Should Muslims Use The “N” Word?


February 26, 2008 at 4:14 pm

Do not call each other by demeaning nicknames: How foul is a name connoting vileness... Al-Qur’an 49:11

I was recently involved in a forum entitled, “Should Muslims Use the ‘N’ word.” The event could have more appropriately been entitled, “Should Anyone Use the ‘N’ Word.” However, the reason for the gathering was the frequency young Muslims, of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, are employing the term. One of the individuals whose suggestion inspired the forum mentioned that he was shocked—upon returning to the university after an absence of several years—by how frequently he was hearing other Muslims on campus saying, “My nigga’,” “What’s up nigga’,” “Where you niggas going,” and similar expressions.

During the forum I mentioned I was of the opinion that as Muslims we should refrain from the use of the word. During the course of that event I did not get a chance to present all of the reasons for my position. I will delineate them here, God-willing. Hopefully, these words will be of benefit. If not, perhaps they will stimulate some beneficial comments.

Before beginning, I wish to mention the following clarification. When I say Muslims, or anyone else for that matter, should not use the word “nigger,” I mean in everyday speech, and especially in speech that is intended to demean another human or oneself. This is not to say that I advocate banning literature that contains the word. Most of that literature, including works such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, [1] describes the derogatory way the term has been used at various historical junctures and is therefore an indispensable part of the public record. To seek to ban such works, or to censor the offensive term in a way to have it removed from them is ridiculous and should not be understood as what I am advocating.

To begin, as Muslims we should be leaders in the society we find ourselves in and not followers. The overwhelming majority of Muslim youth who are currently employing the term “nigger,” even in its “sanitized” form, “nigga” are following one of the least savory manifestations of popular culture. Until it became acceptable (or cool) in some circles to use the word, Muslim youth were not uttering it. Like many other elements of contemporary youth culture, such as sagging pants and gangster rap, this one has its roots in the African American community. Now that some generally degenerate elements in the community have taken up the wide spread use of the term, should Muslims follow suit? I think not.

I think we can legitimately ask, “Which elements in the community have helped to popularize the term?” Was it the educated elite? Was it the likes of Thurgood Marshall, John Henrik Clarke, Chancellor Williams? No! Was it the political icons of the 1960s, the likes of Dr. King, Malcolm X, H Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Medgar Evers? No! Was it the athletic giants such as Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, or Arthur Ashe? No! Was it the musical legends of the period, the likes of James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, or Jimi Hendrix? No! Who then was it?

If we consider the increased popularity the term began gaining at the street level in the African American community during the 1970s, one figure would stand out as being most influential in that development, the comedian, Richard Pryor. Although the term was employed by certain elements in the African American community long before the emergence of Pryor as a major entertainment figure in the 1970s, it was he who popularized its usage among a far wider segment of African Americans.

It is not ironic in this regard that one the best selling comedy albums in history was Pryor’s 1974 Grammy Award winning album, That Nigger’s Crazy. This was followed two years latter by his, Bicentennial Nigger. Many people have analyzed what they see as Pryor’s genius in how he used the word “nigger” in his jokes. However, after a trip to Kenya in the early 1980s, impressed by the dignity of the Africans he encountered there, Pryor himself declared that he would never again use the word, explaining, “It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren’t funny, even when people laughed. To this day I wish I’d never said that word.”[2]

Although one can argue, as some have, that some of the ways Pryor and others used “nigger,” along with entertainers both before and after him (for example, Tupac Shakur’s claim that nigga means, Never Ignorant, Gets Goals Accomplished), are positive, and therefore justify its use in some situations, I would be hesitant to totally agree. On balance, as Pryor’s rejection of the word seems to indicate, the implications of nigger are overwhelmingly negative. [3]

Consider an excerpt from The Last Poets, Niggers Are Scared of Revolution:

Niggers are scared of revolution but niggers shouldn’t be scared of revolution because revolution is nothing but change, and all niggers do is change. Niggers come in from work and change into pimping clothes to hit the street to make some change. Niggers change their hair from black to red to blond and hope like hell their looks will change. Niggers kill other niggers just because one did not receive the correct change… Niggers shoot dope into their arms. Niggers shoot guns and rifles on New Year’s Eve… Where are niggers when the revolution needs some shot? …you know, niggers are somewhere shooting the sh__. Niggers are scared of revolution.

Despite the fact that The Last Poets end this piece by saying “I love niggers because niggers are me…” that affectionate usage hides troubling connotations. For example, in the passage we quoted above, the word is associated with cowardice, inconsistency, pimping, self-hatred, murder, drug addiction, reckless behavior, and idleness. The fact that we love our people is not expressed by describing them, even in an affectionate context, with a word that embodies all of the negativity our oppressor has stereotypically used to attempt to dehumanize us. Maintaining that association between the word and its negative meanings does nothing to ward off the internalization of those meanings. To rephrase the passage from The Last Poets, it is as if they are saying, “We love you cowardly, inconsistent, pimping, self-hating, strung out, reckless, idle niggers.”

At another level, as has been pointed out by one astute commentator, The Last Poets were trying to point out the futility of a call for external change by people who could not change themselves internally. I do not deny this. I only quote from the poem here to point out that even in most artistic communication the word nigger/nigga is associated with negativity.

These sorts of overwhelmingly negative associations appear in the usages of the word by comedians after Pryor. An example of this is a skit by Chris Rock in which he declares, “I love black people, but I hate niggers.” Rock goes on to mention a series of negative associations evoked by the term “nigger.” For example:

You can’t put anything in your house. Why? Because the niggers who live next door will break in, take it all, and then come over the next day and go, “We heard you got robbed.” [4]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s as rap music began moving from a genre dominated by consciousness-raising or fun-filled party music towards thuggish gangster rap, nigger/nigga became increasingly common. This development was epitomized by the emergence of NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitude). While many argue that the gangster rappers were only articulating realities that already exist within the African American community, such as gang-life, violence, prison, illegitimate births, and the use of the word nigger/nigga, it has been my contention that these groups have helped to popularize much of the negativity they so glibly describe as the realities of urban life. While the themes they rap about have always been present in urban inner-city communities, they have historically been confined to a small minority. They were identified with low-life and criminal elements and were not presented as glamorized norms to be openly adopted by masses of young people. I would argue that the popularization of the degenerate behavior, nihilism, misogyny, violence, and thug culture involved in messages put forth by gangster rap is summarized in a single term—“nigger/nigga,” and the popularization of both the word and the types of behavior it evokes goes hand in hand.

In my opinion, it is difficult to associate any positive usages with the term due to what George Lakoff, and others, refers to as framing. In other words, once a word, phrase, or idea has become associated with a particular cognitive frame, using that word in any context, negatively or positively, only supports the established frame. [5] For example, now that Muslims have become so overwhelmingly identified with terrorism in this country, there is no way to break that association—working within the prevailing frame. Hence, when we declare, “Muslims are not terrorists!” It only reinforces the prevailing frame, because in the mind of the listener it reinforces the linkage between Muslims and terrorism, by evoking the dominant terms in that particular frame. All the listener tends to hear are the terms, “Muslim” and “terrorist.”

In order to change a particular cognitive frame, we have to change the terms associated with it. Thus, if we want to productively discuss the issue of Islam and terrorism, we would have to reframe the issue as involving, for example, a discussion of Islam and political violence. By utilizing this new frame we are not limited by the association of Muslims with terrorism. We could not only discuss the issue of Islam and political violence (which includes terrorism) without evoking the negativity associated with a particular cognitive frame, but we would also have a neutral frame that allows us to discuss other forms of religious and political violence in a comparative sense.

To return to the term “nigger,” so much negativity has been associated with that word for so long that it would be very difficult to use it in a way that did not evoke negative stereotypes. Here many contemporary analysts would say that the term has indeed been appropriated by our youth and rendered into a positive term meaning, friend, partner, etc. This is true up to a point. If one were to look deeper and ask about the qualities that render a person suitable to be someone’s “nigga” one would find that they are overwhelmingly negative. Hence, though the term may mean “friend” in some circles, what are the qualities that render a “friend” a “nigga?”

Are the African American youth who are excelling in school the ones being described as someone’s “nigga?” They might be derisively attacked in terms such as “That nigger acts like he’s white,” but they will not be affectionately referred to as anyone’s “nigga.” Are the kids working two part-time jobs and going to school full-time being described as someone’s “nigga?” I think not. Are the children who avoid the parties, drugs, alcohol and other vices snaring so many of our youth being referred to as someone’s “nigga?” Based on my experiences they are not.

Rather the one affectionately referred to as someone’s “nigga” is the “cool” kid selling the drugs, chasing the girls, sagging his pants, smoking the weed, gang-banging and showing no commitment to or understanding of the value of discipline, education, or history? The “nigga” is the young person we see behaving so utterly embarrassingly in pubic. As Beanie Sigel puts it, “I’ma ride with my niggas, die with my niggas, get high with my niggas…” He is saying that he is going into gang warfare with his friends, die with them in the battle if necessary, get high with them, etc. It would difficult if not impossible to find anyone saying, by way of example, “I’ma go to med school with my niggas, respect my lady with my niggas, rebuild my community with my niggas….”

As the term has become popularized among our youth, so too has its association with the types of negative behavior mentioned above. An increasingly large number of our children, especially our young men, want to be a stereotypical “nigga,” which in many instances involves behavior that the whites who scathingly transformed the term into the ultimate insult meant for it to define.

The increasingly widespread use of the term among our youth involves a seductive illusion of empowerment. Seductive because it is so accessible, illusionary because it does nothing to meaningfully change the basis of the negative stereotypes associated with the word, or to encourage the characteristics that are needed to meaningfully enhance a young person’s chances of empowering themselves in this society. Rather, in a backhanded way, it serves to undermine the path to real empowerment.

As Muslims we understand that words form the basis of our ethical universe. This is so because words and the meanings they convey move our consciousness beyond the realm of physicality and into the realm of meaning, which in turn constitutes the foundation of our ability to think ethically. Hence, God mentions in the Qur’an:

Have you not seen how God presents the parable of a good word, it is like a good tree, it roots are firmly rooted [in the ground] and its branches extend towards heaven. It brings forth its fruit during every season by permission of its Lord. Thus does God present parables to people in order that they are reminded. And the parable of a vile word is like a vile tree, it is easily uprooted from the surface of the earth; it has no anchorage. (14:24-26)

Words in this regard are part of the forces that engender a healthy human consciousness in us. Furthermore, individual words do not stand alone, in terms of the reality they define. They are part of a system of meaning that informs a conceptual worldview. In affirming the acceptability or even the desirability of freely using the term “nigger” we are not endorsing a single term, we are endorsing a verbal culture that collectively works to dehumanize our youth. For example, popularizing the term “nigga’” has been accompanied by the enhanced acceptability and widespread usage of bi_, ho’ (whore), dog, motherf__, sh__ and a host of other terms that historically were associated with vulgar language. Collectively, they are part of an integrated culture characterized by nihilism, hedonism, self-hatred, and an increasingly alienated disconnection from mainstream society.

God declares in the Qur’an, You are the best people raised up to benefit humanity. You enjoin the right, forbid the wrong and believe in God. (3:110) Enjoining right and forbidding wrong are part of the mission of the Muslims. Doing so requires a well-established standard of right and wrong. Part of the effort to undermine religion lies in the undermining of revealed or widely accepted moral standards. In the ensuing confusion, many things long held to be blameworthy and in many instances almost universally condemned become acceptable. Illegitimate children, foul language, uncouth and slothful comportment, open displays of sexual affection (both heterosexual and homosexual) and sloppy dressing have all become acceptable or even encouraged behavior, as we move ever further down a slippery slope in what amounts to a moral race to the bottom.

The elimination of moral prohibitions and taboos is part of the process of unraveling a society’s ethical universe. Once prohibitions and taboos are no longer accepted society looses its basis for an objective moral standard. Eliminating prohibitions surrounding the indiscriminate use of the word “nigger,” in the African American context, are part of a larger moral unraveling. As Muslims, we simply should not be part of that process.

The rap star, Nas, recently said that he wants to encourage the use of the word “nigger” because today’s youth do no know anything about Medgar Evers. If we analyze this statement, we can see the latent danger it hides. In essence Nas is saying, “History has no meaning in the life of a people.” The fact that people died because they refused to accept being labeled or acting like a “nigger” is apparently of no consequence to Nas. The fact that the people who murdered Medgar Evers derisively referred to him as a “nigger” is of no consequence to Nas. The fact that he is wittingly or unwittingly encouraging our youth to forget the pain and suffering associated with the term is apparently of no consequence to Nas.

Before going further in this discussion, I will mention a few incidents that demonstrate the depth of the pain and humiliation associated with the term.

When Charles McLaurin, an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was jailed in Columbia, Mississippi, a patrolman asked him, “Are you a Negro or a nigger?” When McLaurin responded, “Negro,” another patrolman hit him in the face. When he gave the same reply to the same question, McLaurin was again beaten. Finally, asked the question a third time, he answered, “I am a nigger.” At that point the first patrolman told him to leave and warned, “If I ever catch you here again I’ll kill you.”

As a child the playwright August Wilson stopped going to school for a while after a series of notes were left in his desk by white classmates. The notes read: “Go home nigger.”

Michael Jordan was suspended from school for hitting a white girl who called him “nigger” during a fight over a seat on a school bus in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Brenda Woodford wrote that in the predominantly middle-class community where she grew up, little boys on bicycles would constantly encircle her, chanting, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”

On the verge of breaking Babe Ruth’s record for most career home runs, Hank Aaron received hundreds of “Dear Nigger” hate letters. Here is a sampling of them:

Dear Black Boy,
Listen Black Boy, we don’t want no nigger Babe Ruth.

Dear Mr. Nigger,
I hope you don’t break the Babe’s record. How can I tell my kids that a nigger did it?

Dear Nigger,
You can hit all dem home runs over dem short fences, but you can’t take dat black off yo face.

Dear Nigger,
You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth… [6]

To cut our youth off from this history is to do them a tremendous disservice, for it is to deny them knowledge of where they came from, and the sacrifices made by others to make it possible for them to live a dignified existence. It is said that a people who do not know where they came from do not know where they are going. Is it any wonder we find so many empty souls aimlessly wandering down the byways of life? Drifting without anchors. And the parable of a vile word is like a vile tree, it is easily uprooted from the surface of the earth; it has no anchorage. (14:26)

As Muslims we believe in the value of tradition as an indispensable link with the past that provides the foundation upon which to build the future. One of the fundamental teachings of our religion is following the established tradition (Sunnah) of our Prophet, peace upon him, and the tradition of his rightly guided successors. A people who have been cut off from their tradition lack such a foundation. Without a foundation they will never build a meaningful future. By refusing to challenge the dehumanization of our youth, which in my view includes the widespread use of the word “nigger/nigga,” we are refusing to challenge the forces that are cutting them off from the traditions of their ancestors. By so doing, we are effectively contributing to denying them a meaningful future. In my opinion, this is an untenable position for a Muslim.

In conclusion, a Muslim should be a person who inspires hope and not one who affirms despair. Real hope for the legions of African American youth in this country lies in instilling in them a vision for the future predicated on their self worth and true human potential, and built on the sacrifices of those who preceded them. For Muslims to endorse the bitter fruits of an ill-conceived status quo that finds its expression in a nihilistic, destructive popular culture, epitomized by the widespread use of the term “nigger,” is a severe dereliction of our duty as benefactors, and an abandonment of the positive social role Islam has played historically in the African American community.


[1] In this letter, Dr. King makes his famous statement, “When your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John…” See

[2] Quoted in Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 155-156
[3] Tupac’s inconsistency on the issue of the positivity or negativity of “nigga” is illustrative of a general trend in his work. Despite his mentioning that nigga means “never ignorant…” elsewhere he glorifies stereotypical “nigga” behavior. He says, for example:

I roll with a crew of zoo niggaz
They’re quick to pull a nine when it’s time to do niggaz…
Roll me a blunt and pass the brew nigga…
Before I go broke I’ll be a drug dealer, thug nigga…

[4] Quoted in Kennedy, 36.
[5] For a concise discussion of issues related to framing see George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT, 2004).
[6] This series of quotes can be found in Kennedy, 17-20.