Islam and Racial superiority: A commentary of Surah Al-Hujurat (verse 13)

( Verse 13 )

يٌا أَيُّهٌا النٌّاسُ إِنٌّا خَلَقْنٌاكُم مِّنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنـثَى وَجَعَلْنٌاكُمْ شُعُوباً وَقَبٌائِلَ لِتَعٌارَفُوا إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللٌّهِ أَتْقٌـكُمْ إِنَّ اللٌّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

O’ Humanity! Without doubt We have created you from a male and a female and have made you into various nations and tribes, so that you may come to know and understand one another. Definitely the most honoured among you in the sight of Allah is the one who is the most Allah-Consciousness. Surely Allah has full Knowledge and is All-Aware.
The issue of equality between all human beings, opposition to any type of racial, ancestral and class discrimination, fairness between all the children of Adam in relation to human rights and that no person is better than another due to his skin colour, language, lineage or race – is one of the most important societal issues in the Qur’an which has been mentioned in various Ayat of this Heavenly Book.
The Qur’an has denounced any sort of superiority – whether it be of race, language or skin colour and even today, this subject is one of the most complicated issues within the society which even in the most important industrial centres of the world (such as America) is still a source of confusion and since the (the industrialized centres of the world) feel that this is an issue that can never be solved, they have brought this discussion to a close. The Qur’an explains this issue with simple logic and by explaining the origin and creation of man, clearly demonstrates that such an imaginary belief that one’s race or colour is what makes him superior to others is false.
We see that from the beginning of this Surah to the present verse under discussion, Allah (Glorified and Exalted is He) has addressed the people five times with the phrase:

يٌا أَيُّهٌا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا…

“O’ you who have true faith…”

However in this verse, the sphere of those being addressed has been widened from “those who have true faith” to “humanity” in general – Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Thus, in this verse, we read:
“O’ Mankind! If you look through the files of creation of the entire humanity, you will definitely see that the origin of all of these people is one and all of them have come from one male and one female (Adam and Hawa, peace be upon them both) and all descendants return back to these two people and thus, there is no criteria that can be used to make one group of people better than another.
If We have brought you forth as different groups and nations then it is not because you should have pride or conceit over the nation or family that you have come from. Rather, it is through the different groups that you are to know one another and recognize each other (لِتَعٌارَفُوا). The secret behind this branching out (of humanity) is simply for attaining knowledge and recognition of one another and merely being attached to one family, but this should never be the basis and criteria for claiming superiority over another.”
In order to condemn this fable of racial superiority and to negate this imaginary belief of preference of national supremacy and nationalism and to quiet any slogans of the ignorant people, the concept that all of us have been brought forth from one source has been mentioned in various chapters of the Qur’an as those mentioned below1:

إِتَّقُوا رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُمْ مِنْ نَفْسٍ وٌاحِدَةٍ…

“Have taqwa (Allah-Consciousness) of your Lord (O’ People) who created all of you from a single soul…”2
Just as the Qur’an has referred to the issue of superiority of one tribe over another as being a myth, even the difference in languages or the colour of skin are also not grounds for pride or vanity over one another.
It is both of these things (language and skin colour) which have been referred to as the signs (ayat) of Allah (Glorified and Exalted is He) and a symbol of the power of the Creator so that we may recognize that we have come from one element and one source. It is through this chain of natural and inherent characteristics that there is a difference in the colour of the skin of various people and that they speak various languages, just as has been said:

وَ مِنْ آيٌاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمٌوٌاتِ وَ الأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلاٌفُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَ أَلْوٌانِكُمْ إِنَّ فِي ذٌلِكَ لَآيٌاتٍ لِلْعٌالَمِـينَ

And of His signs is the creation of the Heavens and the Earth and the difference in your languages and your skin colours. Certainly there are signs in this for the people of the worlds.”3………….
………However on that day, in the sand filled country of Arabia and the gloomy and unenlightened world that existed at that time, a divine man and heavenly leader lifted up the call of true freedom and equality of all human beings and said, “In the presence of Allah and in His Court of Justice, a Leader from the tribe of Quraish is equal to a black Ethiopian.”
In order to reject and eliminate all of the (previous) incorrect traditions, the Prophet of Islam (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) sent a comprehensive message to the societies that blood, nationality and one’s language are no reasons to show pride or conceit.
The noble Prophet of Islam (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) was a progeny of this same environment (of `Arabia) and was fully aware of both the ailments and the cures of the `Arab society. He knew the reasons for the decline of the people of Makkah and thus was able to place his finger on the societal ailments of the `Arab society and to completely cure their sicknesses. At this point, we present some of the words of the Prophet of Islam (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) in which there is a cure for specific ailments with society.

1. Having Pride of One’s Relations, Family or Tribe

Of the many illnesses that existed in the `Arab society which was also one of the biggest things for a person to boast about was being from a branch of one of the well-known tribes, such as that of the Quraish. In order to remove this fictitious element of greatness, the Prophet of Islam (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) stated the following:

أَيُّهٌا النٌّاسُ! إِنَّ اللٌّهَ قَدْ أَذْهَبَ عَنْكُمْ نَخْوَةَ الْجٌاهِلِيَّةَ وَ تَفٌاخُرَهٌا بِآبٌائِهٌا أَلاَ إِنَّكُمْ مِنْ آدَمَ و آدَمُ مِنْ طِيْنٍ. أَلاٌ إِنَّ خَيْرَ عِبٌادِ اللٌّهِ عَبْدٌ اتِّقٌاهُ

“O’ Mankind! Surely Allah has removed the pride and conceit that existed within you during the days of Ignorance in relation to your fore-fathers. Surely all of you are from (Prophet) Adam and Adam was (created) from mud. Surely the best servant of Allah is that servant who has consciousness of Him.”4
In order for the Prophet (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) to announce to the world that the true criteria in judging a person is his level of taqwa (consciousness of Allah) and keeping away from sins, in a part of his speech, he divided all of mankind into two categories and said that their only greatness is the taqwa or consciousness of Allah (Glorified and Exalted is He) that people have. By dividing them in this method and grouping them in this way, he removed all of the imaginary criteria that existed when he stated:

إِنَّمٌا النٌّاسُ رَجُلاٌنِ: مُؤْمِنٌ تَقِيٌّ كَرِيـمٌّ عَلى اللٌّهِ وَ فٌاجِرٌ شَقِيٌّ هَيِّنٌ عَلى اللٌّهِ

“Certainly mankind is of two types: the true believer who has piety and nobility to Allah; and the sinner, who is lost and despicable in the sight of Allah.”

2. The “Virtue” of Being an `Arab

The Prophet of Allah (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) knew that the `Arab nation considered their nationality and their descent from this race to be a major source of honour and pride. The vanity and conceit that the `Arabs possessed resembled a contagious disease that was deeply rooted in their hearts. In order to cure this sickness and to remove this imaginary greatness that they claimed to possess, the Prophet (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) once again turned towards the people and said to them:

أَلاٌ إِنَّ الْعَرَبِيَّةَ لَيْسَتْ بٌابٌ وٌالِدٌ وَ لٌكِنَّهٌا لِسٌانٌ نٌاطِقٌ فَمَنْ قَصُرَ عَمَلُهُ لَمْ يَـبْلُغْهُ حَسَبُهُ

“Now then, surely your being `Arab is not the basis for your personality nor a part of your essence, rather, it is the language which you speak. So then whosoever is negligent in his actions, then the pride that he has from his father (being an `Arab) will not help him in the least and will not make up for the defects in his (religious) actions).”5
Is it possible to find a more eloquent and expressive statement than this? Truly the Messenger of Allah (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) was the genuine caller to freedom. However he did not stop at this. Rather, in order to strengthen the equality of humanity and the society he said:

إِنٌّ النٌّاسَ مِنْ عَهْدِ آدَمَ إِلـى يَوْمِنٌا هٌذَا مَثَلُ أَسْنٌانِ الْمُشْطِ لاٌ فَضْلَ لِلْعَرَبِيِّ عَلى الْعَجَمِيِّ وَ لاٌ الأَحْمَرَ عَلى الأَسْوَدِ إِلاٌّ بِالتَّقْوى.

“Surely all of mankind – from the time of Adam until our time – are like the teeth of a comb (all equal to one another) and there is no greatness for an `Arab over a non-`Arab and no greatness for a red-skinned person over a black-skinned person, except due to one’s consciousness of Allah (taqwa).”6
Through these words, the Noble Messenger (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) removed all sorts of distinctions and merits that knew no ends or boundaries, among the nations of the world. All of these areas which the Declaration of Human Rights or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms have not even mentioned were addressed and put to rest in the Islamic sources.
Not only did the Prophet (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) accomplish this task through conveying the verses of the Qur’an and his speech (ahadith), rather, he was also able to stir up tension in the hearts of the defeated people of those days. In many instances within his practical life, he was able to make null and void the nationalism and racism that was surrounding him.
In order for him to reach to his aim of equality between all human beings, he married the daughter of his uncle to the slave he owned named Zaid. In addition, he give Bilal, who was both a non-`Arab and a black-skinned African slave (at one point in his life), the important religious post of being the Muaddhin or the one who made the call to prayer. He also commanded Ziyad ibn Labid who was one of the richest and noblest men from amongst the Ansar to marry his daughter to a black slave named Jubair.
Keeping in mind the outcome of the marriage of this man’s daughter to the man she married and how these two people had come from completely opposite lifestyles, we see that this is one of the amazing stories of Islam and in reality shows the true equality between people of all levels of society who have sincere faith.
It is appropriate at this point that we properly analyse, investigate and relate this event in brief, especially since this event has been mentioned in the most trustworthy books of the Shi`a.7

Why is Allah Consciousness (Taqwa) the Criteria for Excellence?

We must find out what the roots and conditions which relate to the soul and spirit are that make one person better than another. In other words, from the true factor that makes up a person which is his soul, we must take lessons and we must never look at wealth, property, nationality, colour or status in the world, possession of children or genealogy in relation to other tribes or groups of people or individuals as being the true visage of what makes up a person’s character and status. These are all far and separated from the truth and thus none of these play any role in the character or the greatness of a person.
Yes! The noble ethical traits and lofty spiritual characteristics such as truthfulness, love, nobility and friendship or cognizance (of Allah) which truly bring about the unity of a person with his soul are the criteria which must be used to determine the greatness of an individual. It is these characteristics which if united together within someone truly make up his humanity and spiritual character.
However all of the outward, apparent characteristics of a person cannot lead to a good demeanour of one, if they are not accompanied with the characteristic of consciousness of Allah (Taqwa) and keeping away from sins, which in reality means that one observes and maintains the rights of both Allah (Glorified and Exalted is He) and humanity.
This is said because each of these lofty humanistic traits can only be classified as a pride for the person when he does not trample upon the rights that he must observe in relation to Allah (Glorified and Exalted is He) and the people around him. In other than this, not only can these traits not be classified as a pride for the person, rather, they would be categorized as him stepping over the boundaries and would actually be negative moral traits for him.
1.Surah al-Nisa (4), Verse 1; Surah al-An`am (6), Verse 98; Surah al-Zumar (39), Verse 6.
2.Surah al-Nisa (4), Verse 1.
3.Surah al-Rum (30), Verse 22.
4.Sirah bin Hisham, Volume 2, Page 412; al-Kafi, Volume 8, Page 246.
5.Al-Kafi, Volume 8, Page 246.
6.Ikhtisas, Volume 341., Volume 2, Page 9; Tadhkirah, Volume 2, Beginning of the discussion on Marriage (Nikah).
8.A weight of measurement equivalent to approximately 3 kilograms.
Source: Excerpt taken from “The Islamic Moral System – A commentary of Surah Al-Hujurat” written by Ayatullah Ja’far Subhani

© 2003 - 2022 - Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission (AIM)