Cultural Understanding and Racial Harmony

by Dr. Ijaz Ahmad Qamar

Review of Religions February 1993

This address was delivered at a multifaith symposium held in Winnepeg.

The edifice and the whole superstructure of Islamic faith is predicated on one cardinal principle, the principle of the unity of the Creator (God/Allah) and the unity of humanity which He has created. I have basically two sources of knowledge to expand on this concept. One of them is the Holy Scripture of Islam – The Quran and the other is the collection of the sayings and doings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) – the Hadith.

Islam bases the culture it seeks to promote on the foundations of a firm belief in the existence of a uniquely divine singular Creator (Tauheed). This Creator revealed Islam as the synthesis and unifying philosophy of life leading us not only to spiritual enlightenment but also to a unique set of morals and culture. It fosters in a unique manner mutual love and affection, human togetherness and tolerance for others who are different from yourself. These universal and profound teachings of Islam are meant to create a universal human culture based on the unity of Almighty God and equality of mankind. The Holy Prophet(saw) said:

O People, your Lord is One, you are the progeny of the same father (who was created from dust). Hence it is not permissible for you to make any discrimination between high and low. Neither an Arab has superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab. A white person is not superior to a black person one, nor a black is superior to a white. The most honourable among you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous.

Addressing a large gathering of people, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) vehemently stressed the same thoughts in the following words (only relevant sentences are quoted):

You are brothers and sisters. You are all equal. No matter to which nation or tribe you belong and no matter what your status is, you are equal. Just as the fingers of both hands are alike, nobody can claim to have any distinctive right or greatness over another. The command which I give you today is not just for today but it is forever. Always remember to and keep acting upon it until you return to your true Master.

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) being a universal messenger and confirmer of all the previous prophets ( Khatamun Nabiyyeen) was commissioned to create a distinct culture of tolerance and understanding from an Arab culture which had strong overtones of racial, colour and language prejudices. Non-Arabs were labelled as Ajam which was a racist term to describe mute people who, in Arab views, could not express themselves well. Notwithstanding the fact that Arabia was partly under the heels of the Romans and partly under the heels of the Persians, the Arabs regarded themselves as a much superior race. The negroes were regarded as chattels and slaves. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) had to erase these prejudices based on race, colour and tongues etc.

As a practical example, a negro from Ethiopia by the name of Bilal was chosen by the Holy Prophet(saw) to deliver the call for prayer (Adhan) in his own mosque. This was a high honour which could not be imagined before the Prophet(saw)‘s pronouncements. There are many examples which illustrate tolerance and racial equality in Islamic history. I wish that kind of history could be repeated today. Once a Christian delegation was allowed to hold their worship and service in the Prophet(saw)‘s mosque. One of the examples worth noting comes from Spain. After arriving on the soil of Spain, the Muslims published an edict assuring full liberty to all subjects of all races and backgrounds. All were placed on an equal footing. It is recorded in history that the Jews, for example, profited most from the Muslim rule and administration. Many centuries later when Spain was reconquered by Ferdinand and Issabellah, innumerable Jews preferred to go to Islamic lands rather than stay in Christian Spain.

These shining examples of racial harmony draw their philosophical underpinning from the Holy Quran where mankind is referred to as one community and a single nation. The reference to mankind as one community or a nation and identical words have been used at least seven times in the scripture, signifying the fundamental unifying character of all human beings. The Quran, however, not only takes note of diversity in the universe but also stresses the useful purpose of diversity in races, colours, languages, cultures, wealth in human social order and describes these diversities as signs of God for those who reflect and posses knowledge. But none of these distinctive attributes confers any special privileges on human beings or imposes any liability or disability.

Actually if we reflect we will find that human progress in life is closely linked with the diversity in attributes in various civilizations and cultures. Sameness would not have propelled us into action of greater achievements and challenges. Moreover, it is not impossible to conceive that if each one of us would have been alike in culture, language, colour etc., this world would have been very boring, monotonous and unspectacular. There would have been no particular urge to learn from one another and develop in various facets of life. It is only the diversity in life which makes this world colourful, wonderful and propels people towards higher goals and objectives. Despite this diversity there is a basic unity enshrined in nature and human beings as pointed out earlier.

Now I am going to highlight the Magna Charta of human fraternity and unity contained in the Holy Quran. The verse reads:

O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes for the sake of easy recognition. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of God, is the most righteous among you. Surely, God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (49:15)

This verse lays down the basis of all-comprehensive and all pervading brotherhood/sisterhood of all human beings. It is addressed to and is aimed at all human beings and is not confined to the believers of the Quran. As a matter of fact the whole message of the Quran is for all people everywhere. This particular verse strikes at the roots of false and conjectural notions of racial arrogance and superiority. It affirms that the worth of a person is not to be judged by the pigment of skin, rank, social or economic status or such measuring tools but the standard is what a person can do as a moral and social human being in discharging his responsibilities and obligations to God and to His creation including all flora and fauna.

We are advised to be very respectful to nature an mindful of personal and national practices for sustainable environment and its resources which is the most equitable way of life for us and for our future generations. The diversity in nature constantly reminds us that there is not only a basic unity in diversity but also a uniformity in diversity. Without this unity and uniformity every thing would have fallen apart long ago. There might be a feeling that I am digressing from the topic. In fact I am not digressing, rather I am trying to show the inter-connection in various aspects of our lives.

This universe has not been created for the benefit of a class, section or individual. Human beings have been created for an objective and a purpose which is common to the whole of mankind. Therefore, the dominion which has been entrusted to people over resources of the universe and the forces of nature must be for the benefit of all mankind. If this principle was recognized, accepted and put into practice, only then the regulation of human activity in all spheres (individual, social, cultural and political) will become wholly beneficent and mankind would begin to live at pace and harmony with one another.

If we are well balanced moral human beings we will be highly sensitive to the surroundings around us, both physical and natural environment as well as human environment. It is with this human environment that we have to be culturally understanding and racially harmonious. If we do not do that we will be inviting human misery. We are fortunate that in Canada and the province of Manitoba, where I live, we have public policies and programmes in place which are designed to create an atmosphere of pride, equality and partnership of all of us irrespective of our backgrounds. In this country (Canada) and the province (Manitoba) we are celebrating a historical milestone of 125 years of our existence this year (1992) and we feel humbly proud that we are a part of the community of Canada a this juncture. To have such a feeling about a country in which you can define yourself, understand yourself, legitimately profess and practice what you stand for is part of our religious faith and belief. Long live Canada.


Cultural Understanding and Racial Harmony

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