Creations of Varying Colours: Islamic Reflections on Diversity, Race and Equality
Published in 'Alif: Traditional Wisdom in Review in collaboration with Jared Morningstar.
At first glance, The Qur’an’s manifold references to the ‘varying colours’ (mukh’talifan alwanuha) of plants, flowers, fruits and species may appear to convey little meaning beyond that which is immediately apparent. However, a closer reading reveals that the diversity of creation so often alluded to is in fact a Sign (ayah) of the creator’s nature itself; a facet of Allah’s expression that runs far deeper than exoteric imagery, reminding us of the sacred significance of variation among different cultures and ethnicities.
Amidst the turbulent state of current affairs and the necessity of reflecting on the implications of race in our societies, ‘Alif has decided to explore the inner meaning of the scriptural motif of ‘varying colours’. As the great mystics of the Islamic tradition such as Mawlana Rumi and Ahmad al-‘Alawi have reminded us, The Qur’an contains four levels of meaning. Though the last and most subliminal of these can only be known by God himself, we should nonetheless strive to uncover these meanings, particularly where their meanings are applicable to current events and circumstances.
As caucasians, we acknowledge that our approach to doing so cannot be informed by personal experiences of racism; thus, we do not wish to make normative claims about the situation of race within the Islamic world. We do, however, wish to enrich the present dialogue by offering reflections on diversity and equality in the context of Islamic theology, philosophy and politics, presenting a range of pertinent extracts from these traditions upon a backdrop of the ‘varying colours’ of creation found in nature.
When verses such as 16:13 and 35:27 refer to the diverse qualities of fruits, plants and even mountains that all spring from the same source, they are referring to the theological significance of the varying modes of creation through which God expresses His Oneness (tawhid). The variations within the human race are synonymous with this; just as the fruits of varying colours are brought about through the same rain (35:27), all humans are sculpted from the same ontological ‘clay’. Thus, despite taking on an appearance of differentiation within the material plane, human beings — just like mountains and fruits — are ultimately subservient to the Oneness of God.
‘And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge’ — 30:22
This could be compared to the doctrine of the many names of Allah in the Asma al-Husna. Some names appear diverse and even divergent from others; for example, they include both the beginning (al-Awwal) and the end (al-’Akhir); simultaneously the dominant all-powerful (al-Muhaymin) and the peaceful all-tranquil (as-Salam). However, though accounting for a diverse spectrum of different shades of God, all of these names emanate from the One ‘Light of Lights’ (as termed by the Sufi Suhrawardi). Despite appearing as many, they are subservient to The One. In a similar regard, different ethnicities and cultural variances — though important in their own right and worth celebrating — are a mere veil over the universal nature of humanity. To invoke Rumi’s metaphor, the diversity of God and His creations as they appear in the world are merely different lamps emitting the same light:
‘The lamps are different, but the Light is the same: it comes from Beyond. If thou keep looking at the lamp, thou art lost: for thence arises the appearance of number and plurality. Fix thy gaze upon the Light, and thou art delivered from the dualism inherent in the finite body’ (77).
Only once we have shed the illusion of multiplicity we can we perceive the diversity of creation for what it really is; a unified mankind, every single member of which possesses the ‘Divine Spark’ or the fitra. Thus, within every individual is implanted the capacity to engage with Divine truths, no matter their race or ethnicity. It is perhaps for this reason that Al-Kindi emphasises the need to value what is realised by every individual, no matter where they hail from:
‘We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far-flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth, nor is the truth demented or diminished by the one who states of conveys it; no one is demeaned by the truth, rather all are ennobled by it’ (12).
To hold prejudices on the basis of race— to deny the truths of one group of voices — is therefore both an insult to them and to the magnificent diversity of creation which, as the Qur’an emphasises on several occasions, is itself enriched with meaning; as 3:191 communicates, the Lord does not create without reason.
But beyond the pertinent messages of scripture, our engagement ought to reach into the living tradition of Islam; how have religious leaders and scholars utilised the Qur’an’s teachings for the pursuit of liberative ends? Employing spiritual hermeneutics, numerous figures within the Islamic world have transformed the Qur’anic principles of Diversity and Unity into sociopolitical innovations, which have come to serve as concrete safeguards against modern injustices.
The South African academic Farid Esack, for example, finds grounds for an anti-racist social order in the No concept is perhaps more ubiquitous concept of in the Islamic mind than tawhid — the oneness of God. Yet even in this abstract theological concept, South African academic Farid Esack finds grounds for an anti-racist social order. In his important work Qurʼan, Liberation & Pluralism, Esack explores the practical scriptural interpretations of this seemingly abstract and yet ubiquiotous theological concept offered by Islamic groups in his native South Africa to combat the evils of apartheid. In this context, he Esack writes:
‘At a socio-political level, tawhid is opposed to a society which sets up race as an alternative object of veneration and divides people along the lines of ethnicity. Such division is regarded as tantamount to shirk (associating others with God), the antithesis of tawhid’ (92).
Terms such as tawhid and also shirk are extremely important concepts in Islamic theology and religious life. Esack’s work shows how even these kinds of core concepts can effectively be interpreted within an Islamic framework to combat an unjust social order, and this. This kind of holistic engagement is exactly what has proved to be highly effective in South Africa.
Fazlur Rahman takes a similar approach to a key concept in his aptly titled Major Themes of the Qur’an. Rahman, a prominent 20th century modernist thinker whose academic career represented a serious contribution to the understanding of Islam within the West, points to the concept of taqwā and the Prophet’s final sermon as important resources within the tradition for combatting injustice:
‘To offset all these artificial but powerful sources of discrimination between man and man, it is necessary that man constantly remind himself that we ‘are all children of Adam, and Adam was of dust’ (as the Farewell Pilgrimage address of the Prophet has it), that in the darkness of the earth there are no distinctions and that while in the light of heaven there are distinctions, their basis is that intrinsic worth which is called taqwā’ (46)
Furthermore, In addition to providing theological and philosophical resources against injustice, the Islamic tradition also offers specific institutions and socio-political orders in the pursuit of justice and equity. The contemporary Western scholar of Islamic legal theory Wael Hallaq has focused on the development of specific institutions through the exposition of Islamic legal thought and the historical reality of fiqh — Islamic jurisprudence. While many Westerners associate the term sharīʿah with images of extremism and barbaric punishment, Hallaq’s research shows how the traditional Islamic legal system was in fact actually a boon for the oppressed:
‘Social equity, which was a major concern of the Muslim court, was defined in moral terms, and it demanded that the morality of the weak and underprivileged be accorded no less attention than that attributed to the rich and mighty… It was particularly the court’s informal and open format that permitted the individual and defenders from within his or her microcommunity to argue their cases and special circumstances from a moral perspective. But it was also the commitment to universal principles of law and justice that created a legal culture wherein everyone expected that injustices against the weak would be redressed and the wrongdoing of the powerful curbed… The Muslim court succeeded precisely where the modern court fails, namely, in being a sanctified refuge within whose domain the weak and poor could win against the mighty and affluent’ (60–61).
Thus, this historical reality not only shows the depth of the care Islam affords to issues of oppression and injustice, but also serves to bring the critique of certain modern institutions of law into sharper relief. By familiarizing ourselves with the history of Islamic legal systems through the work of erudite scholars such as Hallaq, we expand the capacity of our imagination to envision a more just future based in specific systematic changes inspired by these examples.
This brief excursion hopes to have illuminated the importance of diversity — and, moreover, the need to practically embrace that diversity — within the Islamic tradition. Though a month has passed since the horrific murder of George Floyd, people of faith must persevere in reinstating the equality of all beings intended by the creator; the equality that can be summarised no more profoundly than by the last sermon delivered by The Prophet himself:
‘You all descend from Adam and Adam was created from dust. The most noble in the sight of God is the most pious. No Arab is superior to a non-Arab, except by their intimate consciousness of God’