Qur’anic thoughts on colour and ethnicity

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Race, ethnicity and nationality are all matters that are highly conflated in popular discourse. These posts attempt to unpick them before moving on to social ramifications and politics (in the context of the UK) in order to provide a very basic and structured account from first principles.

What is a ‘race’?

‘Race’ is a form of social grouping that ultimately has no physical or biological meaning. In Europe, some of the first known uses of the word come from the 16th century, when it referred to people of a common stock, like a family or tribe, but was also seen as something fluid rooted in geography which easily shifted by moving location or joining another social grouping and/or religion. The idea that race is a hard and fixed idea that cannot be chosen and is inherited came slowly, but in large part from Enlightenment science (around 1700s) with the classifications of humans corresponding to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. The concept of race has always been very slippery, and common usage has been based on an arbitrary and superficial selection of external characteristics. As anthropologists and geneticists have learned, up to 90 percent of genetic diversity sits within old-fashioned racial categories, NOT between them. So being of the same ‘race’ doesn’t necessarily mean people are more genetically similar. What essentially makes people and nations seem different is language and culture, something we loosely refer to as ethnicity, but which too has a fallacious ‘racial’ component to it (to be discussed in the next post).

“So what does Islam say?”

Well ‘Islam’ doesn’t say anything and prevailing ideas about true subservience to God and the role of ‘religion’ is a paradigm, alongside race and ethnicity, that we need to reconstruct. The simplistic “Islam says…” is not only an inaccurate way to start the conversation but leads to all sorts of problems (which I’ll point out in later posts). But according to God’s account of reality as conveyed by Abraham and successive prophets and messengers of God – those who came to deliver Abraham’s religion (referred to as millah Ibrahim in Qur’anic Arabic), race is a construction made up entirely by men, and as we’ve seen, used for degenerate goals.

“What did God say about arbitrary selection of external characteristics, that is, what we refer to as ‘race’?”

Well people tend to revert to the verse about nations/peoples and tribes (49:13) when discussing ‘race’, but the use of this verse for such purposes is deeply misguided. God is not referring to what we identify as races but social communities, and consequently, using the verse in this way falsely establishes the concept of race which God isn’t even referring to.

Where God does refer to the various hues amongst peoples, He situates it amongst the general variation of colour in all created things. The theist’s job is to see such variation and acknowledge such signs of God’s creative ability:

Have you not considered how God sends water down from the sky and that We produce with it fruits of varied colours; that there are in the mountains layers of white and red of various hues, and jet black; that there are various colours among human beings, wild animals, and livestock too? It is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in true awe of God.

Qur’an 35:27-28

SO according to God’s account of reality which clarifies the objectives for some of God’s creative choices, the “various colours among human beings” along with the other things He mentions, are both as aesthetically meaningful, and socially meaningless, as various hues found in nature.

Through these, God intended to instil a sense of reverential awe (khash’yah) in those of intellect and wisdom which tells us that those who fail to do so instead turning to prejudice have abandoned intelligence for stupidity. Many are accustomed to citing verse 28 to establish the virtue and station of a scholarly class (ulama), but the verse is actually in direct reference to those able to appreciate colourful diversity and acknowledge both the beauty of God’s creation and His supreme ability (qudrah), which results in godly awe (khash’yah).

In Surah Fatir (The Creator), the context of these passages is profoundly informative, where the explicit point of a variety of colours in creation is couched in a narrative that repudiates haughtiness and arrogance. It reminds us that those whom the final Prophet (and other Prophets) was sent to warn are the enlightened, motivated by a reverential awe of God (khash’yah) which ought to necessitate scriptural observance and a commitment to following His messengers. These verses offer the following sequence:

Recognising God’s ability in the diversity of colours > reverential awe of God (khash’yah) > affirming and adhering to God’s scriptures.

So colourism inhibits a person from one of the God-instituted means required to benefit from God’s scriptures.

From amongst the heinous aspects of colourism is that it means rejecting God’s signs, ignoring His creative choices that represent beauty, an abject failure to marvel at all of these in awe of God, and a betrayal of His divine will. It’s to imply that God got creation wrong, that His signs are feeble, and His judgements pointless.

What is ethnicity?

Like race, ethnicity is a social grouping, but one that extends beyond arbitrary external characteristics like pigmentation or hair type. Ethnicity is also a fluid term that’s hard to pin down, but most understandings include the idea that it is a social grouping that identify with a common language and culture. However, in being a social group, it is something we choose, and it is possible for individuals or groups to leave one ethnic group and become part of another. People use ethnicity to identify themselves, typically because they feel that it intrinsically says something about them, their values and ways of living. Some assert that it also includes common history and/or ancestry, but there are many examples of ethnicity not being used in this way. What we ought to keep in mind once again is that it is a modern concept that attempts to define a social identity.

For some, social identities can be uncomfortable. But is it wrong?

No, and in fact God makes reference to them throughout human history, also making the point a final time in the Qur’an:

…and made you into peoples and tribes so that you recognise one another.

Qur’an 49:13

Although a lot can be said about the possible meaning of the ancient Arabic words sha’b (peoples) and qabilah (tribe) – such as sha’b referring to sub-tribes and not peoples/nations, there is a full and persuasive argument that sha’b refers to nations/peoples – social groups in which diverse individuals live together sharing a language and social culture, and where ancestry is of little significance (such as the UK or US), as opposed to tribes where people identify themselves as descending from a common stock (like the Children of Israel who descended from Jacob). My point here isn’t to say that the Qur’an entirely speaks to our modern understanding of ethnicity but to highlight that there is certainly a crossover.

A Quranic view:

As the verse intimates, social groupings – whether it’s where people live together sharing a common ancestry and historical cultural heritage or where people come to live together as the natural consequence of human migration – were fashioned over the course of human history as part of God’s plan, one objective being that it would be a means of identifying people.

But why the need of identification if all people could simply be one?

It is a recurrent wisdom of God to put humans in circumstances to employ their intellects in forming sound judgements, based on reason and affirming God’s account of reality. When it comes to diverse groups of humans, the people of īmān (faith) are to recognise God’s creative ability: that from a pair of humans He “spread countless men and women far and wide,” (4:1) and granted “the diversity of your languages and colours. There are truly signs in this for those who know.” (30:22)

It is often overlooked how īmān affords a positive way of interacting with the world around us. Rather than follow the example of satan, we are called to embody īmān which is supposed to diminish xenophobia, racism, colourism, prejudice and a suspicious attitude towards others. As God put it, “Believers, no one group of men should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are evildoers.” This is not to mention, “avoid making too many assumptions – some assumptions are sinful – and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs.” (49:11-12)

So far, it’s all quite simple:
  1. There are no such things as “races” – categorisations based on arbitrary selections of external characteristics that are absolutely meaningless.
  2. Importing ‘race’ into the scriptures or prophetic narrations is anachronistic – today’s concept of ‘race’ didn’t exist back then.
  3. God characterises social groupings of people based on a shared language and culture that are mutable (peoples/nations), or such commonalities along with common ancestry (tribes).
  4. We choose our identities and social groups, just as we choose to adopt a language or culture.
  5. In all matters, intelligent believers seek to make the best choices that also lead to the best outcomes.

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