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Can Muslims be racist?

Can Muslims be racist?

Ten years ago I worked a temporary job in a factory during the summer holidays from university. There I once met in passing a Pakistani gentleman who was to say something to me that I still remember to this day. When he learned during a conversation on the production line that I was studying an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, he asked: “Maybe you can do some research and find out why English people are superior to us?” At the time I just smiled politely and carried on working, but I have found myself recalling this man’s statement, and the underlying sentiment it betrayed, increasingly commonly over the last decade. At first I thought, what a poor soul he was to suffer from an inferiority complex after the colonisation of his ancestors. However, engaging with different kinds of Muslim discourse and activism in recent years has given me the impression that this man merely expresses openly what many of us have internalised without even realising.

This came to mind strangely enough as I was trying to make sense of the incidents on London buses a few weeks ago caught on camera, where a black woman in one case and a black man in another, verbally abused and threatened to physically harm some Muslim passengers. In their respective tirades, which lasted several minutes each, they made reference to the most egregious racist language against those Muslims; language that would even make the editors of The Sun shy. Many articles and comment pieces were written, the videos were shared far and wide amongst Muslims and even mainstream news websites, and the perpetrators, within days, turned themselves in to the police, ostensibly showing signs of remorse and fear for their safety.[1][2]

These events sparked a slew of racial slurs against the perpetrators by some foolish Muslims, which then led to some Black brothers and sisters understandably being offended. Some used this as an opportunity to highlight what they felt was racism within the Muslim community that they had suffered. It led me to ask myself and others the question: can Black/Minority Ethnic (BME) individuals actually be racist? The little sociology I had been exposed to came to my mind on the nature of race, racism, privilege, and so on. The occurrence of prejudice and discord between BME and whites is something well known. However, I was trying to grapple with something different: minorities appropriating racist language towards one another; and the more I read on this subject the more I remembered this man from the factory.

Many have highlighted the unfortunate existence of racial prejudice within some Muslim communities, and they should be commended for this. Many have done excellent work to address some of the ignorance that exists that contributes to this problem. I believe, however, that in order to fully rid the Muslim mind of the disease of racism and racial prejudice, giving a lecture on the life of Sayyiduna Bilāl (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) or a list of Islamic evidences about unity and brotherhood will not do the job. I do not think many Muslims need to be told by an Islamic scholar that oppressing, mocking or insulting another person is something forbidden in Islām. Rather, in our arsenal we must have a process of decolonising the Muslim mind and purifying it of the stains and characteristics of Jāhiliya (pre-Islamic ignorance).

Firstly, let us think about the concept of race.

Race is a social construct, like money—something with no material or credible scientific basis, but merely a convention society agrees on.[3] Our experience of race appears to be fundamentally euro-centric, although other cultures have had similar constructs such as the Hindu caste system. From the outset, it is worthy of note that the Islamic worldview does not seem to accept the notion of race as we understand it today. Rather, from the sources and early discourses in Islām, notions like tribes, lineages and people’s geographical locations seem to be the closest analogies, which were all trumped by a new classification of human beings the Quranic message introduced: those who profess belief in and acceptance of its message, and those who do not. It was partly for going against this Divine categorisation the Munāfiqūn of Madīna were censured when they referred to the Muslims of Madīna as “O people of Yathrib” instead of “O believers.”[4] Incidentally, the fuqahā (Islamic jurists) appear to even reject the notion of citizenship being necessitated by where one was born, but rather one’s consciously chosen or professed way of life and values are what qualifies them for full citizenship of the Muslim nation.

Though race as we know it is a social construct invented outside of the traditional Islamic worldview, it must not be ignored. This is because—whether we like it or not—it exists in our cultures today due to many factors (that we can thank European history for), as a means of social stratification and subjugation. Ignoring race would be ignoring a monumental historical and on-going system of injustice. It is also important to note that “Muslim-ness” is also a racialised social construct in our time (as explained in: Islamophobia IS Racism[5]).

Arguably the Muslims’ aim should be not to ignore these social constructs but to confront them and work towards their eventual dismantlement as constructs – for future generations. Indeed it would be a sign of a colonised mind to maintain perpetually these ignorant and unjust inventions imposed upon us by others. It does not take an anthropologist to recognise that racism (or even race) does not come naturally to mankind, but it is a quickly learned behaviour particularly for a child unfortunate enough to have a jāhili upbringing. Anyone with experience in raising children recognises that the pure fitra Allāh created human beings upon does not automatically acknowledge these constructs.

What about racism?

In sociology, racism is not just racial prejudice, but it describes a systematic disadvantage based on race, where one race is either explicitly or implicitly privileged above another. This is why it is important not to ignore race whilst there exists racism or indeed racial prejudice. It may seem like a trivial or pedantic point but the consequences of ignoring the difference between racial prejudice and racism—the systematic abuse of power and privilege—in fact include an exacerbation of the problem.[6] As the sociologists’ argument goes, individual instances of racial prejudice can occur to anyone from any group. However, the reasoning as to why Blacks cannot be racist towards Whites is because the former do not stand to benefit from the latter’s systematic and institutionalised disadvantage.

This is not to say that instances of racial prejudice do not exist, but when it does—as the argument goes—it is not called racism. This oft-refuted notion of BME individuals being ‘racist’ towards White people is called ‘reverse racism’. There is a wealth of written material refuting reverse racism, but when it comes to racism or racial prejudice amongst BME people including Muslims, more subtle and hidden notions like ‘internalised oppression’, ‘horizontal racism’ and ‘white passing’ theories come into play.

Horizontal racism

The recent events we are dealing with are instances of BME people exhibiting racial prejudice and language towards one another. This is not something new, in fact it had been a well-known tool for enduring subjugation over populations by colonisers: divide and rule. The Belgian colonisation of what is today Rwanda is a poignant example of strategically favouring the Tutsis over the Hutus[7] to create a rift between them which precipitated a genocide a century later. They were both subjugated compared to the colonisers but distinguished from one another. Furthermore, racial prejudice can occur within the same ‘race’ as well, with members appropriating and perpetuating narratives and standards of normativity prescribed by the normalised (white) group.

If someone thinks that they are free from this then chances are they are infected without even knowing. For example, what kind of view do we have of people who come “fresh off the boat” from the lands of our forefathers? How do we react when we hear their broken English and their inability to grasp aspects of our culture, idioms and norms? How do young brothers and sisters feel when they are seen in public with their own parents even, who may stand out because of their ‘otherness’? How much money is spent on beauty products designed to make dark skinned sisters look and feel ‘fair and lovely’? How do we react to the history of concentration camps and extermination of innocent white Jews compared to innocent Black Africans?[8][9] Think about what our notions of beauty are, of success, of what is ‘normal’, and to a dangerous extent, what is right and wrong; our values.

I cannot put it as eloquently as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz, also known as Malcolm X:

“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much that you don’t want to be around each other?”

White passing

Many have grown up internalising stereotypes about their own identity, or with an inherent inferiority complex about their own race or culture. This leads to something referred to as white-passing, where some people may temporarily or permanently pass off as the ‘normalised’ or ‘superior’ group, and even adopt the racism of this group against their own or another minority. This appears to be what had taken place on the buses recently. Members of another minority ethnicity appropriated the Islamophobic language and rhetoric invented by the privileged on another minority—in this case Muslims.

It is also reminiscent of the traditional ‘Uncle Tom’; the House Negro who sold out his fellow Africans for favour with the slave masters; those Jews that fought for Hitler despite his desires to exterminate their own people; those “Muslims” and “Ex-Muslims” today who jump at the opportunity of showing how enlightened and superior they are—like the dominant, normalised culture around them—compared to those backwards, inferior, extreme Muslims.

So what does this all mean?

In order to truly overcome race related issues in our community, we need to wash our minds of the stains of colonialism and subjugation. A culture where Black Muslims suffer racial prejudice or racism from other Muslims is a culture that is still deeply influenced by characteristics of Jāhiliya. We need to purge our minds of inferiority and subjugation to manmade frames of reference and normativity, whether this be in what constitutes beauty, success, honour or values. This is why it does not require teaching merely the fact that racism is harām—much like we do not need to be told that salāh is obligatory. Once we know those simple truths we need to carve out a more nuanced, tarbiya-based approach to changing an individual and society’s habits and culture.

One can argue that we are all culpable if racism and racial prejudice exists in our midst, even those that do not take part in the abuse personally. Undoing the brainwashing, countering racist propaganda and biased reporting that leads to subconscious racism,[10] and otherwise decolonising the modern Muslim mind requires a proactive effort.

Those brothers and sisters who do experience racial prejudice—especially from other Muslims—need to highlight this problem with wisdom and above all, not let it cause them to feel internally subjugated. Optimism is central to our īmān,[11] and we should not feel that the abuse we receive is happening outside the Sight and Knowledge of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā). You should treat it as an opportunity to come close to Him as He is giving you an opportunity to enjoin good and forbid evil; to tackle an injustice for His sake, not to gain sympathy or pity from men.

Those brothers and sisters who, upon sincere introspection, find something in their hearts against one racial group or another, and are honest enough to admit it to themselves, should receive glad tidings for the fact that they are aware of it. It is far worse to be unaware or yet worse in denial. Perhaps Allāh has given you this test because He loves to see His slaves struggling and striving against their own hearts to please Him alone.

It would be a shame for the ummah that was sent as an example for the rest of mankind,[12] due to the enlightened, Divine values of Islām, not to take those values seriously and instead seek honour in other than them, leading to the problems outlined above. We take for granted that these values are what brought the world out of the darkness of Jāhiliya into enlightenment. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was the earliest human being in known history to explicitly state the equality of all colours, only distinguished due to their taqwa. Those who benefit from the increasing inequality of humans and disempowerment of the masses have succeeded greatly in separating the Muslim ummah from the enlightening values of Islām.

This is essentially what Malcolm X wrote in a letter that Allāh had decreed only to be discovered recently:[13]

“If white Americans could accept the religion of Islam, if they could accept the Oneness of God (Allah) they too could then sincerely accept the Oneness of Men, and cease to measure others always in terms of their ‘difference in color’ (sic). And with racism now plaguing in America like an incurable cancer all thinking Americans should be more respective to Islam as an already proven solution to the race problem.

“The American Negro could never be blamed for his racial “animosities” because his are only reaction or defense mechanism which is subconscious intelligence has forced him to react against the conscious racism practiced (initiated against Negroes in America) by American Whites. But as America’s insane obsession with racism leads her up the suicidal path, nearer to the precipice that leads to the bottomless pits below, I do believe that Whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, through their own young, less hampered intellects will see the “Handwriting on the Wall” and turn for spiritual salvation to the religion of Islam, and force the older generation to turn with them – This is the only way white America can worn off the inevitable disaster that racism always leads to…”[14]

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/16/black-woman-anti-muslim-rant-british-racism-islamophobia

[2] https://www.rt.com/uk/319186-islamophobic-bus-attack-turkish/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/06/16/how-fluid-is-racial-identity/race-and-racial-identity-are-social-constructs

[4] Al-Qur’an 33:13. The other more ostensive reason was they referred to it as Yathrib rather than Madīna. In either case, they used a designation of people from pre-Islām.

[5] https://www.islam21c.com/politics/islamophobia-is-racism/

[6] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/7/15/884494/-Reading-Racism-Right-to-Left:-Reflections-on-a-Powerful-Word-and-Its-Applications

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rwandan_Genocide#Background

[8] http://www.filmsforaction.org/news/when_you_kill_ten_million_africans_you_arent_called_hitler/

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/23/british-empire-crimes-ignore-atrocities

[10] http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2015/04/09/racial-bias-and-media-coverage-of-violent-crime/

Link to report: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.colorofchange.org/images/ColorOfChangeNewsAccuracyReportCardNYC.pdf

[11] https://www.islam21c.com/islamic-thought/in-pursuit-of-optimism/

[12] Al-Qur’ān 3:110

[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/malcolm-x-letter-found-and-now-on-sale_5624ee2fe4b0bce347013f14

[14] Text of the letter: http://momentsintime.com/the-most-remarkable-revelatory-letter-ever-written-by-malcolm-x/#.VleftMaRBSV

About Dr Salman Butt

Salman studied Biochemistry at Imperial College London followed by a PhD in Chemical Biology, carrying out research into photosynthesis. During his years at university he became involved in Islamic society da'wah and activism, and general Muslim community projects. He is the Chief Editor and a regular contributor at Islam21c, and also has a blog on the Huffington Post.


  1. Dear dr salman,
    In reply to your statement that blacks cannot be racist to whites and however it can be classified it “is not racism”, I beg to differ. I have married into a Somali family and the uncle brings up anti white, anti European and anti English/Russian/polish/German insults and jokes every time we meet without fail. The last time I met him he was laughing about English people being beaten up in France and one of them may die hahaha. I have read in Islam that uncles are like your parents, and if it weren’t for that I would most certainly have replied to his increasingly evil mocking jokes. I dread going to sit at my mother in laws house as I have to put up with this rubbish from him and makes me furious for days afterwards.

  2. Obviously, any kind of racism and bigotry towards any race is very wrong and un-Islamic, however If anything, “Sunni Muslims” at least in North America seem be going way, way overboard in the other direction.

    In the US Muslims bend over backward trying to please KAAFIR blacks/African Americans, no matter what they do. If Muslims (regardless of color) are criminals or drug dealers, the Muslim community, including the shuyookh will condemn them – and rightfully so! However, these kaafir/non-Muslim blacks (and really anyone “of color” including Latinos, and not from the “evil” white race – how is looking down on “whites” correct Islamically?) can do ANYTHING and yet the Sunni Muslims will automatically take their side no matter what and blame “whites” for it. A non-Muslim/kaafir black male can be a big time gangster, drug dealer, or serial killer and responsible for maybe killing dozens of people in cold blood (and usually other black people!) but Muslims will always blame “white racism.”

    Look, in the US it’s a fact that there are MANY (non-Muslim) black gangsters and thugs (I’m not saying there are not white criminals because there are, but Muslims ARE NOT excusing their acts!) in many of our cities committing MANY atrocious and violent crimes (and they are killing so many of each other, every day, to the point that sadly it’s basically like a “genocide”) and there are times when these blacks (again I stress they are kuffar) will riot and partially burn down various cities (i.e. Baltimore – BTW, they targeted “Muslim” Arab owned stores) but instead of Muslims saying this is very wrong and evil (just as it is totally wrong and evil when whites or other ethnic groups commit crimes or do bad things, etc.), they excuse every single thing that these various black thugs and gangsters are doing.

    But it gets WORSE, waaaaaay worse…

    Now what you see these days in North America is Sunni Muslims NOT calling out the evil, filthy, shaytanic, Mushrik, Nation of “Islam” (sic) and their leaders like the evil liar Minister Farrakhan that are ALWAYS lying on Allah (swt) and His last Prophet (saws)! Who disagrees that the “NOI” are shaytanic kuffar and mushriks? Do I need to link videos of various fatawa from “non-PC” ulema saying this????

    These “Sunni” Muslim leaders in the US refer to these shayatin mushrikoon and enemies of Allah (swt) as their “brothers” and as “Muslims!” And even go to their pagan temples at times to raise money for them. Astaghfirallah!

    Out of so-called “political correctness” (which BTW, is not a Muslim “concept” – we’re supposed to call it like it is, correct?) these Muslims are not calling out the kaafir, Mushrik NOI, or at least showing wala’ and bara’ against these big time enemies of Allah (swt). So most other non-Muslims of all colors think that these black supremacists and “racist” (they are very racist of course, or maybe it’s “racist” to acknowledge this?) Mushrikeen are actually Muslim. How is this good for dawa?

    So while obviously it’s very wrong and totally unIslamic to be racist or bigoted because of ones color or ethnicity, etc., here in North America Sunni Muslims are doing the total and complete opposite in the extreme! In fact a while back in St Louise a white Bosnian Muslim was killed in front of his wife by (non-Muslim) black thugs saying they wanted to attack whites. And nobody in the Muslim community even condemned this or spoke out against it. Despicable and wrong, subhanAllah. In fact, Suhaib Webb (who unfortunately is “white”) had to apologize or was called to do so by other Muslims last year because he said something negative about the kaafir, slutty, whorish, so-called “entertainer” (sic) Nikki Manaj. Unfortunately, most of the black Muslims (who were “Sunnis”), but also others like Arabs and Pakistanis, etc., said that as a white person (Webb) he should never have said anything “negative” about this filthy “entertainer” (sic) who happens to be black! It reminds me of the fact that many Sunni Muslims are always saying that it is wrong to criticize Obama because he is a “black man.” So what? Who cares? He is a certified war criminal (and non-Muslim) no different than Bush, Blair, Nuttiyahoodi, Putin, Sharon, etc. Correct? Does that mean that the “black” Christian war criminals in the CAR or in Ethiopia, or the “brown” Buddhist war criminals in Burma or Sri Lanka are your “brothers” because of their skin “melanin?”

    So while racism and bigotry is very wrong and against the Deen, you cannot do the opposite, going overboard because this is also wrong and very un-Islamic!

    • If it’s true that no one in the Muslim community condemned the killing of this Bosnian man nor spoke against his murder than I’m ashamed of that Muslim community but fortunately enough that Bosnian man’s assailants or most of his assailants have been captured by police and at least one of them is said to be serving a 50 year prison sentence for that Bosnian victim’s murder if I’m not mistaken or if I read correctly.

      P.S.- I would be more ashamed of Muslims if they sided with this Bosnian man’s assailants and it’s not right if or that some Muslims support or just don’t care that some darker skinned non-Muslims victimize a light skinned Muslim.

      • Sorry to keep typing but I now believe it was another Bosnian victim in St Louis,Missouri,U.S.A. whose killer is sentenced to 50 years.

    • If it’s true that no one in the Muslim community condemned this Bosnian man’s killing nor spoke against it than that’s a shame but fortunately enough from what I’ve researched that 3 out of 4 of his assailants have been found guilty.

    • I had no idea that the Muslim community didn’t condemn nor speak against the killing of that Bosnian Muslim man in St Louis so therefore it’s a shame that they didn’t stand up for him.

  3. Arabs are without doubt the most racist group in the world. Speak to any black person who’s spent time in the middle east if you disagree.

    • So it’s even more impressive for Islam to have such a massive impact on “without doubt the most racist group in the world.” I am sure you will join the author in admonishing all those Arabs who ignore/reject it and become racist. Or, more realistically, you do not care and are just trying to make a poorly articulated insult to those damned sand n*ggers.

  4. Great point clearly and informatively stated.Jazakallahu khairan for taking the initiative to address such a highly relevant topic.I was particularly intrigued about the concept of ‘whitwashing’ id read about it but didn’t really think too deeply about how it may be practiced in the modern context.Certainly the typical ‘enlightened’ ‘moderate’ Muslims that we are oft subjected to criticising Muslims and our innate radical nature for all the ills in the world (ahem…Quilliam) or the Ex-Muslims who go as far a publicly apostating and critiquing the deen for acceptance come to mind.But further to this I have observed a phenomena rarely addressed amongst Muslims of whitewashing that is the norm amongst Iranians.I read an article about Islam and the Iranian attitudes towards Islam and that many Iranians in the west see Islam as something that is regressive that has taken the country away from being able to return to the hey days of the Shah or even the Persian Empire apparently they even have a common Iranian phrase which essentially means curse to Islam or so the article of this iranian women alleged.What she was alluding to that is Iranians of a secular nature are very opposed to Islam because they feel it takes then away from being like the Western world which is why often most have persian names and give their kids persian names like Cyrus.Also its notable that white scientists historically (and still do)classed Iranians as Caucasians , which many attribute to themselves.The article interested me because of all the muslim communities I have met and mixed with Iranians have always been the least to identify with their muslim and ethnic identity.Iranian friends of mine except a few would celebrate Christmas and had relatives and maybe even parents that drank.I had always observed that they would distance themselves from the concept of being middle eastern or ethnically other.Perhaps its worth noting that the horrid Council of Ex-Muslims was started and run by Iranians The secular iranians i went to school with almost only ever had white friends and although we were in a comprehensive school spoke with thick Chelsea accents to the bemusement of myself and a few others.More or less I observed white washing as a cultural practice that became normalised within the community.A part of me put this down to something about Shi’ism that leads to this and the concept of falsehood perishing but Allah knows best.Sorry for essay just an observation I find deeply facinating.

  5. Great point clearly and informatively stated.Jazakallahu khairan for taking the initiative to address such a highly relevant topic.I was particularly intrigued about the concept of ‘whitwashing’ id read about it but didn’t really think too deeply about how it may be practiced in the modern context.Certainly the typical ‘enlightened’ ‘moderate’ Muslims that we are oft subjected to criticising Muslims and our innate radical nature for all the ills in the world (ahem…Quilliam) or the Ex-Muslims who go as far a publicly apostating and critiquing the deen for acceptance come to mind.But further to this I read an article about Islam and the Iranian attitudes towards Islam and that many Iranians in the west see Islam as something that isbregressive

  6. A deeply profound reflection of the current state of the Umrah. When I hear about Muslims being racist to other Muslims all that comes to mind is the “privileged uptown Negroes that Malik ( May Allah have mercy upon him) talked about in his biography. These uptown Negroes would break their backs trying to imitate white people that they would disassociate themselves from their own race out of embarrassment. In their ignorance they thought they were better than other negroes because they followed a culture they deemed to be superior when in reality they were doing nothing but proclaiming their shame for who they were. We should be proud to be Muslims and proud of who we are as people regardless of what others think. The unfortunate one is not someone has suffered from racism but the one who has the disease of racism in their heart.

  7. Thomas I. Al-Yasha

    As Salaam Alaikum

    Allah is God, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah

    Most things have a solvent. Allah’s Message/Example through Muhammad (SAW) is the solvent. Allah Forgives everything but shirk according to the Quran.

  8. Every time someone says “All X are…”, it’s pure racism.
    Every time someone says to me “You are Y so you are… I am X so I am…” he or she is expressing an opinion. An opinion about me? You bet it. Should I feel offended? Sure. Should I be aggressive? No.
    “Why?” It’s my usual answer. Without asking yourself “why”, you can not understand. Without knowledge, you will rely on your inner feelings. And feeling are dangerous.
    Better use your brain! Remember it well, please.

    I’m not muslim but I’m reading your site because i strongly believe in knowledge.
    May peace be with you, brother.

  9. May Allaah bless you for writing this article. This is a subject not spoken about often in our communities in Britan or America. Because of the lack of empathy for blacks that other ethnic groups inside the Muslim communities show for what we suffer, I can only think that the author must be a black man.
    I am glad that Malik Al Shabazz (Malcome X) did not have to learn the painful truth that many ethnic groups inside of our Muslim communities are racist. I could only imagine that this would have been deeply painful for Malik Al Shabazz, considering he was inviting white Americans to join a Deen without racism in it. Allaah knows best, but had Malik, (may Allaah have mercy on him) discovered what I all to painfully know, he might have felt like he was still within a system of falsehood. Many people, reverts and converts however you wish to call them, are not able to separate the Deen from the actions of the people within the Deen. Only by the mercy of Allaah have I been able to seperate the Haqq from the balttle of the people.
    To all you Muslims out there from different ethnic groups and tribes, fear Allaah. Know that you are weakingning the Umma of Muhammad when you subjugate other Muslims with your racist attitudes. When our children experience these racist attitudes from you all, this lowers their self esteem and makes them weaker when they attain adulthood.
    As the author stated we are aware of the prohibition of racism. Now each of us must work on our selves and our families to psychologically rid ourselves of this evil.

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