Race And Islam

By Farish A. Noor ~ October 30th, 2008. Filed under: Syndicated Columns, TOM_Main.

It is odd, to say the least, that after more than fourteen centuries there remain some people who claim to be Muslims but who still have not internalised the universal values of Islam. Odder still that there remain those who on the one hand can embrace Islam’s universal claim of brotherhood (and sisterhood), but still cannot get around to understanding the simple idea that Islam and racism do not mix.

Evidence of such discrepancies can be found pretty much everywhere these days: It has, sadly, become the normative cultural norm in so many Muslim societies today that those who are fair are better off and given the privileges that they feel is the natural right of all light-skinned people. It is also interesting to note that Muslims tend to rejoice whenever a white American or European converts to Islam, but seem less enthusiastic in their recognition of the fact that thousands of Africans and Asians are converting to Islam every year.

Furthermore when it comes to governance and politics, it remains painfully clear that some Muslims still place blood and race above competency and merit til today; and that despite their profession of faith they remain embedded in the stagnant mode of racialised thinking that operates on the basis that some races are better than others.

One such case has popped up recently in multi-culti Malaysia, where a row was sparked off by the nomination of a Chinese woman – Low Siew Moi – as the head of a state institution linked to the economic management and development of the state of Selangor, the PKNS. Despite the fact that Low Siew Moi was selected by the Chief Minister of the state, Tan Sri Khalid, on the basis of merit; some quarters chose to publicly disagree with her appointment on the grounds that the Malay-Muslims of the state would object to the appointment. But objection on what grounds? On the basis that she is a Chinese woman?

Here the already convoluted waters of Malaysia’s racialised politics turns a shade murkier; for among those who objected to the appointment of Low Siew Moi were some members of the Malaysian Islamic party PAS.

Malaysia’s politics has been defined by racial concerns and the communitarian demands of the various religious and ethnic groups of the country since its independence in 1957. Over the past three decades, however, the tone and tenor of the country’s conservative, right-wing ethno-nationalist politics was further coloured by the Islamisation race in the country with the Malaysian government attempting to further inculcate Islamic values into the norms of governance in Malaysia as well.

Ironically however, Malaysia’s Islamisation programme seems to be more concerned with book-banning, fatwas on social behaviour (including the recent revelation that there may be a fatwa on Yoga soon, wait for it), and moral policing instead. Where, the Islamic scholar may ask, were the universal values of Islam in the midst of all this social engineering? Did the leaders of Malaysia not realise, or forget, the simple idea that Islam is an egalitarian faith that is colour-blind; and that the concept of ‘race’ is an alien idea in Islam?

The dilemma that Malaysia is facing now is the same dilemma faced by many other Muslim societies where the defence and promotion of Islam often goes hand-in-hand with the defence and promotion of the communitarian interests of Muslims. In Malaysia’s case, where Muslims are overwhelmingly Malay, then this also translates as the defence of Malay interests – to the extent of propagating the ethno-nationalist idea of Malay cultural dominance as well. Now what on earth is Islamic about this?

Here is where orthodox Muslim scholarship has to come in and make its timely intervention: For it has to be remembered that the success of Islam and the success of Muslims are two entirely different things, that may also clash and negate each other at times. The victory of Islam, so to speak, has to be understood as the victory of universal values such as egalitarianism and equality before God. The victory of Muslims, on the other hand, may at times be understood as political victories that may or may not conform to the standards of Islamic ethics. The defeat of the Kuwaitis at the hands of Saddam Hussein, for instance, was a case of one Muslim state defeating another: but was this a victory for Islam? Likewise, when Muslims openly and abrasively demand special rights and privileges for themselves at the cost of equality and meritocracy, is this really a victory for Islam?

Those who have criticised and opposed the appointment of Low Siew Moi as the head of PKNS on the grounds that the job should have been given to a Malay-Muslim instead should therefore look closely at themselves and ask: What is it that you are fighting for? Malay-Muslim dominance or a better form of governance that is based on merit and equality? The Islamic scholar will remind you that the latter is Islamic, while the former is not.

In any case, for Muslims to even think in racialised communitarian terms is a misnomer of sorts as such modes of communitarian, sectarian thinking has no real place in Islamic orthodoxy and ethics. To quote Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS: ‘tell me, what race was Adam?’. ‘Nuff said I think.

20 Responses to Race And Islam

  1. RitchieLow

    I think most of these blokes use the religion as a shield for one’s worldly cause rather than as a teaching for one’s salvation.

    Most present day civilized societies looks upon racism with abhorrence much like an abomination to all humankind. Here, with sky reaching minarets and F1 circuits, it is talked and demanded upon openly and backed by the ruling party too.

    Vision 2020 ? More like 2200.

  2. shepherdvoyage

    If the mindset that certain race should have the dominance of governmance posts does not change, there will be no future for this country.

    Just see how “efficient” our government is! This is a result of selection of candidates for certain posts based on races instead of merits and competency.

    Racism, if unchecked, will sooner or later cripple the country.

  3. Ida Bakar

    “In Malaysia’s case, where Muslims are overwhelmingly Malay, then this also translates as the defence of Malay interests – to the extent of propagating the ethno-nationalist idea of Malay cultural dominance as well. Now what on earth is Islamic about this?”

    The damage is done. The ramifications are far-fetched.

    What is also worrying is the deafening silence of the so-called reformists - recent storming of the bar council meeting by Malay mob of various political affliations seemed to get the nod from their (UMNO / PAS/ PKR) political masters.

    The ethno-centric nature of our ‘muslim leaders’ have blinkered the world-view of the Malays - Palestine and Chechnya are big issues and rightly so but what about Darfur? Or Zimbabwe? Or even Burma? We built Ain Arabia but ignored the plight of Bangladeshi workers.

    Furthermore, the pronouncements and edicts from various fatwa councils have yoked the the Malays into a compliant lot but left them fearful and unimaginative. Perhaps a Malay woman can no longer consider working as a club bouncer (tomboy=wrong) or playing with power tools and become an orthopaedic surgeon. As for the lack of imagination, who cares about the thousands of battery chickens that lived miserable lives but died halal deaths each day? (Surely, this is against Islam). And don’t even consider yoga.

    Sorry for the long rant. Time to re-align my Chakras.

  4. khairulbahri

    1. The situation in Malaysia badly evolved when Religion and Race being manipulated and crafted by the hand of Politicians, who do it subtlely and used this idealogi (Malay + Muslim) as shortcut to influence peoples.

    2. Therefore to gain influenced from the peoples this formula worked beautifully.

    3. Hence, they start to claiming one race is the best from the others likewise, the malay+muslim is far better than the chinease.

    4. Isn’t remind us to Nazi, that claim Aryan is the best and isn’t the history told us
    much about this movement.

    5. I really like the term that Farish used,’Islam is color blind’. For god sake its damn true. Come on… look at the origins of Islam in Mecca. It was built colorless regards Mecca is a centre of trade between races…

  5. Hafeez


    The Star yesterday carried Suhakam’s study of right to choose one’s religion yesterday.

    Perhaps you could put your thoughts on this matter, as I do feel some deep concern on the subject especially since the conundrum of Malay equated with Islam have seen soem rather disparaging instances where flaws of the human race is equated as that of the religion.

    Muslims accept Islam as the culmination of all the Book-based religions, and yet: our universal practice have been rather disjointed to exemplified such a standing.

    My fear is this: With Malays who cares shit about their religion yet still equated as muslim, could it not be said that our children would form the view that it’s due to the religion?

    Especially when it would seemed that the other choices are protrayed in a more acceptable manner.

    Unfortunately, being born a muslim has somewhat led Malays (not all, of course) from learning deeply the beauty of the religion. It’s just something forced onto them.

    Perhaps I am wrong.


  6. husni

    I am deeply concerned about the issue of fatwas in Malaysia. It seems that they are being used as tools for the social engineering you mentioned, geared towards making sure that Malaysian Muslims only practice the “right” brand of Islam according to the government. A fatwa in Malaysia is not only religious advice, but potential shariah laws and this means that a Muslim in Malaysia does not have a choice on how to practice Islam.

    Especially problematic, of course, is the treatment of apostates and homosexuals, and the non-discussion occurring about the matters is making it worse. They have to be addressed as soon as possible, in a dialogue not only involving ulamas but also representatives of different parts of the society. It is such a shame that questioning/debating fatwas is such a taboo in Malaysia. Ulamas have been elevated to such a status, that sometimes one thinks that they are living prophets.

    We are all humans, subject to errors and misinterpretation, and to narrow something which is so universal to one restrictive interpretation and impose it on the society is a huge detriment to a nation.

    In my humble opinion, fatwas should also be tabled outside the fatwa council. People should be able to ask questions and seek explanations about a particular religious issue. Religious experts with various backgrounds outside the council, as well as the community, should also contribute to the discussion, keeping with the true spirit of ijma’ and shura.


  7. sy

    For the consolidation of power, race and religion, as in the crown and the cross, carry a lot more weight than either one going alone. Because as already been said that Islam is colour blind, it is so dangerous an idealogy that it has got to be co-opted into the power game.

    Therefore, it is rationalized, rightly or wrongly, that a Malay cannot not be a Muslim. By contrast, an Arab can be Muslim, Christian or Jew but not a Malay, not in Malaysia anyway. History, demographics and politics dictate the course of each nation and its discourse.

    But it’s never a done deal, nothing more to be done, but to lie still on the tracks and wait for the oncoming train. It’s not like the Malay is caught btw Islam and the deep blue sea. Many of us speak in Malay but write in English, pray in Arabic, dream in symbols and bathe in the nude. That alone speaks volume for ecclectism in the way that the individual life is actually lived.

    Power to to the individual.

    The ceiling may be raised, the sky may fall, yoga may be banned, the Council may dish out more edicts, Hindraf may be going for broke, Soi Lek back, Baginda freed …..You see every quarter pushing the envelope.

    Pushing the envelope is the name of the game.
    My two cents’ worth.

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  10. koolgeek

    For same reason, Malays in Malaysia are also increasingly getting confused about their identity and that of the Arabs.

    Some regards migrating to/visiting KSA as ‘going home’.

    Malay as a race and culture is at brink of extinction; not because of threat from other races in the country, but because of the wrong indoctrination by the Islamic scholars such as those in PAS and UMNO.

  11. Nah Ah Lak

    Sad to say that our Muslim brothers in most Muslim countries and Malaysia do not really know the basic of Islam or they might have fallen into the bottomless hole of religions. That could be the main reason why all Muslim countries cannot progress to become a developed nation. Knowledge about religions, their founders and how they are founded are important but other fields of knowledge are more important for the progress of a country and the whole world.

    Conscience is the perfect judge which every human being can never run away with it. There will be progress if Muslims are more conscientious and obey just the basic teaching of Islam. They should be ashamed of not knowing the basic of Islam and its application in worldly living.

  12. Mr. Small Brain

    Wonder why some people use the name of God to kill others? The three soon-to-be-executed Bali Bombers have given a very bad image of Islam. When they were interviewed by certain Western journalist and broadscated over the TV channel, they even laughed during the interview and felt no remorse at all. What kind of human being is this?

    In Malaysia, for those who have objected the appointment of Madam Low Siew Moi, please wake up and ask yourselves if you were in her shoes, what will you do and how will you feel? What will you me feeling if your Chinese or Indian boss were to tell you that he or she could not promote you to the post of general manager because of your skin colour or religion and as opposed by majority of the non-Malay staff in the company? Do you regard this as racism or discrimination?

    Imagine what will happen if one day a Chines or Indian were to be appointd as the CEO of MAS or Telekom Malaysia by the Prime Minister of Malaysia who is purportedly to be a PM for all Malaysians irrespective of skin colour and religion? Can someone enlighten me on this, please?

  13. Kalidas

    Dear Dr.Farish,

    It is great to read your article and as I have told you on numerous occassion that you are among the few Malays & Muslim that I respect. You seems to be fair in your writings and wish that many shall be like you. I hope things are good with you in Indonesia.


  14. Antares

    Ha ha ha. Great to hear your lyrical, level-headed voice again, Farish :-)

  15. Inda

    To those who is seeking explanation on the function and purpose of the Fatwa Council pls go to http://www.e-fatwa.gov.my/fatwa.asp.

    Go, read and discover answers to your question.

    While I agree with Dr. Farish that ” Islam and racism do not mix” with all the political and religious meaning, in syariah and syarak to it, but I am also very concern with the attitude showed in this writing and the comments of the majotity in here that used the PKNS new CEO issue as a license for them to condemn Muslims in general and blanket applied all sorts of reasoning to describe what is good Muslim and what is not good Muslim together with all confusions-misconceptions attached upon the Muslims in genereal including the fatwas issued by the Fatwa Council to the multi-racial Muslims in this country.

    I am all support for equality and fundamental liberty as enshrined in the Federal Constitution and truly believe in the Rukun Negara but exageration on condemning the Fatwa Council because of their recent ruling, i.e. the ‘pengkid’ issue a.k.a. the lesbianism behaviour of multi-racial Muslims and the soon to be fatwa on yoga, doesn’t augur well and uncalled for coming from Muslims or non alike.
    If you support homosexual activities and its doer, so be it. But, there are laws in this country be it civil or syariah that protect the society at large from social mischief. You like it or not, they’re there.

    There’s no necessity to add confusion and go out of propotion regarding this PKNS CEO issue. Some people may slip once in a while but I’m sure there must be no bad intention intended. After all, no one heard any compalint coming from Puan Loh Siew Moi. The fact that she has been serving PKNS for so long shows how fair and just the administration and the Malays have been toward her.

  16. msleepyhead

    Wonder if PAS would get rid of all the institutionalized racism wherever unnecessary like when you’re applying for a driving license for example should they get into power.

    Seriously, what race was Adam?

  17. Farish A Noor

    When Nik Aziz was asking ‘what race was adam?’ he was making the point that Adam did not have a race and that we are all human beings. To read more about this, see my interview with Nik Aziz in the latest issue of Off the Edge magazine that is now out …

  18. sandeep

    “But, there are laws in this country be it civil or syariah that protect the society at large from social mischief. You like it or not, they’re there.”

    Laws are man-made. If a law is unjust it should be amended or revised. Laws are fluid and should represent current societal norms and practices. It should be discussed openly with the opportunity for all to present their cases. The view of the majority will prevail and will become law. It is the essence of democracy. None of that happens here. Many of our laws are unjust and is passed behind closed doors with no chance of discussion or even objections. Worse, the laws are often used to even protect the wrong doer and protect the perpetrator. The least we can do as concerned citizens is to voice objections at such injustice. If we don’t like a law, it is within our rights to say so. If enough of us don’t like it, it should be amended.

    “he fact that she has been serving PKNS for so long shows how fair and just the administration and the Malays have been toward her.”

    I must disagree. We cannot make that assumption. Her long service with the organisation could be for any number of reasons which we are not privy to. The fact is that we have racists demanding that a Malaysian woman cannot head a government entity even though she has been deemed as the most qualified. This is unlawful, ethically unacceptable and just plain wrong. There is no excuse for such behavior. If you want a just society, the very least you can do is to condemn such individuals.

  19. Yasmin

    I’m a Chinese, recently reverted to Islam. On the subject of the soon-to-be-fatwa on yoga, I am shocked. I practice yoga as an exercise. It cures a prolonged backache swiftly and improved my body posture amazingly. To say yoga could ‘interrupt’ Muslims’ aqidah, I think that’s wrong. In my humble opinion, aqidah boils down to one’s inner self strength, one’s faith. If one’s aqidah is strong, he/she would battle through tests of faith successfully.

    I also realise that things are made so convenient for Muslims in this country. In my office (I am not sure about other companies), the cafeteria was closed during fasting month. No doubt 70% of the staffs are Muslims, but isn’t fasting month a testing month? The cafeteria people did sell food at a later time for the Muslims to purchase for berbuka but for non-Muslims, the rule was: ‘oh the cafe’s closed so you can’t eat in there’. To make is short, food was sold but none could enjoy it in the cafe because the Muslims were fasting; it’s not nice for them to see. DUH!

    When I read about Loh Siew Moi, it made me wonder where do I stand in this society? Am I being seen/judged based on my race or religion or my capabilities or a-girl-who-reverted-just-because-she-marries-a-Malay-guy?

    Oh back to yoga, I think there are some elements in our multi-cultural society which are influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. We can’t ignore the fact the these religions arrived here earlier than Islam. More fatwa to come then?… Gosh, why don’t the council focus on dealing with hypocrites first?

  20. Inda

    sandeep, about man made laws - I agree that as far as man made laws are concerned, they are subjected for review time and again when the needs arise as society development. All man made laws are short-sighted. Hence, with the English common law as adopted in Malaysia.

    About Islam, there are not only rules and regulations for worship or laws for personal matters but there are also matters of the economy and the safeguarding of the society and property from criminal behaviours and immoral conducts (among others). Islamic laws are guarded and guided following the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh). As such, to apply the simple logic of amendment or review is not applicable here but, what matters most in Islamic laws is not the haste in making judgment but the intricate process of coming to making the judgement is what the judge must adhere to strictly. In Islam the concept of law is prevention and to educate the society NOT to punish or diminish the existence of a person. Therefore, justice is the paramount element in Islamic law and this must not be compromised.

    About the PKNS CEO issue, I am all support for her basically because I’m a woman myself and it feels good to have a person of same status put to such important position. Its kinda boost one’s ego. (have you heard about the ‘glass ceiling’ issue?). I believe many Malaysians support her appointment. This is a trying time for all Malaysians and the rakyat and everybody is trying to do their best in making things happen. I know that the hiccups that happened in the Selangor state govt. in respect of the PKNS issue is now fully resolved, and, no, I didn’t make any assumption about her long service at PKNS. It was my deduction of facts from my various readings from various sources. It is a finding based on a reaonable man’s point of view.

    About yoga, I too had taken yoga classes but only at the gym never at the specific yoga club or society that specifically teach yoga following the spiritual teachings which may include the strict applications of certain rituals and mantras etc. As a Muslim, I think to pursue yoga just as another form of exercise as offered in any gym should be fine but to embrace yoga as it is being practiced in India with all its rituals and mantras is inappropriate for a Muslim. Until it is addressed by the Fatwa Council, i’ll just wait n see, for now.

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