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Reflecting on Diversity in Islam Through Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Next Monday (Jan. 21), Americans will observe a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest civic and moral leaders in our nation's history. I believe that MLK Day is an excellent opportunity for American Muslims to reflect upon Islam's support for diversity and racial equality.

Islam's respect for diversity originates in the Quran. While describing many of Allah's signs for mankind, the Quran states, "And of His signs is ... the diversity of your [mankind's] languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge" (30:22). Although the Quran is generally only considered canon in the original Arabic, this verse suggests that God intended people to speak many other languages and exist as different cultures. The Quran elaborates further in another chapter, saying, "O mankind, we have created you ... into nations and tribes that you may come to know one another [and not deny one another]" (49:13). Indeed, God says that mankind is not only destined to exist as diverse peoples, but that we as humans should welcome this and actively try to understand people who are different from ourselves. This message of pluralism within Islam bears a striking resemblance to the themes of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Another example of Islam's appreciation for diversity comes from one of the Prophet Muhammad's Sahaba (closest companions) named Bilal ibn Rabah (Radiallahu Anhu, may Allah be pleased with him). Bilal was of Ethiopian origin and grew up as a slave in Mecca during the Jahiliyyah (Days of Ignorance), a period of severe hardship and oppression. When Muhammad (PBUH) first brought the message of Islam to the people of Mecca, he was ostracized from the community. Members of the Prophet's own family turned against him, and most of the ruling chiefs (including Bilal's cruel master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf) refused to accept the new religion because its numerous social reforms threatened the existing power structure. Bilal was one of the few Meccans who immediately embraced Islam, and he was therefore persecuted intensely. However, since Bilal was African (and not an Arab), Umayyah and other slave-owners felt entitled to subject him to extreme physical suffering. For example, hadiths narrate that they frequently placed heavy stones on Bilal's chest and tied a rope around his neck, threatening him with death by suffocation if he did not renounce his belief in Islam. Despite this repeated torture, Bilal refused to budge and only grew stronger in his faith. When one of the Prophet's companions heard about Bilal's fortitude and devotion to Islam, he was so impressed that he immediately bought Bilal's freedom.

In this instance, Bilal exemplified self-control and nonviolent resistance, two hallmarks of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s movement. Rather than physically fighting back against the slaver-owners, Bilal relied on his strength of will in order to endure adversity. His unwavering dedication to Islam earned him both his freedom and his status as one of the first Sahaba of the Prophet. Indeed, he demonstrated to Muslims that any person (regardless of race, education or socioeconomic status) was capable of immense personal faith.

As time passed, Bilal became known for his advocacy for equality, his loyalty and, above all, his magnificent voice. When Muhammad (PBUH) recognized Bilal's unparalleled vocal talent, he designated Bilal as the first muezzin of Islam. A muezzin is responsible for making the Adhan (the call to prayer) before each of the five required daily prayers (salaat) in order to gather the community for congregational prayers. Some Arabs questioned Muhammad's choice of Bilal for this honorable position because, as an African, Bilal pronounced certain Arabic words differently than natives of Arabia. However, Muhammad (PBUH) remained firm, praising Bilal's extraordinary vocal skills as a unique form of recitation; he added that Bilal deserved the position of muezzin because of his extraordinary virtues. Indeed, the Prophet judged Bilal "not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character" (Martin Luther King). In doing so, the Prophet broke a longstanding Arabian tradition where leadership positions were held only by members of historically influential tribes. Instead, by honoring a former slave both for his natural talents and moral character, Muhammad (PBUH) established the Islamic traditions of equality and appreciation for diversity.

Bilal's legacy lives on in the present day. Making the Adhan is still considered a great honor, and many people (myself included) strive to improve their voices so they are granted the privilege of calling their local Muslim community to prayer. In addition, Muhammad's support for Bilal's unique recitation has led to a wide variety of artistic styles of the Adhan; throughout the Muslim world, different cultures have each developed their own beautiful forms of recitation, even while the language of prayer (Arabic) and the words remain (mostly) constant. In this way, the Adhan is a clear reminder of Islam's potential for unity within diversity.

Unity within diversity is also one of the characteristics of American life. Our heritage is summarized by the phrase E Pluribus Unum, the concept that we are one nation, even though we are composed of many diverse groups. When our nation lost sight of this message, an extraordinary leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived to help "bend the arc of the universe towards justice." However, diversity is as inherent to the Muslim experience as it is to the American one. Just as America is strengthened by accepting immigrants from all over the world, Islam is also continually enriched through contact with a myriad of unique cultures. Therefore, MLK Day is a great opportunity for Muslims to rediscover the importance of diversity within the Islamic tradition.