February 1st marked the beginning of Black History Month in the US and will end on the 28th of the month. This year’s theme is, “Civil Rights in America” and marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Black History Month is an important part of the American history. It is a time which is set aside each year to commemorate the achievements of many African Americans. It began as “Negro History Week” in the 1920’s and since 1976 every US president has set aside the month of February to honor the African Americans.
While it is commonplace during this month to remember such great advocates for social justice as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, and Martin Luther King Jr., there is one man, who, though not of African American heritage or an American was a true advocate of civil rights. He lived during another time period in a foreign land. But the message and legacy he left behind was adopted by the great civil rights activists that we are familiar with. He is the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the year 570.
To understand the daunting task faced by Prophet Muhammad it is necessary to get a glimpse of the condition of the society of Arabia at the time of his birth. Although the Arabs had several admirable qualities, such as, their devotion to the culture of speech and oration, hospitality, and being true to their word, morally they were quite deficient. Drinking and gambling were not just mere pastimes but were used as means of entertaining friends and neighbors. In times of war, it was customary to raise the funds required by means of gambling. The orphans and poor were neglected. The women had no status and in many parts of the country baby girls were put to death, an act which was considered honorable. Slavery was widespread. The weak tribes and prisoners of wars were kept as slaves who had no status. A master had all the rights to mistreat his slaves and no action could be taken against such a master.
It was in such a land that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was chosen to be a prophet who would rid his birthplace from all the evils that seemed to be flourishing. In a mere span of twenty-three years he was able to make revolutionary changes which could very well take decades even in our modern times. He was given the revealed Book, the Qur’an, which was a complete manual that taught man how to gain peace within himself and how to bring about peace in his environment. His teachings, inspired by the Word of God, included social justice. He emphasized the rights of the oppressed, the weak, and the needy. It was a virtuous act to make sure that one’s neighbors didn’t go hungry. Freeing slaves was encouraged unequivocally at all times. Women were no longer treated as chattels but rather they were granted many rights hitherto unknown.
Prophet Muhammad’s teachings regarding the equality of mankind have been preserved in his Farewell Sermon. The sermon was delivered before a large gathering of people during the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) at Arafat in Mecca in 631. Referring to the concept of equality of mankind, he said,
“…All of you are equal. All men, whatever nation or tribe they may belong to, and whatever station in life they may hold, are equal. Even as the fingers of the two hands are equal, so are human beings equal to one another. No one has any right, any superiority to claim over another. You are as brothers.”
Though the message was delivered by Prophet Muhammad more than fourteen hundred years ago, it is still applicable to our present time. The tireless struggle demonstrated by the well-known civil rights advocates resonate his message which is a universal one meant for all people and for all times. So, this month let’s reflect upon the teachings of the Prophet of Islam as well as the achievements of the men and women who have fought for civil rights in this country and strive to make our society a better place for everyone.