Islam on Prejudice
If you find yourself invited to a neighborhood or gathering that mostly has people of a different race or culture, do you feel nervous and are more cautious with your belongings? If you see a mixed-race or mixed-culture couple, do you feel discomfort, look down on them, or feel anger?
“Whoever possesses in his heart ‘Asabiyyah (prejudice in any of its forms such as tribalism, racism, or nationalism) even to the extent of a mustard seed, God will raise him on the Day of Resurrection with the unbelieving Bedouins of the Pre-Islamic era.” – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny)
This important narration shows that even a tiny amount of ‘Asabiyyah in our hearts can prove disastrous to our ultimate fates. In practice, however, many people may be unaware of or blind to their own prejudices or lack proper understanding of how to deal with them.
One way to understand ‘Asabiyyah better is to look at the lexical meaning of the word and its relatives. By definition, it is the characteristic of a person who supports his kinsmen or relatives even for wrong or unjust causes. ‘Usbah, a word of the same root, refers to paternal relatives, as in the traditional family structure of Arabia, the paternal line is the one that one is surrounded by or that one feels bound with – ‘Asaba meaning to wrap around or to bind. Honoring kinship ties is part of the faith, but kinship does not supersede fairness or justice. One’s connection to one’s Creator is always the first priority. The Prophet said, “All the ties of lineage and affinity will be broken on the Day of Resurrection, except the ties of my lineage and affinity.” As a moral vice, the meaning of ‘Asabiyyah extends beyond unjust familial favoritism to include improper preferences for other relationships as well, such as nationality, ethnicity, race, etc.
Related terms in English include stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination. A stereotype is an exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth about a person or group; it is a generalization that allows for little or no individual differences or social variation. They are based on images in mass media, propaganda, reputations passed on by parents or peers, and so on. Stereotypes can be “positive” – such as, “Asians are always good at math” – or “negative” – such as, “Blonde women are ditzy”. Both types are ultimately harmful.
A prejudice is an opinion, prejudgment, or attitude about a group or its individual members. Prejudice is often accompanied by fear, ignorance, or hatred, as well as attempts at psychological bolstering or even real-world gaining of status by building attachment to an in-group and trying to separate oneself from out-groups. It could be considered ‘Asabiyyah of the heart or mind, in contrast to discrimination, which is ‘Asabiyyah in action, even if the action is only in speech or a look that someone else can see.
Discrimination is behavior that treats people inequitably because of their group memberships and includes everything from verbal slurs and social slights, failure to provide reasonable accommodations or access, to media images, preferential hiring, pay, renting and admission policies, apartheid, and hate crimes. Discrimination can be committed by individuals, groups or institutions.
Another narration from the Prophet shows that ‘Asabiyyah is a fatal sin for both the one who commits it and the one who knowingly benefits from it: “The one who exerts ‘Asabiyyah or the one on whose behalf it is exerted, the tie of faith is taken off his neck.” This is in line with the consequences of other greater sins like backbiting – not only is a backbiter a sinner, but the ones who hear it and allow it to take place are also sinners.
‘Asabiyyah is one of the first and greatest sins to ever be committed, for it is a sin of Satan. Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said, “Verily, the angels counted Satan as one of themselves, and it was in the knowledge of God that he was not of them; then he spoke out whatever was inside of him, out of anger, and said: ‘You created me of fire and him [Adam] you created of clay.'”
In this case, the prejudice exhibited by Satan seems to be associated with other greater sins such as a pride over being made of fire rather than clay, and unjust, uncontrolled anger toward God when his ego was challenged. This illustrates one of the characteristics that make certain sins into fatal ones – one of them creates an opening and breeding ground for others, clusters of sins compounding upon clusters of more sins to follow, eventually rotting the entire heart.
In practice, ‘Asabiyyah can take many forms, such as the following:
- Lying for a relative or friend in a court case to keep him from being punished.
- Hiring relatives or people of the same ethnicity for important positions when not the most qualified, or paying them preferentially, etc. Or, on the other hand, not hiring someone because of a disability that could be accommodated, because their ethnic “look” is not what you think your customers will prefer, etc.
- Preferring someone for marriage to yourself or your son/daughter because of their ethnic background, country of origin, or skin color, even if he/she is otherwise not the most suitable spouse.
- Excluding people from social circles due to their heritages, or limiting your social circle on ethnic/cultural lines rather than lines established by Ahlul Bayt in choosing friends of virtue, etc.
- Cutting in line at a store or expecting to be served before them because they are an immigrant, lower economic status, “servant/worker class”, etc.
- Supporting a government regardless of the moral quality of its actions or exhibiting blind patriotism.
If we have ever been party to any of the above, or if we have had any of the following feelings or thoughts, we must consider self-examination for ‘Asabiyyah, as each of these are known possible signs of the spiritual disease:
- If someone has an accent (either regional or foreign), you may find yourself inadvertently thinking they’re lower class, less educated, incompetent, etc.
- If a woman or minority is in a leading position, you question if he/she got the position through affirmative action, illicit favors, or other means besides pure merit.
- If you find yourself invited to a neighborhood or gathering that mostly has people of a different race or culture, you feel nervous, are more cautious with your belongings, etc.
- If you see a mixed-race or mixed-culture couple, you feel discomfort, you look down on them, or you feel anger, etc.
- You believe that stereotypes are often based in truth – that is how they become stereotypes in the first place.
- You believe that some ethnicities or cultures are inferior to others. If a group of people is experiencing problems, they most likely brought it on themselves.
Putting an end to ‘Asabiyyah and all its negative consequences begins with each of us. We must be aware of our hidden biases so we do not let them inadvertently affect us, and so that we can work on removing them. If you have been wronged or have been a victim of ‘Asabiyyah, do not let bitterness lead to you returning the behavior. Avoid hanging around people who show prejudice, and actively pursue opportunities to mix with people of different backgrounds socially. Discourage disunifying acts like building a new mosque that would split a community on cultural grounds. If you are not sure how a person or group will perceive an action, or if you want a reality check for possible blind prejudices you might have, ask someone who can tell you the truth. Speak up when you witness ‘Asabiyyah and prevent it when possible, whether against yourself or others. Finally, ask God for guidance and help in removing and/or keeping ‘Asabiyyah from polluting your heart, damaging your community, and affecting world politics.
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