Storytelling

To say that Muslims have been just as equally affected by modernity, the modernity that many Muslims claim to abhor, would be a feat in understatement.  In fact, the sooner that Muslims come to grips with this reality the better chance Muslims will have at confronting modernity. Muslims could proactively (vs. reactively) decide on what aspects of modernity they can negotiate, and what aspects are indeed a real threat to their Muslim identity.  One such aspect of modernity is the individual.  There are a number of new theories floating around in the minds of Muslims regarding the individual and individualism.  Many Muslims decry religious authority and seek to be “free agents”, navigating their Islam and modernity with the tools of reason and intuition.  The Qur’an and Sunnah are seen as a threat to individuality; both are interpreted via a nouveau ijtihad.  Before delving into a possible critique of this choice, we should perhaps look at the formation of individualism and its effects on Muslims today in their relationship with Islam’s sacred sources.

To be concise, I thought I might provide a reading of the situation through examining Walter Benjamin’s article, The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.  Benjamin provides some insightful criticism of the modern age: “The art of story-telling is dying out.  With it also dies the human capacity that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences.  The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away”.  Indeed, storytelling (as well as art, though that is another subject entirely) is dying out and with it goes the traditional method by which Muslims and most pre-modern cultures related wisdom, not just solely information.  In tradition-based cultures, experience functioned as the repository of wisdom.  With the advent of the information age, experience, as Benjamin says, “has fallen in value” (Benjamin 1).  A critical difference between information [خبر] and wisdom [حكمة] in the Muslim tradition is the component of transience, the movement of wisdom from the teacher to the student.  Even on a communal level this translated as the wisdom of the Prophet [s] and his understanding—what elicited God’s pleasure and displeasure—on such subjects such as God’s nature and edicts.  This, in many ways, is what the spirit of the following hadith is getting at: “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error” [إن أمتي لا تجتمع على ضلاة] – related by Anas Bin Malik.

A major challenge facing Muslims today is the challenge of distance.  By distance here I mean the distance that is felt between them and the sacred sources of the religion.  Most attempts to close or bridge this gap have resulted in pan-nationalism in the historical Muslim world or as an identity crisis in American Muslims.  For many Blackamerican Muslims, for example, great efforts have been spent to try and adopt the dress and mores of immigrant Muslims as a means of closing the gap of authenticity.  For the most part, neither group has been very successful in making the Muslim tradition and its sacred sources speak to them with meaning and agency in the American context.  Some of this has to do with the pressures that have been exerted on Muslims from the dominant culture.  Secular America, often as hegemonic as so-called fundamentalism, looks upon religion as something archaic and outdated.  For a religion whose tradition is linked with storytelling, this is especially problematic:

“More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences” (Benjamin 1).

“Embarrassment” here sums up to a great degree how many Muslims are feeling about their religious sensibilities.  Scientism (an extension of secularism) has fought to secure its place as the only means and method moderns can come to “know anything”.  Traditions of knowledge which do not solely rely upon empiricism are deemed retrograde and backwards.  Despite the fact that science has not come to be the panacea it claims to be — the world’s problems seem to only mount in the face of the salvation science is supposedly capable of bringing — many Muslims still feel a tremendous pressure to capitulate to its dictum.

To summarize, the Muslim tradition places great importance on experience.  This is reflected in the ijazah system of certification.  In essence, one gets one’s ijazah from one’s teacher, who presumably has not only the requisite knowledge but also experience, so that one will go on to teach others that same topic; one will continue the tradition of storytelling.  Such teachers know the story and the narrative which such knowledge both comes from and speaks to.  Benjamin’s insight here speaks to the modern predicament, where Muslims feel as if they have arrived at this quandary out of the blue:

“Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible.” (Benjamin 1).

Benjamin’s remarks speak to the disconnection and loss that many Muslims feel as the world has become less and less moral.  It certainly has left us with the feeling we have arrived at this crossroads “overnight”, though in fact, it has been the slow erosion of values and morals over many years and decades.  Indeed, I have heard many Muslims comment in dismay over the lows “never thought possible”, both inside and outside the Muslim community.

What I am trying to get at here is more than simply deconstructing Benjamin’s essay for deconstruction sake.  The purpose is to look at the current state of Muslims in America and ask some hard questions.  What does our Islam mean to us and are the means and methods of making Islam real, relevant, and meaningful to us, successful.  Prophetic tradition, starting as an oral one, has placed a high value on person to person exchanges of story, knowledge, and experience.  This is similar to what Benjamin has to say here:

“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn” (Benjamin 1).

It would seem to be this type of mouth to mouth exchange that many Muslims are beleaguering nowadays.  This helps explain the rise of “traditional knowledge” or “traditional Islamic knowledge” as a buzzword.  However, most of these institutions still rely upon a method of teaching that does not quite bridge that gap.

To return to the theme of reading, it is my theory that modern Muslims have turned to reading the Qur’an in the manner and method in which they read novels.  I use the word novel here, not as a stand-in for “book”, but literally, as “novel”.  Benjamin purports,

“The novelist has isolated himself” (Benjamin 3).

The novel is also, as Benjamin says, “devoid of council”, something many Muslims are sorely in need of today.  “The novelist isolates himself and does not come from oral tradition nor goes to it”.  Some may see Benjamin’s commentary as a Romantic rant, longing for “simpler times”.  I do not see it as thus; for me, “oral tradition” is synonymous with “lived-in” and “pro-human”, and thus, I see it as an alternative method of articulating what the Sunnah of the Prophet was about: council:

أكان للناس عجبا أن أوحينا إلى رجل منهم أن أنذر الناس وبشر الذين ءامنوا أنلهم قدم صدق عند ربهم قال الكافرون إن هذا لسحر مبين

“Is it astonishing to men that We sent Our inspiration to a man from amongst them?  That he would warn mankind as well as give glad tidings to the believers that they are considered by their Lord truthful, sincere?  Those who reject faith say, ‘This is clear sorcery’.” [Qur’an 10: 2].

The tandem of Prophet and Revelation provides that direct, oral relation, the transference of knowledge and wisdom to, not a readership, but a living community.  In this light, the Qur’an, a book whose name can also be said to be “The Recitation”, indicates that it is not simply any book, and most certainly not a novel.  One of the primary characteristics of the Qur’an is that it is a revelation that came down to a human community amidst their history, not in isolation.  My goal in saying this is not to provide the definitive way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an, but to introduce and remind that in order to come to know the Qur’an (and the Prophet, and God), one must not be tempted to read it as a novel amongst other novels.

There are a couple of characteristics of the novel that are worth mentioning here that Benjamin draws our attention to.  First, is the notion that the novel is almost always about, “a particular character, event, or situation”.  This helps to affirm the notion of the novel as isolated.  The Qur’an reveals itself not as a singular event, not about a singular character, and its situation varies from chapter to chapter (sometimes even within it).  This has led many to criticize the Qur’an for being inconsistent; some Muslims even find it difficult to follow.  I believe this is partly in due to the influence of modern literary standards which are largely based off of reading and interpreting novels. Second, is the sense of closure.  Benjamin says, “The novel terminates itself from our memory through the complete closure of the book”.  Not to be confused with “making our minds up for us (something modern and post-modern literature abhor from doing), there is still a closure when the last words are read.  The Qur’an has been and is, continuously rehearsed and recited.  It lives where Muslims live (or ought to, I would argue).  It challenges and compels its adherents to “reflect” and “ponder” its “ayāt”, or signs.  Muslims, if they hope to extract meaningful and relevant interpretations from the Qur’an, they may need to reconsider just how it is they are approaching Islam’s sacred sources.

Experience is king, someone once wrote.  It certainly seems to be for Benjamin as well.  This finds easy correlation in reading the life of the Prophet.  As was mentioned above, the Prophet and the stories of the Prophets and other stories in the Qur’an are in fact translated into experience for us.  This is best understood through the famous narration: “His character was the Qur’an” [كان خلقه القرآن].  By this, Muslims are “counseled” (also known as “nasīhah”/نصيحة) by the Prophet’s life, his understanding and relating of God’s Message.  In the absence of this, historically detached Muslims devolve into lonely individuals who are no longer capable of “speaking exemplarily”, as Benjamin says, to their most important concerns, chief amongst them a dignified existence that will allow them to negotiate what modernity needs and what God wants.  The lonely individual’s existence gives them no counsel, leaving them anxious as well as impotent.

It is obvious from Benjamin’s article that he is not only lamenting the loss of stories, he is also subtlety calling for the return or rebirth of storytellers.  In the Muslim context this is the shaykh, the ālim, the imām, the griot.  It is through the tradition of the Muslim storyteller that the characteristics of the religion are retained.  Without Muslim storytellers, those who have dedicated their lives to the continuity of these stories, how else will Muslims preserve that critical aspect of their identity?  The tendency has been in modern times to prop up a few rock star imāms who draw crowds of individuals who often return home feeling just as isolated and lost before attending said event.  I believe if Muslims are truly invested in their futures here, it will necessitate them developing scholars, leaders, storytellers—“master craftsmen” in Benjamin’s words—who will live in and amongst their communities, keeping the story alive and meaningful to Muslim communities.

The hope for developing Muslim storytellers is to help restore the connectivity amongst Muslims.  It will also allow the healing and holistic aspects of the message of Islam to be delivered to Muslims with greater efficacy.  As Benjamin states,

“Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak” (Benjamin 3).

For me, Benjamin touches on one of the great challenges facing Muslims in America: The disconnect between generations.  It is not authenticity that challenges generational understanding but rather the ability for the older, “more knowledgeable” generation, to be receptive to the realities facing young American Muslims today.  There is a dire need for a Muslim leadership—religious or otherwise—to be emotionally connected and concerned with younger Muslims today.  Benjamin says, about counsel,

“[it] is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding” (Benjamin 3).

I see this as another means of “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error”.  Benjamin is also astute in pointing out one of the natures of counsel:

“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom”,

as well as,

“To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story” (Benjamin 3).

Against the allegations that religious knowledge equates religious tyranny in the Muslim world, this system allows those who have dedicated their lives to the story, the Message of Islam, to walk hand in hand with those who profess Islam as their religion, facing the trials and tribulations of life as one community, as one Ummah.  After all, when the Prophet [s] was questioned as to what religion (“deen”) was, he replied, “sound advice, sound advice, sound advice” [إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة].

Reading

Extra Viewing

  • Thanks to the link from brother Omar. See his comments below. It fits well into the discussion.

Black Power and the American Christ

The following essay was published in 1967 by Vincent Harding, printed here from the volume, The Black Power Revolt – A Collection of Essays, Floyd B. Barbour editor [Extending Horizons Books].

The mood among many social-action-oriented Christians today suggests that it is only a line thin as a razor blade that divides sentimental yearning over the civil rights activities of the past from present bitter recrimination against “Black Power.” As is so often the case with reminiscences, the nostalgia may grow more out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness than out of any true appreciation of the meaning of the past. This at least is the impression one gets from those seemingly endless gatherings of old “true believers” which usually produce both the nostalgia and the recriminations. Generally the cast of characters at such meetings consists of well-dressed, well-fed Negroes and whites whose accents almost blend into a single voice as they recall the days “when we were all together, fighting for the same cause.“ The stories evoke again the heady atmosphere, mixed of smugness and self-sacrifice, that surrounded us in those heroic times when nonviolence was our watchword and integration our heavenly city. One can almost hear the strains of “our song” as men and women remember how they solemnly swayed in the aisles or around the charred remains of a church or in the dirty southern jails. Those were the days when Martin Luther King was the true prophet and when we were certain that the civil rights movement was God’s message to the churches-and part of our smugness grew out of the fact that we knew it while all the rest of God’s frozen people were asleep. Continue reading “Black Power and the American Christ”

Social Origins of Bebop

It was no coincidence that jazz’s rise to prominence was at the juncture of World War II and the increasing demands for social equality from Blackamericans, many of whom including those that were jazz musicians, participated in the war and wanted their public and political due. These were the tumultuous times that would give birth to jazz, or more correctly, bebop. And from this unique American musical form would come a art form that would challenge and resist the status quo of dominant white thought regarding the inferiority of blacks as well as incubate new a consciousness of black intellectualism.

To appreciate bebop’s stance in history, one must observe the history that precedes jazz; specifically, the history of Blackamericans and their ascendance out of slavery and a culture that, as of the 1940’s, was still pro-Jim Crow, either de jure in the North or de facto in the South. For many black musicians, bebop was a means of both insulating and protesting against a cultural system that produced signs and signifiers of black inferiority. These sentiments were gelled in the minds of Blackamerican musicians after returning from World War II, a war that was supposed to have been fought against the notion of racism. And yet, many blacks felt that hypocritically, that same government that sent them off to war still perpetrated state-sanctioned discrimination against Blackamericans, and turned a blind eye to public hostility; both physical and psychological. Thus, it was no coincidence that bebop took musical form with high tempos and hard driving polyrhythms, characteristics that would define its sound, struck back against the ideology of the dominant white culture just as percussively and psychologically as they perceived themselves to be attacked.

Jazz’s musical roots come primarily from the blues, a form of folk music that has its roots in Africa, and secondarily, swing, big band and ragtime music, coming out of the early decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much like its musical forefather, jazz lamented over its existential crisis of being subjugated by a dominant white power. Unlike the blues, however, bebop was not to remain a catharsis, sung in waiting for the hope of salvation through the benevolence of God. Rather, rather jazz sought to beseech the wrath of God, its music being fueled with the anger and rage of a people’s mistreatment for some three hundred-plus years. This anger was so prevalent in the music, that by the latter part of the 20th century, bebop and its alternate forms, such as post-bop and avant-garde, were perceived as “the angry black man’s music”. This collective anger is evident in the recounting of how jazz was perceived even as late as the 1970’s, by Ed Michel, a music produced for one of jazz’s most prestigious labels, Impulse!:

By the seventies “it seemed as though Impulse became the label characterized by the angry black tenor man,”.

Not content to site on the sidelines, jazz throughout its history would comment time and time again on social justice topics ranging from the plight of Blackamericans in the prison-complex system (such as Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, an album in direct reference to the 1971 Attica Prison riots) to such lamentations of the past as John Coltrane’s Song For The Underground Railroad.

At the transition point between jazz and swing/big band music, was a desire on the part of these musicians to be taken seriously. Many felt that as members of swing bands, they were forced to take a back seat to the audience — a predominantly white audience at that. Their music was reduced to a sort of ambiance, where particularity of the musician was inconsequential. Billy Ekstine, who led one of the most famous jazz ensembles during the 40’s and 50’s, commented that many popular songs were re-arranged with fast tempos where the audience could not dance to them, forcing them to pay attention to the band as the primary focus.

As jazz musicians sought to stake out their territory as concert-style performers, with a captive audience, they encountered many forms of social resistance along the way. In the 1940’s, many jazz musicians (primarily Blackamerican) were not allowed to perform in white-owned clubs in the South. One way of circumventing the problem was by embracing Islam as a sidecar expression of their jazz identities. Through becoming Muslim, and taking Muslim names, many Blackamerican jazz musicians found they could enter white-owned establishments, play there, eat there, etc. Such incidents were not confined solely to the South. In Delaware, Oliver Mesheux, a trumpeter, was initially detained from entering a white club but when presenting his race identification card, which was marked “W” for white and with his newly assumed name, Mustafa Dalil, he was allowed to enter .

Striving for a more genuine reception did not come without its backlashes from the dominant white constituency. Many whites saw bebop as an illegitimate musical expression. It was castigated as a jumble of sounds, too unintelligible for the human ear. In her 1921 article, Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation, Anne Shaw Faulkner describes jazz as evil and that it was the natural expression of bizarre Negro dances; a voodoo accompaniment to “half-crazed” barbarisms . The allegations about bebop were consistent to popular conceptions about blacks during this period: that Blackamericans were linked to barbaric practices, were intellectually degraded and morally abject. Some even took it so far to allege that jazz and bebop could have a morally toxic affect on the more scrupulous Anglo-Saxons, converting them to the “savage” tendencies of blacks and other minorities. To hear that bebop was anti-Christian or even anti-civilizational was not unheard of.

But it was not simply the dominant cultures perceptions that bebop sought to combat. It was also the system of exploitation that many if not most black musicians had to deal with in the early 20th century. Socially, Blackamericans had few rights and musicians even fewer. Many were forced to play without contracts and had little legal power if their rights were infringed upon. Economics proved to be one of the crucial points that younger musicians in the bebop movement sought to countermand. They also criticized their older Blackamerican counterparts as being complacent to accepting these terms from the white-dominated music industry. Younger musicians saw musicians who came out of the established system as acquiescing to white dominance, giving up their rights to control their own musical destinies. The importance of economics cannot be over emphasized and was one of the many reasons younger black jazz musicians jumped ship from the swing bands to the small combo bebop ensembles. Feeling less restriction, both socially and artistically, many felt they had a greater influence on how they were to be compensated economically as well as their artistic endeavors taken more seriously.

As much as post World War II sentiments played a role in the development of bebop, it cannot be reduced as nothing more than a reaction to it. Rather, it was itself symbolic of the changes that abounded at this time. With increasing numbers of Blackamericans moving north in search of better socio-economic prospects, this newer generation was exposed to bourgeoisie culture and the various intellectual and artistic movements, especially in Harlem, the birthplace of bebop. This flux created new potentialities for alternate modes of expression of blackness in America, modes that would not be housed in the dominant white and black middle-class cultural values.

The list of bebop’s influential musicians would be beyond the scope of this paper, but it would be prudent to name a few important names. On any list, Dizzy Gillespie would rank quite high. Gillespie was the primary musician who, while not inventing the style (that would Charlie Parker), made it famous and known to the greater world. Gillespie, who grew up in the South, was confronted with the realities of a white supremacist construct. He saw bebop as a form that could transcend the racist system he was subject to: “We refused to accept racism, poverty, or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative humdrum lives merely for the sake of survival”. Other musicians, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Joe Henderson to name a few, would continue to champion the ideal of bebop as a means of resisting dominant values and asserting their own political voice according to their own proclivities.

Bebop also championed a new era in black intellectualism. A musical form that required the technical mastery of a musicians chosen instrument, it also placed demands on the musician to have advanced knowledge of music theory. Bebop was a musical form that borrowed not only from its past, namely the blues and ragtime music, but also from European classical music. Bebop musicians were free to study and interpret the musical works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, to name a few, and many were classically trained musicians.

Beyond all of the prerequisites that a bebop musician had to master was the relation of bebop to the newly-conceived mode of blackness. Bebop musicians saw themselves embarking on a new modality of blackness that would incorporate an intellectual astuteness with a sophisticated urban sensibility. Kenny Clarke, a prominent bebop drummer, was of the opinion as to how he saw the relationship between bebop and blackness: “Whatever you go into, go into it intelligently.” Bebop helped in swear in a new era of black intellectual consciousness and many of the prominent poets and writers of its time, such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, were both affected by and contributed to it. Ellison saw bebop as a cultural revolution, where the world was opening and up and society could now present a whole new set of circumstances and opportunities.

This intellectual rebellion manifested in both the music and the mode in which the musicians carried themselves. Along with the idea of shattering preconceived white ideas on the supposed mental inferiority of blacks to white, bebop musicians fostered an environment where there music and their fans tackled intellectual matters. From the choice of songs titles to the style of dress (horned-rimmed glasses, goatees, suits and the like), all this constituted a new way of the bebop musician carrying his or herself, a direct affront to white-held beliefs on the nature of blackness.

Bebop’s rebellion against social norms did not come without a darker side. Along with the sophisticated musical styles also came a lifestyle that was never able to successfully detach itself from alcohol and drug use. In fact, some practitioners of the art even embraced drug abuse as part and parcel of being a bebop musician. Sadly, many prominent young musicians spent the better part of the careers behind bars due to drug charges (Dexter Gordon missed most of the 50’s and Frank Morgan most of the 60’s). In fact, Charlie Parker, the founded of the bebop sound, died due to complications of drug use. But for better or worse, all of these social attitudes cemented bebop as being wholly against the status quo of early and mid- 20th century America.

As is the case with many art forms, bebop ran the risk of appropriation from the dominant culture. Initially an underground movement, eventually bebop won itself a wider audience. Whites would travel uptown to Harlem to hear the performances of the masters of the form by the 1950’s came about. By the 1960’s, bebop was fully appropriated by whites as a “hip” and “cool” aesthetic, interwoven into a the lifestyle of urban whites. In reaction to this, bebop would shift its gears again and seek to recreate itself in the form of post-bop and the avant-garde jazz movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. Just as bebop had done away with ragtime sensibilities, so had free jazz, avant-grade and post-bop done away some the canon that bebop had forged in the 1940’s. New structures of music were introduced such as modal forms, heavily tinged with eastern sounds and rhythms, as well as the free jazz and avant-garde movements which contained little of the harmonic and melodic structures of bebop. It was also to these movements that many of the pro-black and culturally-resistant bebop musicians would migrate to. Initially trained in the bebop form, they felt that bebop had been compromised with its ascendancy to white acceptance.

Much of bebop’s sensibilities can be understood as the resistance of blacks to the labeling of the dominant culture. As has been mentioned, whites had many preconceived notions of blackness that did not sit well with this new crop of young musicians. Bebop sought to break those stereotypes. And even after bebop itself had begun its assimilation and appropriation by whites, many of these musicians moved to new musical expressions such as the alt-bop movements of free jazz and avant-garde in an attempt to avoid being labeled. Gone was the tradition of reinterpreting old show tunes. Instead, much of the music became quite conceptual and cerebral; so abstract, that in fact, a clash ensued between the old and new guard. The likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, their musical efforts were criticized as sacrilegious to the tradition of bebop. This sentiment only fueled the alt-bop movements to continue in their vain. Only with breaking ties completely with the past, with a tradition that had sold itself off to the dominant culture, could they remain to jazz’s roots.

In its current form, jazz today resembles little of the insurrection of its formidable years. This is due in part that society itself has changed in some ways. With the passing of various civil rights acts, changes in social mores and overall improvement of life for many Blackamericans, jazz and more specifically, bebop, drifted from the limelight. Even at the height of bebop’s popularity, bebop commanded the attention of only a percentage of Blackamerican imagination. In fact, while bebop was enjoying its largest number of patrons, most Blackamericans were turning their attention to rhythm and blues. And yet, as we see today, black youth culture will always seem to find a voice. As many Blackamerican families continued to suffer from economic deprivation and social neglect, it would be black youth that would grab the world’s attention; only this time it would be hip-hop as the musical form. Of which the relation between the two “bops” can only hoped to be explored in another paper.

Citations and further readings:

  • Kahn, Ashley. The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. London: Granta Publications, 2006.
  • Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser. To Be Or Not To Bop. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1979.
  • Faulkner, Anne Shaw. “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation.” Ladies Home Journal. August 1921: 16-34.
  • Porter, Eric. “Dizzy Atmosphere: The Challenge of Bebop.” American Music Vol 17, No. 4 (1999): 423-27.