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.

Islam & The Problem of Black Suffering – A Tidbit

“…the rise of Islam among Blackamericans was rooted in the agenda and sensibilities of “Black Religion” – essentially, a folk-oriented, holy protest against antiblack racism – the future was intimately tied to Blackamerican Muslims’ ability to access and deploy the intellectual legacy of the classical Sunni Tradition, both as a means of domesticating Black Religion and of moving beyond it to address important spiritual and transracial issues in a manner that is both effective in an American context and likely to be recognized as Islamic in a Muslim one.” Sherman A. Jackson

Dr. J’s a bad, bad, man. I pray we benefit from his scholarship, that Allah preserve him and his family, and that we get down to brass tax while we still are able to.

More to come soon, God willing.

The Evolution of Muslims in America

With yet another PBS documentary under its belt, American Islam would seem to be on the up and up. There are a number of hip-hop artists affiliated with Islam to lesser and greater degrees, thus, many see this as the “coming of age” of Islam in America. Seen as giving the American Muslim youth something to identify with, many seem to be reluctant to call out and name hip-hop for what it is. Two isles have formed where individuals either decry hip-hop as a spiritually bankrupt and corrupting enterprise while others say it has positive messages at its root. I will clearly state that I find hip-hop as it is expressed to be incompatible with a healthy Muslim practice but I am not using this opportunity to roast but rather make this one addendum: while we may denounce hip-hop as not being conducive to a healthy Muslim experience we must allow for the evolutionary process of people as they try and make moves towards understanding and living their Islam.

This idea of evolution may seem an awkward expression, especially given the word’s [ma sha’Allah] unfortunate or highly charged history in the English speaking world. I am not speaking of that flawed theory presented by Charles Darwin but rather the aspect that while people may start at point [A], and hope to arrive at point [C], there is a wide swath of [B], the evolutionary path that all of us tread on in one form or another. If we can come to understand and appreciate this we have a greater chance of actually allowing more people to make it to point [C] without being waylaid or ambushed along the path.

Part of what may help to make this idea better known to Muslims is that, one, it is a type of pedagogical technique practiced by the Prophet [s], where he allowed people to grow into their Islam, all the while not sacrificing one iota of the transcendent values of the religion he sought to teach. It is not wholly necessary here to delve into excessive examples but we are all familiar with the many examples where the Prophet [s] withheld punishment or judgment on persons who had character flaws or issues because he saw it as a progress [another highly charged and misused word] of their Islam, that they would eventually get to point [C] if given an opportunity to develop.

One of the ways in which we as Muslims [and especially as those in leadership positions] can help to bring this to fruition is to walk that solid line between understanding and condoning. Extend a hand but a firm one – one that is not afraid to give sincere nasihah [keeping it real in the modern vernacular] to those who are still in that early stage. Along with this comes the need to give people the education and tools to realize the true nature of Reality – for when people unveil [kashf] the inner nuances of what it is we object to, they will have, God willing, the toolset to come to similar conclusions. What is happening currently, is that people who do not have that spiritual training and maturity, are often demonized to such an extent that they are banish from any thought of coming to terms with what they do [their mu’amalat] and how they can come to realize its detriment to their health as Muslims [mukashafah]. If we, as both leaders and as a community claim to be inheritors of the Prophet [s], then we must examine our kulliyat and question if we’re letting the kullu shay [every little thing] get in the way of the big picture.

Two small pieces caught my eye regarding this topic. One, was rapper Lupe Fiasco reciting al-Fatihah at a concert.  For many Muslims this causes two reactions: [a]: total dismay, as the Qur’an is something Holy and should not be used for such purposes – that Its Message would be lost amongst the din a crowd enthralled at the performance of a star. [b]: total enchantment, for this is what some see as finally an opportunity to blend their personal or secular likes with the transcendent. The other piece was Suhaib Webb’s response to the proposition of hip-hop, where he stated,

“I was brought into Islam through the Hip-Hop world. That being said, once I became Muslim and started studying, I realized that in order for me to develop and grow as a Muslim I would have to amputate my relations with Hip-Hop and its community. I realized that the Qur’an and Hip Hop simply don’t mix.”

Webb articulates the difficulty that he has had in trying to sign off on hip-hop, but, as a sign of his own maturation as a Muslim and future leader, is that he had to make a tough decision and label hip-hop for what it is. But for me, the more important lesson here is that while Suhaib Webb was able to call hip-hop out for what it is he never gave the impression that those that do still engage in it [particularly here I assume he means listeners but perhaps performers as well] would be “amputated” from the community. In other words, stand firm on recognizing hip-hop, the “thing” and not the people, is corrupt at its core, whereas people can always be reformed, God willing.

To summarize, we have to do a better job of lending a helping hand while not compromising our core principles. We have to start to offer real, sincere, and alternate solutions, solutions with efficacy, not simply sloganized dogma. I think more Muslims who have a genuine love of their religion, if given the proper tools, God willing, will come to unveil hip-hop for what it is, and work to salvage their souls. Something all of us, hip-hop connoisseurs or not, strive to do.

The Presumption of Privilege

As Islam continues to sputter along in its American context, post-9/11, various Muslim organizations and groups seek to capture the eye of the masses [who are starting to look more and more like glazed donuts by the minute] by inviting them to “return to Tradition”. I have not noted the capitalized “T” without purpose. Tradition, as it is being marketed currently, is a mono-narrative. Moreover, one might even call it a counter-narrative to the one that is equally applied by the West to Islam/Muslims, in any given time or space. But this concept of Tradition is playing out to be more than simply going back to previously forgotten sources or methods. It is also being linked to privilege. A privilege that takes the form in not only in what economic access can provide but a privilege of ideals. A Believers’ country club, if you will. But one of the main issues with this exclusivity is not solely in the gated mental communities that it fosters but the very idea that Tradition is a panacea. That so long as what is being passed along is stamped with the seal of Tradition, it requires no further investigation, contemplation or scrutinization. But is this truly [the?] tradition? And to what point or end is this tradition to accomplish? What avenues is this tradition to navigate for us? Or are we instead being taken for a ride. Islam in America and more directly, Muslims in America are in dire need for a viable, conducive, productive, creative, indigenous Muslim culture. But how do we get to there from the pre-packaged Tradition we’re currently being offered?

As some of you read before, I had been doing a bit of light reading before heading off to ‘Umrah. Upon my return I decided to put aside some of the heavier bits in favor of what’s been published in magazine format. Two articles piqued my interest: the Summer 2008 edition of The American Scholar, with an article by William Deresiewicz entitled, Exhortation: The Disadvantage of an Elite Education, and Great Neighborhoods, by Mark Hinshaw in the January 2008 edition of Planning. American Scholar deals mostly with issues through a social science perspective, while Planning is a journal in the vein of city planning [The magazine of the American Planning Association]. The two articles are not directly linked and yet, after reading both of them, their impact in tandem drew me to consider the current state of contemporary Muslim education and direction in America [again…].

There is a peculiar handshake between the parties of tradition and authority. Those who are seated are or have seated themselves as the key masters and gate keepers of tradition grant themselves a great deal of authority. An authority, that once imbibed by the target audience, is not easy to regurgitate. Its authority rises from the idea that tradition cannot be made but rather found, and more importantly, bestowed. Those that wish to belong can only do so as long as there are invited. It is precisely this type of exclusiveness that many of the traditionalists are offering American Muslims. Ensconced in the robes of this vernacular, calls towards Traditional Islam continue to rise. But we must ask ourselves: to what, for what, and by whom are we being called?

Let me state again for the record that I am not against the idea of tradition. In fact, I have talked, written and in general, worked towards the formation of a viable Muslim culture in America in my own small way. One can simply substitute tradition for culture in this case. Nor am I averse to the intellectual history of Islam. A quick perusal of this blog will vindicate any accusations. Neither am I unique in this clarion call. Notable scholars such as Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship and Dr. Sherman Jackson, just to name a few and all potent scholars in their own right, have spoken on this necessity. But one of the caveats of tradition is that it can also take on a self-sanctioning pathology, where in stead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes a means and an end. The pitfalls of this phenomenon can be clearly observed in the so-called Muslim world. But for the sake of this argument, I am not interested in how Muslims articulate their cultures in the historical lands of Muslims but rather the process of transference. In as far as the Traditionalists look at it, America and by proxy all Muslims within it are rendered helpless and incapable of manufacturing and creating a vibrant American Muslim culture – a culture that not only speaks to the histories of those Muslims in America but even more importantly to their present and their future. Taking their point of view, at the very best, culture can be imported from overseas and draped on the shoulders of modern day Muslims but in no way do they recognize American Muslims as possessing any form of agency. With the script pre-written, Muslims in America will have to settle for acting in someone else’s play – never becoming stars in their own right.

In this interplay of tradition and privilege, the Traditionalists often see themselves as an object of desire. That in fact, their own interpretation of culture is fit for all peoples, in all times, and all places. And conversely, anyone who resides outside of their cultural expression do so at their own choice. It is here that I found Hinshaw’s comments pertinent:

I imagine that many people consider their own neighborhood a pretty fine place. After all, people live where they are comfortable with the physical surroundings and the neighborhoods.

Hinshaw precludes that who ever lives in a neighborhood does so at their own discretion. The possibility that people often live where they can and not where they would like to is completely glossed over in Hinshaw’s treament of the topic. And yet, for anyone who has done even the most rudimentary examination of inner city populations will realize that the people that reside within these spaces do so not out of choice but rather from the lack of it. To assume that inner city blacks, for example, “are comfortable with the physcial surroundings and the neighborhoods” in which they live in is woefully ignorant [ironically, I found this magazine at my place of work, the University of Pennsylvania: School of Design, in their City Planning department]. This presumptuous rhetoric smacks of the same song mentality practiced by the Traditionalists. They are just as much out of touch with the times as a city planner that assumes all people are happy with where they live. And yet, one of the claims of tradition is that it is supposed to be grounded. Grounded in some sort of existential, historical narrative. So what, precisely, is the current trend of Traditional Islam grounded in?

The theme of being out of touch is central to my critique of Traditional Islam [not to be confused with the intellectual tradition of Islam]. At least in the way it is marketed and packaged. By disarming its adherents of any means of agency, a homegrown, authentic articulation of Islam, driven by a healthy, grounded American Muslim culture, can never develop. Part of this syndrome is due to the fact that many of the institutions of Traditional Islam are out of touch with the development of such a culture. In fact, it may not even be an agenda point. I was reminded of this current situation by William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, where Deresiewicz speaks on his inability to communicate with his plumber:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Socks cap, and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness.

Deresiewicz argues that it was his Ivy League education that did not provide him with the social skills to speak with people “below him”?. That because the plumber is assumed to not have the same amount or level of educational [a safe assumption, no doubt, as Deresiewicz has over a decade of Ivy League education], that not only can he not come down to the plumber’s level but the plumber cannot also ascend to Deresiewicz’s. In my many dealings with students and even some teachers of Traditional Islam, there has been a heavy tendency to practice intellectual elitism. And unlike Mr. Deresiewicz’s education, which undoubtedly took many years and lots of hard work, in the Muslim context, it seldom takes having a bit of Arabic under your belt and a few classes with the right scholars. Thus, by crafting a nomenclature around Tradition, those who fail to ascend to its lofty towers will be left to serve as the plumbers of the Muslim world [the fact that the world would suffer tremendous more for a lack of plumbers than a lack of intellectuals but this fact is not explored], at least academically speaking. There has also been the similar tendency of assumption that Muslims of non-preferential backgrounds [especially Blackermican or non-college educated, hence the lack of their numbers in their circles] lack the basic fundamentals of understanding this form of Islam. Indeed, central to the approach is an almost complete absence of the gifting of intellectual ownership of one’s understanding in Islam. To put in summary, if one wishes to understand Traditional Islam, one must keep paying the subscription fees or face having oness service shut off.

One of the key ways in which a viable culture might take roots here in America is that if Muslims in America begin to take intellectual ownership of their religion and their education in the religion. This process is being hampered by the exclusiveness of Traditional Islam as well as the celebrity of Traditional Islam. It’s add-another-fork-to-the-dinner-table mentality will only seek to impede this process. We need less secret handshakes and more psychological spaces opening up, especially given the last decade or so that indigenous Blackamerican community has gone through. Issues such as man/woman relationships, civic engagement, and education, just to name a few, are in dire need of revamping and retooling.

It is one of my supreme hopes that Muslims in America will wake up and realize that they have the tools to create a healthy, vibrant American Muslim culture. For anyone who thinks that having an American Muslim culture is not a major hurdle on the way to arriving in America need only look to our foreign brothers and sisters. For better or worse, it is their culture that allows them to alleviate many of the anxieties of quotidian existence that plagues so many Muslims in America. An anxiety that is rooted from the fact that they can take no solace in not having to consult an imam, shaykh, 15-volume tome of Bukhari or the like, just to simply figure out if you can cross the street, tie their shoes or go see a movie. It is this culture that could allow many of us to simply “be” to a greater degree versus “trying to be”?. And yet, as we work towards the development of this culture, God willing, we must be shrewd of our embrace of it. For as we have seen, it is apt to have a mind of its own. Culture should serve us towards our goals and ambitions, not making us slaves to the rhythm or at the very least, lower our monthly subscription fees.