The Quran says in surah Al-Hujurat ayot 13: “We have created you male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes that ye may know one another.” The reference to “that ye may know one another” is lost on many in the Muslim world. It does not say that you may assume to know about one another and then presumptuously teach the other based on your assumptions about them. The other aspect of this ayot is that it establishes that our tribal and national differences are not constructs but are signs created by Allah. Recently, there have been some very passionate exchanges between a colleague of mine and a Muslim speaker in the UK named Abdullah al Andulusi.
The exchange began when my colleague responded to Andulusi making critical remarks about Critical Race Theory. What was annoying about these comments is that they exhibited a shallow knowledge, not just about Critical Race Theory, but why African- Americans would find it useful. It underscored years of immigrants and foreigners not understanding black America and black Muslims in particular. Many of the criticisms of African-American Muslims by Desi and Arabs are paternalistic and condescending and reflect their own racial beliefs that have been and are a part of their world. After going back and forth Andulusi responded with an article Why Muslims Do Not Need Critical Race Theory (Part 1).
In this article he asserts that Critical Race Theory developed by American legal scholar Derrick Bell fosters racial division, is useless because “race” is itself a fictive of the West and is therefore Western, that it is entrenched in liberal notions that are fundamentally at odds with Islam, and that it is inseparable from lifestyles and concepts that are taboo within Islam
If there is any chance for us to “know one another” as the Quran instructs we must clear up misconceptions about our respective tribes which make up this Ummah. We have are own histories and cultural sensibilities that stem from our collective experiences. Understanding this is crucial to understanding each other.What does everyone in the Muslim world need to know about African-Americans that would help illuminate why Critical Race Theory is necessary. My colleague and friend, professor of sociology at Morehouse College described African-Americans as:
“Blackamericans are a people for whom our racialization process is deeply embedded in the creation of
our ethnicity. In simpler words, it could be said that our ethnicity IS our race. So, I have no desire to get
rid of race in some simplistic way.”
Abdullah Andulusi’s Ignorance of African-American Experience
When Andulusi refers to “race consciousness” as something that African-Americans voluntarily adopted he is exhibiting an ignorance about the African-American experience through a luxury that he as someone who has been identified primarily through his nationality and ethnicity has had that African- Americans do not. African-Americans have been racialized. We were forcibly brought from sub-Saharan West Africa as many tribes distinguished by languages and customs within a racially homogenous region. The violent process of racial enslavement in America obliterated tribe and replace it with race. As subjugated group under the officious conditions of New World chattel slavery we were denied the ability to reproduce ourselves tribally and were subjected to a reality that identified us based on the modern concept of race. For us race was never a theoretical construct that we had the luxury of entertaining and deciding whether or not to believe it. No. It was life that was happening to us. Our ancestors were murdered in the most gruesome ways related to race. Laws were enacted to proscribe our participation in society related to race. Discrimination that severely inhibited our ability to advance socially was related to race.
Imagery, discourse, education, and theology reinforced the notion that race matters and that black people were not fully human. The inferiorization of blacks is apart of the fabric of America. Whiteness is not simply a biological trait. It is concept historically used to determine who has full access to America and who does not. Race consciousness for African-Americans was never construct that we had the option of rejecting. It was a cognitive imperative.
My colleague accused Andulusi of saying that Critical Race Theory was racist. Andulusi denies that he said that critical race theory perpetuates racism and clarifies what he actually said which is that “its recognition of the invented category, “race”, “perpetuates” the discrimination of racial categories by giving it continuing recognition and approval..” Ok. Again, this is the luxury of someone who has not had to deal with the officious racism in the form of institutional policies, legalized discrimination, violence, and de facto practices on the basis of your race to then down play and dismiss race as a construct.
What is dishonest about the “race is a construct” nonsense is that first, virtually everything in society is a construct. Traffic laws, for example, are a construct. Yet, you obey them and even if you deliberately disobey you do so by acknowledging the consequences. For black people who have had to deal with the existential threat based on race we do not have the luxury that a none black person not living in the United States has to ignore race. Centuries of slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, and the list goes on do not permit us to treat racial categories and the ideas and behaviors around them as insignificant. Secondly,if something is a social construct then it is a social reality.
That means it affects lives. As explained earlier if we remained in Africa black people would identify as tribe and ethnicity not race but the new realities of New World made being black more relevant than knowing if we were Hausa or Igbo. To answer the question the author posed “Why is my European background relevant when talking about Islam?” We are not talking about Islam per se but we are talking about how race as a socio-politico-cultural reality informs how institutions behave and have tangible consequences on peoples’ lives. Saying that Critical Theory and specifically Critical Race Theory is useless for peeling back the layers of deeply embedded assumptions about race and other ethnic groups is as naïve and dangerous as saying we don’t need the mental health profession to deal with psychological issues.
In a talk titled “Taking the Middle Way: How Muslims should navigate Western society polarised between right and left” Abdullah Al Andalusi describes unconvincingly why he feels that serious analytical approaches to understanding racism from critical race theory are a waste of time and only adds to the problem. Andalusi relates the story of Bilal (r.a.) being insulted by Abu Darr (r.a.). Abu Darr (r.a.) told Bilal, “You son of a black mother.” Bilal (r.a.) complained of this to the Prophet (r.a.) who chastised Abu Darr (r.a.). Overcome with shame, Abu Darr (r.a.) humbled himself to Bilal (r.a.) by offering his head for Bilal (r.a.) to put his foot on top. Andalusi uses this story to challenge the contemporary analysis of racism by critical race theory by stating:
“Was it because there was a conspiracy or structured racism whereby Arabs just hated people of darker skin color? Well, no, because Arabs have a variety of skin colors amongst themselves. No. It was just common everyday asabiyyah tribalism. That’s all it was. But what the Critical Race Theorist will try to do is say, “Look, you see his hatred between this person of this color of skin and this person of another color of skin. Is it because of the color of the skin? No, it’s because of jahiliyyah. They don’t see each other as one tribe.”
This is anachronistic, analytically shallow, and dare I say, adds to the race problem. The utter ridiculousness of this statement is astonishing. For starters, Critical Race Theory was coined in 1989 to address the modern problem of race in the United States of America. For Andalusi’s statement to even make sense, we would have to assume as he does that American racism is identical to the tribalism of the seventh century. Of course, anyone with common sense knows this is absurd and that to conflate the tribalism of the Arabs with the scientific and systemically entrenched anti-black racism of America is to say that seventh-century Arabia is the same society as the twentieth-century of the USA. It’s insane.
To take off from this story that there is no need for contemporary analysis that peels back the layers which conceal racial discrimination today because racism was deemed bad 1400 years ago is an ironic perversion of this story. Abdullah al Andalusi is using the Prophet’s (s.a.w.s.) condemnation of racism to prevent us from fighting against racism. Critical Race Theory is designed to examine the behavior of institutions and systems which simply didn’t exist in the seventh century.
He says that Critical Race Theorists would misrepresent this incident in the seera between Bilal(r.a) and Abu Dar(r.a) when in actuality, Critical Race Theory isn’t even concerned with this. Critical race theory emerged to analyze defacto structural racism in the United States. Critical race theory would not anachronistically go into the ancient past, presuming that its theories are applicable because, unlike Abdullah al Andalusi and others, we recognize the uniqueness of American racism. Arabs in the seera never erected laws based on race. There was never any Jim Crow, lynchings, or anti-black policies inscribed in the governments’ rule of law. Racism in the West is wholly unique because it is the first time in history where anti-black racism was given statutory support, and this is what critical race theory is concerned about. Not the moral quality of racism.
The actions of Abu Darr (r.a.), the unequivocal denunciation of racism by Prophet (s.a.w.s.), and the humility Abu Darr (r.a.) showed after being told that he was wrong has nothing in common with America. America has never ceased being racist (or anything else for that matter) because it was pointed out to them that it was wrong as there is no hint whatsoever of Abu Darr (r.a.) in America or the West.
The self-accusing spirit that led Abu Darr(r.a) to quickly recognize his error and take the dramatic step towards rectifying the offense is something that is not in the DNA of the United States or European empires. Andalusi’s argument is akin to saying that because no one used modern medicine to treat a disease in the seventh century, then no one is allowed to use modern medicine. Secondly, he points out that the Arabs were a variety of skin colors themselves and that the slight towards Bilal (r.a.) was not based on skin color but tribalism. He nullifies his argument.
Critical Race Theory is not concerned with the tribalism of ancient societies. It is only concerned with the contemporary practices of racism in modern systems and institutions. He attacks a straw man by bringing this up. Critical race theory addresses racism. Not tribalism, so his point is moot. Also, unlike the Arabs, whites are not of many different skin colors, and the antipathy they’ve historically and continue to express towards blacks is racism. Not tribalism. One of the distinct features of America is that it replaced a tribe with race. He also mentions how the origins of racism began with Iblis. This has become a common deceptive tactic of those who do not wish to talk about racism in any sophisticated way. The disingenuousness of this argument is that it is not used to explain away other evils.
The oppression of Palestinians, Syrians, Yemenis, and Kashmiris are never dismissed as simply the machinations of Satan. It is indicative of the latent anti-blackness (or capitulation) of these speakers that only on the subject of racism against African-Americans do they reduce the problem to a mere spiritual disease. This is done to divorce racism from socio-politico-economic and historical factors and invalidate anti-racism responses that address those factors.
These same hypocrites will pretend to be urbane when discussing matters of kalam familiarizing themselves with Heidegger and Jung but deny the importance of social analysis brought to us by Derrick Bell, Carter G. Woodson, Amos Wilson, Francis Cress Welsing, or Joyce Degroy. Like the story of Bilal(R) & Abu Darr (r.a.), the story of Iblis was not intended to be a substitute for understanding the operation of structural racism in western society and the various ways it manifests itself.
Abdullah al Andalusi’s other fallacious argument is that Critical Race Theory politicizes skin color. So, what were race and skin color before critical race theory?
Who was responsible for segregation laws, jim crow laws, black codes lynchings, church bombings, and redlining before the word critical race theory was coined in 1989? And what would he call the methods used to overturn many of these racist laws and to seek compensation for damages caused by them?
How Does Islam and Critical Race Theory Conflict?
He says that “In fact, the purpose of this is to propose the better treatment, the better medicine for oppression and injustice, and that is to transcend forming groups between people and infighting-but to refer to the solutions of the He who made All mankind and is the true arbitrator.” He never elaborates what this “better treatment” is and how exactly he would apply it in a way to dealing with oppression and injustice.” He does this throughout his article. He writes “Derrick Bell, teaches concepts that potentially seriously contradict with the Islamic perspective” but never demonstrates how.
What does he mean by “Islamic perspective” and what specific ways is it contradicted by Critical Race Theory? He states that: “This is the problem that fundamentally afflicts Muslims across the board. We do not ask what insights Islam would shed upon modern problems, but instead run towards thinkers with completely different aqeedahs (creeds), which if we unwittingly adopted them because it helped do some good in one area, it would undo Islamic concepts in many other areas”
First, the presumption that Muslims when confronted with a social problem do not consult the Quran and ahadith is false and paternalistic. Critical Race Theory was adopted as a tool not a belief.
He says that the reason he “mentioned CRT along with other types of Critical Theory and other types of activism (from the West), is because not only is it not based upon an Islamic lens, but it is potentially destructive to the Islamic interest of Muslim unity.” Intrigued by where he could possibly be going with this logic I continued reading with greater anticipation than when I started. Surely, the last thing the Muslim world needs is more division.
Andulusi explains how critical race theory fractures the Ummah: “The adoption of Critical Theory, instead of helping Muslims against Western power structures, has caused Muslims to start to be divided even further by new forms of asabiyah (groupism/sectarianism)…” Huh?! Newsflash: The divisions were already there and they were not going to disappear if Critical Race Theory was never applied.
This is a common argument used by whites in America. It goes something like this: ‘If black people would just stop talking about race then racism would go away. Thus, black people are responsible for their own racism.’ The sinister implication is that black people should not address issues related to their existence using the same tools that are available to everyone else.
He attacks Critical Theory as an en route to Critical Race Theory. He claims one of its applications is feminism which he states is “a theory that argues that absolute equality is the measure of justice, and that literature and language has been designed to oppress women as a class and keep men on top.” Critical Gender Studies has caused a “lot of infighting amongst Muslims along gender lines, and even apostasy, as Muslims are taught to see Islam itself as unjust and through CGS, see it as a force that reinforces and maintains male supremacy over women.” By logical analogy Critical Race Theory “reinforces “race consciousness” and even embraces it deliberately (which Derrick Bell calls ‘racial realism’ which he sees as a useful means to combat against “White race” supremacy). This is causing “division and rancor” amongst Muslims.
After providing a definition of Liberalism from encyclopedia Britannica that states it as a “political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to the central problem of politics…The problem, then, is to devise a system that gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty.” So, the reason, he says Critical Race Theory in uncritically liberal is because it contains the same core creed which is individualism. What al Andulusi completely misses is that Critical Race Theory rejects the liberal concept of individualism. It argues that the individual can not be divorced from the group. This is precisely why whites are criticized as a group and why the individual black is discussed in connection black people and their historical experience. This is ironically the first criticism of Critical Race Theory that it does not concentrate on the individual but rather demographics. It is not interested in cultivating some Western-capitalist-democratic-liberal notion of individualism. Rather it deals with the individual as a collective identity. Individualism is not at the heart of Critical Race Theory it is at the heart of the liberal criticism of Critical Race Theory. Those critical of“race consciousness” will reference Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama to prove that the power of the individual over society, tradition, culture, and history. What al Andalusi alleges about Critical Race Theory is literally the opposite of what it asserts. Anyone familiar with Foucault, Gramsci, Marcuse, Spivok, Frantz Fanon, and Angela Davis know that Critical Theory has always asserted that racism and violence are at the foundation of Liberalism. They have pointed out that The Enlightenment with its lofty ideas of the social contract, individualism,democracy are founded on the genocide of Native Americans, enslavement of African Americans, and colonization. Gayatri Spivok states that these concepts were created under European military domination and occupation of black and brown people who are excluded from its benefits.
The American Revolution and the French Revolution were both violent installments of these liberal ideas which were intrinsically linked to the subject of racial supremacy. Baron de Montesquieu, arguably, the father of America’s Separation of Powers Doctrine opposed slavery except in the case of blacks. Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, and American Exceptionalism are tied to the racial assumptions about black inferiority that the United States is built upon.
Critical Theory and “its descendent” Critical Race Theory deconstructs with precision the myth of the modernity which is that White people are the ultimate expression of humanity and that Western civilization that is predicated on this myth must be neutralized.
This requires that the epistemologies that undergird the concrete manifestation of this racist myth be delegitimized. Doing this using the tool of Critical Race Theory does not demand a rejection of an objective truth nor is there any evidence that the critic will unwittingly descend into post-modernism. Edward Said’s Orientalism was the only exhaustive response to the massive corpus of anti-Islamic literature enshrined in academia. Al Andulusi seems to imply that taking merits of his work can not be practically done without agreeing with Said in every facet of life.
Al Andulusi is intent on continuing his hasty generalization that black activists, feminists, LBGT activism, and Marxism are a package deal. He desperately wants us to believe that intersectionality is an orthodoxy that anyone who uses Critical Race Theory must embrace so that these if you employ its analysis you must logically accept the conclusions of the sexual and gender politics of the Left . Many in of us who use Critical Race Theory see the sexual politics of the Left as parcel to Western cultural imperialism. Our own cultural conservatism has provoked names like cishet male and we’ve pushed back against the assertion that patriarchy is no different from racism. Ignoring these nuances he characterizes Critical Race Theory
as demanding a comradery with all subaltern groups that does not uniformly exist and where it does is tenuous.
Addressing Al Andulu’s critique of Bell
Al Andulusi then starts in on Derrick Bell. He highlights his selective liberalism. Al Andulusi points out that while Bell is overall suspicious of the liberal agenda he embraces “a valuable strain of egalitarianism which may exist” in liberalism. This is merely a cautious acknowledgment of a virtue. When Bell speaks of “egalitarianism” and “equality” he is largely referring to how race factors into the way policies and laws are applied in the United States.
There is documented evidence of racial discrimination in every facet of American society and where this is most obvious is in policing and judicial sentencing. Black men
receive longer prison sentences than white men for the exact same crime. The U.S. Sentencing Commission analyzed demographic prison data from 2012 to 2016 and found that African-American
males serve sentences that are on average 191 percent longer than those for white men for similar crimes.
These length of the sentences were unaffected by history of violence. Law enforcement is pressured to bring reduce crime and make arrests while the growing privatization of prisons requires
more inmates. These goals must be met whether or not there are enough criminals and so the incentive to criminalize is how the two conflicting objectives are met. The microaggression of a racist society is exhibited by the police being called on black people for simply being in a space. In May, 2018 a white woman, Sarah Braasch with a history of harrassment, called the police on first year graduate student at Yale, Lolade Siyonbola, who fell asleep in the campus Commons room while studying. Even after presenting proof of enrollment she was subjected to a lengthy racially-tinged interrogation.
The two black men arrested at Starbucks in Philadelphia in April of the same year and the most recent case in March 1 of this year, 2019, where a black man Zayd Atkinson of Colorado was confronted by police officer John Smyly for using a metal tool with a claw and a bucket to pick up trash outside of his condo- style apartment. After explaining to the officer that he was a student and that he stayed in the dorm behind him, providing identification proving that he was a student, and even offering to let him into his
apartment (something he is not legally obligated to do) the officer continued to berate him. Then, as Atkinson asks if he is under arrest without a reply begins to walk away continuing to pick up trash. The officer is then seen on the video claiming that Atkinson has a weapon and fears for his life. The officer’s back up arrived before turning fatal and Atkinson was cleared. Officer John Smyly has resigned from the force. These are the incidences that are caught on tape. In this world were black bodies in white spaces cause anxiety and even fear then even Black peoples’ hair becomes politicized.
In California Senate Bill 188, also known as The Crown Act, was passed banning discrimination on natural hairstyles worn by African-Americans in the workplace. Los Angeles Senator Holly J. Mitchell said that “A google image search for ‘unprofessional hairstyles’ yielded only pictures of Black women with their natural hair or wearing natural braids or twists.” A critical analysis of race is needed to cleverly articulate the anti-black aggression evident in these practices and inherent in institutions so that they can be outlawed and punished.
This was Bell’s true goal. He knows the difference between the classical liberalism of the philosophes of the 18 th century and the Progressive movement of the 18oos but he also knows that the racial factor is consistent through both movements. Since black inferiorization is embedded in modernity it makes little difference if the liberalism is with a lower case or capital L. The fundamental blind spot of Al Andulusi is that he mistakes Critical Race Theory for being an ideology when it is merely a method of critique. He is suggesting that because Bell did not receive revelation that the method is haram. When did this become the criteria for adopting a method or approach to understanding a subject? Surely not during the time of Salaf. When the Prophet (saws) said: “Whoever brings something new into this matter of ours which is not already in it, that is rejected.” This is an unscrupulous use of hadith. For Al Andulusi is ignoring the fact that much of what constitutes “Islamic thought” during the early Muslim empires was the result of creating and adopting what Al Andulusi should consider as foreign approaches.
Does this hadith apply to fiqh since the methodology of jurisprudence was not a complete science during the time of the Prophet (saws). The Kalam was not developed in isolation from Muslim contact with other cultures like the Greeks despite them being polytheists. Muhammad ibn Kharizmi’s formulation of algebra is not shunned by Al Andulusi because it was founded on the mathematical principles of Hindustan despite that they were also polytheists. There are is not willingness to purge from cannon of Islam those classical texts developed after the first generation that import the Story of Ham being cursed black and being naturally imbued to slavery as an attempt by Arab and Persian scholars to affirm black inferiority despite how this contradicts the words of the Prophet (saws).
They are not moving to rid us of Ibn Khaldun who used the theory of humorism to describe blacks south of the Sahara as dumb animals. Good and bad, the Muslim world has always experimented with analytical methods. Critical Race Theory is no more un-Islamic than math and science. In fact, the underlying assumption of Critical Race Theory is that racial supremacism is a false idea which is in perfect harmony with the Prophet’s (saws) words “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or a non-Arab over an Arab. Nor is there any superiority of a white over a black or a black over a white.”
The adage take what is good and beneficial and leave the rest has been the what guards the ummah from becoming intellectually calcified. When Muslims study science and medicine in Western universities they are using curriculum developed by secularists who deny the account of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, Muhammad’s(saw) Isra and Miraaj, and the existence of Allah and His angels. They take classes and employ methods of research often taught and developed by atheists. They agree not to openly question the naturalism of Darwin. Yet somehow these Muslims students become doctors and professors with their Deen intact. Al Andulusi’s “fear” of the corrupting influences of Critical Theory is disingenuous and amounts to affirming the consequent.
How Abdullah al Andulusi Obfuscates Black Oppression in Libya
Perhaps the most egregious of Abdullah al Andulusi’s position is his denial of anti-black racism in the Muslim world. He mentions the slave trade in Libya only to downplay the racism inherent to it. He refers to the sub-Saharans as “illegal migrants” (classic example of victim-shaming. Never mind all of the illegal Arabs immigrants in Italy who are not subjected to slavery) and blames “race-consciousness” for exploiting the incident to advance racial politics. He says that “The problem with this interpretation, like CRT, is that it looks at events only through one lens and is unlikely to allow the observer to understand the true problem.” He never elaborates on what he sees is “the true problem” with Libya. Instead, he tries to offset the racial factor in the Libyan slave trade by pointing out something similar happening in Lebanon with Syrian refugees. Anti-black racism, specifically, appears in early Muslim sources, can be found in Arab, Berber, Persian, and Indian lands, and is exhibited by immigrants to the West. Trying to portray race consciousness as being responsible for imagining that racism exists in the Muslim world and is playing a significant role in Libya is classic gaslighting.
Critical Race Theory as a Tool
Building a house or taking one apart requires tools. This is all Critical Race Theory is. It has no core belief about the creation of the world or the origin of the human being. It is an approach to myths about race. It addresses the contradictions inherent in Western humanism. Most important is that it does not require blind faith in its methods. Muslims should understand critical race theory. This can not be combated with starry eyed dawah efforts of just explaining Islam. You must understand the archetypes at play. It is not Critical Race Theory that threatens to take Muslims off of the path of Allah. It is the creeping epistemologies of white Western civilization that assumes a credibility because of its power that endanger the integrity of how Muslims interpret Islam.
Professor Shareef Muhammad
Shareef Muhammad (Frank Beane) is a content curator and historian who teaches history and Islamic Studies as an adjunct within the college and university system in Georgia. Shareef currently works with the Black Dawah Network as the director of the theological department of Black Dawah Network. Shareef believes that Islam is a force for change as well as spiritually transforming and that the religion can serve as the bulwark for ameliorating the social conditions of African-Americans. In 2015 Shareef was chosen to be a chief consultant on the After Malcolm Project which is a digital oral history archive that conducted interviews with African-American Muslims from the Civil Rights Era and collected artifacts. Their work was featured in exhibits at both Kennesaw State University and at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta Georgia. In 2018 the project project was adopted by George Mason University. Shareef holds a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in History from Central State University and a Masters degree in History from Kent State University where his thesis entitled The Cultural Jihad in the Antebellum South which details how enslaved African Muslims preserved their religious and cultural identity in bondage.