By Anthony Hardy
“My father always complains about how Islam has broad acceptance in the African-American community but not in the White American one,” said a Pakistani friend of mine as he handed me a cup of chai. “He doesn’t like how many African-American brothers come to Islam through the prisons and stuff like that. He wished more middle class White Americans were Muslims. He disdains Islam being associate with the lower class in this country.”
I shouted, “Wait? What? Is he serious?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Hasn’t he read the seerah [biography of the Prophet]? Hasn’t he read the Qur’ān? The people most receptive to the message are the exploited and downtrodden. That’s how it usually works. In America, that means Blacks, Latinos, and women!”
“It must be nice,” I told a White Muslimah friend of mine, “to have people approach you for marriage so frequently in the masjid. I mean, your beauty is a constantly being reinforced, unlike Black beauty. I’m sure it helps with your self-esteem.”
“Yeah, it was nice,” she admitted.
“Was? What do you mean by was?
“Well, it was nice…until I realized why they were asking me. The aunties and Arabs were only approaching me because I was White and because they wanted lily-white children. Once I figured that out, I just stopped entertaining their request. That’s one reason why I stopped going to the masjid altogether. I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal.”
While shopping for naan and daal in an Indian store with some Pakistani friends, I happened to browse the cosmetic section. I found a package of “Fair & Lovely: MAX Fairness for Men.” I had heard about this cream from my Indian and Pakistani friends, but I didn’t know it was sold in America or even that it could be sold here.
I read the label:
“…fight [the] darkening of your skin due to your active lifestyle.”
I laughed aloud. No amount of cream was going to lighten my melanin-enriched skin. My friends joined in my laughter when they saw what I had found. Afterwards I put it back on the shelf.
My laughing spell continued in the car ride home. One of my friends asked me, “What’s so funny man?”
I answered, “Because it’s all so darkly comical: White people here destroy their bodies to look like Brown people and Brown people there destroy their bodies to look like White people. Everyone wants to be something other than what Allāh has made them, and they all make themselves sick in the process.”
A wise Muslim woman, who happened to be a White convert, once told me that my skin color, despite the hardships attached to it, is actually a blessing in disguise: she described it as a filter which would sift through those individuals who are not serious about their commitment to higher religious or moral principles, whereas she and her family, all of whom are White, will always have to worry about people dissembling their commitment to those principles for her and her family’s Whiteness. She said my dark skin was a test for them, one many of whom are failing miserably.
“So an auntie was trying to find a wife for me,” a Latino Muslim friend of mine told me, “but when they saw my pictures, they said I looked ‘too Mexican.”
I laughed a little on the outside—died a little on the inside. He is handsome in his own right, a Mexican man with German heritage. The German traits dominate his physical appearance.
I replied, “Just exactly how are you suppose to look?”
“I don’t know bro. ‘Too Mexican’? What does that even mean?”
“It means you’re the right skin color – White or White-looking in your case – but you come from the wrong culture.”
He nodded. “That’s Jahiliyya [ignorance] man.”
I continued, “I know. But cheer up. You’re better off than me: at least you’re on the right side of the color line. I’m both the wrong skin color, and I come from the wrong culture.”
Midway into my nine-year tenure as a Muslim, I returned to my hometown to visit the religious community of my upbringing. Standing there in the middle of a giant cathedral, gazing at the beautiful stained glass renditions of New Testament scenes, I began to reflect on my experiences as a Black Muslim convert in America. The Muslims I had chanced upon who hailed from abroad or whose parents hailed from abroad were in fact beneficiaries both of the injustices perpetrated against Blacks and of the “universal” franchise that resulted from the struggles against those selfsame injustices; and yet, this stark reality was seldom if ever brought to the fore at conferences, masjids, Muslim Student Associations, or Islamic centers, or what have you: rather, what I saw and heard was a community by and large preoccupied with the preservation of culture – some of which contain elements of anti-Black or anti-dark-skin bias – or obsessed with producing fair-skinned progeny or enamored with prospects of making Islam more palpable to the palates of the White middle class in America – itself a byproduct of anti-Black racism – while at the same time both relegating and denigrating the very community so instrumental in their success and indeed their very existence in America in the first instance.
To employ sacred history, by way of metaphor: the Muhajir (Immigrant), when he arrived in Medina, kicked sand into the eyes of the Ansari (Helper) man; and when the Ansari was doubled over in pain, trying to remove the sand from his eyes, the Muhajir climbed on his back, to elevate himself to a higher plane and then proceeded to disparage him for his state.
This monumental incongruity made me realize many self-proclaimed and perhaps well-intentioned Muslims do in fact worship multiple gods, and one of the modern deities that has caused many others, including myself, so much difficulty within large segments of the Muslim community and around the world happens to be – for lack of a better word – a White god or a god of Whiteness whereby the standards, sensibilities, sensitivities, and suspicions of certain classes of people become not just normalized but something for which to appease and sacrifice. The only difference I could gather that day is that whereas other communities tended to be more open, honest, and straightforward in their personifications and anthropomorphizations of this god, the Prophetic directives in Sunni Islam not to depict God or His Prophets and even the racial, ethnic, and tribal egalitarianism promulgated by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) tended to obscure the historic and contemporary reality of bias against darker bodies and of predilection for fairer ones.
By my estimation, many Muslims are racially agnostic at best: the tragic irony in this racial agnosticism or the unwillingness to deal with the issue is that it perpetuates and exacerbates racism within the community, creating a staggering dissonance of nonsensical proportions. Moreover, the inability to discuss the issue effectively means it does not exist and raises it beyond critique. One can quote the Prophet ﷺ and say “No White man is better than a Black man” or recite the popular platitude “There is no racism in Islam” or appeal to the racially progressive nature of the Prophet’s career or even name his children after prominent Black Companions of the Prophet and yet be rubbing “Fair and Lovely” on her skin to “beautify herself” or requesting “fair” women for marriage in public matrimonial advertisements or telling their children to “avoid too much exposure to the sun lest you become dark and therefore unattractive” or assert something seemingly innocuous as “Blacks are scary” or Black converts are “a dime a dozen.” Very few would be the wiser.
The irony of this glaring dissonance reminded me of Al-Lāt, Al-‘Uzza, and Manat, the mighty triumvirate of the pagan Arabian pantheon, and how the capricious conclusions drawn from idolatry and polytheism are often illogical, inconsistent, and, to be blunt, asinine. Our sacred history informs us the Prophet ﷺ had these stone effigies smashed to smithereens after the conquest of Mecca. I contend, however, these idols were never really destroyed; they merely took more imperceptible, incorporeal forms: instead of sacrificing for a god or goddess fashioned from stone, wood, or date pit, now sacrifices made for modern deities are intended to placate false, arbitrary ideals of what it means to be beautiful, intelligent, pure, civilized, rich, honorable, valuable, successful, wise, and – most of important of all – human; instead of sacrificing for and finding nobility within the aegis of an inviolable set of transcendent principles dictated by Allāh, subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), Himself and His Prophets, modern Muslims are content to destroy their bodies, their communities, their families, their children, their religion, and maybe even the integrity of their hearts and souls to achieve an empty, ephemeral sense of honor and worth.
“So have you considered al-Lat and al-‘Uzza? And Manat, the third – the other one?” (Qur’ān, 53:19-20)
“Those who take disbelievers as allies instead of the believers. Do they seek with them honor [through power]? But indeed, honor belongs to Allah entirely.” (Qur’ān, 4:139)
Yes Allāh, honor it is they seek in something other than You. I finally understood my mother’s fear of “becoming White”: shirk à la modernity.
These words are not written with sorrow. I’ve shed far too many tears already for this community, enough to fill a suburban pool thrice over.
Nor are these words are not written with anguish. I’ve spent the better part of my tenure as a Muslim being angry to the point where I resided in such deep and dark nadirs that I existed in a state of oblivion regarding the blessings of my Lord.
Nor are these words written with pain. I’ve become desensitized in many respects to my own pain out of psychological necessity.
Nor are these the words of another Black convert to Islam who has faced insurmountable difficulties within the community for petty, superficial reasons. The Internet is inundated with such tales. Communities are filled with them as well. I therefore see absolutely no need to contribute to this sphere. If Muslims were so inclined to our struggles, they could sadly find those stories with minimal effort. Besides, imitation is the highest form of flattery: if the sacrifices and privations of converts were as inspiring as the community would have us believe then I would expect to see many others attempting to follow in our paths and make the sacrifices we are willing to make for the sake of the faith. Unfortunately, I don’t find this to be the case.
These are the ruminations of a detached wayfarer, one without a home who is just passing through trying to reach his destination: it’s far better not to have a home if having one means residing in the septic tank. The usage of this metaphor is, for me, quite literal, since, as I mentioned, in the wake of Jim Crow and the White Flight, the powers that be in my hometown decided to erect a sewage and water treatment in the Black neighborhood where God Himself chose to place me. This depiction is all too familiar for what awaits many converts after they declare shahadah (the testimony of faith), especially if they happen to be Black, even more so if they happen to be Black women. The way I see it, my ancestors had to endure this relegation for fear of violent reprisal. I, however, do not have to nor will I, especially at the hands of Muslims whose hues are often just as brown, if not darker, as mine own flesh and who are just as much victims of the same oppressive discrimination and just as susceptible to the caustic regimes of thought as I am.
These are the words of a young Muslim man who sincerely suspects many of his fellow co-religionists may be guilty of committing the worst sin in Islam, the only unforgivable one. And what’s worse: they may not even be aware of it.
These are the words of a soul attempting to cut the world asunder and peer at its core in an attempt to see what has gone awry.
I don’t expect my words will be heeded or taken seriously. I find many Muslims lack the sagacity and internal fortitude needed to rise to the occasion and confront the issues plaguing this community, whether it’s racism, colorism, tribalism, sexism or whatever the case may be. And if they are received, I doubt they will be received kindly. In “post-racial, colorblind” America, no one wants to have honest dialogue about race, including many Muslims, who are just as hypersensitive about color privilege and predilection in their own communities as many Whites are about White privilege in America. And even if they are received kindly, I seldom doubt the presence of the necessary courage needed to induce substantive change exists. Muslims excel at paying lip service and empty rhetoric; when it comes to walking-the-walk I find them languid.
Still, the inevitable pushback notwithstanding, I write these words in the spirit of the Prophet who informed us that religion is sound advice and who said that to change something with the tongue or words is the second tier of iman (faith). I am locked into this second tier because what afflicts Muslims and indeed much of the world cannot be changed with actions, the first tier, as the malaise is lodged both in the mind and the heart; and not even the Prophet ﷺ, best example of creation, could modify the hearts of his contemporaries.
I therefore would like to say this to my fellow Muslims who may chance upon what I’ve written here: it is our duty before our Lord to challenge idols of our times with due diligence and vigilance, whatever they may be, wherever they may be. The Prophet’s destruction of the idols in the Ka’bāh is symbolic to what we should be doing for the rest of our lives, for the remainder of time itself. The idolatry of olden times is far too crass to exist within the Muslim community today. Ancient, physical idols have been supplanted with ideological ones; the effects upon society, however, remain the same.
To be clear, what I’m writing about has little to do with White or fair skinned people per se: if anything, the false ideals to which I’m referring have the capacity to be just as damaging to White and fairer-skinned people. I’m sure my words will vibe with those people. I’m talking about a pernicious constellation of ideas that goes unchallenged because of cowardice, because of ignorance, and because of a degree of buy-in on the part of many people, Muslims especially.
I present this to the community with the hopes to commencing serious, heart-felt conversations about what ails us. I realize the gravity of my claims and I do not take them lightly. It is my solemn prayer that those who read this won’t take them lightly either.
I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two —
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.
— Langston Hughes, “Tired”