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Selma: An Islamic Narrative on Martin Luther King

“…the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer”.

Many will be aware that a film has recently been released entitled ‘Selma’ which is based on the life and times of Dr Martin Luther King. No doubt, most will be aware of this household name – in brief terms, he was a Black American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience. The film focuses on Dr King Jr. and his followers pressing forward on an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, and their efforts culminating in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowing black people for the very first time in American history the right to vote.

You may also like – MLK: I have a dream…to be an extremist

When we as Muslims think of the Civil Rights Movement, naturally we think of a person who is often referred to as the Prince of Islām, Brother Malcolm X (raḥimahu Allāhu) I too am the same in this respect. Malcolm X had the ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) effect to black Americans, that is to say that before Umar’s conversion, Muslims would hide in fear and were afraid to identify themselves as Muslims, similarly, many argue that before Malcolm X, black Americans lived in fear and they themselves even identified themselves by the derogatory term of “Negroes” whereas after Malcolm they not only gained courage but also came to re-identify themselves once more as black people.

Dr King was of course famous for adopting civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a form of passive yet effective revolution and rebellion. Rebellion is mainly an act of resisting and defying the political authority. Acts of rebellion can vary from a mere passive non-compliance with the orders of those in power to full armed insurrections. No one can deny that a civil disobedience throughout the country will result in inevitable harm. Dr King, though not Muslim, appears to have understood the Islamic doctrine that a proper balance-of-evils analysis, that takes into account the utmost importance of realising justice, will favour withstanding the harms of civil disobedience until the tyranny which has paralysed a people is completely eliminated. It was a method which was in fact used by the Muslims in earliest period in Islām known as the ‘Makkan period’.

Anytime that I think of a minority community at any point in history whose physical and mental integrity, life and safety; protection from discrimination, freedoms of thought and conscience are at danger as was the case with black Americans, I think of the blessed Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) his companions and in fact, the struggles of all the Anbiya (Prophets) because they were always the minority community who were always made out to be the enemy of the state by the tyrannical, oppressive authorities of their respective times. It is for this reason that when I think of the many marches and demonstrations that Dr King attended in the face of violence being exacted against him and those who participated with him, such as the march from Selma, I think of how he had adopted an act which the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) had carried out along with his companions long before when ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) had embraced Islām and urged the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) that the handful of the Muslim community openly proclaim the noble cause publicly such that they went out in two groups, the Prophet’s uncle, Humzah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) leading one group and ʿUmar the other where they marched in broad daylight to the ka’ba in front of the polytheists of Quraish.

For most of his life, Dr King would use the murder of Emmett Till as an example of “the evil of racial injustice,” preaching about “the crying voice of a little Emmett Till, screaming from the rushing waters in Mississippi. Emmett Till was a 14 year old boy who was abducted and murdered by way of lynching in 1955 because of his race which helped ignite the civil rights movement”.[1] Thinking of this lynching, I think of the young companion, Mus’ab bin ʿUmair (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) whose mother, on hearing of her son’s conversion, put him to starvation and such was the torture he was subjected to that the skin of this young companion who had been known to live a life of luxury before Islām became marked with wrinkles and his suffering showed.

There was also the case of Rosa Parks which Dr King was involved in.[2] On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give up her seat in a section of the bus to a white passenger after the white section was filled (the buses were divided along racial lines). She was arrested which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott which became an important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. In Islām, we too have the example of a woman who daringly challenged the oppressive authority of the day in resisting against their tyranny and remaining firm, the example of Sumayyah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanha) who was given the worst kind of punishment and torture because of her belief, and a spear was thrust into her which proved to be a fatal blow causing her to die. Whilst Rosa Parks came to be known as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”, thus Sumayyah had the distinction of being the first woman martyr of Islām.

Dr King was often harassed and threatened, he was jailed numerous times, and beaten, and he received frequent death threats and threats against his family as well. He was beaten up more than once, and was ultimately murdered. He also saw many of his friends and followers harassed, beaten, and murdered as well. When thinking of this, my mind turns back to the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and his blessed companions in those early years in Makkah where both he and they suffered greatly. We know that the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) endured much persecution such as having the bloodied entails of a camel placed on his back whilst he was in prostration in prayer, or having thorns and impure filth placed outside his home culminating in a plan to actually kill him which was a failed attempt. In the case of Dr King, he too faced many assassination attempts which included a bomb scare once on a plane and of course, he was actually assassinated in 1968 by what many, including his family, believe to have been carried out by governmental agencies.

When many witnessed the forbearance and many sacrifices of the blacks in America at the time, certain people of the opposite race with strong souls became attracted to the cause, just like how the self-control, restraint and tolerance shown by the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and the early generation of Muslims encouraged many to embrace Islām. It was not merely self-restraint; it was combined with unparalleled courage which companions such as ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿud (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) displayed. On one occasion, he was with a number of other companions. They were still few in number, weak and oppressed. They said, “The Quraysh have not yet heard the Qur’ān being recited openly and loudly. Who is the man who could recite it for them?” “I shall recite it from them,” volunteered ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿud. “We are afraid for you,” they said. “We only want someone who has a clan who would protect him from their evil.” This did not stop ʿAbdullāh, he said: “Let me, Allāh shall protect me and keep me away from their evil.” He then went out to the mosque until he reached Maqam – the station of Ibrāhīm (ʿalayhi al-Salām) a few meters from the Ka’bah. The leaders of Quraysh were sitting around and ʿAbdullāh began reciting the Qur’ān. Having realised he was reciting that which was brought by the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), they began beating his face but ʿAbdullāh kept on reciting. When he went back to his companions the blood was flowing from his face. “This is what we feared for you,” they said. “By Allāh,” replied ʿAbdullāh, “the enemies of Allāh are not more comfortable than I at this moment. If you wish, I shall go out tomorrow and do the same.” This was an act of civil disobedience on part of ʿAbdullāh in defying his fear and that of others and defying the oppressors in standing up to tell them the truth through non-violent means.

In Dr King’s most famous speech, known as “I have a dream”, he stated:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.[3]

As a Muslim, this aspect of the speech immediately resonates with us because it is strikingly similar to what the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said in his Khuṭbatu l-Wadā (the farewell sermon) wherein he said:

“All of you are equal [All men, whatever nation or tribe they belong to, and whatever station in life they may hold, are equal] an Arab possesses no superiority over the non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab over an Arab”.[4]

Dr King never lived to see a society which fulfilled his dream, the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) of course did. The grouping of men which Islām proclaims is based on the Deen (faith) alone, the faith in which all peoples of any race or colour are equal under the declaration of “Lā ilāha illAllāh” (there is no God worthy of worship except Allah) – it was this declaration which brought together a community of the first generation of which there was Abū Bakr (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) an Arab, Bilāl (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) an Abyssinian, Shuaib a Roman and Salman (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) a Persian, all as brothers, equal in faith. The general social and moral tone of the Muslim society at that time is well-illustrated by the words of an Egyptian who was sent to spy on the Muslims during their Egyptian campaign. He reported:

“I have seen a people, every one of whom loves death more than he loves life. They cultivate humility rather than pride. None is given to material ambitions. Their mode of living is simple… Their commander is their equal. They make no distinction between superior and inferior, between master and slave. When the time of prayer approaches, none remains behind…” [5]

What we can clearly deduce from the above is that there was no distinction between master and slave, a reality which Dr King could only aspire and dream of in his society.

The historic march on Washington in 1963 where the famous “I have a dream” speech was made where thousands of Black Americans descended on to the house of oppression, the Whitehouse, reminds me of the march of the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and his companions to the best of all houses, the house of Allāh, the Kaʿba in what we have come to know as the Fatḥ-al-Makkah (conquest of Makkah) where the Muslims peacefully conquered Makkah with a number of 10,000 adherents.

Conclusion

To all Muslims living in such precarious times where we are treated with much suspicion, disdain and hate, where our rights and values are violated, where we are treated as second class citizens with laws passed specifically to target the Muslim community, I would like to remind you that we have much to learn from the struggles of Black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement and their ability to mobilise and actively and effectively carry out non-violent protests to demand equal rights, a level playing field and, above all, the right of dignity and respect. This was a transformative time in the black community and in the country. We must have the courage of Rosa Parks in standing up for what we believe in, the firmness of Sumayyah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanha) and the boldness of Dr King and ‘Abdullah Ibn Masud (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) –  all of these noble characteristics are of course embodied in our ultimate role model, the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). But we must know that in the struggle for justice, we will unfortunately have our Emmett Till. And at a time where we are witnessing the rise in Muslim apologists, it is worth remembering how much hate Dr King and Malcolm X proudly invited upon themselves in standing up for the truth.

To all non-Muslims also living in these times we find ourselves in, I would like to remind you of a statement from Dr King when he was asked to comment on the situation in Vietnam and the US’s war there, he responded as follows:

“Like Muḥammad Āli puts it, we are all—black and brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression.”[6]

It is for this reason that I have no doubt that if Dr King was alive today, not only would he still be fighting for the justice of Black Americans which is still continuing as seen with the recent cases of police violence against Black people in America, he too would have stood with the Muslim community and seek justice for them for being “victims of the same system of oppression”. This is strengthened further by the fact that Dr. Cornel West, the black activist, who was invited to speak at the 50th Anniversary of Dr King’s famous speech in 2013, commented that the irony was that Dr King would not be invited to the very celebration in his name because he would want to talk about Obama’s drones policy.[7]

If you therefore wish to continue the legacy of Dr King, then stand with the Muslim community in its struggle for justice and in the words of Dr King:

“The time is always right to do what is right” [8].

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] Christopher Metress, ‘The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative’

[2] Joyce A. Hanson, ‘Rosa Parks: A Biography’

[3] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

[4] Ahmad

[5] Khalid Muhammad Khalid, ‘Successors of the Messenger of Allah’

[6] Dave Ziri, ‘What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States’

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT_8aYuW8Qs

[8] Letter from Birmingham City Jail, 1963

About Z A Rahman

Z.A Rahman is a community activist and a member of a large Mosque in the UK. He graduated in Law, specialising in discrimination law and now works for a leading national company. He has a keen interest in politics and history, particularly Islamic history. He also enjoys traveling and has visited numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

10 comments

  1. Yes and it was Muslims that had captured and sold blacks into slavery in the first place. In fact, more people ended up as slaves in Muslim nations than ever ended up in the Americas. And many whites were enslaved by Muslims as well. History revision works great in the Islamic world.

  2. assalaamu alaykum

    as a muslim, african- american, i am disappointed in this article…the author usually has some very thought provoking articles of benefit, however this one is a fail…

    understand, dear brother, that the likes of our beautiful predecessors some of whom were promised jannah and all whom Allah is pleased with, must NEVER be compared in terms of reverence to the likes of these kuffar, no matter how eloquent their speech or how “righteous” their deeds seem…

    Allah t’ala tells us, “Say (O Muhammad SAW): “Shall We tell you the greatest losers in respect of (their) deeds? “Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought that they were acquiring good by their deeds! “They are those who deny the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) of their Lord and the Meeting with Him (in the Hereafter). So their works are in vain, and on the Day of Resurrection, We shall not give them any weight.” Surah al-Kahf 103-105

    Rasululluah salAllahu alayhi wa salaam and his companions radiAllahu anhum had/have noble status for their uprightness in this deen, unparalleled righteousness and firmness and obedience to Allah t’ala in staying away from many ills from jahiliyyah…it’s offensive to compare them to the likes of martin luther king jr. who was a man worshipping adulterer…subhanAllah…

    the only true advancement we will have as a people of any ethnicity is holding firm to the qur’an and sunnah and thereby seeking the help of Allah Azza wa Jal…the civil rights movement made some advancements in this country, however african-americans are basically in the same state of distress today as we were 50 years ago…the cover may have changed, but the play book of racism is still the same…as a whole, we are still an oppressed group…so alhamduillah, i do not despair as islam has liberated me and given me hope & certainty that could never be matched by the so-called freedom in america…

    please rethink the message you are sending out…mlk, rosa parks, etc. have never matched the efforts of our predecessors and really for one reason…they weren’t sacrificing or struggling for Allah Subhana wa T’ala…period.

    • Umm Al-Hasnain

      Hmmm……….. The author of this write up was trying to reach the hearts of those who watch and love this films. It is true that there can not be comparisms between this two worlds of people (as i see it they are worlds apart), but perhaps the hearts of youth who have moved into social media will become ignited about the Seerah and they will pick an approach towards it from there. In as much as we do not pick our mentors from the wilderness of people ( as muslims we ae specific in our choosings, only one source), The write seeks to turn the hearts of those who watch this films to the right….., asking them to understand the seerah in light of present happenings. Who knows, even the main character of discourse in this film might have picked up his methods and character from islam, i say this because wisdom comes from knowledge and understanding and the man in question was a wide read person in terms of literacy. He would have read the seerah times over to even think like one of this our special people.
      So, Calm down people, the write up has a specific audience no those of you who are established in the deen, mind you there is wisdom even in others trash if one choose’s to pick it from there.

  3. Servent of Allah

    This is the worse artical to compare blessed 1st generation of our ummah to 21th. i can not comprehend to justify causes and reasons of the author comparison. now days its called about pick and choose to justify ends meet.

  4. thank you…..the dream is for all of us…to live in faith and harmony..x

  5. Assalamo alaykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatoho,
    This article reminds me of: Oder the good and forbid the evil. This is part of being Muslim. To stand up for justice and against oppression.

    Mashallah good article.

  6. I humbly disagree with many or all of writer’s points. These two personalities or few event of their lives cannot be compared as their ultimate objective, guidance, reasons and model were not even comparable. Pick and choose won’t help Muslims at this juncture. Simply practicing Sura walasr (refer Bayyina podcast) and ‘education’ (think and strive) may help to build ourselves to face future challenge. Basically, as a community we have to improve before getting things worse.

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