Since Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, there has been a renewed national conversation about race in America. While most thoughtful analysts agree that there is a wide racial divide in the country, no one has come up with a definitive answer as to how to solve it. Despite decades of government, non-government and civil society efforts, the issues of racial discrimination, racial tension persist. While different racial groups have responded differently to this situation, the response by American Muslims is of particular interest to me, given that Islam is supposed to be ‘race-blind,’ according to popular understanding. A related question that is important is: How do Muslims make sense of black suffering, fully believing that God is beneficent and merciful?
‘Does Islam ‘do’ race?’ asks the scholar Sherman Jackson, one of the most well-known scholars of Islam in America. Even if at face-value, Islam does not address race as a question, since most Muslims argue that race is a ‘social construct’ that the white man came up with. Even if Islam does not do race, ‘Islam does reality,’ Jackson reminds us, urging us to be aware of the vast differences between the race-neutral languages that most Muslims use versus the presence of racially discriminatory practices and ideas around us. Jackson argues in his book Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering that universalizing tendencies of many immigrant and overseas Muslims about ahistorical truths and ‘race-free’ discourses won’t help and that we must engage with the discourse of race, instead of ignoring it.
Jackson points to the work of William R.Jones, whose book Is God a White Racist? has brought to fore the question of how to make sense of black suffering in the world. This question becomes relevant to those religions that insist that god is benevolent and merciful – a fact that Islam endorses, time and again. If God is all powerful and benevolent, then the protests of Blacks against their condition could be considered a revolt against the will of God and the only appropriate answer to this situation would be ‘quietism,’ argues Jones. Jones’s critiqued all existing Black theologies in favor of secular humanism or humanocentric theism, which he believed offered a solution to Black suffering. The biggest critique of Jones has been his complete negation of Jesus, the central figure in Christianity, who is supposed to embody suffering of all mankind. But Islam does not suffer from this problem. While considering Jesus as a prophet, Islam rejects the notion that he died for the sins of all humans.
Consider the following: Every Surah of the Qur’an begins with the phrase ‘In the name of Allah, the beneficent and Merciful.’ The question that Jackson is bringing up is how can Sunni tradition, or rather Blackamerican Sunni tradition make sense of this dichotomy between reality of Black suffering and the claim that God is all loving and merciful? A powerful and important question indeed. The challenge before Blackamerican Muslims has been how to overturn these structures of oppression, rather than just accept them passively, within the theological framework that Islam offers, says Jackson. This is similar to the struggles that Malcom X went through after his break with the Nation of Islam, says Edward Curtis in his book Islam in Black America. Curtis argues, against conventional understandings of Malcom’s life that he sought to separate out religion from his politics – post his break from the Nation of Islam (NOI). One may recall that the NOI was a racist, black supremacist organization that believed that Allah did not have a place in heaven for the ‘blue eyed devil’, i.e., the White man. This followed his realization that while Islam sought a race-blind adherence to the religion and universal brotherhood, the problems of Blacks in America were real. So, Malcom sought to align with Pan-Africanism to address this specific issue, before he was assassinated, argues Curtis.
So, how does mainstream Sunni theology reconcile Black Suffering with the belief a merciful god? Before we authoritatively answer that question, Jackson suggests that we look at the way Muslim theology developed. He offers a rather insightful look into the evolution of various schools of thought – Muta’zilite, Ash’arites, and the Mutaridities. While the first group of scholars are the ‘rationalists’ the latter two are ‘traditionalists’ operating in the rational tradition. Questions of anthropomorphism, the createdness of the Qur’an and related areas are where they differ and this has important implications on how they view reality. For instance, whether the Qur’an is a created word of uncreated can have implications on the extent to one which can have flexibility in interpreting the text- versus using it literally. Of course, there are verses in the Qur’an such as “O mankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Qur’an. 49: 13). Tariq Ramadhan, another well-known scholar tells us that such reminders are handy, when one has to reconcile between the daily realities and the larger principles on which one has to base one’s life. Muslim jurists have worked hard to explicate the challenges of dealing with vast diversity that we find amidst ourselves, while staying true to our religious ideals, Ramadhan suggests. But Jackson seems to be taking this argument one step further by arguing that a Blackamerican Muslim theology must be developed to address these challenges, while remaining conscious of the universal arguments made by mainstream Sunni Muslims, around the world. A uniquely Black response is needed, as it addresses specific issues of Blackamerican Muslims, he contends.
In discussing the evolution of the four traditions of Islamic theology, Jackson says that the key principle that is important to understand Theodicy is one of divine omnibenevolence – meaning that God could ‘neither sponsor human evil nor reward people or punish them for actions over which they had no effective control’. (p.51). In other words, this means that humans have free will to decide what they want to do. To quote Jackson “This demanded in turn, that humans be endowed not simply with freedom of choice but also with the actual ability to translate their choices into actual physical reality. In this way, no evil committed by humans could be attributed to God, and God could not be deemed unjust for holding humans accountable for their evil actions.” (p.52). This strategy of positioning man in a position that is ‘rational’ and one with agency to decide his/her fate, Mu’tazalites paved a way for a certain interpretation of suffering in this world. This notion of free will or ikhtiyar has come under considerable attack, as Jackson reminds us.
Finally, Jackson reminds us that despite differing in the amount of agency that each school of theology gives to humans, they all agree that there is an element of power in the human hand. “For if humans petition God to instantiate their will to do good, God will inevitably respond,” he says. From this, it seems that be clear that God is not seen as a white racist by any of the schools of Islamic theology and there is also no need for quietism – since racism and any violent oppression is against God’s will – and must be resisted by all people of conscience.
To William R. Jones’s question on whether ‘God is a white racist’, the simple answer, is that he is not a racist. The problem is of course, human will – which in Islamic theology accounts for much corruption that we see amidst us.