In watching a recent speech by Dr. Sherman Jackson, it was interesting to note his pointing out of the authority crisis with American Muslims. This is also a topic that he has pointed out in his book, Islam and the BlackAmerican as well as in other speeches he’s given. It would seem that this is indeed one of the most important topics relating to Islam here in the “West”. As American Muslims strive to gain their own voices, part of that struggle will entail determining how and who has authority to speak on religion. So – who is on first?
When I first took shahadah, I was taught my Islam by fellow Blackamerican Muslims who were in fact trying to live out their religious lives as 20th Century bedouins in the greater Detroit area. They sought to validate their Islam by foreign (more specifically, Arab) standards. The thawbes were donned. The kufis and kifayyah as well. We were dressed and ready to cross the Empty Quarter on camel-back. Anything that might appear to be Western was tossed out of consideration. To be American, to be Western, was almost the same as committing religious apostasy. Thank God that times they did ‘a change (for us, at least)!
There can be many reasons associated with this interpretation of Islam. As I have heard Jackson put it before, many of “us” (Blackamericans) were looking for validation. This can be seen in the few Blackamerican Muslims who went overseas to “study the deen”. Out of the vast majority of these blacks who went to Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan or Pakistan, very few completed their studies in any formal way. But what it did do, in their minds and perhaps even more importantly in the minds of their fellow American counterparts who didn’t go, is it gave them a “stamp of authenticity”. It gave them a connection to this grand history, a history of when Islam shaped the happenings of the world. And now, because they went over seas where “real Islam” exists, they’re now a part of that history. Of course, this in no way connotes that fact that they completed their studies. Few came back with degrees or certificates. But degree or no, in their communities, they were idealized and garnered new levels of respect.
One of Jackson’s other points is the effect that literacy has had on this phenomenon. In pre-modern times, few people had access to books – to vast, literate amounts of knowledge. So in a way, this kept the number of people who could have authority on the religion to a smaller number. But now, in the modern, literate world, bolstered by the Information Highway, many, many times that number of people have access to religious texts, can formulate their own opinions and can readily share it with the rest of the world. This, combined with a collapse of a defined system of who can and cannot speak on the religion has led to a authority crisis.
So what has to happen? Where do we proceed to from here? How can we create an organized system that develops intelligent people, with appropriate backgrounds and educations, to speak authoritatively on Islam? I’m curious for your thoughts.