The Journey of the Dark-Skinned Student of Knowledge

The Journey of the Dark-Skinned Student of Knowledge

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

By Ustadh Muhammad Ahmed

To the dark-skinned student of knowledge, I say to you: “Don’t be disheartened by the racism you may find, even if it is within the circles of knowledge.”

I begin this post with a reminder for the young black or dark-skinned Muslims who have undertaken the study of their deen. The reward is immense, and there is much to be gained out of following this sacred path. Despite the reward, there is an essential core aspect that can dishearten even the most eager of students. This was something I encountered myself while on my journey.

I am currently studying a rigorous 6-year course in traditional Islamic Scholarship. I am in my final year and have developed a strong bond with various teachers and students. I don’t feel like an outsider or someone being treated poorly.

I am such an ‘insider’ that my peers and even teachers don’t have a problem making anti-Black comments in my presence.  Often times, it has to do with ‘black’ being used interchangeably with ‘ugly.’  In one of these incidents, a student made a duah for one of his friends that roughly translates to “May Allah give every scholar a white wife and those who oppose them a black wife.” I responded to the student saying that he should not use ‘Black’ in this way. Unfortunately, a few others, including our teacher jumped to his defense saying ‘Perhaps he did not mean it in a racist way, but just that people usually prefer to marry white women.’

Soon enough, other classmates jumped into the fray, explaining to me and another Black student how they weren’t racist, and ‘how the group just likes joking with us and we were all friends.’

Last year, a guest speaker was invited to our institution to speak to the students for spiritual upliftment and general advice. As I listened to the speaker, I noticed how the speaker kept mentioning Bilal’s ( رضي الله عنه) skin tone. Basically, saying that despite his being Black, he was such a great Companion of the Prophet ﷺ. He kept describing his skin tone as a defect, as something wrong with him that he had to overcome to be an amazing companion. He mentioned the other companions but never once mentioned their complexion. I found myself getting upset, and not wanting to sit in the “spiritually uplifting” speech any longer.

At that moment I recalled all the scholars throughout my studying days who also made comments about me being Black, or uglier, or ‘not as beautiful.’ This was mentioned nonchalantly, as if it were just an accepted fact.

I found myself remembering all the times when another Black student and I in the class, felt hurt or singled out because of students or teachers discordantly mentioning our race. I remember when anti-Black jokes like the  previously mentioned duah, would be shared or some other belittling comments against Black people would be made. It made my face flush from embarrassment, and my heart race from disrespect. I just wanted to focus on my studies like the others, but instead, I would feel on edge the moment when color would come up, the anxiety that jolted through me whenever the word ‘Black’ came up in Arabic, hoping it wouldn’t turn into a discussion on race and beauty.

I began thinking back to the tafseer given to explain that White was better. I remembered the jokes bantered about, claiming I should make myself whiter to look prettier. And all the while, I had to remind myself that these weren’t just jokes by immature, ignorant students, but from people I had respected and continue to recognize as Scholars of Islam. These so-called ‘jokes’ at my expense were made so offhandedly, as if I wasn’t there, as a Black student of theirs. Sitting there, listening to that speech, I found myself reaching a level of anger that I had not felt in a long time purely due to the constant reminder of Bilal ( رضي الله عنه) color.

The talk ended and in my quelled anger, I made my way back to my room. A couple of days later, one of the older Scholars of Hadith came to teach us, and he said something that really hit my heart. I had not told him of this incident, but in class, he spoke about people giving speeches, and how certain things being said were incorrect. This is a man who I have seen weep at the mere mention of the Prophetﷺ, someone who I believe holds the Prophet ﷺ  and his Companions (Radhiyallahu Anhum) in high regard, along with the utmost love and respect.

That day, he mentioned the way people talk about Bilal (Radhiyallahu Anhu) in their speech. This had been his second time over the last few weeks he addressed this issue. He mentioned that some speakers mention Bilal and describe him as short, Black, and talk about the shape of his nose. Then he asked, “Who forced you to describe Bilal ( رضي الله عنه) in this way?  Just say he was from Habasha.” The time before this, he said that ‘if we hear people speak this way, slap them in the face.’

He was genuinely outraged, and his anger and indignation quelled the burning rage in my heart. I was pleased to hear a scholar of the tradition speak against the cultural and social racism that exists even in his own religious circles. His actions to speak out against falsehood were a reminder to me, that when someone truly understands their deen and truly appreciates the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ then this is something he or she will understand and defend.

My message to the people attending the Mosque or institutions of study––don’t let the attitudes, comments, and cultural brainwashing you will unduly face turn you away from your desire to study Islam and connect with Allah. There is good and bad in everything, and I had to come to terms with the fact that this is something I will have to deal with even though it hurts deeply. As Black students, we will deal with racism both in our home countries and abroad, and I have to remind myself that my goal is to study Islam. I cannot allow someone’s ignorance be the reason I let go of my path to becoming closer to Allah.

I know for a fact, Black people and people of color have experienced worse when attending mosques or programs. My hope is that, inshallah, they find a way to work through it and continue down their road of studying and learning. That being said, we have to also make sure we are creating a safe space where everyone, people of all complexions, will feel comfortable coming to the masjid. This starts by learning and being willing to understand others.

When Abu Dharr ( رضي الله عنه) made a negative comment about Bilal being black,  The Prophet ﷺ  told him that he was someone who still held jahiliyyah (ignorance) in his heart. To most people, this may not seem like a harsh rebuke, but we have to recognize that they were Muslims at that point! They were no longer considered to be part of that jahiliyyah, and the Prophet ﷺ  equating his behavior to the unbelievers was a direct statement about Abu Dharr not being complete in his spiritual transformation. The Prophet ﷺ made it clear that anyone making a racist comment is still stuck in the ignorant customs before the light of Islam. This filled Abu Dharr with remorse and he quickly went to Bilal to make amends, where he was forgiven and enlightened.

Allah states in the Quran that He made us into different tribes and nations so that we may know one another. The question we need to ask is: Are we even trying to know one another? Are we trying to understand the nuances of different tribes and nations that Allah, The Almighty created and placed us in?

When we speak about Bilal ( رضي الله عنه) or any companion of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad ﷺ , we must make sure we are talking about them in the utmost respectful manner. These are the people who struggled, and gave their lives in propagating and acting on the religion of Allah and his Messenger ﷺ . Allah is pleased with them, and they are pleased with Allah.

Yes, you will find racism and this disease of the heart in many circles. This is a problem dating back to Shaytaan himself when he cited that he was better than Adam (عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ) on the basis that he was made from fire, and Adam from clay.

To the Black student of knowledge, the Black Muslim attendee, the eager Black Muslim who attempted to come back to the path only to be shut out by racism, or anyone who has encountered such bigotry and hatred within Islamic circles: remember Allah loves you and the Prophet ﷺ prayed for you. Remember that you have a responsibility to get closer to your deen. Let no one obstruct you from your path. Do not let the same ignorant individuals who hurt you in this world set you back in the next. Persevere and continue, no matter what evil comes your way. Inshallah, for every hateful comment or hurtful word uttered about your skin or race, Allah will grant you bounties upon bounties for your patience.

Next time you hear a racist comment, whether it be directed at you or anyone else, speak up and let the deliverer know, even if they are your teachers, that racist or anti-Black humor is not funny. It is not ‘just a joke’ ––it is not casual fun, and it is never acceptable. Ask them to reflect on why what they said is so hurtful to you. And most of all, tell them not to hide behind ignorance and bigotry, and to uplift their own Islamic standards instead of chopping away at yours.

Ask them why White converts aren’t told stories of Suhayb al-Rumi to validate their being White and Muslim. Ask why Pakistani and Indians don’t feel excluded from being normalized Muslims despite there never being a Sahaba from their race. Ask why Islam spread to Malaysia much later, but Malaysians are accepted as normalized Muslims. Ask why we, as Black Muslims, who actually had Black Sahaba and Black Islamic civilizations and Black scholarship still need to be validated through Black Sahaba to be accepted as natural Muslims.

The problem of our existence in Islam does not reside within us, but within the jahilya that still exists unforgivably in the hearts of many of our teachers.



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15 Replies to “The Journey of the Dark-Skinned Student of Knowledge”

  1. Thank you for such a heartfelt and encouraging article. This practice of ignorant racism is rampant all over the world. Your shining a light into this darkness is much needed. Keep working and helping others to address this epidemic in our communities.

  2. Thanks you for this much needed piece. May Allah cure the jahhaliya in our communities

  3. assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah, SubhanAllah I could not have expressed the deep emotions written here better. Allahuma barik, very well written. Masha’Allah it hit key points especially about needing to be validated. I am an Ethiopian revert and to be honest I have had ‘halaqas’ where I was told stories of black sahabas as if to tell me, “….see you are relevant and accepted in this deen…” . Obviously these folks do not always know that I am actually habesha revert to Islam and I found it ridiculous that I should find my relevance through only these stories. I accepted Islam for Allah like the rest who do it, and I am relevant because I submit to Allah, not because of the great black sahabas that were present. I am extremely happy, proud and grateful to Allah of who I am. I grew up as a non-Muslim all over Africa and I am very aware of the great Islamic civilizations that existed, even been blessed to visit some sites in west Africa. But what the author wrote above is really true, and for most of us, we do not even know where to begin to explain how jahiliyyah this behaviour is, because racism is clearly wrong and those in the wrong know racism is wrong. The implicit biases that exists in our communities is just beyond words. It is like sometimes they are truly not aware until they are shown that, their comments or behaviour is from jahiliyyah! Again, BarakAllahu fik brother for sharing this insightful commentary on the facts on the ground.

    1. Thats crazy.Do u live in the UK or some other country outside Ethopia?Cause I don’t think this should be happening in Ethopia.

  4. May we only see the beauty of faith that shines out from each other’s hearts rather than the differences in our outer appearances.

    It has saddened me to read the article above. May Allah elevate those who have had to face such struggles, and may we always support our fellow Muslims with kindness, respect, equality and love.

  5. Arab Muslims who feel their skin color make closer to Allah or make them look more beautiful than black skinned people/Muslims, are on the path to the Hell Fire. They will have to account for this racism unless they sincerely repent to Allah and change the condition of their hearts before they leave this world.

  6. Very nice, mashallah very well said brother. The tone and straightforwardness is exactly what’s needed. Excellent!

  7. There is indeed a lot of racism in our communities, from different protagonists depending on the context.

    I’ve personally sat in a room of students of knowledge, the sole stranger amidst a crowd sharing the same background, and listened as the respected sheikh repeatedly used the term “gora” interchangeably for non-Muslim.

    I have likewise attended convert gatherings during which white Muslims complained about the presence of Asian Muslims — despite them also being converts of Hindu and Sikh heritage.

    As for my local mosque… I am constantly asked why I am there… even by people who only moments earlier stood beside me in prayer.

    However, that is in a British context, where most visible Muslims are of Pakistani, Bengali or Somali heritage, and all others are minorities within a minority.

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