From Moses to Malcolm – Islam in America, A Khutbah

Moses was the adopted son of Egypt and Pharaoh. Malcolm too was an adopted son of sorts. Both spoke truth to power. There are many figures of justice throughout the Qur’an and in Muslim history: Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Dhu’l Qarnayn, Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, Umar bin al-Khattab, Nana Asmau, Muhammad ‘Ali, and El Hajj Malcolm Shabbaz, just to name a few.

One of the issues that challenge religious communities in America as it relates to relevance and speaking truth to power is the privatization of religion (secularity/post-secularity). In this process of privatization, I feel we have taken the story, life and today, anniversary of the death of Malcolm Shabbaz, from the perspective of privatized religion. So the question is:

Do we celebrate Malcolm’s “coolness” or do we actually intimately relate to the issues he sought to address?

What did he stand for? Do we really love Malcolm, or have we used his story and history as a repository to write our own, for as God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم tells us, love has conditions:

قَالَ رَجُلٌ لِلنَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَاللَّهِ إِنِّي لأُحِبُّكَ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ انْظُرْ مَاذَا تَقُولُ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ وَاللَّهِ إِنِّي لأُحِبُّكَ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ انْظُرْ مَاذَا تَقُولُ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ وَاللَّهِ إِنِّي لأُحِبُّكَ ‏.‏ ثَلاَثَ مَرَّاتٍ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ إِنْ كُنْتَ تُحِبُّنِي فَأَعِدَّ لِلْفَقْرِ تِجْفَافًا فَإِنَّ الْفَقْرَ أَسْرَعُ إِلَى مَنْ يُحِبُّنِي مِنَ السَّيْلِ إِلَى مُنْتَهَاهُ

A man said to the Prophet (s.a.w): “O’ Messenger of God, I swear to God that I  truly love you!” So the Prophet said: “Consider what you’re saying.” To this the man replied, “I swear to God that I  truly love you!” Three times this was repeated. He said, “If you do indeed love me, then prepare yourself for poverty, for indeed poverty comes faster upon whoever loves me than does the flood to its destination.” — Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, 2350.

While this hadith is rated as weak it does show that standing up for the truth, for la ilahi illa’Allah, will not come without its trials and tests. This was abundantly clear in the life of Malcolm, how ultimately paid for justice with his life, may God have mercy on him.

Another parallel between Malcolm’s life and the Qur’an is the story of Abraham and his people:

وَلَقَدْ آتَيْنَا إِبْرَاهِيمَ رُشْدَهُ مِنْ قَبْلُ وَكُنَّا بِهِ عَالِمِينَ

إِذْ قَالَ لِأَبِيهِ وَقَوْمِهِ مَا هَٰذِهِ التَّمَاثِيلُ الَّتِي أَنْتُمْ لَهَا عَاكِفُونَ

قَالُوا وَجَدْنَا آبَاءَنَا لَهَا عَابِدِينَ

قَالَ لَقَدْ كُنْتُمْ أَنْتُمْ وَآبَاؤُكُمْ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ

قَالُوا أَجِئْتَنَا بِالْحَقِّ أَمْ أَنْتَ مِنَ اللَّاعِبِينَ

قَالَ بَلْ رَبُّكُمْ رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ الَّذِي فَطَرَهُنَّ وَأَنَا عَلَىٰ ذَٰلِكُمْ مِنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ

“We gave Ibrahim his right guidance early on, and We had complete knowledge of him. When he said to his father and his people, ‘What are these statues you are clinging to?’ they said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said, ‘You and your fathers are clearly misguided.’ They said, ‘Have you brought us the truth or are you playing games?’ He said, ‘Far from it! Your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He who brought them into being. I am one of those who bear witness to that.” Qur’an, 21: 51-57.

It took a look of courage for Abraham to address his people on what they were wrongly “clutching on to”. Likewise, Malcolm addressed America, as one of its own, that they too were clutching on to the system of anti-black racism and violence, a system much akin to idolatry, for no other reason than they “found their forefathers doing so”.

This and more is addressed in the khutbah. I pray we can reflect, change and benefit from the examples of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, Moses, Jesus, Abraham and even the likes of our brother, Malcolm.

And with God is all success.

Addressing Middle America

Last evening, I had the pleasure of finally meeting up with an acquaintance (whom now I can call friend), a fellow wayfarer in the doldrums of Philadelphia, and discussed all manner of things Muslim: morality, politics, family life (although I’m sad to say we didn’t make mention of Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans’ 3 M’s: music, moons, and meat!). And in our conversations we spoke on the need for American-Muslims to seriously engage middle America, and by that I mean the middle-class. We both lamented that for far too long, particularly amongst Blackamerican Muslims, there has been the tendency to only focus on inner city (what some call ‘hood) in terms of da’wah. The result, we felt, is an Islam that tends to patronize the ugly side of Blackamerican culture instead of, as Imam Suhaib Webb as stated, “polishing it”. While this is not unique to Blackamericans, I do feel its worth discussing. The result of this myopic focus has engendered a number of tragic results. A few them being:

  • lack of spiritual growth on the part of Blackamerican Muslims: immoral behavior is often given a pass due to the expressed interest of large numbers of Blackamericans in Islam. In addition, due to the desire of many Blackamericans desire to escape the realities of black urban life in America, their Islam in many ways becomes escapist or even performance art, not a focus on a God-pleasing life. In this way, Islam is subsumed under Blackamerican culture, right or wrong, instead of negotiating it.
  • it has ignored the realities of this particular demographic and, to be frank, has not been realistic about the challenges those coming out of this experience will face. To speak from experience, one of the major factors that allowed myself and my two older brothers to avoid the trappings of urban black life was a solid, two-parent house hold. This is something that many Blackamerican urban families are lacking. Not only this, but there has been a discernible lack of focus on building family in many urban Blackamerican centers. As my friend and I observed, community in the modern American-Muslim vernacular has been rendered a mostly abstract concept: it has as of yet to take a recognizable form and thus, to date, has frustrated many a Muslim’s attempt to be a part of one. Personally, my thought is that this is because most of the rhetoric that is espoused by American-Muslims tends to go in one of two directions: the aforementioned abstract community and the individual. The latter tends to produce, with all possible respect, things like UnMosqued, where the opinion of the individual is elevated beyond mere concerns to dictating policies. Instead, I believe the most important building block for the community is not the individual, but the family. By accentuating the family (encouraging stable marriages, nurturing children, limiting childhood to children versus extended adolescence, etc.), Islam may in fact be able to deal with the systemic challenges facing Black-(and others)-Americans.
  • this myopic focus has also created a false essentialism between blackness and poverty. That to be truly black is to be truly poor (again with ‘hood as the vernacular). The result, with the above observations in mind, has also systematically ignored the Blackamerican middle-class. God’s Messenger said, “The best from amongst you in pre-Islamic times (jahiliyyah) are the best amongst you in Islam if they comprehend it*” (agreed upon).
  • it has also completed ignored the 700-lbs. gorilla in the room which is white America, in particular middle-class white America. This will, I believe, necessitate Whiteamerican Muslims (convert or otherwise and yes, there are Whiteamerican Muslims who are born Muslim!) to take a prominent role in addressing white America.

I know this will seem an odd recipe to many but I feel, when we look at America, one of the greatest aspects of Islam that will provide Americans with a foothold to begin grasping what Islam is all about, is its intrinsically middle-class values. When I say middle-class here I am referring to those American values which prioritize the family, security, and safety. Solid middle-class morals and ethics which have a strong, if not always properly executed, attachment to helping the poor and the less fortunate. Another good friend of mine, Malik Shaw, and I have often lamented about the state of Blackamerica and the number of children who are casually born out of wedlock and that, once upon a time not so long again, this was unacceptable to middle-class America, black or white. Let me be clear: I am well aware of many of the issues of modern middle-class life, which has wondered from its center and is slowly being solely concerned with procuring a life of no inconveniences (spiritual as well as existential). That being true, I still believe that articulating Islam in this vein to middle-class America: white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., will prove, God-willing, a more efficacious method of calling people to God. I will end and summarize with a quote from ‘Abdal Hakim Murad, from a talk he delivered entitled The Way Forward:

“We can curl up in a prickly ball, like a frightened hedge hog, and curse and damn everything around us, because it happens not to know ‘la ilaha ill’Allah‘, or we can start to activate the Prophetic capacity, which says that ‘laysa sawa’ ‘, ‘they are not all the same’ [Qur’an, 3: 113]. There are amongst the Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, upright people.”

لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً ۗ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ

“They are not all the same. There is a community among the People of the Book who are upright. They recite God’s signs throughout the night, and they prostrate.”

And God knows best.

*Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was asked, “Who are the most honorable of the people?” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The most honorable of them in God’s sight are those who protect themselves from His chastisement. They said, “We’re not asking you concerning that,” to which he said, “Then the most honorable of the people is Joseph, God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s friend (khalil, Abraham).” They said, “We do not ask you about that either.” The Prophet said, “Do you ask about the virtues of the Arabs?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Those who were the best amongst you in the pre-lslamic time are the best amongst you in Islam, if they comprehend.

قَالَ سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَىُّ النَّاسِ أَكْرَمُ قَالَ ‏”‏ أَكْرَمُهُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاهُمْ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَأَكْرَمُ النَّاسِ يُوسُفُ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ ابْنُ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ خَلِيلِ اللَّهِ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَعَنْ مَعَادِنِ الْعَرَبِ تَسْأَلُونِي ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا نَعَمْ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَخِيَارُكُمْ فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ خِيَارُكُمْ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ إِذَا فَقِهُوا ‏”‏‏.‏ تَابَعَهُ أَبُو أُسَامَةَ عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللَّهِ‏.‏

Lecturing At William Penn Charter School

Many thanks to Thomas and his class at the William Penn Charter School – an educational institution built on Quaker values, for inviting me out to speak on Islam again. I have spoken before at William Penn and am always impressed with Tom’s class. This term, Tom was teaching a class centered around the theme of Peoples of the Book. The main text they were reading for the class was Karen Armstrong’s piece.

I spoke on the concept of the People of the Book, namely Jews and Christians, and how they were spoken of in the Qur’an and mentioned in the Sunnah but I also elaborated on the cultural knowledge of the pagan Arabs and what they knew of in terms of stories from the Torah or the Bible. A great deal of Orientalist scholarship has tried to paint the Arabian peninsula as being more isolated than it was. More recent scholarship counters that despite paganism and idolatry being a prevalent practice amongst the Arab tribes of Arabia pre-7th Century, the narratives of Moses, Jesus and Abraham, just to name a few, were known to these Arabs and thus were relevant to them. We also examined how not only is Islam seen by other religious traditions but more importantly, how does Islam see itself in the context of the People of the Book.

Continuing about the legacy of Biblical stories in the Arabian peninsula, without their cultural familiarity of these stories the Qur’an’s relevancy would have been greatly dimmished, hence giving rise to new and alternative scholarship that suggests the Arabian peninsula was more connected to its neighbors, primarily through trade, than has been previously suggested.

I also fielded questions from a number of students, with topics ranging from 9/11 [a perennial question] to how do Muslims negotiate marriage with non-Muslims. We also discussed the role that religion plays in informing social and cultural participation in religion. One of the students, whose family hails from a historical Muslim country, described his family dynamic which consisted of three generations in his household: his grandfather, his parents and he and his siblings. The grandfather still practiced, praying 5 times a day and so forth with the student’s parents being more lax in their religious consistency and finally the student, who said that he didn’t not think much about religion at all. All three generations seemed to function under one roof but more to the above point about culture, we had discussed whether or not, if his family had stayed in their country of origin, would he have been more apt to have had some form of communal practice. By coming and staying in America [i.e., his identity forming here] and his parents not being full-time practitioners, their religious practice tapered off to reflect their environment, where there were no secondary or tertiary enforcements to inform his religious consciousness.

We also discussed the phenomenon of Islam in the Blackamerican community. As a case point, illustrating the mass familiarity Blackamericans have with Islam, one of Blackamerican students in the course stated his grandfather was a Muslim. A brief talk was given to the unique status that Blackamerican Muslims hold as an indigenous American community, whose door is [currently] open to Islam and Blackamericans can freely choose to be Muslim without having to sacrifice anything in the public sphere.

I look forward to going back again. I congratulate Tom on running such an informative course for his students to learn about the many religious traditions we have in America.