Racism and ethnocentrism are closely linked to the sense of superiority that lies within every human being. This issue has a long history - as long as human life, and is still an ongoing behavior that causes serious problems among human beings.
Racism is an important issue that Islam has considered; the issue whose history dates back to nations existed long before the birth of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP). This unequal treatment was so weaved into people’s lives which they didn’t even realized its vile nature. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP), also, lived in a society where racism was very common. The situation became even harder when people started to follow the religion of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP). That was when racism out of tribal prejudice was extended to segregation based on religion, and many people who followed Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) were driven from their homes or hometowns.
The specific conditions of the era in which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) lived, as well as the deep roots of this wrong attitude in the history of humankind, were the main reasons why Allah (SWT) makes many recommendations about racism in the Quran. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH&HP), also, worked really hard to clear the minds of people from tribal, religious, and any other types of racism.
During the Arab ignorance, privileges such as lineage, race, wealth, number of children, and affiliation with a powerful tribe were considered the criteria of superiority over others. The verses of the Quran indicate that the number of children and folks were so important to them that in some arguments they even went to a cemetery and started to count the number of their dead ones:
“Rivalry [and vainglory] distracted you until you visited [even] the graves.” (102: 1-2)
It should have been hard for people of that mindset to accept that their lineage, children, tribe and wealth is of no importance in the eyes of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP). According to an account, he said, “All the people, from the past or at present, are as equal as a comb’s teeth; therefore neither Arabs are superior to non-Arabs, nor white people to blacks. You are only distinguished by your piety and righteousness” .
However, although the Quran was revealed in such an environment that was limited in various ways and had a limited connection with the world outside the island, and the issue of ethnicity, race, and tribal life prevailed in all its aspects, it did not take on such a color at all. Allah addresses people in the Quran using the following phrases: "O children of Adam," "O people," "O you who believe," or "O you who have faith." The Quran removed racial privileges in that racist environment, and with the beautiful logic of "you are all children of man and were created from one parent," Allah declared them all brothers and sisters belonging to the same family:
“O mankind! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and made you nations and tribes that you may identify yourselves with one another. Indeed the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most God wary among you. Indeed Allah is all-knowing, all aware.” (49:13)
As the verse above implies, One’s character and status are only measured by the level of submission to Allah and following His commands, not social or financial conditions.
Apart from racism based on lineage, race, wealth, etc. people before and at the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) believed that religious beliefs gave them superiority over others.
Based on that belief, people of different faiths were always conflicting with each other, instead of having sound arguments about different issues. Therefore, religious discriminations had been severely condemned by Islam, emphasizing that belonging to the followers of religion does not make people good or bad. But, it is their actions and their level of obedience toward Allah that give them superiority:
“The Jews say, ‘The Christians stand on nothing,’ and the Christians say, ‘The Jews stand on nothing,’ though they follow the [same] Book. So said those who had no knowledge, [words] similar to what they say. Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that about which they used to differ.” (2: 113)
The issue of fairness and justice among human beings is so important in Islam that the Quran has taken care of all different aspects in which people may act unjustly toward each other. Apart from racial issues that have been ongoing for ages, the issue of undermining and suppressing women in different domestic and social aspects, and depriving them of their rights had been a challenging issue in most parts of the world.
The Quran condemns this segregation and states that men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah:
“Whoever acts righteously, [whether] male or female, should he be faithful, We shall revive him with a good life and pay them their reward by the best of what they used to do.” (16:97)
Also, the necessity of observing women’s rights had been emphasized in many narrations from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) and his progeny. Imam Ali (AS), says in an account, “Women are Allah’s trusts upon you, do not hurt them, and do not put pressure on them” . Therefore, men should be careful with their manners in treating women whether in family or in society.
To conclude, the only thing that gives superiority to people is their piety and faith. Looking at the issue like this makes people closer to each other and all differences in color, race, ethnicity, shape, wealth, etc. create no distance between people. People gather around based on their spiritual interests and try not to judge each other, since the only one who is aware of the most faithful is Allah (SWT):
“… And be wary of Allah. Indeed Allah knows best what is in the hearts.” (5: 7).
- Al-Shaykh Al-Mufid, Al-Ikhtisas, p.341.
- Muhaddith Nuri ,Mustadrak al-Wasail, vol.2, p.551.
Hagar, who left behind a sainted child that later became the forefather of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP), is the symbol of a devoted and obedient woman to God. Although her name is not directly mentioned in the Quran, in many Islamic quotes (hadiths) she is known as an example of faith in Allah that makes her a role model for every Muslim.
Being barren, Sarah the prophet Abraham(AS)’s wife, told him to marry her housemaid, Hagar, as a second wife. After Hagar gave birth to a blessed child, Ishmael (AS), Allah ordered Abraham (AS) to emigrate from Egypt to Mecca with Hagar and infant Ishmael (AS).
With the guidance of Gabriel, they stopped to camp at a bleak, isolated place with a limited supply of food and water. That was the land on which the Kaaba was later built. Soon after this, Abraham (AS) received another command from Allah to leave his beloved wife and child behind in that harsh condition.
Abraham (AS) submitted to the command of Allah and patiently tolerated this separation while praying for them: “Our Lord! I have settled part of my descendants in a barren valley, by Your Sacred House, our Lord, that they may maintain the prayer. So make the hearts of a part of the people fond of them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks” (14:37).
At that time some people would come to Mecca to pray, but no one inhabited there because of the unbearable living conditions. Believing in divine predestination and knowing that God had not forgotten them, Hagar endured the hard conditions until she ran out of food and water.
Seeing her child dying of thirst, she ran to the top of Mount Safa hoping to find some water, but she found nothing. So she continued her search and ran to Mount Marwa instead, again in the hope to find some water. She continued and ran seven times between these two mounts, Safa and Marwa, with faith in divine mercy.
She had such trust in her God that she did not give up searching for water even for a moment. Then, she noticed water bubbling up from somewhere under Ishmael (AS)’s feet. Hagar’s patience and sincere efforts were paid; they survived.
Later on, the place where the water came to the surface was named Zamzam Spring. This act of Hagar became a big sign (called sa’i) for billions of Muslims through the ages, especially during Hajj, reminding them of the pure struggles of a faithful woman and the subsequent Divine Favour . Hagar showed a deep sincerity to God by attesting with certainty that Allah had not abandoned her and her child.
After Zamzam water sprang out from the Earth, a tribe who lived in the vicinity of Mecca realized and came to settle there. Abraham (AS)’s prayer was responded to; Hagar and her son were not alone anymore. He came to visit Hagar and Ishmael (AS) time by time. As he knew the capabilities and merits of Hagar, he entrusted the training and education of Ishmael (AS) to her mother.
Some years later when Ishmael (AS) became 13 , another divine test awaited him and his parents; Allah ordered Abraham (AS) to sacrifice Ishmael (AS): “When he was old enough to assist in his endeavor, he said," My son! I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you. See what you think." He said," Father! Do whatever you have been commanded. If Allah wishes, you will find me to be patient” (37:102).
The full story is mentioned in the chapter (Surah) Al-Saaffat (verses 102-111) in the Quran. Growing up with the religious teachings of her mother, Ishmael (AS) obeyed Allah’s will. But it was no more than a trial for both Ishmael (AS) and Abraham (AS) in which they succeeded: “This was indeed a manifest test, Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, and left for him a good name in posterity” (37: 106-108).
Hagar was buried beside the Holy Kaaba after her demise. Her grave is located in Hijr Ishmael; a crescent-shaped area immediately adjacent to the Kaaba. Every Muslim who performs Hajj is obliged to circumambulate around it; the place where Abraham (AS) had constructed a shelter for Ishmael (AS) and Hagar before he left them in that desert. This is how Allah rewards his sincere obedient believers.
- F. H.Tabarsi, "Majma' al-Bayan", vol. 8, p. 321.
Imam Hussain (AS) is one of the important figures in Islam whose brilliant and lofty character together with his inspiring movement has been praised by many famous characters of the world. In this regard, Mahatma Gandhi said that: “My admiration for the noble sacrifice of Imam Hussein (AS) as a martyr abounds, because he accepted death ..., but did not submit to unjust authorities. I learned from Hussain how to attain victory while being oppressed.” . Antoine Bara, a thinker, scholar, Christian and Syrian who wrote a book titled, “Imam Hussein in Christian ideology,” said that: “I am a Christian but call on humanity to follow the holiness of Imam Hussein as he is the conscience of all religions.” . These quotes and others indicate that Imam Hussain (AS) is not an exclusive role model for Shi’a or Muslims, but belongs to the whole world. One might ask in what ways is Imam Hussain’s (AS) uprising an inspiration for human beings. We try to explain that through the following lines.
Yazid’s reign was corrupted and illegitimate from the beginning. According to the peace treaty made between Imam Hassan (AS) and Mu’awiyah, the latter was forbidden to designate anyone as his successor after his death. But after the martyrdom of Imam Hassan (AS), Mu’awiyah broke the treaty. He appointed his son Yazid as his successor because he thought no one would be courageous enough to object to the decision of caliph. Hence, Yazid became caliph illegally after the death of Mu’awiyah . Besides, according to historical resources, Yazid had a corrupted immoral character. He dared to act against Islamic rulings openly and perform forbidden deeds (Haram) in Islam publicly .
Imam Hussain (AS) was observant and aware of Yazid’s acts and intention. So, he refrained from pledging allegiance to Yazid. Moreover, oppression, tyranny, unjust use of public property, etc. had made life miserable for people . Imam Hussain (AS) believed that Yazid’s manner and governing style was obviously against Islamic teachings and would eventually alter and spoil Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH&PH) Sunnah. Hence, he stood up against Yazid to prove that his reign was illegitimate and to unravel the truth. Therefore, he (AS) said that he would never take the oath of allegiance to Yazid, even if there would be nowhere safe on the earth for him to go . He never intended to take on the leadership and come to power, instead aimed at eliminating injustice and corruption.
One might wonder why Imam Hussain (AS) did not pledge allegiance to Yazid to calm down his hostility so that he would have more time to make plans and find more companions to defeat Yazid. The reason was that Yazid’s behavior and deeds were too far from true Islamic principles and moral values such that Imam (AS) could not ignore them. Moreover, he (AS) did not want to play a trick as it is denounced in Islam.
Imam (AS) had other possibilities to defeat Yazid and take over the leadership, but he (AS) refused to do so. Through his missionary in Kufa, Muslim ibn Aqil, Imam (AS) could kill Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad [i] before the battle of Karbala and before the enemy declared war against them. But, as a man who had stood up for justice, he did not act unfairly. Imam’s (AS) reaction was in the same manner as well; before the battle started when the enemy was fewer in number and easier to defeat, one of his (AS) companions recommended fighting them. He (AS) replied that he would rather defend if a war were imposed on him instead of initiating it. Moreover, when the enemy was impatient to start the battle, he (AS) did his best to prevent it by negotiating and bringing awareness to them by revealing the truth .
These examples demonstrate that Imam (AS) did not want to reign at any price; the same was true for other Infallible Imams (AS). This is of the traits of true divine leaders; unlike oppressive unjust powers. They never take the lead, whatever the cost.
Up to now, we found out about two reasons that make Imam Hussain’s (AS) uprising a worldwide inspiration. Firstly, one should be alert and sensitive to what happens around him\her. Then, to take the right action for the sake of justice and humanity. Secondly, even if one holds a noble intention, it does not mean that he\she is allowed to achieve that by any means; the end does not justify the means.
Imam Hussain’s (AS) movement has other lessons for human beings that we will discuss in the second part of this title.
[i] The governor of Kufa during the reigns of Yazid, who executed Aqil, sent troops to intercept Imam Hussain (AS) when he arrived near Kufa and was one of the leaders of the battle against Imam (AS) in Karbala.