Islam is a universal faith that does not see race. ‘Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds’, the Qur’an declares in its opening verse. Not Lord of the Quraysh, Arabs or indeed any group that seeks to tribalise the divine. The Prophet stressed racial equality among believers. Notions of superiority through race or lineage are the real idols that Islam came to destroy. But against this stands the reality of our racialised world. For several centuries, whiteness has been attributed with culture, civilisation, beauty and reason. At its extreme, this has underpinned genocides, a slave trade, apartheid and a so-called civilising mission in which most of the Muslim world fell under European imperial rule. The latter was termed the ‘white man’s burden’. Islam may not see race – but Muslims do.
Medina Tenour Whiteman’s The Invisible Muslim: Journeys Through Whiteness and Islam, explores what is means to be a white Muslim. Whiteman’s interest stems from her experiences as the daughter of Anglo-American Sufi converts, born in Granada and raised in a ‘whiter-than-white’ area of Essex. She tells of struggling to find a sense of identity, never feeling at home in either Western or Muslim cultures. The book expresses this by the term ‘invisible Muslim’ and by a recurring motif of veils. Not the headscarf, but the figurative veils used to separate Us from Them. Veils of race, class and privilege separate Whiteman from Muslims of colour. The veil of religion separates her from other whites:
There is a veil that recurs throughout my life…When I am among white people, I’ve seen on so many occasions this veil dropping when the penny drops. Faces change subtly, or not so subtly. Fingers start nervously fidgeting. All kinds of thoughts and questions being visibly running through the interlocutor’s face: Are they a progressive Muslim?