Discrimination against some groups of people on the grounds of skin color, race or ethnicity, or any other physical or cultural determinant has been practiced from time immemorial throughout all human history and is still practiced in various forms in modern life. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, discrimination is the “intended or accomplished differential treatment of persons or social groups for reasons of certain generalized traits” (Britannica). The targets of discrimination are often minorities, but they may also be majorities, such as black people were under apartheid in South Africa. For the most part, discrimination results in some form of harm or disadvantage to the targeted person(s) or group(s). “At root, racism is ‘an ideology of racial domination’ in which the presumed biological or cultural superiority of one or more racial groups is used to justify or prescribe the inferior treatment or social position(s) of other racial groups. Through the process of racialization, perceived patterns of physical difference – such as skin color or eye shape – are used to differentiate groups of people, thereby constituting them as ‘races’; racialization becomes racism when it involves the hierarchical and socially consequential valuation of racial groups” (Sociology of Racism, Matthew Clair, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, Jeffrey S Denis, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada).
Racial discrimination might have been adopted in ancient times as part of dogmas that formed the essential perspective through which we see the world from and interpret it. These dogmas were thought to be essential to preserve the unity of the membership of a group, in a world in which people appeared to lack adequate reasons of communication outside of their zone of blood relation and tribe membership. Over time humans would gain a considerable understanding of their need to choose a more realistic determinant of differentiation that would not corrupt the concept of the unity of humankind irrespective of their individual, tribal, or group membership.
Nevertheless, racial discrimination is as mentioned above, is still practiced individually and institutionally all over the world. If we take some events in the near past that shaped our present time, that may help us understand the way humans consciously or unconsciously became involved in the game of classification as a means for differentiation. By thoroughly examining them, we might discover and learn how deep the ignorance of ourselves is and how much understanding of our common fate we still need to obtain.
The scope of acts considered racially discriminative is vast. Interestingly, we are not talking about events that took place in the Middle Ages or in the Iron Age, the Bronze Age or the Copper Age; we are talking about events that have so recently occurred that they still have their immediate effects on the present era of human history. Even now there remains a plethora of individual acts and institutional practices that betray the existence of such racist concepts and ideas in the minds of a great number of people.
What is the attitude of Islam towards the ideas of racial discrimination among humans according to certain standards? Can we argue that Islam has no trace of such discriminatory ideas?
Initially, we should be very clear as to what we mean when we state that Islam contains this or that idea. For Islam as a concept might take several forms according to the context in which one chooses to examine beliefs or ideas thought to belong to it, or if one seeks to know the attitude of Islam towards them. For instance, should Islam as a religion be comprehended through its primary texts such as the Quran and Prophetic narrations, or does one mean that Islam should be interpreted and understood via contemporary forms that profess to be the sole representatives of authentic Islam?
To avoid getting involved into a discussion that would perhaps distract us from our subject, we will instead seek to find an answer to our question from the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, which is the ultimate and generally accepted source of reference.
Let us take the following verse from the Quran and see what evidence we can extract from them that may help us answer our question.
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (Al-Hujurat-verse 13).
Let us read what one of the eminent exegetes, Muhammad al-Ṭāhir ibnʿĀshūr, 1879-1973, who was one of the most renowned modern-era graduates of the University of Ez-Zitouna and one of the great Islamic scholars of the 20th century, says in his renowned voluminous commentary “Al-Tahreer wa Al-Tanweer” on the above verse:
“When God commanded believers to be brothers and ordered them to reconcile between warring groups and forbade them from any deed or expression that might cause the disruption of the ties of brotherhood and disturb the quietude of faith inside their souls, whether of derision, calling abusive nicknames, bad supposition, spying, or backbiting, He—exalted be He—reminded them of the origin of brotherhood in blood relations, which the brotherhood of Islam and the unity of belief made stronger. So that such reminding might aid them in gaining insight into their circumstances. And as derision, aspersion, and calling abusive nicknames might result from competition between individuals and tribes, God combined all of this in this wise advice. An advice that indicated that they had adopted a blessing but employed it in its worst implication and neglected the good goals that it had been intended to serve. He emphasized this by directing attention to the intended goal: ‘that you may know each other.’ Then He followed it with His saying: ‘the most honorable of you, in the sight of God, are the most pious of you’. The predicate in His saying ‘We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female,’ is metaphorically used to express the equality in the origin of human-kind. This is to expand therefrom His teaching that the acquisition of merits and steadfastness of virtue raises some people in rank above others.
The meaning intended is the statement ‘the most honorable of you, in the sight of God, are the most pious of you”, which stands with the verse from the Quran, ‘We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female.’
In the same vein, the verse is what the Messenger of God sermonized when he said: ‘O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness. Have I not delivered the message?’ (Musnad Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal)
In the same pattern of style and indication of the verse is the Prophet’s saying narrated by Al-Tirmidhi, ‘God has taken away from you the pre-Islamic haughtiness and the boasting of people about their forefathers. People are either pious believers or mischievous people that perpetrate sin; you are the sons of Adam, and Adam was created from earth.’
The statement ‘The most honorable of you in the sight of God, are the most pious of you,’ in its meaning should precede the following statement: ‘O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other,’ but it has been made, however, to come later in writing. This preceding sentence is a prelude for the latter. For though they are equal in the origin of creation from one father and one mother, virtue is the deciding component. God has made piety the goal to acquire.
It should be known that the verse does not preclude the fact that people have other virtues that come other than piety. Virtues that might be beneficial in the purification of the soul such as a good education, purity of descent, the deep-rootedness of culture and civilization, good reputation, and the like.”
(O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other.)
(‘You are the sons of Adam, and Adam was created from earth’)
The above verse and Prophetic narration, along with many other verses and narrations all stress the reality of the equality of all humans in rights. And directly or indirectly totally reject the standard for differentiation between humans in regards to deservingness of rights and privileges based on biological differences or social factors derived from biased interpretations of such biological differences.
We can see the similarity between the meaning of the verse and the content of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It is important to take into account the interval of time between the revelation of the Quran, which took place about from 610 to 632 AD and the Declaration which dates back to December 10th, 1948.
Let us examine the following passage which describes the discriminatory beliefs and practices adopted against people with dark skin, mainly of African origin whose forefathers were kidnapped or sold and transported to America to be inhumanely forced into slavery. By doing so we might be able to form a clear conception about the deservingness of every human being, irrespective of any physical or cultural difference, of equal treatment and equal access to resources and wealth, which Islam by virtue of the text of the Quran, stresses. Centuries later, the UDHR and most recent constitutions have stated in this regard that all natural resources deposited in the depth or on the surface of earth and lying ready for extraction for employment in industry or other ways of exploitation were created and made by God for the interest of all humans. We may refer to science to gain some insight in the probable reasons of discrimination.
We would like to call attention to the fact that there is no discrepancy between what true unbiased scientific research (that is not orientated by any special ideology such as that of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), finds out and what Islam in its pure sources of reference states about this issue and several other controversial issues.
“Social-psychological explanations of discrimination based on social identity theory presume that humans rely on the groups they belong to for a part of their identity. Belonging to a group that is more prestigious and powerful than others boosts one’s sense of self-esteem. Discrimination that entails debasing and impairing out-group members or denying them access to resources and wealth, serves the purpose of strengthening the relative position of one’s in-group and also indirectly boosts individual self-esteem. Empirical studies confirm that persons with a low sense of social recognition display more out-group devaluation and group-focused enmity based on an ideology of human inequality. Negative attitudes toward different out-groups (ethnic and religious minorities, women, and people who are disabled or homeless) are strongly correlated with each other, indicating the unspecific nature of discrimination” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online).
Although the scope of the connotations of some statements and definitions in the above passage is wide, we will try to restrict ourselves to what may be of use in our analysis. As referred to above, Islam accepts only one standard of differentiation between humans. In a Prophetic narration, a statement was made that God, the Creator of everything animate and inanimate in the universe, and the Creator of time and space, does not look save at the heart (in the sense of that part of human essence that makes man eligible to be the recipient of divine revelation and that makes him or her capable to discern the rightness of deeds and intent from the wrongness thereof). The Almighty does not look at external appearance or form. We can say that enhancing the sense of social recognition is what God instructs humans to do when He says: “that you may know each other”, because getting nearer to another human (though different in many respects) without associating unreasonable preconceived judgments or convictions, precludes (or at least narrows down) the probabilities of the domination and threat that may come from or with the other. In ancient times, there have been several forms of prejudice against the other, not the least of which was prejudice against lepers and those with disfiguring diseases or mental disease, who were considered to be tainted and unclean and thus subject to segregation. Such forms and practices were recorded in the Holy Book. Therefore, segregation helped to isolate the probable threat of the tainted, and in a sense displaced him or her outside the group. The black community was and still is unreasonably, and perhaps sometimes in a systematic way conceived and stigmatized as inferior and thus subject to segregation and sub-human treatment.
Therefore, we can notice that there is no contradiction between the findings of unbiased science and the revelation of God. However, we cannot help but to ask as to where these misunderstandings stem from. One thought is that they perhaps come from biased interpretation. Therefore, in order to rectify this situation, a wholesome understanding of God’s words is needed.