It is not an uncommon belief that humanity is fast approaching the pinnacle of its evolution. Scientific study has given us extraordinary insight into the physical world and the cosmos at large. Socio-cultural studies have enabled a profound understanding of the depth and breadth of human nature and interaction. Literature and art have expanded in scope and in substance, immensely developing our ability to capture the human experience in both its nuances and vastness. We have indeed covered a great deal of ground in terms of discovery and development in a shockingly short period. And yet, for all our accomplishments, we remain a fundamentally flawed species subject to the parasite of arrogance. This arrogance has rarely manifested itself more starkly than in the area of race relations. Even in 2020, it rears its ugly head. This article will outline the Qur’anic teachings surrounding race and interracial relations. It will highlight Islam’s emphasis on humility, identity, and righteousness.
Globalization is altering the cultural landscape of the world and challenging our intellectual understanding of identity. As different racial groups merge across and within continents, we find ourselves struggling to reconcile seemingly competing cultures. The Holy Qur’an recognizes the importance of racial self-identification, even as it appreciates the complexity of interracial interactions. Numerous Qur’anic verses are highly relevant to this topic. However, this article will focus on one specific verse that effectively covers the gambit of the Islamic viewpoint surrounding race:
“O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (1).
This verse can be divided into three parts. The first part, “O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female,” is a seemingly simple statement, but a mighty one. In his commentary of the Holy Qur’an, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad (ra) stipulates that it lays down the “basis of an all-comprehensive, all-pervading brotherhood of man… it firmly laid the axe at the false and foolish notions of superiority, born of racial arrogance or national conceit” (2). By highlighting that we are all subject to the same biological realities, this verse effectively establishes that all human beings are inherently equal, thereby establishing the necessity of humility.
This commentary is particularly crucial during the racially charged political climate of our time. As competing social and national interests emerge, our common humanity is being actively overlooked and undermined. Differences are being exploited to assert and maintain socio-political authority. If we are so evolved, what causes us to reject biological, bridge-building truths in favor of social division?
Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) discusses this in his “Detroit Address” of 1987 in which he emphasizes that arrogance undermines the capacity for sound judgement, stunts cultural growth, and ultimately heralds in national ruin. He cites the people of Prophet Noah (as) who refused to accept his message because they believed themselves to be economically and culturally superior to followers of Prophet Noah (as) (3). The arrogance of Noah’s people ultimately manifested itself in the form of the flood that devastated their civilization. Giving value to affluence or skin pigmentation rather than integrity and character erodes cultural cohesion and cognitive development over time, eventually causing national disintegration, as happened during Noah’s time, and is still happening in current times.
Interestingly, the “Detroit Address” of 1987, by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) explicitly states:
“You may not be one of the insolents, yet you did not exhibit the desired love and affection to them” (4).
So, it is not enough to abstain from arrogance, but one must also work toward building goodwill. This is an example of anti-racism, which is not a new or unique concept, but one that has numerous examples in Islamic history.
The second part of the above-referenced verse, “We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another” emphasizes inter-cultural relations and is interpreted by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad (ra) as an emphasis on seeking knowledge (5). Indeed, it is no small secret that the point of intersection between different peoples can translate into socio-cultural, economic, and intellectual transactions that bear fruit well past their point of occurrence.
The Silk Road is an example wherein engagement between merchants of different backgrounds resulted in the exchange of not just merchandise but also ideas (6). Another example is found within Islamic history, wherein the people of the tribe of Quraish, through their business travels, learned about the coming of a great prophet as promised in scripture (7). Arguably, this knowledge set the stage for them to receive such a prophet in their midst. Yet another example of inter-racial/cultural interactions yielding positive results can be found in the recent past, wherein it was a well-known U.S. philosophy to pull into its orbit anyone who could provide the country with intellectual stimulus and reinvigoration. It promised safety, security, and a thriving intellectual atmosphere in exchange for intellectual prowess, which prowess it then incorporated into its own national narrative.
By engaging with others and learning from them, we develop critical thinking. Cultural interaction demands intellectual engagement. Such engagement often results in a critical assessment of the other and of the self. Thus, cultural evolution comes about wherein individuals and cultures determine which new tradi-tions to acquire and which old traditions to discard. Cultural interaction prevents social and intellectual stagnation and stimulates reassessment of, and a renewed appreciation for, our value systems. (Of course, there is an economic element inherent in such scenarios, wherein cultural ideologies of the powerful maintain dominance. As Muslims, we are taught that while we may adapt to new customs and traditions, we must retain core values and maintain them across the shifting dynamic of our cultural identities. But that is the topic of another article).
Essentially, inter-racial/cultural interactions, of noble intent, can generate meaningful dialogue and build valuable relationships. To that end, it is important to note that Islam does not demand racial/cultural conformity. It encourages diversity. As Malcolm X said:
“A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its selfhood, it can never fulfill itself” (8).
Similarly, Islam’s idea of racial equality is not to annihi-late color/culture-based identity, the way some “non-racists” aspire to do. Rather, Islam recognizes the value of racial/cultural variety and respects growth within cultures in order to encourage bridge-building between cultures. But it also emphasizes that individual identity should not become a source of a disservice to our common humanity. Above and beyond that, Islam emphasizes the importance of recognizing that noble character and conduct exceeds all other elements of identity.
The third part of this verse, “Verily the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you,” clearly establishes that regardless of which racial/ethnic group is in power, no matter the politics unfolding, regardless of the injustices endured, what is crucial is integrity. This portion of the verse highlights that our choices, our character, and our conduct defines us and, ultimately, the societies in which we live.
The Quríanic verse referenced above highlights our common biology and emphasizes our common humanity and inherent equality. It proceeds to appreciate our racial/national distinctions as crucial aspects of individual identity and pivotal to inter-cultural development. Finally, the verse concludes by high-lighting how all these things are ultimately dwarfed against the far more substantial quality of a noble character. It is important to note that the Holy Qur’an captures all this complexity in the span of a single verse. Also, the Holy Qur’an outlined these viewpoints centuries ago, long before the use of words like “diversity” and “inclusion.”
Issues surrounding race relations have existed throughout time. They certainly existed during Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) time, in the form of extreme racial bigotry and oppression. On the basis of Qur’anic teaching, the Prophet of Islam (sa) brought about a never before seen revolution in the hearts and minds of the people of Arabia wherein a system was developed for the gradual but effective dissolution of slavery. Ultimately, those enslaved bowed shoulder to shoulder, in prayer and prostration, with the most powerful chieftains of Arabia. This revolution came about through a revelation:
“Holy is He. Who taught man by the pen, taught man what he knew not” (9).
This article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of the Muslim Sunrise.
1. The Holy Qur’an, (49:14)
2. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood (ra), The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with English Translation & Short Commentary: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2018. https://www.alislam.org/quran/view/?page=2965®ion=E55
3. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh). ìThe Detroit Address.î MKA USA Publications Ltd: 1987, Page 4. https://www.alislam.org/library/books/The-Detroit-Ad dress.pdf
4. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh). “The Detroit Address.” MKA USA Publications Ltd: 1987, Page 20. https://www.alislam.org/library/books/The-Detroit-Ad dress.pdf
5. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood (ra), The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with English Translation & Short Commentary: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2018 https://www.alislam.org/quran/view/?page=2965®ion=E55
6. “The Silk Road.” Khan Academy: Transregional Trade – The Silk Road. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/a silk-road
7. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood (ra), The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with English Translation & Short Commentary: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2018 https://www.alislam.org/quran/view/?page=3450®ion=E55
8. Quotes: Malcolm X. https://www.malcolmx.com/quotes/
9. Holy Qur’an (96:5-6)
Last modified: January 2022