Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.

8 Replies to “Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future”

  1. Salaams:

    Thank you for sharing as always.

    It is time for my African-American brothers and sisters to take their places of Leadership in our Ummah. Indigenous Muslims are the last hope for inspiration in this Ummah. If we continue to think it is elsewhere, I can bear witness it is not.

    It is not in the lands of Arabia where people are confused about their deen and trading it for Fendi, Chanel and Gucci. Where many people continue to be illiterate in a language that has been used to Lord over indigenous believers. And it is not in the other cultures of brothers and sisters abroad who do not understand or have concern for this immediate community.

    The time is overdue, the time is now. You must stand up and take your places. Stop letting others define you and determine your fate and image. Do not be unassured of your self. The leadership we need is within you and we need it now.

    Wa salaam,

    Sr. Heather

  2. I agree with what Sister Heather stated. Unfortunatly alot of Immigrat Muslims are to concerned with chasing the “american dream” (obtaining a fancy job title,living in the suburbs,etc) and failed to work on problems that effect the community (Muslim & Kataabiyyah). We already are seeing decreases in people turning towards Islam and increases in apostasy from Islam.Mainly due to Immigrat Muslims bad behavior and forcing their culture/tradition upon muslim converts. We as indigeous Muslim have unique perspective to what and how Islam should be directed towards in the US.Only when we take leadership roles in Masajid and Islamic organizations will Islam be upon thr right path.If we don’t then there is very good possiblity Sunni Islam will go the way of buddhism in this country. A religion most have heard something about but very few people practice.


  3. Sister Heather, thank you for the input and reading the post. It is my hope as well that a desperately needed Blackamerican leadership will emerge. One that is centered in the Black Experience here in American, with all of its variations and themes.

    Hamza – salaams. I also appreciated you comments. I have a few of my own.

    Unfortunatly alot of Immigrat Muslims are to [sic] concerned with chasing the “american dream” (obtaining a fancy job title, living in the suburbs, etc) and failed to work on problems that effect the community (Muslim & Kataabiyyah).

    Hamza – for many of the immigrant Muslims you’ve mentioned, all the things contained within that “dream” were issues for immigrant Muslims. From their background and point of view, education and economic prosperity were a number one priority [and I can’t fault them for that]. As for the “problems that effect the community”, this is where I’ve said before, we must split from this unity-masquerading-as-uniformity paradigm. To put it plainly, immigrant Muslims got their own agenda, and we got ours. And I don’t see any issues with that. In fact, I believe this is a more realistic, existential approach to address our communities. We may be one Ummah, but we all have lived vastly different experiences and those experiences cannot be sacrificed or jettisoned for the sake of some imagined, globalized “Ummah”. Ironically, many black folks in America have been trying to achieve that very same “dream” – only now, we as Blackamerican Muslims, often fall prey to our own recidivistic protest spirit, attempt to veil and cloak our own insecurities in religious garb [though non-Muslims blacks also make similar claims but instead call it “white”]. There is certainly nothing wrong [religious, secular or otherwise] with having a fancy job, title, or living in the suburbs [would city/urban living make this more palatable?]. In fact, many of us wouldn’t object in a heart beat if that fancy job/title could buy us a ticket to Hajj, give real, life changing donations to sadaqah/charity. Many of our issues lie at this crossroads, and not at the altar of let’s-blame-the-immigrants. The fact that we’re in this position speaks to a preexisting psychological condition, but on a social level, for black folks.

    We already are seeing decreases in people turning towards Islam and increases in apostasy from Islam.Mainly due to Immigrat Muslims bad behavior and forcing their culture/tradition upon muslim converts.

    Take heart, Hamza. We should not get caught up in a numbers game when it comes to conversion rates and statistics. And as far as apostasy goes, this is something that has become a public spectacle, filled with hyperbole and fascination. A sort of “performance”. What we must do is prepare [and at this stage, it’s more like triage] a system of authority and validation so that we as Blackamericans can “get over the hump” as I described to one friend about shrugging off the “back of the camel” syndrome, and get back to being ourselves and addressing our past, our present, and our future. In sha’ Allah, we can work to be a part of that process.

  4. And in the words of MY historical memory, “Go head brotha”! It is well overdue for Blackamerican Muslims to synthesize a set of common realities even though there will of course be variations and thematic differences. Currently, the problem lies in the fact that we aren’t working toward that and all too often it is out of fear and ignorance. There are so many of us who failed to recognize the many maladies we are faced with and only scratch the surface of Islam in seeking solutions. A lot of this has to do with interpretation. Some of it has to do with negating what other establishments have done. As I visit many blogs similar to your’s I come across both Muslims from the traditional Muslim world and those who have ignorantly subscribed to their world-views blasting the authors for casting off false universals. “Chasing the American Dream” for Blackamericans may very well be a right that we haven’t realized yet. I am personally sick of an Islam that suggests Blackamerican Muslims (or others) can’t live well. We simply need to adjust our lenses which is easier said than done.

  5. “It is well overdue for Black American Muslims to synthesize a set of common realities even though there will of course be variations and thematic differences.” Charles

    Salaamu alaikum Brothers & Sisters

    I have been reading Br. Abdur-Rahman blog, Tariq Nelson’s blog, Manila [sic], and others for some time now. I have some concerns and questions I’d like to put out there.

    Br. Charles the statement I’ve highlighted concerns me, so please feel free to correct me, if I’ve misunderstood.

    1- In particular I’m concerned with this part of your statement: ” there will of course be variations and thematic differences.” Charles.

    See, this is where things get shaky for me. I did NOT convert to Islam to get married, join a national or politic movement, nor did I convert to Islam becuase I saw it as just one of many paths to get to G-d. In my opinion, there is no point to being a Muslim, if this is going to be the case.

    I see a change is on the way alhamdulillah. But can some body please tell me, will the creed of Islam, prayer, and hijab be thrown out in favor of black nationalism? That’s kind of what I’m getting from these blogs?

    If some one is strict about guarding their prayer, or dedicated to the unity of G-d, or wears hijab, are we all going to be perceived as being self hating or having low self-esteem?

    I’ve heard talk like this before, and the first thing to go is the salah. I’m concerned about that.

    I’d also like to clarify a statement I just made about not seeing Islam as just one of many paths to G-d.
    I have not found any other din that accepts the Unity of G-d with out associates sharing divinity, lordship, omnipotence and accepts the Rasool sws as the last Prophet, there fore, I don’t see Islam as just another way out of many. Hope that made sense.

    Another comment I wanted to make is the steroptyping of sisters who wear hijab as being salafi’s who are living off welfare, and have let dozens of men run through them like water, and are uneducated. I think that’s an unfair assumption, and I personally know many black sisters who are quite the opposite.

    Thank you.

  6. Working sister, who is promoting these stereotypes against hijabed sisters? What blogs are outright attacking people who practice their faith? What you are getting from these blogs is very different from what I’m reading.
    None of the mentioned bloggers made negative claims that women who wear hijab are self hating.
    Also, why do you leave out the “o” from God? That seems more like a throw back from Judaism and it is not reflective of Islamic traditions.

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