It is the duty of all conscientious Muslims to speak out against the
      hypocrisies and contradictions that exist, especially when the integrity of
      one’s religious tradition is at stake. Legions of Muslims attack the
      contradictions of Western society with no mind to looking in their own
      backyard to realize that it is probably even more disorderly and messy.
      Needless to say, there are no sacred cows here; we must be honest and
      sincere with ourselves about our very real problems.

      The roots of racism supported by religious doctrine in Islam can be found in
      a crucial feature of classic Muslim thought and the ideologies which
      resulted from it. Slavery in classic Muslim thought maintained that blacks
      became legitimate slaves by virtue of the color of their skin.

      The justification of the early Muslim equation of blackness with servitude
      was found in the Genesis story so popularly called “the curse of Ham,” in
      reference to one of Noah’s sons. The biblical version depicts Noah getting
      drunk and lying uncovered in his tent. His younger son, Ham, saw his father’
      s nakedness and informed his other two brothers Shem and Japheth. These two
      walked backwards into their father’s tent, as to not see his nakedness and
      covered him with a garment. Noah awoke and upon hearing what had happened he
      cursed the descendants of Ham beginning with Ham’s son Canaan to be the
      slaves of the descendants of Shem and Japheth.

      In this version of the myth, the curse fell upon Canaan, not any of Ham’s
      other sons. It is also important to note that Kush, one of Ham’s other sons,
      is projected by Jewish sources as being the ancestor of blacks. This story
      found its way into Arab-Muslim historiography and ethnology in a somewhat
      distorted manner that reflected the rise of racism in the new empire. All
      Arab-Muslim versions of the story portray Arabs as the descendants of Shem,
      the blacks (sometimes including the Copts, Berbers and the Sindh of India,
      or basically anyone they didn’t like) as the descendants of Ham, with most
      assigning the Turks and Slavs to Noah’s other son Japheth. In the
      Arab-Muslim version, blacks are cursed to be slaves and menials, Arabs are
      blessed to be prophets and nobles, while Turks and Slavs are destined to be
      kings and tyrants.

      Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah al-Kisa’i’s book ‘Tales of the Prophets’ (Qisas
      al-anbiyâ), written in the 6th century AH, is a collection of mythological
      narratives based on prophetic reports (hadîth) of various levels of
      authenticity and on Arabian and Hebrew folklore which sought to elaborate on
      the stories of the Prophets mentioned in passing in the Qur’an. Al-Kisa’i
      was not the first to write a book about the stories of the Prophets. In fact
      there were many which preceded him, but al-Kisa’i’s work is the most known
      and most cited of this genre, and his entire manuscript is intact, whereas
      only copies or fragments remain of other. Al-Kisa’i’s book is a collection
      of mythologies based largely upon the narrations of two individuals who were
      converts from Judaism, ‘Abdullah ibn Salâm (d. 663 AH) and Ka’b al-Ahbâr (d.
      652 AH). They provide the link to the biblical tale of Noah, his sons and
      the curse of Ham entering into the collectivity of Muslim thought and

      Al-Kisa’i writes in his chapter on Noah:

      It is said that one day Noah came to his son and said, “My son, I have not
      slept since I boarded the ark, and now I desire to sleep my fill.” So
      saying, he put his head on Shem’s lap and went to sleep. Suddenly a gust of
      wind uncovered Noah’s genitals; Ham laughed, but Shem jumped up and covered
      him. When Noah awoke he said, “What was that laughter?” Shem told him what
      had happened, and Noah grew angry with Ham. “Do you laugh at your father’s
      genitals?” he said. “May God change your complexion and may your face turn
      black!” And that very instant his face did turn black. Turning to Shem, he
      said, “You covered your father: may God shield you from harm in this world
      and have mercy upon you in the next! May He make prophets and nobles of your
      progeny! May He make bondswomen and slaves of Ham’s progeny until the Day of
      Resurrection! May He make tyrants, kings and emperors of Japheth’s progeny!”
      And God knows best.

      This provides the theological justification for racism in early Muslim
      society. It is commonly assumed that the genre of “stories of the prophets”
      didn’t have much of an effect on scholars and jurists. However, the famous
      Al-Tabari, for example, cites no less than six Prophetic traditions which
      seek to support this story. One tradition reads:

      Ham begat all those who are black and curly-haired, while Japheth begat
      those who are full faced with small eyes, and Shem begat everyone who is
      handsome of face [Arabs of course] with beautiful hair. Noah prayed that the
      hair of Ham’s descendants would not grow past their ears, and wherever his
      descendants met the children of Shem, the latter would enslave them.

      Ahmad Ibn Hanbal reported a saying attributed to the Prophet which in effect
      states that God created the white race (dhurriyyah baydâ) from the right
      shoulder of Adam and created the black race (dhurriyyah sawdâ) from Adam’s
      left shoulder. Those of Adam’s right shoulder would enter Paradise and those
      of the left, Perdition. Other equally racist sayings have been attributed to
      the Prophet in the traditions. Contradicintg this spirit, there are the
      sayings of the Prophet which equate the value of a person to his
      God-consciousness (taqwa), and to their piety without any regard to the
      tribal or ethnocentric concerns of a racist purport.

      The content of such reports, like similar reports degrading women, must be
      examined and exposed for what they are, but these reports indicate to the
      mentality which sought to overthrow the seemingly egalitarian nature of the
      early Muslim community in exchange for the more deeply rooted tradition of
      tribal affinities, patriarchy and racial bigotry.

      The Story of Ham as a Basis for a New Empire’s Racism

      The fabled curse of Ham emerged at an opportune moment for the new empire,
      for it facilitated cheap labor and the famous Arab raiding parties who tore
      through the African country with fierceness and terror that would cause even
      the hardest of stomachs to turn. We have in various historical reports
      instances of villages being attacked at night, the “non-believing” blacks
      being rounded up and enslaved, forced marches which claimed millions of
      lives due to malnourishment and the abuses of the captors. Slaves were
      forced to carry heavy ivory, and women were saddled with children and other
      goods, all of which belonged to their Muslim captors. We will return to the
      slave trade itself, but we must put a historical context on why the “curse
      of Ham” was so important to the early ethnology and religious doctrine of
      the Arab-Muslims and their imperial power grab.

      In 889 AH, Ibn Qutaybah wrote that “Ham, son of Noah, was light-skinned and
      handsome. Then God Most High changed his complexion and that of his progeny
      [into black] because of the curse [invoked by] his father.” Elsewhere, he
      states, “They are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country.
      The heat overcooks them in the womb, and curls their hair.” Thus the
      biblical curse that originally fell on Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, in
      the Arab-Muslim version of the myth, falls on Ham himself, whose descendants
      are not only cursed with servitude but also with the change of their color
      from light-skinned to black. We find many similar comments and statements in
      early and medieval Muslim sources which link the curse of Ham and the
      servile condition. It didn’t take long for the African to be reduced to a
      simile for slave labor, decreed by God, due to the anger of Noah and the
      curse he invoked.

      As the empire grew so did the resentment for those of African descent in
      Arab society. Before and during the life of the Prophet, the Habashi or
      Abyssinians were looked upon favorably, and the Prophet even sent a caravan
      of his followers to Abyssinia for refuge from persecution. This favorable
      light didn’t last long after Abyssinia fell to the Muslims and the roles of
      empire and subject were reversed. Within 100 years of empire, the Muslim
      elite became increasingly arrogant and exclusivist toward non-Muslims and
      the ‘other’ in general. From racist Arab poetry and proverbs to spurious
      sayings attributed to the Prophet himself, racist tendencies became more and
      more common and eventually made their way into the social doctrines of
      Muslim societies to justify and legitimize religiously the idea that blacks
      and slaves were interchangeable words.

      African Muslim jurists dealt with racist traditions and the attitudes which
      created and were supported by them by questioning their authenticity and
      insisting that they do not represent the teachings of the Prophet. The
      famous jurist Al-Jahiz, in his book, The Boast of the Blacks over the
      Whites, employs the same ethnocentric premises employed by the very racists
      he was addressing. Most African Muslims however rejected their black
      heritage altogether and adopted the seemingly superior Arab customs and
      attitudes characterized in Arab-Islamic tradition. In so doing, they also
      neglected their own wisdom traditions, deeming their history to be that of a
      cursed people. African Muslims sought to distance themselves from their
      pre-Islamic heritage by drawing sharp distinctions between themselves and
      their non-Muslim fellow Africans. The African jurist Ahmed Baba, for
      example, defends the chattel slavery by stating, “The Sudanese non-believers
      are like other non-believers whether they are Christians, Jews, Persians,
      Berbers, or any others who stick to non-belief and do not embrace Islam...
      there is no difference between all the non-believers in this respect.
      Whoever is captured in the condition of non-belief, it is legal to enslave
      him, whoever he might be, but not he who has converted to Islam voluntarily,
      from the beginning.”

      Some of this can be attributed to Muslim geographers and travelers who
      ventured into Africa for various reasons and wrote about what they
      experienced. They emphasized nudity, paganism, cannibalism, and the
      primitive life of the black peoples in their writings to the extent that
      those who read them could not be blamed for fearing and loathing them. As
      Maqdisi wrote, “There is no marriage among them [genealogy or nasab being an
      issue of incredible importance to Arab-Muslims in particular]; the child
      does not know his father, and they eat human flesh--but God knows best. As
      for the Zanji, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and
      little understanding or intelligence.”

      Similarly, studies on the image of blacks in medieval Persian literature
      reveal that in both Arab and Persian writings, blacks are depicted as
      stupid, untruthful, vicious, sexually unbridled, ugly and distorted,
      excessively merry, and easily affected by music or drink. Nasir al-Din Tusi
      (d.1274 CE), a famous Iranian philosopher, wrote: “If various kinds of men
      are taken and one placed after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the
      South-most countries, the Negro does not differ from the animal in anything
      except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth, except for
      what God wishes. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being
      trained than the Negro, and more intelligent.”

      Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406CE) added that blacks are “only humans who are closer to
      dumb animals than to rational beings.” The reason for their characteristic
      “levity, excitability, and great emotionalism,” according to Ibn Khaldun, is
      “due to the expansion and diffusion of the animal spirit” in them. Ibn
      Khaldun disagrees with the mythological curse of Ham and attributes their
      “deficiencies” to the climate of Africa and their being “overcooked in the
      womb.” Other renowned Muslim thinkers, such as Sa’id al-Andalusi (d. 1070CE)
      wrote that blacks are “More like animals than men,” and that “the rule of
      virtue and stability in judgment” is lacking amongst them, such noble
      qualities being replaced by “foolishness and ignorance.” Even such
      luminaries as Ibn Sina considered blacks to be “people who are by their very
      nature slaves.”

      In time, certain conventional descriptions emerged which became general
      stereotypes for all of the various ethnic groups that Muslims encountered.
      For instance, the Arabs had generosity and courage; Persians, statecraft and
      civility; Greeks, philosophers and artists; Indians, magicians and
      conjurers; while the Chinese were the makers of furniture and gadgets.
      Blacks were hardworking and somewhat simple but gifted with exuberance and a
      sense of rhythm. Turks were impetuous fighting men. With only minor changes
      to these categorizations these became standard in the discussions of the
      various ethnic groups both within and without the polity of Islam.

      The African Slave Trade in the Muslim World

      To further understand how racist philosophy made its way into the thinking
      of Muslims right up to today, we need to examine the African slave trade as
      it took place in the Muslim world. It is important to note that in classic
      Sunni thought, kufr was, according to the doctrine of jihad as it was
      codified and crystallized under the expanding empire of Islam, synonymous
      with servitude. After all the traditional Muslim ideology of slavery is
      closely linked to the doctrine of military jihad. The creation or resurgence
      of the mythology of Ham also made dark-skinned people synonymous with
      servitude in light-skinned Muslim thinking. This went so far that eventually
      the term abd (slave) went through a semantic development and came to
      specifically refer to “black slave” while light-skinned slaves were referred
      to as mamluks. And further on in later usage, the Arabic word abd came to
      mean ‘black man’ of whatever status.

      The African slave trade in the Muslim world may be compared with that of the
      West only to the extent that Muslims gave it scriptural legitimacy. The
      comparison fades when measured against the brutality of Western,
      particularly American, slavery.

      Yet, even the scriptural legitimacy is limited. In classic Islamic
      interpretations, it is common for the interpreter to divorce the Qur’an from
      its social-historical context and to interpret it according to contemporary
      social and linguistic developments.

      It is important to distinguish between two forms of slavery: the one
      mentioned in the Qur’an, defined as domestic or economic slavery, and
      chattel slavery. The distinction is critical since slavery takes on many
      guises depending upon the extent of the development, infrastructure and the
      political clout of a particular nation has.

      Whether it be sweatshops in China, or wage slavery in Mexico or elsewhere,
      slavery is something that human beings have never been able to avoid. Even
      the United States, which held one of the most abusive slave institutions in
      recent history, continues to profit heavily from slave labor in various
      countries. The Qur’an deals with its own form of slavery--a form based upon
      the system of guardianship whereby an individual who has no tribe to protect
      them and provide for them will enter into a contract of slavery to a
      particular master in exchange for upkeep and provisions.

      Although the Qur’an doesn’t prohibit slavery, it does make it clear that
      slavery is not the ideal relationship between people of higher and lower
      economic standing and that the moral trajectory would ultimately result in
      its abolition.

      Many of the Muslims who followed the first generation, however, did not see
      it this way, and before long the institution was transformed to what can be
      termed as pure chattel slavery, where the slave was owned without any
      concern for their own autonomy or rights. The emergence of the four
      ‘orthodox’ schools of law in Islam further crystallized this relationship
      between slave and master by giving the master certain rights which would
      even allow them to circumvent limitations imposed upon them by the Prophet
      himself. Having transformed the very definition of slavery, and backed by
      the shari’a which permitted the taking of free men as slaves, provided they
      were non-Muslims, allowed for some of the most brutal conquests of Africa
      that land has ever known. Because Muslims were unable to see any qualitative
      value in African culture, expression and society and because they couldn’t
      contend with alternative forms of religion and their own superficial claims
      to having exclusive possession of the truth (a claim which the Qur’an itself
      quite astonishingly refutes), the pillaging and exploitation of African
      people continued for centuries.

      No one knows how many Africans were sold into slavery throughout the Middle
      East, but it is fair to put it at a level higher than that of the Americas
      because of the length of time during which it was practiced. Islam is
      certainly tainted with over a millennium of illegal slave trade. Illegal
      because it was made “legal” only by the redefining of slavery as it existed
      and was tolerated during the life of the Prophet, and because the doctrine
      which serviced the ideology of slavery in Muslim thought is a blasphemy
      before God, who defines Himself as the Just.

      One of the most tragic facts is that Mecca, the geographic heart of the
      Muslim community, was one of the largest slave markets in the Muslim world
      all the way up until the Twentieth Century when the standards of the
      international community, championed by the West, came to inform Muslims that
      chattel slavery is a violation against dignity, humanity and their own
      standing in global affairs. We find in historical sources that slaves were
      being captured in East Africa and being taken to Mecca for sale during the
      pilgrimage. From there they were distributed all over the world. It was a
      custom for pilgrims to buy, sell and trade slaves while fulfilling their
      fifth pillar and this went on to the extent that the term “slave market” and
      the name of the city of Mecca became synonymous. Many unsuspecting free
      people were taken on the pilgrimage by high-ranking Muslims and sold or
      arrested on trumped up charges, ultimately ending up as victims of the
      notorious Meccan slave trade. In fact, slaves have been reported as being
      sold as late as 1960 in Saudi Arabia, and many more cases are reported in

      Sudan is of particular interest because the Muslim North and the non-Muslim
      South have been engaged in civil war for 20 years as a direct result of the
      dark-skinned Arabs of Northern Sudan and their long history of enslaving and
      displacing their non-Muslim brothers to the South and selling them in the
      Middle Eastern slave markets. Here Arabs don’t deserve all the blame, since
      there are plenty of studies which prove that African themselves were also
      engaging is slave raids and that after the conversion of some powerful
      African tribes to Islam they carried out ‘jihads’ against their former
      tribal enemies, this time backed by religious legitimacy.

      Breaking the Curse of Ham

      Racism remains a powerful force in both the East, Mid-East and the West, and
      this history is intended to shed light on the origins of racist philosophy
      as it is hard-wired in the psychology of those who inherit this evil from
      their parents and society. I have personally been in gatherings where
      immigrant Muslims glowing with supposed piety and reserve feel that they can
      relate to me by slandering blacks, either because I myself am white or
      because it distances them from the immigrant experience of inferiority. It
      is best not to be the lowest man on the totem pole.

      After the events of 9/11 and the Islamophobia which is now taking the West
      by storm, many formerly racist Arabs or Indo-Pakistanis have gotten a good
      dose of what it is like to be persecuted because of one’s ethnicity. In
      today’s America, as defined by the corporate media and popular culture,
      people of African descent are even more trusted than those of Middle Eastern

      It is tragic that Muslims entertain these racist and ethnocentric ideas to
      begin with. The cultural barriers between Africans, Arabs, Europeans,
      Indians, Chinese, whatever are real, and we sometimes have conflicting needs
      and goals in life. The problem here is that we are not taking Islam
      seriously enough to break with clearly evil traditions of regarding each

      Do we really want an “Islam” which is divided into inferior and superior
      races based upon the irrelevancy of where the Prophet came from? Granted,
      the Prophet was an Arab, but an argument could be constructed, if
      ethnocentrism was our goal, to say that God sent the Prophet amongst the
      Arabs because they were the most barbarous and ignorant of people. Anyway we
      construct the discourse, when we allow ethnocentric tones to dilute it we do
      violence to the message and we neglect our dignity and humanity as God’s

      To break traditions which contradict a normative reading of the Qur’an is
      certainly meritorious if not obligatory. To break this supposed Curse of Ham
      is a jihad worth engaging because Islam, in its global sense, needs to
      regain some moral high ground in an era of suicide bombings, terrorism,
      authoritarianism, despotism, and retrogression.

      If this embattled and fractured global community we call the umma is to
      command any moral or ethical standard at all, then it must begin with the
      essentials of equality. Unity is essential to a worldview based on the Qur’
      anic doctrine of Divine Unity (tawhîd), and unity must begin with the
      recognition of equality and the emphasis on similarities as opposed to
      differences. We must not allow our different guises, needs and expressions
      to become differences between each other. The failure of our community to
      lead the world in moral standards can be linked to the decree of God that
      we, as Muslims, have failed to maintain egalitarian standards of equality.
      This may be the reason why we are reviled and hated, attacked and scorned,
      all over the world.

      If some Muslims think this means we are on the right track and that our
      religion requires us to be fought and hated, they are following a different
      religion than that taught by our Prophet and that which is mentioned in the
      Qur’an. It is true that the wicked will fight against Truth, but what
      happens when we become the wicked, still believing that we carry Truth? Or
      does the fact that we carry Truth remove from us the liabilities of our

      The Qur’an maintains that humans bring upon themselves their own suffering.
      Nothing has brought on the suffering of the umma more than our lack of
      unity, which is a result of our inequality and our lack of appreciation for
      our differences.

      As the Qur’an maintains: “O People! Behold, We have created you all out of a
      male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you
      might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of
      God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is
      all-knowing, all-aware.” (Qur'an 49:13)
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.