Converts Are Not Unicorns

Convert. What a word, right? They say a picture is worth a thousand of them. So what’s a word worth? While I may not be able to give you any concise answer to that question I can tell you this: converts are not unicorns.

Of course I’m talking about people who chose to be Muslim and make-believe, fantastical creatures. The stuff of legends. And like most legends they are composed mainly of the substance of which we lend to them. But unlike a magical beast, my substances are very much comprised of normal, mundane human material. And that’s what I’d like to address here: it’s not that converts to Islam are no better and no worse than those born to the religion, but that we are different while having the same struggles.

Sing with me if you’ve heard the jingle, “Ma sha’Allah, you guys are so much better than us. We were only born Muslim. You guys chose this!” If only I could go on Hajj for every time this phrase has hunted me down like a bail bondsman. This idiom, at first blush, sounds innocuous. Why it might even be misconstrued as a complement. But at its heart are some fundamentally disturbing issues.

One: it gives the impression that born-Muslims have no choice in their Islam. I’ve always wondered, at the back of my mind, is this person saying, “I’d be outta here if mom and dad weren’t looking”. Dude – you want me to distract the guards while you make a run for it? Dark humor aside, these Muslims have just as much choice as converts do. In fact, my Islam could be thought as nothing more than a string of commitments, strung together, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, no different than any born-Muslim. I have to keep waking up at 5am and praying, or abstain from free-sex, happy hour, etc. For once upon a time, I was sleeping in—everyday if you can believe it!—until 7am during weekdays and at least until noon on the weekends, engaging in commitment free sexual relations, and getting that much needed stress relief through alcohol consumption. <sarcasm>Clearly you born-Muslims are just running on autopilot.</sarcasm> Or do you really want me to distract the guards?

Two: because I have conviction it is assumed I no longer have to fight or struggle with my own desires. “Dude, it’s so awesome you converted. I mean, you chose to give up hot girls and stuff. Yeah … (sigh) … I was born this way”. Often conversion is conflated for conviction, meaning that it’s always a simple choice for us to be obedient to Allah and His Messenger. Not only is this a false assumption but peddling this kind of jargon actually sets many converts up to fail in that they may even come to believe their own hype. While I may have never looked back once I chose to be Muslim it may have had something to do with why I stumbled and tripped so often: I didn’t have my eyes in front of me.

Being Muslim is the single most important thing in my life. But it is more than simply reliving an event that took place, if I may nerd out for a moment, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far way. I became Muslim at the age of 19. While I may still be a beautiful specimen of masculinity (minus some head hair and plus a few pounds) I can tell you I have journeyed far and wide in many ways from the young man I was. And more importantly, I am not simply reliving a commitment I made those many years ago, I continue to renew and in many ways create anew my Islam through my engagement with its two primary sources: the Qur’an and the Prophet. Every. Single. Day. Some days are bigger, some smaller. Some days are epiphanies, some are just holding the line and being obedient (or just trying to be obedient). As one older gentleman told me recently,

“when I was younger, I used to love to travel and have new experiences. Now, being older, I still love to have new experiences, but I’m either unwilling or unable to travel”.

I thought about his words and then understood them: the lifeblood of my faith, my iman, is all about having new experiences, but those new experiences happen less and less now in different places; I’m having new experiences but in my regular daily life. This, I feel, is what is missing from the born-Muslim’s engagement with his or her deen.

So yes, converts are not unicorns. We are not free from worry, pain, doubt, exhaustion, fear, anxiety, depression, confusion, etc. But if done right (conversion to Islam), we can have something most precious of all: ownership over our relationship with Allah, the Creator. And while that relationship is forged, formed, grown and developed whilst simultaneously navigating a foreign, hostile environment (i.e., the Muslim community—wait … did you think I meant America?) it is all our own, deeply personal. I highly recommend it to others. So the next time you see a convert, don’t covet them, don’t condescend to them. Just know, like you, myself, and every other man, woman, and child on this Earth, “we, without a doubt, belong to Allah, and we are returning to Him”.

الَّذينَ إِذا أَصابَتهُم مُصيبَةٌ قالوا إِنّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنّا إِلَيهِ راجِعونَ

“Those who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘We belong to Allah and to Him we are returning’.” Qur’an 2: 156

Dangling Carrots

A brother asked me on Twitter,

My response was thus:

American Muslims: we are going to have to confront some unsavory truths many of us don’t want to face. Today’s attack at Ohio State University only highlight this issue. Many Muslims will not want to admit it but while there are many racists and anti-Muslims bigots who will piggyback on tragedy, many non-Muslim allies will find it difficult to support us when it’s not clear (A) what we stand for and (B) what’s a reasonable course of action to deal with this problem of violent behavior of people who are potentially are, or appear to be, compromised by ISIS rhetoric.

In earnest, we are caught unawares, but not for unexplainable reasons. By and large the American Muslim community has become a stage, a public performance of piety, when in reality we don’t know each other well. We have no idea what our respective hopes and fears are. And if we’re that out of touch with one another, imagine how out of touch we are with the rest of America (and how it’s out of touch with us)?

As for solutions, well, first, we must admit that it’s a complicated problem. For starters, Muslims need to reconsider their position on who’s coming from where, to the US, specifically as it relates to Muslims. This will undoubtedly make many Muslims uncomfortable, especially given how many of us take our marching orders and directions from so-called liberal allies. Many American Muslims fail to realize an important caveat in our relationship with liberal America: those same liberal allies who want total open immigration don’t have to deal with the fallout when it come crashing down on the American Muslim community. They will not have to face the social and political fallout of such policies. In addition, American Muslims need to work to hold their government more accountable. What do I mean? Well, how many times as a “bad actor” been reported by the culprit’s family (Boston, Orlando, just to name two incidents) only to have the government fail to capitalize on that intel (Mr. Trump – you see!, Muslims are spying, ahem, “reporting” when we see something “bad” but nothing comes of it!)? This is unacceptable. These failures also result in the continued scapegoating of the American Muslim community as all being suspicious and culpable to terrorism. Sound familiar? This very same process of criminalizing Muslims is the same apparatus that has been criminalizing Black folks since they were “set free” by Lincoln. This only furthers my point which states that part of the reason why many non-Muslim Americans believe you can be radicalized by going to the mosque is because we don’t own that narrative. We have turned that over to our well-intending (or perhaps, not) liberal allies.

Additionally, American Muslims must confront the reality that the Muslims who came to America in the 1960’s are not of the same stripe as some of those migrating here today. The world has changed and the Muslims have been immensely changed by those histories, and seldom for the good. Many of us, well intending, look upon the Muslim world as one Ummah, which incontrovertibly we are. But because we are one religious collective does not mean we are all the same. Can a young Muslim girl or boy raised in the suburbs of Chicago or Detroit be the same as a young Muslim reared amongst famine and doctrinal strife, to say nothing of the effects that colonialism has had upon their collective psyche? What effect would having one’s people drone striked into oblivion have on a young man from Mogadishu? I am not blaming the victim; indeed, we must strive for these factors to be taken into consideration—in the same way that when whites commit public acts of violence their past and family histories are considered—in understanding the whole. No, this must be acknowledged and dealt with.

So what is the root cause of our feckless response to continued targeting of our community? I believe its genealogy can be traced back (again) to certain aspects of our community believing that all whites, and especially the government, are benevolent and have out best interests at heart.

I believe the Muslim community must play a greater roll in helping to determine who is going to be a part of it (not CVE!). By and large we have not been consulted in this process. Instead, “experts”, whose credentials often read like a rap-sheet of anti-Muslim (and sometimes anti-Black) darlings. How can these folks possibly be left to make decisions on our behalf?

Lastly, we must resist the temptation to deliver a “loyal” American Muslim who, in exchange for promised securities and social acceptance, will only sing the praises of its owner. Is America truly the land of golden opportunity? Is the United States military truly a force for good in the world? The American public cries foul at public acts of violence when perpetrated by non-whites but feigns amnesia that it also dropped two!, not one, but two! atomic bombs on civilian populations in Japan. How did the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave justify sending black soldiers off to die in a war of which, upon their return, they would be subjugated to violence and tyranny by their own government? This is the kind of American Muslim I fear our government so dearly wants to co-opt. And sadly, I feel far too many of us are ready and willing to make that deal.

So yes, there is a way forward, but it will be neither easy nor convenient.

Requiem For Arrival

“…we do not say that God forces rain to fall, it is not necessary to say that God forces a choice on man.”Ahmad Shafaat

There’s a difference between Allah forcing man to do something all the time and Allah being incapable of forcing His creation to do as He sees fit (determines). — Yours Truly

I, like a lot of Americans who were born in the early seventies, grew up with a love for science-fiction and fantasy. And while I’ve always been a lifelong fan of the genre, I’ve also never been naive of science-fiction’s mythos; a mythos which all too often places its white protagonists (see the trailer for the new Luc Besson film, Valerian) in a world where they are surrounded by aliens (real world “aliens” such as Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, or Muslims, are exchanged for a cast of extraterrestrial characters, often just caricatures of these various ethnic groups), whereupon they are conscripted into a campaign of conquest masked as heroism. This call to heroism is often instigated by a foreign, hostile, “alien” threat, revealing the perspectivism and propaganda being visited upon the entire genre: whites are inherently good, benevolent, courageous and civilized (especially the builders of civilization) and never are the aggressors.

It is for this reason I found Denis’ Villenueve’s adaption of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, Arrival, refreshing. I want to pause here before going any further and provide a spoiler alert. If you plan to see the movie and wish to savor the plot, then stop reading here, go see the movie, and then resume!

Arrival is a quiet, cerebral and engaging film. While it has many of the typical props any good science-fiction movie will have (space ships, a secretive government and military, aliens, spooky music, etc.) it does manage to avoid some common tropes (such as the white savior or feminist-ninja-syndrome recently on tap in The Force Awakens). Its visuals are striking and yet still allows for the well-written and for the most part, well acted characters to shine through.

So why am I, an Imam, and self-confessed lover of cheesy sci-fi, praising Arrival? Because it reveals, for me as a Muslim, some really good tidbits for thought, particularly on the subjects of determinism, agency, and rida’/ridwan (being pleased with what Allah decrees). I feel these are three issues that many Muslims today struggle with and even more so after the apparent victory of the GOP in the United States 2016 Presidential election. The question can be asked: with the GOP/white supremacists (so-called “alt-right”) in power, are Muslims bound (determined) to a horrible fate in America or do they posses agency—the power—if not to change the conditions of reality to their suiting, then to change their dispositions towards trying to achieve that which is pleasing to Allah? Can Muslims, despite these challenges, still live full, meaningful lives? According to Arrival, yes, we can.

Arrival plays with time, a hallmark in the sci-fi genre. In this case, it asks some poignant questions about fate, intention, and turns the understanding many of us have: if we had knowledge of what happens in the future and the past, we would doubtless change our actions to suit a more favorable reality. Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams), Arrival’s protagonist, suffers an emotionally crippling blow at the film’s beginning with the death of her daughter who passed away in early childhood from a rare type of cancer. This leaves Banks emotionally “limited” for much of the film; she is highly intelligent, analytical, but also crushed by the death of her daughter. Through Banks’ encounter with an alien species who have come to the earth in mysterious obelisk-like space vessels, she comes to an alternative and non-linear understanding of time.

Arrival’s aliens (whose alien-ness*, amongst other things, is conveyed through their complex and nonlinear form of language) allow Banks to perceive the meaning of her child’s death, not through the lens of entitlement but through the lens of experience. How often, in the vernacular of our own cultural myths, do we hear the phrase, “so-and-so died too early”, or so-and-so is “gone too soon”. One could, in an attempt to validate such statements, say that they’re merely defensive mechanisms, articulated through our confrontation with the mortality of our loved ones, and ultimately with our own. I would not argue with such explanations, but given Islam’s stance towards death—and how it pushes us to accept the fate of others—I was pleased to see how Louise Banks ultimately reconciles her trauma by seeing that what was most important in her relationship with her daughter was not simply to extend the lifespan of her child’s life, but was to fully experience it. In moments of clairvoyance dispersed throughout the film, Banks ultimately comes to see that though she is powerless to change her child’s fate (the result of a genetic abnormality passed on to her daughter from her husband, Ian) she wouldn’t trade being Hannah’s mother for anything, even if she had to experience her death again. This is further emphasized at the film’s conclusion when it is explained who Hannah’s father is (Ian – played by Jeremy Renner); it was through Louise’s and Ian’s collaboration on the alien project that they fall in love. Had Louise not fallen in love with Ian, she’d never have married him and thus become Hannah’s mother, an experience too powerful and to meaningful to give up simply because she could not control it and the pain and difficulty she will experience. In my opinion this metaphor makes Arrival a very powerful film. It demonstrates the power of meaning and also lays bare the powerlessness we humans truthfully have over our fates. The question Arrival begs is, “are we willing to give up  meaning for security?”. We Muslims would echo what Allah says in the Qur’an,

فَيُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَن يَشاءُ وَيَهدي مَن يَشاءُ ۚ وَهُوَ العَزيزُ الحَكيمُ

“Allah misguides anyone He wills and guides anyone He wills. He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.” Qur’an, 14: 4

…meaning that we do not have ultimate control over reality but we do have control over our disposition towards it and most importantly, towards Allah. If I may take creative license, Louise Banks essentially submits to the Will of Allah: she accepts the fate of her child to die in childhood; unarguably a grievous thing to experience, by submitting, whereby she relieves a great burden upon her heart all the while knowing full-well (a result of the nonlinear alien language which Louise learns and thus learns of her child’s fate) she will have to relive and re-experience her child’s death again.

Arrival is a quiet, cerebral science-fiction story that serves up a lot of food for thought; there are aliens but no explosions. Space ships but no laser cannons. Yet despite the absence of these I am left feeling more hopeful and energized about my own prospects, not because I can do anything about them, but because I feel inspired to do something about my attitude towards the One Who Created them.

* Hat tip to the visual creators of Arrival for choosing their aliens to be cephalopods. Having grown up on Lovecraftian short stories of alien creatures with squid-like features was, I felt, a well-deserved nod to H. P. Lovecraft.

The Problem With Islamophobia

While it may offend some (not that I care…) but Islamophobia is one of the biggest distractions which allows the greater Muslim community (i.e., non-Black Muslims) to be content with local acts of oppression, particularly those inflicted shamelessly on Blackamerica. Islamophobia is also detrimental to Blackamerican Islam in that it erases the acknowledgement of continued (not just historic) oppression against Blackamericans. The Islamophobia narrative in the Muslim community directs all of our communities energy and resources to garnering acceptance from those who loathe us. And for groups of American Muslims who are not the primary targets of Islamophobia (i.e., Blackamerican Muslims) our concerns are not only erased but are concerns for other-than-Islamophobia generate hostility towards us, calling into question our commitment to Islam in total. And even the so-called gains the non-Black Muslim community in America perceives it achieves in its fight against Islamophobia, none such gains trickle down to Blackamericans, Muslim or otherwise. And thus, Islamophobia becomes for Blackamerican Muslims, doubly a fitnah. And as God says in the Qur’an,

وَالفِتنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ القَتلِ

“And fitnah (trials and tests) are more severe than murder”. Qur’an, 2: 191

The reality is, the enterprise of Islamophobia leaves Blackamerican Muslims oppressed by our own government and society while simultaneously abandoned and betrayed by our coreligionists. This is particularly detrimental to Muslim identity on the part of Blackamerican Islam in that it undermines a fundamental tenet in Islam of egalitarianism amongst believers and standing for justice. Islamophobia, as an obsession (which at its root is about being accepted by white America), is unconscionable given the loss of life in the Black community continues to endure in these so-called modern and progressive times. God has revealed to us through the conduit of history that there is no anchor for Islam in America without blackness, yet we continue to fixate on Islamophobia. The tragic irony of all this is that Blackness is the proverbial “Banu Hashim” (that seventh century Arabian tribe, mostly of whom were non-Muslim!, which sheltered and supported the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his followers) for Muslims in America today. And like Banu Hashim over a thousand years ago, Blackness has been that institution which has taken in, supported and rooted Islam in America. And thus the myopic pursuance of Islamophobia only makes this betrayal all the more bitter. Given the recent responses of Muslims waving pink flags and rainbows and standing in questionable solidarity at best with the LBGT community, this pursuance of Islamophobia is a miscarriage of justice that, for all our sakes, must be rectified.

The Role of Rationalism in Immorality and Sin

Proponents of rational thought often look down their noses at religious thinkers because of the latter’s reliance on tradition and revelation in the realm of moral thought. What they may find interesting is reason’s role in immorality and sin.

“Immorality and sin for Niebuhr are not, of course, the same thing. Sin is the more inclusive concept and immorality is only one aspect of sin. But Niebuhr’s major statements concerning sin apply equally well to his view of immorality. Thus, immorality, like sin, is for Niebuhr fully a spiritual phenomenon. This means that immorality is not necessarily irrational. Reason can be intimately involved in the immoral act. In the last analysis, according to Niebuhr, immorality involves an act of the will that is neither rational nor irrational. This is not to suggest that immorality cannot be explained and does not have certain preconditions. Among these preconditions is the fact of man’s finitude, especially as this takes form in his capacity to die. Man’s mortal nature furnishes the occasion for immorality, as Niebuhr says. But neither mortality nor finitude necessitate immorality. Both sin and immorality are the result of free choice for Niebuhr. In this sense, they are not ‘necessary.’ “

Indeed, many arguments are entertained in the Qur’an regarding idol worship, associating partners, rejecting revelation, and all forms of immoral and indecent behavior.

يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا

“They will ask you about alcoholic drinks and gambling. Say, ‘There is great wrong in both of them and also certain benefits for mankind. But the wrong in them is greater than the benefit.’ ” Qur’an, 2: 219.

For those who claim the Qur’an does not use or address reason, they simply have decided not to look for it. However, their main objection is that Revelation ultimately trumps reason (this can be found in the writings of al-Ghazzali and others). And while Revelation supersedes reason, it does not disallow it from the human decision making experience, moral, religious or otherwise. It simply seeks to put it in its place.

From Ronald M. Green’s Niebuhr’s Critique of Rationalism: A Limited Validation. Read the full article here.