The ignorance of tribalism and racism in Islam

January 10, 2016

Stand firm for justice in Islam

By Abu Amina Elias

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Tribalism is the pernicious ideology that afflicts all human societies in every time period, originating in the worship of idols and reconstructing itself into many forms throughout the ages. In modern times, we know it as the specters of racism, xenophobia, and supremacism. In practice, it rears its ugly head in the shape of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and violence.

Allah has commanded us to uphold justice with all other human beings regardless of their race, religion, or identity.

Allah said:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ إِن يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَىٰ أَن تَعْدِلُوا

O you who believe, be persistently standing firm in justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. Follow not your desires, lest you not be just.

Surat An-Nisa 4:135

Tribalists, by contrast, reject universal standards of justice. They divide the world into the privileged in-group and the demonized out-groups, holding to the slogan “my people right or wrong.” Their love of their own people and hatred of different people causes them to rationalize and justify the unjustifiable.

Wathila ibn Al-Asqa’ reported: I said, “O Messenger of Allah, is it part of tribalism that a man loves his people?” The Prophet said:

لَا وَلَكِنْ مِنَ الْعَصَبِيَّةِ أَنْ يُعِينَ الرَّجُلُ قَوْمَهُ عَلَى الظُّلْمِ

No, rather it is tribalism that he supports his people in wrongdoing.

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 3949, Grade: Hasan

Love for one’s people is normal and healthy if it leads to good deeds, but such love that comes at the expense of justice is no true love at all.

Tribalism by this definition has been rejected by Islam in the harshest terms. Tribalism is a form of “blind following” whose adherents live in “ignorance,” an allusion to the pre-Islamic worship of idols.

Jundab ibn Abdullah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ قُتِلَ تَحْتَ رَايَةٍ عِمِّيَّةٍ يَدْعُو عَصَبِيَّةً أَوْ يَنْصُرُ عَصَبِيَّةً فَقِتْلَةٌ جَاهِلِيَّةٌ

Whoever is killed under the banner of blind following, who calls to tribalism or supports tribalism, then he has died upon ignorance.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1850, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet disowned anyone who lives by the ideology of tribalism or supports it in any way. Tribalists might be outwardly Muslims, but in reality Allah will not count them among the true believers.

Jubair ibn Mut’im reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ دَعَا إِلَى عَصَبِيَّةٍ وَلَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ قَاتَلَ عَلَى عَصَبِيَّةٍ وَلَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ مَاتَ عَلَى عَصَبِيَّةٍ

He is not one of us who calls to tribalism. He is not one of us who fights for the sake of tribalism. He is not one of us who dies following the way of tribalism.

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 5121, Grade: Hasan

The Prophet delivered an instructive parable to use about the likeness of one who adheres to tribalism:

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ أَعَانَ قَوْمَهُ عَلَى ظُلْمٍ فَهُوَ كَالْبَعِيرِ الْمُتَرَدِّي يَنْزِعُ بِذَنَبِهِ

Whoever supports his people in oppression is like a dead camel that falls into a well and is pulled out by its tail.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 4141, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

وَمَثَلُ الَّذِي يُعِينُ قَوْمَهُ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ كَمَثَلِ بَعِيرٍ رُدِّيَ فِي بِئْرٍ فَهُوَ يَنْزِعُ مِنْهَا بِذَنَبِهِ

The parable of the one who supports his people upon other than the truth is that of a dead camel that falls into a well and is pulled out by its tail.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 3670, Grade: Sahih

The tribalist who falls into this sin is destroyed, just like a camel that plunges to his death inside a well. The corpse of his sin will poison the well for an entire town, while the townspeople must endure the hideous sight and stench as they remove his carcass from their drinking water. Like the rotting camel, all throughout history we have seen the deadly presence of tribalism in oppression, murder, and genocide.

Tribalism takes many different forms, but the mindset is always the same. When tribalists justify themselves in terms of race, this is classic biological racism. Sometimes tribalists justify themselves in terms of culture, claiming their culture must dominate others, in which case they are simply practicing cultural racism.

Religion itself can be used to construct and justify an ideology of tribalism. If religion is used to violate the human rights of others and rationalize injustice against out-groups, it has become nothing more than religious racism.

Rather, the religion of Islam teaches us to uphold the rights of all human beings, to walk with humility, and to leave the divine judgment to Allah alone. Even our enemies deserve their basic human rights. In this regard, Allah informs us about the story of Moses, peace be upon him, when he accidentally killed the Egyptian man. Moses felt regret and sought forgiveness for his mistake, although the Egyptians at the time were oppressing the Israelites under the Pharaoh.

Allah said:

وَدَخَلَ الْمَدِينَةَ عَلَىٰ حِينِ غَفْلَةٍ مِّنْ أَهْلِهَا فَوَجَدَ فِيهَا رَجُلَيْنِ يَقْتَتِلَانِ هَٰذَا مِن شِيعَتِهِ وَهَٰذَا مِنْ عَدُوِّهِ ۖ فَاسْتَغَاثَهُ الَّذِي مِن شِيعَتِهِ عَلَى الَّذِي مِنْ عَدُوِّهِ فَوَكَزَهُ مُوسَىٰ فَقَضَىٰ عَلَيْهِ ۖ قَالَ هَٰذَا مِنْ عَمَلِ الشَّيْطَانِ ۖ إِنَّهُ عَدُوٌّ مُّضِلٌّ مُّبِينٌ قَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّي ظَلَمْتُ نَفْسِي فَاغْفِرْ لِي فَغَفَرَ لَهُ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ قَالَ رَبِّ بِمَا أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيَّ فَلَنْ أَكُونَ ظَهِيرًا لِّلْمُجْرِمِينَ

Moses entered the city at a time of inattention by its people and found therein two men fighting: one from his faction and one from his enemy. The one from his people called for help against his enemy, so Moses struck him and killed him. Moses said: This is from the work of Satan, for he is clearly a misguiding enemy. Moses said: My Lord, I have wronged myself, so forgive me. And Allah forgave him. Verily, He is the Forgiving, the Merciful. Moses said, “My Lord, for the favor you have bestowed upon me, I will never support the criminals.

Surat Al-Qasas 28:15-17

Hasan Al-Basri commented on this verse, saying:

لَمْ يَكُنْ يَحِلُّ قَتْلُ الْكَافِرِ يَوْمَئِذٍ فِي تِلْكَ الْحَالِ لِأَنَّهَا كَانَتْ حَالَ كَفٍّ عَنِ الْقِتَالِ

It was not lawful to kill the unbeliever on that day in this situation, as the circumstances warranted restraint.

Source: al-Jāmiʻ li-Aḥkām al-Qurʼān 28:15

Thus, even if a group of people are considered our enemies and oppressors, that does not give us license to kill or harm individuals among them without a necessary just cause.

Moreover, as religious people we cannot make divine judgments about an individual’s status with Allah, let alone make sweeping judgments about entire groups of people. We would do well to remember the fates of the humble sinner and the arrogant worshiper.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

كَانَ رَجُلَانِ فِي بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ مُتَوَاخِيَيْنِ فَكَانَ أَحَدُهُمَا يُذْنِبُ وَالْآخَرُ مُجْتَهِدٌ فِي الْعِبَادَةِ فَكَانَ لَا يَزَالُ الْمُجْتَهِدُ يَرَى الْآخَرَ عَلَى الذَّنْبِ فَيَقُولُ أَقْصِرْ فَوَجَدَهُ يَوْمًا عَلَى ذَنْبٍ فَقَالَ لَهُ أَقْصِرْ فَقَالَ خَلِّنِي وَرَبِّي أَبُعِثْتَ عَلَيَّ رَقِيبًا فَقَالَ وَاللَّهِ لَا يَغْفِرُ اللَّهُ لَكَ أَوْ لَا يُدْخِلُكَ اللَّهُ الْجَنَّةَ فَقَبَضَ أَرْوَاحَهُمَا فَاجْتَمَعَا عِنْدَ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ فَقَالَ لِهَذَا الْمُجْتَهِدِ أَكُنْتَ بِي عَالِمًا أَوْ كُنْتَ عَلَى مَا فِي يَدِي قَادِرًا وَقَالَ لِلْمُذْنِبِ اذْهَبْ فَادْخُلْ الْجَنَّةَ بِرَحْمَتِي وَقَالَ لِلْآخَرِ اذْهَبُوا بِهِ إِلَى النَّارِ

Two men among the children of Israel were the opposite of each other. One of them was a sinner and the other would strive in worship. The worshiper would see the sinner and tell him to stop. One day he found him sinning so he said: Stop! The sinner said: Leave me alone, by my Lord, have you been sent as a watchman over me? The worshiper said: By Allah, Allah will not forgive you or admit you into Paradise. Later their souls were taken and they met in the presence of the Lord of the worlds. Allah said to the worshiper: Did you have knowledge of me or power over what is in my hand? Allah said to the sinner: Enter Paradise by my mercy. And Allah said to the worshiper: Take him to the Hellfire.

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4901, Grade: Sahih

In other words, it is never fair to compare the best of ourselves to the worst of others, lest we fall into the destructive sin of arrogance.

No matter what scheme is used to justify tribalism, whether race, culture, or religion, the outcome is always the same: racist practice. Whoever the tribalists designate as the out-group will suffer prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination meant to enhance the tribalists own privilege at the expense of those they deem inferior.

The method of tribalism is to issue blanket indictments of an entire race, culture, religion, or group of people. They will condemn an entire group for the crimes of a few, or misrepresent an entire group by only examining its worst elements. Thus, the purveyors of Islamophobia claim all Muslims are terrorists, the purveyors of anti-Semitism claim all Jews are supremacists, and the purveyors of racism claim dark skinned people are natural criminals. In every case, the tribalists construct a false caricature of their victims to be the straw man for their vicious attacks.

Islam teaches us to reject such blanket indictments and false generalizations. Some of the Prophet’s companions began to have bad thoughts about all of the Jews and Christians, but verses were revealed making clear distinctions the righteous and unrighteous.

Allah said:

لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً ۗ مِّنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُسَارِعُونَ فِي الْخَيْرَاتِ وَأُولَٰئِكَ مِنَ الصَّالِحِينَ وَمَا يَفْعَلُوا مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَلَن يُكْفَرُوهُ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِالْمُتَّقِينَ

They are not all the same. Among the people of the Book is a community standing in obedience, reciting the verses of Allah during the night and prostrating in prayer. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to do good deeds. Those are among the righteous. Whatever good deeds they do will never be denied, for Allah knows well the righteous.

Surat Ali Imran 3:113-115

It would be wrong to negatively stereotype an entire religious group with all its unique individuals and diverse interpretations. For this reason, the Prophet firmly censured the poets of his time who had a habit of excoriating entire tribes.

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّ أَعْظَمَ النَّاسِ فِرْيَةً لَرَجُلٌ هَاجَى رَجُلًا فَهَجَا الْقَبِيلَةَ بِأَسْرِهَا

Verily, the greatest of people in falsehood is a man who insults another man by disparaging the entire tribe.

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 3761, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

إِنَّ أَعْظَمَ النَّاسِ جُرْمًا إِنْسَانٌ شَاعِرٌ يَهْجُو الْقَبِيلَةَ مِنْ أَسْرِهَا

Verily, the greatest criminal among people is a poet who disparages the entire tribe.

Source: al-Adab al-Mufrad 870, Grade: Sahih

If we accept blanket indictments of an entire group, then we are making a claim of collective guilt that will ultimately lead to collective punishment, and collective punishment is a crime of war. Islam rejects collective guilt and punishment, in word and deed, as innocent people may never be held accountable for the crimes of others.

Allah said:

وَلَا تَكْسِبُ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ إِلَّا عَلَيْهَا وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ

No soul earns anything except it is upon itself, and none shall bear the burdens of another.

Surat Al-An’am 6:164

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَلَا يُؤْخَذُ الرَّجُلُ بِجَرِيرَةِ أَبِيهِ وَلَا بِجَرِيرَةِ أَخِيهِ

No man is to be punished for the crimes of his father or his brother.

Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 4131, Grade: Sahih

Hence, tribalism is the ideological core of all militant terrorists, regardless of whether they support state terrorism or renegade terrorism. The Prophet renounced anyone who fights for tribalistic reasons and who eschews the principle of non-combatant distinction in war.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَمَنْ قَاتَلَ تَحْتَ رَايَةٍ عُمِّيَّةٍ يَغْضَبُ لِعَصَبَةٍ أَوْ يَدْعُو إِلَى عَصَبَةٍ أَوْ يَنْصُرُ عَصَبَةً فَقُتِلَ فَقِتْلَةٌ جَاهِلِيَّةٌ وَمَنْ خَرَجَ عَلَى أُمَّتِي يَضْرِبُ بَرَّهَا وَفَاجِرَهَا وَلاَ يَتَحَاشَ مِنْ مُؤْمِنِهَا وَلاَ يَفِي لِذِي عَهْدٍ عَهْدَهُ فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي وَلَسْتُ مِنْهُ

Whoever fights under the banner of one who is blind, raging for the sake of tribalism, or calling to tribalism, or supporting tribalism, and is killed in this state will have died upon ignorance. Whoever rebels against my nation, striking the righteous and wicked alike and sparing not even the believers and he does not fulfill the pledge of security, then he has nothing to do with me and I have nothing to do with him.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1848, Grade: Sahih

When the connection between tribalism and terrorism is understood, it will not be difficult for you to see that every violent extremist group, whether white supremacists or Kharijite terrorists or others, all share the same basic tribalist ideology even though they express it in different terms.

In sum, Islam rejects all forms of tribalism, racism, and bigotry. We must not construct a false caricature of other groups in order to justify oppression, blanket indictments, and collective punishment against them. We must take the lead in upholding justice and the natural rights of not only Muslims, but of all human beings.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.