Before moving on to discussing the ‘black experience’ in private communal contexts (mosques, Muslim spaces etc), it is important to differentiate between two different things:
- a black identity – internal representation of an individual based on colour
- the ‘black experience’ – external (shared) treatment of an individual based on the perception of others. It comes from being racialised as ‘black’ which then becomes the basis of prejudice, inequality and marginalisation.
As I’ve made clear, I’m coming from a shar’ī Abrahamic perspective. As for those seeking a lens or a sense of self-determination from other sources, then as always one is free to do as they see fit. But I share with those believers targeted with the black experience an entire outlook on how to view (and identify) ourselves, the world around us, and the best ways we proceed in any given situation – all deeply informed by God’s account of reality gleaned from revelation. What I write in these posts relate to this.
Please note, I’m trying to keep these posts extremely brief and I acknowledge that they do not address many of the possible contentions that may be raised. Hopefully, I’ll follow up and clarify elsewhere for those interested.
A black identity
A ‘race’ is a social group based on arbitrary characteristics. A black identity is a political one, it is not a positive one: calling someone ‘black’ (or identifying as such) doesn’t tell us anything about a person’s language, culture, values, norms, outlook, or relationship with God (and yes this also goes for a ‘white’ identity although this identity was created to denote something positive in juxtaposition to being black). It denotes an experience rooted in marginalisation, being subjected to prejudice and discrimination, and racialised brutality. The assumptions behind the racialisation are fallacious: those racialised aren’t homogeneous: skin tones and hair types vary, so too do languages, faiths and cultures. If one says it’s based on those who look ‘African’ then what’s being missed is that Africa is a colossal continent with thousands of groups and languages, and people who look entirely different across it. If one asserts that it’s about people of African heritage, then *newsflash* we ALL have that heritage somewhere up the line, no matter how straight your hair or light your complexion. What’s interesting is that most people in Africa do not identify as ‘black’ nor internalise ‘blackness’. Before European colonialism diverse sets of people usually identified with their tribe or nation (a common language and culture). Those from the African continent who do so in more recent times have done so as a reaction to being invaded by white supremacists and being designated black by those supremacists. It is a nefarious pigmentation-based designation meant as a defining value of the human being.
So how do believers relate to this imposed identity? Well given that it comes from a disbelieving (kufri) mentality that groups all of these independent and diverse humans into one category (initially for the purposes of maltreatment which still informs its use) then to use it as a pervasive means of reference, or internalise this kufr-inspired proposition as a means of realising a self-identity, seems flawed.
The truth is that in a neutral (and thus normative) setting, people would NEVER identify as black if such racialisation wasn’t imposed on them by the disbelievers and would find it quite bizarre. What we ought to keep in mind is:
- As believers, we should NEVER allow disbelievers to dictate or shape how we view ourselves.
- To assume that we shall find ultimate emancipation in the very same label and associated identity used for our subjugation (i.e. blackness) is strange. And taking on the term but with an eye to alter the negative connotations seems misplaced, since (a) we still end up reducing ourselves to pigmentation which no one else does, (b) we remove ourselves from the context of a profoundly meaningful and greater human history God places us in, and (c) the linguistic baggage around ‘black’ is profoundly entrenched.
- It is offensive to God that skin complexion affords us any understanding of a human, let alone end up being a totalising one. This overwhelming delusion doesn’t just underly many societies, but as a reactive measure has become embraced by those dehumanised by the entire racialisation project. No other groups of humans self-identify by their pigmentation other than those disbelievers who gave ‘blacks’ such a designation (white supremacists) and locate a sense of supremacy in the entire project.
The black experience
So am I saying that calling someone (or yourself) ‘black’ is ultimately wrong or inaccurate? Not necessarily so (and it’s a tangent to be unpacked and discussed elsewhere), but *before* we progress to discussing the use of terms and what we mean by them, we FIRST have to recognise what it is we’re talking about or attempting to internalise. (I acknowledge that there is a difference between something being a limited physical description and an identity.) My only point at this juncture is to question the idea that believers either confer or internalise an identity based on ‘blackness’.
However, this is not to deny the black experience – that some of us are racialised as ‘black’ by others (since we did not choose this designation for ourselves) and face negative treatment as a result, some of which I detailed in the previous post. And I think that it is reasonable that those of us who share this experience might be drawn to some sense of likeness as a result.
So what does the shar’ī Abrahamic lens mean?
Well in this context, it means rejecting the characterisations of supremacist disbelievers, not internalising them – the Prophet of God would never allow the leaders of disbelief (a’immat al-kufr) like Abu Jahl or Abu Lahab negatively define the believers (whether it was by their pigmentation or anything else), and yes, they actually tried to do so with respect to Bilal b. Abi Rabah, Ammar b. Yasir, and other notable prophetic companions (ṣahābah). But avoiding the internalisation of an identity in no way means negating an experience, and as believers we are committed to dismantling the structures that create the black experience (as well as any other form of jāhilīyah). And rightly, this moment is about the ‘black experience’, just as there are other moments where the injustices others face are raised. Bringing up every other cause in this moment, or attempting to generalise this specific struggle with “all lives matter” is simply a nefarious attempt to undermine this one.
In our view, where are we ultimately going?
The activism God calls us to, is to work towards an environment that is conducive to tawhīd and hanīfīyah (monotheism and Abrahamic values) – the higher objective of any shar’ī activist. What mustn’t be lost on the believers is that anti-racism is not merely a goal in and of itself: racism (and colourism) are symptoms of shirk and jāhilīyah (shirk inspired culture) which are the foundations from which this problem has arisen. My point in this post is not to undermine work towards achieving greater equality in our society, but to point out to believers that our mission is twofold: that we seek to weaken what creates the ‘black experience’ in our society whilst keeping in mind that its ultimate cause is a jāhilī mentality which can only be holistically remedied by an Abrahamic outlook. This is how we plan to meet God in the afterlife.
For those with a godly outlook, since the age of the ancient Mesopotamians (and even before), alongside our respective tribes or peoples we have identified as those who have submitted to the one true God: “Strive hard for God as is His due: He has chosen you and placed no hardship in your faith, the religion of your forefather Abraham. God has called you submitters (to Him) both in the past and in this (message)…” (22:78)
Now some will understandably say: “Well Muslims can be racists, so religion doesn’t work here.” Some points in response:
- I’m not calling to ‘Muslimness’, I advocate the religion of Abraham as Muhammad the final messenger of God did. This is not a ‘religion’ but a totalising lens with which to view oneself and the world around us. The response is based on a faulty understanding of subservience to God (with which I can sympathise due to religious illiteracy) which views deen through an anthropological lens and boils deen down to what people do, not what God says. It’s also a racialised perspective where your faith is what you inherit rather than what you are compelled by, and it usually comes from those who feel that they cannot compel others from a shar’ī perspective. But this then says more about them than the strength or weakness of an approach.
- For some, this response is motivated by a stronger belief in the efficacy of secular approaches (whether liberal or post-colonial) than the sunan (ways) of the Prophets. It’s not that they don’t believe in shar’ī constructs, but they either engage with them as mere theory, or they think that people won’t accept them. But perhaps if they put in *as much effort* into learning shar’ī outlooks and educating others with it as they do reading books on anti-racism activism and working with it they’d see the difference they’re dubious about. (Please note that there’s a lot of good work out there on anti-blackness and how its perpetuated which ought to inform our work.)
- People who call themselves Muslims do not represent the values of God’s Law and Way unless they internalise and live by them. As for those who demonstrate or internalise racism, the term Muslim doesn’t make them any less jāhilī (paganistic), and they require education and confrontation just like anyone else. We have the choice of confronting them with either secular informed or shar’ī-informed anti-racism activism. Ultimately, the former uses social pressures whereas the latter employs these along with a remedying account of reality from God which is far more transformative across the board, whilst resolving inevitable challenges that arise in the process.