"You can't be a Muslim. You're white."
"You can't come in our circle because you're white and we're all black."
I don't recall where the first comment came from, but it came from a non-Muslim.
The second came from a girl at the girls' halaqah at the masjid this past week. She's young, no older than 12 at most. It's one of those things where your mouth gets ahead of your brain, or where you try to make a joke, and it comes out not only flat, but sounding far worse than you intended it to.
It was a blessing, though, because it opened my eyes. I realised, for perhaps the first time since my conversion, that non-Muslims aren't the only ones with misconceptions about who Muslims are.
As often as I talk to people who think that you have to be Arab or black to be a Muslim, there are also Muslims who think I can't be a "real" Muslim because I'm NOT Arab or black.
Where, I wondered, did this child - for that's what she is - get the idea that you have to be "brown" to be a Muslim? At a guess, most people would say "her parents". Kids are like little sponges - they soak up whatever's around, and they have no filter to separate the bad from the good.
We all have been exposed to prejudice and racism at some point in our lives. Usually it comes from a parent or another family member.
I was in my dad's truck with my dad and brother. We were driving down a road in my hometown, and we saw a black man and white woman walking on the sidewalk. They were holding hands. My dad said "If you ever date a black man, I'll disown you."
I was seven. That was my abrupt realization that skin colors exist, and that some people think those with different color skin shouldn't be together, and even that dark-skinned people were "inferior" to white people.
It was my first exposure (in my memory) to prejudice. I've never forgotten it. When I recounted the story to my dad over 10 years later, he tried to laugh it off. To pretend he'd been joking. But I'd known he wasn't. After that, I had two choices. I could choose to see people as human beings, valuable and unique individuals, or I could see them as a skin color. Guess which one I chose?
As Muslims, we are taught that race doesn't matter, that one skin color isn't better than another.
"O people, We created you from a male and female, and We made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely, the most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most righteous. God is Knowledgeable, Expert." Qur'an 49:13
"And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations
in your languages and your colors; verily in that are signs for those who know."
From the recorded Last Sermon:
"All men are equal in Islam. The Arab has no superiority over the non-Arab, nor does the non-Arab have superiority over the Arab, save in the fear of God."
(While I disregard the hadith at large, I do enjoy the last sermon, as it sums up what Muhammad spent 23 years of his life preaching. I find it utterly compatible with the Qur'an.)
If we are taught this, by both Allah through the Qur'an and also Muhammad, HOW can we claim that Islam is an exclusively Arab/black religion or that another person is somehow a "lesser" or "insincere" Muslim? When the Qur'an tells us that it is a guidance for all mankind, that Allah has completed his favor upon all humanity and named our religion as submission to Him, who are we to say otherwise? How can we look at ourselves in the mirror if we think our skin color (or language, sex, sexual orientation, religion, or anything else) makes us better than another person, also created by Allah?
Islam is not only for a certain group or groups. It is for everyone. It's for the black people, the white people, the Arab people, the Latino people, the Asian people. It's for everyone who seeks and finds peace in it. Cultivate an attitude that reflects acceptance for all, regardless of their skin color, tattoos, piercings, hair color, clothing, or anything else that makes them different from you. You never know whose heart may be opened by your welcoming attitude, or whose heart will turn to stone because of a thoughtless comment made.
My point is this: watch what you teach your kids. This includes Muslims. Kids won't get only the good and leave the bad. Prejudice is a learned attitude. We don't come with it pre-loaded on our brains.