Interpretation In Free Fall

Muslims need to ask themselves: how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam? Many of us will point to ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and other forms of bigotry in an attempt to explain this phenomenon. But in reality this is much more akin to the Sudanese proverb, as Dr. Sherman Jackson reminds us, while we curse the elephant we only gaze at his shadow.

All too often we look for explanations outside of Islam instead of within. By Islam I mean the Muslim community. We assume the cause of this effect can simply be reduced to others not liking us. And while it is undoubtedly true that anti-Muslim sentiment has much of its roots in white supremacy, its efficacy is mainly due to the swinging barn door of interpretation that lets in all manner of riffraff. A riffraff that is just as likely to be composed of unqualified Muslims as much as it is of unqualified non-Muslims.

In a more obvious display of what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls the credibility gap, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic speaks about ISIS in his article, What ISIS Really Wants,

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

The first mistake Muslims most often do is attempt to discredit the validity of non-Muslim (in this case, Wood’s) claims; this is a severe mistake, because as in this case—as is the case in almost all claims made about Islam—Wood’s credentials and capabilities are never called into question. What gives Wood the qualifications and credentials to speak authoritatively on Islam? When I attempted to find any information on his back ground I saw that he graduated from Harvard; the extent of his academic credentials seem to only go so far as being a “lecturer in political science at Yale University”. In what field Wood took his degree is not clear. What is clear is that Wood, and many like him, have written extensively and authoritatively on Islam for some time. And we must move beyond just individuals like Wood, to the bigger implication: publications such as The Atlantic, and The New Republic also required no qualified background to write authoritatively on Islam. Before I address what I mean by proper qualifications and credentials, let me turn my gaze from the elephant’s shadow to the pachyderm himself.

One of the darlings of the media (particularly those of a more liberal bent) and of the Muslim community itself (excluding the majority of scholars and leaders) is Reza Aslan. Aslan’s notoriety stems from interviews where he is often seen as defending the faith from a rogue’s gallery of anti-Muslim haters such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, to more recent conflicts with Donald Trump supporter and political commentator, Kayleigh McEnany, over what portion of the Qur’an is considered a legal document:

McEnany’s comments, stating that the Qur’an, according to Michael Flynn (a retired general from the United States military), who quotes Andy McCarthy (Andrew C. McCarthy III is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York)—whom McEnany describes as “very respected” and who has written “extensively” on [the Qur’an]—as saying,

90 percent of the Qur’an is in fact a legal doctrine; it is Shari’ah. He’s not saying that as an insult to the religion but that it (the Qur’an) is in fact structured differently than a typical-type Christian religions or Jewish religions, the way those books are structured. So that is what he is meaning academically.”

There is much here to unpack. The claims about the percentage of the Qur’an which is considered to be “legal doctrine”, how Christianity’s or Judaism’s holy books, and the manner in which they are “structured”, are assumed to be normative (thereby Islam’s holy book, by being different than these two, is presumptively labeled as abnormal), and finally and perhaps most importantly, the claims to “academic” qualifications to make such proclamations, all beg to be scrutinized. And it is the last claim, the petition to reference academic credentials as a justification, that Reza Aslan calls out Kayleigh McEnany as well as Andrew McCarthy and Gen. Michael Flynn. But there’s an absurdity going on here right before our eyes. An absurdity ignored because it strokes the broken and shattered egos of so many Muslims today: Reza Aslan himself is unqualified to speak authoritatively on Islam. Aslan reveals his own lack of qualifications with the ridiculous statement concerning the number of verses in the Qur’an,

“I mean, no offense to Kayleigh, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to either the Qur’an or the Bible. About 120 verses of the Qur’an have to do with legal matters out of tens of thousands.”

According to the most common riwayah (narration) of the Qur’an by Hafs, the Qur’an contains 6236 verses. Aslan’s statements of “tens of thousands” is disturbing as well as inaccurate, and in Aslan’s case, is nothing new. He has repeatedly uttered factually incorrect or even heretical statements about the Qur’an and Islam in general. But the issue at stake here is not simply the mistakes of one unqualified pundit, but moreover, how did Reza Aslan (and others like Zuhdi Jasser) get to be placed in positions of authority and representation? The answer may be a difficult pill for our community to swallow.

If we return to our opening question, how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam, the answer is as simple as it is painful: we, as the Muslim community, enable it, because we do it as well! That we think there can be two separate standards for speaking authoritatively on Islam as well as representing the Muslims is a living definition of hypocrisy. In truth, this devolves down into little more than some form of cultural protectionism, stemming from a legacy of colonialism where Muslims were subjugated to non-Muslim rule. As a reaction, even Muslims who either by doctrine or practice (of which certainly Aslan would fall into) do not seem to have any serious commitment to Islam outside of a cultural relationship to it, fall victim and prey to this tendency. It is also, in my opinion, why so many Muslims of an immigrant background are guilty of facemasking non-immigrant Muslims from positions of prominence, both within the Muslim community and on the broader public stage in America. To continue with our sports analogy, the most common reason a player commits a facemask is because they are simultaneously trying to prevent an aggressor from tackling them or taking the ball away, all the while trying to gain yardage; the facemask penalty applies equally to the offense as well as the defense.

Just as the diagnosis for this issue may be difficult to swallow, so will the remedy. The issue of credentials and qualifications cannot be discussed without also asking what is the role of the (unqualified) individual in interpreting Islamic sources, and more importantly, what is their scope? I am not making a clarion call to say that individual Muslims cannot read the Qur’an—indeed even interpret some aspects of it on their own—but what has to change is the scope to which individual unqualified interpretations are made. The difficult truth is that there is no other way to combat anti-Muslim hatred, whose equally unqualified practitioners utilizes Islamic sources, other than demanding a standard across the board that will equally apply to Muslim and non-Muslim alike. This may sound grandiose and even unattainable but I provide at least one plausible tactic: unqualified Muslims (those who have not received adequate training and are also not recognized by the Muslim community to be legitimate representatives) refuse to engage the media. Those who infract this rule will face social stigma from the Muslim community. We can bring this to bear on a very uncomfortable truth: the very same methodology that Reza Aslan advocates (see above tweet) is precisely the same method that ISIS and other extremist groups use to concoct their own interpretations of Islam. While the results of ISIS may be different than those of Reza Aslan and his ilk, the tactics and methods are the same. When the question is asked, “who speaks for Islam?”, the answer should be, “someone qualified”.

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.

Islam Is A Foreign Locale

To paraphrase the title of Zareena Grewal’s Islam Is A Foreign Country, the title of this post reflects the observation I made of a recent video which has us following actor Morgan Freeman traveling about the world asking, Who Is God? My observations come ironically on the heels (ok, twenty-five years ago, but close enough) of Freeman’s (comical/abysmal) portrayal of the Moorish Azeem, in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

So … Morgan Freeman wants to know about Islam, huh? I know everyone wants to celebrate and feel good about themselves these days given Donald Trump’s apparent “victory” but there’s all kinds of wrong with this “encounter”.

  1. Morgan Freeman, an American, in order to find out about Islam, has to enlist National Geographic! and traipse off to some foreign country to encounter “real Islam”, as if the millions of Muslims living in America could not assist him with this project.
  2. Equally amazing in this project is that in order for Mr. Freeman to “understand who God is”, he has to go through a translator! As if the scrolls and secrets to Islam are only capable of being expressed through an ancient and inaccessible tongue. His encounter also emphatically, if subtly, suggests that he has now gone to the “real Muslims”, an imam from Egypt as if he couldn’t find plenty of imams right here in America (black, white, Asian, etc.), who are just as capable—if maybe not more so!—to explain what or who God is in Islam. And they might just look and talk like Mr. Freeman, too!

Which brings me to this: there is a concerted effort, on the part of certain non-Muslims (well intending and not), in partnership with elements of the non-indigenous American Muslim community (yes, immigrant Muslims and their progeny) to exclude those whom they do not deem to be real, authentic, knowledgeable, and capable (indigenous) Muslims.
For me, this is a sad day when one of America’s most celebrated actors has to journey off into the unknown—in favor of the familiar!—to know what Islam is and who Muslims are. If we do not come to see this as fundamentally undermining our existence here then there’s little hope that Islam will ever be able to sufficiently take root in this country, and will be successfully labeled as a foreign, hostile, enterprise.

Ironically, even my non-Muslim family (my brother) gets this while many non-indigenous Muslims argue against it

Ironically, even my non-Muslim family (my brother) gets this while many non-indigenous Muslims argue against it