Scourge of Secular Capitalist Islam – A Response

Brother Naeem wrote a passionate post over at his blog. As my comments were too long, I decided to write them here.

as-Salaamu ‘alaykum, Naeem. I can see that you are indeed struggling to reconcile some issues that are very near and dear to you. Let me provide a bit of food for thought.

I am often disheartened when I hear Muslims giving such harsh criticisms of American Muslims, or as you have put it, “the whole American Muslim project”. I believe part of this interpretation of realities comes from an uncritical and unrealistic examination of Muslim history. Let me elaborate. It seems that when God chose Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, or any other country, to enter into Islam, its non-Muslim history has somehow become lost and inconsequential in the shuffle. It is very easy and convenient to think of Egypt as a Muslim country now, but what was Egypt’s transition like, from a non-Muslim polity to a Muslim one? What struggles did Egypt have to go through to negotiate this transformation? Even to this day, there are folk holidays still in practice such as Shams an-Nasim. To be direct, it seems to me that when Muslims look upon the enterprise of Islam in America it’s always viewed as accidental or incidental. Never it is look at as the qadr of Allah: it’s never seen as quintessential. Perhaps if we were to have patience and a more realistic view of the situation, we would see that Islam in America is very young when compared to other pockets of Islam around the world. It has also grown and developed in a highly unique way, very different than how Islam developed in Senegal or Malaysia. Yet, we seek to uphold a paradigm of success based on Saudi Arabia or some other imaginary location that embodies a supposed timeless Islamicity. Not only is this position not fair to Islam in America, it is even detrimental to the growth and development of Islam in America.

While the article’s observation is critical, I feel it lacks a “critical responsibility” as one scholar put it. It is very easy to say “no” or “nay”, but it takes foresight, forbearance, and a certain amount of emotional commitment to the cause to say “yea”. Perhaps you have been in Saudi Arabia too long; it is your new home. When one has been absent for so long, fondness fades from the heart. This is not to say that there is nothing to be critical about when it comes to American foreign policy, culture, or politics, and yet, just about every other Muslim polity has been and is guilty of the very same things you condemn America for:

“Maybe it’s the unquestioning adoption of capitalistic maxims which finds American Muslims enslaved by their struggles for better jobs, bigger homes, and nicer cars; Maybe it’s the callous attitude of American Muslims striving for the American dream while participating in a system that is ravaging the entire world, politically, militarily, economically, and environmentally”.

Tell me where the vast majority of Muslim countries are not attempting to do the very same? What are the political policies of most so-called Muslim countries? What are their environmental standards [if they have any at all] and practices? Not only do I disagree with the above statements but I find them to be blunt generalities, wielded to obtuse effect. “Maybe it’s the callous attitude of American Muslims striving for the American dream”. Where do you derive your justification for branding all American Muslims as callous? I ask where and how because you give no distinction; no nuance to your accusation. What seems to be at place here is a misappropriation of observations. What else do you expect Muslims in America to do? Should they sit around and wait for the Qiyamah? Are we not entitled to earn economically sound and viable livings, doing the best we can to navigate our existential reality? It seems like when our Gulf cousins are driving Bentleys and Land Rovers, so long as they have a white thobe and shamagh, they’re keeping it Islamically “real”. What would you have American Muslims do? Make hijrah? Drop out of their karif schools? Quit their kafir jobs? How will you support us? Can we all move to Halal Arabia? The issue at hand here is not Secular Capitalist Islam, Suburban Capitalist Islam, or any other chic neologism, but rather that there remains a strain of Muslim thought that is engaged at denouncing the validity of Islam in American while they have obviously chosen to put their stock in other ventures by either moving abroad or staying here but checking out. My advice would be this: if you’re happy in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Utopia-bad, then check your uncritical advice until you’re willing to put up some of your own personal capital.

Enough with all the dear Abbey letters,

American Muslims and American Civic Religion

Civil Religion as defined by Robert Bellah: a set of rituals, symbols and beliefs which were institutionally separate, but partly derived, nevertheless, from organized religion. According to Bellah, American civil religion had two main origins: one religious in nature, the other secular. To be more precise, Bellah based his understanding on the theological leanings of the Puritans as well as the republicanism of America’s Founding Founders. Bellah’s assumption, as late as the 1970’s, was that American civil religion was defunct and run aground.

There are a number of scholars and thinkers who think that civil religion has not gone the way of the Dodo but has in fact, remained alive, if however sickly it may be. For me, the argument of what state it is in is less pertinent to the issue of American Muslims than the fact that it is still there. So what can this mean for American Muslims? If we can take Bellah’s clause of “institutionally separate” in tandem with “from organized religion”, we can see an opportunity or indeed, an opening for American Muslims to participate in civil society. Many of the objections I have heard over the years from my fellow Muslims is that this is a “Christian nation”; I hear their objections but I cannot accept their validity. To get straight to the point, if American civil religion is indeed institutionally separate, then there is no reason why creative and talented Muslims cannot find a way to also lend their voice to the hyphenated-American experience. In other words, if “Judeo-Christian nation” can apply, why not “Judeo-Christian-Muslim nation”?

Continuing in this manner, as Philip Gorski writes, “religious and political communities should be coterminous”. American Muslims should be thinking of ways in which they can share those borders of the religio-public and political spheres of their fellow Americans. Gorksi adds that, “For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism”. The last two items echo harmoniously with much of the quasi-liberal American Muslim community, a rumination that has gained ground even amongst some neo-conservative/neo-traditionalist voices [this author being mildly included amongst them], to see that civic engagement is one of the main life lines through which American Muslims can move from the margins into the mainstream of American cultural thought and life. In fact, I would argue that using the conduit of civic religion to participate in American civic life is akin to how Blackamericans used the Constitution itself as a means of overturning state-legitimized terror, forcing America to allow Blackamericans to be full participants in society. The time for Puritanical disengagement of society has long passed, and now it only remains to be seen if American Muslims will rise to meet this challenge; a challenge that, while fraught with the danger of losing their religion, can no longer be ignored or indeed, tolerated.

Thanksgiving Survival Manual

Being Muslim in a non-Muslim environment can present a number of challenges. From time to time, we are called upon to negotiate a space in which we are not the defining power. This happens with great frequency here in America, a non-Muslim majority environment. So when it comes to the holidays, many Muslims feel torn between upholding immutable values of their religion and not breaking the ties of kin [interestingly enough, another immutable value in Islam]. For those who already believe Thanksgiving to be haram, this discussion is not for you. I’m sure my blood is already halal to you. But for those who are of a mind that is trying to negotiate this space, I give you a little something to take with you to your families. Whether you’re a convert whose spending the evening with family or one who was born Muslim, but because of family ties, one may be staring down a turkey, this small supplication is for you. Share it with your families and let them know that Muslims also have a narrative, an opinion, a take on the duality of food and thanks.

الحمد لله الذي أطعمنا وسقانا وكفانا وآوانا سيدنا ومولانا يا كافي من كل شيء ولا يكفي منه شيء أطعمت من جوع وآمنت من خوف فلك الحمد. آويت من يتم وهديت من ضلالة وأغنيت من عيلة فلك الحمد حمدا كثيرا دائما طيبا نافعا مباركا فيه كما أنت أهله ومستحقه. اللهم أطعمتنا طيبا فاستعملنا صالحا واجعله عونا لنا على طاعتك ونعوذ بك أن نستعين به على معصيتك

“All praise belongs to God who has provided food, drink, and sustenance, as well as sheltered us. O’ our Lord and Master!, You who defend us from everything, none can change Your decree. You kept us from hunger, secured us from fear, therefore to You belongs the praise. It is You who has sheltered the orphan and provided guidance from error and it is You who has enriched from poverty, therefore to You belongs the praise, a praise that is plentiful, everlasting, good, beneficial and blessed. You are undoubtedly worthy and deserving of it. O’ God! You have fed us well so make us conduct ourselves well by it and through this, make us act obediently to You. We seek refuge in You should we use this blessing in disobedience to You.”

The above is from Hāmid Abu Muhammad al-Ghazālī, one of the great thinkers of Islam, who earned the title of hujjatul Islam – the Proof of Islam. May God have mercy on him.

Enjoy.

Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

The following is a short paper that I wrote on the relation between Islam and Blackness and the draw between the two back in the early part of the 20th Century. I hope to have the time to post a few more ruminations, but at the moment, enjoy this small piece.

Much like the 1940’s, modern day America is taking a closer look at the religion of Islam, how America relates to it, and how Islam fits into the tapestry of the dominant culture. As it is today, so was it some seventy years ago that Islam was seen as a foreign and possibly even hostile entity. And yet, for Blackamericans, Islam not only held a mystique that called to them but also eventually offered an alternative modality of being both black and American. For many, this switch of religious identity was cemented in the social issues of the day, namely the racism that was prevalent in American society at the time towards Blackamericans. As we shall see, jazz, and more specifically, bebop, would play a major role in tying together disparate narratives into a holy protest against white supremacy.

The article I have chosen to discuss is a passage from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir, To Be or Not to Bop. From the selected passed, Gillespie, as one of bebop’s founding fathers, illustrates a unique crossroads of black consciousness: religion, music and social justice that for many Blackamerican jazz musicians came in the form of Islam, bebop and intellectual/anti-establishment mindset that saw to either confront or subvert the laws and practices of a Jim Crow legacy.

In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on Islam, including the phenomenon of Islam amongst Blackamericans. And while there has been enlightening findings that have shed more light on the nature of Africans and their decedents in antebellum American, it still stands that the chain that linked modern Blacks and those of their African ancestors that were Muslim, is a broken one. Instead, as Gillespie relates for us, the rise of Islam in the interest and imagination amongst many Blackamerican jazz musicians had primarily to do with the social/racial climate that these musicians found themselves in. As “colored” or “Negro”, such musicians were barred from playing and performing in jazz clubs, which were white-owned. Even the task of acquiring lodging for these traveling musicians was made near to impossible due to the color of their skin. But in what would be a puzzling discovery, Blackamerican musicians that changed their public identity to Muslim, would find they could pass under the radar of Jim Crow.

The turn of the 20th Century saw few improvements for Blackamericans. Indeed, one could say that things were worsening, with the state-condoned violence that was unleashed on many Blacks in America. And by the mid- and especially late-Forties, when Black service men were returning to America after having served in a war that was supposed to be about racism, they saw their social context in complete opposition to the values supposedly expressed by the dominant culture. It is here the seeds of discord would be sown and out of this collective discontent would rise a new sense of intellectual ownership over themselves, as yet unseen before in the history of the United States. For many Blackamericans who chose to adopt Islam as their faith, Islam represented something completely outside the jurisdiction of white authority. This sentiment would be proved even by the racist elements of white-American society that would permit access to services to Blackamerican Muslim converts, who were presumed to be of a non-American black origin. Gillespie relates one such occasion:

“He [Oliver Mesheux] went into this restaurant, and they said they didn’t serve colored in there. So he said, ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’”

This process, something as simple as changing one’s name to something that sounded Middle-Eastern, offered some Blackamerican musicians a expeditious means of overcoming Jim Crow racism. Though beyond the scope of this article, it would be this sentiment that would inform many other Blackamericans and their choice to embrace Islam.

To gain a more encompassing perspective of this phenomenon, we must also analyze the broader social context into which it came into, namely the liberalization of the American society. One must remember that though Blackamericans were indeed suffering at the hands of their white counterparts, they still saw themselves as American in one sense or another. And along with that traditional sense of American was a strong attachment of Blackamericans to Christianity. As we will see in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Christianity would play a key role in organizing and shaming the dominant culture in American into submission. To be certain, there were some amongst the black intelligentsia that were aware of the legacy of non-Christian religious traditions in their heritage, but by and large, Christianity remained the predominant if not exclusive religion of Blackamericans pre-1900’s. This would all change with the coming of alternative black intellectual endeavors (such figures as Garvey and DuBois were sympathetic to Islam, though certainly not practitioners of it) that saw to root themselves outside of the white-dominated constituency of American society.

With the relaxing of society’s grip on religious intolerance, an increasing (though still a minority to be sure) number of Blackamericans sought solace in the haven that Islam promised. Less rooted in religious or philosophical reasons than purely existential ones, Islam opened up to Blackamericans, of which the ripples of this are still seen to this very day. In short, a black man, for example, in the 1940’s could convert to Islam in what would amount a sort of racial swapping, if not apostasy. And like modern times, this did not escape the attention of the dominant culture, who were curious or even concerned that Islam amongst Blackamericans might be some sort of “anti-Christianity” movement. Gillespie himself, though not a Muslim, was at one point put to the question if he “planned to quit and forsake Christianity”. In a sense, what is being articulated here, is an invisible link that binds “blackness” and “Christianity”. Islam was a foreign enterprise and for many, represented a hostile (though not in the same meaning as hostile would mean today) threat, for this conversion was seen as linked to movements and ideologies that sought to circumvent the status quo of Jim Crow law and sentiment.

I believe that the movement and attraction of Islam within this minority of Blackamerican musicians is both intriguing and erudite to some of the similar issues we’re looking at today. It also sheds light on why Islam would be appealing to a minority group that simply looking for a method of living out a dignified existence in a social landscape that offered few choices and little room for improvement. Throughout its history and even up until today, Islam amongst Blackamericans cannot be separated from its history as a social commentary and vehicle of upliftment and expiation for Blackamericans. Indeed, as we would soon see from the likes of Malcolm X, Islam was a vehicle to combat the hostilities from their environment in a manner and method that differed quite distinctly from black Christians. It also allowed Blackamericans to re-created themselves with a new sense of autonomy not formerly allowed to them in the stifling social climate that they lived in. And yet, unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion. Contented to be social commentators and critics through their music, most simply just wanted to be able to play their music to a broader audience without discrimination. I find this again, strikingly similar to the times we live in today, where there is a very small number of Muslims who advocate violent resistance to perceived oppressions (valid or otherwise is besides the point here), and yet the vast majority of Muslims simply wish for the right to live with dignity and practice their religion with their humanity intact, and not called into question, as was the case for black folks living at the beginning of the 20th Century America. Perhaps here in history there’s a lesson for us all to learn (again).