There is a story of Sayyidna Bilal (May Allah be pleased with him) and Sayyidna Abu Dharr (May Allah be pleased with him) who were having a confrontation in public. In this confrontation, Abu Dharr says;
“O son of a black woman”.
This was said as a racial slur and Bilal was taken aback, so he told the Prophet ﷺ (May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him). The Prophet and Bilal then go to Abu Dharr and Prophet says;
“Ya Abu Dharr, you still have jahilliya [ignorance] in you.”
That is, the Prophet was saying that Abu Dharr still had things in him from before the time of Islam. Abu Dharr immediately felt remorseful and he apologizes to Bilal, as he puts his head on the ground and continues to say that he won’t get up from the ground until Bilal puts his foot over his head. Bilal refuses to do so because he had already forgiven Abu Dharr. While we often have a rosy view of the sahaba, we must always remember that they were still people and this is how we can learn from them. The Prophet guided them and showed them, so that we could take lessons from their stories and grow from them.
The first thing we learn is that just because one is a Muslim does not mean that one is void of ignorance. Often on social media, we see people responding to Black Lives Matter or to what is going on with quotes from the Prophet’s last khutba [sermon] in which he said;
“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action.”
Of course this incredible statement of the Prophet is true and this deen [religion] is perfect. Allah’s deen is perfect. The Qur’an is perfect. But we know that as human beings, we are imperfect and often don’t properly follow what is in the Qur’an and authentic Sunnah [the way of the Prophet]. This means that in order to make change, we cannot simply share quotes in place of the work of looking at ourselves; looking at the problems; and trying to find solutions to them. We can’t post ayats [verses] or hadith [the way and sayings of the Prophet] and then not do the internal work of asking the difficult question;
“What biases do I have?”
The second thing we can learn from this story is that when Bilal goes to the Prophet, he doesn’t say;
“Oh, be patient. People will always have issues with others and you should just bear this.”
Instead, the Prophet goes and resolves the problem, he immediately reacts and remedies the problem between the two of his companions. Of course, forgiveness is a huge component of our deen, but the Prophet did not tell Bilal to forgive Abu Dharr and to let it go. There is an acknowledgement of the offensive comment and the pain that it caused Bilal.
The next important lesson is that when they go to Abu Dharr, the Prophet says “You still have jahiliyya in you”. Today, especially when we consider ourselves “woke”, we call people out and put labels onto them. Sometimes these are rightful labels, but it is a problem when we hold the attitude that people cannot be redeemed. To hold this attitude is to believe that people cannot change.
The Prophet does not tell Abu Dharr “You are ignorant” or “You are the epitome of jahiliyya”. He says “You have it in you”. This means that our deficiencies are not our very being; if we say something ignorant, it doesn’t follow that our very being is ignorant. Instead, it is a chance to acknowledge these faults and change.
This means that we have to have mercy and look to others knowing that there may be a possibility that they do not know something and that they need to learn in order to grow. This is especially important when we are doing anti-racist work. We have to have good intentions when we do this. If I correct someone, I must have the intention of saying something in order for that person to do better – because I don’t want them to be ignorant or stuck in a place of ignorance.
We should call people to good and part of that is letting them know that they are wrong and that you don’t want them to remain ignorant. So you have to do it from a place of love and a place of “I want you to do better”.
Abu Dharr then immediately goes and asks for forgiveness. He begs for Bilal’s forgiveness and Bilal forgives him. From this we learn that we should remedy our wrong actions and not just pay lip service by saying “Next time I’ll do better.” This is especially true if it is a personal confrontation. When we make tawba [repentance], we don’t just ask Allah for forgiveness if it is against another person, we have to ask the person for forgiveness too. Whenever we hurt somebody, we have to ask for forgiveness. But one also has to be willing to change first. No one likes to think that they’re wrong, so when we do get called out, we get very defensive. However, if you learn something, you have to commit to doing better and admit that you don’t know everything. This is also a key part of possessing humility.
When it comes to racism and the current situation we find ourselves in, we have a lot of different people talking. Yet the ones who know are the ones who are experiencing it. So listen to those people and not everyone else who says “I feel like it might be this” while they have no knowledge. Listen to the people who know racism and listen to the people who are going through it.
When it comes to self-reflection, we have to ask, “What are the implicit biases that I have? What are the problematic things I think and say?” And then we have be open to change coupled with the intention to do better. We are people of ihsan [spiritual cultivation] and we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard than ourselves and everyone else.
Therefore, anti-racist work is Prophetic work because when we learn, we grow. The Prophet said “Knowledge is the lost property of the believers”. So as Muslims, we gain when we learn things. But we have to be willing to learn. We cannot think that it is not our problem and that it doesn’t apply to us. We have to take the opportunities to learn and grow and to become a better person.
Trendy Activism & Inner Work
Recent events have meant that so many people in the Muslim community have become much more aware of certain things. But we have to be weary of falling into “trend activism” and just doing things because it’s trendy. People are feeling the pressure to post #blacklivesmatter, but the reality is that it means so much more to do the work in real life. It is better to try and expand your circles and your knowledge. We have to do both; the internal and external work and social media is just a small part of it.
Allah says in Surah al-Hujarat (49:13):
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
Oftentimes, people quote this ayat but don’t really think about it. What does it mean “to know one another”? It doesn’t just mean “I know something about you”. Instead, it means that we need to know more and build a relationship. In the story of Abu Dharr and Bilal, it was easier for them to remedy to what had happened because they had a relationship before. They weren’t strangers to each other so it was easier for them to heal.
We have to expand our circles and get to know one another – for non-Black Muslims it means getting to know Black Muslims. Learn their stories and build relationships with them with the intention of fulfilling this Quranic ayat. This intention also prevents people from doing things out of pity. Do it out of a place of wanting to do better, not from the position of being righteous and thinking that you are doing people favours. If you do it out of genuine interest and genuine care for people, the situation changes.
Don’t let your care for Black people be online alone. In a few months from now, where are you going to be? Are you going to have the same ideas that you had before? Are you going to have the same conversations that you had before? No, you should be using this time to get better, to find out more, to follow Black organizations and follow Black Muslim leaders and scholars and importantly to help fund these projects by Black Muslim leaders.
Do the internal work to discover yourself – do reading, watch some documentaries, get to know Black people, learn about people and establish real relationships out of genuine care. And then once you have some knowledge, call people out when they are wrong, but do so with adab [etiquette]. And know that this work is for Allah and it is for the Prophet and this is why you do it.
May we have success with establishing justice and removing the stain of racism from our hearts.