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Blasphemy Before God: 

the Darkness of Racism in Muslim Culture
By Adam Misbah al-Haqq 



Islam is often spoken of as a universal faith that transcends culture and  ethnicity. Imams will often sermonize on how Islam dispelled the darkness of  racism and created a pluralistic and just society. However, beneath this carefully  constructed cosmetic, beneath the layers of rhetoric, the Muslim community  includes just as much bigotry and racism against people of African descent as in  Western society itself.

It is the duty of all conscientious Muslims to speak out against the  hypocrisies and contradictions that exist, especially when the integrity of one’s  religious tradition is at stake. Legions of Muslims attack the contradictions of  Western society with no mind to looking in their own backyard to realize that  it is probably even more disorderly and messy. Needless to say, there are no  sacred cows here; we must be honest and sincere with ourselves about our very  real problems.

The roots of racism supported by religious doctrine in Islam can be found in  a crucial feature of classic Muslim thought and the ideologies which resulted  from it. Slavery in classic Muslim thought maintained that blacks became  legitimate slaves by virtue of the color of their skin.

The justification of the early Muslim equation of blackness with servitude  was found in the Genesis story so popularly called “the curse of Ham,” in  reference to one of Noah’s sons. The biblical version depicts Noah getting drunk  and lying uncovered in his tent. His younger son, Ham, saw his father’s  nakedness and informed his other two brothers Shem and Japheth. These two walked  backwards into their father’s tent, as to not see his nakedness and covered him  with a garment. Noah awoke and upon hearing what had happened he cursed the  descendants of Ham beginning with Ham’s son Canaan to be the slaves of the  descendants of Shem and Japheth. 

In this version of the myth, the curse fell upon Canaan, not any of Ham’s  other sons. It is also important to note that Kush, one of Ham’s other sons, is  projected by Jewish sources as being the ancestor of blacks. This story found  its way into Arab-Muslim historiography and ethnology in a somewhat distorted  manner that reflected the rise of racism in the new empire. All Arab-Muslim  versions of the story portray Arabs as the descendants of Shem, the blacks  (sometimes including the Copts, Berbers and the Sindh of India, or basically anyone  they didn’t like) as the descendants of Ham, with most assigning the Turks and  Slavs to Noah’s other son Japheth. In the Arab-Muslim version, blacks are  cursed to be slaves and menials, Arabs are blessed to be prophets and nobles,  while Turks and Slavs are destined to be kings and tyrants. 

Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah al-Kisa’i’s book ‘Tales of the Prophets’ (Qisas  al-anbiyâ), written in the 6th century AH, is a collection of mythological  narratives based on prophetic reports (hadîth) of various levels of authenticity and  on Arabian and Hebrew folklore which sought to elaborate on the stories of the  Prophets mentioned in passing in the Qur’an. Al-Kisa’i was not the first to  write a book about the stories of the Prophets. In fact there were many which  preceded him, but al-Kisa’i’s work is the most known and most cited of this  genre, and his entire manuscript is intact, whereas only copies or fragments  remain of other. Al-Kisa’i’s book is a collection of mythologies based largely  upon the narrations of two individuals who were converts from Judaism,  ‘Abdullah ibn Salâm (d. 663 AH) and Ka’b al-Ahbâr (d. 652 AH). They provide the link  to the biblical tale of Noah, his sons and the curse of Ham entering into the  collectivity of Muslim thought and doctrine.

Al-Kisa’i writes in his chapter on Noah: .....
It is said that one day Noah came to his son and said, “My son, I have not  slept since I boarded the ark, and now I desire to sleep my fill.” So saying, he  put his head on Shem’s lap and went to sleep. Suddenly a gust of wind  uncovered Noah’s genitals; Ham laughed, but Shem jumped up and covered him. When Noah  awoke he said, “What was that laughter?” Shem told him what had happened,  and Noah grew angry with Ham. “Do you laugh at your father’s genitals?” he  said. “May God change your complexion and may your face turn black!” And that  very instant his face did turn black. Turning to Shem, he said, “You covered your  father: may God shield you from harm in this world and have mercy upon you in  the next! May He make prophets and nobles of your progeny! May He make  bondswomen and slaves of Ham’s progeny until the Day of Resurrection! May He make  tyrants, kings and emperors of Japheth’s progeny!” And God knows best.

This provides the theological justification for racism in early Muslim  society. It is commonly assumed that the genre of “stories of the prophets” didn’t  have much of an effect on scholars and jurists. However, the famous Al-Tabari,  for example, cites no less than six Prophetic traditions which seek to  support this story. One tradition reads:

Ham begat all those who are black and curly-haired, while Japheth begat those  who are full faced with small eyes, and Shem begat everyone who is handsome  of face [Arabs of course] with beautiful hair. Noah prayed that the hair of  Ham’s descendants would not grow past their ears, and wherever his descendants  met the children of Shem, the latter would enslave them.

Ahmad Ibn Hanbal reported a saying attributed to the Prophet which in effect  states that God created the white race (dhurriyyah baydâ) from the right  shoulder of Adam and created the black race (dhurriyyah sawdâ) from Adam’s left  shoulder. Those of Adam’s right shoulder would enter Paradise and those of the  left, Perdition. Other equally racist sayings have been attributed to the  Prophet in the traditions. Contradicting this spirit, there are the sayings of the  Prophet which equate the value of a person to his God-consciousness (taqwa),  and to their piety without any regard to the tribal or ethnocentric concerns of  a racist purport.

The content of such reports, like similar reports degrading women, must be  examined and exposed for what they are, but these reports indicate to the  mentality which sought to overthrow the seemingly egalitarian nature of the early Muslim community in exchange for the more deeply rooted tradition of tribal  affinities, patriarchy and racial bigotry.

The Story of Ham as a Basis for a New Empire’s Racism .....
The fabled curse of Ham emerged at an opportune moment for the new empire,  for it facilitated cheap labor and the famous Arab raiding parties who tore  through the African country with fierceness and terror that would cause even the  hardest of stomachs to turn. We have in various historical reports instances of  villages being attacked at night, the “non-believing” blacks being rounded  up and enslaved, forced marches which claimed millions of lives due to  malnourishment and the abuses of the captors. Slaves were forced to carry heavy ivory,  and women were saddled with children and other goods, all of which belonged  to their Muslim captors. We will return to the slave trade itself, but we must  put a historical context on why the “curse of Ham” was so important to the  early ethnology and religious doctrine of the Arab-Muslims and their imperial 
power grab. 

In 889 AH, Ibn Qutaybah wrote that “Ham, son of Noah, was light-skinned and  handsome. Then God Most High changed his complexion and that of his progeny  [into black] because of the curse [invoked by] his father.” Elsewhere, he states, “They are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country. The heat  overcooks them in the womb, and curls their hair.” Thus the biblical curse that  originally fell on Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, in the Arab-Muslim version of the myth, falls on Ham himself, whose descendants are not only cursed with  servitude but also with the change of their color from light-skinned to  black. We find many similar comments and statements in early and medieval Muslim sources which link the curse of Ham and the servile condition. It didn’t take  long for the African to be reduced to a simile for slave labor, decreed by God,  due to the anger of Noah and the curse he invoked.

As the empire grew so did the resentment for those of African descent in Arab  society. Before and during the life of the Prophet, the Habashi or  Abyssinians were looked upon favorably, and the Prophet even sent a caravan of his  followers to Abyssinia for refuge from persecution. This favorable light didn’t  last long after Abyssinia fell to the Muslims and the roles of empire and subject  were reversed. Within 100 years of empire, the Muslim elite became increasingly arrogant and exclusivist toward non-Muslims and the ‘other’ in general.  From racist Arab poetry and proverbs to spurious sayings attributed to the Prophet himself, racist tendencies became more and more common and eventually made  their way into the social doctrines of Muslim societies to justify and  legitimize religiously the idea that blacks and slaves were interchangeable words. 

African Muslim jurists dealt with racist traditions and the attitudes which  created and were supported by them by questioning their authenticity and  insisting that they do not represent the teachings of the Prophet. The famous jurist  Al-Jahiz, in his book, The Boast of the Blacks over the Whites, employs the same ethnocentric premises employed by the very racists he was addressing. Most  African Muslims however rejected their black heritage altogether and adopted  the seemingly superior Arab customs and attitudes characterized in  Arab-Islamic tradition. In so doing, they also neglected their own wisdom traditions, deeming their history to be that of a cursed people. African Muslims sought to  distance themselves from their pre-Islamic heritage by drawing sharp  distinctions between themselves and their non-Muslim fellow Africans. The African jurist Ahmed Baba, for example, defends the chattel slavery by stating, “The Sudanese  non-believers are like other non-believers whether they are Christians, Jews, Persians, Berbers, or any others who stick to non-belief and do not embrace  Islam... there is no difference between all the non-believers in this respect.  Whoever is captured in the condition of non-belief, it is legal to enslave  him, whoever he might be, but not he who has converted to Islam voluntarily, from  the beginning.”

Some of this can be attributed to Muslim geographers and travelers who  ventured into Africa for various reasons and wrote about what they experienced. They  emphasized nudity, paganism, cannibalism, and the primitive life of the black  peoples in their writings to the extent that those who read them could not be  blamed for fearing and loathing them. As Maqdisi wrote, “There is no marriage  among them [genealogy or nasab being an issue of incredible importance to  Arab-Muslims in particular]; the child does not know his father, and they eat  human flesh--but God knows best. As for the Zanji, they are people of black  color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.” 

Similarly, studies on the image of blacks in medieval Persian literature  reveal that in both Arab and Persian writings, blacks are depicted as stupid,  untruthful, vicious, sexually unbridled, ugly and distorted, excessively merry,  and easily affected by music or drink. Nasir al-Din Tusi (d.1274 CE), a famous  Iranian philosopher, wrote: “If various kinds of men are taken and one placed  after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the South-most countries, the  Negro does not differ from the animal in anything except the fact that his  hands have been lifted from the earth, except for what God wishes. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more  intelligent.” 

Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406CE) added that blacks are “only humans who are closer to  dumb animals than to rational beings.” The reason for their characteristic “levity, excitability, and great emotionalism,” according to Ibn Khaldun, is  “due to the expansion and diffusion of the animal spirit” in them. Ibn Khaldun  disagrees with the mythological curse of Ham and attributes their 
“deficiencies” to the climate of Africa and their being “overcooked in the womb.” Other  renowned Muslim thinkers, such as Sa’id al-Andalusi (d. 1070CE) wrote that  blacks are “More like animals than men,” and that “the rule of virtue and  stability in judgment” is lacking amongst them, such noble qualities being replaced by  “foolishness and ignorance.” Even such luminaries as Ibn Sina considered  blacks to be “people who are by their very nature slaves.” 

In time, certain conventional descriptions emerged which became general  stereotypes for all of the various ethnic groups that Muslims encountered. For  instance, the Arabs had generosity and courage; Persians, statecraft and civility;  Greeks, philosophers and artists; Indians, magicians and conjurers; while the  Chinese were the makers of furniture and gadgets. Blacks were hardworking and  somewhat simple but gifted with exuberance and a sense of rhythm. Turks were impetuous fighting men. With only minor changes to these categorizations these  became standard in the discussions of the various ethnic groups both within  and without the polity of Islam.

The African Slave Trade in the Muslim World .....
To further understand how racist philosophy made its way into the thinking of  Muslims right up to today, we need to examine the African slave trade as it  took place in the Muslim world. It is important to note that in classic Sunni  thought, kufr was, according to the doctrine of jihad as it was codified and  crystallized under the expanding empire of Islam, synonymous with servitude.  After all the traditional Muslim ideology of slavery is closely linked to the  doctrine of military jihad. The creation or resurgence of the mythology of Ham  also made dark-skinned people synonymous with servitude in light-skinned Muslim thinking. This went so far that eventually the term abd (slave) went through a  semantic development and came to specifically refer to “black slave” while  light-skinned slaves were referred to as mamluks. And further on in later  usage, the Arabic word abd came to mean ‘black man’ of whatever status.

The African slave trade in the Muslim world may be compared with that of the  West only to the extent that Muslims gave it scriptural legitimacy. The  comparison fades when measured against the brutality of Western, particularly  American, slavery.

Yet, even the scriptural legitimacy is limited. In classic Islamic  interpretations, it is common for the interpreter to divorce the Qur’an from its  social-historical context and to interpret it according to contemporary social and  linguistic developments.

It is important to distinguish between two forms of slavery: the one  mentioned in the Qur’an, defined as domestic or economic slavery, and chattel slavery.  The distinction is critical since slavery takes on many guises depending upon  the extent of the development, infrastructure and the political clout of a  particular nation has.

Whether it be sweatshops in China, or wage slavery in Mexico or elsewhere,  slavery is something that human beings have never been able to avoid. Even the  United States, which held one of the most abusive slave institutions in recent  history, continues to profit heavily from slave labor in various countries.  The Qur’an deals with its own form of slavery--a form based upon the system of  guardianship whereby an individual who has no tribe to protect them and provide  for them will enter into a contract of slavery to a particular master in  exchange for upkeep and provisions.

Although the Qur’an doesn’t prohibit slavery, it does make it clear that  slavery is not the ideal relationship between people of higher and lower economic  standing and that the moral trajectory would ultimately result in its  abolition. 

Many of the Muslims who followed the first generation, however, did not see it this way, and before long the institution was transformed to what can be  termed as pure chattel slavery, where the slave was owned without any concern for  their own autonomy or rights. The emergence of the four ‘orthodox’ schools  of law in Islam further crystallized this relationship between slave and master  by giving the master certain rights which would even allow them to circumvent  limitations imposed upon them by the Prophet himself. Having transformed the  very definition of slavery, and backed by the shari’a which permitted the taking of free men as slaves, provided they were non-Muslims, allowed for some of  the most brutal conquests of Africa that land has ever known. Because Muslims  were unable to see any qualitative value in African culture, expression and  society and because they couldn’t contend with alternative forms of religion and  their own superficial claims to having exclusive possession of the truth (a  claim which the Qur’an itself quite astonishingly refutes), the pillaging and  exploitation of African people continued for centuries.

No one knows how many Africans were sold into slavery throughout the Middle  East, but it is fair to put it at a level higher than that of the Americas  because of the length of time during which it was practiced. Islam is certainly  tainted with over a millennium of illegal slave trade. Illegal because it was  made “legal” only by the redefining of slavery as it existed and was tolerated  during the life of the Prophet, and because the doctrine which serviced the  ideology of slavery in Muslim thought is a blasphemy before God, who defines  Himself as the Just.

One of the most tragic facts is that Mecca, the geographic heart of the  Muslim community, was one of the largest slave markets in the Muslim world all the  way up until the Twentieth Century when the standards of the international  community, championed by the West, came to inform Muslims that chattel slavery is  a violation against dignity, humanity and their own standing in global  affairs. We find in historical sources that slaves were being captured in East  Africa and being taken to Mecca for sale during the pilgrimage. From there they  were distributed all over the world. It was a custom for pilgrims to buy, sell  and trade slaves while fulfilling their fifth pillar and this went on to the  extent that the term “slave market” and the name of the city of Mecca became  synonymous. Many unsuspecting free people were taken on the pilgrimage by  high-ranking Muslims and sold or arrested on trumped up charges, ultimately ending up  as victims of the notorious Meccan slave trade. In fact, slaves have been  reported as being sold as late as 1960 in Saudi Arabia, and many more cases are  reported in Sudan.

Sudan is of particular interest because the Muslim North and the non-Muslim  South have been engaged in civil war for 20 years as a direct result of the  dark-skinned Arabs of Northern Sudan and their long history of enslaving and  displacing their non-Muslim brothers to the South and selling them in the Middle  Eastern slave markets. Here Arabs don’t deserve all the blame, since there are  plenty of studies which prove that African themselves were also engaging is  slave raids and that after the conversion of some powerful African tribes to  Islam they carried out ‘jihads’ against their former tribal enemies, this time backed by religious legitimacy. 

Breaking the Curse of Ham ....
Racism remains a powerful force in both the East, Mid-East and the West, and  this history is intended to shed light on the origins of racist philosophy as  it is hard-wired in the psychology of those who inherit this evil from their  parents and society. I have personally been in gatherings where immigrant  Muslims glowing with supposed piety and reserve feel that they can relate to me by  slandering blacks, either because I myself am white or because it distances  them from the immigrant experience of inferiority. It is best not to be the  lowest man on the totem pole.

After the events of 9/11 and the Islam phobia which is now taking the West by storm, many formerly racist Arabs or Indo-Pakistanis have gotten a good dose  of what it is like to be persecuted because of one’s ethnicity. In today’s  America, as defined by the corporate media and popular culture, people of  African descent are even more trusted than those of Middle Eastern descent.

It is tragic that Muslims entertain these racist and ethnocentric ideas to  begin with. The cultural barriers between Africans, Arabs, Europeans, Indians,  Chinese, whatever are real, and we sometimes have conflicting needs and goals  in life. The problem here is that we are not taking Islam seriously enough to  break with clearly evil traditions of regarding each other.

Do we really want an “Islam” which is divided into inferior and superior  races based upon the irrelevancy of where the Prophet came from? Granted, the  Prophet was an Arab, but an argument could be constructed, if ethnocentrism was  our goal, to say that God sent the Prophet amongst the Arabs because they were the most barbarous and ignorant of people. Anyway we construct the discourse,  when we allow ethnocentric tones to dilute it we do violence to the message  and we neglect our dignity and humanity as God’s vicegerents. 

To break traditions which contradict a normative reading of the Qur’an is  certainly meritorious if not obligatory. To break this supposed Curse of Ham is a  jihad worth engaging because Islam, in its global sense, needs to regain some  moral high ground in an era of suicide bombings, terrorism, authoritarianism,  despotism, and retrogression.

If this embattled and fractured global community we call the umma is to  command any moral or ethical standard at all, then it must begin with the  essentials of equality. Unity is essential to a worldview based on the Qur’anic  doctrine of Divine Unity (tawhîd), and unity must begin with the recognition of  equality and the emphasis on similarities as opposed to differences. We must not  allow our different guises, needs and expressions to become differences between  each other. The failure of our community to lead the world in moral standards  can be linked to the decree of God that we, as Muslims, have failed to  maintain egalitarian standards of equality. This may be the reason why we are reviled  and hated, attacked and scorned, all over the world. 

If some Muslims think this means we are on the right track and that our religion requires us to be fought and hated, they are following a different  religion than that taught by our Prophet and that which is mentioned in the Qur’an.  It is true that the wicked will fight against Truth, but what happens when we  become the wicked, still believing that we carry Truth? Or does the fact that  we carry Truth remove from us the liabilities of our actions?

The Qur’an maintains that humans bring upon themselves their own suffering. Nothing has brought on the suffering of the umma more than our lack of unity,  which is a result of our inequality and our lack of appreciation for our  differences.

As the Qur’an maintains: “O People! Behold, We have created you all out of a  male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might  come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is  the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing,  all-aware.” (Qur'an 49:13)

Courtesy:The American Muslim Online magazine 



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