One summer when I was maybe 8 or 9, I remember spending a summer in Orlando at my cousins house. In the height of summer, in spite of the sizzling temperatures, I adored being in their pool. All the worlds weight in gold could not measure or compare to my love for that pool. Some of my childhood’s most fondest memories are of my trips to Orlando and these memories usually involve the pool followed by my beautiful Phupo’s (paternal aunt) delicious food. If we all played in the pool for an hour, I’d be in there one hour before and one hour after everyone had left. I’d insist on taking the last shower just so I could spend more time in the pool. And my skin both then and now absorbs the sun like a magnet is drawn to metal. Super Fast.
In adulthood, I would develop a vitamin d deficiency, partly because the sun in the U.K. is so weak and works only part time (2 weeks british summer time amirite lol) and partly because as I grew up, modesty governed that less of my skin was exposed to the sun. Because of my vitamin d deficiency, now even more perceptibly than before, I adore the way the sun feels on my skin because I can actually feel the sun’s rays being converted by my skin into vitamin d and I am in awe of how Allah makes my body generate its own nutrients if I just spend some time basking in the natural environment He created to nourish my body.
But I remember in my childhood, after returning from Orlando, various extended members of my family, who I adore and respect to this day for a multitude of other reasons, said that my colour would take YEARS TO CLEAN. *CLEAN*. Yup. “Clean”. And I heard this phrase so much. By the time I was in my teens, I had lost some of my colour and I remember being in Pakistan where another person would ask me “how did you clean up your colour?” and I remember feeling a little perplexed. Rather than wielding any rational faculties and realising that this was a wrong thing to ask or think, I remember responding with something along the lines of, “well I live in the north of england; we don’t get a lot of sun and when we do it’s weak”. My reasoning faculties were underdeveloped then (and they are still under construction as I continue to dive deeper into understanding the last sacred message from Allah).
But since a young age, despite being unable to articulate it properly, I’ve felt spiritually disturbed by the south asian culture (and I’m sure the same is true for a great many others) and its affinity and internalised colour bias in favour of fair skin; the internalised colonial bias that informed our people that they were less if they were darker simply because they had been subjugated by the white european colonial project.
Growing up, I found it intriguing to witness the dichotomy between white people and people of colour; the white people I knew in the U.K. would lay on sun beds or take beach holidays simply to lay on the beach and tan. For an entire two weeks they’d do little else except acquire some “colour”. They’d return to the U.K. always keen to wear white shirts to show off the new colour they’d acquired. Bemused, one day at work at the age of 25, I remember a colleague coming back from her beach vacation in Orlando and she rolled her sleeve up to show off her tan. I rolled my sleeve up and put my forearm beside hers; she expressed pride that she was finally darker than me and I suddenly felt a wave of gratitude for how Allah had crafted me. A wave that I felt ashamed it had taken me 25 years to feel. I remember that same colleague, when she got married, she dyed her hair and had dark hair extensions put into her hair. From behind, her hair looked almost exactly like mine. This hair that I’d actually wished was less thick and lighter in colour when I was younger.
The stunning thing is that I never learned colour bias from within the safe confines of the home my parents nurtured me in. I learned all of this from extended family and the wider community. I learned all this from Muslims and non Muslims. From people of colour and from white people. In my personal experience, there was no camp more culpable than another except that I do now feel the greatest disappointment and shame towards those who were and still do claim to be Muslim whilst retaining deeply ingrained colour bias and racial prejudice.
It took a white person who seemed to apparently be trying to imitate my hair and skin colour for me to finally embrace my physical identity. Not to feel pride in it but to no longer feel lessened by it. It wasn’t her desire to mimic some of my natural features that made me love myself more but rather it was her inability to love herself just as she was that made me decide that I didn’t want to be like that toward myself. Because in the same way that many people of colour wish for lighter skin and hair, similarly many white people wish for darker skin and thicker/darker hair. The condition is one and the same; ingratitude and a surface level understanding and appreciation of beauty.
I cannot criticise the ignorant but I am severely disappointed in so many Muslims (and in myself for a time being), for failing to uphold the criterion of racial justice that is abundantly clear in the final divine scripture sent by Allah to all mankind. Especially because one of the most beautiful messages of Islam and a message strongly advocated by the last messenger of Allah, centres around the universal truth that no human being is more noble than another except by sacred virtue and piety in the eyes of Allah.
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an 49:13]
“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]
There is no gender or racial bias in Islam and any Muslim who wields such perceptions advocates falsehoods and practices perversions.
An extract from the last sermon of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action.”
What differentiates you from others in beauty is your remembrance of Allah, your devotion to Allah, your obedience to Allah, your good deeds and your striving to earn His pleasure. Your true beauty is unseen by the eyes on your face; your true beauty can only be perceived by the unveiled gaze of a sound heart surrendered to Allah. So if your own heart is veiled, you too will only perceive surface level and a societally constructed biased puddle-depth view of beauty.
Probably until I was 25 years old, despite being born and raised a Muslim and despite my parents never once measuring my beauty except by my sacred deeds, I held shallow and societally constructed views of beauty and whilst I did not express this outwardly, I felt less beautiful than some of my far more fairer skinned cousins. Alhamdulillah this is not remotely the case anymore. But I wonder, if this perversion can happen to me; someone who comes from such a strong Muslim household, how do we protect our more vulnerable children from falling prey to such perverted perceptions of beauty unless we strongly and openly declare such mindsets as disgusting, perverted falsehoods as they truly, madly, shallowly are.
When I saw the video of the little girl saying how her older sister would look beautiful when she gets married because she is fairer skinned and how she thought she would never measure up in beauty, I felt sad that we have not remotely progressed in collective psyche. Skin colour is prolifically manufactured in favour of white skin and there is an abundance of insecurity even within the white community with the exact same “grass is greener” mentality over their skin colour and other physical features too. Overwhelmingly the balance is tipped against people of colour and this complex is far more prevalent and toxic in such communities than it is in white ones. But wherever such mentalities exist, whether in a white persons mindset or person of colour, no one, absolutely no one should go through life thinking they are less than anyone on the basis of their wrapping paper.
All of our skin and bones will turn to dust one day and Allah will raise us back up again on the day of reckoning. On that day, neither your skin colour or hair texture/colour nor the size of your lips or nose or butt will count for shit but if you had an ungrateful or poisonous mentality towards your own skin colour or that of others’ then fear Allah. Fear Allah’s displeasure for the shallow cesspool of your ignorant mindset. And I’m speaking first and foremost to all Muslim communities because you of all people should know better.
Teach your children not to love the skin they’re in but teach them to be grateful for their bodies and the miraculous way in which it serves them by Allah’s command. Teach your children gratitude and beauty that transcends their skin and all other physical features. It’s not about loving the skin you’re in but nurturing a sound heart. Teach your children to go deeper than what is physically apparent, to unveil their hearts vision by polishing and purifying their actions in surrender to the beautiful command and guidance sent by Allah to all mankind.