Dr. Khalil Abdur-Rashid

Racism is generally defined as the belief that race is the primary factor that determines human abilities and that such factors produce inherent superiorities of one particular group over another.1 Racism is a part of an ideology Muslims call “Jahiliyah” or compounded ignorance that manifests itself in speech, behavior, and institutional systems. Islam as the final Abrahamic faith expression was birthed in opposition to Jahiliyah in the Arabian Peninsula and it views such systems and ideologies as highly oppressive and so morally reprehensible that it requires one to actively reject it. Consequently, Islam fervently advocates against all forms of Jahiliyah, that is, all beliefs, actions, and institutional structures that marginalizes, harms, and inserts hierarchies among people which result in their exploitation, injustice and/or oppression. Racism is considered a form of oppression in Islam, and therefore, it is the moral, religious, and communal duty of every American Muslim not only not to be racist, but more importantly to be anti-racist in all its forms.

It is in the moral, spiritual, and communal interest of every American Muslim to support Black Americans fight for racial injustice. The violence and senseless killings of Black Americans at the hands of police in this country constitutes, from an Islamic perspective, actions of Jahiliyah, an action resulting in the oppression of an entire community. We know from recently published research2 that police killings directly cause significant negative short-term and long-term psychological and educational outcomes for Black and Hispanic inner-city youth across a range of factors, including, chronic learning disabilities associated with PTSD and depression, lower graduation rates, and emotional disturbances. The cause of Black Lives Matters is a communal cause in America, and the American Muslim community must aid in responding to that call.

In Islam, Muslims are told by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to, “Help the oppressed by coming to their aid; and help their oppressor by stopping them from oppressing!” This prophetic instruction outlines the Islamic method for responding to the call for racial justice. For far too long, Black lives in the United States have struggled against the stigma of being criminalized, dehumanized, marginalized, and victimized by the scourge of racism in American hearts and institutions alike. As American Muslims, we recognize that the term Black, while indicating a racial identity, also signifies a political condition of injustice – the political condition of mass incarceration; of great wealth disparity; of inadequate housing and risk of mass eviction; of insufficient access to healthcare – all of which are a manifestation of what was formerly Jim Crow and now called Jim Crow Jr. by many and Jahiliyah Jr. by American Muslims.

In a Jahiliyah Jr. (as well as in Jim Crow Jr.) system, American Muslims understand that to be Black in America is to either be arrest-ready or coffin-ready; to be relegated to second-class status despite the right to vote; to be presumed to be a problem on account of the criminalization of an entire community. Racism causes harm and oppression to another as well as to one’s own self. It is a spiritual pandemic whose healing and eventual cure lay in reforming our relations with each other. As American Muslims, we are tasked to do our part to help save as many Black lives from the harm of Jahiliyah and Jim Crow Jr. as possible; and we are also tasked to do what we can to stop them from their continued systemic oppression of Black communities in America. Therefore, from an Islamic perspective, American Muslims have to two-fold religious, moral, and communal responsibility: one is to aid and support Black communities in the pursuit of freedom and justice, and the other is to help protect the wellness and dignity of Black communities (and other communities of color) by working to prevent oppression and injustice by police violence and all systems of oppression in this country.

As it relates to the former, America Muslims are: 1.) to avoid being by-standers and instead to become active agents and allies to Black communities by better educating themselves about the history and current problems of race in America; 2.) to work actively in various ways to help support and enhance Black communities; 3.) to tear down any internal psychological barriers that inhibit one’s desire to cultivate proximity to the Black community. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “If you seek (proximity to) me, you will find me with marginalized, forgotten communities; Truly you as a community will be aided and provided for by God on account to your proximity to those communities.”3 Our proximity to communities that have been marginalized and forgotten by other systems and structures that profit off their downfall, helps open our eyes to the need for prophetic action on how best to aid those communities in the struggle for justice. We must learn how to reimagine new forms of proximity particularly in a time of a pandemic that requires social distancing. But being socially distant must not translate into being communally absent or indifferent. We as American Muslims are bound to consistently work for justice by standing in solidarity and in proximity to Black communities in our neighborhoods across America.

Regarding the latter task of stopping oppression, American Muslims share in the responsibility of reforming our civil institutions. We must remain active and involved in city governance, school boards, citizen review boards, watchdog associations, and voter registration efforts in minority communities. It is not enough to march in the streets together. We must actively engage the institutions of power and work to reform the structures of power that are rooted in Jahiliyah/Jim Crow Jr. ways of operating. It is not enough to hope and pray for change. We must continually hold them accountable for their actions and inactions until liberty and justice truly are for all.

Imam Dr. Khalil Abdur-Rashid is the full-time University Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University, Instructor of Muslim Studies at Harvard Divinity School, and Public Policy Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. He also serves as Chair of the Board of Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life at Harvard.

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism (accessed June 29, 2020)

[2] https://www.hks.harvard.edu/publications/effects-police-violence-inner-city-students

[3] Hadith reported in Abu Dawud.