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The Jackie Robinson of Mecca

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 13, 2009 | 2:49 pm

Photo: NYT

Every year on April 15, I pay my taxes and Major League Baseball remembers the enormous contribution of one player, Jackie Robinson. It seems unlikely Islam will ever create a day to celebrate the achievements of Sheik Adil Kalbani, but he too will be remembered for breaking the color barrier.

Kalbani became the first black Muslim—not to be confused with membership to the Nation of Islam—to lead prayers in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, last fall.

On this Easter weekend, Kalbani was the subject of The New York Times Saturday profile:

Since then, Sheik Adil has been half-jokingly dubbed the “Saudi Obama.” Prominent imams are celebrities in this deeply religious country, and many have hailed his selection as more evidence of King Abdullah’s cautious efforts to move Saudi Arabia toward greater openness and tolerance in the past few years.

“The king is trying to tell everybody that he wants to rule this land as one nation, with no racism and no segregation,” said Sheik Adil, a heavyset and long-bearded man of 49 who has been an imam at a Riyadh mosque for 20 years. “Any qualified individual, no matter what his color, no matter where from, will have a chance to be a leader, for his good and his country’s good.”

Officially, it was his skill at reciting the Koran that won him the position, which he carries out — like the Grand Mosque’s eight other prayer leaders — only during the holy month of Ramadan. But the racial significance of the king’s gesture was unmistakable.

Sheik Adil, like most Saudis, is quick to caution that any racism here is not the fault of Islam, which preaches egalitarianism. The Prophet Muhammad himself, who founded the religion here 1,400 years ago, had black companions.

“Our Islamic history has so many famous black people,” said the imam, as he sat leaning his arm on a cushion in the reception room of his home. “It is not like the West.”

It is also true that Saudi Arabia is far more ethnically diverse than most Westerners realize. Saudis with Malaysian or African features are a common sight along the kingdom’s west coast, the descendants of pilgrims who came here over the centuries and ended up staying. Many have prospered and even attained high positions through links to the royal family. Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, is the son of Prince Sultan and a dark-skinned concubine from southern Saudi Arabia.

But slavery was practiced here too, and was abolished only in 1962. Many traditional Arabs from Nejd, the central Saudi heartland, used to refer to all outsiders as “tarsh al bahr” — vomit from the sea. People of African descent still face some discrimination, as do most immigrants, even from other Arab countries. Many Saudis complain that the kingdom is still far too dominated by Nejd, the homeland of the royal family. There are nonracial forms of discrimination too, and many Shiite Muslims, a substantial minority, say they are not treated fairly.

“The prophet told us that social classes will remain, because of human nature,” Sheik Adil said gravely. “These are part of the pre-Islamic practices that persist.”

You can read the rest here.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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