One of the most beautiful blessings that Allah has given to the Muslims is that he has made us of different races and ethnicities so that we may know and learn from one another. However, this blessing has also been a challenge, as throughout the history of Islam there have been instances in which our ummah has been divided along ethnic and national lines.
For instance, according to many scholars of Muslim history, during the reign of some of the Umayyad caliphs, Arabs were generally given preferential treatment over non-Arabs; in fact, this was one of the reasons that people revolted against the Umayyads, thus allowing the Abbasids to seize control of the caliphate. Given the emphasis placed on universal brotherhood in Islamic doctrine, the ethnic and national divisions amongst us remain an unfortunate but major issue facing our community today, but they are not insurmountable if we begin to take steps in the right direction.
Universal brotherhood amongst the believers is an essential Islamic teaching. One need only examine the Holy Qur’an and the statements of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) to see that this is so. In the Qur’an, Allah clearly states, “And the believers are brothers to one another” (49:10). Similarly, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny), speaking on the mutual rights of the Muslims over one another, stated,”A Muslim must forgive the mistakes of his fellow Muslim and should sympathize with him in his distress; should cover his defects and pardon his slips; should accept his apology, protect him in his absence against his backbiters and continue giving him good advices; should preserve his friendship visit him in sickness accept his invitation and gift, and equally compensate his favour; should have regard for his affection; talk to him gently and love his friends and should not be jealous of them; should not leave him in the thick of miseries and lastly should like for him whatever good he likes for himself, and should hate for him whatever evil he hates for himself.”
This brotherhood amongst the believers is also apparent to anyone who objectively examines Islamic practices; for instance, the fact that we stand shoulder to shoulder during our congregational prayers, regardless of our race or social standing, reiterates this brotherhood. Similarly, the Islamic charity system of Zakaat, Khums, and Sadaqah has the effect of distributing wealth to the poorest among us, irrespective of race or nationality.
While it is clear that Islam encourages brotherhood amongst all believers, as a community today sometimes we fall short in implementing this teaching. In many of our mosques and Islamic centers today, we have the unfortunate reality of distinct cliques, by which I mean tight-knit social groups that seem exclusive and inaccessible to outsiders. These cliques are often, but not always, divided along ethnic and national lines. The existence of these cliques hinders the formation of genuine social bonds between people who may be of different cliques but are nonetheless brothers or sisters in Islam.
Furthermore, I’m sure many of us, myself included, have had the experience of going to a new mosque or Islamic center for the first time and not having a single person recognize you as an insider and introduce himself or herself to you. Such experiences leave us feeling unwelcome at that mosque and give us with little incentive to return. Instead, as brothers to one another, we have duty to inquire about one another, to encourage one another, and to act as guides and mirrors of one another. When we remain within our own tight knit cliques, this nearly impossible to do.
To clarify, the message here is not that it’s not wrong to make friends in a mosque, but instead that we should make very sure that our social interactions within the mosque do not hinder us from getting to know others outside our own social groups, and more importantly, to warmly welcome outsiders into our mosques.
As Muslims, we should also take a lesson from the historical development of other religions over time, some of which have been used to justify racist beliefs and to preach the ethnic superiority of one group of people over another. Already, many of our mosques and Islamic centers in the United States and Canada are divided along ethnic, national, and even linguistic lines. We need to be very vigilant so as to avoid falling into this pattern, a pattern that absolutely contradicts the teachings of the Qur’an and the Ahlul Bayt.