The Fourth of July is typically a time for reflective celebration, or perhaps celebrative reflection.
Year after year, Americans celebrate how far we have come since the Independence movement which birthed the nation. We reflect on our present moment and consider how far we must still strive if we are to realize the ideals which the Enlightenment thinkers first sketched, and which anti-colonial and abolitionist struggles re-asserted in the subsequent decades. The Haitian revolutionaries reminded the world of the French colonialists’ incomplete application of Enlightenment universalism. American abolitionists did the same for this nation’s slaveholding aristocracy.
For all those willing to listen, each iteration of struggle makes loud and clear what must be done.
On this particular Fourth of July, our yearly ritual has taken a decidedly different tone amid a resurgent global pandemic and civilian uprisings. Both these events as well as the insufficient government response has made it clear that our egalitarian society still suffers under the yoke of racism, whether it be racist ideology or racist politics. As has been the case throughout history, the civilian uprisings which emanated from Minneapolis, before spreading throughout and beyond this country, have clarified what must be done.
There is now a bipartisan consensus: we must strive for anti-racism, as both an ideal as well as a concrete practice and politics.
As Muslims, we have a keen understanding of this demand. The Prophet Muhammad was one of the first to articulate anti-racism as a moral ideal and political goal. Dr. Craig Considine, a sociologist at Rice University, reminds us of Islam’s egalitarian roots. Dr. Considine conveys this through a story regarding the Prophet Muhammad and Bilal ibn Rabah, a man born into slavery and one of the Prophet’s first followers.
Bilal was repeatedly subject to racist slights and dimunuitions as a result of his enslavement and commitment to Islam. Yet neither Bilal nor his faith suffered as a result. The Prophet Muhammad was so impressed by Bilal’s commitment to Islam that he bought Bilal’s freedom and elevated him to a prominent position in the early Muslim community. Racism was part and parcel with what is commonly understood as Jahiliyyah, the Age of Ignorance which characterized pre-Islamic Mecca.
In light of this ignorance, the Prophet Muhammad’s anti-racism appears even more impressive. In his Last Sermon, delivered in 632 A.D. on Mount Arafat, the Prophet said that “all mankind is descended from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab. And a non-Arab has no superiority over an Arab. A white person has no superiority over a black person, nor a black person has any superiority over a white person, except by piety and good action.”
In our current moment, racism is similarly understood as an expression of jahiliyyah, or ignorance. Dr. Considine credits the Prophet for his diagnosis of racism as a symptom of arrogance in the heart and of the resultant ignorance of humanity’s fundamental equality.
However, the story of the Prophet Muhammad tells far more than just the endurance of racist societies and anti-racist correctives.
Ignorance was not some disease of the mind in need of some prophetic elixir, but a description of the social decay in pre-Islamic Mecca. Of course, the Prophet addressed these conditions through his message. However, he also addressed this, more importantly, through the more difficult work of winning adherents to a new political project to move beyond the old, ignorant social order.
There was a social contradiction within pre-Islamic Mecca: while political power was centralized within the oligarchic classes, the social fabric which bonded all the social classes within dominant-dependent relationships were thin, decentralized, and increasingly delegitimizing. The growth of Meccan trade society only exacerbated this contradiction and tended the whole of society toward crisis. Idol worship was an expression of this decay, as was racism. Both were evidence of the absurdity of tribalism in its later stages. In the absence of religious and spiritual leadership, Meccans worshipped idols. In the presence of debilitating social relations, racism stabilized trade and tribal boundaries.
In this way, we can see how the very conditions which brought Meccan society toward crisis also laid the groundwork for the emergence of Islam. The economic development of trade in Mecca was simultaneously creating a class of disenfranchised laborers who became amenable to the Prophet Muhammad’s alternative vision. As has been widely reported in the literature, many of the first converts to Islam and followers of the Prophet Muhammad came from this class of clients and slaves.
The emergence of Islam did not come with a clean break from the old ways of doing things. It came by way of a long political process through which the Prophet and his companions played on existing social tensions in order to bring to bear a different way of ordering the society. The Prophet Muhammad preached an end to oligarchy and “pride in noble ancestry”. He said that all humans are descended from Adam, and Adam from dust. As such, no earthly factors contribute to nobility; the noblest are merely the most pious, and the most pious. Muslims expressed their piety through their commitment to a truly egalitarian state structure.
The example of pre- and post-Islamic Mecca demonstrates: racism is a product of social and political factors, and the success or acceptance of anti-racism depends upon one’s ability to address those factors. It also makes clear that an egalitarian anti-racism is a truly transnational vision. It was at play in Islamic Mecca, and was expanded upon through Enlightenment universalism. Subsequent world history makes clear that this vision has yet to be realized, whether in Islamic societies or America.
As Muslims in America, we recognize the unique chance to make good on this moment. Doing so would be the culmination of an egalitarian vision that transcends person, place, or creed.
We also heed the lessons of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who demonstrated that anti-racist politics cannot just be a moral exhortation, but also an anchor for political action.
This Independence Day, our faith commits us to seriously reckon with the social factors which make racism a reality. Our unique historical moment demands that we move beyond them through a collective political struggle.