#MiddleGroundPodcast: Islam, Blackamerica: Between Morality and White Supremacy

In this episode, I  foster an important conversation about the future of Islam in America, particularly as it relates to Blackamerica, with Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, assistant professor of Islamic law and Prophetic Tradition at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, and Malik Shaw, author of The Green School: A Natural Approach To Educating Children and the co-Founder and executive director of Midtown Mosque, in Memphis.

From Malik Shaw’s book, The Green School:

“As Jill Rigby states in her book Raising Disrespectful Children in a Disrespectful World, ‘As a result of this emphasis on self-esteem, twenty-somethings are returning home rather than facing the world on their own. College kids are flunking out because they don’t know how to manage their schedules. Kids are growing up without problem-solving skills because their parents think love means solving all their problems for them. Many adolescents have no respect for authority because their parents didn‘t command their respect. Instead, their parents gave too much and exposed them to too little. In our attempt to build self-esteem in children, we have reared a generation of young people who are failing at life, haven’t a clue who they are, and are struggling to find a reason for living. Their kids fall for the latest craze, healthy or unhealthy. It doesn’t matter, as long as they are in the middle of it. They would rather die than give up their cell phones. And they feel that others have an obligation to serve them’.”

More on Time: A Khutbah

In my previous khutbah, I discussed the importance of time and time management, as well as time as an object, so that we might think about the “times” we live in. All the above falls under an even larger umbrella, and that is the umbrella of religious literacy. To know and understand time and its importance to the Muslim is to increase one’s awareness of God and increase one’s understanding of Islam and its objective with mankind, God willing.

To step back a moment for before addressing the topic of time head on, I would like to bring our attention to the role that scholarship and learning plays in developing a sense of time. We often hear new buzz words such as “tradition”, both upper and lower cases being used. It is not my desire to contest the existence of an “Islamic tradition” [though I prefer Muslim as it is not quite so atemporal/ahistoric as Islamic], rather quite the opposite. But in order for that tradition to be operational, we must examine our relationship with it. I thought it would best to examine the meaning of tradition, as it relates to Muslims, by looking at it through the prism of another scenario. Below is a quote from the 19th/20th century philosopher, John Dewey:

When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human condition under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.

— From John Dewey’s, Art As Experience. This speaks volumes to me on modern Muslims understanding of pre-modern law [Shari’ah].

If we were to substitute Dewey’s “art” for our “tradition”, we can begin to imagine some of the problems and challenges we are faced with, many of which are by our own hands. Indeed, “Traditional Islam” has attained the status of “classic”, from which it has become quite stagnant and “isolated” from our very own lives. No longer a means of tools by which we interpret and navigate our present reality, “Traditional Islam” has become an operational substitute, relieving us of the burden of having to act, think, and behave as responsible, God-conscious Muslims. This neologism is complete with an aesthetic appearance: one’s burden to think and act with traditional morals and values is even further removed by simply allowing us to dress “traditionally”, even when most of us have no historical relationship with such modes of dress.

Dewey’s words are even more relevant in this passage:

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.

— John Dewey, from Art As Experience. Again, the analogy that can be drawn between Islamic law/studies and what Dewey calls “art” here is intriguing.

I find Dewey’s “artistic objects” a fine substitute for our “traditional Islam” as a means of diagnosing a crippling condition I see prevalent amongst Muslims today: the operational ability for Muslims to think proactively and creatively has been “separated” from our “conditions” and “experiences”; a proverbial wall has been erected around “tradition” that has the opposite intended effect: It renders the significance of that tradition “opaque” to use. We can neither see through it, into it, nor around it. Instead of a tool to a broader means, it has been supplanted as the end. Once “remitted” to this separate realm, our primary means of acting in accordance with our reality that will both please God and make our lives easier, is “cut off” with the “materials and aims” of each and every human [read Muslim] effort, undergoing and achievement. It will be necessary to see the pitfall in this so that our aims and efforts at making responsible and intelligent uses of time are not for naught.

Key Words

  • لهو/to amuse, dally, waste time, engage in excessive pleasure.
  • غفلة/heedlessness
  • زين – تزيين/to embellish, adorn, make-believe, sham, pretense, shave/put on makeup/زينت نفسها
  • عمل و أعمال و فعل و أفعال/Actions [af’al] can have the ability to take on acts of worship but they can also but non-acts of worship whereas Deeds [a’mal] have a distinct inclination towards acts of worship as they are tied to the “intention” to do so:
  • إن بطش ربك لشديد – انه هو يبدئ ويعد و هو الغفور الودود – ذو العرش المجيد – فعال لما يريد
  • قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم إنما الأعمال بالنيات و إنما لكل امرئ ما نوى
  • و هم على ما يفعلون بالمومنين شهود و ما نقموا منهم إلا أن يومنوا بالله العزيز الحميد الذي له الملك السماوات والأرض و الله على كل شيء شهيد

Time marches on, marches towards us, but how attuned are we to this fact?

اقترب للناس حسابهم و هم في غفلة معرضون (۱) ما ياتيكم من ذكر من ربهم محدث إلا اِسْتَمَعوه و هم يلعبون (۲) لاهية قلوبهم و أسّروا النجوى الذين ظلموا هل هذآ إلا بشر مثلكم أفتاتون السحر و أنتم تنصرون (٣) قال ربى يعلم القول في السماء و الأرض و هو السميع العليم (٤)

Mankind’s Reckoning has drawn very close to them, yet they heedlessly turn away (1). No fresh reminder comes to them from their Lord without their listening to it as if it was a game (2). Their hearts are distracted. Those who do wrong confer together secretly, saying, ‘Is this man anything but a human being like yourselves? Do you succumb to magic with your eyes wide open?’ (3). Say: ‘My Lord knows what is said in heaven and earth. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ (4). [Qur’an: 21: 1-5

ألهاكم التكاثر حتى زرتم المقابر كلا سوف سيعلمون ثم كلا سيعلمون

You are distracted in excessive accumulation until you visit the graves!

In the tafsir of these verses, it can mean that you either do so all your life until you “visit the grave” or that you take competition/bragging/مفاخرة to such an extent, you have to go and visit the graves of your dead as did Banu Sahm and Banu ‘Abd al-Manaf. We must be careful with what we do with our time. We will be held accountable.

Time is also critical to Muslim development. We have to not only be concerned about “impending doom”, but with how we spend our time preparing for that doom. As I mentioned in the khutbah, fear as it is discussed in the Qur’an, is not like Hollywood fear, where the victim of anxiety or dread is rendered immobile, but instead is meant to propel us into action. Actions that will bring about a favorable outcome on the Qiyamah. And while we must spend time learning and studying in all manner of so-called secular topics so that we can have a trade or a profession, so too we must spend time learning and knowing our religion so that we have a broad-based understanding of life’s function and role, not simply to memorize the rights and wrongs of Islam. This latter part is critical to the development of a healthy Muslim identity, something to which Muslim thinker Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas discusses in one of his works:

Knowledge of the truth about the world of empirical things can indeed be achieved and increased through inquiry made by generations of mankind. But true knowledge has an immediate bearing on the individual man as it pertains to his identity and destiny, and he cannot afford to suspend his judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations.

Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future by Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas.

Al-Attas’ acknowledgement of the role that sacred [here I am fine with the use of “traditional” so long as it’s understood as an operational imperative, not a laundry list] knowledge plays in the development of the Muslim is crucial. But I think just as important is his observation of the “immediate bearing” such knowledge can and should have on a Muslim. I see this as particularly valuable to the convert, who did not grow up in an “Islamic environment”, and is in need of such knowledge to be immediately beneficial to their growth and development as a Muslim. Convert or otherwise, the lesson here is none of us can, as Shaykh al-Attas says, “afford to suspend [our] judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations”. In other words, time is of the essence and we must all efforts to acquire such knowledge a priority in our lives, one way or another.

Time passing and making actions seem good to them.

تالله لقدَ اَرسلنا إلى أُمَمٍ من قبلك فزين لهم الشيطان أعمالهم فهو وليهم اليومَ و لهم عذاب اَليم

By Allah, We sent Messengers to communities before your time, but Shaytan made their actions seem good to them. Therefore today he is their protector. They will have a painful punishment. [Qur’an: 16: 63]

It is a real temptation to make one’s deeds and actions fair seeming. But as I noted above in the key words section, zayyana/زين – تزيين is thematically connected to the embellishment and self-delusion of deeds. Its root has much in common with the following actions: to adorn, make-believe, as well as to put on makeup, all of which are a means of deception, one way or another. We may not like to think of it [and I am not starting a fiqh war – for more on beauty and makeup, please see or listen to Ustadh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali’s lecture, The Fiqh of Beauty] but when we apply makeup or dress ourselves in a certain way, in part [if not in essence] we wish to imply that what’s in front of us may be better than what is really there. Likewise, in the Qur’an, those that seek to delude themselves and/or God are do so by attempting to make their deeds seem to be better than what they truly are. If left unchecked, this state of the heart can lead one to doom, as is the case of the unnamed group in s. Yusuf, verse 12:

و إذا مس الإنسان الضر دعانا لجنبه قاعدا اَو قائما فلما كشفنا عنه ضره مر كأن لم يدعنا إلى ضر مسه كذلك زين للمسرفين كانوا يعملون

And when a calamity touches mankind, he calls out to Us, upon his side, laying down or standing. Yet when we have removed his affliction, he proceeds upon his way as if he had never been accosted. In this manner whatever the indignant one do seems fair pleasing. [Qur’an: 10: 12]

As we can see in the two above examples from the Qur’an, zayyana/زيّن and ‘aml/عمل go hand in hand, at least in how we try to deceive God and ourselves. This is important as ‘aml/a’mal [عمل و أعمال] are almost always associated with religious practice and deeds, whereas fi’l/af’al [فعل و أفعال] can be religious or neutral.

لقد كان لكم في رسول الله إسوة حسنة لّمن كان يرجوا الله و اليوم الآخرَ و ذكر الله كثيرا

Surely in the Messenger of God is an excellent excellent example for the one that hopes to meet God, and has hope of the Final Day and remembers God abundantly. [Qur’an: 33: 21]

May God Almighty grant us success in this. Amin.

Listen to and download the audio here.

Escaping the Hurricane: Reflections on Anti-Shari’ah Hysteria

The following is an article written by esteemed American Muslim scholar, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, of Lamppost Productions. A Philadelphia native, Ustadh Abdullah has gone on to found Lamppost Productions, an online educational resource on Islam. He is also part of the teaching faculty at Zaytuna College. I became aware of Ustadh Abdullah many years ago when I was studying myself. I must say I continue to be impressed not only by the breadth of his scholarship [which is substantial and may Allah increase him in knowledge!], but by his application of what he has learned and his dedication to ground that knowledge in the reality in which he operates. The article which proceeds here, Escaping the Hurricane: Reflections on Anti-Shari’ah Hysteria, provides a well-needed perspective on the mania that has gripped much of the imagination of Americans concerning Islamic law/Shari’a, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Caught in the grip of this maelstrom, Muslims have been deeply challenged to separate the wheat from the chaff, with most responses seeking to either deflect the negative imagery hurled at them through unprincipled appeasement of the dominant culture, or the exact opposite, condemning America entirely. Ustadh Abdullah’s response is balanced and attenuated to the circumstances. Ustadh Abdullah exibits great courage in order to ask hard questions, such as those relating to the truth of the 9/11 attacks—a tender topic to say the least—while taking measured steps to dismantle many of the misconceptions as to what Shari’ah law is and what, if any, its consequences are. I hope you will find it as enlightening as I did. و لله الحمد

As Salamu ‘alaykum, brethren,

Below you will find a list of hypothetical questions that I believe all Muslims need to be thinking about along with some brief responses to them. A storm is brewing in the Western world and pretty soon it’s going to be a hurricane if we don’t get started with serious efforts to reach those around us, our neighbors, peers, families, and co-workers. As you know, 2012 is an election year, and both the Republican and Tea Parties have already gotten a headstart on their campaign to rid the white house of President Obama and God knows who else after that. My concern is to defend Muslims, not Obama, but I do mention him just to underscore how central the demonization of Muslims is to ensuring his own demonization. I believe it is our duty to make every sincere effort we can to get around the country (especially our leaders) to host as many interfaith gatherings as possible with the expressed aim of speaking about Shariah, terrorism, and the real issues at hand behind which the corporations and politicians want to hide: the ECONOMY. I’m a little sarcastic in some of my responses below in hopes that readers can decipher the logic of them all on their own. I have not furnished my responses with citations mainly because I feel that the evidence supporting these answers is as brilliant as the sun. Hence, there is no need to furnish you with them. Please let me know what your thoughts are on these matters.  While all questions are important, of particular concern to me is the response concerning 9/11. It seems to me that as long as we continue to accept “collective” responsibility for that tragedy we will never be able to dig ourselves out of the morass we find ourselves in and quickly sinking deeper into.

Does Shariah law threaten the US Constitution?

  • No.  The Shariah aims to protect five universal interests: religion, bodily integrity, progeny, sanity, and property.  This means that Shariah law actually would guarantee the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; guarantee the protection of life, honor, and property ownership; promote the preservation of the family and responsible adult interaction ; strive for economic justice and fight against exploitative and predatory business practices.
  • As for what Shariah has NOT done to America are: Restrict civil liberties; Rob the treasury; Destroy the economy and then reward those responsible for the market crash; Cut funding for education; Initiate three wars that are further draining the little credit we have left; Steal retirement benefits; Squander peoples’ life savings; Raise the costs of healthcare and pharmaceuticals; Predatory lending and foreclose on thousands of homes; Raise the cost of gas and food goods, extraordinary rendition; imprisonment without legal representation, torcher, etc.
  • The Patriot Act is more responsible for abolishing the Constitution than the Shariah would or could ever be.

Have Muslims infiltrated American institutions and taken over America?

  • No. The last time I checked the Muslims population in America was only 2.6 million according to the PEW Institute (http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-01-27-1Amuslim27_ST_N.htm) in a country of 300 million.
  • Last I looked as well, the “overwhelming” majority of those in charge of Congress, the economic sector, the military chiefs, institutions of higher education, major corporations, and the media were “white.” So where are Muslims supposedly taking over?

Do Muslims NOT want to live by the Constitution?

  • To be honest, it’s complicated. That’s largely because Article IV: Section 2 of the Constitution still promises to prosecute runaway slaves, the 13th Amendment allows the enslavement of people guilty of committing crimes, and Article I: Section 2 still counts blacks as merely 3/5 of a person.  If we could just efface some of this troubling stuff, I’m sure that Muslims would be totally fine with the Constitution (wink).

Does the Qur’an forbid Muslims from befriending non-believers/”infidels”?

  • Yes and no. There are two kinds of infidels mentioned in the Qur’an. One that is hostile, antagonizes, and works assiduously to make life difficult for Muslims, and another who is accommodating and congenial. Whenever the Qur’an speaks harshly about the infidel (kaafir), it is speaking only about the first of the two.

Do Muslims believe that the Qur’an is superior to the Constitution?

  • Yes. Muslims do believe the Qur’an to be superior to any man-made document. But that does not mean that faith in the Qur’an is necessarily difficult to reconcile with good citizenship. In reality, the Shariah obliges Muslims to respect and abide by any law that does not infringe upon their fundamental religious duties. When a Muslim is found confronted by such an infringement, the Shariah encourages them to either seek reasonable accommodation by peaceful means or to immigrate to another land where their religious rights are respected.

Are Muslims being nice just because they’re a minority in America?

  • No. But Muslims are being cautious because they are fully aware of the great evil that “white” America is capable of when they get scared (e.g. massacres of entire native populations, dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations, interning yellow people in concentration camps, inundating the inner cities with crack cocaine and illegal firearms).
  • Dissimilation (taqiya) is actually to “conceal” one’s Islam to the point that a non-Muslim doesn’t know that a Muslim is actually a Muslim. It is to “deny” one’s Islam in the face of danger. So Muslims are NOT practicing ‘taqiya’ as some have suggested. Muslims aren’t concealing any more of a sinister intention than that of their accusers who MIGHT be concealing an intention to institute a new Jim Crow (outside the prison walls) or to aid the political ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan.

What is Shariah?

  • Shariah literally means a clear path to a large body of fresh water. It has been used also to mean a ‘divine path’, ‘moral code or ideal.’ All the prominent apostles of God were given a Shariah. In other words, Abraham had a Shariah. Moses had a Shariah. Jesus had a Shariah. And Muhammad, the last apostle of God, had a Shariah. What distinguishes each of them is merely that the laws differed slightly.

Would Muslims like Americans to accept Islam?

  • Sure. But we understand that all guidance comes from to God. The Qur’an teaches us that we cannot guide those whom we love, and that it is not God’s desire for all people to be Muslims. This desire is no different than the Christian desire for all to believe in Christ. While we understand that it is not all Christians who seek to demonize Muslims by alleging that we represent an imperialistic and fascist system of domination, it is also clear that our Christian antagonists, in particular (like Pat Roberson and Franklin Graham) are merely concerned about the rise in our numbers because we make their own ideological imperial efforts more difficult to accomplish.

Would corporal punishment return to America if the Shariah law was enforced?

  • Not necessarily. This is because the Shariah law is not a static inflexible system of law nor is it merely a penal code. The Shariah covers matters of religious praxis, doctrine, virtue ethics, matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody), finance, commerce, peace, war, and many other matters. The proof that the Shariah’s penal code is dynamic can be found in the fact that the Caliph ‘Umar I put a stay of execution on the punishment for theft (cutting off hands) during a famine when hungry people were being caught while stealing food.

Would non-Muslims have to abide by Shariah law if it existed in America?

  • No. Non-Muslims would not be expected to live according to the demands of the Shariah if it was to be practice in the United States. It would only apply to Muslims who have willfully pledged and vowed to live according to the Islamic teachings. Islamic history is replete with examples of Christian, Jewish, Magian, and other communities flourishing under Islamic rule without being forced to live as Muslims.

Were Muslims responsible for the attacks on 9/11?

  • Whether you believe Muslims to be responsible or not, consider this. The so-called 19 hijackers all supposedly died in the attacks on the Trade Towers, Pentagon, and Flight 93 which crashed in PA. Who identified them? In other words, if the only witnesses to the 19’s actions all died during the crashes, how do we know those 19 supposedly aboard those flights actually carried out the attacks? How do we even know they were aboard? Did the victims text pictures of them back to their loved ones or to law enforcement? A claim that they were “known” terrorists is not sufficient proof especially considering the credibility of the source of that allegation. This is worth considering whether or not you believe in some of the conspiracy theories out there.

The original article was published April 27th, 2011, on Lamppost Productions web site.

Finding Our Moral Compass

Finding Our Moral Compass is a two-part lecture regarding the fundamental principles of Islamic spirituality (tasawwuf) and a discussion of the stations of certitude (maqamat al-yaqin) based on the work of ‘Abd al-Wahid b. ‘Ashir, Al-Murshid Al-Mu’in, with additional insights taken from Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali’s, Garden of the Seekers and Reliance of the Travelers (Rawdat al-Talibin wa ‘Umdat al-Salikin).

The text for this lecture is based on al-Murshid Al-Mu’in ‘ala al-Daruri min ‘Ulum al-Din (The Helpful Guide to Essential Religious Knowledge) has been studied by Maliki students of Morocco for over 3 centuries. The author is ‘Abd Al-Wahid b. ‘Ashir (1040 AH/1631 CE), a versatile scholar from Fes, Morocco. This work covers the fundamentals of the three pivotal topics of the Islamic teachings: Islam, Iman, and Ihsan (practice, belief, and ethics). Our focus will be in the third area (Ihsan). In particular, we will concentrate on what Ibn ‘Ashir terms ‘The stations of certitude’ (maqamat al-yaqin) after an introduction into the principles of the Islamic conception of moral refinement.

Shaykh Abdullah Ali’s lectures are an excellent opportunity for Muslims looking to expand their depth of understanding of Islam as well as glean some insights on how to elevate their practice of the religion.