American Muslims and American Civic Religion

Civil Religion as defined by Robert Bellah: a set of rituals, symbols and beliefs which were institutionally separate, but partly derived, nevertheless, from organized religion. According to Bellah, American civil religion had two main origins: one religious in nature, the other secular. To be more precise, Bellah based his understanding on the theological leanings of the Puritans as well as the republicanism of America’s Founding Founders. Bellah’s assumption, as late as the 1970’s, was that American civil religion was defunct and run aground.

There are a number of scholars and thinkers who think that civil religion has not gone the way of the Dodo but has in fact, remained alive, if however sickly it may be. For me, the argument of what state it is in is less pertinent to the issue of American Muslims than the fact that it is still there. So what can this mean for American Muslims? If we can take Bellah’s clause of “institutionally separate” in tandem with “from organized religion”, we can see an opportunity or indeed, an opening for American Muslims to participate in civil society. Many of the objections I have heard over the years from my fellow Muslims is that this is a “Christian nation”; I hear their objections but I cannot accept their validity. To get straight to the point, if American civil religion is indeed institutionally separate, then there is no reason why creative and talented Muslims cannot find a way to also lend their voice to the hyphenated-American experience. In other words, if “Judeo-Christian nation” can apply, why not “Judeo-Christian-Muslim nation”?

Continuing in this manner, as Philip Gorski writes, “religious and political communities should be coterminous”. American Muslims should be thinking of ways in which they can share those borders of the religio-public and political spheres of their fellow Americans. Gorksi adds that, “For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism”. The last two items echo harmoniously with much of the quasi-liberal American Muslim community, a rumination that has gained ground even amongst some neo-conservative/neo-traditionalist voices [this author being mildly included amongst them], to see that civic engagement is one of the main life lines through which American Muslims can move from the margins into the mainstream of American cultural thought and life. In fact, I would argue that using the conduit of civic religion to participate in American civic life is akin to how Blackamericans used the Constitution itself as a means of overturning state-legitimized terror, forcing America to allow Blackamericans to be full participants in society. The time for Puritanical disengagement of society has long passed, and now it only remains to be seen if American Muslims will rise to meet this challenge; a challenge that, while fraught with the danger of losing their religion, can no longer be ignored or indeed, tolerated.

14 Comments American Muslims and American Civic Religion

  1. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    As-Salaamu ‘alaykum Abu Noor. I will try and make myself a bit more clear, from which you are free to respond.

    Civil religion is meaningless religious symbolism to dress up economic or political interests.

    I don’t really see a problem with something being symbolic. What I am talking about here is using [dare I say, exploit] the conduit of civic religion for meeting the purposes and needs of American Muslims. We are not the inventors of it, but surely we cannot ignore its existence, especially given it may provide American Muslims a much need avenue to engage the society that they live in.

    It is at its true roots, a form of nifaq, of making a claim that something is truly the most important thing while demonstrating through actions that one does not really believe that.

    I would prefer to distinguish the actor from the form. No doubt you are correct that a great many politicians misuse this public space, but I see no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    one has to preserve the ability to challenge the society even at its deepest core.

    Absolutely. And what could be a better platform to do so than in the public sphere, engaging it, not sitting on the sidelines or worse, in the bleachers, complaining about how the game is played. I believe that this point, the ability to “challenge the society” will be one of the most difficult things American Muslims can strive to do; it will also be one of the most beneficial actions any constituent can do for its society.

    This is an ability one loses when one buys completely into the civil religion paradigm.

    I’m not sure what you mean by completely buying into civic religion. I am of course not advocating for substituting what is called civic religion [Bellah’s term] for real religion: Islam.

    adopting the American civil religion is surely surely [sic] not the answer

    Again, I am not sure what you fully intend by “adopting” civic religion. I am stating that there exists a public space called civic religion, which is free of institutional domination, that I believe offers us an opportunity to step out from the margins and behave like we ought to: real citizens of this country and not as a people with a self-esteem or self-inflicted inferiority complex. I do not believe that by participating in civic religion American Muslims will somehow lose themselves any more than when the Prophet [s] engaged in something very similar to this in Madinah. After all, he [s] went there upon invitation to settle a political dispute. In fact, the Prophet engaged in a number of activities that were not strictly “Islamic” but were rather culturally Arab. And he used them to great benefit such that he [s] could complete his mission as well as secure the continuity of his fledgling community.

    American civil religion is one of the distasteful aspects of American religion and of America generally. Muslims must stand clearly distinct from American civil religion.

    I think perhaps you are blending flavors here. I am not sure if you read Bellah’s article, but I would recommend you doing so. I wrote nothing of American religion; is there one? There is Christianity and Catholicism, Judaism and Islam as well as many other religions, but I am not aware of any such religion titled “American religion” in and of itself. And I see nothing quite so distasteful about having a platform for American Muslims to express their sincere morality in a public sphere. This is precisely what Gorksi wrote: “For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism”. Can we really afford to turn our backs on this?

    I continue to maintain that the electoral arena, especially for a small community with a prophetic mission is the worst place for American Muslims to engage.

    I would counter that 7th century Arabia was most certainly amongst the worst and most difficult of settings to carry out a prophetic mission of Divine Unity [tawhīd]. And that is exactly the spot that God chose to send His Prophet [s] – into the lion’s den of idolatry and superstition. Can the American social landscape be any worse than what he [s] faced?

    There are plenty of other aspects of American civil society where engagement is more possible while maintaining authenticity and more potentially beneficial.

    I cannot see how engaging in civic religion will taint my or our authenticity. When the Prophet [s] made his concessions at the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, when Quraysh refused to acknowledge him as Rasuwl Allah [God’s Messenger], and he agreed to write, Muhammad Ibn Abduallah instead, did this countermand his authenticity as either Prophet, Muslim, or Arab? I think not. If you can provide me with other examples, I would welcome your suggestions.

  2. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    As salaamu ‘alaykum,

    The problem with civil religion is it subordinates the prophetic aspect of any authentic religion to the interests of the state. This is why Blackamerican religion has always been a form of protest religion outside of the mainstream American civil religion. No matter how much Americans of all kinds may like to listen to Gospel music or claim MLK as an American hero MLK’s message must be modified and cleansed to become an acceptable part of the American civil religion. It is why Barack Obama had to disavow Black religion when the mainstream saw the tapes of Rev. Jeremiah Wright broadcast on Fox News. Civil religion is meaningless religious symbolism to dress up economic or political interests. It is at its true roots, a form of nifaq, of making a claim that something is truly the most important thing while demonstrating through actions that one does not really believe that.

    I have never been one to advocate disengagement from society. But one has to preserve the ability to challenge the society even at its deepest core. This is an ability one loses when one buys completely into the civil religion paradigm. This is the lizard’s hole which American Muslims cannot go down.

    By the way, of course many Muslims in their own lands practice Islam as a form of cultural religion or civil religion, stripped of its prophetic aspect.

    Alhamdulillah being in the US, for all its faults, in a society with freedom to practice and teach one’s religion and being a minority gives us a chance to really formulate an Islamic expression for our time and place that is meaningful. True we’ve made mistakes in the past, I’m sure we’ll make more, but adopting the American civil religion is surely surely not the answer.

    Allaah Knows Best.

  3. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    I softpedaled my comment a little bit because I am not entirely sure what you are advocating or that I disagree with that, but let me be more clear regarding civil religion: American civil religion is one of the distasteful aspects of American religion and of America generally. Muslims must stand clearly distinct from American civil religion.

    I don’t draw the conclusion from this that apparently some people draw that Muslims cannot participate in American civil society however.

    America actually has many participants in civil society who reject American civil religion, however the arena in which people find it most difficult to do so is the electoral arena.

    I continue to maintain that the electoral arena, especially for a small community with a prophetic mission is the worst place for American Muslims to engage. There are plenty of other aspects of American civil society where engagement is more possible while maintaining authenticity and more potentially beneficial.

  4. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Abu Noor – I do not believe we are “just talking past each other”. I think we’re opposed on the validity of American Muslims participating in civic religion [the purpose of my post].

    must of your points are not relevant to my position

    I think my points are quite relevant and spoke to each one in turn. Because I disagree does not mean I do not grasp your argument.

    I think it was precisely the Prophet (saw)’s refusal to engage in the civil religion equivalency [sic] of his time and place with Quraysh that forced him to first make hijra from his birthplace

    I would disagree – it was not his [s] refusal, but the fact that Mecca had become so hostile that bodily harm was the major concern, not a refusal of engaging in the society at the time. And let me make something clear here. The word “religion” is such a charged word [no doubt Bellah understood this as well], that using it in any context outside of ibadāt, in regards to Muslims, makes it exceedingly difficult to make use of the word. For clarity sake again, I am not advocating for another form of Revelation-based religion alongside Islam, but rather a form of civic engagement that has religious overtones. Overtones that, being “institutionally separate”, allows for Muslims to put their own stamp of Islamicity on it in the same way that Christians or Jews do so in this public act.

    it is actually not in my nature to try to emphasize the relatively narrow circumstances in which the Prophet (saw) was forced to use techniques like violent self defense or rejection and resistance to his society

    The Prophet [s] resistance fought against idolatry, not society. Islam was not the Cuban Revolution of 7th century Arabia, nor was he Che Guevara or any other such similar figure. There is a real tendency in modern-day Muslims to portray the Prophet and Islam as a revolutionary enterprise of some sort. It is no coincidence that Muslims of the last 100 years were attracted to Marxist and quasi-Marxist rhetoric of the 20th century.

    When I feel those aspects of the seerah are being purposely avoided while other aspects are continously [sic] emphasized, I do feel the need to bring them to the conversation.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Another common characteristic of such modern-day thinking is to render everything an abstract universal. The Sunnah thus becomes intangible, and even unobtainable by making it so elusive. My analysis does not ignore any such elements but rather looks for opportunities, which is in and of itself a very strong characteristic of the Prophet’s [s] mission which is seldom highlighted; sign a treaty here, marry a woman from a certain tribe there to solidify the Muslims’ standing. One of my perennial criticisms of such strains of thought as this is that the Sunnah becomes only a treasure hunt – there is nothing organic or evolutionary about. That is why it can only be revolutionary for such thinkers. If my analysis says anything at all about me, it would be that I look to the Prophetic model and all it has to offer us. It takes more than putting one’s shoe on the right foot first before the left to embody the Sunnah. It also takes a certain degree of creativity to thinking in a Prophetic model; a “what would Muhammad [s] do” type of model comes to mind.

  5. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    I don’t think the personally provocative nature of your post is helpful.

    My post was written for the general public – not a personal attack on anyone in particular. I also attempted to make my responses to the post as dispassionate as possible. I welcomed and still do welcome your feedback and criticism. I just stand my ground on what I wrote.

    I will assume that you are perceiving my own contributions in the same way and that this is the reason you chose to adopt that tone.

    You seem to have difficulty in me disagreeing with you. There is nothing I can do about that. I made no personal attack on you and stated openly that I welcomed your feedback. I would suggest reflecting on what was written and what I wrote in response and I think you’ll see that I was fair-handed. I disagreed with you, but that in no way should be interpreted that I “have something against you”.

    To the extent you find Che Guevara relevant to our conversation we are indeed talking past each other.

    I used Che as means of making my point more clear. I found that some of the reasoning behind your arguments contains common ground with the point that I was making.

    To me the result in politics is Barack Obama getting almost unanimous support from Blackamericans and Muslims and progressives while Black America is in a depression, more money than ever before is being spent on the military, and the U.S. is fighting Muslims in at least five countries.

    None of the above, for me, precludes the necessity to be socially and civically involved.

    My sincere advice to you as someone who obviously has many creative and intellectual gifts is not to use your creativity in thinking about the Prophetic Model as a way of justifying the status quo.

    I think you project a scope onto my argument which is simply not there. What I am talking about has nothing to do with giving license to some perceived agenda, but rather making the most use of the opportunities we have in this country. A use that is based on the example of the Prophet [s] that has the potential to reap benefits for not only American Muslims, but for changing the tone of public discourse on policies that affect Muslims around the globe.

  6. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    I think again, you miss the nature of the scope of my argument. Nothing there advocates for “deism”. I would draw your attention back to the original article, keeping in mind the scope of what I am calling for – not adding to it which is not there.

  7. Marc

    I am not advocating withdrawal from society

    I never said you were. You don’t have to keep defending yourself on that point. It is understood. I am not attacking you.

    my advice to you is stop wasting your time

    With all due respect, I write because it’s what I do. I have deemed it a worthy cause. If it does not resonate with you, then perhaps you should examine how your time is spent. While you may have meant that comment in the spirit of brotherhood, I don’t feel I am deserving of such blunt treatment.

    the number of people actually ideologically opposed to any engagement is virtually zero

    Have you spent any time in Philadelphia, or Detroit for that matter? Man…, I got stories for you! But in all seriousness, the number is far from zero, and it is to that apathy and dysfunction that I speak.

    for the last ten years, it would seem the majority of the time of both up and coming and established American Muslim thinkers has gone to repeating ad nauseam the same call to and justifications for engagement

    Maybe we’re repeating much of the same motifs because we, as a collective whole, just ain’t got it yet. How many times did the Prophet [s] have to say la ilaha illa Allah, before the people got it?

    Let us move on to figuring out the contours of that engagement, please!

    I empathize with you here. I too would like to “move on” or at least stop milling around in the same quagmire. Yet, there is no shortcut to doing what is mandated for us. Until we “do the right thing”, I do not think Allah will move any of the chess pieces on the board for us. But it is high time for a conversation on those “contours of engagement”.

    perhaps you are calling for changing American civil religion through our participation

    Change is a heavy word. I would say, let’s get involved, with earnestness and God-consciousness, and see what we can produce. Perhaps there will be a change. Perhaps we, as a moral community, can demonstrate to the world that you needn’t be hypocritical to be involved in politics and society. We have a chance to show not only a different side of Islam, but a different side of being American, based on the morals and ethics of the Prophet and our Holy Book. I have made it publicly known that I am a moral and ethical conservative. My post on Irshad Manji demonstrates that. I have no need of deism; I have Islam. And there is no substitute. What I am calling for and looking at are avenues in which we can get off the sidelines and into the game. Civic religion is just one street on the map. It is not Dracula’s garlic, but I’m also not willing to toss out a perfectly good condiment.

  8. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    If I have more time I may try to respond, but as I feared might happend, we’re just talking past each other. This is why I said originally I wasn’t sure that I disagreed with what you were calling for because I wasn’t sure what that was.

    (As I made explicit in my original comment) I am not now nor have I ever advocated seclusion from society so must of your points are not relevant to my position.

    I think it was precisely the Prophet (saw)’s refusal to engage in the civil religion equivalency of his time and place with Quraysh that forced him to first make hijra from his birthplace and then to fight militarily against his own people.

    Unlike some voices in the Muslim community, it is actually not in my nature to try to emphasize the relatively narrow circumstances in which the Prophet (saw) was forced to use techniques like violent self defense or rejection and resistance to his society. When I feel those aspects of the seerah are being purposely avoided while other aspects are continously emphasized, I do feel the need to bring them to the conversation.

    While of course we have to determine exactly which aspects of the universal Prophetic example are relevant to our particular situation, any analysis (by you, me or anyone else) that appears to purposely ignore certain elements while playing up others ultimately (it seems to me) says more about the person doing the analysis than about the Prophetic example and what it teaches. Of course, the academic observer would declare that indeed all of us are choosing to use and interpret the Qur’an and Sunnah in a way that serves our own project. May Allaah (swt) help to purify our hearts and make us sincere.

    But you are right that we are definitely using the term civil religion somewhat differently (I guess I am with the critics of Bellah to which he alludes at the beginning of his piece).

    But I acknowledge that in order to really engage this discussion at a more meaningful level, I will have to outline with more care exactly what I understand to be the problematic aspects of American “civil religion” as well as exactly what type of participation in civil society I imagine for a “prophetic” Islam.

  9. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    I don’t think the personally provocative nature of your post is helpful. But I will assume that you are perceiving my own contributions in the same way and that this is the reason you chose to adopt that tone. So I will ask your forgiveness for whatever was inappropriate in my own comments, and again, abandon this particular conversation for now.

    To the extent you find Che Guevara relevant to our conversation we are indeed talking past each other.

    My sincere advice to you as someone who obviously has many creative and intellectual gifts is not to use your creativity in thinking about the Prophetic Model as a way of justifying the status quo. That is my precise fear of Muslims adopting or participating in civil religion.

    May Allaah bless you and your family.

    Your brother,

    Abu Noor

  10. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    Of course I know that this is not your intent…your intent would be to use that creative thinking as a way to practically and not just rhetorically, engage the society and bring about real change.

    I understand the nature of this thinking. Not so much in the political realm, but in other realms I do it all the time. It has its positives and negatives.

    To me the result in politics is Barack Obama getting almost unanimous support from Blackamericans and Muslims and progressives while Black America is in a depression, more money than ever before is being spent on the military, and the U.S. is fighting Muslims in at least five countries.

  11. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    I would also draw your attention to the widespread web discussion about moralistic therapeutic deism (set off in one incarnation by a piece by Damon Linker which I can’t locate — it’s not where it used to be).

    Moralistic therapeutic deism is a kind of civil religion which seems appropriate for a public sphere populated by many different religious perspectives. The point I would draw your attention to, however, is that participation in such a public civil religion inevitably influences one’s own theology, fiqh, etc. (Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but what I think is naive is the notion that one can adopt a “civil religion” that is then held separate from one’s “actual religion” which I guess is practiced in the private sphere and that the two can, or should, be kept hermetically separate.)

  12. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    Marc,

    I understand that you frame your comments with a larger audience in mind and by no means do I have a problem with disagreement. I do find it frustrating (as you do, see your last comment) when I’m engaged in a type of conversation with someone and yet they are responding to others out there rather than to what I am actually saying in front of them. But I guess I should just accept that is the nature of having a “public conversation” such as this.

    Again, I am not advocating withdrawal from society. To the extent your post is meant to counter such a position, my advice to you is stop wasting your time. While many in the American Muslim community may not be effective in their engagement with society due to apathy or other dysfunctions, the number of people actually ideologically opposed to any engagement is virtually zero. Yet, for the last ten years, it would seem the majority of the time of both up and coming and established American Muslim thinkers has gone to repeating ad nauseam the same call to and justifications for engagement. Let us move on to figuring out the contours of that engagement, please!

    Along those lines, therapeutic moral deism is the civil religion of America (at this time, it has not necessarily always been so). You are calling for participation in American civil religion. Now, perhaps you are calling for changing American civil religion through our participation. If so, our disagreement because somewhat semantic and somewhat a disagreement about what is actually possible within the framework of American civil religion and mainstream American politics more generally.

  13. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    I am sorry if you thought my wasting your time comment was harsh, akhee. The implication was not stop writing, but as I stated explicitly use your valuable time and skills solving real problems and debating real issues. Apathy and Ideological opposition to participation are contradictory phenomenon that should not be lumped together, although it is possible they feed off each other in some ways. To the extent there are people who still disagree with you, I would speculate that they’ve heard the message by now and there are reasons they disagree.

    If you feel you are engaging those people on this blog, may Allah reward you. What I bristle at is a phenomenon I repeatedly witness where people who all already agree on these points keep repeating the same thing with the same examples to each other. You are right that that is a common human phenomenon and there is nothing with reminders. But I think it is a problem when rhetoric, often directed at a small powerless group or at strawmen seems to be mistaken for action.

    Anyways, thanks for the conversation. I think we do better in live conversation then in internet style. I hope we can get together some time soon. As we examine the contours of our engagement, let us be very conscious of the way in which that participation is modifying our own understanding of Islam (as I said it could potentially do so in postive or negative ways but I reject any idea that the participation can be neutral towards or not affect our Islam)

    As for myself, I am no kind of conservative, maybe that’s part of our disagreement!

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