America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white—but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.1
– Malcolm X, “Letter from Mecca”
Much has been written about the transformative power of faith traditions, and history is rife with examples of social justice movements inspired by one religion or another. In modern times, the life and autobiography of Malcolm X, especially his experience in Mecca, not only fomented numerous individual and societal transformations but also popularized the notion that Islam is the religion of choice for overcoming centuries of color-based injustice. Malcolm believed that Christianity and Judaism lacked the revolutionary rigor to reform social institutions. He had negative experiences with white American Christians and he knew the history of their appropriation of the Hamitic curse2 to help justify the enslavement of Africans, and these undoubtedly shaped his views. Judaism’s Jew-gentile binary likely did not appeal to him, either.
For Muslims, Malcolm’s writings affirmed the otherwise fragile idea of a raceless or post-racial ummah (international Muslim community), a myth that raised the profiles of the Arabian and other Muslim-majority societies in the Middle East that he visited. The truth, rooted in a history that challenges the putative colorblindness of Muslim societies, is more complex.
Decades before Malcolm, another iconic twentieth-century reformer arrived at a similar conclusion about Islam: Gandhi felt that Islam, more than Hinduism, had a clear and absolutist vision of human brotherhood. On the contribution of Islam to India, he said,
Islam’s distinctive contribution to India’s national culture is its unadulterated belief in the oneness of God and a practical application of the truth of the brotherhood of man for those who are nominally within its fold. I call these two distinctive contributions. For in Hinduism the spirit of brotherhood has become too much philosophized. Similarly, though philosophical Hinduism has no other god but God, it cannot be denied that practical Hinduism is not so emphatically uncompromising as Islam.3
The words of Gandhi and Malcolm may inspire pride among Muslims today, but in the absence of a critical assessment of the reality of race and racism in Muslim history, such pride can feed a kind of Islamic exceptionalism, or at the very least, produce overly broad statements about a colorblind Muslim history. Still, a measured examination can tell us about Islam’s potential to contribute to solving the vexing problems of racism and of racial supremacism.
The notion of race as a biological fact, rather than as a social construct, complicates modern discussions about race. We understand ideas such as “Whiteness,” “Blackness,” and “Arabness” as distinct empirical categories that represent homogenous genotypes. Although the three Abrahamic religions teach that all human beings are descendants of Adam, and scientific evidence indicates that we all share a common ancestry, many people have imbibed the polygenetic, or multiple-origin, theory of human genesis held by a minority of premodern philosophers, including Voltaire, David Hume, John Atkins, Edward Long, and Christoph Meiners. The theory that holds near consensus in scientific circles today is the single-origin theory, which traces the roots of homo sapiens to eastern Africa.
In the premodern era, race and group membership were determined largely by cultural traits, especially language and shared customs, rather than by skin color.4 For instance, acculturation, or acquiring Arab cultural traits, determined the authentic Arabness of most Arabs living outside the Arabian Peninsula. And while the stereotypical Arab has lighter skin, most original Arabs—at least those of the early Islamic period—had brown skin, according to historians and lexicographers.5 This difference between cultural and biological race types complicates our reading of the past. Without taking into account such distinctions—and the hierarchies present in perceived black and white racial types6—contemporary scholarship on matters of race continues to misdiagnose the underlying causes of racial problems, and is unable to offer effective solutions to resolve it.
Some clarity about the definition of racism can serve us well before we consider its place in Muslim history. The New Oxford American Dictionary offers two definitions for racism: (1) prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior and (2) the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.7 The first definition appeals to critical race theorists8 because it is broad enough to support their claim that racism is systemic and that discrimination against minorities is embedded in economic and political structures. Regarding the second definition, the term ethnocentrism may be more appropriate. Any person—whether from an ethnic minority or majority—is ethnocentric if he or she prefers his or her own perceived race to another’s in areas such as marriage or even close friendship. As such, ethnocentrism is a prerequisite for racial discrimination. Critical race theorists, however, demarcate ethnocentrism from racism: for them, racism must be institutional or systematic. The problem is that such a demarcation conveniently ignores ethnocentric bias when an ethnic minority does not possess political power and does not control political and economic institutions. This can lead to declaring a clearly racist ideology to be nonracist simply because its exponents are not an ethnic majority with political power.
For Muslims immigrants in the West, this sort of thinking contributes to the illusion that they are colorblind, because they are mostly members of various ethnic minorities. Many recent Muslim immigrants to the United States have had little reason to seriously consider minority claims about racial discrimination here, whether individual or institutional.9 Some observers have even described Muslims’ refusal to tackle the specter of racism as “race agnosia.”10 Racially agnostic Muslims may acknowledge the existence of racism, but they often fail to specify its perpetrators and victims. They tend to avoid discussions about race and take comfort in viewing racism as anathema to Islamic orthodoxy, especially in light of teachings that originated with the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ himself, such as his famous statement “There is no superiority of Arabs over non-Arabs nor of non-Arabs over Arabs.”11 Hence, in their view, no Muslim could possibly be racist, and focusing on either structural or individual racism calls into question the sincerity of one’s commitment to Islam.