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.

All-American Muslim – Thoughts and Response

The new reality show, All-American Muslim, featured on the TLC channel, has caused something of a stir amongst American Muslims, particularly with Blackamerican Muslims, who continue to feel misrepresented, if not completely excluded from the narrative of Islam in American. While I do sympathize with many of the shows detractors for the obvious and above reasons, I think it’s equally important for Muslim Americans in general, and Blackamerican Muslim in particular, to come to grips with the true realities of piety amongst rank-and-file Muslims.

There is no doubt that All-American Muslim (AAM) is a misrepresentation of Muslim life in America. That Blackamericans as well as South-Asian Americans, Latino-Americans, Turkish-Americans and so many others are absent, is a gross misstep in my estimation of the show’s producers. In fact, I believe much of the backlash from Blackamerican Muslims in particular (having read comments on Facebook and other web sites) can be tied in tandem with the 20/20 exposé on Islam in America (see my posts, Islam: Questions and Answers and Bit Parts). Like AAM, the 20/20 show was woefully absent of any black presence. And given that all recent polls show that Blackamericans comprise at least 30% of the American Muslim population, such ire is not difficult to understand.

Racist or exclusivist accusations aside, I personally feel it is high time for Muslim Americans in general, and certain enclaves within Blackamerican Islam in particular, to come to terms with the nature of on-the-ground realities in terms of atypical religiosity amongst Muslims, Arab, black, or otherwise. Being a Detroit native myself, Dearborn was very much in my backyard, and while I have not had an opportunity to discuss the show with anyone from back home just yet, I can affirm that AAM is no way completely representative of normalized Muslim life in Dearborn. I myself have known very religious and conservative Arab families who are no doubt disgusted to some extent, if not by the show’s participants, certainly in how the show itself attempts to represent all Muslims from Dearborn. One commentator on Facebook wrote,

So what if Dearborn is ‘#1 in population of Muslims in America.’ It doesn’t mean they are a good example of the average Muslim American. I would at least expect them to come to NYC. Philly DC or Chicago!

The above comment shows a heart-felt disgust at the blatant display of “deviant” behavior by Muslims on display for all the world to soak up. While I cannot condone the behavior of the show’s participants, I must concede that their conduct is not so uncommon as many of us (especially conservative Blackamerican Muslims, of whom I can be considered an adherent) would like to believe. Nor is this display of crass behavior exclusively the property of westernized or assimilated Arabs. I cannot recount how many times I have seen (and continue to see) Blackamerican Muslim men in Philadelphia in the company of women who are obviously not their wives or family members. They are so-called halal girlfriends. And this is just the tip of the iceberg with deviant behavior amongst Blackamerican Muslims. So before we loft up stones from our own glass houses, we should perhaps be a bit more honest with the situation at hand.

In a short talk I participated in a few weeks ago, I was asked to speak on the divisions between African and African-American Muslims. In summary, while acknowledging that such divisions do exist, I brought to the surface what I believe to be the crux of the issue: self-validation. It was not so much what African Muslims had done to Blackamerican Muslims per se but rather, so many Blackamerican Muslims continue to embark upon their conception of Islam from a position of low self-esteem. This is why, in my opinion, you still see the majority of Blackamerican Muslims on the East Coast on Friday sporting thobes and other forms of “foreign garb” due in large part to their lack of confidence in their own cultural norms. It is this self-esteem issue that I see resurfacing in the AAM issue. If (Black)American Muslims had more confidence in their own validity as Muslims, then any such displays as are seen on AAM, 20/20, or any other show, would simply be seen in the light of personal malfeasants on the part of those Muslims, and in no way would undermine their own sanctity as Muslims. Whether or not we’re invited to the party should not have any impact on our authenticity as Muslims.

Another comment that caught my eye on Facebook, one I find particularly disturbing, was the following:

I am just speechless… this psedo=modern form of Islam that they want to portray in the media is absolutely disgusting.!!!!

The above rhetoric not only shows just how out of step religiously devout Muslims are from their “religiously challenged” counterparts, it is also revealing of several ideologies that are of great disservice to Islam in America. That “modern” is seen as “psedo” [sic] or fake, reveals just how far myopic, Utopic and completely unrealistic conceptions of Islam run in the American Muslim community. Such rants are juvenile and derelict in duty. Another comment bemoaned the existence of a “westernized, Americanized Islam”:

My coworker told me about the show last week and I told them that it will not depict true Islam, but will portray a westernized conformist view of Islam.

What strikes me most is how one-dimensional this commonly espoused rhetoric is. I certainly hope that Islam in the United States is American and Western. What else should it be? Nor should Islam conforming to American demands be seen as an abandonment of sincere religious devotion if one understands the breadth of leeway one has in the Shari’ah as well as American Constitutional law (for this, see Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response to Vincent Cornell). Such fanciful flights of imagination continue to reveal just how ignorant and lacking in self-worth many Muslims are in America and how little faith they have in Islam to negotiate their lived realities. Ironically, it is most certainly due to a non-indigenized Islam (not the same as assimilated) that Americans continue to look at Muslims with mistrust, monolithic media conglomerates aside.

It is not easy as a practicing Muslim to look upon the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and see it mangled on display for the whole world. In my line of work as chaplain, I counsel and advice young Muslim students who, while perhaps not quite as brazen in their religious shortcomings, could easily be lumped in the same group as the participants as AAM. My way of navigating this has been to be brutally honest as well as honestly compassionate. For example, my views on hijab have been made abundantly clear from the minbar as well as in private conversations: I believe, for instance, that hijab is mandatory and that those who do not wear hijab have something deficient in their practice. That being said, I will not toss out the baby with the bathwater simply because a Muslim has a deficiency in their practice (Lord knows how many I have). My advice to my fellow (Black)American Muslims is thus: enact a compassionate orthodoxy. Do not give ground on what is mandatory or even highly encourage (wajib/mustahibb). And yet, make the adherence to God’s commandments a means of being understanding and compassionate, even when it rubs you the wrong way. And above all, cement your belief, your identity as a Muslim, not in the validation from others, but in the knowledge that it was none other than your Creator who gave you guidance in the first place.

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…

The Sacred

Today’s world is a cynical world. How often do we see the deepest, the most egregious problems dealt with a cynical hand? I heard once from a modern scholar that the only people in today’s society that have the power to critique are the comedians. But they loose their impact because they trivialize the issue by making a jest of it (whether or not that make a jest of it).

I recently gave a talk at Rutgers University, to a group of students who were taking a class on spiritual autobiography. Like many people I’ve talked to this year in regards to Islam, “why did the Muslims react the way in which they did towards the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad” has been been one of the more popular questions. My answer has been long coming to me – but the answer I gave that day and the one I’ll give again today is because of The Sacred. I will outline what I mean by sacred so that one will not conflate my words to mean that I condone actions of violence. I most certainly do not. But in an effort to break away from the certain perspectives (Orientalist, Islamophobes…) that these violent reactions are a result of the Eastern Mind or something inherent in Islam and instead, people’s (misguided, and I’ll get to that as well) frustrations towards The Sacred being violated. For many people who had issue with the cartoons (myself included), we were told that Freedom of Speech trumped our concepts of The Sacred. Being able to say whatever comes to one’s mind supersedes that of moral, ethical and public judgment. With this reckless abandonment of wisdom as a system, then there will always be people who will lash out (hopefully in a proverbial way) against having that which they hold as Sacred, trampled underneath someone else’s belief system. The final part of this short essay is the re-examination of what is and isn’t Sacred for Muslims, or if I may be so bold, what aught to be Sacred and the re-prioritization of The Sacred for Muslims based on what the Prophet and his companions held as Sacred, as a guide for Muslims living in this “Western” part of the world.

Before we can clear the deck for me to leap into this topic I’d like to clarify a few short topics. In a recent interview I was quoted as being a “progressive Muslim”. In today’s world of headlines and sound-bites, one little word, one little phrase can pigeonhole a person. To state it for the record, I never used this word “progressive” to describe myself or any of my ideologies. Islam in the 20th century has a seen a vast array of movements: Reformists. Traditionalists. Jihadists. And yes, Progressives. While it is not the focus of this post to target any of those groups or to even say that they are not legitimate, I will say that I am not a reformist, a traditionalist, a jihadist or a progressive. Now that isn’t to say that I may not share specific sentiments with some of these groups but I do not want my labeling as a Progressive to be conflated as consensual.

The most sacred thing for Muslims is God. That is a simple fact. And it is not just simply that there is a god but that there is no god except God (La ilaha illallah). This simple phrase, known as the Testimony of Faith (al-Shahadah) is the foundation of Muslim theology and belief. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the key aspects of his mission was to reintroduce Monotheism back to the world. The majority of the Arabs living in the Arabian peninsula during the time of the Prophet had slipped into idol worship, despite many of them being descendants of great prophets of God themselves (Abraham, Jonah, Shu’aib to name a few). The center of interest in Makkah was the Ka’bah, the house that Abraham built as a place of worship. And while the Qur’an was revealed throughout the 23 years of the Prophet’s stay in Arabia, it dealt theologically with Sacred Ideologies, chief amongst them was not ascribing partners or association with God. God admonishes those that say God is three or that Jesus the son of Mary, the Messiah, is God himself [Q 5: 72-75]. I state this here not polemically – that is not the point of my argument. But rather to reinforce what is sacred to Muslims. God is the most sacred – one of God’s names is al-Quddus, or The Holy or The Sacred. So with this understanding, why is it that Muslims aren’t jumping off at every Christian for wearing a cross on their necks or building churches that have Jesus on the cross, worshipped as God or the son of God? Because of another sacred source for Muslims – the Sunnah.

That the Prophet Muhammad is sacred for Muslims goes without saying. His life is a holy example for all Muslims in terms of morals, permissible actions and so forth. Many rulings for Shari’ah or Islamic Law, comes from his life. But if we were to examine the Prophet’s life and look at what he considered sacred, would it coincide with what Muslims hold as sacred?

To take the example from above, referring to Christians and their theological stance that they proclaim Jesus the son of Mary is the Son of God, this would contradict the teachings that the Prophet was preaching. And yet, while going against the grain of God’s theological bounds, the Prophet never proclaimed the life of the Christians forfeit. No churches were burned down on his order. No representatives of Christianity were assassinated. To take it a step further, the pagans were not indiscriminately slaughtered. Their idols were not even allowed to be desecrated. Why? Because the Prophet knew that Jesus was holy, sacred to the Christians even while he believed it wrong! The pagan Arabs (who, on a scale, ranked much lower than Jews or Christians because they were people who had received Divine Revelation) were still treated with respect and treaties were signed with them. If Muslims would but take the time to study their own “traditions”, we might see that that which we hold as sacred and that which the Prophet held as sacred are not one and the same. And further, even when something this is sacred to us is violated, are actions are woefully unacceptable.

Our modern age is one of false universals and failed utopian ideologies. And while the Muslims are not alone in perpetuating such rhetoric, ironically, they are just as guilty as their Western counterparts which they blame of the same crime. Often wrapped in the guise of “tradition”, this one-size fits all mentality has and is causing grave harm to Muslim communities across the globe and I have personally seen its insidious affects in my 14-year career as a Muslim. For those who call for an Islamic state to be raised in America I say that you would have to obtain the rights from Roberta Flack for its national anthem, for surely this is “killing us softly”.

So what are some other things that the Prophet held as sacred? Human life would most certainly rank high on his list. Caring for the poor. Visiting the sick and caring for the old. As Muslims, where do these categories rank on our lists? This is where Muslims fail in my opinion. As a group that believes it should uphold high moral standards, how are we caring for the poor? How many Muslim organizations have we developed that care for old and sick people in our neighborhoods, regardless of race, creed or religion? How many Muslim organizations have we built that care for the poor? Are we involved in urban development? Big brother, big sister organizations? I’m sure I will receive many emails confirming that we do partake in such actions. And while there may be a few why are they absent from the public spot light?

As it stands now, Muslims are not known as a group that participate in the greater society (and yet we want people to sympathize with us when we have problems). At a recent meeting between myself and other fellow bloggers, astonishment would be the word that would best describe the reactions of others when they found out that I was a Muslim and that I desired to participate in society. This is not a PR statement for myself but rather a reflection on the status of Muslims in society. If Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man today he’d have to re-title it Invisible People.

So in the end I believe we as Muslims are in need of a serious revamping of what is and isn’t Sacred to us. We need to seriously reevaluate what is important to us and what isn’t. The military developed a term called triage – we need to stop the bleeding and then reexamine what we’re about. I believe this reexamination starts with the basics – Qur’an and Sunnah. It may surprise you that I would choose such a sloganized answer but none the less, I do believe the answer lies there in. By Qur’an, I mean we should actually spend time reading it. Many of us do not. We rely on regurgitated quotes from people who have little formal training and short intellects. The Sunnah of the Prophet is also do for a serious reexamination. What did he say? What did he do? How was he both simultaneously stern and flexible? How could he proclaim no god but God and yet make concessions with idolators? Muhammad was a complex man – revisiting his life and his prophethood will no doubt turn up many unknown gems for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This is a topic which deserves deeper introspection – an introspection that cannot fully be dealt with in a small post as it is here. Rather, it is my hope that we may ponder this questions, these situations and feel moved to do something about it. And in the words of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, “Allah and His Messenger know 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.