Written by Umm Zakiyyah & Hakeemah Cummings
“We were of the most disgraced of people, and Allāh granted us honor with this Islam. Now, whenever we seek honor in other than that which Allāh honored us with, Allāh shall disgrace us (once again).”
—’Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb
“Black people in America can never be Muslim,” he said to me as I stood next to his desk. I stared at my teacher with an expression that must have conveyed very little of what I felt right then. I didn’t know what to say. I studied his eyes, slightly enlarged by the thick glasses he wore. The deep olive of his Arab complexion was nearly the same as my American brown. We even shared the same hair texture—though my hair was covered right then.
But, even so, to an outsider looking in, he could have easily been my father. And given that he was the only Muslim teacher I had at the high school, I should have at least shared with him the commonality of “brother and sister” in Islam. But that, I knew, was impossible to this man. He was Arab. I was American—and “Black” at that. He wanted to make sure I understood this impossibility. I did.
I continued standing where I was only because I was waiting for my teacher to mention the reason he had called me to his desk. The other students were at their seats working, some looking up curiously every now and then, wondering what it was our teacher wanted from me. Naturally, like most students would, they imagined I’d gotten myself in trouble somehow, and they didn’t want to miss the action. I waited only because I didn’t want to miss his point.
The teacher’s matter-of-fact expression as he blinked back at me confused me only momentarily. I hesitated for only a second after the realization, mostly out of respect, and I made an effort not to display disdain for my elder as I excused myself and returned to my seat. But it was impossible for me to concentrate after that. I was genuinely perplexed.
“In life,” my father told us once, “you’ll meet many people who’ll say al-salāmu ‘alaykum, but they’re not really Muslim.” He shook his head. “No, I don’t mean they’re not Muslims to Allāh. I mean they’re not living Islam. They have no idea what this religion means.”
I thought of my Arab teacher.
“Beauty is in carrying yourself like a Muslim,” my parents would say. “Beauty is in living Islam.”
I stood browsing the shelves of the modest store—“the Sooq”—adjacent to the prayer area of the Islamic center I liked to attend in suburban Washington, D.C. I did a double take before picking up the small box. I stared at it a moment longer, realizing my eyes hadn’t been mistaken at all. The skin-bleaching cream—manufactured in a Muslim country—did indeed say what I thought it said.
The solution to pollution.
Next to this tagline was the image of two faces, one brown (incidentally very close to my own skin tone) and the other white—the “before” and “after” of this product. Disgusted, I returned the box to the shelf and left.
“My father would never let me marry a Black man,” my friend from Trinidad told me as we chatted one day. She laughed and shook her head. I couldn’t help noticing that her skin was a much richer brown than my own. “He told me, ‘You can marry whoever you want, but don’t ever marry a Black man.’”
…“I must admit,” a sister from Somalia said after meeting me for the first time. We were at a book event for my novels held at an Islamic convention. “I’m really surprised you’re Black.” As we talked, she apologized for her prejudice: She had been unable to fathom that such “well-written” books could come from a Black American. Later at the same convention, a fellow American said something similar—but in different words. “And she’s really intelligent,” he said as he introduced me to his wife. His voice was between disbelief and awe. I smiled as I reached out to shake the hand of a woman who studied me with a sense of uncertainty that strangely mirrored her husband’s shock at my brain’s capacity. I read the question in her eyes. Really? Are you sure?
I could say that these experiences scarred me for life, that I went home in tears, and that these people’s bigotry incited within me that horrible inferiority complex due to my “Blackness” and my utter inability to be accepted not only by “White America” but also by the “real” Muslims of the world.
But I won’t. That would be dishonest. Truth is, I felt sorry for these people.
When I was still in high school, I would come home and recount such stories to my younger sister, and like myself at the time, she would become perplexed. And to be really honest, we would even laugh at times—not with the quiet, hesitant giggle most appropriate for our “lowly” status, but with the thunderous throw-your-head-back laugh that makes your stomach hurt and tears sting your eyes. This was how we dealt with much of the bigotry we witnessed in life.
Perhaps I am an exception. I can’t be sure. But I didn’t reach adulthood thinking I was less than anyone else. I didn’t shrink in the face of those deemed above me—whether Muslim or non-Muslim—and demurely accept their “superior” status. Quite frankly, I didn’t know they had one. Yes, I knew about those suffering from a tragic sense of insecurity, which made it necessary for them to release “statistics” about others’ intellectual abilities (or lack thereof) or call a student to their desk to say she couldn’t be Muslim.
Or to believe, perhaps, that those who aren’t Black are actually inferior. But, alḥamdulillāh, I didn’t go through any of that.
Yes, in childhood, I was mistreated—by non-Muslims mostly due to my Islam and brown skin and by Muslims mostly due to my “lack of Islam” because of my brown skin. And yes, it hurt. And yes, I cried from time to time. And no, I didn’t always feel confident in my Muslim headscarf and brown skin. And, naturally, I didn’t reach adulthood without insecurities (if such a thing is possible).
But, by Allāh’s mercy, I also didn’t reach adulthood insecure. My self-image and self-esteem centered around one thing: my Islam. So when I picked up a “Muslim” magazine and happened upon the matrimonial section, it didn’t even occur to me that I should feel slighted or offended when I read dozens of ads by men looking for “fair” wives. I had a good laugh. And my sister did too.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, Muslims—whether “fair” or “dark,” Arab or non-Arab, Black or White—seek honor in lifestyles and values that are far removed from Islam.
“Is it honor you seek among them? Nay, all honor is with Allāh.”
—Qur’an (Al-Nisā’, 4:139)
While in truth, we should seek honor in only one lifestyle:
That of being slaves.
Not to our country, skin color, tribe, or family name. And not even to our “victim status” as oppressed people of the world.
But to Allāh, our Creator. Who has given us Islam.
If we don’t seek honor through this religion, we will continue to live in humiliation and make utter fools of ourselves. Not only through revealing our tragic colonial mentality in racist comments, ridiculous matrimonial ads, and bizarre articles in magazines. But through our sullied souls when we die and meet Allāh.
For to our Creator, there is but one measure of human beauty and worth: Being Allāh’s slaves on earth. And these superior slaves are not distinguished due to their bodies or skin. But due to their pure hearts and righteous deeds…
And through having in their breasts not even a grain of pride when they are buried in the dirt from which they were created.
So as we take pride in the color (or lack thereof) of our fleshy dirt,
Tell me, O child of Adam…
Are you amongst these honored slaves?
My name is Hakeemah Cummings, I am a 25-year old Muslimah living in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, IL. I have lived in this community for a number of years and attended an Islamic school here.
Alḥamdulillāh, my community has a huge Muslim population, largely Arab, and is well-established with two large masājid, two Islamic schools, a community center, and countless Muslim-owned businesses and organizations.
Alḥamdulillāh, I am very blessed to live in a community so dense with Muslims in a city that is so large and diverse.
Living in this community as long as I have, I have picked up a lot of the colloquial Arabic and have formally studied the language in high school and college. I remember back when our family first moved into this community, and I started attending the Islamic school in 7th grade, I heard the word “slaves” or ‘abeed (‘abdah (f.) ‘abd (m.) ) used quite commonly to refer to black people.
English being my first language, I was used to immediately translating Arabic words to English to grasp the meaning – “slave”. I quickly took offense – as a black Caribbean muslimah, I was a minority within the community and immediately felt hurt by this term. I remember people would make the mistake of using this word around me, mostly in reference to African-Americans.
If I was in earshot, the person would quickly excuse themselves, saying that they didn’t mean me, they meant … them. But what, really, is the difference between me as a black person, and “them” as black people? What makes “them” slaves? It was horribly rude, and made me extremely uncomfortable.
Other times, the word would be used casually with no concern.
“That neighborhood is scary. The ‘abeed live there…”
in reference to the south side of the inner city of Chicago. Or people would say a certain kind of clothing, music, mannerism, way of speaking, or hairstyle, is “for the ‘abeed.”
Once, while in class at college, an Arab girl I was sitting next to said quite loudly to another, “Hey, give this paper to the ‘abdah” referring to a black girl in the class. I wondered if she was even aware of what she was saying in English. Did she think that ‘abdah translates to “black girl” and never thought of its true meaning? Did she think that I didn’t understand?
Clearly, if she had said “Give this paper to the slave” it would have been a revocable remark, and a confrontation may have ensued. Not only was this term used with blatant disregard, it was furthermore tolerated by the likes of me, who cringed at its use, though I kept quiet. I remember angrily thinking, “Aren’t we all ‘abeed (slaves) of Allāh?”
Usually, the word was used to refer to African-Americans, who are descendants of the African slaves who were stolen from Africa and brought here to the US, enduring the worst forms of oppression for many generations.
Other ethnic groups were enslaved as well in their own histories. It may come as a surprise that Arabs, as well as countless other ethnic and racial groups, have a history of being enslaved as well. That gives no one the right to call the Arabs of today slaves, so African-Americans should not be subject to that degrading terminology either.
As I grew older, I found a voice that I didn’t have when I was younger. Now that I have younger siblings who are enduring the same types of racially insensitive incidents, I felt that I must address this issue head-on.
That’s why I started the “We are all ‘abeed of Allāh” campaign; as Muslims – above any ethnic, racial, tribal, or nationalistic association we assume pride in – as Muslims, we need to know that the use of this word is a slur, and that it is degrading, insulting, ignorant, inexcusable, and will no longer be tolerated.
Furthermore, everyone, regardless of race, should proudly claim the word “slave” for him or herself – I am a slave, you are a slave, we are all slaves.
Because Allāh subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) refers to us all as His slaves beautifully in the Qurʾān on numerous occasions, and it is a term of honor.
This word “abeed” encompasses all of those who strive to worship Allāh: an honorable way of life and the purpose for which He created us. Instead, some use this word to marginalize and insult others, stripping the word of its beauty and dignity. Shouldn’t we all aspire to be slaves of Allāh, and eliminate the pride we feel in the superficial labels we hold to such high standards: Arab, non-Arab, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, and poor.
All of these labels bring about arrogance and misplaced pride. The Prophet (SAW) warned against tribalism, racism, classism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism, and even emphasized this warning in his last sermon, which indicates the importance this issue in Islam.
I decided to take action on this issue, so I approached the administration of my old high school to organize a “Celebrating Diversity” event where we had speakers, activities, panel presentations, and group discussions to address these issues in our schools and broader community. At the event’s core was an emphasis on our religious obligation as Muslims to be fair, sensitive, and kind to others.
Racism is a huge issue and I knew that one event could not change completely, but I firmly believed that with every positive action there could be a change in the right direction.
Let us ALL, regardless of race, strive to be ‘abeed to the One whom we dedicate our lives to. Be proud to know that you are an agent in combating the racial divides that plague our ummah. Let us all make the claim:
“We are all ‘abeed of Allāh”.
By Hakeemah Cummings