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An Interview with Dr. Muhammad Shahid on Racial Discrimination

On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Ijtihadnetwork has interviewed with Dr. Muhammad Shahid, a senior lecturer in the study of religion at the University of Johannesburg.

Dr. Muhammad Shahid is a senior lecturer in the study of religion at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He was born and raised in South Africa. He completed his primary studies there, and then he went to al-Azhar in Egypt, where he remained for nine years and completed the second phase of education in the Muslim religious intellectual tradition. Then he went to the faculty of Islamic law and modern international law. Upon completing in 1998, he returned to South Africa. He then enrolled at the University of Cape Town for a master’s degree in the department of religious studies, which he completed in 2004 with a thesis on the critical reading of the work of a contemporary Muslim scholar from Pakistan. He also enrolled for a Ph.D. course in historical studies where he worked on the social history of Timbuktu during the colonial era (1894 to 1916).  He focused on fatwas regarding marriage, divorce, and paternity disputes. Upon completing his Ph.D. in 2011, he got a post at the University of Johannesburg in the department of religions studies.

Ijtihadnet has interviewed him on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

21st March marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Would you please give us a short story of this day and the reason this day was chosen?

It was chosen as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination after the uprising on 21st March 1960 in South Africa against the racist pass laws, which placed South Africans in 3 or 4 and later more racial categories. The most significant number of South Africans were those who under apartheid laws were called Afrikaans or natives. What apartheid government intended was to keep whom they called Afrikaans or natives out of the major urban centres. It enforced on them to first get a pass so they could come to major cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria etc. It was challenging to get this pass. Many of those were called Afrikaans had to come to these major cities to look for work in order to feed the family because apartheid was not simply racial discrimination and racism. However, also it deprived people of wealth as it went hand in hand with Capitalism. Many who were called Afrikaans had to have the pass, called in Africans “dumb pass,” which literally is translated into a stupid pass. If they did not have this piece of document they were arrested. So a part of the resistance against apartheid was to stand up against this hated and oppressive handle and instrument i.e. the dumb pass. So, on 21st March 1960, many protesters led by the Pan-Africans Congress, which was one of the two major liberation movements, marched to all police stations in South Africa to deliver their dumb pass to say they refuse to carry this very oppressive document. This resulted in Sharpeville massacre in the south of Johannesburg with white racist police opening fire on these peaceful protesters. 69 people were killed and in the following day another 5 people were killed in Langa, a township in Cape Town and this of course became known as the Sharpeville massacre. Because of this massacre, the United Nations then decreed 21st March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. However, in our South African struggle memory, we call it the Sharpeville massacre while in the new South Africa, 21st March is known as Human Rights Day. It is a public holiday in commemoration of the 74 martyrs. However, we feel it is a liberal appropriation of the struggle of that day in 1960, so we still insist on calling it Sharpeville massacre. Of course, in many of the countries in the Northern Hemisphere, such as Iran and Afghanistan, 21st March is the day of Nowruz, which is the day when the equinox changes while in the Southern Hemisphere 21st March marks the beginning of autumn. However, for us, it was a day of resistance against racial segregation and racist oppression and Capitalism. We need to keep in our memory that it is known as Sharpeville day.

Is discrimination limited to race, or we could think of other types of discrimination?

Before answering this question, let me say that race is, of course, a construct. In other words, it has no scientific basis. There is no such thing as race in the real world. The race is a construct of the Enlightenment Era that is after the 17th century and by the Western nations, and it has served the colonial projects of the Western European Colonialists very well. So, there is no such thing as race, and it is a big problem that the former colonized people continue to speak or write on race as a real existence. It is an immoral, unethical, and obscene construct that we should do away. Of course, discrimination is not limited to the construct of race; there are other forms of discrimination like gender discrimination, which is often about how men treat women. There is discrimination in class. So there are various forms of discrimination at work in our contemporary world and throughout human history. Therefore, we should be aware of what these other discriminations are. We should work to understand them and then do our best to do away with these discriminations, whether they are about gender, wealth, class, or language.

In your eyes as a Muslim scholar, how did Islam try to eliminate racial discrimination? What are the central Islamic teachings in this regard?

As Muslims, we should undoubtedly be at the forefront to struggle against and to eliminate the construct of race in order to do away with racial discrimination. Islam is clear on this matter. We should know the Islamic perspective by understanding the Holy Quran. The Holy Quran does not bring nations together; the Quran does not bring Arabs and Iranians and Russians and Nigerians and Chinese together; instead, the Quran brings the individuals together, and these individuals form the Umma. Therefore, there is no such thing as ethnicity and race in Islam. These individuals come together and then form an Umma. The Quran insists on taqwa (God-awareness) as a way against racial discrimination. According to Islamic teachings, one should not become arrogant; I should not think of myself as the best person around. I should be like the prophets who were the humblest people. So, we need to educate ourselves and study Islamic sources carefully and understand these things and then as individuals who fear God and follow the Prophet and the Imams and all those teachings and form the ideal Umma. This way, then we can eliminate racial discrimination.  Unfortunately, many Muslims also accepted the notion of race because we have not adequately dealt with this construct of race and have not understood how it works.

How do you compare the ways Islam opposed racial discrimination and the ways other divine or secular schools followed?

If we understand why Allah has created us, if we understand our creation, if we understand Islam as the philosophy of creation that everybody is created with fitrah (innate nature), then we can understand Islam’s way of doing away with this evil i.e., racial discrimination. On this issue, Islam is the only proper answer as opposed to today’s versions of Judaism and Christianity because these religious traditions and even secular schools, such as Western Marxism, are often based on the notion of race and ethnicity, which require that some people are better than other people. Therefore in as much as they try to do away with racial discrimination, in many cases, they end up unwittingly reinforcing it. That is because they do not have this notion of fitrah. As Mulla Sadra said, existence is pure good, but humans pollute it. Judaism is based on the concept of the beloved nation of God. That is the very basis for all forms of discrimination, and then what became later in human history as racial discrimination. Zionism gets much of its doctrines from the early texts, especially what is today known as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. So indeed, Islam’s way stands out because it does not speak about nations, as I said earlier. Islam does not speak about bringing together Iranians and Arabs and Kurds and Turks and Africans and the Chinese and Indians. Instead, Islam brings together individuals, and these committed individuals who believe in God and are aware of the Day of Judgement become the aware Umma.

Still, some accuse Islam of racial discrimination by claiming that Islam supported slavery. What is your take on this?

There is an interesting question that Eric Williams in 1944 famously asked: “is it slavery that causes racism, or is it racism that causes slavery?” and his response was that slavery causes racism. We cannot go into detail to discuss Eric Williams’ statement. However, I think the accusation that Islam supports racial discrimination by claiming that it supported slavery is superficially put and is ahistorical. It does not give us a clear understanding of how slavery developed and was practiced in the Muslim world as it was practiced in what is known as the Western European countries, including, for example, ancient Greece. What is extremely important is that we look at slavery even in Islamic books of jurisprudence. The truth is we have to understand the historicity of such claims. In other words, what were the historical conditions under which slavery functioned in our societies, and then what is the Quranic ethical imperative? Then we must have a critique of the generations gone before to see if they understood and implemented the Quranic ethics to do away with slavery. Yes, the Quran did not proscribe slavery as legislation for several reasons, but the Quran did give guidelines to eliminate slavery.

Nevertheless, this is an important question which I think we have to discuss and have a broader panel discussion on this that requires more than one scholar. So, in a way, I’m not answering the question sufficiently. However, I think that accusation in itself is ahistorical and superficial, and it is simply a slogan, notwithstanding that it raises important and significant matters.

Is there any relation between the elimination of racial discrimination and the concept of the unity of Muslims as preached by such great Muslim scholars as Imam Khomeini and Shaykh Shaltut?

Of course yes, since these two people and others such as Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Sayyid al-Qutb, Hasan al-Banna (though we can be critical of these scholars individually) quite clearly made great efforts in this regard because their worldview was Islam and tawhid (Monotheism) and they were all guided by the Quran or at least they saw the Quran as the way that governed their lives. Let me put it this way; they believed in the unity and the fact that Allah is One and Creator from an ontological perspective. If this is the case, then Allah’s creation is equal. So by the mere fact that they all held onto tawhid, it means of necessity that they would be part of the fight against racial discrimination. In other words, one cannot say I’m Monotheist, and then one practices racial discrimination. As Imam Khomeini and Shaykh Shaltut were Muwahhids (Monotheists), they were against racial discrimination. However, I think sometimes, or many times we do not go beyond it, and we do not look at the historical practice, for example, how racial discrimination was practiced in history through legislation. Many modern Muslim governments, unfortunately, have adopted policies or rather a framework for policies that have been inspired by the West and is based on racial discrimination. So, for example, when in some Muslim countries, certain languages are not allowed to be spoken; this is not a Muslim practice. Before colonial rule, no Muslim ruler would have banned another language being spoken on the basis that we need to build a nation and have only one language. So I think in Muslim societies, there are lots of such problems so much so that racial discrimination comes through the window, meaning that we are not aware many times as to how we are practicing racial discrimination. Therefore, we have to be aware of that, and we have to go into Imam Khomeini and Sheikh Shaltut’s thoughts, though we must also see what are the weaknesses in their thought so that we can improve.

Back to South Africa! Is apartheid removed altogether, or still there are traces of it?

It depends on our definition of apartheid. Apartheid as legislation and political philosophy that governs a state or nation has been removed. South Africa is in a much better space post-1994 than pre-1994, notwithstanding the problems we have. So certainly, apartheid in that sense is gone, and you can live where you want, you can go to a school where you want, you can speak the language you want, and these are significant achievements that we should never undermine. However, the changes we achieved so far are not sufficient as there are traces of apartheid, and the most prominent trace is in the economy. In other words, the wealth still belongs to the Capitalists, and I’ve earlier pointed out that apartheid could not have succeeded without Capitalism, and either often, this relationship is not known, or it is deliberately forgotten or negated. Apartheid could not have succeeded without Capitalism just as Nazism could not have succeeded Capitalism, just like Zionism would not have succeeded without the international Capitalism of the Western Imperialism. Because of such traces now, we have poverty as a big problem since the economy is still in the hands of those who benefited yesterday and who happened to be mostly so-called whites. Frantz Fanon says that when it comes to the colonies, we must always stretch Marxist Theory a little bit; in the colonies, you are rich because you are white and you are white because you are rich. Fanon was not superficial about race, but he was showing how, for example, Colonialism, Imperialism, and Capitalism created discrimination as a construct. So, while we do not have official and legislative racial discrimination, we have traces of it more in the form of the economy; the so-called whites are those who were and running the economy of South Africa. So, we have the traces, and that results in adverse, abject, undesirable, and in fact, dangerous social problems such as ignorance, poverty, and crime.

Did the leaders of different religions make any effort to eliminate racial discrimination in Africa in general and in South Africa in specific? What were their measures?

As for the first part of the question, yes. We have the South African council of churches as well as many Civic organizations and religious leaders making efforts in this regard. In fact, I think many of them went beyond that as they even tried to tackle things such as poverty, disease etc. I cannot speak much about other countries in Africa. However, unfortunately, there has been a setback, especially just after 1994 as some people may have become more complacent, but again, it is not due to lack of effort. More important than effort is that we have as our worldview and paradigm, which ensure the elimination of racial discrimination. So you may have lots of efforts where people are leading campaigns, and there is much activity against racial discrimination. However, because we still speak about race, we end up inadvertently reinforcing the notion of race. Therefore you may still have some forms of racial discrimination but I do think that there are many efforts in South Africa; many religious leaders, especially Christians and Muslims, have made much effort. However, some groups speak about religion and the fight against racial discrimination but for their nefarious political aims. So, they will start, and they will speak about the racial discrimination and that Judaism is against it, but of course, it is for them to show that Israel is helping, while in reality, it is for them to showcase and uplift Israel as a model for human rights. That is vulgar and political. However, in any case, there are helpful measures such as conferences where the interfaith groups speak together and feeding schemes. However, I do think the effort has to be spearheaded and streamlined more so that we have a bigger conversation about it.

Can we call Imperialism, Capitalism, and the like, modern ways of discrimination, which include all races?

Of course, as I made it clear that racial discrimination and racism are the results of the construct of race. Nevertheless, the race itself, as I pointed out, is a product of the Enlightenment, Modernity, or modern European thought and then because modern European thought had this notion of cultural superiority. Then with the need for markets and with the need to control the resources of the earth, they created colonialism. So, colonialism benefitted best from racial discrimination because they could claim that the people, especially in Africa and also in Asia, were inferior people. So racial discrimination is only possible because of Capitalism and Imperialism, as Lenin called Imperialism the highest discriminatory form of Capitalism. Therefore, they had to have this policy of racial discrimination in order to control people but also to take control of the resources of these lands. According to them, there was one superior race, and that was the so-called white race. Nevertheless, we must also be more specific here. For them, the so-called white race were men (excluding so-called white women) from a certain region that covers today’s France, Germany, United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps Italy, but then after that, other whites in general. So, according to them, you do have a superior race, which is this European race, and then the others are discriminated against.

That brings us to the end of this interview. All that remains is for me to thank you very much for the enlightening answers you gave to our questions. I appreciate that.

You are welcome.

This interview was conducted by Sayyid Mostafa Daryabari and Dr. Morteza Karimi.

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