How did Islam approach the problem of racism?
Racism is one of the severest diseases of human society in this age. Everyone
remembers how black Africans were transported across the oceans, packed in specially
designed ships, thought of and treated exactly like livestock. They were all
made slaves, forced to change their names and religion and language, were never
entitled to hope for true freedom, and were refused the least of human rights.
Because among Western peoples the attitude to non-Westerners has changed very
little in modern times, the political and social condition of the black people
remains, even where they live amid the native Westerners – Americans or Europeans
– as theoretically equal fellow-citizens, that of despised inferiors.
When God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, was raised as a Prophet,
the same kind of racism, under the name of tribalism, was prevalent in Makka.
The Quraysh considered themselves in particular, and Arabs in general, superior
to all the other peoples of the world. God’s Messenger came with the Divine
Message and proclaimed that no Arab is superior over a non-Arab, and no white
is superior over black,24 and superiority is by righteousness and God-fearing
alone (sura al-Hujurat, 49.13). He also declared that even if an Abyssinian
black Muslim were to rule over Muslims, he should be obeyed.25
God’s Messenger eradicated the problem of racial or colour discrimination
so successfully that, for example, ‘Umar once said of Bilal: ‘Bilal is our master,
and was emancipated by our master Abu Bakr.’26 Zayd ibn Haritha was a black
slave. God’s Messenger emancipated him and, before the banning of adoption by
the Qur’an, adopted him. He married him to Zaynab bint Jahsh, one of the noblest
women of the Muslim community. After all these honors he conferred on him, he
also appointed him as a commander over the Muslim army he sent against the Byzantine
Empire and which included the leading figures of the Companions such as Abu
Bakr, ‘Umar and others.27 The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, appointed
Zayd’s son, Usama, to command the army he formed just before his passing away.
During his Caliphate, ‘Umar paid a higher salary to Usama than to his own
son, ‘Abd Allah, who asked why. ‘Umar answered: ‘My son, I do so, because I
know well that God’s Messenger loved Usama’s father more than yours and Usama
himself more than you’.28
Zayd ibn Haritha commanded an army in which the noblest of the Quraysh, like
Ja’far ibn Abu Talib, the cousin of God’s Messenger, and Khalid ibn Walid, the
invincible general of the age, were present. The army commanded by Usama, Zayd’s
son, included leading figures among the Companions such as Khalid, Abu ‘Ubayda,
Talha, Zubayr and others. This established in the hearts and minds that superiority
is not by birth or colour or blood, but by God-fearing and righteousness.
24. I. Hanbal, 5.441.
25. Muslim, “ ‘Imara,” 37.
26. I. Hajar, al-Isaba, 1.165.
27. Muslim, “Fada’il al-Sahaba,” 63.
28. Ibn Sa‘d, 4 :70; Ibn Hajar, 1 :564.