In the early seventh century, Prophet Muhammad (sa) in his Farewell Address sternly advised his followers that all people are created equal: “All humans are descended from Adam and Eve; there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”
This sermon highlighted the basic religious and ethical ideals for maintaining a society based on justice and equality. The Prophet (sa) was well aware of ill feelings that have plagued the human kind since the time of Habeel and Qabeel. Prejudices due to race, nationality, age, gender, religion and social class have been rampant throughout the ages. However, in today’s global world with its increasing mixing of populations, the prejudices are hitting record highs. Let us take a closer look at the prejudices, reasons behind their formation and ways to overcome them.
Formation of Prejudices
Prejudices are unjustified or incorrect attitudes (usually negative) that we have toward our fellow human beings based solely on an individual’s belonging to any social group. Prejudices influence how we behave towards other people and interact with them, often even unconsciously without ourselves realizing it.
Under the influence of prejudices, we tend to think that every person of a certain group carries the characteristics of that entire group (“they are all the same” attitude) and fail to look at each person as a unique individual. Commonly, prejudices are expressed through negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs and an inclination to discriminate against members of a particular group. In severe cases, prejudices may result in violence.
Generally, prejudices are based on stereotypes, which are simplified assumptions about a group, resulting from one’s prior experience or beliefs. Psychologists claim that stereotypes emerge as part of normal human thinking in the process of trying to make sense of the world around us and sorting information (people, ideas, objects, etc.) into mental categories. Such categorizing of information makes our life easier, because it allows us to interact and react quickly, but it may also lead to mistakes and thus result in negative prejudices, especially when we feel uncomfortable about a situation.
Western psychologists have suggested a variety of ways for overcoming and possibly even eliminating prejudices. Some of them are:
1) training people to become more empathetic in general;
2) increasing contact with members of other social groups;
3) making people aware of the inconsistencies in their own beliefs;
4) gaining public support for anti-prejudice social norms;
5) passing laws that would grant equal treatment of all groups of people.
As a comprehensive way of life, Islam offers us ethical guidance on interaction with others – the Quran and the Sunnah put forth teachings, by observing which Muslims can cut the menace of prejudice in its root, without ever letting it bloom.
Abu Hamzah Anas bin Malik (rtam) narrated that the Prophet (sa) said: “None of you will believe, until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
Love for your brother what you love for yourself command embodies empathy that prevents prejudices from forming – if we step into the shoes of others and care for them like we care for ourselves, we will not develop a superiority complex or a condescending attitude. Naturally, we will see them as our equals.
2) Interaction with Other Social Groups
“Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbour, the neighbour farther away, the companion at your side, the traveller, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful.” (An-Nisa 4:36)
This verse of the Quran encompasses a powerful command for interaction with different social groups – right after our duties to Allah (swt), we have to do good to those around us. Thus, our social interaction should not be marred by negativity or ill feelings towards anyone but rather guided by our efforts of creating a positive environment – doing good to all. Following this advice will not only help us ourselves become a better human being but will change the attitude of others towards us as well – it truly is hard to harbour prejudices towards a person, who does good to you.
The Prophet (sa) said: “The best friend in the sight of Allah is the friend who is best to his friends; and the best neighbour is the neighbour who is best to his neighbours.” (Tirmidhi)
We must remember that neigbours are not only those who live in the same building with us or have a house next to ours. Your roommate may be your neighbour, your office colleague may be your neighbour, and even the person sitting next to you on the bus may be your neighbour at that point of time.
3) Advising Others Against Evil
Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “You are the best nation produced [as an example] for humankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah.” (Al-Imran 3:110)
If the first two guidelines for eliminating prejudices focused on our own selves, then the third one calls to action regarding others. Enjoining good and forbidding evil is a basic duty of every Muslim. Thus, if we see anyone displaying prejudices, we should actively advise such person against it. However, while giving this sincere advice, we should take care to avoid the pitfall of condemning, as it may lead to our own display of superiority. Maintaining this fine line between the two may not be easy but can be learned and consciously put into practice.
The Prophet (sa) said: “O you, group of people, that believe with your tongues, while not with your hearts! Do not abuse the Muslims nor seek after their faults. For indeed, he who seeks after their (other people’s) faults, Allah will seek after his faults. And whomsoever has Allah seek after his faults, He will expose them, even if he may have committed them in the privacy of his own home.” (Ahmad and Abu Dawood)
We must also remember that Allah (swt) regards Muslims as Auliya (allies, helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of each other: “The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong…” (At-Taubah 9:71). Therefore, it is our duty to be genuinely concerned about our brothers and sisters in faith, steering free from any prejudices. May Allah (swt) help us all to uphold the standards set for us by Prophet Muhammad (sa) in his farewell sermon. Ameen.