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The Criteria of Nobility in Islam


by Muzammil H. Siddiqi

 


Among the many virtues which Islam has always fostered, propagated, and stood for their promulgation and promotion in human society, are racial harmony, human equality and the brotherhood of man. The Qur'an constantly reminds us that taqwa (righteousness or God-consciousness) is the sole criteria of human dignity and greatness. Nobility, according to the Qur'an does not lie in the colour of one's skin, or the bones of one's ancestors, or in the material achievements which one has made. The Qur'an declares:

Truly the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most righteous among you (atqakurn). 49:13

Taqwa must be understood as the constant working of faith in one's life. It is a generic quality which activates one's life under a true consciousness of divine presence, under which one moves and stands and deals with other beings. This consciousness may vary from time to time and hence those people of taqwa1 (or the muttaqin) are not a sect, nor an order like religious orders, nor a particular class in the society; but these are the individuals who through their true abidance by Islamic virtues acquire the pleasure of God, which in turn confers upon them a place of dignity and honour and love among men. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained this by saying,

"When God loves someone, He calls Jibra'il (Gabriel) and says that He loves that person so let you also hold him beloved, Jibra'il, then, loves him and proclaims among the inhabitants of heaven, 'Behold, God loves that person so ye also hold him beloveds' So the people of heaven love him and then honour and acceptance (qabul) is placed for him on earth".2

The Hadith, thus, gives the order of things like honour and nobility in human society. Nobility on earth follows divine acceptance in heaven and not vice versa. Any acceptance or nobility which does not proceed from the consciousness of divine presence or through the spirit of taqwa is not true nobility and greatness in the sight of God, and hence it is devoid of Islamic recognition.

Human progeny also proceeded from one man, as is the Qur'anic view. Existentially (whatever may be its ontology) it implies that all men are equal. The Qur'an states:

Mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who created you out of one living entity and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. 4:1.

Human brotherhood is thus, a real one. We all trace our ancestry back to the one and the same father. The Qur'an, however, does not deny that there are differences in human beings regarding their colour, language, race, and country. It, in fact, affirms and recognises these differences. But in the Qur'an these differences say something of the greatness of God rather than of the greatness or superiority of one colour, or language, or race, or nation over the other. The Qur'an announces:

"And among His signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: truly in that are signs for those who know." 30:22. And again

"Mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other." 49: 13.

Qur'anically speaking, it is not the difference of colour, for that is the creation of God, but it is colour prejudice which is demonic. The evil does not lie in the differences of race, nation, or tribe, because human beings are so made and appointed by God; but it is racialism, tribalism, and nationalism which are the sources of evil.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, in his speech during the Farewell Pilgrimage (Hijjat al-wada') declared:

"People descend from Adam, and Adam was made out of dust. There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, neither for a white-man over a black-man, except the superiority gained through taqwa"3

This equality and brotherhood manifest themselves daily on a local level in Muslim prayers where, with no difference of race, colour, wealth, or poverty all Muslims stand together in the mosques facing the Ka'bah; and they are also manifested on an inter- national level annually when Muslims (those who can afford to) go for Hajj (Pilgrimage) from all over the world.

Islamic history also bears testimony to the fact that Islam has, uniquely and with no parallel from world religions and world civilisations, overcome the problems of colour and racial prejudice. An historian like Arnold Toynbee, who often in his writings is not objective or sympathetic to Islam and the Muslims, has unhesitatingly and faithfully observed the contribution of Islam to social harmony:

"Two conspicuous sources of danger- one psychological and the other material-in the present relations of this cosmopolitan proletariat which is the dominant element in our modern western society, are race consciousness and alcohol; and in the struggle with each of these evils the Islamic spirit has a service to render Which might prove, if it were accepted, to be of high moral and social value. The extinction of race consciousness between Muslims is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue."4

When Muhammad proclaimed the message of Islam, the Arabian society also was suffering from the same conspicuous disease of racialism and tribalism, and colour consciousness too was not any less of a problem. The Prophet, peace be upon him, constantly observed and strictly opposed such tendencies among his people.

It is related that once a companion of the Prophet called another Companion named Bilal* in a negative way, "son of a black woman!" The Prophet on hearing this became angry and replied,

"Do you condemn him because of the blackness of his mother. You are certainly a man of ignorance (al-jahiliyyah)."5

On the day of the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet commanded this same Bilal to go up to the roof of the Kabah and proclaim the victory of Islam." Bilal being a Negro who was once a slave, the Prophet's choice of him for this purpose is something not insignificant. It must have meant a great deal to the nobility of Mecca which had always chosen the most noble and high ranking family for the service of the Kabah. This also means a lot to all the Muslims who regard that house the first sanctuary built by Abraham, and who call it the house of God (Bayt Allah) and who turn to it in prayer where- ever they may be.

Our Master Bilal is also associated with the Call to Prayer (Adhan). The eloquent Adhan, which to this day summons at the same hours millions of the human race to their devotions was first uttered by this Negro. And it has been remarked that even Alexander the Great is in Asia an unknown personage by the side of this honoured man.'

This spirit of racial harmony reminiscent of the spirit of the Prophet, peace be upon him, has always remained alive in the hearts of the Muslims. They always, when following the true sprit of Islam, stood against racialism. They struggled against it even in the hearts of their enemies.

It is related that when Muslim armies entered Egypt under the command of 'Amr bin al-'As and besieged the fortress of Babylon, the king Maqawqis expressed his desire to negotiate with the Muslims. 'Amr chose 'Ubadah bin Samit to head the delegation sent for negotiation with Maqawqis.

'Ubadah it is said, was a man eight feet tall and of very black skin. The king was too scared to face this giant, he shouted, "Take away this black man from my sight and send someone else to talk with me!" All the members of the delegation stood firm, and replied to the Christian king with one accord,

"He is the best among us, and so he is chosen by our commander to head our delegation; we cannot disobey him."6

The idea of his black skin might never have occurred to them, since to them value lay only in one's character and not in the colour of one's skin.

Islamic history has recorded the names of many great scholars, caliphs, and viziers, who were often freed slaves, or black, or both, but this was never a drawback for them in Islamic society. Who would deny the great admiration in which Ata bin Rabiah was held: he was called the leader of the people of Mecca and their judge, about whom Abu Hanifah said that he never saw anyone more pious than he.

The figure of 'Ata is described by at-Dhahabi.
"Ata was a freed-slave, a man of black skin, flat nose and curly hair."7

Hasan al-Basri, the Imam of the Sufis, about whom al-Yafi wrote, "the leader whose greatness, piety, asceticism, excellence, and trustworthiness are unanimously acknowledged"8
But Hasan too was the son of a slave-girl.

Many such examples can be cited from Islamic literature and historiographers. In the end it must be said that not only is it that Islam succeeded in bringing racial harmony among the people with whom it came into contact; but also it is true that much of the success of Islam in various parts of the world goes to the credit of this Islamic virtue. It is the duty of the Muslims to understand that their survival and the survival of the world, depends on the propagation and promotion of this Islamic virtue.


Notes
1.-Taqwa is translated both as 'righteousness' (see A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'an, Text, Translation, Commentary, cf. Surah, 49;13), and as 'God- consciousness' (see Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur'an (Mouton & Co., The Hague, 1964), vol 1, p.5. Since righteousness in Islam is the direct outcome of divine-consciousness and not vice versa, the difference in two renderings is not as great as may superficially appear.
2. Al-Nawawi, Riyad al-Salihin (Egypt 1960), p.1 71.
3. Tirmidhi, Sunan, Bab ai-Tafsir, Hadith no. 49; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, vol. 5, p.41 1.
4. Arnold Toynbee, civilization on Trial (New York, Oxford University Press, 1948), p.205.
5. Or, a man who still clings to the pagan modes of thinking. See Bukhari, al-Sahih, Kitab al-Iman, Hadith no. 22; lbn Hanbal, op. cit., vol 5, p.161.
6. Edward W. Blyden, Christianity, Islam and the Neqro Race (reprinted by Edinburgh University Press, 1967, first published in 1887), p.16.
7. Al-Dhahabi, f-dhkrat al-Hffaz (Hyderabad, 1333 A.H.), vol. 1, p.84.
8. Al-Yafi i, Mir'al al-Janan (Hyderabad, 1337 A.H.) vol., 1, p. 229.
*Hazrat Bilal was a Negro and a slave under Bani Jumah. He is one of the earliest persons to accept Islam and was greatly persecuted for that by his masters. Abu Bakr then purchased him and gave him his freedom, (See Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, tr. by Prof. the Rev. A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (London, Oxford University Press, 1955), p.143

The Muslim
July 1970



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