A CONNIVING YOUNG man, bent on polarizing the jovial group of Muslims who happened to be congregating in his area, casually approached them and struck up what seemed to be a normal conversation. He focused on one half of his audience, new Muslims formerly of the Aws tribe. He began to recall the time when they had enjoyed dominance over the Khazraj tribe, many of whose members had also become Muslim and now happened to make up the other half of his audience.
Bitter enemies for generations, the Aws and Khazraj of Madinah had reconciled their differences after accepting Islam at the hand of the Prophet thus making them brothers in faith. Now, however, the young man’s scheme threatened to undo all the goodwill they had fostered toward one another after accepting Islam.
The young man had achieved his goal: The Muslims, now thinking in terms of Aws and Khazraj, subsequently divided and threatened to revive the spirit of hostility that characterized their existence only months before. Alerted to what was now transpiring, the Prophet intervened immediately: “O Muslims!” he addressed them, reminding them of their true identity. “Remember Allah! Remember Allah! Will you act as pagans while I am present among you, and after Allah has guided you to Islam, thus honoring you, even after He has provided you with an escape from paganism, delivering you thereby from disbelief, and making you friends?” It was then that Allah revealed the following verse:
And remember Allah’s favor upon you, for you were enemies to one another, but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His grace, you became brothers. [Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:103].
God and His Messenger had saved them yet again, delivering them from the evils that plague all who permit insignificant human differences to blind them at the behest of those who would profit from humanity’s divisions.
Tribalism by Other Names
The Aws and Khazraj, like many ancient Arabian peoples, had once viewed life through the prism of a tribalism that thoroughly dominated their collective mindset—not unlike the optics of nationalism today.
Islam uprooted tribalism by challenging its conceptual foundations. Instead of loyalty and allegiance to one’s own group (based on a false sense of superiority), the Prophet taught that humans were equal, their only truly distinguishing characteristic being piety:
An Arab is no better than a non-Arab, and a non-Arab is no better than an Arab. A red raced man is not better than a black one, except in piety. Mankind are the children of Adam, and Adam was created out of clay.
The ideas and notions that divided much of Arabian society vanished in a truth that our hearts instinctively recognize. More explicitly, about tribalism, the Prophet said:
Allah has removed from you the arrogance of the Time of Jahiliyya [the ignorance of divine revelation before Islam] with its boast of ancestral glories. Man is but a God-fearing believer or an unfortunate sinner. All people are the children of Adam, and Adam was created out of dust. (Tirmidhi).
The Prophet’s attitude here demonstrates the iconoclasm of Islam, much like the initial Makkan revelations challenged the prevalent economic structure, one that bolstered the wealth of the rich at the expense of the poor. The Prophet is here affirming Islam’s categorical rejection of the prevalent social structure in pre-Islamic Arabia, one that pitted tribes against one another and precipitated much war and bloodshed.
Much like the devious young man with whom we began, the cousins of tribalism—nationalism, racism, chauvinism, to name a few—continue to divert our attention away from positive causes, like sewing peace between peoples and caring for the vulnerable in our communities. Instead, these latter-day calls to group and clan embroil us in pointless disputes about which one of us is more racially or ethnically qualified to lead, or why we cannot put into power so and so because he or she is from Dystopia, and you know those Dystopians just cannot do anything right.
Despite reports of increasing literacy rates and educational opportunities, stereotypes and racial prejudices continue to contaminate our world and raise questions about our commitment to the message of the Quran and Sunnah. Many of us are quick to attribute poverty and unemployment to a certain group’s race when the Quran, in fact, asks that we look at issues through the lens of justice. The Prophet defended ethnic groups against disparaging remarks while we still cling to myths of ethnic superiority as if they were divine truths.
A united community presupposes a collective willingness to cooperate with one another toward common, noble goals. Stereotypes and racial prejudices, however, emphasize and exaggerate differences, creating a mode of thinking whereby we rely on false assumptions to form our thoughts about entire groups of people.
The Prophet was able to galvanize his followers around the message of Islam because his message emphasized the inherent goodness of all humans and cultivated a spirit of brotherhood and togetherness under the direction of their single Creator.
Freezing Our Reason
Racism and stereotypes, however, create precisely the opposite effect and make fruitful cooperation nearly impossible. George Orwell noticed a similar paralysis of mental faculties in his observations on nationalism. According to Orwell, nationalism had infected people with an idolatrous love for a country or government, so much so that it made impossible genuinely rational and ethical approaches to global politics.
Orwell’s main point was that nationalism had hijacked all forms of reason and subsequently altered reality. “A British citizen,” he wrote, “would defend self-determination for his own people but condemn it in India with no feeling of inconsistency.”
When loyalty to a country is involved, and its interests are placed beyond the realm of good or bad, reason and even morality cease to function.
In a similar fashion, stereotypes and racial prejudices conflict with a genuinely Islamic mindset. These biases foster allegiances to our own ethnic groups when the Quran informs us that our only allegiance is to those aligned with God, those being the believers, and that we must uphold justice and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, even if it be against our own selves or those dearest to us.
Faith and reason demand that we reject the corruption-loving, profiteering offspring of that devious young man who sought to drag our spiritual forefathers back into the abyss of small-minded, meaningless affiliations, and that we remind all those like him that our identities are spoken for. We are Muslims and nothing more.