by Sister Islaah Abd’Al-Rahim
On the Day you see the believing men and believing women, their light proceeding before them and on their right, [it will be said], “Your good tidings today are [of] gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein you will abide eternally.” That is what is the great attainment. (Surah Hadid, 12)
Allah is beautiful. Islam is beautiful. And Muslims– when we are functioning in our highest spiritual state—are a reflection of that beauty.
We live in a time, however, when people frequently deny the beauty of Islam, which de facto is a denial of the beauty of Muslims. For the Black man and woman, this denial of another human being’s beauty is all too familiar. Historically, the dominant, Euro-centric culture has chosen to interpret melanin as an indicator of ugliness. To be light or white is beautiful. To be dark, is not, and could not ever be.
Our challenge and charge, as black Muslims, is to reevaluate our racial reality in light of Revelation. Concepts and classifications must be held up to the light of Islam. Long-standing, unsubstantiated ideas must be purged from our thinking. New definitions must be embraced.
Definitions of beauty must be renewed. New connotations must reflect a spiritual origin. True beauty emanates from the spirit and is a manifestation of the light that Allah bestows upon the believers. It is a light that comes from seeking and submitting to the Truth. It is a light that will illuminate our path on the day when everyone will be seeking a light.
Allah says in Surah Hadid:
“On the Day you shall see the believing men and the believing women — their light running forward before them, and in their right hands.
Glad tidings for you this Day!
Gardens under which rivers flow (Paradise), to dwell therein forever!
Truly, this is the great success!
On the Day when the hypocrites, men and women, will say to the believers: ‘Wait for us! Let us get something from your light!’
It will be said: ‘Go back to your rear! Then seek a light!’”
It is the light of Islam that makes us beautiful. When we affirm that Allah is the Lord of the Worlds, and that Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wasallam) is His Last Prophet, we are taking the first step toward being beautiful. This is how we start earning that light we will need in the hereafter.
But often, our affirmations are thwarted. Our beauty and light are misunderstood, feared and maligned. And for some of us, our own self-loathing keeps us from affirming that beauty and light.
These are not easy times. These are times of tests and trials. It is not easy being a poor person or a person of sound morals during these times. It is not easy being a black person or a Muslim. It is not easy being what our fitra—the natural state in which Allah created us— urges us to be.
Allah, subhana wa ta ‘ala, created everything beautifully: “[Allah] perfected everything which he created and began the creation of man from clay.” [Surat-us-Sajdah, 7] And Allah says about Himself, “The most beautiful names belong to Allah. So invoke Him by them.” [Surat-ul-A’raf, 180]
How we understand beauty, however, varies from person to person and culture to culture. We cannot understand the beauty of Islam if we have faulty, delusional concepts of beauty. The definitions that we have been taught are social constructs that are highly mutable, changing based upon context, culture, and political power. Therefore, to know what beauty really is, we have to rely on ‘ilm, or divine knowledge.
But we are a people who have been enslaved by the corruption of Truth. When an external group informs our concept of beauty, then we can become their slaves. If you teach us that God is beautiful, and then you come back and you teach us that God is white, God is a human being, and that God is even a man, how, then, will our psyches rearrange the pieces of that equation without self-loathing?
So, black Muslims have to relearn the meaning of Beauty to fully reclaim their light. According to the scholar, Ibn Al-Qayyim, Allah loves that His slaves beautify their tongues with the truth and beautify their hearts with sincere devotion, love, repentance, and trust in Him. That is Beauty.
Ibn Al-Qayyim goes on to say that really beautiful people recognize Allah through these qualities of beauty and seek to draw close to Him through beautiful words, deeds, and attitudes. [al-Fawaa’id, 1/185] The more we stray from Allah’s fitra, the more we corrupt our own natural beauty and light because Shaytaan whispers to us to exceed the limits. We whiten our skin. We add on hair that is not ours. We seek narrower noses and thinner lips. Centuries of oppression and decades of self-hate have a cumulative effect on our actions.
Yet, we say we know that Allah created everything beautifully and loves beauty. We say Allah created us and loves us, but we don’t seem to grasp that when we do not fully love ourselves, we cannot fully love Allah, Who created us. When we don’t love ourselves, we cannot fully appreciate our own beauty or hope to receive spiritual light.
Allah says that we are the best of nations, but a dark, murky thing wiggles its way into our hearts, preventing us from believing it. Shaytaan wants us to stay in darkness. He wants us to be ashamed of the light of Islam. He wants us to think that Islam is barbaric, inherently racist, misogynistic, and ugly. He wants us to think that we, as black people, are also ugly and unworthy of the light of this beautiful deen. Self-loathing is an effective tool. No one else has to work hard to oppress us when we do it to ourselves. And when that happens, Muslims adopt some of the ugliness of the world.
Truth be told, parts of the Muslim world are not very welcoming of black people. In truth, every jama’ah does not respect people of color. Some Muslims openly operate on the plain of hate. And that is not pretty; there is no light in that.
Some of us have become jaded about our condition. We are tired of Islam in the spotlight. We do not want to always see it in our social media newsfeed, usurped by those who seek to snatch our light. When we Google Islam, we don’t want to always see images of angry men with assault weapons. We just want to do our five pillars and live our lives.
But our current reality is Allah’s Divine Decree. Our beautiful way of life is under siege, and we should be trying to manifest the light of Islam to protect it. To do so, we must sincerely submit to the light and beauty that is Islam, and that light which is within ourselves.
And we must realize that the former is the only true source of the latter.
Sister Islaah Abd’Al-Rahim has served as an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University Graduate School of Education, where her specialties were Human Development, Learning Diversity, and Culturally Responsive Education. She is the author of The Book of Islaamic Lists, a reference book that compiles and categorizes lists from dozens of seminal works in Islam.