If There Was Ever A Good Time…

Incubation [in-kyuhbey-shuh n]. The act of incubating: To sit upon (eggs) for the purpose of hatching; to maintain at a favorable temperature and in other conditions promoting development, as cultures of bacteria or prematurely born infants; to develop or produce as if by hatching.

All of the above can easily be applied metaphorically to our condition and situation as Muslims in America. Like a collective group of mother hens, we’re sitting on our eggs. But if we do not soon act in our best self-interest, we will loose our eggs through negligence and heedlessness. Every day, every month that passes by, I think to myself: “What are we waiting for?” Our situation only becomes more grim as the hours slip by. I do not say these words lightly or for the sake of dramatization. I say them because we’ve only seen the Hollywood version of how bad things can get. Yet we have no screen writers to script us a happy ending. No, that happing ending will have to be done with our own hands. But first, we’ve got to get off our duffs — intellectually, politically, socially and more — or our eggs will never hatch and we will go the way of the Dodo bird.

The American Muslim front has been hit by periodic waves of violence, public embarrassment, and anxiety post 9/11. The Fort Hood killings are just the latest ripple. Responses in Muslim circles have varied from the typical apologetic to denial, with a few bright spots of insight in between. Yet, this seems to have done very little to motivate Muslims to act with more agency, with more foresight and responsibility that it has led myself to some very disturbing conclusions, the summary of which is that we, as American Muslims, have no clue what we’re doing here in America. I base my conclusions on 18 years of observation in the Muslim community, from Detroit to San Francisco. From Madison to Durham to Philadelphia. The last locale proves the most troublesome for me, as I have lived in Philadelphia for almost five years now and I find the Muslim community here to be the most disturbing. Not disturbing based on media-drive hype and hyperbole – I’ve come across no radicals or al-Qaeda suspects. But I have and do encounter large numbers of Muslims, many young but not exclusively, who are just riding the current in front of them, heedless to the environment they are in. And if that current should dash them on the rocks, they seem mostly content. But if they should also become mired on the river banks making no action, having no determinacy of how they sail down the river, I observe the same level of complacency.

Complacency is one of the key words I would use to describe one of the major maladies plaguing Philadelphia’s Muslim community. And while the issues that Philadelphia rankles with may differ in scope and intensity from other locations, I do believe them to be indicative of national crises. I also see much of the complacency here a communal trait passed on generation to generation by the leadership here – a leadership that seems much more interested at times in being served versus giving service. The mode of leadership here is predominantly charismatic, and while charisma will always have its part and place in any community, I do not believe it can be the only qualifier if the community is to be successful. I am well aware of the fact that these words will do little to endear me to certain audiences here in Philadelphia, but as one who steps up on the minbar on a weekly basis, I have to be frank and honest. I also speak these words because I want to see the best possible future for Philadelphia and the rest of American Muslims.

In an article I read today on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, Reuel Marc Gerecht’s article, Major Hasan and Holy War, spells out the typical conservative, Islamophobic rhetoric we have come to find common place in the discourse on Islam in America. Yet we cannot simply dismiss these missives as the handiwork of Muslim haters. Muslims here must come to see that we also play a hand in how we wrong ourselves by having not made the best choices for our community. Nor are we making them now. E-Baad recently posted an article by Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University in which Professor Mamdani asked some very good questions:

Is our world really divided into two, so that one part makes culture and the other is a prisoner of culture? Are there really two meanings of culture? Does culture stand for creativity, for what being human is all about, in one part of the world? But in the other part of the world, it stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity, whose rules are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and museumized in early artifacts?

When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act. After that, it seems they just conform to culture. Their culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates. It seems just to have petrified into a lifeless custom.

I believe these are some very prescient questions we need to ask ourselves. Is the culture we’re promoting [if any at all] conducive to a healthy and dignified Muslim life in America? Or have we marginalized ourselves where meanings are found not within ourselves or in how we interact with our world in negotiation with our transcendent values but within a stagnant, museumized collection of ritualistic actions that are devoid of or separated from the sacred values of our religion.

As Professor Lehman suggests, modern secular society only receives its values and agency from its cultural, creative process. A process in this regard constructs its own social/civic/secular religion. It is from this paradigm that we get notions of “freedom” and “equality” and yet, they seldom materialize on all playing fields [the fact that the plural must be flatted to the singular in this matrix is another conversation]. In other words, the production of culture as it stands now sees history and tradition as wholly problematic, a pariah, that, in order to flourish, all aspects and remnants of said historical and traditional processes must be jettisoned. Not only are Muslims just as guilty here as is secular America, they are also just as guilty in mummifying their own religious practices and significances. It would be wrong to think that it is only the Orientalist academy and a few Washington think-tanks that perceive Muslims to be ahistorical, apolitical, but Muslims themselves do a fine job of promoting this false reality as well. I would claim that the majority of debates in the Muslim community are grounded in arguments that suffer from the same ahistorical and apolitical realities. Ironically, the latest trend we see now in American Islam is the reifying of Traditional Islam. This construct is presented and packed such that one need only done the proper attire and converse in the appropriate dialect and all of one’s troubles will be solved. Additionally, one can easily feel more pious than one’s counterparts, who are just simply Muslim, most likely uneducated Salafis or worse. I am dramatizing this specific point here to make another: neither progressive or conservative proclivities achieve the balance needed for the dialog and action America Muslims need at this juncture. Neither does either have a monopoly on the understanding of the religion. And like our examples above, the former [progressive Muslims] lean towards dispatching [Muslim] history entirely, where the viewpoints and attitudes of the past are rendered secular [i.e., they are empty of any transcendent value]. On the other hand, such conservative expressions [both Traditional Islam, Salafism, and even Sufism to some extent] sacrilize all of Muslim history, where the attitudes and viewpoints of antiquated communities become sacred themselves, almost transcendent, where departing from their opinions is equated with departing with Revelation.

Both Muslims and American society [if not many parts of the modern world] struggle with this problem: appeasing the present and appeasing the past. And it is a dichotomy that is easy to become ensnared in, especially given the nature of modern discourse being particularly Manichaean. For Muslims, and for the America public, Islam does offer some potential insights into seeking a way out of this ensnarement. Muslim history is ripe with great minds that saw this very specific model and attempted to broker deals that would allow them to appease the ahistocial, transcendent values of Islam while leading dignified and compromising lives [not compromised!] in their current contexts.

There are major storm clouds on the horizon. The future in America, for Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is unclear and filled with much trepidation and speculation. Past derelictions must be corrected, with a clear manifesto of what waters we’re charting and where we’re sailing to. This coming of age has already arrived upon us, and if we wish to be successful, we must act swiftly, creatively, and decisively, with courage and steadfastness, if we are to flourish, not simply trying to cling to a rock – such imagery makes good postcards but we do not want to be that lone Bonsai tree waiting for an unfortunate moment to dislodge us permanently.

Read Reuel Marc Gerecht’s article here. Additional reading about Muslims in the military here. Mahmood Mamdani’s article here. “Going Muslim” by Tunku Varadarajan.

12 Comments If There Was Ever A Good Time…

  1. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    I admit I don’t have all the answers

    Some pair of balls you have.

    Plan + Work = Success

    Perhaps you could help with the planning or with the work. My so-called pontification is to help elucidate what the problem is. That is necessary before the simple Plan + Work = Success manifesto you’ve laid out.

    Anybody can diagnose and pontificate upon a problem but few actually have the balls to say what exactly should be done

    Sounds like you’ve got all the angles worked out. Let me know how I can best assist you and participate.

  2. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    I also know it’s waste of time and energy saying something that has already been said a gazillion times before.

    La ilaha illa Allah. I guess we shouldn’t repeat this, even though it’s been said a gazillion times.

  3. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Personally I’m done.

    Sounds more like you’re just getting warmed up. But if you say so.

    My insanity can’t afford dealing with people who can’t follow simple directions or understand simple concepts.

    ?-?-?

    Until somebody will step up and guide the Ummah to concrete direction with a concrete plan I’ll just “do me”

    As someone who gets up on the minbar every Friday, who gives classes and lectures, who takes time outside of a very busy schedule to help Muslims with social and psychological issues, is someone who has stepped up to the plate. Where are you? My wife, who’s working at a Muslim school despite having a Master’s from Stanford, is doing so so that she can help raise up that next generation.

    some of my comments may be considered rude

    You can say that again…

  4. domeshotsfatlaces@gmail.com'Hamza Umar

    As Salaam Alaykum

    Wow where to begin?

    Although some of my comments may be considered rude I hope they’re taken within the context of someone who’s “sick and tired”. Sick and tired of the same old verbiage. The same old talk of “problems” but no actual concrete solutions. Anybody can diagnose and pontificate upon a problem but few actually have the balls to say what exactly should be done,how it should be done and when it expected to be done.

    I believe until somebody is willing to point to a goal and explain SPECIFICALLY what it will take to get there and SPECIFICALLY how to get there and the US Ummah will wander aimlessly.

    Successful people don’t just talk they do,they produce. They say what they going to do and then do it and other see their success and want to be a part of it. This is not a difficult concept to understand!! There seems to be a notion within “educated” people that talking is synonymous with action when it fact it is not. The work of Shaykh Hamza & Shaykh Zaid building Zaytuna college ,I believe, will be successful because they are following a successful model. They’re doing more then just talk.

    If Muslims want to successfully deal with our problems we can’t sit around discuss what’s wrong without developing a plan and then working that plan to make things right.Indeed the US Ummah has many problems but yet I can’t think of one problem that is unsolvable. The issue always comes down to people afraid of doing something “unislamic” or going against “tradition”. When in actuality is nothing more than code speak for “this is not what we do in my country back home and I don’t understand it” or ” if we do this the Arabs may be mad at us and we can’t be REAL Muslims unless Arabs give us permission for our actions”.

    I admit I don’t have all the answers but I know enough to know when to search for the answers when I don’t know.I also know it’s waste of time and energy saying something that has already been said a gazillion times before. Personally I’m done. Until somebody will step up and guide the Ummah to concrete direction with a concrete plan I’ll just “do me” , as they say. My insanity can’t afford dealing with people who can’t follow simple directions or understand simple concepts. Plan + Work = Success

    Ma as salamah.

  5. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    What I wrote wasn’t meant as personal attack

    I beg to differ. You wrote:

    few actually have the balls to say what exactly should be done

    Perhaps you should read what you write and reflect on if it were said to you, how would it be received.

    I have not missed the point of your wandering rant. The issue here is that you seem to think that only through some bold, swift, decisive action sans-thought, can anything positive be done. I do believe in a real sense of urgency about our condition, but I do not believe that it’s as simple as you say. If it were, it would have been simply done by now. Instead, what we have here is a problem far more nuanced than you are aware of. That’s where the pontification comes in.

    If one knows the problem then one will find a solution.

    There are so many angles here that are being assumed or ignored, I don’t know where to start. I believe, to some extent, it’s thinking just like this that is hampering the issue. The above statement ignores a very real fact that many of us don’t know what the problem is, or, because of their position, are unwilling to change it/themselves to make the right choice going forward.

    Major Muslim organizations (ISNA,MANA,etc) need to come together for a week and discuss the problems of the US Ummah,develop a plan,Elect a national leader (a person who makes decisions and is held responsible for their decisions;not a someone who just a good lecturer.),Bring the plan to US Ummah detail why this plan is needed and HOW this plan will be implemented and WHEN the desired goal is expected to be attained. Also how ,on individual level, muslims can help achieve this goal.

    All of the above acronyms have come together and yet they can’t seem to agree on what the issues are. Prioritization of issues is one of the main stalling points. Each group sees a different item to prioritize. And as for the idea of responsibility, how do we enforce this? How do we make our leaders responsible for what they do/don’t do? Why aren’t they being held accountable now? Do you have a detailed plan to put this into action? Do you even know of the complexities of dealing with contrasting groups and egos in order to act harmoniously in a cooperative manner? As one of those good lecturers you spoke of, I have sat on numerous roundtables, a masjlis-ashurah’s, and the like, only to see very little to come from them. My conclusion from much of this experience and observation has been that the people who are doing the sitting and talking and leading don’t understand the problem! Therefore, thinking [or pontificating if you like] will always play a crucial role when things are floundering. Or perhaps you’re suggesting a mutiny – take over the ship. Well, I’ll wait and see how far you get with that plan.

    The Ulama are not leaders and were never intended to be taken as such. They are teachers of religion,keepers of tradition. Their main function is to produce people who will carry tradition on to the next generation not produce moral people.

    … I think you need to read a few more history books…

    The solution to this is obvious as well; establish a central authority for the specific madhahib.

    Do you really listen to how you write? “The solution is obvious”. This type of arrogance towards the gravity of this issue is partially why we’re still mired. The solution to all issue is to establish a central authority? Ever read any Muslim history? Outside of the time when the Prophet [s] was with the Muslim community, no single authority has ever successfully held that kind of sway and power. Instead, it’s led to strife, bloodshed and disorder.

    I don’t know and personally I don’t care anymore.

    Then why are you even responding to this post? Bored? Need attention? Want to show everyone who clever you are by dismissing arguments you don’t even fully comprehend? Funny, the Prophet [s] understood this religion better than anyone and yet he never took the stance that he didn’t need anyone. Neither did Abu Bakr. Neither did ‘Umar. Neither did ‘Uthman. Neither did ‘Ali. May God be pleased with all of them.

    No, my young friend. You have much to think and pontificate on…

  6. domeshotsfatlaces@gmail.com'Hamza Umar

    What I wrote wasn’t meant as personal attack but more ranting at the whole subject so I’m not going responding specifically to your response. However I am going to respond to the fact that you missed the main point of of my comment:

    I believe until somebody is willing to point to a goal and explain SPECIFICALLY what it will take to get there and SPECIFICALLY how to get there and the US Ummah will wander aimlessly.

    I find it frustrating nobody addresses this point. This is something anybody from experience knows is true but nobody wants to address it.Why?

    If one knows the problem then one will find a solution. The solution to this problem of wandering aimlessly is obvious. Major Muslim organizations (ISNA,MANA,etc) need to come together for a week and discuss the problems of the US Ummah,develop a plan,Elect a national leader (a person who makes decisions and is held responsible for their decisions;not a someone who just a good lecturer.),Bring the plan to US Ummah detail why this plan is needed and HOW this plan will be implemented and WHEN the desired goal is expected to be attained. Also how ,on individual level, muslims can help achieve this goal.

    Although one plan may not solve all the problems. Most problems have root causes which are related to each other and can be solved all together. Some of the root causes are ancestor worship,not understanding the nature of things,and the main point of understanding the ulama as a whole have different agenda and purpose than what the average muslim thinks they do. Until this is addressed muslims will always be in confused state. The Ulama are not leaders and were never intended to be taken as such. They are teachers of religion,keepers of tradition. Their main function is to produce people who will carry tradition on to the next generation not produce moral people. Their function is not to produce people who can morally stand on their own but is to produce people who will always be dependent on “following tradition”. Two completely different concepts.

    Another problem with US muslims is there’s no central authority for what’s Halal or Haram according to a specific madhhab in the US. So what you have is fatwa shopping. Usually fatawa taken out of context and applied to different situations which originally intended therefore producing unintended consequences. The whole “holy whores” fiasco of the east coast for example. The solution to this is obvious as well; establish a central authority for the specific madhahib.

    Like I stated before “the US Ummah has many problems but yet I can’t think of one problem that is unsolvable.” However who will take the weight and lead? Why isn’t ISNA bringing together different muslim organizations to solve the US Ummah problem? I don’t know and personally I don’t care anymore. I understand my deen on a practical level and don’t need a group of people telling how to live a moral life or fulfill my obligations to my Rabb.

  7. margari.hill@gmail.com'Margari Aziza

    Honestly Hamza, I think you didn’t really fully engage what Marc was talking about before interjecting. I think you missed the important question about the ahistorical views of Islam that both sides of the Traditionalist coin (Salafis and Sufis) perpetuate. As a historian, this is a major problem and it prevents many of our leaders from creatively addresses social issues in THIS society, as they idealize the past.
    Perhaps your language was unfortunate, but a general rant that is so broad sweeping that it seems to implicate the writer tends to invite a heavy handed response. We have to be careful with our words because they can be misread. This is something I keep learning over and over again in my few years of blogging. The other thing I noticed is that many people will not fully engage what I wrote, but will spin off with their own thoughts on issues that don’t address the main point.

    I wanted to address a few things which you suggest: the idea of a single leader guiding the American Muslim ummah, Zaytuna as an indication of plan in action, and the idea that most Muslims are belly button gazing.

    Back in the 90s, folks used to argue that if we establish a khalifate all our problems will be solved. Maybe that is a spin off of the same argument. I remember groups like Khalifornia who put out their literature on all the MSA tables and they would attack folks like Thomas Cleary. They really didn’t like folks such as Hamza Yusuf who invited Cleary to a number of events and talks. I wonder what happened to those Khalifornia guys? I guess if we have a Muslim pope, all our problems will be solved. Even during the early days of the righteous khalifa, we had problems. But we have to work out our differences by finding mutual interests. Unlike Marc, I haven’t sat on any shurah committees. My guess is that many of the old charismatic leaders aren’t quite willing to pass the baton just yet, nor give up their autonomy to another individual. I won’t mention examples here because I don’t want to lose any more friends that I haven’t even had a chance to meet in Philadelphia.

    You’ve been around for a minute. And you seem to admire a number of a Muslim thinkers and educators. Well, I was around when all Hamza Yusuf did was teach classes at Masjid an-Noor, just before the Muslim Community Center was fully functional in 1994. I saw Zaytuna develop from its location in a strip mall, to the institution that it is now. That was about 16 years of talking, teaching, planning, and not waiting for that shurah to happen. Zaytuna is about creating thinkers who are equipped to intellectually meet today’s challenges.

    If folks like Hamza waited for community consensus, we’d still be paralyzed with inaction. The movers and shakers in most Muslim communities are not the charismatic leaders. They are people behind the scenes who stay after hours to clean the musallah, to establish weekend and day schools, the pharmacists like Madehah Salah who became the principle of Granada, the local imams who train young men and women to become leaders, the women who start shelters and organize banquets to raise money for community building, they are the counselors who stay up late nights and help husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, work through their family problems. Local action is what makes these communities go around, not a single charismatic leader.

    Both Marc and I are committed to the field of education and the inculcation of Islamic values in ourselves and the next generation of Muslims. I am training my students to be more analytical and systematic in their writing and thinking so that they can better engage in these dialogues. Sometimes we have slip ups, but it is important that we recognize the fallacies, limitations, or weaknesses in the arguments that we propose.

  8. samiraanisah@yahoo.com'Samira

    I am working my way through the Mahmadi article now. I have read Varadarajan’s “Going Muslim.”

    Your declaration that we don’t know what we’re doing in American really struck me. In my mind, it is not our sense of place that you are calling attention to (as in why are we here?) instead- it is the “doing” part that is essential. What are the thoughts, actions or activities that are defining us in this country? How are these things translating into a living culture that moves us out of the cultural stagnation (or perhaps more accurately cultural gap)?

    It is not just the Islamophobes who imagine Muslims as wedded to a dead past-but through our own actions & rhetoric we seem to rejoice in these notions- or as you put it- we “mummify” our religious practices & traditions. On one hand, we can, perhaps, chalk this up to a lack of knowledge or ignorance- an illiteracy of Islamic tradition or critical thinking.

    Yet-in my opinion-another source of this reluctance to “DO” anything is fear. To become Muslims in America who “appease the ahistocial, transcendent values of Islam while leading dignified and compromising lives [not compromised!] in their current contexts” requires a resolving of the inaccuracies in which we view the past (both historical AND personal in many cases)and a move to shatter the illusions we have of our present. We need to better diagnose our current contexts to understand them. A part of this diagnosis involves acknowleding how much of the inaction in our community is because we are afraid of the world, afraid of challenging ourselves intellectually and of making the sacrifices necessary to serve our communities.

    These are just my initial feelings after reading your engaging post. Allahu Alam.

  9. brnaeem@yahoo.com'Naeem

    AA- Marc,

    Interesting post. Much to ponder over. But for now, a quick question – why did you link to the Going Muslim article? What has that to do with your post?

    Oh and your Ma’rifah podcast is very nice…keep up the good work!

  10. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Wa ‘alaykum as-Salaam, Naeem. I’ll try and explain here:

    The American Muslim front has been hit by periodic waves of violence, public embarrassment, and anxiety post 9/11. The Fort Hood killings are just the latest ripple.

    Varadarajan’s article is in response to the Fort Hood killings [well, in part it is]. It’s to give example to the public embarrassment, to the pressures and prejudices that Muslims are having to face now in the public sphere. I hypothesize that one of the reasons Muslims face such a steep climb in the public sphere is because Muslims have done very little to ingratiate themselves to American society. Hence, all attempts to do so now are viewed with skepticism because they are mostly apologetic in nature. This bears little fruit for either side.

    I also included it because his article expresses a sentiment held by some conservative or even non-conservative circles, that view Islam as immanently violent. And while you and I and many others would hold this not to be the case, we have to critically examine the origins of such arguments – and I do say origins. Certainly, some are pure bigotry, and there’s very little that can be done about that. But we also have to be willing to indict ourselves in how these thoughts and sentiments came to be here in America. Again, let me enforce that I am in no way suggesting an apologetic route – that would be disastrous. But we need to examine if many of these long held assumptions about piety and what constitutes piety are really as we hold them to be or are we using our religion as an excuse for something else.

    It reminds me of this passage in s. al-Baqarah:

    “Piety is not the turning of your faces to the qibla of East or West but it is sure faith in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Books and the Prophets…” [Q: 2:177]

  11. maryanncoledia@yahoo.com'Miriam/SS

    As salaam alaikum Brother Marc,

    You said:
    “There are major storm clouds on the horizon. The future in America, for Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is unclear and filled with much trepidation and speculation. Past derelictions must be corrected, with a clear manifesto of what waters we’re charting and where we’re sailing to. This coming of age has already arrived upon us, and if we wish to be successful, we must act swiftly, creatively, and decisively, with courage and steadfastness, if we are to flourish, not simply trying to cling to a rock – such imagery makes good postcards but we do not want to be that lone Bonsai tree waiting for an unfortunate moment to dislodge us permanently.”

    ***STANDING OVATION***

    I have some suggestions (solutions) I’d like to submit but I’m preparing for an exam. Will this thread be open next month?

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