The Imperialists New Clothes

Twenty is a nice round number. In human years, twenty is sufficient a time to feel one has amassed enough experience about a thing that one feels these experiences count for something. It is also a point, in human years again, where one can look back as much as one can look ahead, especially when one is reminded of the Prophetic narrative, related by Abu Hurairah:

أعمار أمتي ما بين الستين والسبعين – “The age of my Ummah is between 60 and 70 years…”. Al-Nawawi relates it as hassan.

Hadith methodologies aside, standing so close to the 40 year mile marker, I look back on my twenty years as a Muslim with an increasing amount of introspection. And what I fear most for the future of Islam in America is not anti-Shari’ah legislation or hate-related attacks, but the continued cultural imperialism and colonization of the American Muslim mind.

There are two major areas of concern for this cultural imperialism: the hegemony of western academia over the definition (and thus potentialities) of what constitutes Islam (this being labeled more specifically intellectual imperialism) and the domination over Islam’s definition by legacy Muslims (what some might call immigrant Muslims), what I would call cultural imperialism. Both of these forms of authority present serious challenges to the growth and development of an indigenous, prosperous and autonomous Islam in America.

There can be little doubt as to the power that western academia has wielded over the definition of Islam. Names such as Montgomery Watt, Arthur John Aberry and Bernard Lewis come to mind. Non-Muslim contributions to Islamic scholarship aside (think Bruce Lawrence, Miriam Cooke, John Esposito, etc.), these authors have primarily been an outside group looking in. I say this not to dismiss their scholarship or critiques, but in being an outside group that wields an almost exclusive authority which supersedes Muslim scholarship and sensibilities, you have a scenario which makes it difficult for Muslim scholarship to be respected even concerning itself in western academic circles. In fact, this whole genre, which formerly fell under the title of Orientalist studies, held much of traditional Islamic sciences and scholarship to be suspect if not unreliable. The method of this authority is quite convenient considering that so-called Orientalist studies were themselves an advent of western academia and never a term applied by Muslims themselves (for more on this topic I recommend readings on Max Weber’s application of essentialism). From this vantage point, non-Muslim scholars of Islam (particularly western) have enjoyed a perch which favors them the definers of what is and isn’t Islam and Islamic scholarship. This ranges from the structure of Islamic studies in the western canon to the essentializing of an Islamic aesthetic, all of which have been based on their own provincial understanding of texts, with cultural observations coming in a distant second.

All this has often led western non-Muslim scholarship to the conclusion that it and it alone, knows what defines “true Islam”. And hence, with western scholarship enjoying the position of disseminating from the position of colonizer, many Muslims have adopted the very same vernacular in an attempt to seize this “true definition” from the grasp of the western usurper, and define for themselves (and for all other Muslims, too) what “true Islam” is. So in fact what see more today has less to do with Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and more to do with a clash of narcissisms. Being that modernity is reluctant to administer any recognition of truth (let alone, truths), western scholarship has set the tone for the battle over norms, a battle it is still currently winning. It is for this reason Islam can easily be rendered a bewildering collage of non-sensical images, and just how and why Islam (and by proxy, Muslims) can never truly match up to western aesthetics of beauty or “the good” (even if those Muslims are themselves western!).

Likewise, many American Muslims suffer from a lack of self-esteem and autonomous authority due to the self-inflicted head wound that rendered all American sensibilities concerning Islam suspect. For this reason you will see American Muslims abandon their own modes of dress in favor of those which are deemed to be “Islamic”. In one such exchange, I asked a young man as to why he chose to wear a thobe, or a Middle-Eastern style one-piece clothing. His response was that it was closer to following the “Sunnah” or established habit of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. When I asked him to unpack his claims and to provide clear proofs that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم wore a thobe out of a sense of religious devotion, and not out of say, cultural normalcy, he had difficulty in doing so. In fact, I pointed out a verse from the Qur’an that spoke of women wearing thobes as well:

والقواعد من النساء التي لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناحا أن يضعن ثيابهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who have passed child-bearing age or have no hopes of marriage, then there is no sin upon them if they remove their *thobes* so long as they do not flaunt their adornments,” [Qur’an, 24: 60].

The point being, the Qur’an clearly uses the word *thobe* as a general term, for it is well accepted that the Prophet Muhammad would never dress like a woman unless that item of clothing could be considered categorical (shoes, hats, shirts, etc.). And yet despite this, many American Muslims continue to dress in a manner, claims of ostentation aside, which alienates them from the rest of society. But what is at stake here is more than simply modes of dress, it is about the very potentials of Islam, the ability to be and live and express oneself according to one’s cultural norms, so long as they do not infringe upon the principles of Islam. Interestingly enough, Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, often regarded as a “hardliner” and ultra-conservative, was against Muslims dressing in such a way that it either brought ridicule on Islam or ostracized Muslims from their cultural and social context (see Taymiyya’s Futuwwa).

If Muslims in America are to have any hopes of navigating their future here in America, it will necessitate the establishment of bona fide Muslim intellectual rigor as well as cultural confidence. Such intellectual rigor will need to be able to stand up to the challenges of Orientalist scholarship that is not at its center hostile, but seeks to put forth its own equally valid interpretations and postulates as to what Islam is (in essence, making “true” somehow plural). It will also require American Muslims to feel confident enough to walk around in their own skins (and clothes) such that, moral requirements withstanding, American Muslims look like, if not verbatim, their non-Muslim American counterparts. This will require the above two forces to come together (the intellectual and the cultural) and chart a new course, one that leads not simply to survival, but to a flourishing American Muslim population and culture and ultimately, to the pleasure of God in the next life.

At least that’s what the 20th mile marker is tell me when I look down the road.

Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.

And Do Not Let The Deluder Delude You Concerning God

يأيها الناس اتقوا ربكم واخشوا يوما لا يجزي والد عن ولده ولا مولود هوجاز عن والده شيئا ان وعد الله حق فلا تغرنكم الحيوة الدنيا ولا يغرنكم بالله الفرور

“Mankind! have taqwa of your Lord and fear a day when no father will be able to atone for his son, or son for his father, in any way. Allah’s promise is true. So do not let the life of this world delude you and do not let the Deluder delude you concerning God.” [Qur’ān: Luqmān (31): 33]

I was remined of this āyah and so many more in this short but insightful piece by Chris Hedges:

The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or John Edwards, enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.

The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.

You may continue reading the article here.

Nafs Ammarah

As a Muslim living in a non-Muslim country, I am always on the lookout for things in popular culture from which I might derive a reminder [dhikr ذكر] of Islam, of Reality, and perhaps of the Life To Come. I have found this to be an increasingly important exercise, both for me personally, as well as for the students of classes I teach on Islamic studies. What I mean here is not attempting to ascribe any certain thing with a level of “Islamicity” or Muslim’ness that is not there, but rather, looking at stories and narratives that remind me of that which Allah has written in His Book. One such instance happened yesterday.

The words nafs ammarah, or the commanding self, are found in the Qur’an, in surah Yusuf [Joseph], in which Allah says:

وما أبرئ نفسي إن النفس لأمارة بالسوء إلا ما رحم ربي إن ربي غفور رحيم

“And nor was I [Joseph] completely free of blame. The self commands to evil acts, save that which my Lord has mercy upon me. Surely, my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” [Q 12: 53]

This passage in the Qur’ān on the nafs ammārah relates to us part of the story of Prophet Yusuf [Joseph], and his test when the king’s wife attempted to seduce him.  Yusuf relates that the temptation was there, that his soul wished to entice him to evils deeds.  It was only through God’s mercy and grace that he was able to resist.

The above passage came to me as I recently chanced upon a film I watched as a kid entitled, They Live!, by John Carpenter. In summary, the film is about a man, a drifter, who by happenstance, stumbles upon the stunning reality that the human race has been subdued by a group of space aliens that have enslaved humans through advanced subliminal techniques. When the main character dons a pair of special sunglasses, he is able to see the Unseen: billboards are really devices that command humans to consume, have sex, or to obey, as well as being able to see the aliens for who they really are [ghoulish, lizard like beings]. Even money, when viewed through the sunglasses, have the words “this is your god” written on them. To be sure, the movie is quite comical and the dialog stiff. Nonetheless, I found it to be an intriguing visual example of how the nafs ammārah works. And while the nafs is an internal phenomenon, it still commands us to act upon things in the external world, making the film a worthwhile glance at a Qur’ānic principle on human psychology.

They Live! is based on the short story, Eight O’clock In The Morning, by renowned science-fiction author, Ray Nelson. I have posted the short story here as well as a link to the film They Live! for your B-movie enjoyment.

Note: if you have the opportunity to see Dr. Sherman Jackson speak, ask him to relate to you how Terminator 2 moved him to tears, as it reminded him of how the Prophet [s] had to deliver a message, one in which many people refused to believe him because they could not see what he saw, similar in the way no one believe Sarah Connor. A worthwhile treat!

Note 2: The last part of the movie features some nudity and may be avoided. You’ll get the gist of it by then and can skip the final scene.

Note 3: See this piece on Salon.com about Jonathen Lethem’s film analysis of Carpenter’s film, They Live, A Novel Approach to Cinema. Hat tip to Stephen for the link.

Note 4: A khutbah that pertains to similar aspects of the soul.