‘Modernity is the transition from fate to choice.’ – Jonathan Sacks
‘Modernity is a deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.’ – Yuval Noah Harari
‘The modern mind is in complete disarray. Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foot-hold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism.’ – Albert Camus
‘Modernity sees humanity as having ascended from what is inferior to it – life begins in slime and ends in intelligence – whereas traditional cultures see it as descended from its superiors.’ – Huston Smith
From about the mid 1700s, starting in northern Europe and then, over the next few centuries, spreading across the entire globe, people have become aware of living in times radically different from any other age before, which began to be called the modern age – or modernity, for short. Today, there’s nowhere on this planet, not even those parts once thought remote from civilisation, that hasn’t been touched by the tentacles of modernity or influenced by its ideologies and ideals.
Modernity didn’t just happen. Rather, it’s a historical process, incremental in its formation. Its general character includes: emphasis on rationality and science over tradition or religion; belief in progress; confidence in human mastery over nature; focus on individualism, loyalty to a usurious-based market capitalism; and a strong reliance upon the state and its various institutions. Above all, to be modern is to believe that history moves forward and the power humankind has to improve its situation is unlimited: and so the best is always yet to come.
The radical and conscious altering nature of modernity is such that, even in its early days, for philosophers like Hegel, sociologists like Weber, and economists like Adam Smith or Karl Marx, the sense that something called modernity had arrived wasn’t a claim just about European history, but about the history of the entire world.
The difference between the traditional, pre-modern world and the modern one cannot be put down to one specific philosophical idea or one specific invention. Instead, it had more to do with the way people began to think. Below are seven concepts which form the core of what becoming modern has entailed – along with some brief reflections concerning how such concepts have subtly shaped the way we as Muslims perceive the world and society; even at the expense of established Quranic values and attitudes:
1.Secularisation: This is probably modernity’s clearest hallmark. Secularisation is a process where religious consciousness, activities and institutions lose their social significance and are excluded from public life – be it in education, law-making, administration or government. It happens when religion ceases to be at the centre of social life and where it no longer articulates the common good. This might be called the objective aspect of secularisation. As for its subjective part, one that usually has a corroding effect on faith, it entails the slow erosion of religious feelings and thoughts from the understanding of worldly matters. Religion, then, either ceases to exist as an autonomous force; or is hollowed out and emptied of meaning, to become a toothless tiger; or is confined to personal rituals in the private sphere. While secularisation, i.e. the separation of Religion and State, was first contrived as a way of preserving Faith, not destroying it; it is in the nature of Homo religiosus that when everyday life is bereft of religious references, the religious mind becomes gradually and unwittingly secularised, heedlessness creeps in and the downward spiral of faith gathers pace.
It is for such reasons that in Islam’s view of things, whatever form governance might take, among its primary duties, along with ensuring rights of minority voices, is to allow an environment where the religious project can flourish. In this sense, form plays second fiddle to content. Islam doesn’t need the form to be theocratic: it does, however, require the content to be theocentric. The soil of society must allow godliness to grow. Political leadership, guided by religious authority, must take care that the material concerns of the community do not grow out of proportion at the expense of faith, morality, or mindfulness of God. So secularisation, as commonly understood – contrary to the misplaced hopes of many a short-sighted Muslim activist or political theorist – can never really be the believer’s story. In Islam, society should participate in the glory of God; and if not, it cannot be a cause for its erosion. Finding the right equilibrium, however, between society’s political stability, economic welfare and its spiritual wellbeing is easier said than done.
2.Rationalisation: The idea that the world can be managed through a rational and reasonable system of processes and data. Rationalisation is the process by which society becomes more rational; in that the ways of ordering society and solving problems increasingly focus on efficiency (to achieve maximum results with minimum effort) and predictability (to predict future outcomes), instead of on tradition, religion, or other pre-modern ways of functioning. To be clear, saying that modern societies are rational does not imply that pre-modern ones were irrational or nonsensical; or acted randomly and senselessly. Traditional societies tended to have their own internal logic, which made sense from their own specific religious or cultural frames of reference. Rather, all that is meant is that pre-modern societies were non-rational, in that the methods of solving problems of society or the individual didn’t prioritise efficiency – as in rational societies – but emphasised what is right, morally sound or traditionally correct. A rational society lives by the rule: ‘Maximise your own best self-interest’, while non-rational societies tended to value altruism, self sacrifice, or looking out for the needs of the family, community or society, over one’s own self-interest. A rational society focuses on end results (with the means usually justifying the ends); non-rational ones focus on process, i.e. the way of actually doing things. In short, a rational society is impersonal; highly regulated and procedural; and has as its goal the maximising of efficiency above all other concerns. As such techniques of rationalisation crept over much of the earth, and the climate of opinion it created became more and more uniform, it was inevitable that the vibrant and diverse human stories would be reduced to a weary, monocultured humanity. The contrast in the order of priorities between a modern society and a traditional one; especially an Islamic one, can scarcely be overstated.
This iron cage created by the increased rationalisation of society, as calculating; cold; clinical; and controlling as it can be, has certain advantages over non-rational societies; and visa-versa. It isn’t the case that non-rational societies were all beautiful, virtuous and good and that rational ones are manipulative, calculating and cold. It’s not as black and white as that. The issue for believers isn’t that traditional Muslim societies were in one sense freer or had far fewer rules that governed it; or that modern societies traded the value of beauty (be it in architecture, art, crafts, or one’s character) for rationalisation’s drift towards ugliness. Rather, the deeper concern is that this rationalising impulse – which first started in factories (industrialisation); then moved into government and large institutions (bureaucracies) – has now thoroughly spilled over into family life, relationships, society and even religious thinking. This being especially so when calculations of efficiency and maximising one’s best self interest are no longer governed or guided by overarching moral virtues. Thus when beauty and virtue no longer shape our way of thinking; when how we do things is seen as less important than what is done; or when attitudes are infiltrated by ideas of efficiency and maximising self-interest, the Islamic imperative of adab is then crippled and compromised – even if we are committed to Islamic acts. And as the saints and sages of Islam have long ago pointed out, when the soul lets go of the reigns of adab, all things run amok!
How can anyone whose mind is seized and held captive by the prejudices and subjective outlook of our modern age ever hope to understand traditional ways of living or Quranic ways of being in which the order of human priorities were not merely different, but totally reversed. Which is why it is not enough to have a firm grasp of our fiqh tradition in terms of how it is to be applied today. For without our fiqh being deeply infused with insights from our suluk tradition; or without diagnosing the philosophical foundations of modernity and its psycho-spiritual impact on religion, our fiqh will continue to be the intellectually lame enterprise which the simple concession-based logic of ‘minority fiqh’ and other reformist fiqh projects currently are. If anything, we need more fikr in our fiqh framing.
The final part of this article will, God willing, discuss five other pillars which make up modernity: individualism,disenchantment,alienation, mechanisation, and commodification.
This is another article where I attempt to address some themes and dilemmas of modern Muslimness. Like previous outings, this too is less a coherent article and more a cluster of thoughts or ruminations tied together by the theme of searching for Muslim authenticity in a post-modern, post-monotheistic age.
Our primary legitimation for living in the geographical West, a place which most of us instinctively call home, is to invite our post-monotheistic society, our people, to Abrahamic monotheism (tawhid): ‘O my people! Worship God! You have no other god except Him who you should be worshiping.’ [Q.7:59] This often requires that we first help people reawaken their fitrah, in order that they may leave their comfort zones, question the assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers. This task is all the more imperative, given that in our age of enthroning the individual Self, we now face three intertwined existential crisis: a crisis of loneliness, a crisis of alienation, and a crisis of purpose. Anxious, uncertain, unrooted, fearful as well as increasingly aggressive, society has turned its back on the traditional notion of the soul being outwardly directed, to the modern notion of the Self being inwardly focused; with all the attendant traumas and travesties that come cascading down on the human psyche from this inversion. It’s here that the prophetically-inspired wisdom must make itself known and heard, if we are to be healers and therapists and help orientate the soul of society towards God and towards moral joy.
In one celebrated hadith, we read: ‘Indeed, Allah chose [the tribe of] Kinanah from the descendants of Ishmael; He chose Quraysh from Kinanah; He chose the tribe of Hashim from Quraysh; and He chose me from the tribe of Hashim.’1 That the Prophet ﷺ was istafa – ‘chosen,’ or ‘selected’ – is where we get the Prophet’s name or title, al-Mustafa – ‘the Chosen One’.
But there’s another reason why I quoted this hadith with the blessed lineage, this nisbah sharifah, which has an urgent bearing on modern Muslimness. And that has to do with the beginning of the lineage, with the Prophet Ishmael (Ar. Isma‘il), peace be upon him, and the Ishmaelite inculturation into the Arabian landscape. For lest we forget, Ishmael was not born in Arabia. He wasn’t born an Arab. He was born, as per Biblical lore, north of Arabia; in Canaan. He, along with his Egyptian mother Hagar, was brought to the valley of Makkah by his father Abraham, under divine instruction. There he fully settled, there he was raised, and there he grew up into the ways of the Arabs: their language, dress, customs and culture. At no point was there any obligation on him, neither from his father nor his mother, to be Canaanite in culture or Egyptian in speech and dress.
That same Ishmaelite principle of inculturation, that does not expect Muslims to take on anything other than the cultural norms of their respected landscapes (as filtered through revealed counsel), is currently honoured more in the breach than the observance by too many of Ishmael’s spiritual descendants living here in the West. Inculturation is undeniably one of the great lessons of the sacred Ishmaelite story. A British Muslim who insists on wearing Arab or Asian dress, or clings to foreign ‘urf embellishments uncalled for by the shari‘ah, is unlikely to endear monotheism to the wider public who will just see them as alien and unrelatable; and will be unable to envisage how Islam might be for British and Western people. Such a failure of the religious imagination must be swiftly, yet wisely, remedied.
It is said that the emergence of intellectuals who have made a critical paradigm shift in some area or another of human thought is reflective of the intellectual and civilisational culture from which they emerge. This is certainly true of the Islamic intellectual tradition where it had likely taken hundreds of average and above average scholarly intellectuals before any polymath of the calibre of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Hazm, al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Aqil or Ibn Taymiyyah emerged. After God’s grace, the civilisational soil from which any thinker belongs must be conducive for such brilliance to grow and flourish. Historically, the civilisational culture set in motion by Islam created an atmosphere in which scholars felt confident and compelled to fully engage their intellectual milieu, as part of taking on the concerns germane to humanity and to the wider human story.
Sadly, this isn’t the case today; and hasn’t been for a while. There are, however, a few emerging voices in our otherwise all but silent intellectual wilderness. If we’ve learnt anything from the fate of other religions which have engaged the juggernaut of secular modernity, it’s that our capacity to dissent, rather than to conform or capitulate, is our only sane choice – if we wish to be saved from the same pitiful tragedy that befell the various Judaeo-Christian attempts and their morphing into disfigured variants of secular, liberal humanism. The point was poignantly put by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he explained that, ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’2
Today, the dominant ethical and intellectual visions of humanity are shaped by the pervasive secular philosophies of liberalism, democracy and human rights; and the religious creed they are rooted in: the religion of progress, consumption and aggressive capitalist growth. But there are unmistakable signs and an ever growing body of hard data from the natural and human sciences that all’s not well. From the spectre of global warming and environmental destruction, to the Intensive farming and the industrial scale animal abuse inherent in it; through to the planned obsolescence policy to ensure consumer goods become unusable after a pre-determined period of time, and the throw away culture that comes in its wake: creating a grotesque amount of unnecessary waste we’re currently dumping into the oceans, the air, or into landfills.
And all this is being driven by corporate greed, a capitalist economic model and its unsustainable demand for more and more growth, and the turbo-consumer culture this has given rise to. Consumption of stuff requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, fossil fuels, water, etc.); it requires creation of factories that create huge amounts of toxic by products and carbon emissions; and the use of many of these goods themselves create huge levels of pollution and waste – fuelling global warming, decimating our eco systems, and causing our environmental collapse. Such recklessness and rapacious greed are why the English philosopher, John Gray has dubbed us Homo rapiens.3
Whatever our collective response to this must be is still being hotly debated. But one thing is blindingly clear. If we are to avert this global catastrophe; if we are to significantly pull back from this tipping point, we must radically reign in our levels of consumption; rethink our ways of living and producing, making them sustainable for the planet as a whole; and reevaluate the myth that seduces us into believing that we actually need lots and lots of useless, consumer stuff to make us happy and live fulfilled lives. If we are prepared to rise above this lie that’s been foisted upon us over the past century or so, we might all still have a fighting chance.
That said, we’re still left with the inescapable question that confronts Western Muslim intellectual thought: What can Islam offer today that could constitute ethical progress or better human welfare, as we Muslims seek for settled status as minorities in our Western context?
Transhumanism is the final thing I wish to briefly muse over. Now this might seem a bit like a pie in the sky concern compared to, let’s say, global warming. But hear me out. Depending on who you ask, transhumanism is just around the next corner, or it’s at least fifty years away. But what is transhumanism? ‘Isms’ are always tricky to define; in fact, they are often undefinable. They tend to be a loosely-knit set of core ideas about some philosophy, social movement or behaviour. So again, what is transhumanism?
Those old enough to remember the sci-fi show, The Six Million Dollar Man will recall: ‘Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better … stronger … faster.’ That was back in 1974, where the fictional character was part rebuilt and enhanced using bio-technological (bionic) parts. Today, in the 21st century, surgeons and scientists do a lot of this stuff for real, plus more.
Transhumanism is the idea that human weaknesses such as sickness, ageing and even death could and should be overcome with technology. Science should be used to transcend the biological limitations of human beings – and even the human species – to make them transhuman. This involves augmenting weaker or defective body parts (which already occurs with pacemakers, transplants, prosthetic limbs, etc.) with the latest replacement tech; or editing out defective or debilitating genes (such as trying to identify and remove or turn-off the gene that causes ageing). Linking a human brain to an AI network, or replacing an actual brain with an AI one, is also included in such augmentations or editing. If the end result is Homo sapiens 2.0, or even an entirely new kind of species, then it must be welcomed and actively promoted. Such are the transhumanist contentions and aspirations. In short, transhumanism might be thought of as ‘faith in technology to vastly expand the capabilities of humans.’4
What then should the Muslim response to all this be? What would be the fatwa, and what ethical principles would it be grounded in? If transhumanism, whose cards are already being laid on the table, is just around the corner, then in all likelihood there are Muslims out there, as I write, whose work or research is connected to this matter. Be they medics, surgeons or IT experts at the cutting edge of the biotech field, or software writers, or Muslims working in those tech industries that might be contracted to develop such augmentations or tools for such editing – many of them will want to know where they as Muslims should stand in all of this? To what extent is a Muslim doctor morally obliged to find cures for diseases, and ensure that those diseases never occur again? To what extent is it legally right for a Muslim to edit out those aspects within the body that lead to old age and eventually to death, if we can turn those genes off or make them dormant? Such questions are being asked and answered by many others; and we Muslims would do well to enter the conversation.
Of course, as with other big questions of this nature, scholars in the Islam-is-a-modern-religion brigade will unsurprisingly, as well as uncritically, endorse it by way of the usual desperate and delinquent claims of Islam being the religion of science and progress, and all that Islamic modernist dross. But for most of our jurists and theologians, I suspect, a red line will have been crossed at some point. For anything which so fundamentally alters our outward human form or essential Adamic nature will be subsumed under the Quranic injunction: There shall be no altering of Allah’s creation, [Q.30:30] and the celebrated hadith of the imago dei: ‘Indeed, Allah created Adam in His own image.’5 Where exactly this line should be drawn will, in all likelihood, be open to its fair share of juristic ambiguity and theological debate.
Some gadgets or technology might be able to exist side by side with us humans, without them notably altering our social patterns. But other kinds of tech are far from neutral; they can dramatically alter what people will be like because of them. The task of a futurist (futurologist) is less to predict what gadgets and tech we’ll have in the future, and more so to envisage how such tech will shape us, or even how it can make us more amenable to transhumanism. An urgent aspect of Muslim scholarship, then, must be devoted to these macro questions of futurology, as well as supply us with wise, critical, and practical guidance on how we can best evaluate our use of technology in the light of Islamic ethics, Adamic norms and fitrah values. We might currently flinch at the very idea of transhumanism. But technology bends us into behaving in a particular way. It moulds us into seeing the world in a particular way. It disciples us. And it has a marked tendency to sneak its values into us at almost every turn.
Let me wrap up with this thought. While discussing certain issues surrounding AI upgrades, the historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari conjectures whether such technology, rather than heal the currently huge inequalities brought on by globalisation, could actually exacerbate them. He says about the already super-rich, who already monopolise the fruits of globalisation, that they might finally have something truly worthwhile to do with their huge wealth. ‘While hitherto they could buy little more than status symbols, soon they might able to buy life itself. If new treatments for extending life and for upgrading physical and cognitive abilities prove to be expensive, humankind my split into biological castes.’6 He says that if the super-rich use these upgraded or edited abilities ‘to enrich themselves further, and if more money can buy them enhanced bodies and brains, with time the gap will only widen.’7 He concludes with this bleak prediction: ‘The two processes together – bioengineering coupled with the rise of AI – might therefore result in the separation of humankind into a small class of superhumans and a massive underclass of useless Homo sapiens.’8
This isn’t the only bifurcation to be concerned about. Even if these technologies were to steadily become affordable to the masses, such that they too could be uber-humans, there’s still the matter of Islam’s blessed conservatism. Believers are required by faith to conserve revealed teachings; conserve prophetic ways of living; and conserve the sacrality of mind, body and soul, and the higher aims for which the Maker created them. So possibly, while the affordability of such technology does not yet trickle down to the masses, there will be a bifurcation between the rich and the poor; between the haves and the have-nots. But that will diminish as the tech becomes more affordable. The greater bifurcation; the greater clash, however, is very likely to be between the masses of bioengineered transhumans who, as per Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, continue ‘looking with amazement and Islamophobic contempt upon the Muslim ummah where, I suspect, the majority of people will not engineer their children in order to produce a generation of superhumans.’9 What’s unfolding now is just the tip of the iceberg of a much greater divide. Yet risking such unpopularity and scorn, due to clinging to what is divinely revealed and prophetically inspired (instead of pandering to Godless acts of progress), is the ummah’s responsibility. Being too apologetic or overly strategic isn’t really the prophetic way. One has to risk unpopularity. But this must be done with considerable wisdom, foresight and discretion.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Muslim, no.2276.
2. Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.
Believer must realise that, at root, there’s a parting of ways between Islam and the liberal monoculture when it comes to what human beings fundamentally are, what it is possible for them to be or become, and what it means to be liberated or free. Islam teaches that the human person is imbued with a ruh, a “spirit,” that yearns for God, truth and beauty. For the liberal monoculture, there is no spirit or soul, but merely a “self.” And this self is made up of our whims, wants and desires. Islam teaches that the intellect or reason’s role, in light of Revelation, is to enable us to know the good and what’s morally right, and direct our desires towards it. Reason is a restraint on desires, it is master of desires; hence the importance of self-mastery or mastery of the self in Islam. About this, the Qur’an says: As for those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s desires, the Garden is their abode. [Q.79:40-41]
In stark contrast, the monoculture would have us believe that reason is not, and cannot be, master of desire but only its servant. Reason can tell us not what to desire or want, but only how to get whatever it is we desire or want. For the monoculture, it’s seldom about restraining our desires or mastering the self; rather it’s about slavery to self. Today’s freedom is freedom of the self; freedom to be servile to the self. Islam’s freedom is freedom from the dictates of the self; freedom from self-slavery. One of the saints of Islam once said: مَا وَصَلَ إِلٰى صَرِيْحِ الْحُرِّيَّةِ مَنْ بَقِيَ عَلَيْهِ مِنْ نَفْسِهِ بَقِيَّةٌ – ‘No one attains true freedom as long as he remains under even the slightest influence of his ego.’ With that being the case, any fiqh that isn’t rooted in this reality; any taysir or ease which fails to factor this into its fatwas, is sloppy and short-sighted and, in the long run, is part of the actual problem.
True or meaningful freedom, then; freedom from self-slavery, can only come with taslim; surrender to God: i.e. Islam. To minds that have been dulled and numbed by the monoculture, a Muslim who submits to the divine Reality and who binds himself to a code of life consisting of a series of religious duties and commitments, may not appear as free as the hapless victims of the secularised monoculture who live in accordance with their whims, base desires and egos. In reality, however, the Muslim discipline is no deprivation of freedom. It is a necessary measure so as to guide people, regulate their affairs, prevent them from straying, and dissuade them from doing harm to themselves or to others. By recognising that the divinely-given code of life exists to protect us, bring out the best in us, and help our Adamic potential flower to its fullest, we can attain balance and contentment in this life, and endless joy in the next. In fact, if anything, the sheer number of laws, regulations and prohibitions which the modern state constrains its citizens with – all in the name of progress and the public interest – is far far larger than the corpus of laws or duties the believer is required to uphold. Yet in the cult of blindness and double-standards, it is the shari‘ah that is the “straight-jacket”.
Ever since the French ‘philosophes’ and the French Revolution which swiftly followed on its heels – which wasn’t just a revolt against social injustices and an unjust aristocracy, but above all, it was a revolt against Religion; against God – Man would, henceforth, be the measure of all things. It would be Man’s will that would be sovereign. His personal will alone would have the right to decide what it desires to believe, want, own or serve; even as the upshot of it all – hedonism, ecological decimation, slavish consumerism, alarming rates of depression and ontological loneliness, erosion of family and community, or spiralling levels of substance abuse and addiction – aggressively gnawed away at his civilisational values like cancer.
It is clear, therefore, that the monoculture is heading in the wrong direction. It is leading us like lemmings to a cliff-edge. It’s driving the bus of humanity over the edge; and we Muslims have to be the ones to apply the brakes. Islam’s message of monotheism, hope and healing must restore direction and purpose back into peoples’ lives. It must help steer them back to restoring God in the hearts. Key to all this is the required virtue of sabr – of patience, perseverance, and ploughing on with what revelation expects of us. The Prophet ﷺ foretold: ‘There will come upon the people a time where a person patiently practicing his religion will be like holding on to hot coal.’1 There is also this hadith: ‘And know that victory comes with patience, relief with affliction, and ease with hardship.’2
1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2260. It was given a grading of sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.957.
2. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11243; al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.745. Ibn Badran says, Sharh Kitab al-Shihab (Beirut & Damascus: Dar al-Nawadir, 2007), no.136, that the hadith, with its collective chains, is hasan.
Given that the knowledge the ‘ulema and du‘at teach and convey is sacred, majestic and noble: That this is indeed a noble Qur’an [Q.57:77], then they too are expected to exemplify nobility and dignity in terms of character and how they carry themselves. The message is noble, its carriers must be noble too. It’s as short and simple as that!
No doubt, the loftier reason for scholars and callers to have beautiful character and noble conduct is for the love of Allah, and for the love of virtue itself because Allah loves and is pleased with it. Other reasons to embody virtue are significant, although lesser in degree. One reason has to do with status. If ‘ulema or du‘at behave in an unbecoming manner, it’s less about their status dropping in the public’s eyes, and more that it reflects badly on the actual knowledge itself. Sacred knowledge loses its gravitas; its haybah, when its carriers lose theirs. The nafs, egged on by shaytan’s whispers, will grab at any excuse to evade the authority of sacred knowledge; let alone demean or discredit it.
It ought to be said that while the post specifically addresses scholars and du‘at, the fact is that all Muslims here in the West have a duty of da‘wah. In Islam, people belong to either the ummat al-ijabah or ummat al-da‘wah. Which is to say, they are people who have either responded to the call; and are thus Muslims, or they are people to whom the call must be conveyed; and hence are currently non-Muslims. The Qur’an says: And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God and does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims.’ [Q.41:33] There’s no doubt that da‘wah entails conveying, clarifying, discussing, and sometimes even debating. But doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk definitely has its place. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and patience tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects. Scholars insist: lisan al-hal abyan min lisan al-maqal – which, when rendered into common English idiom, might mean: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ So da‘wah for most people should be guided by the following contention: ‘Use words in your preaching only if absolutely necessary.’1 In all of this, we should always keep in mind that it is in the nature of tawhid, of Abrahamic monotheism, to call upon its adherents to be healers and therapists; and this is even more so the case in this post-modern age deeply traumatised by its existential aimlessness and so desperately calling out to be healed. In Nietzsche’s words: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’
In what follows, I’ll discuss some causes which lend themselves to the dignity and noble conduct that da‘wah ila’Llah – or ‘calling to God’ – demands. I’ll also address some of the mistaken attitudes and misconduct that currently taint the integrity of the da‘wah. And by da‘wah, I don’t mean just the kind we do as individuals to neighbours, work colleagues or friends. But also the numerous street da‘wah enterprises throughout the country; da‘wah in the park; and da‘wah in a lecture, dialogue, or debate setting: may Allah increase them all in goodness and tawfiq.
1 – Intrinsic to scholars, teachers and callers to Islam being noble and beautiful souls is the question of sincerity. We read this verse in the Holy Qur’an: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to Allah upon sure knowledge …’ [Q.12:108] Hence the scholar or caller calls to God, not to themselves; their social media profiles; their organisation; nor to making earning money their primary goal. All of this contradicts sincerity in calling to Allah. Al-Qushayri wrote: ‘Sincerity is to single-out the Real [God] as the sole object of devotion. Meaning that one desires by their obedience to draw closer to God, exalted is He, to the exclusion of all else, such as making a show [of one’s piety] for people; seeking their praise; taking pleasure in their compliments; or other such things besides drawing closer to God, exalted is He. It is right to say that sincerity is: Purifying the act from creation having any share in it.’2
2 – That being sincere is something easier said than done may be seen from these words of Sufyan al-Thawri – an early and notable scholar and renunciant of Islam: ‘Nothing was harder for me to ever remedy than my own nafs.’3 To claim the maqam al-da‘wah is, to say the least, problematic. To lay claim to the maqam al-sidq, of acting truly and sincerely for God alone, ought to, in the case of most of us, beggar some belief. For it would mean that we’ve eliminated our ego; that there is no more nafs. And that is quite a claim. If the nafs were to be truly absent, our own world would witness wonders. For human happiness will only flourish when the soul is free from ego and at rest in God.
3 – One verse of the Qur’an says: We did not send any Messenger, except with the language of his people, that he might make [the message] clear to them. [Q.14:4] To deliver the call or summons to God in a language people understand should go without saying. For how can the message help steer people out of the darkness and into the light, [Q.14:5] if it cannot be understood? But being understood, and thus relatable at some basic, yet meaningful level isn’t just about speaking the indigenous language. We could speak the right lingo, yet still come across as unrelatable due to adopting foreign dress codes and cultural outlooks that Islam does not insist upon, unnecessarily alienating us from the wider public. Geographic ignorance of a people’s ‘urf or ‘adah; their customs, norms or conventions, isn’t expected of believers who claim to be steered by the prophetic Sunnah.
4 – In a Britain where one in three people now believe there are Muslim-run ‘no-go areas’ across the country; where two-thirds of the public claim they know little or nothing about Islam (most saying that whatever little they do know is learnt via the media); where one in four people don’t believe in God (compared to one in ten, in 1998); and where over fifty percent of the nation say that they have no religious affiliation, being unrelatable isn’t an option. Our greatest vocation as Muslims, then, is to heal our country’s growing enmity towards Abrahamic monotheism, not exacerbate it. How is it there’s a sizeable presence of Muslims in Britain (about 5% of the population), yet atheism is relentlessly on the rise? It suggests that, current hostilities to religiousness aside, we Muslims need to be better fit for purpose. As Tennyson wrote: ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.’
5 – I cite the above statistics not to incite fear or panic, or some sense of defeatism, but as a sense of urgency in revisiting current trends of inviting to Abrahamic monotheism. As such, strategies that undermine wise and shari‘ah guided inculturation (not assimilation), or that erect religiously unwarranted alienation between the ummat al-ijabah and ummat al-da‘wah, must be swiftly remedied. This, as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad says, ‘imposes the duty, painful for some, of shedding the ‘urf and ‘ada decorations of foreign lands.’4 A British Muslim who insists on wearing Arab or Asian garb, and cling to an Arab or Asian cultural outlook, is unlikely to endear monotheism to the wider public, who will see them as alien; unrelatable; unable to envisage how Islam might be for British people.
6 – If da‘wah is the prime reason to legitimise our presence here, then we’re duty-bound to urgently dispense with these unnecessary overseas ‘urf embellishments, in order not to be responsible for tanfir, for alienation or repelling others. The Prophet ﷺ said: bashshiru wa la tunaffiru, yassiru wa la tu‘assiru – ‘Give glad tidings and do not repel [people], make things easy and do not make things difficult.’5 So, except with the language of his people isn’t limited to speech. It also involves a certain degree of cultural affinity and familiarity with what makes the people what they are. Which is to say, the da‘i should know and be relatable to the mad‘u – to those whom the call is being made.
7 – While da’wah is a constant duty and concern upon every Muslim, it is currently the privilege of a growing minority who realise we are not here primarily to be consumers, to improve our material welfare, or to live cozy lives. For that reason we could even say that the history of Islam in Britain is much younger than the history of Muslims in Britain. For only with da’wah, with the deliberate adoption of summoning others to the All-Merciful Lord as the central principle, could we claim in any meaningful way that Islam arrived on these shores; to this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle. Those who emigrated here with other intentions are urged to redress this matter within themselves.
8 – The Holy Qur’an says: Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [Q.16:125] Also: Had you been stern or harsh-hearted, they would have surely dispersed from around you. [Q.3:159] And about the prophets Moses and Aaron, peace be upon them, we read: ‘Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he had indeed transgressed all bounds. Speak to him gently, that perhaps he may take heed or fear [God].’ [Q.20:43-4] Overall, then, our da‘wah must be one of tabshir and taysir, of giving glad-tidings and making things easy. The ‘alim or da‘i, when they exhort anyone, it must be with wisdom and kindness. When they enjoin good, it must be with mildness and facilitating ease. And when they forbid wrong, it must be done with gentleness, clemency and compassion. Indeed, even when the scholar or da‘i strive to do justice, they must try, where appropriate, to do justice with a light touch. One famous hadith says: ‘Indeed God is gentle and loves gentleness. He gives to gentleness what He doesn’t give to harshness, and what He doesn’t give to other than it.’6
9 – It seems there’s a rising trend to skip over the stricter passages of the Qur’an, in terms of it being a warning, admonition and an ultimatum to not take the ungodly path to Hell. But how is such strict stuff tabshir? The answer is that it isn’t. It’s tahdhir – ‘warning!’ This Qur’an has been revealed to me that I may warn you with it and whomsoever it may reach. [Q.6:19] We must remember that along with describing our Prophet ﷺ as: a mercy to the worlds, [Q.21:107] the Qur’an says: O Prophet! We have indeed sent you as a witness and as a bearer of good news and a warner, and as a summoner to God by His permission, and as a light-giving lamp. [Q.33:45-6] The da‘i – along with wisdom, patience, mildness, familiarity and genuine concern – should follow in the prophetic footsteps, by being both bashir and nadhir: sometimes inviting, while at other times summoning; knowing just what medicine to best administer, and when.
10 – Having said the above, those with wiser heads, deeper spiritual insights, and greater experience teach us that the nature of post-religious Britain is such that its people do not normally respond well to tahdhir. Therefore, there must be a greater emphasis on tabshir, though not a total omission of tahdhir. Tahdhir must be used sparingly, like a pinch of salt sprinkled over food: too little and the tongue finds it unpalatable; too much and it’s likely to elicit an aversion. Some see in the next verse a validation for not frightening people in such times with divine threats, out of concern for not driving them away: Lurk not on every road to threaten and bar [people] who believe in Him from the path of God. [Q.7:86] This, while recalling the rule: al-‘ibrah bi ‘umum al-lafz la bi khusus al-sabab – ‘Consideration is given to the generality of the wording, not the specific cause for its revelation.’ Hence they say, that in general: al-waqt waqtu tabshir la waqtu tahdhir – ‘The times are times of glad-tidings, not times of warnings.’7
11 – The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Never did Allah send a prophet except that he was a shepherd.’ His Companions asked: ‘Even you?’ He replied: ‘Yes, I was a shepherd for a modest wage for [some of] the people of Makkah.’8 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani commented: ‘The scholars say: The wisdom behind inspiring the prophets to be shepherds before prophethood is so that they would acquire the skills to humbly tend and care for the affairs of their [respective] nations. Since by mingling with the flock, it makes them acquire mildness and gentleness. For in patiently tending to them; herding them together after being scattered in [various] grazing fields; moving them from pasture to pasture; or guarding them from dangers, like from predatory beasts or thieves; and growing familiar with their different natures … By this, they learn how to bear patience with their ummah, recognise their differing natures and varying attitudes, heal their wounds, and comfort their weak.’9 The mild and patient qualities of shepherding must therefore be absolutely integral to the nature and character of the da‘i, if he or she wishes to mirror the work and ways of God’s prophets.
12 – Cultivating sincere and genuine concern for others is the intent of the famous Arabic proverb: لَيْسَت النَائِحَةُ الثَّكْلى كَالْمُسْتأجَرَة – ‘The bereaved weeper is not like the hired [mourner].’ In other words, the mother in whose lap her only child dies, isn’t like the criers for hire in terms of tears and grief. The tears of the former are real and come from a heart torn to bits. As for the latter, their grief or tears are an act, a put on, part of the job they get paid to do. Such must be the case for da‘wah too. We must ask Allah to nurture in our hearts true and genuine prophetic concern for peoples’ guidance and overall welfare. But without sincere inner concern, we’re in danger of turning da‘wah into a job, or an exercise for the ego, or an opportunity to unleash our darker pathologies and frustrations upon others. The idea that we can teach da‘wah tactics and techniques, without also imparting serious spiritual instruction or nurturing a classical ihsan-rooted Islam, is a forlorn blunder that continues to have huge tanfiri ramifications. The crier-for-hire da‘i needs to swiftly be made jurassic: become a thing of the past, extinct like the dinosaur.
13 – The da‘wah can have no place for angry, incandescent preachers who have no traits of shepherding, but who instead rant and rave, foam at the mouth, and aggressively talk at their audience, rather than talk to them. Such hysteria is simply not the prophetic voice and concern; it’s the ego’s. On those occasions where something other than mildness or gentleness was called for, then the sirah shows us that it was a measured sternness, or a composed anger, born of the ruh, the Spirit, not of the nafs. To vindicate such unsightly harshness, by pointing to the hadith which says about the Prophet ﷺ that: إِذَا خَطَبَ احْمَرَّتْ عَيْنَاهُ وَعَلاَ صَوْتُهُ وَاشْتَدَّ غَضَبُهُ كَأَنَّهُ مُنْذِرُ جَيْشٍ – ‘When he gave a sermon, his eyes would redden, his voice would grow louder, and he would be intensely passionate, as if he were warning of an [enemy] army,’10 is falsely equating ruh with nafs; beauty with ugliness; composed, yet passionate exhortation with frenzied and self-satisfied pontification. How much more could the prophetic character be so self-servingly distorted or assassinated?! Bottom line is that those whose waspish conduct or childish temper tantrums drive people from Islam are tanfiris; perhaps even accursed, since they undo the very work of the Prophets.
14 – If the da‘wah should not tolerate awful adab, then it should be even less tolerant of atrocious ‘aqidah. By this I mean the trend that slights the very idea of warnings of Hell or Divine Wrath; or makes it out that Hellfire is just a myth for Muslim simpletons; or that all good non-Muslims will go to jannah.11 For what now counts for most people, including an increasing number of ill-informed and insecure Muslims isn’t God or holiness. It’s that we simply be good people and agree to the secular decencies of our age. Such adulteration of the din might stave off the dangers of tanfir. But such theological ‘social distancing’ from the more rigorous, jalali aspects of the faith stand in such stark contrast to the message of the Qur’an, that it makes them unquestionably or utterly unIslamic. And while it’s human nature to want to be met with the approval of others, this is not a case where the means might be said to justify the ends. As for the believer, he or she wishes acceptance, not for their own sake, but so that the message of God’s Oneness and abounding mercy may be given heed. This is the true Abrahamic hope for the Ishmaelite nation: ‘So make the hearts of the people incline towards them.’ [Q.14:37]
15 – In our post-Christian, post-monotheistic Britain there are plenty of reasons why we should try and make the invitation to God as palatable as possible, without compromises that amount to adulteration. As the demands for Islam to reform along the line of current liberal orthodoxies intensify, so does the temptation to water down faith or gloss over its less palatable bits: Perhaps you may [feel to] leave out some of what is revealed to you, and your heart feels strained because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or an angel not come with him?’ You are nothing except a warner, and God is Guardian over all things. [Q.11:12] So the frightened or anxious-to-please Muslim may ask themselves: ‘What if I omit this religious ruling or alter that part of Islam, wont the truth be more agreeable?’ Yet we are told the truth must be delivered as it was revealed, and to airbrush out a part of what is obligated would be to cave in to the ego’s panic. Instead, what is expected of us is to do what the Holy Qur’an asks, when it states: your duty is only to convey. [Q.3:20] Upon the believer, then, is to convey the message wisely, contextually, without being paralysed by fear, complexes or insecurities, and by prioritising the message of tawhid over all other concerns; and then simply leave the rest to Allah.
16 – As the Prophet ﷺ was sending the highly learned Mu‘adh b. Jabal to Yemen, as a da‘i to Allah, he reminded him of who his target audience was and what his priorities should be – calling to the Oneness of God: ‘Indeed you are going to a community from the People of the Book, so call them to testify that there is no God [deserving of worship] save Allah, and that I am the Messenger of Allah. If they accept that, then inform them that God has obligated upon them five prayers in a day and night. If they accept that, inform them that God has obligated them with charity [zakat], to be taken from their rich and distributed to their poor …’12 Priority in da‘wah must, therefore, start with what is most important, then then next in importance; and so on. Wisdom in da‘wah should start by being clear about two matters: Firstly, that we are not just Muslims in Britain, but Muslims of Britain. For the vast majority of us, Britain is our home. In fact, if polls are to be believed, seventy-seven percent of Muslims ‘very strongly’ identify with the UK, compared to fifty-one percent of the overall population. Muslims in Britain not only seem to want to belong, they feel that they actually do belong. And secondly …
17 – That today’s Britain, for all intents and purposes, is both post-monotheistic and post-religious. What then is the wisdom behind raging for the implementation of Islamic law in Britain while anti-Muslim sentiment across Britain and Europe are at alarming levels? Ibn Taymiyyah, while speaking of the Abyssinian Negus who – having secretly converted to Islam wasn’t able to openly declare his faith – said: ‘The Negus was unable to implement the laws of the Qur’an since his people would never have allowed him to do so … Yet the Negus and those like him found their way to Paradise (al-najashi wa amthaluhu sa‘ada fi’l-jannah) even though they were unable to observe the rules of Islam or could only abide by such rules as could be implemented in their given circumstances.’13 Policies that eclipse the call to tawhid, by uncalled for demands of Islamic law, aren’t just at odds with religion and reason, they are damaging and dangerous too.
18 – People with even a vague scriptural understanding of the God of Abraham have been easier to relate to (and perhaps even give da‘wah to). But today’s atheist, even though pre-modern Muslim societies or theology engaged them as the dahriyyah, are a different kettle of fish; and the post-modern world which atheists and secular humanists have had a dab hand in shaping is unlike anything that has ever come before. And while we have always had a theology of how we can best live as minorities under an ahl al-kitab polity, we need an empathetic theology for how to best be fit for purpose in an ahl al-kidhab, the People of Denial, atheist polity, and the new type of human it is creating. The basis for this must be the recognition that even atheists have the echo of Alastu suffused into the core of their being. So we read in the Qur’an that God made a covenant with all humans whilst in our pre-bodily, pre-earthly forms, saying: alastu bi rabbikum? – ‘Am I not your Lord?’ To which we all said: bala shahidna – ‘Yes indeed! We do bear witness.’ [Q.7:172] It is to retrieve and rekindle this dormant echo of Alastu that prophets were sent and scriptures revealed. Our task as healers, rooted as it must be in mahabbah: love for what each Adamic soul has the potential to become, must start with the work of retrieval.
19 – As strange as this might sound to some, what’s probably more important than calling our post-monotheistic milieu to Islam is to help reawaken their fitrah, so that people can leave their comfort zones, question the liberal assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers. Much like Meursault’s tender indifference in Camus’ Outsider, or Antoine’s mood disorders in Sartre’s Nausea, the post-religious person is beset by existential angst, despair and loneliness born from wrongly believing that life is bereft of meaning; we are all here by a series of huge cosmic flukes; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end, thus life is pointless. Du Pasquier wrote: ‘Proclaimed as absurd, life on earth has effectively lost its meaning. Man is offered a multitude of material possibilities and advantages undreamt of by earlier generations, but since we’re now ignorant of what man is, and of what his deep aspirations might be, not one of these miracles can prevent him from foundering in his own despair.’14 Knowing the psychology and philosophies that have created such a profane age, and have so damaged the human perception, is of paramount importance. For: ‘The greatness of a prophet, as opposed to a mere logician, is that he understands the inner life of his adversaries, and constructs arguments that help them to recognise the nature of their own subjectivity.’15
20 – About the truth-seeking aim, Ibn Taymiyyah clarified the following: ‘As for those who lived after the age of Jesus, and only some of his accounts reached them; or Moses, with only certain aspects of his story reaching them, then the proof is established upon them only insofar as what has reached them of their [respective] messages. If they differed in interpretations of the Gospel or Torah, whosoever among them intended to seek the truth and diligently pursued it, isn’t subject to divine punishment; even if he erred in the truth, was ignorant of it, or misguided about it.’16 Thus what counts is qasd al-haqq; intending to seek the truth, even if one unwittingly misses the actual truth. Such is the vastness of the divine plenitude and compassion.
21 – As for the British Muslims feeling of belonging, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad noted: ‘Yet the exact temper, and the doctrinal and fiqh framing, of this Muslim wish to integrate in Britain … has not been properly theologised … This empirical Muslim wisdom urgently requires a clearer scriptural and conceptual exposition than the community currently receives from academics, Islamist leaderships, or the race temples. There is a discourse of ‘minority fiqh’, mostly of very feeble intellectual rigour, but we miss its underpinnings in a theology, or, as it were, a ‘minority fikr’, something particularly needed in the context of a post-monotheistic society.’17 By ‘race temples’, he means those UK mosques that function as ‘enclosures for single ethnicities’ whose ‘mono-ethnic and introspective leaderships are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos. Such communities did not come to Europe to converse but to work.’18
22 – Let’s begin to wrap-up with what may be obvious: In Britain, how should our da‘wah to God proceed? Of course, every individual and every situation will be different. But the common precepts of the da‘wah should focus on the falaki, cosmic arguments that appeal to the deepest, most shared human intuition which knows that differentiated entities and mutable things must be originated. That is to say, whatever comes into existence, after not existing, must have a cause for its existence. The Qur’an says: Among His [wondrous] signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Bow not down to the sun or the moon, but bow before God Who created them, if you would worship Him. [Q.41:37] When damaged hearts are invited to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing; when helped to step back from the conditions of modern life so as to see that Man, in his state of nihilism, is distracted, dispersed and unfulfilled, and fails to find true inner peace that comes from fulfilling in this world the higher purpose for which he was created; and when softened by the evidence of Muslim good manners, integrity and forgiveness, such antagonists of faith ‘will give heed to these signs, will make the right choices, and will restore the memory of God to their hearts.’19
23 – So to conclude our excursion across Britain’s da‘wah landscape, and recalling Rumi’s words: ‘While the intellect still seeks a saddle for the hajj, love has already encircled the Ka‘bah,‘ this seems a good place to end: ‘The fiqh may struggle at first to create a complete system of engagement with an atheistic culture, but mahabba is operative already. And mahabba, together with a mature and sociologically-informed adaption of local ‘urf …, and an awareness of the Prophetic indispensability of a da‘wah orientation, must create a juridical culture that moves beyond the simple concession-based logic of ‘minority fiqh’, to generate a fully-authentic Islamic rule-making system which will allow us a style of life faithful to revelation and also viable as a mode of rich conviviality with a sad and stressed culture which enjoys an abundance of everything except the indispensable.’20
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. A. H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contention (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), no.43; p.75.
2. Al-Risalat al-Qushayriyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2017), 476.
3. Cited in Abu Nu‘aym al-Asbahani, Hilyat al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 7:5.
4. Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2020), 61.
5. Muslim, no.1732.
6. Muslim, no.2593.
7. See: Ibn Sumayt al-Husayni, al-Manhaj al-Sawi (Yemen: Dar al-‘Ilm wa’l-Da‘wah, 2005), 312.
8. Al-Bukhari, no.2262.
9. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 6:25.
Q. As Muslims, what should our stance be on racism or racial discrimination, and should we be supporting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? And isn’t all of this support for BLM privileging justice for black people over others, especially when we Muslims realise the increasing Islamophobia and injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters around the globe?
A. At the outset, let me be clear about how I intend to engage these concerns. And that is by rooting them in mainstream teachings of Islam so as to address the issue of racism in a manner that might be meaningful in a British context, and recognised as being Islamic in a Muslim one. I have divided the response into five parts: [i] Islam & racism; [ii] modernity & racism; [iii] Britain & racism; [iv] Muslims & racism; and [v] BLM & racism.
I. ISLAM & RACISM
Although the following verse is not speaking of the modern social construct of racism per se, it is speaking to the pre-modern concept of groupings of people related by significant common descent; in terms of location, language, history and culture. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an: O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and then made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most pious. God is indeed Knowing, Aware. [Q.49:13]
The Prophet ﷺ brought skin colour into the mix in these words: ‘O mankind! Indeed your Lord is one, and indeed your father is one. Truly, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor white (ahmar, lit. ‘red’ or ‘reddish’) over black, nor black over white – except by piety. Have I not conveyed [the message]?’1
In fact, the Qur’an doesn’t only negatively condemn such discrimination, but it positively and actively celebrates diversity too: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and your colours. In this are signs for people of knowledge. [Q.30:22]
The above verses and prophetic statement, then, were a total restructuring of the moral or ethical landscape prevalent throughout Arabia at the time. True worth would no longer be determined by skin colour, lineage, or even by grandiose shows of courage or generosity. Rather, true worth would be measured by taqwa – ‘piety,’ ‘godliness’ and ‘mindfulness’ of God’s commands and prohibitions.
Once, when one of the Prophet’s wives hurled a racial slur (or ethnoreligious insult, as we might say today) at another co-wife in a state of annoyance, disparagingly called her ‘the daughter of a Jew’, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, your [fore]father [Moses] was a Prophet; your [great] uncle [Aaron] was a Prophet; and you are married to a Prophet. What can she boast to you about?’2 Again, when one companion insulted another person, by insulting his mother because she was a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ said to him: ‘You still have some pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah) in you.’3 Thus no Muslim has even the slightest right to resurrect the vile attitude of racism; xenophobia; tribal bigotry; or insulting people due to them being seen as the ‘Other’, when the Prophet ﷺ radically eliminated such attitudes from the believer’s worldview and relationships. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘There isn’t a single verse in God’s Book that praises someone or censures someone due to just their lineage. Instead, praise is due to faith and piety, while blame is because of disbelief, immorality or disobedience.’4
II. MODERNITY & RACISM
In the 1830s, Samuel Morton, an American craniologist, amassed and studied hundreds of human skulls so as to measure differences in brain size between people from various ethnic backgrounds. Morton believed he had used science to prove that white people were intellectually superior to other ‘races’. In his Crania Americana, Morton declared that not only did white people have larger brains and thus were intellectually superior to all other races, but also that black people had the smallest brains sizes and were hence inferior to all others. Morton and others used this conclusion as a ‘scientific’ justification to continue slavery in the United States and negatively stereotype black people. Many hold Morton to be the founding father of scientific racism. It’s here that, based upon this pseudo-science and on certain superficial differences in physiological traits, the categorisation of people into distinct ‘races’ begins in earnest. And while the institutional racism, racial prejudice, and white supremacy that was to follow were directed at all races in Morton’s descending hierarchy, providing adequate grounds to treat other races differently, in terms of rights and privileges, it would be black people (at the supposed bottom of the heap) that would bear the greatest and most sustained brunt of it.
Of course, modern science has long since shown that brain size isn’t necessarily related to intelligence. Instead, brain size is tied to things like environment, climate and body size, while intelligence is more related to how many neurons, or how efficient the connections between neurons, are in the brain. Indeed, modern science has also largely debunked the biological basis of race, showing that there is as much genetic diversity within such racial groups as there is between them. Science now regards race as a conventional attribution; a social construct, but not a scientifically rooted or valid classification. And while today we tend to favour the term ethnicity over the arbitrary construct of ‘race’ based upon skin colour and physiognomy, race remains, for some, a focus of individual and group identity, particularly members of socially disadvantaged groups, like blacks, where it oftentimes is a source of pride and joy. All this has led many anthropologists to argue that since there is no scientific basis for race, we should just chuck the whole idea in the bin. Others say that if we’re going to continue to insist on the social fiction of racial differences, let it be based on ethical considerations that enhance justice, fairness and familiarity between peoples, not hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. In fact, this latter way of looking at ethnic or racial divides is probably more in keeping with what Islam wants for humanity. After all, God made of us nations and tribes lita‘arafu – ‘that you might know one another.’
The above, then, amidst the activities of European empires and colonialism is where such modern ideas of racial discrimination and racism were birthed; ideas and realities which still reverberate frustratingly down to these present times. Just how many ordinary white Britons internalised the racist pseudo-science over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, not because they were particularly bad or evil people, but because they believed the ‘science’, is anyone’s guess. Add to that the usual xenophobia that often exists against the outsider, the modern feats and achievements of white Western Europe which feed into the idea of white exceptionalism or supremacy, and the political utility of whipping up blame against immigrants in times of national difficulty and economic downturn, make for well-entrenched myths and discrimination against people of colour.
III. BRITAIN & RACISM
Although the history of the United States is drenched in racism; with the issue of race still being the most painful, divisive one for its citizens, it is racism in Britain – my home, and where I was born and raised – that I’d like to confine my remarks and anecdotes to. And in Britain, just as in America, while peoples of diverse ethnic minorities have undeniably been, and continue to be, victims of racism, it is discrimination against black people that is by far the more endemic and systemic.
The recent anti-racist protests that are taking place across the country aren’t just to show anger about the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of yet another American police officer. They are also protests against the systemic racism here in Britain too. Long before racism against blacks, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, Jews as a people, and also the Irish, suffered racism in Britain. Jewish people still do; and we Muslims are fast becoming the new Jews (or even the new Blacks).
Whilst structural or institutional racism is difficult to conclusively prove, the lived reality of people of colour, as well as statistics after statistics, or report after report, all point to similar conclusions: Britain has a race problem. It doesn’t just have a problem with casual racism (now called micro aggression; as experienced in schools, jobs or everyday life), or racism born from unconscious bias (snap decisions conditioned by cultural upbringing or personal experience); it has a problem of systemic racism too – racial discrimination and negative stereotyping within many of its key institutions: the police force and the criminal justice system deemed to be among the main culprits.
It is, of course, argued that although Britain does indeed have individual racists, and that acts of racism do tragically still occur here, but Britain itself; even if it may have been in the recent past, isn’t institutionally racist anymore. We have the Equalities Act of 2010, as one of the clearest proofs against any institutional racism.
Or the case has been put that, ever since the Macpherson Report of 1999, which came as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and the two words in it that stood out from the rest of the 350 page report, that London’s Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ – Britain’s police forces have internalised the criticism and have come on leaps and bounds since then: individually and institutionally. So to describe Britain’s police forces as still being systemically racist is unjust and unfair; or so the argument goes.
Be that as it may; and while many positive changes of both mind and structure have been sincerely made, the stark, present-day statistics tell us another story. Modern Britain is a place where black people, in contrast to white ones are: 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 4 time more likely to be arrested; twice as likely to be temporarily excluded from school; and 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded from school; and twice as likely to die in police custody. From any unbiased standard, does this look anywhere like equality? And just as importantly, are we saying that institutional racism is totally absent from these numbers?5
For most of my life, I’ve lived on one council estate or another in East London. In my pre-teen years, I grew up on an estate in Chingford, where most of the people were white, with a few Afro-Caribbean families and a couple of Asian ones: my family being one of them. I, like many other non-whites of my generation, encountered my share of racist abuse; and for a short time, a little racist bullying too. On the whole, I got along with most kids on the estate and at its primary school, regardless of colour; and they got along with me.
For my entire teen years, I lived on another estate in Leytonstone, where this time most of the residents were black. It was the mid 1970s, and it was a time when many young black people were, I wouldn’t say suffering an identity crisis, but more that they were searching for an identity. For unlike their parents, they were neither Jamaican, Bajan [Barbadian], or Trinidadian, nor did they feel (or were made to feel) totally British. Instead, young black Britons were turning to their Blackness to make sense of their place in Britain, developing a sense of collective cultural identity in the process. I felt a greater affinity to that culture, than I did any other. Voices like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru spoke to our plight and our aspirations. But whilst their conscious lyrics of roots reggae was coming out of Jamaica, it was home-grown, British reggae artists that would tell our own specifically British story: artists like Steel Pulse, Black Roots, Mikey Dread or, particularly for me, Aswad (or early Aswad, from ’76-’82). Aswad sang of African Children (which I’d swap in my mind for ‘immigrant’ children) ‘living in a concrete situation;’ in ‘precast stone walls, concrete cubicles. Their rent increasing each and every other day; Structural repairs are assessed and yet not done; Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor; And when they work, they smell.’ All of us youths crammed into the estate’s small youth centre, smiled, nodded away approvingly, and perfectly identified with the message when we first heard such conscious lyrics booming out at us. Whilst Marley spoke of the daily ghetto struggles of growing up in the concrete jungle of Kingston 12; Trenchtown, for me, Aswad spoke of parallel struggles growing up in the concrete situation of Leytonstone E11. We all a feel it, yes we a feel it!
Back to racism. My one little anecdotal proof of black victimisation from the police comes from the time when I was living on Leytonstone’s Cathall Road Estate. Police raids were a fairly usual occurrence on our estate as well as in the youth centre; sometimes with actual justification. In the youth centre, the police (usually with their police dogs), would stomp in; turn off the music; stamp out any spliff that was lit up; and then we’d all be told to line up against the wall with our hands behind our heads. Every time this happened, without exception, when it came to searching me, they never did. They’d simply insist that I leave the centre, or go home, which I would. I’d then usually come back half an hour or an hour later, and resume playing pool, table-tennis or bar football; or just soak up the vibes (not the spliff). Once, after a raid had happened, I came back to the centre, only for one of my close Rasta friends to advise me that it would be best if I stay home for a few days. I asked why? He told me that some people who hang out at the centre, but who don’t really know me, nor live on the actual estate, are saying that it’s odd that I never get searched and that maybe I was a grass. It would be an understatement if I said that I was scared stiff. I took the advice, and stayed away from the centre for a week, till I got the nod that things were all okay. A month or so later, and yet another raid. But this time, for me it was a Godsend: they actually searched me! I felt relieved, vindicated, and took it as a badge of honour. My point being is that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, there were countless times when I saw specifically black people stigmatised and victimised by the police.
To be honest, by the mid 1980s, with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism doing their thing against the far-right National Front; with Reggae and Two-Tone Ska bands and gigs more and more mixing blacks and whites; and with attitudes of the young positively changing, I thought (perhaps naively) that racism in Britain would liklely be a thing of the past by the mid ’90s. Optimism, of course, is entirely healthy, as long as it doesn’t become blind to realism.
IV. MUSLIMS & RACISM
Here I’d like to speak about something that some Muslims will find uncomfortable: which is that we Muslims need to admit the anti-black racism that infects our own communities. Sadly, racism against black people – including fellow black Muslims – is all too common among British Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. Whether it is being stared at by elderly Asians in the mosque and so made to feel self-conscious, to the way we of South Asian descent use the word kala, ‘black’, in a derogatory way; or whether it’s about marriage, or thinking all black Muslims must be converts and then dishing out patronising praise to them over basic acts like making wudhu – this un-Islamic nonsense; this jahiliyyah, simply has to stop.
We must speak to our elders about their anti-black racism. We need to respectfully discuss why so many of our mosques continue to make black Muslims feel unwelcome, or drive them away, and what can be done about it? Yet while our masjids are undeniably masjids; ‘Most mosques function as “race temples” created as enclosures for single ethnicities, and their mono-ethnic and introspective leadership are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos.’6 Such ‘race temples’ are where Ethnic Islam rules the roost, even at the cost of shari‘ah race equality, sirah hospitality, or sunnah unity.
But racism isn’t just an issue with South Asian elders. It lurks in the hearts and minds of my generation too; and maybe that of my children’s? It’s less the stares or the ignorance about Black achievements, and more the negative stereotyping; post-colonial complexes; desperation to whiten-up; or outright racism when it comes to marriage. Here as an Asian Muslim parent, I’m happy for my daughter or son to marry – religiously speaking – some adamant fasiq or fasiqah – especially if they are of a lighter complexion: but I could never accept them marring a godly, well-mannered, responsible Black person! But we convince ourselves we are not racist: after all, I love the sahabi, Bilal. I weep when I read Bilal’s life story. My good friend, Bilal, is black. But the proof is in the pudding, and the truth is that we need to move beyond tokenism; beyond Bilal.
Those Muslims who make an issue of colour; whose racist or tribal mindsets lead them to look down upon a person of darker colour or treat them unequally, let them consider the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, and fourth Caliph, sayyiduna ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The classical biographers all state: kana ‘ali adam, shadid al-udmah – ‘Ali was black, jet black.7 Or take our master ‘Umar who is also described in the same terms.8 The colour, adam may refer to skin complexion which is dark brown, like a native American; or darker still, like in native Australian aborigines; or jet black, like many Africans. When the phrase, shadid al-udmah is added, ‘extremely dark’, then there’s no mistaking what is meant: a person who, for all intents and purposes, is black. Such a description seems quite usual for the Arabs among the sahabah. Black skin is also the colour of the lady with whom the whole Muhammadan saga begins: our lady Hagar (Hajarah); she was a black Egyptian. Or consider the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Our Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘As for Moses, he was tall and dark brown, as like the men of al-Zutt.’9 The Zutt were a well-known tribe of tall dark men from the Sudan.10 After knowing the above, if we are still going to look down at people merely due to their darker complexion, then what ghustakh; what mockery and disrespect will we be possibly drowning in?
Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.
So let’s have the conversations. Let’s have some serious introspection. Let’s listen to what Black Muslims have to say. Let’s desire to be healers, not dividers. Let’s educate ourselves about the reality of Black lives in general, and Black Muslim lives in particular. Olusoga’s Black & British and Akala’s Natives are good places to start. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering is, with its theological insights, a must read. Above all, let’s work towards not just being non-racist, but anti-racist.
Change, thankfully, is in the air. For urban, millennial Muslims, and those of a generation younger still, these older ethnic divides are more and more of an irrelevance in their lives (though I’m not sure how much this applies to those raised in ethnic silos in Britain’s less urbanised cities). Such millennials have heard the stories of the intra-ethnic fighting; the anti-black racism; the token hospitality to black Muslims, but without ever giving them a voice; and the fruitless attempts to make the ‘race temples’ more inclusive, and how after decades, it’s a case of banging heads and brick walls. So owing to this, they are seeking to create more inclusive, culturally more meaningful spaces; away from all this toxic, ethnic Islam. Surely that’s where the rest of us should be heading too?
V. BLM & RACISM
The Qur’an says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2] Between this verse and the hilf al-fudul pact the Prophet ﷺ upheld and endorsed even after prophethood, we have a solid religious basis for supporting any individual or group working for issues of social justice: be it for Muslims or non-Muslims; be it led by Muslims or non-Muslims.
The Black Lives Matter movement has proven itself to be a powerful and effective vehicle over the past five years to demand reform in terms of anti-Black racism; with their current focus on justice for George Floyd and his family. Thus, how can Muslims not support it? Of course, we cannot give any organisation carte blanche support. Religiously, we Muslims cannot give unconditional support to anybody save to God and His Prophet ﷺ. Given that BLM has a few stated aims that are inconsistent with Islam’s theology (‘freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’ is one of them, for instance), our activism must be guided by sacred knowledge and illumined by revealed guidance. Our intention is not supporting BLM, as such. Instead, it’s a case of making a stand against injustice, in this case anti-Black racism: supporting those individuals or organisations that are likely to be the most effective in achieving this goal. (It should go without saying, that we can work for justice for more than one cause or more than one set of people at the same time). And this is what the above verse and the hilf al-fudul pact have in mind. And just like the BLM describes itself as ‘unapologetically Black’, perhaps some of us need to be a tad more unapologetically Muslim?
But let’s take our focus off such theological nuances for now, and tie a ribbon around the whole thing and say: Let us, at least in spirit and in principle, if not in body, fully support Black Lives Matter as a cause, more than as a movement, in seeking to resolve structural racism; get justice done for all the George Floyds and all the Stephen Lawrences; and to get people to reflect on their own attitudes to racism and the racial ‘Other’ – ensuring our knee isn’t on the necks of others. We should support the overall goals of any grassroots movement that is working for a fairer, more just and tolerant Britain for everyone: black or white. Of course, for that to happen, from a Black Muslim perspective, anti-Black racism as well as an ever-growing Islamophobia must be tackled. Currently in Britain, God forbid that you are ostensibly a Muslim and Black!
Racism affects all people of colour. But when it comes to black people, they face a unique anti-black prejudice as the ultimate Other, propagated both by white majorities and even other ethnic minorities. As a marginalised community South Asians, no doubt, have their own prejudices thrown their way. But they are not the same lived experiences as that of Black people. And while it can be easy to lump everyone together and perceive ourselves as having a shared trauma, statistics show that this equivalence is not really true.
In closing, I’d like to thank my youngest daughter, Atiyyah, for inspiring me to revisit and renew my ideas on anti-black racism; and my friend, Dr Abdul Haqq Baker for prompting me to write this piece, offering invaluable suggestions, and then reviewing it for me.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22978. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be sahih in Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Dar Ishbiliyah, 1998), 1:412.
2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3894, where he declared the hadith to be hasan sahih.
3. Al-Bukhari, nos.2545; 6050.
4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:230.