Editorial - The First Racist
Issue 76 January 2011
“I am better than he.” These are the fatal words spoken by Iblis to God regarding Adam, and led to him being accursed by God.
Iblis knows that God exists. It is not a question of faith for him. Yet, despite knowing and being before God, his absolute arrogance and feeling of superiority over Adam led to his fall, and ultimately to his despair.
Those five words of Iblis are constantly found within the human experience. It seems that it is so easy for us to feel superior over our fellow human beings. History shows us, from the slave trade to South African apartheid, from Aboriginal annihilation to the de-facto extermination of the native Americans, that the feeling of racial superiority has led to the most horrific brutality and injustices. Man has too often said of others “I am better than he” to the degree where he found it possible to treat human beings of a different race and colour as chattels and property. Islam’s absolute and unambiguous refutation of such a position is clear to see. The Qur’an says, “We created you into nations and tribes so that you could know one another [not so that you can hate one another],” (49:13) and the Prophet was clear in his last sermon, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white, except by piety and good action.” Yet racism is prevalent within the Muslim community. Before I was married, as an Englishwoman I had offers of marriage because I was ‘fair’; but I have seen men and women being rejected for marriage because they were dark, or not of the right race. The treatment of ‘guest workers’ in some of the Gulf states is appalling. And even the perception of an Arab being superior to a Turk or a Pakistani being superior to a Bengali is prevalent within the practice of Muslims.
Racial superiority is not the only expression of Iblis’ attitude towards Adam. In Britain, there are problematic issues of class divisions based upon the old feudal system. Wealth and the attendant issues of status manifest the grave words of Iblis. And of course, the issues of beauty superiority, particularly with the ever-increasing attention on looks from global advertising and the celebrity industry are pervasive. There is another form of superiority that is on the rise but is against the very ethos of the body from which it springs - and that is the feeling of religious superiority.
This is a difficult issue to work through, because in the first instance people choose one religion over another because they believe one to be better than the other. Religion is not like colour or race because you choose religion, whereas you are born into the others. My own situation is very clear as I chose to be a Muslim in preference to being a Christian; and I did that because Islam made more sense to me. The religious superiority that I am talking about is the one that leads to Catholics killing Protestants, Sunnis killing Shias, Muslims killing Christians, Hindus killing Muslims, and vice-versa. It is this sense of superiority that condemns another to hellfire, believing that only your own religious type will be saved.
Yet religious superiority does not have to be about violence and hellfire. It is also the feeling inside when you decide that you are better than another because you wear hijab and they don’t, because you have a beard and he doesn’t, or your religious practices are better than the others. It is the constant judgement of another, and the feeling of “I am better than he”. That is the arrogance that condemned Iblis and it can be our undoing too.
The Qur’an reminds us that “True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or west.” (2:177) Rather, the verse carries on reminding us, true piety is a sincere faith that results in sincere action and a life of service; bearing suffering with patience, and overcoming our fears.
Arrogance in faith is surely one of the worst forms of superiority, and should be abhorrent to anyone seeking to self-surrender themselves unto God. Iblis despaired of God’s Mercy and stands as the archetype of all we should loathe. His arrogance and disobedience led to his downfall, and knowing his story from the Qur’anic narrative should propel us towards humility before God.