American Muslims and the Challenge of Geography

The following is a segment from Dr. Sherman Jackson’s On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam. I find this passage to be worthy of required reading status.

“As Islam moved out of its isolation in Arabia to settle among the inhabitants if the world of Late Antiquity, where geography, history, and tradition had endowed different individuals and communities with more fundamentally different ways and approaches to thinking. These different endowments would lead in turn to different attitudes towards and approaches to theology. This was the beginning and most important source of theological discord in Islam, a full appreciation of which has only been obscured by the Muslim theologians’ rhetoric of transcendence.

Yet, the typical Western approach, which prides itself on its ability to see through the claims and attributions of the Muslim theologians, has not faired much better. Rather, it too has tended to impede rather than promote understanding of the impact of these differential historical endowments.

It is common knowledge that the influence of Christian theology, the Persian Zoroastrian and Manichaean traditions, and Indian and especially Greek philosophy on Muslim theological discourse was both fundamental and enduring1. Traditionally, however, Western scholars have portrayed this influence as an instance as an instance of cross-civilizational borrowing. At the same time, Muslims are said to have denied or played down this influence, based on their ideological commitment to the premise that ‘Islam is self-sufficient and that in Qur’an and Hadith it contains in essentials all the religious and moral truth required by all humanity to the end of time.’2 Under ordinary circumstances, fear of self-incrimination might pre-empt any reaction to such a view. But such depictions mask an important point that bears directly on our understanding of the nature and causes of theological discord—and thus the requirements and possibilities of theological tolerance—in Islam. Simply stated, the notion of Muslim ‘borrowing’ is based on an artificial bifurcation of the world of Late Antiquity and early Islam into Greek and Persian (alien), on the one hand, and Arab-Muslim (native), on the other, followed by the assumption that any elements of the former found among the latter must be the result of cross-civilizational borrowing. This picture becomes a bit more complicated, however, when we consider that the overwhelming majority of the early Muslims—as well as those who would become Arabs—had theretofore been ‘Greeks,’ Mazdakites, Manichaeans, Christians, and Zoroastrians. R. Bulliet goes a long way in confirming this in his book Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, and it si being pointed out with increasing frequency and clarity by historians of Late Antiquity, e.g., P. Brown, G.W. Bowersock, and O. Grabar in their recent edited volume, Late Antiquity. In fact, in that same volume, the Islamic historian Hugh Kennedy writes:

Of all the dividing lines set up between academic disciplines in the western intellectual tradition, the frontier between classical and Islamic Studies has proved among the most durable and impenetrable…[W]hereas late antiquity can be seen as part of the broader history of western civilization, the history of the Islamic world cannot. Yet reflection will soon suggest that the changes cannot have been so sudden and dramatic, especially at the level of the structures of everyday life, and that the Islamic was as much, and as little, a continuation of late antiquity as was western Christendom.”

If American Muslims are to understand where they are headed, it is essential that our educational efforts work towards empowering, demystifying and in particular for those Muslims who’ve hailed from the historical Muslim world, heal the trauma of their post-colonial experiences, so that we may move beyond many of these blockades, externally and self-imposed.

References

  1. M. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy. 1970.
  2. W.M. Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Elsewhere Watt points out, incidentally, that this insistence on self-sufficiency in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary was also characteristic of medieval and early modern Christianity, which downplayed its debt to Islam and exaggerated its dependence on ancient Greece and Rome.

Blackamerican Islam and the Squandering of a Legacy

American social mores can be quite peculiar. To gain social acceptance in America usually requires some type of struggle to “get in”. Once you do get in, while you might be razzed from time to time, it no longer becomes socially or legally acceptable by the vast majority of the populous to make degrading remarks or actions towards those who’ve “gotten in”. Parties or individuals who seek to do so risk moral condemnation and can be banished to the periphery as ignorant, barbaric and rude. These aforementioned protections are precisely what Blackamericans have earned and it is these rights that are being squandered, more specifically here for the sake of this post by Blackamerican Muslims. And while there are still many of us who are waiting to till their land with that ever elusive mule as well as that reparations check that just never seems to show up in the mail, four hundred years of mournful mistreatment on a part of American society and its government have afforded Blackamericans many civil liberties and protections that, if continued to ignore, may slip away. And if you think your immigrant brothers aren’t jealous, you’ve got another thing coming.

Since the attacks of September 11th, the United States has cracked down on groups or people it believes as being responsible, actively or tacitly, for those attacks. High profile cases in the news covering Muslims [and here we should point out immigrant Muslims], who while flying have experienced increased scrutiny or down-right racist treatment simply because of their religious/ethnic backgrounds and perceived terrorist affiliations. While blacks may be woefully guilty of DWB [Driving While Black], Arabs, Pakistanis and even Sikhs [who aren’t even Muslim] are guilty of FWM [Flying While Muslim].

And in light of these civil infractions, Arab-American and other ethnic Muslims groups have taken up the torch and rhetoric of Civil Rights – we see CAIR leaders and other interest groups using nomenclature right out of Martin Luther King’s play book. Why? Because Civil Rights are two big key words when fighting against those in American society or government who would seek to infringe upon those rights. In contrast, Blackamerican Muslims, at least to date, have not been subject to the same form of scrutiny. Why? Simple. Because they are Blackamericans. In other words, due to the legacy of state-sponsored racism against peoples of African descent in this country and the reformation of those laws, blacks can no longer be perused by such means without hostile legal and social reactions. Our immigrant brothers and sisters do not share these luxuries. And they are most certainly that – a luxury. Just ask an older Blackamerican man or woman who lived through pre-Civil Rights reformations and they can easily tell you how different the social climate was. Yet despite those victories won, Blackamericans continue to ignore the bounty that has been cast upon them. Am I saying that American society has been rid of racism or even de facto racist policies? No. Of course not. I myself have witnessed those ideologies at the end of a policeman’s gun pointed in my face for doing nothing wrong. What is different though is that there are consequences for those actions. It is this lesson we must learn or else we are apt to loose this luxury precisely because society isn’t fixed or perfect.

A recent case that reminded me of this situation is the Don Imus incident, where the radio host made some flagrant remarks to a number of Blackamerican female basketball players. When the DJ made those remarks he was swiftly condemned and the results of his words has cost him his position. Is racism a thing of the past? No. Can white people still make inflammatory remarks about blacks? You bet’cha. Is there a price to be had? Currently, yes, there is. You cannot publicly attack blacks in America without facing social or even legal action against those words. Simply put, anti-black rhetoric is no longer tolerated, at least not publicly, socially. This public shield extends to all blacks, regardless of economic position or religious affiliation. It is here that I bring this to my point. Blackamerican Muslims are in a unique position in this country where we have the God-given-right as well as the sanction of the United States government to openly and freely practice our religion. Even outside of black social circles, Islam is accepted as a viable religious form to be practiced amongst Blackamericans versus the type of cultural apostasy that white American Muslims risk if they choose to convert. No one, neither white nor black would look askance at a Blackamerican Muslim woman who covers or a Blackamerican Muslim male who prays while he’s on the job. It has been successfully assimilated into American blackness. Again, many of our immigrant brothers and sisters do not have such an easy path to tread.

In addition to this cultural normalcy comes that fact that while many of us who do come from black backgrounds in America and all that entails [reconciling our “Americaness” and how that can prove to create a difficult psychology because of how closely that equals “white” for many of us], we are in a very unique position as Blackamerican Muslim to dictate to a great extent not only how Islam will be practiced in America [incorporating pluralism and so forth] but its success or failure as an enterprise in America as a whole. If Islam is to be “normalized” in the greater American psyche [and yes, we are talking about white Americans here] then that normalizing process will depend on the success of Blackamerican Muslims to create a conduit for Islam to not just abide [Islam has been in America for some time now whether you count the first slaves or the first wave of Middle Eastern immigrants] but to grow and attach itself successfully to the root of the American cultural experience. No other group in America has as much potential to accomplish this as do Blackamericans. We have the time invested, have made the sacrifices to be a part of the country and for better or worse, Black Folks are here to stay – and so is Islam. So the question remains? How are we going to do this? And when? And while I can only speak for myself, I feel a sense of urgency. What we do now and for the next twenty to thirty years will greatly dictate how Islam is practiced in America and the level and extent of its success or failure. And God knows best…

Intra-Religious Tensions Mount – NPR Broadcast

The idea of tensions between different ethnic groups in Islam is nothing new. We have seen or heard recenlty about the confrontations in California between Blacks and Arab store owners. To Blackamerican Muslims this is not a new topic but it may be newsworth to the general public. On NPR’s News & Notes with Ed Gordon, Gordon discusses this problem by looking to Detroit to see how problems between Arab and Blackamerican both flared up as well as how the two communities have tried to reach out to one another. The broadcast will be available after 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.