al-Hamdu lillah, this summer marks my 15th year as a Muslim. Where does the time go? I look back fondly now at my early days as a Muslim when ever encounter with another Muslim was filled with the excitement for something “new, fresh and unseen before”. Back then, the spirit seems a bit different than it does today. Many of us were simply after a system of morality and piety that we could feel good about. But as Bob Dylan put it, “The times they is ‘a changin'” – or in my case, changed.
Living in West Philadelphia, in Philadelphia at large, which last year, who’s murder rate topped four hundred, leading the nation, grounds one in reality. And that reality spells out to me that the majority of perpetrators and victims of those aforementioned crimes were of Black descent. So for me, the question begs the perennial answer, “when are the Muslims [and here I am talking to Blackamerican Muslims] going to address the situations that they live in and begin to use or at least steer Islam towards a direction where it can be used as a means of addressing these issues. In frank terms, what’s the point in having morality if it has no impact on your daily existence, if it in no way combats the evils that plague your environment? Fifteen years in to this enterprise and I’m still waiting for an answer.
I no way should this critique be taken as high-handed. As I stated, I live and work in this environment – I have a vested interest in its success. And in my opinion, I see great potential for Islam to not only have a positive impact on the lives of the Blackamerican Muslims who live here but in the greater non-Muslim populace as well. For those who initially might think such an exerted influence might be some sort of Utopian daydreaming, one need only look around at Black Culture in Philadelphia and see the lasting and continuing influence that Islam has on the Black conscious here – albeit mostly in fashion and perhaps a sort of protestant, protest attitude. The question is – why is this influence limited to such things as fashion? Is this the best thing that Islam has to offer [Dickies, ‘Tims, long beards, head scarves and the like?]?
I have written before that simply taking shahadah in no way connotes leaving one’s demographics. If you live in environment were violence is king; where drug trafficking and addiction is king; where homelessness is a concern; where teen pregnancy is a concern; where education [or lack there of] and economic prospects [or lack there of] is an issue, then recognizing Allah as your Lord and Master will not “magic wand” any of the above crises away. But instead of addressing any of these issues, I see an almost OCD-like condition amongst Muslims in their “pursuit of knowledge”. I cannot count the number of fliers and emails I have received inviting members of the community to come and “master the sciences of Hadith” or “mastering usul al-fiqh“. Make no mistake, these areas of knowledge are important and they have their place. But I find it hard to justify this type of “educational system” in light of a severe lack of real-life, secular education. Are the mastering of these sciences in anyway crucial to the survival of these communities? If one does not possess an education or a job [often the two go hand-in-hand] then in what way is mastering the science of Hadith going to serve your worldly purpose? There seems to be two factors at work here:  the misplaced emphasis cum desire on such knowledge and  the misplaced emphasis cum propagation of such studies. There needs to a be greater awareness on the part of the community to look critically at itself and deal with what’s most important. Likewise, the religious leaders also need to reassess what it is they’re teaching – is it of immediate, pertinent value? Unless the vast majority of people who plan to attend such classes and seminars are planning an academic career in Islamic Studies [which being that many have not gone beyond a high school education if that] then again, how is this justified? Instead, could we have a simple return to morality and piety?
This past fifteen years of “research” has shown me that the vast amounts of knowledge soaked up by these communities have done little to nothing at alleviating the above mentioned maladies. Rather, knowledge is used either as a blunt weapon, wielded against other “lesser informed” members of the community, to bludgeon people into submissiveness and conformity. Issues such as rape, domestic violence, or even just simple social responsibility [i.e., getting and maintaining a job and providing for one’s family] go conveniently unaddressed. Knowledge, as it is currently perceived, cannot be seen “‘fore the trees”. It amazes me how Muslims seem to both neglect and miss the simple yet profound piety of the Prophet Muhammad. “Sunnah” becomes a stun gun word, meant to shock and threaten the unaware that they might be rejecting the way of the Prophet. The Prophet’s example of manhood is also carelessly overlooked. Instead, such popular examples of ‘Umar ibn al Khattab are used. For in modern, hyper-masculine Black culture, the “imagined” ‘Umar, who told the leaders of Quraysh, “O Quraysh, if any of you wants his mother to lose a son, his wife to become a widow, and his children to become orphans, then let him meet me tomorrow after Fajr prayers behind this valley because I am migrating!” has captured the imagination of many Muslim men. This type of “John Wayne” persona finds a greater appeal in current times [curious, that other aspects of ‘Umar’s character, such as caring for the poor during his rule as Khalifa are systematically ignored] and yet, the Prophet Muhammad, who was neither overly aggressive nor large and imposing, like ‘Umar, was never seen by his enemies as a coward or, in modern parlance, a “chump”. So why is it that the Prophet is not looked to as an example for manhood? There is a great deal in all this psychology that warrants further examination and adjustment.
In a time when so many suffer from ills that could be combated with simple acts of piety and morality, it continues to baffle and disappoint. Not unlike those who long for knowledge, I too thirst for the ‘ilm – just I’m tired of being wait listed for Islam 201.
And God knows best.