Attraction and Ethnicity

Answered by Shaykh Yusuf Weltch

Question: Assalamu alaykum

What is the ruling of not being attracted to a certain ethnicity?

Answer: In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate

Wa ‘Alaykum al-Salaam

Each individual human has there own preferences and attractions. Each of us is unique in what we deem beautiful or attractive. To incline toward one ethnicity or to be attracted to one skin color over another, is not impermissible.

However, to think one’s self to be better than others due to an outward appearance, to belittle others due to a skin color or tribal affiliation is highly impermissible and tantamount to arrogance, which is one of the destructive major sins. Regarding this, Allah, Most High, says:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا يَسْخَرْ قَوْمٌ مِّن قَوْمٍ عَسَىٰ أَن يَكُونُوا خَيْرًا مِّنْهُمْ وَلَا نِسَاءٌ مِّن نِّسَاءٍ عَسَىٰ أَن يَكُنَّ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُنَّ ۖ وَلَا تَلْمِزُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ وَلَا تَنَابَزُوا بِالْأَلْقَابِ ۖ بِئْسَ الِاسْمُ الْفُسُوقُ بَعْدَ الْإِيمَانِ ۚ وَمَن لَّمْ يَتُبْ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الظَّالِمُونَ – 49:11

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers. [Qur’an: 49.11]
Ethnicities are signs of Allah. Allah, Most High, says:

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّلْعَالِمِينَ – 30:22

And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. [Qur’an: 30.22]

Thus, the recognition that the diversity and variety in the creation of Allah are from the signs of Allah’s greatness is a type of knowledge. And to fail to recognize this and to grant more importance to an outward appearance over character, piety, truthfulness, etc.. of the qualities which truly matter to Allah, is sheer ignorance.

We must not let a natural inclination to one ethnicity over another cause us to look down on others, nor to allow that to become a focal point of judgment upon others. For Allah, gives importance to the inward state of a person, not their outward appearance.

عَنْ أبي هُريْرة عَبْدِ الرَّحْمن بْنِ صخْرٍ قَالَ: قالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ ﷺ: إِنَّ الله لا يَنْظُرُ إِلى أَجْسامِكْم، وَلا إِلى صُوَرِكُمْ، وَلَكِنْ يَنْظُرُ إِلَى قُلُوبِكُمْ ” رواه مسلم

Abu Hurairah [may Allah be pleased with him] narrates that the Messenger of Allah [may Allah bless him and give him peace] said, “Verily Allah does not look at your outward forms and appearances, rather He looks at your hearts.” [Muslim]

May Allah bless you for your inquiry and may Allah fill our hearts with humility and good character.

Allahu A’alam

[Shaykh] Yusuf Weltch

What Role Does Culture Play in Islam?

Question: Could you please clarify what is the view of Islam regarding different peoples maintaining their native character and mentality, and being proud of them: I mean not in a bad way, which denies validity of other peoples, but simply appreciating what they have been given and cultivating it as their unique heritage? Does really Islam ultimately deny value of native, ancient heritage and cultivating it in terms of that which does not go against Islamic principles, like decent folk songs and costumes, symbols and distinctive, irreducible mentality and world-view? I ask this because I see that for many of my compatriots this is a major obstacle for accepting Islam: they might actually, perhaps partly unconsciously be considering Islam as something alien to our mentality, coming from distant Arab lands, suitable for Arabs; so they might see accepting Islam as a kind of treachery towards this ancient heritage, which additionally is already on the brink of extinction thanks to globalization, modernity and so on. However, I feel that it cannot be true – it is Allāh that created all the different peoples with their peculiarities as a sign from Him, not to be ignored and destroyed, and Islam is intended for all of those people.
I will truly appreciate any qualified suggestions and clarifications.

Answer: Assalaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah. Please see below.

Maxim Five: Custom has the weight of law. (Taken from Dr. Umar Abd-Allah’s ‘Living Islam with Purpose.’)

This maxim is the theme of the Nawawi Foundation Paper “Islam and the Cultural Imperative,” which illustrates the importance of culture in Islam and the imperative that Muslims in America create their own distinctive indigenous culture.55 The maxim “culture has the weight of law” affirms that Islam is not culturally predatory, and it teaches Muslims to look upon all cultural heritages with an open mind, especially those where they live and to which they belong.


Once, a group of Ethiopian converts began to dance with drums and spears in the Prophet’s mosque in celebration of an annual Islamic festival. The Companion ‘Umar attempted to stop them, but the Prophet intervened and urged them to continue. In one Hadith, he said to them: “Play your games, sons of Ethiopia, so that the Jews and Christians know that there is flexibility (fusḥa) in our religion.”57 By this and similar acts, the Prophet set the precedent of affirming cultural differences and made it clear that, for non-Arabs, entering Islam did not require them to give up their own cultural norms for those of the Arabs.

The Qur’an revealed the following verse to the Prophet on the eve of his migration to Medina, where his legislative activity began.

It establishes several primary legal principles, acceptance of culture being one of them: “Accept from people what comes naturally for them; command what is good by custom; and turn away from the ignorant without responding in kind” (Qur’an 7:199). The Prophet’s attitude toward ethnic and cultural identity provides an example of the application of this verse. He did not destroy the indigenous cultures and subcultures of pre-Islamic Arabia, rather he lived in harmony with them, correcting what was unsound and repealing what was degenerate. Perhaps, the best example of the Prophet’s accommodation of Arabian subcultural norms was his practice of propagating the Qur’an in the seven principal dialectical variations (aḥruf) of Arabic. Throughout Arabia, the Arab tribes understood the Meccan dialect of the Prophet’s tribe, Quraysh, which served as the linguistic standard for all. The Prophet’s use of the seven dialectical variations was not a necessity; it was a respectful gesture toward the Arab tribes, which acknowledged the integrity of each tribe’s cultural identity.

The Prophet’s attitude toward the cultural norms of the Arab tribes and other ethnic groups constitutes a major precedent and a basic standard in Islamic law. Because the Prophet gave broad endorsement to diverse cultural conventions and did not alter them except when necessary, Abū Yūsuf, the principal student of Imam Abū Ḥanīfa, regarded Islam’s openness toward other cultures as the Prophet’s Sunna. Abū Yūsuf’s position contrasts sharply with certain Muslims today who regard the Sunna (narrowly defined as certain details of dress and personal behavior) as a substitute for culture.

Islamic legal theory regards sound cultural norms as constituting an independent and authoritative source of Islamic law. The noted Ḥanafī jurist al-Sarakhsī stated: “Whatever is established by good custom is equally well established by sound legal proof.”

Al-Tusūlī, a prominent Mālikī judge and legal scholar, wrote: “It is obligatory to let people follow their customs, usages, and general aspirations in life. To hand down rulings in opposition to them is gross deviation and tyranny.”

The word “custom” (ʿāda) as used in the maxim “custom has the weight of law” refers to acceptable cultural norms. Jurists define their usage of the word “custom” as “matters that are firmly established in practice and frequently repeated in people’s lives and acceptable to sound natures (al-ṭibāʿ al-salīma).” Reference to “sound natures” is linked to the Islamic belief that human beings are created with sound natures; humans are intrinsically good and endowed with basic intuitive knowledge of God, good and evil, benefit and harm. In a normative state, human beings adopt cultural norms suitable for themselves and the particular circumstances, times, and places in which they live. Thus, the basic purpose of cultural conventions is to obtain benefits and ward off harms to the furthest extent possible in widely divergent contexts. From the perspective of Islamic law, the nature of indigenous cultures and subcultures is fundamentally linked to the wellbeing of the social groups that have adopted them. For this reason, Muslim jurists regard Islam’s endorsement of diverse cultural norms as an instance of its overriding commitment to acquiring benefits and protecting from harms.

Cultural conventions make up a fundamental part of identity and have a strong hold over people accustomed to them. Islamic law acknowledges this reality and expresses it in the form of the legal maxim: “Custom is second nature” (al-ʿāda ṭabīʿa thāniya).

Customs are so deeply ingrained in people that it is difficult to distinguish them from their intrinsic natures. Therefore, it is all the more wise, from the standpoint of the law, to leave customs unchanged insofar as possible. Changing customary conventions unnecessarily is detrimental, because of the strong connection between customs and societal needs. When unhealthy customs must be altered or repealed, the process requires wise strategies and must be given time. Here again, the Prophet’s example sets the precedent; he brought his Companions into full compliance with Islamic norms gradually through a process that lasted more than two decades.

Some Muslims challenge the validity of indigenous customs by citing the Hadith mentioned earlier: “Whoever imitates (tashabbaha) a people belongs to them.” As noted, the Hadith condemns the servile imitation of others; it does not condemn healthy cultural interaction or the mere act of resembling (tashābaha) other people.

The value of such interaction is especially clear when it is done for laudable reasons like living with others harmoniously and building bridges of understanding and cooperation. Furthermore, it is indisputable in the light of a body of authentic Hadith that the Prophet himself often wore various types of non-Muslim clothing that were given to him as gifts from Byzantium, Yemen, and other distant regions.

When introduced to this maxim, “custom has the weight of law,” some American Muslims have anxieties about which indigenous customs are acceptable and which are not. In certain cases, their response reflects the culture of inhibition in which many of them grew up and the general presumption of prohibition common to that culture. It should also be noted that the word “culture” has taken on a pejorative meaning for many Muslims in America, especially those who come from immigrant families. For them, the word “culture” is often associated with the old world folkways of their parents, certain aspects of which they may deem to be “un-Islamic,” in conflict with American norms, or otherwise unacceptable.

“Custom has the weight of law” cannot be invoked to repeal what is clearly obligatory or prohibited in the Prophetic law, and the law categorically repudiates detrimental and degenerate customs.

But, as has been seen, Islamic law takes an open-minded attitude toward customs in general, and, when judging cultural norms, it prefers to err on the side of leniency and not rigidity. The presumption of permissibility also applies to indigenous customs; customs too must be presumed acceptable until proven otherwise. A relevant maxim states: “Permissibility is the basic rule in customs” (al-aṣl fi al-ʿādāt al-ibāḥa). As before, the burden of proof that a particular customary convention is impermissible falls exclusively on those who repudiate it, not on those who affirm it. Nevertheless, in borderline cases, the law prefers to err on the side of lenience. The applicable maxim in this regard states: “The basic rule in customs is exemption” (al-aṣl fī al-ʿādāt al-ʿafw), meaning that they are exempt from blame.

Accommodation of indigenous cultures made it possible for Islam to lay indigenous roots wherever it spread on the continents of Africa and Eurasia. Muslims learned new weights and measurements.

They adopted and enriched local languages. In addition to the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims adopted solar and astral calendars to determine the seasons and the best times for planting and harvest. They designed distinctive styles of dress; the long onepiece garment (thawb) and many other items of clothing that some Muslims today call “Sunna” are largely cultural products and differ significantly from the dress of the Prophet and his Companions. Muslim cultural genius is still reflected in simple things like the ways they receive guests and prepare food and in grand things like their achievements in regional styles of art and architecture.

Throughout the pre-modern period, local expressions of Islam bore witness to indigenous cultural creativity. When Islam entered Indonesia, Muslims found that the standard Islamic call to prayer (adhān) did not always serve its purpose. The human voice could not carry well in the dense Indonesian rain forests. Muslims adopted the local cultural convention of communicating through “talking” drums. They preserved the Sunna of making the prayer call but complemented it by using enormous drums, which they hung horizontally outside their mosques and beat loudly to call people to prayer. The deep, hollow sounds of the drums resonated through the forests. The drumbeats signified that the place from which they came was empty and needed to be filled; they stopped what they were doing and came to prayer.

In many parts of Indonesia, Muslims worked in rice paddies and came to the mosques with muddy feet. Instead of repeatedly reminding the rice farmers to clean their feet before entering the mosques, indigenous architects constructed shallow pools in front of the mosque entrances. The farmers could not enter the mosques without walking through them, which cleaned their feet. But the standing water in the pools created the potential hazard of becoming habitats for mosquitoes and other insects. So the pools were also used tobreed carp; the fish ate the insect larvae, and the people ate the fish.

In speaking about creating an indigenous Muslim culture in the United States, it must be emphasized that such a culture would not be a single, monolithic whole, nor would it necessarily develop along the lines of the dominant culture or any particular subculture.

American culture, like human cultures everywhere, is not a single uniform entity. It is a complex of many diverse cultures and subcultures coexisting. They complement and compete against each other and have the same relation with the dominant culture of the mainstream. Endorsement of American culture means being open-minded toward all the multiple expressions of the indigenous cultural heritage. As emphasized before, the maxim “culture has the weight of law” disallows outright rejection of any of cultural or subcultural legacy; the maxim allows American Muslims to adopt or to adapt what they like from what they like as long as it is not detrimental. Our attitude should remain consistent with Islam’s default position that customs are presumed to be permissible, beneficial, and good until proven otherwise; in borderline cases, we have recourse to the maxim “the basic rule in customs is exemption.”

In traditional Muslim societies, creative adaptation of indigenous norms was conspicuous and often more beneficial than mere adoption of them. Likewise, American Muslims need not be content with just adopting good cultural norms; it is often better to adapt them imaginatively in order to produce results that are more beautiful and more beneficial than what existed before. In this regard, noteworthy achievements have already been made in areas like music, poetry, comedy, journalism, fiction, non-fiction, fashion, and interior design.

One of the most significant cultural challenges before American Muslims is to design truly indigenous styles of American mosques. The American mosque should not have a single set form. As stated above, American culture is multiplex; American mosques must reflect that complexity and suit the localities and neighborhoods where they are built. Several North American Muslim communities have made laudable efforts in this direction already.

Throughout history, Muslim mosques have been the products of regional cultures and subcultures. Islam does not dictate a set design for mosques; the only necessary architectural element in a mosque is that it have an area for prayer. Some Muslims regard domes and minarets as essential features of the mosque. The Prophet’s mosque did not have a dome or minarets during his lifetime.

Domes and minarets were post-Prophetic cultural innovations in the Muslim world. The dome were a relatively late development in Islamic architecture; its design was created to allow for expansive prayer areas that were not taken up by pillars in an age when builders did not have access to iron and steel beams. Minarets were also later developments. They were ideal for making the call to prayer in an age without microphones, but they also had a second primary purpose. Just as lighthouses are beacons for ships, minarets were originally beacons for caravans. Bonfires were lit on the tops of the minarets after the night prayer to give distant caravans a point of reference. The name “minaret” reflects their original cultural function; in Arabic mināra (minaret) means “place of fire.” Muslims in China, Andalusia, and North and West Africa did not adopt domes or minarets, in part, because they did not suit their environments.

A mosque should fit in harmoniously with its surroundings. Historically, the design, structure, and landscaping of mosques were suited to local and regional architectural norms, topography, and climate. Mosques should not clash with indigenous tastes and styles; they should not appear out of place or give the impression of being foreign transplants. Like all architectural achievements, creation of American mosque styles requires artistic, technical, and cultural genius. At a time when secular architecture is the dominant norm, the Western mosque must be attractive and inviting by today’s standards yet readily identifiable as sacred space.

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The fight against racism is not over; we must redouble our efforts.

As the level of racially-charged exclusionary politics grows throughout the Western world, Muslims will have to contribute to the developing discourse to counter this problem. Doing so will require a plunge into the murky waters of racial politics. We should not shy away from the challenge. We readily acknowledge that Islam opposes all forms of racism and bigotry. However, sometimes we deny the need for any involvement in a racially defined political arena fearing that by involving ourselves on such a basis, we are somehow implicitly legitimising racial distinctions.

Racial and ethnic distinctions are real, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. One of the greatest factors working to perpetuate the negative manifestations of such distinctions lies in a failure to acknowledge their existence. By failing to acknowledge the existence of a problem, we are robbed of any realistic basis to help eradicate it.

Such denial was not the way of our Prophet. He acknowledged the reality of racial prejudice and took concrete steps to eliminate it. For example, a companion insulted Bilal, one of the first appointed muezzins (callers to prayer), by derisively referring to him as the “son of a black woman.” The Prophet rebuked that companion by reminding him that his attitude displayed the influences of pre-Islamic incivility.

The Prophet took concrete measures to insure that social practices that displayed racist attitudes were broken down by public policy. One of the largely unmentioned examples is his active work to undermine the stigma that many aristocratic Arabs in his time attached to marrying black men: he ordered several Arab families to allow the marriage of their daughters to black companions.

Zayd ibn Haritha, the beloved companion, is described by Ibn Jawzi in his work Tanwir al-Ghabash, as being of very dark complexion. The Prophet ordered the family of Zaynab bint Jahsh to marry her to Zayd. Perhaps Zayd’s dark complexion was one of the reasons for the well-known resistance of Zaynab’s family to the marriage. Another marriage of this type involved Julaybib, a black companion. The Prophet asked an Ansar family to marry their daughter to Julaybib. The mother vehemently refused. However, the daughter, owing to her piety insisted that the marriage proceed. The couple would go on to enjoy a happy and blessed union.

An especially moving story, in this regard, involved a companion known as S’ad al-Aswad. Sa’d was a black man of pure Arab lineage from Bani Sulaym. He came to the Prophet and asked him if his dark complexion would prevent him from entering Paradise. The Prophet responded that it would not, as long as he was mindful of his Lord and believed in Him. Sa’d immediately accepted Islam. Sa’d later complained to the Prophet that he had searched persistently for a wife, but had been rejected because of his dark complexion. The Prophet sent Sa’d to marry the daughter of ‘Amr bin Wahhab, a recent convert from Bani Thaqif who retained many pre-Islamic prejudices.

Sa’d went to ‘Amr’s door and informed him that the Prophet asked that he marry his daughter to him. ‘Amr flatly refused. His daughter, overhearing the conversation between her father and the stranger, interceded telling her father to relent lest he be disgraced by Revelation. ‘Amr went to the Prophet and was strongly rebuked for refusing Sa’d. Hearing this, ‘Amr promptly married his daughter to him.

Shortly after, as Sa’d was in the market purchasing provisions for his new wife, he heard a caller rallying the faithful for a military campaign. He decided to first answer this call and purchased arms and a steed to set out for the battlefield, where he fought valiantly until he was slain. Learning of his death, the Prophet went to his body and placed his head in his lap until his grave was prepared. He then ordered that his arms and mount be sent to his wife’s family.

As we can see from these brief examples, the blessed Prophet acknowledged race and its implications in society. He then took steps to reform society to be less accommodating to racially-based prejudices and attitudes. This must be part of our duty as citizens in the West. We cannot sit silently aside as political forces organise themselves along racial lines and attempt to implement policies that are essentially racist, even though many of them are framed in anti-Muslim language. Those policies will have devastating consequences not only for Muslims, but for all racial and ethnic minorities. For example, here in the US, the most draconian measures of the Patriot Act have been enacted to ostensibly fight “Muslim” terrorism. However, it is the Latin American community that has suffered most severely as a result of the arbitrary arrests, summary detentions and deportations that those policies facilitate.

At a deeper level, the rise in racist politics and policies in Western democracies not only threaten racial minorities, it threatens the very nature of our countries. A monumental and heroic struggle has been waged in the West to create open societies that extend civil and human rights to all. This struggle was especially significant in the US which has had large numbers of non-white people among its population since its inception – the native Indians and the imported African slaves.

Because of that struggle, we have moved closer to societies – to paraphrase the words of the great American civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. – where people are judged based on the content of their character and not on the colour of their skin.

The full realisation of Dr King’s dream is now threatened. Those voices that continue to advocate the politics of inclusion are drowned out by those calling for the politics of exclusion. Those voices calling for co-operation and understanding are marginalised by the advocates of conflict and obscurantism.

Muslims must become a part of this raging discourse. We have to break free from the chains many of us have imposed on ourselves through self-censorship and a lack of self-confidence. When we censor ourselves, we assume that if we remain silent all of the controversies currently involving Islam and Muslims will simply go away. They will not. When we lack confidence in ourselves we assume we have nothing meaningful to contribute to the conversation. There is indeed much we can contribute as individuals and as
a community.

Ultimately, and ironically, in light of the growing negativity surrounding Islam and Muslims here in the West, Islam can help to create a social consciousness that works against a re-entrenchment of racist or white supremacist politics. The power of Islam to create such a social consciousness was grasped by Malcolm X, during his Pilgrimage to Makkah. From there he penned the following words: “During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blonde, and whose skins were the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana. We were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God had removed the ‘white’ from their minds, the ‘white’ from their behaviour, and the ‘white’ from their attitude. I could see from this that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man – and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in colour.”

This optimism that society could be reformed, which Islam kindled in Malcolm X, can be contrasted to the pessimism that seized Dr King after a lifetime of struggle in the arena of civil rights. He would conclude shortly before his assassination, “Yet the largest portion of white America is still poisoned by racism, which is as native to our soil as pine trees, sagebrush, and buffalo grass.”

Let us follow the lead of Malcolm X. Let us believe that Islam can indeed help to repulse the rising racism that threatens the future of these western lands most of us call home. Let us then work to translate that belief into effective action. Let us rid our own lives of any vestiges of racialised thinking and racist actions. Let us open our hearts to our neighbours and fellow citizens who may be of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Let us join or work to help build coalitions that work towards the advancement of ideals that foster peace, reconciliation and harmony in our societies. Now is our time. Let us seize it!