On obscene generalisations

Five young Black women wearing different coloured long dresses and headscarves.

Last week a video circulated of a Canadian-based Somali imam making some ugly generalisations about African-American people, claiming that most of them were products of one-night stands and did not know who their fathers were, and that he had met a man who said that Islam limited him to four wives instead of the twenty women he had previously kept on the go. After much outcry it appears the imam apologised although some were not satisfied with the wording of his apology, and another imam then circulated a sermon making equally obscene generalisations about Somali women. What was depressing about this was that I saw some Black American Muslims defending the first imam on the grounds that there is indeed a very large illegitimacy rate among African-Americans and that at worst he was exaggerating a bit. I don’t believe this is a good reason to make statements like this in a khutba. (A group of Somali community leaders in north America issued this statement.)

One of the people defending the original shaikh is a student of Shaikh Nuh Keller, the translator and compiler of the English version of the Reliance of the Traveller and a Sufi shaikh who lives and teaches in Jordan, so I am going to quote a couple of extracts from his tariqa literature to explain why what the Somali imam said was not becoming of an imam. That shaikh seems to be a ‘salafi’, judging by the list of his shaikhs, but these things are matters of Shari’ah and not the Sufi path as such. Part of the path as he teaches it is an exercise called muraqaba or vigilance in which the student is expected to refrain from seven sins, all of them sins of the tongue such as lying, tale-bearing, backbiting, boasting, showing-off and, the one relevant to this incident, conversing about the immoral which the shaikh observed was “a hobby among religious people” which they do to “make themselves feel more religious”:

They tell what the fornicators do in such-and-such a street, or what the drinkers are doing up town in such-and-such a bar, and all of this is completely haraam. Mentioning an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

He explained that sometimes it was necessary to warn people of evil, such as telling travellers to and students in Syria (before the civil war) what the Assad regime did to anyone who got on the wrong side of it, but there was no excuse to talk about “how bad the times we are living in are” because everyone knows that already. This part of the sermon falls straight into that definition. (The quote is from his 1998 Virginia lectures, which can be downloaded here and the relevant section can be found by searching for “seven things we need to avoid”.)

A second thing he warned against (in a book for people coming to study with him in Jordan) was making generalisations about people based on their national origins. This is also something I have seen Muslims do a lot over the years, often imagining themselves fully justified in their prejudices and in expressing them openly:

One cannot put oneself up by putting others down, but only by worshipping Allah, and it is absolutely haram to make derogatory ethnic observations about individuals or countries. To say, “Iraqis act like such and such,” or “Egyptians have such and such an attitude” or “Pakistanis do such and such” or “Women from Upper Volta” or “Moroccan children” or whoever it may be, unless warning someone actually travelling somewhere of something that may harm him, is of the antics of the nafs, an attempt to feel superior by telling about faults one does not have.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest if one thinks it is true. It is forbidden by Allah Himself in the Qur’an with the words, “O you who believe: let no group of men mock another: for they might well be better than they are. And let no group of women mock another, for they might well be better than they are” (Qur’an 49:11). And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told his Companions: “Allah Mighty and Majestic has rid you of the arrogance of the Period of Ignorance and its pride in forefathers. Godfearing believer or hapless sinner: all people are the sons of Adam, and Adam was from the soil. Let peoples cease priding themselves in men, or they will matter less to Allah than the scarab beetle that pushes excrement about with its nose” (Ahmad , 2.361. h). This suffices as to how much merit the practice has. If tempted, one should just put one’s lips together and keep them that way. (As A Rule, Wakeel Books, Amman, 2002.)

Any Muslim public speaker should be trying to warm people’s hearts when they speak. They should never assume, regardless of appearances, that they are only addressing Muslims or only addressing their own people, least of all if they know their words are being recorded. We know that the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, used wise and kind words and had excellent manners with everyone, Muslims or otherwise. He forbade the Sahaba from, for example, addressing non-Muslims as kaafir, ordering us to call people by their names and their father’s names, as was the Arab custom. He told people not to insult Abu Jahl in front of Ikrimah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, when he came to Islam after the conquest of Makkah; he prayed for the guidance of the Daws tribe when Abu Hurayrah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, complained that they were impervious to his attempts to persuade them to become Muslims. Crucially, he condemned those who cursed their own parents, which he explained as meaning cursing someone else’s, leading to the other person responding in kind. In the Qur’an, Allah Almighty tells us not to curse others’ idols, lest they revile Allah in their ignorance. There are so many injunctions and examples of the importance of kindness and good manners in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and going to a foreign country and insulting the people will never win anybody over.

It’s true that there is a high illegitimacy rate among Black Americans; there is a high rate also among White Americans, White British people and many other groups in the West. The rate may be higher or lower but it is still high. It is a fact that many couples live together and have children before marriage, or in some cases never marry. This is not a one-night stand and a child born in this situation knows who their father is. As far as illegitimacy goes, the pendulum has swung a long way from a point where a woman pregnant before marriage would have to spend months in a “mother and baby home” away from her family and give her baby up for adoption or even be consigned to an institution for life to a point where nobody really talks of illegitimacy anymore. I am not saying this is a good thing (though the closure of those institutions definitely is), but it does not justify any claim that “they’re all at it like rabbits” or some other suggestion that everyone is promiscuous, because that just is not true.

As a western convert myself, I am well aware that there are stereotypes among Muslims from both Muslim countries and places like India about westerners and many of us have encountered them when we approach ‘ethnic’ Muslim families about marriage. There is an assumption that nobody from a western background is a virgin by the time their teens are out and if they are, it’s not for want of trying, which is truer than it used to be but still an exaggeration. It’s also not the sort of thing any imam should be telling his congregation, least of all in great detail in a khutba, and they should not imagine that it will hurt or offend less if you think you are only talking about non-Muslims — you may well be talking about their family and saying things you would not dare say about someone’s mother or sister to their face.

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