The year 2020 can be described as the most challenging year of the 21st century so far. The world has taken many steps back in many things we thought we are close to overcoming. The realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is becoming more challenging with major events in 2020 that have destabilized the global economy, increasing inequity, and human sufferings. Just after a day into the year 2020, the US launched a drone strike in Iraq which killed the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. This strike put many people into the anxiety of possible war. In response to the attack on Army General, the Iran military also launched missiles on two military bases in Iraq housing American soldiers and caused injuries to the residents.
Two months into 2020, on 11 February 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a new virus “COVID-19”, the virus which began to spread from the far Asian continent in Wuhan town, China, to the West and Africa has disrupted the world, leading to the death of thousands of people, changing a whole lifestyle of human existence, challenging the most powerful countries, pushing nations into unforeseen recession, and taking millions of people into extreme poverty.
Five months into the year, while the world is still struggling to stay alive during the coronavirus pandemic, with a lot of uncertainty about when a vaccine will be ready, footage appeared online which showed a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on George Floyd, an African-American, neck while he was pinned to the floor. The video footage showed Mr. Floyd begged for his life but the policeman refuses to lift his leg from the unarmed black man’s neck until Floyd became unconscious. This gruesome act and murdering of Mr. Floyd perpetrated by the police officer provoked thousands of Americans to protest against racism. This anti-racism protest remains an unprecedented, massive one in the history of America as it overwhelmed many cities in the USA. The protest is more inclusive and widespread as white Americans and other ethnic participated actively.
Not minding the chance of getting the Coronavirus, people defied the stay at home and social distancing principles in order to condemn the death of Floyd and demand justice for the gruesome act.
Racialism itself has been in practice eons ago. It’s a common act among individuals who believe that an ethnic group, skin color, and people of a particular language are less of a human and merit to be treated less importantly. Many people are being marginalized, enslaved, physically, socially and mentally abused for their melanin-rich skin, tradition, and backgrounds.
Racism in Europe started as a symbol of slavery. Millions of Africans were enslaved by the West especially the Americans for economic progress. During this slavery period, slave masters regarded themselves more superior over the enslaved people. The enslaved were dehumanized and received the highest inhumane treatment from their masters. This systemic treatment of African-Americans has become part of them over the years which made it very difficult for them to learn the fact that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and honor.
In 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including an article stating that:
“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”,
The institutional structure of slavery and racism had by then become highly difficult for nations that have built their economies on slaves’ manpower to release slaves, integrate them into the society, and grant them equal access to opportunities – hold political office, vote, access to education, civil rights, and healthcare.
Racism in the Gulf and Arab Countries
Racism as a phenomenon also exists in many Arabian countries just like it is witnessed in Europe. In major Arab societies, Africans, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and other minority ethnicities face discrimination and experienced xenophobic attacks on many occasions.
Many non-indigenous people that have migrated from their home countries to the Arab countries with the hope of finding decent jobs end up taking menial jobs with low pay. Some work as maids for months without pay, others are forced into prostitution and turned to sex slaves and many are denied request to return home even at the end of their agreement. Worse still, they get killed.
However, slavery in the Arab world pre-Islamic pre-Islamic was unlike the America transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th-century which aim was for economic development. The Arabian slavery was more of African women from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt who were captured in the Sahara. The kidnapped women were taken as a harem and even bore them children. Their movement was not restricted to the four walls of the home and not chained as it was reported in the western slave trade.
Islam’s response to racialism
As at the time when Muhammad began the spread of Islam in the 7th century, Mecca, slavery was already an integral part of the Arabian society, hence the teaching of Islam whose core tenet is worshipping only one God and fulfilling the right of humanity gave slaves hope of freedom. The new religion impressed the minorities, oppressed, poor members of the Arab societies and they expectedly accepted Islam easily. As many people continue to join the religion of Islam including the wealthy families who owned slaves, it became more un-Islamic for them to continue holding people in enslavement.
As Islam continued to gain more momentum and the need for Muslim to come together to observe congregation prayers arose, a Black man from Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, who was taken as a slave pre-Islamic era and had accepted Islam was appointed by the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to make a call to prayers known as Adhan for the first time in Islamic history.
This exceptional choice of the prophet out of other Muslims is an excellent example that all humans are equal and should be treated fairly and kindly.
In the last sermon of the Holy Prophet of Islam (peace and blessing be upon him), The prophet established the concept of egalitarianism for his follower.
The sermon which is known as a Farewell Pilgrimage for the Muslims was delivered on the Ninth day of Dhul-Hijjah, 10 A.H. (623AD) in the Uranah valley of Mount Arafat in Mecca.
Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) said:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a White has no superiority over a Black nor a Black has any superiority over a White except by piety and good action.”
In volume five of The Holy Quran with English translation and commentary authored by Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih II, while speaking on the Farwell Pilgrimage sermon, he said:
‘These noble words spoken by the Prophet during his Farewell Pilgrimage which have resounded through the centuries epitomize one of Islam’s loftiest ideals and strongest principles. It goes to the credit of the Holy Prophet that in a society riven with class distinction, he preached a message intensely democratic.’
In the sermon, Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) succinctly laid out the true teachings of Islam and what Muslims must follow. Till date, the Farewell Pilgrimage sermon remains a complete guide for the Muslims.
This teaching condemns the act of racism and slavery as a whole and encourages humankind to see one another equally.
Another beautiful example of equality of humankind in Islam is the arrangement of Muslims when it comes to performing congregation prayer (salat). Muslims must stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder when they are in prayer regardless of their social class, and race. This arrangement of people before one God continues to remind them that they are equal before God. There is no very important personal space in a mosque, they are all of the same.
Speaking about equality of humans in Islam, the Holy Quran, chapter 49:14, says
“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 honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-knowing, All-Aware.”
This verse of the Holy Qur’an described the need for differences in social architecture, reminding human that their language, skin color, tradition differences is for them to recognize one another and to benefit one another with their resources and knowledge so that they can progress as people. The verse further stated that only the righteous people are honourable.
Who knows the righteous and has piety other than God Himself?
The World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Fifth Khalifa (Caliph), His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad while addressing an audience of around 800 dignitaries and guests at Annual Convention (Jalsa Salana) of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Germany 2017 made it very clear the consequences of endorsing and enabling racial superiority.
“Such extremist views can only fuel resentment and despair amongst the people of other races and ethnicities. In complete contrast, Islam proclaims that all people are born equal, no matter where they hail from or the colour of their skin.”
During an interview which Abid Khan, the International Press Secretary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community had with the head of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (atba),
His Holiness gave an inclusive suggestion to members of the community who wanted their voices to be heard in condemnation of racism in America and around the world.
Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (atba) said: ‘‘Innocent Lives Matter’ and ‘Supremacy of Justice.’ These are the terms we should use.’
This choice of terms were in line with the teachings of Islam regarding the importance of innocent lives and justice.
While explaining the terms, His Holiness said:
‘The term ‘Innocent Lives Matter’ is a very broad term based on the Holy Qur’an, which says to ‘kill’ an innocent person is akin to the killing of all mankind. It does not mean that those who commit low-level crimes or who may be forced into error due to the circumstances they have grown up in, where they have been denied opportunities and justice, are not deemed as innocent. In fact, if they are forced to commit such crimes to feed their families or to exist then they are very much innocent.’
While explaining the concept of innocent lives in Islam, he said:
‘The only people who are not ‘Innocent’ are those who have power or wealth and use it to persecute, to brutalise and perpetrate grave injustice and who deny people their rights. The very definition and standard of someone who is not innocent are that he violates the sanctity of life and a prime example of this is a member of law enforcement who abuses his power to mercilessly place his knee on the neck of a man and refuses to remove it for almost nine minutes even as the defenceless man repeats ‘I can’t breathe.’
This choice of terms is more inclusive as it encompasses the ‘Black Lives Matters’ movement and those that proclaim ‘All Lives Matters.’ ‘Innocent Lives Matter’ giving the beauty of Islam that regardless of their skin colours, beliefs and background, as far as they are innocents, they all matter and should not be killed unjustly.
Furthermore, in a letter which The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (atba), sent to the President of the United States just after George Floyd killing, His Holiness(atba) Said:
‘For the sake of the peace and harmony of any nation, it is a prerequisite that the government, local authorities and law enforcement agencies treat all of their citizens equally, irrespective of their skin colour or ethnicity. In this regard, the expectation of absolute justice and non-discrimination from the leader of a country as the United States is especially high.’
The religious leader of millions of Muslims residing in more than 200 countries of the world wrote this to admonish the President of the USA that people residing in the country should be treated equally and he should ensure that justice prevails. His words are representatives of true Islamic teachings and views of millions of Muslims residing in various parts of the world.
In law and practice of the prophet of Islam, it shows that Islam rejects all forms of racism and hostility towards an ethnic group or religion.
The racism attack continues to occur because many governments are in support of the belief that a set of people is less human. Hence, to abolish unjust attacks on minorities, governments must condemn every racial attack in words and uphold justice in managing the affairs of their people. They have to stand with the minorities and grant them protection. Inclusion of victimized races in government will also help in making laws that will end racialism.
Racism is learned and it’s not doing the world any good. The exclusiveness and injustice are creating more division and pushing societies into preventable chaos. Fortunately, this ideology can be unlearned through grassroots education in schools and exceptional treatment of minorities members of the society.
The evil ideology that particular people are lesser in importance must be abandoned. Individuals have to drop their egos and accept others, integrate them into their society as humans with the right to opportunities.
The English Commentary of the Holy Quran by Mirza Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad
World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Fifth Khalifah (Caliph), His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), address at Jalsa Salana Germany on 26 August 2017
Islam and Slavery by Hadrat Khalifatul-Masih II, Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad (may Allah be pleased with him)
About the writer: Ismail Rotimi Lawal is a graduate of pharmaceutics. He’s a keen writer and Secretary Media & Publications of Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Organization, Nigeria. He is also a the member of Muslim Writers’ Guild of Nigeria and the Assistant Programs Manager of Health Volunteers Naija, a Non-Governmental Organization – committed to enhanced community health in Nigeria.