One day, in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad dropped a bombshell on his followers: He told them that all people are created equal.
“All humans are descended from Adam and Eve,” said Muhammad in his last known public speech. “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.”
In this sermon, known as the Farewell Address, Muhammad outlined the basic religious and ethical ideals of Islam, the religion he began preaching in the early seventh century. Racial equality was one of them. Muhammad’s words jolted a society divided by notions of tribal and ethnic superiority.
Today, with racial tension and violence roiling contemporary America, his message is seen to create a special moral and ethical mandate for American Muslims to support the country’s anti-racism protest movement.
Apart from monotheism – worshipping just one God – belief in the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God set early Muslims apart from many of their fellow Arabs in Mecca.
Chapter 49, verse 13 of Islam’s sacred scripture, the Quran, declares: “O humankind! We have made you…into nations and tribes, so that you may get to know one another. The noblest of you in God’s sight is the one who is most righteous.”
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This verse challenged many of the values of pre-Islamic Arab society, where inequalities based on tribal membership, kinship and wealth were a fact of life. Kinship or lineal descent – “nasab” in Arabic – was the primary determinant of an individual’s social status. Members of larger, more prominent tribes like the aristocratic Quraysh were powerful. Those from less wealthy tribes like the Khazraj had lower standing.