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Islam Is Anti-Racist, But Are Muslims In Denial About Racism?

By Dr Salman Butt 

04 June 2020 

In the summer holidays 15 years ago, I worked a temporary job in a factory. There I once met in passing a Pakistani brother who was to say something to me that I still remember to this day. When he learned during a conversation on the production line that my undergraduate degree was in Biochemistry, he asked: “Maybe you can do some research and find out why [English people] are superior to us?” At the time I just smiled politely and carried on working, but I find myself recalling his words—and the sentiments they betrayed—often. At first I thought, what a poor soul he was to suffer from an inferiority complex after the colonisation of his ancestors. However, engaging with different kinds of Muslim discourse and activism in recent years has given me the impression that this man merely expresses openly what many of us have internalised without even realising. 

With the murder of George Floyd forcing anti-black racism onto the news agenda,[1][2] the western world appears it has been set ablaze. Protests calling for black lives to be valued have erupted in every major city in the US and an increasing number outside. Many of our black brothers and sisters—rightly so—are using this relatively rare airtime as an opportunity to highlight racism in general, including within the Muslim community that they have suffered, and for us to reflect on whether or not we have been carrying out our divine obligations towards justice in this regard. 

However, unfortunately it is a common trait within human beings to react when someone advises us, especially if they highlight something sinful or embarrassing that we would much rather remain in denial about. It is a bitter pill for our Nafs to swallow. It could be a subtle form of denial to respond to criticism of racism among Muslims with how perfect and not-racist Islam is. Of course, Islam is anti-racist, but that is not the point. Giving a lecture on the life of Sayiduna Bilal (rady Allahu anhu) or a list of Islamic evidences about unity and brotherhood will not cure the very specific disease of racism or racial prejudice. I do not think many Muslims need to be told by an Islamic scholar that it is forbidden in Islam. Rather, in our arsenal we must have a process of decolonising the Muslim mind and purifying it of the stains and characteristics of Jahiliya (pre-Islamic ignorance). We need to think about the man from the factory. 

Firstly, Let Us Think About The Concept Of Race. 

What is known as race today is a social construct, like money—something with no material or “scientific” basis, but merely a convention society agrees on. [3] Our experience of race appears to be fundamentally euro-centric, although other cultures have had similar constructs such as the Hindu caste system which some of us no doubt have been influenced by. From the outset, it is worthy of note that the Islamic worldview does not seem to accept the notion of race as we understand it today. Rather, from the sources and early discourses in Islam, notions like tribes, lineages and people’s geographical locations seem to be the closest analogies, which were all trumped by a new classification of human beings the Quranic message introduced: those who profess belief in and acceptance of its message, and those who do not. It was partly for going against this Divine categorisation the Munafiqun of Madina were censured when they referred to the Muslims of Madina as “O people of Yathrib” instead of “O believers.” [4] Incidentally, many Islamic jurists appear to even reject the notion of citizenship being necessitated by where one was born, but rather one’s consciously chosen or professed way of life and values are what qualifies them for full “citizenship” of the Muslim nation. 

Though race as we know it is a social construct invented outside of the traditional Islamic worldview, it must not be ignored. This is because—whether we like it or not—it exists in our cultures today due to many factors (that we can thank European history for), as a means of social stratification and subjugation. It is not too outlandish to say that there exists in the world an unspoken spectrum where the whiter someone or something is, the better it is, and the darker someone or something is, the worse or more suspicious it is. In other words, while our brother in the factory may have regarded himself as inferior to a white Englishman, chances are he would have regarded himself as superior to a darker skinned people. 

Ignoring race would be ignoring a monumental historical and on-going system of injustice. It is also important to note that “Muslim-ness” is also a racialised social construct in our time (as explained in: Islamophobia IS Racism [5]). Arguably the Muslims’ aim should be not to ignore these social constructs but to confront them and work towards their eventual dismantlement as constructs – for future generations. Indeed, it would be a sign of a colonised mind to maintain perpetually these ignorant and unjust inventions imposed upon us by others. It does not take an anthropologist to recognise that racism (or even race) does not come naturally to mankind, but it is a quickly learned behaviour particularly for a child unfortunate enough to have a jahili upbringing. Anyone with experience in raising children recognises that the pure fitra Allah created human beings upon does not automatically acknowledge these constructs. 

What About Racism?

Social scientists will tell us racism is not just racial prejudice, but it describes a systematic disadvantage based on race, where one race is either explicitly or implicitly privileged above another. This is why it is important not to ignore race whilst there exists racism or indeed racial prejudice. It may seem like a trivial or pedantic point but ignoring the difference between racial prejudice and racism—the systematic abuse of power and privilege—exacerbates the problem.[6] As the sociologists’ argument goes, individual instances of racial prejudice can occur to anyone from any group. However, the reasoning as to why black people cannot be racist-proper towards white people is because the former do not stand to benefit from the latter’s systematic and institutionalised disadvantage—generally speaking in the world today. 

This is not to say that instances of racial prejudice do not exist against white people, but when it does—as the argument goes—it is not called racism. This oft-refuted notion of BME individuals being ‘racist’ towards white people is called ‘reverse racism’. There is a wealth of written material refuting reverse racism, but when it comes to racism or racial prejudice amongst BME people including Muslims, more subtle and hidden notions like ‘internalised oppression’, ‘horizontal racism’ and ‘white passing’ theories come into play. 

Horizontal Racism 

BME people accepting and repeating racial prejudice towards one another is not something new. In fact it had been a ubiquitous tool for enduring subjugation over populations by colonisers: divide and rule. The Belgian colonisation of what is today Rwanda is a poignant example of strategically favouring the Tutsis over the Hutus, [7] to create a rift between them which precipitated a genocide a century later. They were both subjugated compared to the colonisers but distinguished from one another. Likewise, some lighter-skinned Indians were also “imported” by European colonisers, for example, as indentured labourers or settlers to occupy a category above black people. Furthermore, racial prejudice can occur within the same ‘race’ as well, with members appropriating and perpetuating narratives and standards of normativity prescribed by the normalised (white) group. 

If someone thinks that their hearts are free from this without working hard to uproot its tentacles, then chances are they are infected without even knowing. For example, what kind of view do we have of people who come “fresh off the boat” from the lands of our forefathers? How do we react when we hear their broken English and their inability to grasp aspects of our culture, idioms and norms? How do young brothers and sisters feel when they are seen in public with their own parents even, who may stand out because of their ‘otherness’? How much money is spent on beauty products designed to make darker-skinned sisters look and feel ‘fair and lovely’? How do we react to the history of concentration camps and extermination of innocent white Jews compared to innocent Black Africans?[8][9] Think about what our notions of beauty are, of success, of what is ‘normal’, and to a dangerous extent, what is right and wrong; our values. 

I cannot put it as eloquently as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz, also known as Malcolm X: 

“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much that you don’t want to be around each other?” 

White Passing 

Many have grown up internalising stereotypes about their own identity, or with an inherent inferiority complex about their own race or culture. This leads to something referred to as white-passing, where some people may temporarily or permanently pass off as the ‘normalised’ or ‘superior’ group, and even adopt the racism of this group against their own or another minority. This is how Islamophobia can be perpetrated by non-white people, for example. 

It is also reminiscent of the traditional ‘Uncle Tom’; the “House Negro” who sold out his fellow Africans for favour with the slave masters; those Jews that fought for Hitler despite his desires to exterminate their own people; those “Muslims” and “Ex-Muslims” today who jump at the opportunity of showing how enlightened and superior they are—like the dominant, normalised culture around them—compared to those backwards, inferior, illiberal, extreme Muslims. 

So, What Does This All Mean? 

In order to truly overcome race related issues in our community, we need to wash our minds of the stains of colonialism and subjugation. A culture where Black Muslims suffer racial prejudice or racism from other Muslims is a culture that is still deeply influenced by characteristics of Jahiliya. We need to purge our minds of inferiority and subjugation to manmade frames of reference and normativity, whether this be in what constitutes beauty, success, and honour, or even things like values and philosophy. This is why it does not require teaching merely the fact that racism is haram—much like we do not need to be told that salah is obligatory. Once we know those simple truths, we need to carve out a more deliberate, Tarbiya-based approach to changing an individual’s and society’s habits and culture. 

One can argue that we are all culpable if racism and racial prejudice exists in our midst, even those that do not take part in the abuse personally. Undoing the brainwashing, countering racist propaganda and biased reporting that leads to subconscious racism,[10] and otherwise decolonising the modern Muslim mind requires a proactive effort. 

Those brothers and sisters who do experience racial prejudice—especially from other Muslims—should continue to highlight this problem with wisdom and above all, not let it cause them to feel internally subjugated. Optimism is central to our Iman,[11] and we should not feel that the abuse we receive is happening outside the Sight and Knowledge of Allah (SubanahuWaTaala). Let us treat any abuse as an opportunity to come close to Him as He is giving you an opportunity to enjoin good and forbid evil; to tackle an injustice for His sake, not to gain sympathy or pity from men. 

Those brothers and sisters who, upon sincere introspection, find something in their hearts against one racial group or another, and are honest enough to admit it to themselves, should receive glad tidings for the fact that they are aware of it. It is far worse to be unaware or yet worse in denial. Perhaps Allah has given you this test because He loves to see His slaves struggling and striving against the tribulations of their own hearts to please Him alone. 

It would be a shame for the ummah that was sent as an example for the rest of mankind,[12] due to the enlightened, divine values of Islam, not to take those values seriously and instead seek honour in other than them, leading to the problems outlined above. We take for granted that these values are what brought the world out of the darkness of Jahiliya into enlightenment. The Prophet (Sall Allahu AlayhiWaSallam) was the earliest human being in known history to explicitly state the equality of all ethnicities, only distinguished due to their Taqwa. Those who benefit from the increasing inequality of humans and disempowerment of the masses have succeeded greatly in separating the Muslim ummah from the enlightening values of Islam. 

This is essentially what Malcolm X wrote in a letter that Allah had decreed only to be discovered recently:[13] 

“If white Americans could accept the religion of Islam, if they could accept the Oneness of God (Allah) they too could then sincerely accept the Oneness of Men, and cease to measure others always in terms of their ‘difference in color’. And with racism now plaguing in America like an incurable cancer all thinking Americans should be more respective to Islam as an already proven solution to the race problem. 

“The American Negro could never be blamed for his racial “animosities” because his are only reaction or defense mechanism which his subconscious intelligence has forced him to react against the conscious racism practiced (initiated against Negroes in America) by American Whites. But as America’s insane obsession with racism leads her up the suicidal path, nearer to the precipice that leads to the bottomless pits below, I do believe that Whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, through their own young, less hampered intellects will see the “Handwriting on the Wall” and turn for spiritual salvation to the religion of Islam, and force the older generation to turn with them – This is the only way white America can worn off the inevitable disaster that racism always leads to…” [14] 





[4] Al-Qur’an 33:13. The other more ostensive reason was they referred to it as Yathrib rather than Madina. In either case, they used a designation of people from pre-Islam.







Link to report:


[12] Al-Qur’an 3:110


[14] Text of the letter: 

This is an updated article from 2015, Can Muslims be racist? 

Salman Butt studied Biochemistry at Imperial College London followed by a PhD in Chemical Biology, carrying out research into photosynthesis. During his years at university he became involved in Islamic society da'wah and activism, and general Muslim community projects. He is the Chief Editor and a regular contributor at Islam21c, and also has a blog on the Huffington Post. 

Original Headline: Are we in denial about racism? 

Source: The Islam 21 


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